I like leftovers. I’m sure most of you out there agree. But, no, I’m not talking about leftovers like meatloaf, turkey from Thanksgiving dinner, or Mom’s spanakopita from Easter.
What I am referring to are those Greek guys. You know the type – came to the States in the 70s or 80s when they were in their late teens or in their early twenties and now they are in the 40s and 50s. Hard working, no nonsense guys with heavy Greek accents matching their heavy attitudes. Not “manges” but guys that will give you the shirt off their back, their handshake is their contract, and when something is not right or someone says something out of place, they turn and say, “What are you stupid, m——a?” (Of course you need to fill in the Greek word that long ago started as an insult but somehow has been transformed into a loving, caring, word of endearment… okay, not loving and caring but is now used by Greeks in every other sentence. I think you understand.)
Why do I love leftovers? Let me explain: It’s the Saturday of our local church Greek festival, and we’re closing down for the night. The guests have left, the older ladies have put away the pastries for the next day, the band has packed up, and a few of the volunteers sit down in a circle to have a few beers, nibble on some mezethakia, and shoot the breeze. Suddenly, out of nowhere and without warning, two items come into the equation – my bouzouki and someone else’s tsipouro. Ahhh…one tugs at your soul and the other tugs at your brain cells.
Soon the haunting melodies resonate from the bouzouki playing the oldies but goodies and the crowd starts singing, or what attempts to be singing. More like a bunch of old cats in a cat fight. It’s okay, the tsipouro makes them think they are Frank Sinatra, or in our case, Strato Dionysiou. Their screwing up the lyrics and their out of tune – way out of tune, but no one minds and in fact, no one cares and the tsipouro continues to flow like a cool mountain stream.
The playing is fun. The singing is fun. The eating is fun. But soon the real fun begins – the bantering. The little friendly insults or jests the guys start giving each other. They insult each other about their looks, the jobs they have, their lack of talent in singing, their sexual prowess, and even whether Greek prostitutes are the best in the world since they’ve been around for over 3,000 years!
Greek curse words are flowing just as much as that cool mountain stream and hands are waiving like they are being attacked by killer bees. The heavy Greek words come out and the Greek slang starts too. Words that I have no idea what they mean but sound funny and I need to lean over to my friend next to me for translation, but usually it gets lost in the translation (I do learn a lot of new words, though). Of course, our loving and caring word of endearment is scattered throughout the taunts. Then the good songs start up. Here is where the fun gets funner (I know that’s not a word but it rhymes!).
Try explaining to your non-Greek friends the meaning of some of those songs. For example, “Στου παράδεισου την πόρτα.” It’s a song about the gates of Heaven and the angels are smoking the wacky weed and forgetting about the Good Book. What did you say? Angels smoking? Greeks are sure funny. They are proud and passionate about the Greek Orthodox religion, but can have a laugh about it too. Just look at all those Greek comedy movies about priests.
There’s a little break in the fun and I look around at the guys. One yells out, “Loukaniko break,” then starts passing around the Greek sausage hot off the grill. That’s when I realize that these guys are the “leftovers.”
When Upper Darby was inundated with the Greek immigration of the 70s, their parents were the ones that came, built businesses, expanded the church, and the “Greek” community, and these guys were the younger generation. They finished their schooling in America or went straight to work in the diners, pizzerias, or the trades. Their parents, the older generation, are retired or almost gone now and my friends hanging out at the festival are the leftovers. The last of their kind. There is no one behind them.
They have assimilated into the American culture. They watch football and baseball. They’ve become Democrats and Republicans. Their kids have graduated high school and now college. They even eat apple pie! But they haven’t lost their “Greekness.” The way they use their hands when they speak, especially emphasizing a word and “throwing the Na.” The choice of Greek words they use. The accent. The sayings. Their philosophical ranting. For some, the cigarette hanging from their lips, although that has almost disappeared too. The straightforwardness. They are Socrates, Kolokotronis, and Gus from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, all rolled up into one and they will let you know it! They are proud to be Greek and will waive the Greek flag every chance they get, but they love America too. They are the last of their kind – the leftovers of the immigration boom.
The Greeks in his area haven’t seen a mass immigration since my friends and their parents came to Upper Darby and the Philadelphia area back in the 70s. There is no one to take their place. Since that time, the only Greeks immigrating to the United States are a few students or professors and doctors and some Greeks that moved back to Greece in the late 90s or early 2000s and are coming back because of the Greek economic problems.
But someday my leftover friends will be gone too and then only memories will remain. There will be no more accents, no more “good” words thrown around, probably no more singing the old songs. I’ll miss it but I’ll enjoy it while it’s here. So raise your glass of tsipouro and toast my friends (and the ones you know) and remember the way that it was in our community, or yours – toast the “leftovers.” Thanks guys, you make me feel Greek and you make me laugh!
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