ATHENS – The renowned and picturesque cities of Chania on the island of Crete and Tarpon Springs in Florida have strong personal ties due to the many people who immigrated from the former to the latter. On September 20 at the Firka Fortress of the Old Venetian Port of Chania a Sister City ceremony not only formalized that relationship, it also sent a strong message to Greek-Americans: Everyone in their home towns can strengthen the vital ties between the United States and Greece by practicing this kind of Citizens' Diplomacy.
Chris (Chrysostomos) Alahouzos, the dynamic Mayor of Tarpon Springs who led the delegation from the United States, and Panagiotis Symandirakis signed the documents amid cheers and music played by Chania's municipal band in honor of favorite son Mikis Theodorakis who was recently buried nearby.
The participants also travelled to the Souda Bay facilities of the U.S. Navy and paid their respects at the graves of past prime ministers of Greece Eleftherios Venizelos and Constantinos Mitsotakis. They also visited several of the island's fine museums.
On September 25 they will travel to the island of Hydra for a similar sister city ceremony. The island is significant because John Cocoris, who introduced advanced sponge diving to techniques to Tarpon Springs, first brought in divers from Hydra. He later recruited many more from places like Kalymnos, Halki, and Symi – the 500 divers and crew members who developed the industry in Florida.
There will be a third ceremony at the end of September at Ilida, in Amaliada, to honor the birth of the Olympic Games.
What is unique about the Chania relationship in this context, however, is that there is a large population of Chaniotes in Tarpon Springs, and the continued if not growing importance of America's bases Souda Bay.
There is also a personal dimension for the Tarpon Springs mayor. “My son, John Alahouzos, who was a First Lieutenant at the time, lived and trained there with the 101st Airborne Division during the first Iraq war.”
As U.S. Ambassador to Greece Geoffrey Pyatt, who has successfully devoted his tenure to strengthening U.S.-Greece relations on the national security and other fronts, always emphases that the depth and breadth of U.S.-Greece relations depend not only on official contacts and agreements, but on people-to-people activities – the diplomacy of the humble citizen. Alahouzos told The National Herald that Pyatt strongly supports Sister City programs and the Ambassador was disappointed that due to official duties he could not attend the ceremony. “But he invited us to his residence when we return to Athens,” Alahouzos said.
Alahouzos' love for his home town knows no bounds. His father Yiannis Alahouzos was a sponge diver who became a captain and owned a boat. He and his wife Sevasti both hail from Kalymnos.
His path to City Hall began with community service and administrative experience gained as general manager for Verizon with responsibility for network operations support.
Alahouzos' message to Greek-Americans who are active in their communities and in local politics is that “it is very important to create partnerships between their cities and Greek cities. The Chania-Tarpon relationship will be beneficial for both cities because it will promote education, cultural, and commercial exchanges.”
He takes great pride in the way Tarpon Springs maintains and promotes the Hellenic traditions, first and foremost being the world-renowned blessing of the Waters and Cross Diving on the Feast of Epiphany every January.
“We also honor Greek Independence day every March 25th thank to the efforts, hard work, and leadership of George Mermelas. He is also the workhorse behind all these sister city efforts.”
Mermelas goes back and forth between Athens and Tarpon Springs, where helps the Greek community in various ways. A journalist who has lived in Florida since 1970 – at one time he published the Hellenic Voice – he is chairman of the Public Relations Committee of the Tarpon Springs Greek parade. He is also active in lobbying efforts in support of U.S.-Greece relations.
Mermelas loves every part of Greece but always reminds that he is a proud son of `Ano Kastri tis Patron' – where both his parents are from. His message to the Community is that “these Sister City efforts, this diplomacy of mayors, but really, this citizen's diplomacy, benefits U.S.-Greece relations and strengthens ties between the Hellenic Diaspora and Mother Greece.”