An old joke tells a truth about the ubiquity of Greeks. It was during the days of the Wild West. A covered-wagon caravan of settlers was heading through the frontier to stake their claim to the land. Suddenly they were ambushed by a pack of ferocious Indians. The Indians pulled out random whites to scalp them. One Indian cornered a white settler and was about to strike with his tomahawk when the settler broke out praying in his native Greek, “Panagia kai Christe mou bohtheia.” To this the Indian put his hatchet down and replied, “Kala patrioti, kai sie ellinas eise.”
That’s sort of the feeling I had while trekking through Colombia in South America. On a recent visit to the tropical place, incredibly lush and beautiful in its verdant splendor, I was meandered through the notorious streets of Medellin, the haunt of El Patron, in the heart of the Zona Rosa. This is the entertainment district very “in” nowadays because of the nightclubs and the gorgeous women, the place to come to see and be seen. It was Sunday afternoon and strolling a street lined with colorful bars and cafes blasting reggae and salsa, I stopped in my tracks when all of a sudden in the middle of the block I saw a large, very inviting restaurant decked in blue and white with the name of “MYKONOS.” Could it be Greek? I knew that there were approximately 150 Greeks in all of Colombia, mostly in Bogota, with even less in Medellin, the country’s second largest city. Thanks to an article done by Greekreporter.com, a site I had previously worked with, I had been tipped off that there was a Greek by the name of Takis Bersis who had established an upscale underwear company named Balalaika and another Greek businessman who had established, El Greco, a cookie company making of all things, kourambyedes, the delectable white-powdery butter cookies that melt in your mouth. But a restaurant?
I asked the wait staff if the place was owned by a Greek and whether or not he was available for an interview. Of course, it was, but no, the boss was not in at the moment. However, there were two gentlemen who were Greek who were having lunch al fresco (the year-round temperature of Medellin is a comfortable sunny 72) at one of the taverna-inspired tables out on the deck. The restaurant is designed to resemble a ship, with an outdoor deck and a second floor girded by white iron rails much like the ones on the ferries to the Greek islands.
I struck up a conversation with the gentlemen and their story typifies the tenacity, the rugged individualism, and drive to succeed of the Greek immigrant experience. The older gentleman was Panagiotis Chalavazis, a 38-year resident of Medellin, who had come to the country at the behest of his long-time friend, Bersis, the founder of Balailaka Group, who himself had established the factory 60 years ago. Speaking in impeccable Spanish of the Medellin accent, Mr. Chalavazis described how he had fallen in love and married a Colombian woman and decided to settle in the country . Mr. Chalavazis has been the general manager of the plant since his arrival to Medellin and confessed that he has never in that time returned to his native Greece. Even with the untimely passing of his good friend, the owner of the factory a few years ago, Panagiottis still remains a permanent fixture of the company.
His son, Nicholaos, a handsome and cultured 35-year-old professor, poet, and cultural ambassador of all things Hellenic, sat cross-legged sipping a Frappe and twirling a komboloi when he spoke to me. A graduate in history from the University of Medellin, Nicholaos has translated ancient Greek poetry into Spanish and lectures in the history department. He has given lectures and organized numerous symposia with the Greek embassy about the classics and related Hellenic topics to university audiences. While maneuvering between Spanish and Greek smoothly without a traceable accent in both, he explained his latest project: a dramatic retelling of a fragment from The Iliad between Achilles and his cousin, which he scrolled through on his iPad. Even though he was raised predominantly in Colombia, I asked him why and how he managed to keep so Greek even when his other half was Colombian. “When you are kept away from what you value and hold dear,” he explained, “you keep it closer to your heart. It’s the sense of guarding closely what lies far away.” He does not take his Greek roots for granted, choosing instead to uncover and show them off.
As irony would have it, Mr. Chalavazis, a native of Syros, was raised Catholic, but on coming to Colombia, was instrumental in establishing the first and only Orthodox Church in Medellin. He has had a hand in converting many Catholic Colombians into Greek Orthodoxy. One of his “spiritual sons” is Bishop Timotheos, a dark-skinned Colombian theologian who speaks fluent Greek, even the ancient church kind.
As the fates would have it, the boss of the restaurant, Konstantinos Kongas, shortly appeared. Although he missed his native country, he was intrigued by the beauty and the tantalizing joie de vivre of his adopted one. He mentioned that there would be a Greek or two every week or so that he plays host to a meal. He was soon joined by his brother, Spiros Kongas, the famed proprietor of those irresistible kourambyedes that I ate one after another from the silver foiled beautifully packaged carton, decorated with echoes of the Aegean in the form of white-domed church against blue sea. I had the chance to personally thank him for the wonderful creations. The Kongas brothers herald from Zakynthos originally and are both happily married to Colombian women from the region. Spiros recounted how wonderful it was to celebrate Catholic Easter service while dyeing eggs red in time for Greek Pascha as he had two bi-cultural children. As for those irresistible cookies, he reported that Greco Galletas, his line of fancy cookies, has gained export licensing and health department approval for expanded production to Panama, Brazil, and other Latin American countries.
Somehow I think the joke about the Indian being Greek cannot be far from the truth. Never in my wildest imagination could I have predicted that on my last night in Colombia I would be sipping frappes and eating a souvlaki pita accompanied by tzatziki and tiropitakia as appetizers, (of course, the Greek strangers in kind hospitality to another stranger treated me to lunch) reciting ancient Greek poetry by ex-pat Greeks in Medellin Spanish. As the saying goes, “Wherever there is geis (earth), there is patris (country.)”