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Greek Sacramentans celebrate their heritage

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Mayor Kevin Johnson gave full endorsement of the 47th annual Sacramento Greek Festival on Friday, its opening day. In his address to festival-goers, Johnson shared his appreciation of the great music, art and food provided by the Greek community over the course of the weekend’s festivities, which took place at the Sacramento Convention Center.

“It’s all about the gyros for me,” Johnson said. “We’ve got a lot of great Greek restaurants in Sacramento, but what’s neat about this event is that they all come here.”

With more than 10,000 people attending the three-day event, Johnson clearly isn’t the only Sacramentan in support of celebrating all things Greek.

Chefs from some of the best Greek restaurants in Sacramento, including the Greek Village Inn and Cafe Europa, performed cooking demonstrations at the festival. Some chefs even shared recipes and techniques from their own cookbooks.

As visitors shopped at the makeshift market stalls and sampled the overwhelming variety of Greek cuisine, traditional bounisi folk music filled the Convention Center’s cavernous space.

Clarinet player Geoffrey Antipa explained that the word bounisi means “people of the mountains.”

“If you were to go out into the villages, you might hear people sounding just the way we’re playing now,” Antipa said.

His band included a guitar, a santouri (much like a hammered dulcimer) and three vocalists. Their traditional contribution to the event’s live soundtrack was balanced out by the more contemporary Mythos Band, who performed to a livelier crowd in the late afternoon and evening hours.

Hundreds of parishioners from the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church served at different stations throughout the event, including food preparation and service, security, cleanup, setup and take-down, and vending.

The celebratory mood at the festival was expressed by its volunteers just as much as by those visiting.

Helen Psihopaidas has volunteered at the event for the last 46 years, witnessing it outgrow the church’s facilities on Alhambra Boulevard, move to Cal Expo and then eventually overtake the Convention Center.

“It’s grown a lot over the years, and every year they get better and better,” she said.

Her station at the appetizer’s booth had her serving up kalamari and loukanico (Greek sausages with a hint of orange) to the hungry dancers and performers nearby.

Across the way from Psihopaidas, Jimmy Pappas ran the festival’s watering hole. Over the course of the weekend he and his crew went through 220 24-pack cases of “Marathon Beer.”

In addition to the beer, small cups of ouzo (licorice-flavored aperitif), metaxa (brandy) and retsina wine began their circulation from Pappas’ “Taverna,” which was also the source of most “Opa!” proclamations, as it appeared that’s where attendees enlivened their moods enough to shout the Greek phrase for “hurray!”

Pappas said his favorite part of the festival is getting to see people enjoy everything they taste and see, while also getting to experience a little bit of his Greek heritage.

Although many at the festival are not Greek, they find themselves drawn into the culture because of a relationship with someone who is. Alester Thomas is one such example.

Thomas said he had been exposed to great Greek food ever since he started dating his Greek girlfriend, but that didn’t stop him from joining the long line of hungry visitors in the cafeteria-style food court. When asked what he would be choosing from the à la carte menu, Thomas replied, “I have no idea. I’m letting my girlfriend decide.”

To non-Greeks, wandering the festival without a Greek significant other to guide them, a warm hospitality and openness was extended by the event’s parishioners and volunteers.

Father James Retelas explained that this hospitality is an important expression of Greek culture. The culture is one that celebrates filoxenia (love for the guest), Retelas said.

Non-Greeks’ response to the event is “overwhelmingly positive,” said Father Timothy Robinson of the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church.

Visitors could visit Father Robinson in his chapel — surrounded by religious icons and golden censers — to ask questions about Greek Orthodoxy and history.

Robinson explained that non-Greeks’ curiosity is satisfied by the accessible representation of Greek culture, history, food and religion at the event.

Chairperson Gerri Magers has helped organize the event for the last three years. Magers said this year’s event was especially exciting because of the new features involved.

World-renowned landscape artist Gregory Kondos was on hand to sign posters and talk art, while wine-tasting exhibits offered wine from all different regions across Greece.

“In comparison to past years, it’s got a lot of energy,” Magers said.

Like a batch of loukoumathes (Greek doughnut puffs), the warmth and flavor of Greek culture welcomed Sacramentans in to join the celebration of Hellenic heritage in the area.

Mayor Johnson referred to the rich Greek tradition in Sacramento as a strength of the community.

“It’s one of the best in Sacramento.”


Photos one through six by Brandon Darnell

Photos seven through eleven by Dane Johnson

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