Walking along Southern California’s busy Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) we noticed “something Greek” in a shop window. Two blocks away, we had enjoyed the spectacular Pacific shoreline and watched expert, young surfers flying off immense waves. Then we spotted the painting of a Greek Orthodox Church.
Yes, Greek names, words, and pictures spark our attention. My husband and I notice Greek surnames on movie and TV credits, perhaps because the generation we were born into greatly influenced our present thoughts and actions.
Both of us, children of Greek pioneer immigrants, are from the generation who grew up with anglicized first names because our baptismal names were “too foreign sounding” in early and mid-20th century USA. In elementary school, I could easily be the victim of childish nastiness as Konstantina, because it was not “American.” Other non-English speaking immigrant groups experienced the same. So, I became Constance; Plato turned into Peter; Triantafilia translated to Rosalind; Nikoletta became Collete; and Konstantinos turned into Gus, but sometimes into Charles.
On PCH, in Sunset Beach, our Hellenic “radar” had focused on a lovely impressionist watercolor in the window of The Anderson Gallery – an engaging sight on a highway dotted with stores selling surfboards, bodysuits, and kayaks.
Entering the relaxed but classy art gallery was a treat. Our eyes scanned bright colors, sculptures, and a variety of exquisite paintings (mostly watercolors) including action-filled baseball themes, horses, beaches, surfing, etc. California’s Huntington Beach, Sunset Beach, and Seal Beach are acclaimed surfing spots on the Pacific.
The proprietor warmly greeted us and hearing my husband’s question, “Is that painting from Greece?,” walked to the window display to bring the painting closer for our inspection.
“This is one of my Greek pieces… I painted it in Crete… the village of Limnes. Do you know the island?”
Noted California artist and gallery owner, Bill Anderson, then described exciting Greek travels “where there is much to see and paint … where people are so hospitable,” while showing us a published book of his beautiful Greek collection.
“Baseball scenes around the gallery show my lifelong love of the sport. I didn’t connect with Crete until my wife and I traveled there a decade ago. We fell in love with Greece. Have you been there?”
Sometimes, we older Greek Americans are surprised when fellow Americans of other ethnicities are knowledgeable about our Hellenic culture. My memories revert to my Chicago childhood where our neighbors had no familiarity with Greeks, except for: “Weren’t they an ancient people?” When we were asked: “Do you go to church?” our positive answer: “Yes, we are Greek Orthodox” caused more confusion. Did “Orthodox” make us Jews? Or did “Greek” mean we worshiped Zeus? We usually explained we’ve been Christians since “day 1.” Many Americans of that era seemed to be uninformed about anything Greek. Our foods were labeled “greenhorn fare.”
When my mother needed basic Greek staples, we traveled across town to Halsted Street to buy feta, fillo, kasseri, yogurt, kalamata olives, etc. Today, American supermarket chains carry those items – and they’re not even shelved on the foreign foods aisle. Thankfully, knowledge about us has grown.
Sunset Beach is famous for surfing. Instead, we focused on a captivating watercolor reminding us of familiar, old Greek villages on the other side of the world. Yellowing mountainous terrain, domed village churches, red tile roofs, verdant colors suggesting olive trees and cypresses brought to mind clay pots of sweet basil, tolling church bells, and beloved family, of course.
French Impressionist Edgar Degas advised his artist contemporaries: “Art is not what you see but what you make others see.” Thanks to meeting a gifted artist on a sunny California afternoon, we delighted in his beautifully painted, Cretan village, which granted us a virtual journey to Greece — without leaving Pacific Coast Highway.
Constance M. Constant is the author of Austin Lunch, Greek American Recollections (Cosmos Publishing, 2005) and American Kid, Nazi-Occupied Greece Through a Child’s Eyes (Year of the Book, 2015).