It’s time to meet another Greek-American living in Greece. This time, we caught up with American Women’s Organization in Greece President Stacey Papaionnou.
Meet Stacey Papaioannou
We’re back with the next installment in the wildly popular series of Q&A with Greek-Americans in Greece. This time, we caught up with Joliet, IL native Stacey Papaioannou.
Maria A. Karamitsos: Where were you born and raised?
Stacey Papaioannou: I grew up in Joliet, a suburb south of Chicago.
MAK: Where do you trace your Greek roots?
SP: Mykonos. My Dad had immigrated from Mykonos in the mid 50s. There, he met my Mom, whose parents also immigrated from Mykonos; they married. The Joliet Greek community initially had the majority of its members hailing from the “rocky isle”.
MAK: Talk a little about your Greek community connections in Joliet, prior to leaving.
SP: The Greek influence was always strong. Every Sunday, was filled with attending church, Sunday School, fellowship hours and lunch with relatives. At home, we were bilingual. My parents spoke Greek. Although we were fluent in Greek, my brother and I responded in English. During the week, we would also attend lessons at Greek School, to be assured of writing and reading Greek as well. Moving beyond Greek School, I was active in GOYA. I took some wonderful ski trips to Wisconsin, facilitated through GOYA. I also made many great friendships that continue today, albeit through Facebook because of time and distance, but remain unchanged.
MAK: Did you travel to Greece when you were growing up?
SP: Like most Greek Americans, we had a couple of pilgrimages to Greece. We visited the Athenian relatives and then on to the island to spend time with Yiayia and Papou. That was probably when the initial love affair with Greece began. One of the things that struck me as I continued to travel to Greece was that although I had the advantage to understand the language there were cultural norms that remained completely foreign to me. Some still to this day!
MAK: Did you attend university in the U.S.?
SP: I attended public and private schools before making my way across the state to DeKalb to attend Northern Illinois University (NIU). I earned degrees in Journalism and Speech and education — secondary school. I worked as a Journalism teacher and publications adviser. That gave me summers free … to travel to Greece.
MAK: When did you move to Greece? What precipitated the move?
SP: Blessed with the virtue that my Greek “chorio” was Mykonos, I found myself visiting a venue with plenty of friends and relatives that was in its initial stages of development as a world-renowned resort. Each trip grew longer and each departure grew more difficult. Every September I found myself wondering what everyone was up to on the island while I tried to inspire young writers in a suburban high school classroom. And then I met my husband, who is now an ex. But that was the final magnet to Mykonos.
I walked away from a rewarding career in teaching, my family in the States and an active life in my church as a parish council member and a Sunday School Director. I married and moved to Greece in 1987, without a clue as to what I would be doing, as far as work was concerned.I was 27, and stressed about it.
MAK: Tell us about your work.
SP: My husband was an electrician, turned retailer. He had opened the first video club on the island. Together, we transformed the video rentals into ”Billys,” a school supply, gift shop, and music store. I knew nothing about retail, except from the viewpoint of a shopper. I applied that knowledge and we initiated one of the most modern Mykonian retail establishments at the time. But every day was a new challenge as I tried to understand and decipher Greek bureaucracy, laws constantly in flux, laws that existed but were ignored, and so forth. “Billys” thrived and survived during the golden age of Greece — the late 80s to the start of the crisis –for 23 years. We financed the construction of our rental units with the profits from the retail operation and purchased a convenience store.
MAK: Tell us about your sons, who were born and raised on Mykonos.
SP: I have two wonderful sons that have been on board with these family businesses since they were both tall enough to reach over the counter and serve customers. Today, at 24 and 19, they both are intimately aware of the plus and minus factors of our business interest. They have been both benevolent and inspiring in their contributions to these family businesses. And they also have the same love of Greece. For two school years, I lived with the boys in Athens so the eldest could participate in an IB program at a private school in preparation for British University. The eldest earned a degree in Economics from the University of Westminster, but chose to return to Greece and assist us. The younger has only just begun university, and although accepted in England, chose to remain in Greece for his higher education and follow a computer engineering program at a public university in Athens.
MAK: Do you still have family in the US? Do you visit often?
SP: My brother and father are both there and we visit with one another frequently. Although there has been plenty of support in the States, it would be impossible to leave Greece.
MAK: How do you like living in Greece? Was it easy to adjust?
