Our longest-running and most popular series is back! Let’s meet another Greek-American in Greece — Entrepreneur & Health Coach Maria Michalakopoulou.
Meet Greek-American in Greece Maria Michalakopoulou
Welcome back to Greek-American in Greece. Let’s meet a New York Greek living in Athens — Maria Michalakopoulou.
MAK: Where were you born and raised? Tell us about your time there.
MM: Hello everyone! I was born and raised in Queens, NY. Like many first-generation Greek-Americans, my story begins in Astoria. It’s where my immigrant parents met, married, and moved into an apartment with the hopes and dreams of building a future much better than the past they had each separately left behind in Greece. As progress and another child came along, my family bought a house in Holliswood so Baba could be near his restaurant where he worked from 5am to 5pm – every single day – including Christmas and Easter!
My brother and I attended Saint Demetrios Jamaica Day School, where I was immersed further into the Greek culture and the Orthodox faith. In many ways, this was a blessing in understanding the wealth of “gifts” granted to a young Greek child learning about her roots. However, it was also a heavy curtain hiding the diversity offered by the American melting pot, which contained colors and tastes not necessarily appreciated by Greek parents.
I spent my childhood in NY and my adolescence in Athens, where we moved in the mid-80s with the huge wave of return to the motherland by several Greek-American families. About 10 years later, I went back to NY as an adult – on my own this time – when little did I know, I still had some growing up to do.
MAK: Where is your family from in Greece?
MM: The joke in our family is that while still in Greece, my parents could not have ever met one another as their hometowns of Kalamata and Sparti are divided by Mount Taygetos. Mom is from a small village outside of Sparti, called Vordonia and Dad is from another small village called Diavolitsi, right next to Parapouggi.
I always thought those were the funniest names for any place. I mean, why name a village Diavolo-anything? I also discovered that Parapouggi meant “paras sto pouggi” implying that the villagers were affluent – or that at least they dealt in commerce, like my grand-father. Back in the 80s and 90s, it would take a good 6 or 7 hours to get to the horio from Athens. On the way, we would stop to buy fruit and vegetables produced by the Peloponnesian farmers. I still love doing this today as it makes me feel a sense of belonging to this land which fed and nourished my ancestors, even if my life began so very far away.
MAK: Talk a little about your Greek community connections in your town, prior to leaving.
MM: Growing up Greek, as you know, means lots of family, friends and food! As part of the St. Demetrios church and school community, I attended Sunday School and joined dance and sports teams. I may still have my old basketball jersey with the St Demetrios logo and number 11 on it! And I definitely still have my cheerleading trophy that our team won against the rival Greek school, St. Demetrios of Astoria. I thank so many of my teachers for having me practice the Kalamatiano a zillion times so that we could experience this traditional spirited dance. My annual highlight, even as an adult, was participating in the Greek Independence Day Parade on Fifth Avenue. I must have marched to the “left-left-left-right-left” beat in every outfit possible: the school uniform, twice as a girl scout, the traditional Amalia clothing and even once as a Tsolia!
MAK: Did you attend university in the US? Tell us about you and your career.
MM: I finished high-school in Greece, and not yet comfortable leaving home, I attended the University of La Verne in Athens. After graduating with a B.S. in Marketing and a minor in French, I left for NY. Soon afterwards I was working at Atlantic Bank of New York and studying part-time at the NYU Stern School of Business, where I received an MBA in Finance and International Business. The most incredible thing for me at the time was actually learning how to work in a bank and to manage staying awake at late-night classes. Even better, ABNY paid for my tuition upon receiving good grades! Considering that the Greece I had left behind was in the PASOK era, I now felt like the US was indeed the land of opportunity!
For the next decade, I held marketing, product development and strategy positions in the financial services industry at GE Investments, Institutional Investor, and American Express. Then in Greece later on, I worked for Alpha Bank and Citibank.
Slightly older and with a new set of priorities in life, I enhanced my education with studies in a totally different area. In 2005, I began studying Traditional Chinese Medicine with courses and clinical work in Greece and China. I also became a certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach in 2012.
MAK: You’re an entrepreneur. Tell us about that.
MM: Along with my husband, we’ve developed a travel-related application for small and mid-sized hotels in Greece. Specifically, our company, Roomcase, offers a Property Management System for lodging owners to efficiently manage all their bookings. Additionally, I personally run nutritional workshops around Greece and work as a holistic health coach, while also applying both Chinese and Greek therapeutic methods in my practice. I am currently building a new website, but people can also get in touch with me through Facebook by looking up Ontos Health or by emailing me.
MAK: Do you still have family in the U.S.? Do you visit often?
MM: I have relatives on both the East and West Coasts, yet haven’t visited recently. Being a mom with young pre-school twins does have its challenges. I have however equipped both kids with U.S. passports so we’re set to go when the time is right.
On another note, the friends you make living in NY, or any other place for that matter, when you are a young adult living on your own and earning your own money for the first time, struggling with “making it”, are also family – at least in my heart – and I have kept in touch with them even though some are no longer in NY.
MAK: When did you move to Greece? What precipitated the move?
