Monday, September 24, 2018

"500 Years of Greeks in America!"



As the 83rd Thessaloniki International Fair comes to an end, it's a good time to stand back and take a deep breath. 

Even as the United States was the honored country this year -- last year China and Russia the year before -- there is a not so subtle anti-Americanism that colors almost all political conversations/arguments here in Greece. Everything and anything bad is America's fault, don't you know? Now with the Macedonia question on top of the various financial/refugee issues, the plot (συμφέροντα!), of course, thickens...

The fair's USA Pavillion focusing on technology -- Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, etc -- was indeed impressive and well-attended. But I was super-surprised upon entering the Greek Government Services Pavillion to suddenly be standing in front of a stand-alone display extolling the virtues of Senator Paul Sarbanes. Then one for Olympia Dukakis, Pete Sampras, Maestro Dimitris Mitropolis, Dr. Georgios Papanikolaou, Maria Callas, Constantino Brumidi (Google him!) and many others.  All under the heading "500 Years of Greeks in America." Wow!

Even more amazing was the sponsor of that exhibit: "The General Secretariat for Greeks Abroad" of the Greek Foreign Office (www.ggae.gr) -- "the government's coordinating body for the implementation of state policy with respect to Diaspora Hellenism," about 5 million people of Greek descent on 5 continents and in 140 countries...an agency created to "support the the interests and the expectations of the Greeks abroad." Who knew? 

Three million people of Greek descent live in the US, thus the long list of distinguished accomplishments -- plus a multitude of organizations, schools, churches, restaurants, newspapers, radio/TV stations, etc. The first Greek in the "New World" was Don Theodoros Griego (1528) and the first Greek colony was in St. Augustine, Florida (1768). The first Greek Community was founded in New Orleans (Holy Trinity/1864.) New York, Chicago and San Francisco are all important to the narrative, but who can possibly ignore Tarpon Springs?

More significantly, there was a wave of American Philhellenism that did its part in support of the Greek Revolution of 1821 -- bolstered by Thomas Jefferson,  James Madison, Daniel Webster, Sam Houston, and Henry Clay. Others actually fought in Greece against the Turks, including Samuel Gridley Howe and George Washington's cousin William Townsend Washington. It was a fitting effort to help Greece towards independence while the USA itself was still in its democratic infancy. To this day there is an active, bi-partisan Hellenic Caucus in Congress fighting for Greece!

The USA has contributed much to Greece in the last 200 years and still supports Greece in many ways. Those efforts/policies may not always be perfect or altruistic,  but they are way too often misunderstood or taken for granted. On other hand, it's very clear that Greek-Americans have contributed much to the USA -- 500 years' worth to be exact. 

I am proud to be a Greek-American and part of the Greek Diaspora story still being written, thanks to my immigrant father and 4 grandparents who worked very hard for a better life. It's a rather tricky thing being Greek-American and living part-time in Greece -- which is why I'm standing back and taking a deep breath. Somewhat hard to explain, but I'll keep trying.

Sent from my BlackBerry - the most secure mobile device

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Making Memories with Basketball, Gin Rummy and Refried Beans

So, I was walking up the street in Naousa when someone called my name. Turning around, I saw a man approaching whom I did not recognize...until he showed me a of photo of himself when he was a student at the American Farm School in Thessaloniki when I worked there (1968-1978). John Dourakis -- one of my very best English students! -- has lived in Naousa for 13 years working for an agency that coordinates Greek peach canneries. I had absolutely no idea. But about 10 days ago a mutual friend happened to mention my name to him. Stunned and amazed, he had then been on the lookout for me. Wow!




We, of course, reminisced about our years at the School -- including when he an a few other students took me to see a big, important soccer match between PAOK and Olympiakos. I've been a PAOK fan ever since, but I also swore never to set foot in a large soccer stadium again. Standing on bleachers for all 90 minutes, we were constantly being pushed towards the brink. I was sure we would be trampled to death, but did live to talk about it...45 years later!


More importantly, you'll notice that John is wearing a Delta College basketball uniform -- and no accident that talk then turned to my pal Ernie Marcopoulos. Many years may have passed since he, Josie and their 3 kids -- from my hometown of Stockton, California -- spent their sabbatical year in Thessaloniki  at my urging. But the revered Coach of the San Joaquin Delta College Mustangs has not been forgotten here in Greece.


Ernie volunteered to coach basketball and teach PE at the Farm School for basic "room-and-board."  He brought with him some retired uniforms and worked tirelessly with the boys. John was a left-handed sharpshooter who might have excelled further had he not continued his studies in England.

Everyone at the School got super excited when Ernie was asked to also coach the PAOK professional basketball team for that one season.  We all became PAOK fans.

Behind the scenes, however, the Marcopoulos clan and I did our own thing...religiously. Every Tuesday night -- my day off from my Girls School Dept. dormitory duties -- I headed over to their apartment for our weekly Mexican Food Night and Gin Rummy Marathon. Ole!


Josie -- of Mexican decent, but who NEVER made tortillas in Stockton -- did, in fact, make tortillas from scratch every week thanks to a rolling pin that our friend Harry Theocharides graciously cut down to size. I learned to make them, too, along with refried beans and salsa. There may have been some carne asada and beer involved. The adults played cards until our (self-imposed) 12 o'clock curfew. Who was "World Champ" is still in dispute.


That's what happens when you live in Northern Greece and need a Mexican food fix -- which, in fact, I still often do. But I don't think I'll ever be able to top basketball + gin rummy + refried beans.