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Greek Gods Breathe Meltemia onto Tarpon Springs’ Night in the Islands

TARPON SPRINGS, FL – Florida vacationers – particularly long-term ones – are commonly known as “snowbirds.” They migrate down to the Sunshine State for the winter, any time after Thanksgiving to the end of February.

Then, there are the spring-breakers, college kids who head down in March, even April, to revel in the joys of sun, sea, and sand.

But few folks actually head down to Florida in July, because the weather choices are usually unbearable humidity, or torrential downpour.

But this July, thus far, the Florida Gulf Coast has been a dream. Temperatures have been consistently in the low 80s, with the obligatory daily thunderstorm passing through quickly, barely noticeable, let alone disruptive of vacationers’ itineraries. As if the Greek Gods breathed meltemia – summer breezes – onto Tarpon Springs this year.

And so on July 12, the latest installment of Tina Bucuvalas’ “Night in the Islands” on the historic Sponge Docks of what I’ve dubbed “America’s Greek Island,” Tarpon Springs, the weather was quite comfortable for a Floridian mid-summer night.

Uncannily reminiscent of a Greek island that ventured from the Aegean Sea and settled on Florida’s Gulf Coast, Tarpon Springs is the ideal setting for a monthly celebration, featuring wonderful live music, spirited dancing, and plenty of food and drink.

For those who have never been to Tarpon Springs, arriving to its Sponge Docks for the first time ever in the middle of the day is quite a sight to behold. Dozens of moored Sponge Boats adorn one side of Dodecanese Boulevard, the main thoroughfare, while the other side is decorated with Greek tavernas and souvenir shops – all playing Greek music to the delight of the numerous tourists taking a stroll or enjoying a midday frappe or meze. If they are familiar with the Greek islands, and with Greeks’ endless capacity for kefi, they would think that an afternoon siesta would be in order, in order to replenish their energy for a late-night glendi on those very same streets.

But a return trip – say, at 10PM – usually finds those Sponge Docks every bit as beautiful illuminated by the streetlights, but surprisingly desolate. “Where did everybody go?” one might wonder. “It’s barely after sundown and everyone went home? What kind of Greeks are these?” Thanks to Tina Bucuvalas, they no longer have to go without their essential doses of Greek food, drink, music, and dancing after dark.

Dr. Bucuvalas, Tarpon Springs’ Curator of Arts and Historical Resources, has restored a great deal of that kefi through regular events, particularly “Night in the Islands,” throughout the year. “I think that ‘Night in the Islands’ works because it is more like a
panigiri,” she said, “and thus [more] a family-oriented event than the bouzoukia. We always see tables with three and sometimes four generations in a family – and the food,
music, and dance works for everyone.”

Ellada, which Bucuvalas described as “one of the best Greek bands in Florida,” provided the music, and the crowd – comprised of experience Greek dancers and a growing mix of non-Greek locals – carried their festive mood onto the dance floor.

For those who wanted a break from the frenzy, the Sponge Exchange – a wonderful plateia replete with stores and places to sit – was just a few feet away. The Exchange includes displays of replica varkes that feature the names of various Dodecanese Islands: Kalymnos, Rhodes…..Sparta (?!) – oh well, at least they picked a particularly historic non-island. “Before the Sponge Exchange was converted into boutiques,” Bucuvalas said, “it was where many community celebrations took place, so ‘Night in the Islands’ is perceived as the natural continuation of those events, which are remembered very fondly by residents.”

Bucuvalas wondered aloud: “is there any place like this in America?” When it comes to the total experience – not just the food, music, and Greeks themselves, but the weather and the water, the answer is: certainly not! The treasure that is Tarpon Springs is one-of-a-kind.

“It was a wonderful event,” Chris Alahouzos – who recently finished serving as Tarpon Springs’ Vice Mayor and is running for Mayor in 2016 – told TNH. “It is an example of cooperation between the city government and the local business community. Not only it is a wonderful, festive event for the people, it also helps the local economy a great deal.”
Alahouzos also expressed many thanks to Bucuvalas for organizing the event, which takes place once a month through November, and for her very noteworthy accomplishment of having the greater Sponge Docks area listed in the National Register of Historic Places – the first place in Florida to be listed on the register as a traditional cultural site.

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