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It Takes a Greek Village

April 21, 2024

Finishing off a spectacular lunch at Hellas restaurant in Tarpon Springs, I strolled deep into the surrounding neighborhood to get an updated flavor for the renowned city of 25,000 inhabitants along Florida’s Gulf Coast. The last time I was here, circa 1968, was as an acne-plagued teen. I was ready for an update.

These fragrant, family-owned businesses spring to life like the crusty souls who slice the twisty waters of the Anclote River, preserving the rich tradition of harvesting sponges. It’s a life that began in the early 20th century by the wave of immigrants – most of them from the Dodecanese – who came ashore to confront a peculiarly salty, steamy world called Florida.

It didn’t take long before the funds generated from the sale of sponges kept the dusty shelves brimming with curious tchotchkes, Cuban cigars, and sweatshirts. Plus, a random coupon that must have sailed into my stubby fingers on a Gulf breeze shouting free saganaki at Mama’s Authentic Greek Cooking with the purchase of two entrees. Collectively, daily life on this spit of swampy earth carries a track record tied to a civilization born in 1600 BC.

Somewhere up on Athens Street, only a few hundred feet between me and the beloved National Bakery, I noticed I was missing something. I realized I must have left my briefcase at the restaurant. I got a sinking sensation, like a leaking fishing trawler at sea while a hurricane brews. Considering how crammed Hellas was, is, will forever be, its walls festooned with inspiring murals, I wrote off my little container forever.

And just like that, Anna, our waitress, recognized me. As more tables beckoned, she took a second to march me over to the front counter. That’s when a smiling manager gently handed it to me. The reunion felt good, particularly knowing my wallet and cell phone were bottom dwelling, like sponges and other regenerative aquaculture.

Speaking her unfiltered mind, in Greek, Anna scolded me. “I told you,” she roared in a loving way. “We are honest here. We are…like people at church!”

As I scurried out, the newly-minted manager, Dimitris Vyrlas, was the glue that held Anna’s sentiments together. “I’m proud to work here,” he enthused. “We feel like we are ambassadors for Greece.”

The experience, which came and went within five minutes, only cemented the enduring feelings I have for my heritage. Naturally, Tarpon Springs bursts with pride as the town with America’s largest concentration of residents boasting Greek ancestry.

Through the unformed lens of a dorky kid, the place lacked presence, disconnected geographically and psychologically from the rest of the peninsula. I was now on Greek soil.

In the decades since, I was astonished to discover how many more tourists there are. More expressions of culture that showcases breweries. A performing arts center that features German opera.

Still, even as the world  becomes more electronically enmeshed, Tarpon stubbornly remains as Greek as Greek can get. The exquisite fried smelts at Yianni’s on the docks were reminiscent of the light touch my mother-in-law would give the fish.

I’m pleased to see the stability is still in place. However, change is inevitable, and here, there’s change afoot. “The millennials seem to be moving out,” declared Jerry Feke, a longtime resident. “It makes it very difficult for families to find employees.” He’s hopeful that the trend will reverse itself. “I suspect they’ll come back when they’re older and missing their roots.”

Early Greek settlers there knew zilch about Harvard Business School. Their business model was a working alarm clock, sponge boats with engines that turned over, and dependable crews.

Like sponge diving itself, National Bakery is a vestige of the past that keeps on going. Employee Valerie Pappas has proof. The employee took me to the kitchen to point out a few artifacts that are still going strong. The wooden table used to roll out dough daily, has been used since the shop opened in 1925. Same goes for the weighty mixer and ovens. “We supply all the local restaurants and families,” she announced, along with the ‘prosfora’ used during the Eucharist at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral.

Willing my arthritic knees to amble past Spanish moss and magnolia, certain truths were divulged – transcendent ‘theosis’ encapsulated by the touching backstory of the tiny Shrine of St. Michael on Hope Street, built by Mary Tsalichis for the miraculous recovery of her son. The pantheon in my mind also flashed the long list kept over the years at St. Nick’s Cathedral of the dove bearers and cross retrievers who have played roles in the traditional dive on Epiphany.

Oh, and free saganaki at Mama’s. (With purchase of two entrees.)

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