Games bring burst of pride

ATHENS OLYMPICS: Excitement in Baltimore's Greektown

August 13, 2004|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

In the Greektown coffee houses where men, and only men, play cards and down demitasses of sweet, muddy coffee, this is a time to boast and whoop and watch a whole lot of television.

In the Greek Orthodox church where mostly women gather among gilded icons and flickering candles, it is a time to pray.

They pray that the Olympics go well. That the terrorists stay away. And that the Rev. Dionysios Lazirides cuts services a little short tonight so they don't miss a minute of the opening ceremony on TV.

The 2004 Olympics begin today in Athens, returning to Greece for the first time since the modern Games began in 1896.

And that means Olympic fever is burning hotter than pepperoncini in this Southeast Baltimore neighborhood since the Games have come back to the place where they - and so many Greektown residents - originated.

"It's going to be the best Olympics ever," said George Anagnostou, 56, who was tuned in to satellite Greek television at the Olympia Coffee House on Eastern Avenue this week. "The mythology is going to come out of the ground."

Along with fluttering blue-and-white flags and big party plans, there is a sense of vindication as Greek-Americans expect their homeland to defy expectations that it wasn't up to the task of hosting the Games.

"They all went against us, like it's not going to be ready," said George Sevdalis, 45, who had just polished off a plate of fresh figs at the Olympia. "We proved them wrong. Everything is ready. The Olympic village - the most beautiful one ever built."

Some also see the Olympics as a way to spotlight a great civilization that gave the world more than the gyro, the first wrap sandwich.

"This is the time for the rest of the world to realize what Greece was and is," said Michael Spanides, 60, a native of Greece who grew up in and around Washington and often visits Greektown.

"This time the Olympic Games will not be duplicated," he said. "They will be imitated, but not duplicated, just like the other Greek achievements. All the buildings in Washington are imitations of the Acropolis. `Give us liberty, give us death' - that was a Greek proverb. They never mention it. All the words in medicine are Greek. You take away our language, you have no science."

Even as Greek pride swells, the Games have made some Greek-Americans realize just how American they've become. They find themselves rooting for hometown athletes like swimmer Michael Phelps of Rodgers Forge as well as old country competitors.

"Michael Phelps, I wish to him good luck," said Bill Roufas, 59, a Greektown barber who hails from the island of Rhodes. "He's going to make it."

Roufas proudly pointed out that the Greek Olympic baseball team was largely assembled and funded by a Baltimorean, the majority owner of the Orioles.

"Peter Angelos - he did everything," Roufas said.

Greek and American flags will be on display at Samos Restaurant on South Oldham Street. Owner Nick Samos says he will be rooting for athletes from both countries.

Samos, 55, opened his restaurant not long after he arrived from Greece three decades ago. And although the place appears to be thriving - more than a dozen customers were waiting to be seated Wednesday night, eager to dig into leg of lamb, souvlaki and broiled red snapper - Samos said America has given his sons an even better life. One is a chemical engineer, another works in finance and the third has a job with the Department of Defense.

"To be honest with you, I'm more American than I am Greek because this country gave me more opportunity than I would have had there," Samos said.

Which isn't to say Greek-Americans, even second- and third-generation ones, don't feel a strong connection to their ancestral homeland, one that translates into an intense interest in this year's Olympics.

"I was probably in elementary school when I realized Jesus wasn't Greek," said Anthony Ambridge, 54, a developer and former city councilman who grew up in Greektown.

His grandparents came from the village of Pythagoras - named for the ancient Greek mathematician - and his father never let him forget it.

"You're from the village of Pythagoras," his father would say. "You must get an `A' in math."

His strong Greek identity survived - thanks to church and Greek school - even though his father changed their surname from Arambiges to Ambridge, for the town near Pittsburgh where the elder Ambridge grew up.

But there have been times when the younger Ambridge's American pride trumped his Greek roots. It happened on a visit to Greece years ago, when it was announced that Atlanta had beaten out Athens to host the 1996 Summer Olympics.

"The headlines in the newspaper said it was a CIA-Coca-Cola conspiracy to deny Athens the centennial Olympics," Ambridge said, laughing.

But Ambridge has no trouble identifying with the islands these days.

"The Olympics will be a great source of pride for all Greek-Americans," he said. "It will be a time to rejoice in Greektown."

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