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Historical Fiction: The Elias Panoussos Story – Part 5

On January 2, 1922, I was off to the United States on board the Greek steamship, Corinthia on a trip of a lifetime. My newspaper sent me to report on the lives of our fellow Greeks in America. I had no idea what things I would discover about them. I am sure there would be some surprises.

As we traveled some ten days across the seas to New York, I got to know some of the passengers who shared their personal stories with me. I recorded their accounts in my notebook. They were immigrants seeking a new life in the new world. Many of them had relatives who had been living for many years in the United States. The poverty, the lack of opportunities in Greece, and glowing accounts of life in America from their relatives enticed them to make the journey across the Atlantic. I understood their motivation in making such an important decision knowing they would more than likely permanently sever their links with Greece.

At last, we arrived in New York harbor on January 13 and cleared U.S. immigration on Ellis Island and it was a short ferry ride from there to Manhattan. A representative of the Greek-American newspaper, the Ethnikos Kirix was waiting to pick me up and take me to my hotel. He told me that my editor cabled the Herald outlining the purpose of my mission to the United States. At the same time, our newspaper and the Herald were to share and exchange stories about events shaping Greek life on both sides of the Atlantic.

I met the publisher, Petros Tatanis, an affable gentleman who made me feel right at home. He told me his life story and why he created the Herald. His newspaper (Venizelist) and the rival Atlantis (Royalist) represented the political divisions in Greek America. Our newspaper shared the same sympathies with the Herald. I wanted to meet the owner of the Atlantis, Solon J. Vlastos to ascertain his views regarding these divisions that paralyzed our community and whether it was possible to heal this breach. Tatanis telegraphed my newspaper in Athens stating he was displeased hearing about my proposed meeting with Vlastos. I was instructed by my editor to avoid meeting Vlastos, having no choice in the matter.

I spent nearly ten weeks meeting members of our community in New York. Many of them were successful restaurant, florist, candy store, and ice cream business owners who toiled long hours to achieve their financial independence, something that would have eluded them in Greece. I also met our Consul-General, Constantine Xanthopoulos, who was appointed to this diplomatic post in early 1921. He mentioned that he had very good relations with the Greek communities covering Connecticut, northern New Jersey, and New York and avoided publicly discussing the rift between Venizelos and King Constantine. His role was to help business opportunities between New York and Greece, issue passports, visas, and to record the births and deaths of Greek citizens resident in the United States.

I arrived in late March in Chicago to report on the Greek community there. I was invited by the president of the community, George Privetakis, to attend our independence day procession seeing our children wearing the Greek national costume and carrying the flags of Greece and the United States. The surrounding streets were thronged with our compatriots waving our national flag and shouting ‘Zito i Hellas! Zito i Ameriki.’ After the procession, we attended a reception in the hall of the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral to hear speeches from Mr. Privetakis, our Consul-General, Leonidas Matlis, and the Mayor of Chicago, William Hale Thompson. The national anthems of Greece and the United States were warmly received by all the attendees. Then came the turn of the children to perform traditional Greek dances and recite poems dealing with our independence heroes. It was an unforgettable day seeing how our community maintained its Greek traditions in the new world.

I met the founders of the National Ice Cream Company, Alexandros and Petros Souroupas, who supplied Chicago with their famous chocolate and vanilla ice cream which Chicagoans loved. They arrived penniless in 1905, worked hard doing a variety of laboring jobs, and saved their money before opening up their ice cream parlor. This business proved successful, which they sold and used the funds to start their ice cream factory. The rest is history.

From Chicago, I traveled to Denver, Salt Lake City, New Orleans, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle before returning to Greece. Our communities in these cities were well organized like those of New York and Chicago. They had established their schools, churches, and businesses. Some of our compatriots not involved in business worked in the coal mines of Utah and Colorado, others were employed in railway construction in California and Oregon and finally in timber cutting in Washington State. The brotherhoods were organized on a regional basis representing the different towns and villages in Greece. For example, the two most prominent groups came from Peloponnesus and Crete.

After spending six months in America, I learned a lot about our compatriots who made their homes in this wonderful nation. Yes! they endured many difficulties and obstacles at the start. Not speaking English, they faced discrimination and dealt with racist Americans who regarded them as inferior people. However, their determination, hard work, and persistence proved rewarding in becoming financially independent. The crowning achievement was to become a U.S. citizen.

I arrived in Athens in late July 1922 into an internal situation with the nation on the precipice of a national disaster. I couldn't believe how things had deteriorated so much in the last six months. The cost of living had become unbearable for our citizens, our military situation in Asia Minor was on its last legs, and our feeble attempt to occupy Constantinople ended in abject failure.

I wrote a series of feature articles on my trip to America which were well received by our readers. These articles formed the basis of my book titled: An American Odyssey, which became a top seller in Greece and the United States. It received many favorable book reviews, but the time had come to get back into the realities of Greek life.

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