SP: For me, I love looking out the window and seeing glorious sunshine, mountains and the sea. I also love the charm and warmth and openness of Greeks. They are not afraid to tell you what they think and they do it with great passion — even to complete strangers. I also love the fact that I can have a coffee with a friend by simply making a call to say meet me in 10 minutes. Usually, that’s not a possibility in the States with rigid programs and drive times. Impromptu tends to be the norm in Greece rather than the exception.
MAK: As you were in the States, you’re quite active in the community.
SP: All my life I was actively involved in clubs, organizations and my church. This is one thing that has remained unchanged in me. I have served as president of the Mykonos Volunteers Association, president of the parent’s association, and am currently serving as President of the American Women’s Organization of Greece (AWOG). The organization is based in Athens; I travel to the “Acropolis Metropolis” twice a month for my obligations with the club. We have fundraisers that benefit Greek charities that have become even more needy with the onset of the crisis. We also gather for fun. Many of our members are American but we also have several International women. The organization was created almost 70 years ago, by the US Ambassador’s wife, to create a cultural bridge between Greece and America following WWII.
I have a Facebook page and that I have used that as a vehicle to promote Greece. I often write often about not-to-be-missed Mykonos and Athens venues — whether you are a local or a visitor to a country filled with history and myths. Even though I have lived in Greece for more than 30 years, I am often awed even by simple sunsets and delicious food. It is this simplicity that is at once nothing and yet everything. I feel truly blessed that I have the opportunity to enjoy it all daily. Greece is safe, homey and magical at once. My passion remains high for this land of antiquity.
MAK: Give a little perspective on being a Greek-American living in Greece.
SP: I have a large network of foreign friends in Greece. They have always made the point that I have had the advantage of transitioning to Greece because I had both the language and the culture before my permanent arrival. Oddly, among my “American” friends in the States, I have always been “The Greek,” and among my Greek friends in Greece I am “The Amerikana.” One of the startling differences I found as a Greek American living in Greece was in behaviors of the Greek Orthodox faith. Although many people subscribe to the cultural norms of fasting during Lent or honoring the 40 days of staying at home after a child is born as well as the mourning period following a family death, very few attend church services. My life centered around attending church services while I was in the States. In Greece, very few Greeks under 60 can be found in regular liturgy services.
MAK: Why do you stay in Greece, despite the challenges?
SP: Although my marriage fell apart, and with the crisis my income dropped considerably, Greece is home to me now. Yes, I could have left . I actually had the opportunity to return to the States to a rather lucrative career a few years back, I did not want to give up the lifestyle. I may not have been earning $100k as many of my friends from college do now, but I did have the opportunity to hop in the car and drive 5 minutes to swim in pristine waters and feel both my body and soul rejuvenated with the first splash into the water looking at the Aegean. That is something that can only be had by living in Greece.
There is also the safety factor. I feel safe living in Greece. Crime and fear of crime does not preclude movement or activity as it does in the US. You can go out at midnight in Greece and not be fearful. You will be cautious, but you will not be fearful.
MAK What should people outside of Greece know?
Although media accounts have painted a diminished picture of Greece as the economic crisis progressed, the country continues to be a nice place to live — whether you are having a meal out or enjoying a cafe al fresco. Wherever you go, whether it is a simple taverna or, a swanky restaurant, you can be assured of healthy, delicious meal. You will be greeted warmly and welcomed. You will have a healthy and affordable meal that is tasty. You will be encouraged to dance and sing and enjoy the moment. And around every corner is a lesson in ancient history, whether it is a slab of marble or a doric column. The past is easily accessible in the present.
MAK: What can Greeks outside of Greece do to promote Greece, and to help?
SP: On this side of the Atlantic, I have witnessed a great outpouring of love and generosity from Greeks in the US as they have watched their co-patriots struggle through the crisis. The continually donate products and cash to assist agencies and individuals. And the Greeks here have turned that generosity around as well to assist the refugees that arrived on Greek shores in the last 18 months.
Our biggest export is tourism–hospitality, filoxenia. We know how to feed people and we do it well. We know how to make people feel welcome and show them how easy it is to have a good time — to sing, dance, and have a simple meal at an outdoor table. If you have been to Greece, you must share these good memories of moments enjoyed with your friends who are in search of a travel destination. In Greece, the journey is always an adventure as well as a moment of peaceful reflection of what is most valuable — our time and the experiences we have during that precious portion. Making connections to people — whether it is our travel companions or the people we encounter along the journey — is a big part of a wonderful adventure. Greece is conducive to facilitating this.
Until next time…
We hope you enjoyed meeting Stacey Papaioannou. We’ll introduce you to another Greek-American in Greece soon