The Day “Koukla” Only Fell in Love With…

It’s been a while since I’ve reconnected with my Greek roots, so I thought attending the Greek Festival, hosted by Annunciation Church, would be the perfect opportunity to dance hasapiko and eat spanakopita again (and slowly : spa-na-ko-pi-ta, better known as spinach pie). While I simply wanted to taste some authentic, feta cheese imported from Greece, I did not realize that my aunt, who would be joining us, had ulterior motives. For Greek fathers, mothers, aunts, great aunts, Greek festivals are ideal occasions to set your children up with other Greek men, bless them. Unfortunately for my family, and unbeknownst to my aunt, my personal taste falls typically with Irish men. I would have to defer to my friend – after all, a friend with a Greek husband is the next best thing.

I’m not quite sure why I’ve always loved the fair-skinned, light-eyed men (maybe because you can’t really get lost in midnight eyes), but my aunt and her friend clearly already had their hearts set, playing Cupid from the moment we arrived.

“Koukla mou, how’ve you been?!” My aunt’s friend, Melpo, embraced me, calling me her doll, a common Greek term of endearment.

Melpo is the kind of woman who will be first on a nonexistent dance floor, motioning toward strangers to join her. She’s lived in New York as a single lady all her life (the accent proves it), and she embodies Beyonce’s “Independent Woman”.

“Boyyy, are there cute men for you! The guy serving the food over there is so gorgeous, I couldn’t keep my eyes off him!” She winked at me and nudged me on the shoulder.

I hadn’t seen this woman in years, and she was already playing matchmaker?! My aunt chuckled and hugged me as I introduced her to my friend, Heather. “Heather wants to find a Greek man today,” I announced mischievously.

“Okay, and what about you?” my aunt murmured with a smile.

I briskly headed toward what I came for in the first place: the tent with food. Trays of moussaka, tiropita, spanakopita, souvlakia, and other Greek staples blanketed the tables. I couldn’t wait to scoff a spinach pie with handmade filo, kneaded by a woman laboring in her hot kitchen. You can always tell when filo is fresh because it’s flakier and tastes like a ball of butter. I can vouch that my grandma makes the very best, but then again, every Greek granddaughter claims that. Further down the block resided the wine booth, with rosés, whites, reds, and oh, the fateful ouzo. Ouzo, which tastes like licorice and is much like the Italian grappa, is usually served with appetizers and diluted with water. Regardless, many opt to drink it anytime, anywhere. The festival itself was held on a block on the upper west side spanning two avenues. Annunciation Church loomed on one side, and I reveled in the beautiful, classical-like architecture. I almost felt as though I weren’t in New York City, what with the car-less street lined instead with tents of food and drink.

While the younger crowd swarmed around the alcohol booth (naturally), the older people sat at tables, gossiping and smoking cigarettes (the “smoking can kill” warnings on Greek cigarette packages clearly do not deter them). Heather and I walked to one such table with loaded plates. As I glanced around at other plates, moussaka seemed to be the crowd favorite. Moussaka, with its countless layers of eggplant, minced meat (kima), and Bechamel sauce, can never hold its weight and always appears slumped over –one could say it’s the Greek equivalent to lasagna. When you slice into it, it typically falls apart into sloppy piles (so much for all that calculated layering), but each ingredient is so good you don’t even care. Plopped in the middle of the table was a big tray of loukoumades, or fried donuts (except with no hole in the middle), doused in honey and cinnamon. They remained untouched (Greeks, of late, have been influenced by the diet-conscious Western world)  – I’d be changing that.

As we gorged, we tapped our feet along with the music. My heart swelled with nostalgia at the sound of the bouzouki. The bouzouki is the spine of a Greek ensemble; it sounds (and looks) like a guitar with richer, higher-pitched notes. A guitar, keyboard, and dumbeg (drum) accompanied the bouzouki. I recognized the song as a kalamatiano, which starts with a slower tempo and gradually picks up as dancers are meant to speed their movements. The kalamatiano is arguably the most well known dance –yes, you’ve probably seen it on “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” My aunt grabbed Heather and me as I reassured Heather it’s an easy dance to catch on. At first, we were a little unsynchronized, some of us moving forward while others stepped back, but eventually we fell into the same pattern. As we circled around, hands linked, beginning to hop faster with the rhythm, I took the time to scope out this “gorgeous” server. He actually wasn’t too bad – he had the chiseled cheekbones of John Stamos coupled with the black eyes of George Clooney. I could work with this. Or at least Heather could. I noticed him and his friends watching us amusedly, wine glasses in hand. I added some spring in my step. I could tell, just by the way he interacted with the man serving the wine, that this guy was very, very Greek. He probably had all Greek friends, spoke only Greek in the home, attended Greek galas, and went on an annual vacation to his family home in Greece. This is all fine, but unfortunately, being a Greek man also means that you were thoroughly spoiled by your mother, who washes your laundry daily and spends hours cooking meals for you and your friends. I, too, was spoiled by my mom, though I like to call it pampered. But, as two people who are accustomed to having everything done for them, this presents a problem. Have I just unearthed the truth behind my attraction to non-Greeks?!

When the dance ended, it was time for the singer, beckoned all the way from Greece for the occasion, to perform. While Greek music is trending lately toward pop and (pitiably) rap, old-time, folk-ish Greek music has not changed; this singer was very traditional in that sense. And to Greeks,the more nasally the voice, the better. As the vocalist belted his ballad about unrequited love into the microphone, Heather and I ambled over to the alcohol booth and ordered two generously poured glasses of white wine. Gorgeous Guy and his friends were just feet away, and I could see my aunt watching us closely. Eventually, because booze tends to spur spontaneous conversations, we all began talking.

And, just as I suspected, he was very Greek. When he heard my name, which dates back to mythological times, his eye gleamed, and I cringed. I actually wanted him to talk to Heather – his friend was much, much cuter and had blue, not brown, eyes. My Achilles heel. Heather was unfortunately engaged in conversation with Cuter Friend’s girlfriend. After asking the obligatory questions – where I went to school, what I do – I assume he got bored because he turned to the man serving the wine.”Fere ouzo yia tis kopeles.” Rough translation: Bring the girls ouzo. Was my chat really that bad? After all, he was the one asking the boring questions. The wine server had just tuned into the music and was clapping to the beat wildly, arms thrown above his head. Almost effortlessly, he laid out shot glasses and filled them in one motion, ouzo oozing from the tops. We all toasted and swigged. It burned as it trickled slowly down my throat.

The ouzo apparently did not render me more interesting, as now, Gorgeous Guy stopped asking me questions altogether. And this, I thought, is so indicative of Greek men! Needing constant entertainment, expressing indifference otherwise.

Oh well. While it would have been nice to share some good news with my aunt and Melpo, I didn’t fret too much over our anti-chemistry (though I did give a second thought to Cuter Friend). Needless to say, Heather and I later departed with no Greek treats on our arms, though our stomachs were swollen with them. Just as well, if you ask me.