MM: I have officially moved to Greece twice. Once as a decision my parents made for me when I was a young teenager, and again on my own as a 30-something fed up with the rat-race and the emotional exhaustion that comes with living in a city that never sleeps. Many things triggered the urge to return to Greece: the economy, the weather, the people, the promise of a better life in Southern Europe, and the 9/11 terrorist attack. Even the crazy realization that on a cold winter’s night at 3am, I could just walk across E 49th street where I lived, to the Korean deli on the corner and easily buy a few slices of pre-cut watermelon – just like that in the dead of winter in the dead of the night. It wasn’t natural! Firstly, it’s a summer fruit and secondly, no sane Greek is going to buy anything less that the whole damn watermelon!!!
MAK: How do you like living in Greece? Was it easy to adjust?
MM: This question has a different answer every single day if you watch the news! I’ve made changes to my way of life since I first arrived primarily so that I can continue liking it in Greece. For example, I no longer live in Athens, but an hour away on the Korinthian shore. When I initially returned to Greece after my decade away again, I experienced two very distinct and opposing feelings. First, that I had never left at all, everything seemed unchanged. Second, that I had never set my foot here before, it was all new to me. Truthfully, in the years I was away, 1993-2003, I had kept much of my Greek mentality but I had completely rewired my adult brain to work, think, collaborate and function as an American. It seemed awkward that I shouldn’t address the CEO of the bank by his first name, as I did in the US. It felt strange to have to be invited to speak my opinion, instead of it being expected as I had learned the need for individual ideas in order to succeed as a team. Then again, it was a welcome surprise when a simple call to so-and-o who knows so-and-so could get me out of the red-tape of a hassling errand.
Life in Greece becomes a pleasure once you realize that no place is perfect and that you must make the best of it wherever you are. If you choose to complain, you’ll find plenty of reasons to do so anywhere. Greece does not have a monopoly on this. New Yorkers are no piece of cake either, but I love them anyway.
MAK: Give a little perspective on being a Greek-American living in Greece.
MM: Being a Greek-American child in the 80s and 90s in Greece was all about being the Amerikanaki in school – until I had acquired the appropriate accent of course. Then the locals would have no idea I was different until the English-language professor asked me a question. Once I opened my mouth and the flawlessly pronounced words came out, all heads would turn towards me in astonishment. This is about the same sense of awe and bewilderment I encountered in the U.S. when asked to please spell and pronounce my (15-letter-long) last name!! So the quick answer on perspective is, you’re different and always will be. So embrace it. Your wealth of experience not only enriches your life but also that of the people you meet and with whom you share it. Being a Greek-American in Greece doesn’t mean you need to try to fit in, it only means you are responsible for bringing your own color and mentality to a place that desperately needs to grow and to benefit from what you can offer.
MAK: With all the challenges, why do you stay in Greece?
MM: Locals often ask me why I’m here in the first place!!! I made a choice long ago that I would not just try it out, but that I would stick with it. A few years ago, during my pregnancy, we had the chance to leave Greece for the US again. (Yes, it sounds like a ping-pong going back and forth). I’m a Capricorn with an MBA, so I put it all in a plan. Where would I raise my twins? When would I see them? Would a stranger be their caregiver? How much money would we be making? Spending? Saving? Taxes? Insurance? Food? Education? etc. etc. etc.
Did I make the right choice to stay? I like to think so. I did make changes however as I mentioned previously. I decided to stay in Greece, but leave Athens. It’s a cleaner, calmer option for young children and the hour-commute is something very common when you live in the U.S., so it’s not a problem here either. We live within walking distance of the beach and grow our own food in our garden.Neighbors stop by with eggs and treats, and share their news. This is NOT city life! It’s what still happens all throughout the country just as it did with our ancestors. It’s community and it’s a breath of fresh air compared to Athens. This is my reason for staying – it may not be for everyone. The moral of the story is that you are faced with what seems like go – no go decisions all the time, but sometimes the best response lies in answering an entirely different question.
MAK: Why is it important for Greeks to stay, and work through it?
MM: Greeks are talented and hard-working people. But they still need to eat and care for their families. I wish every single Greek who has boarded a plane for a better future, just as my own parents boarded a ship several years ago, the brightest of lights to shine upon their path and that they be blessed with good fortune. It’s not so much if Greeks need to stay or go. Working through it has many “faces” and they are personal choices that either burden us or release us. However, if staying is the option then it should also be accompanied by cooperation, experimentation, perseverance, and humor. In all of my professional endeavors, I always seek collaborators as I believe that united we overcome greater obstacles and accomplish much more overall.
MAK: What should people outside of Greece know?
MM: Mainly that business ideas are being born every day and that people, younger and older, are trying to create something new. Yes, there will always be a few that rely on the “government” to handle things. But there is also a large portion of citizens that welcome change and progress, and are willing to equip themselves with knowledge and experience to make a difference. Moreover, given the ever increasing start-up scene in Greece, there are unprecedented investment opportunities in technology, tourism, social media and other sectors. So if Greek-Americans are willing to support new businesses in very interesting projects, Greece may just provide a plethora of start-ups for investors to explore.
MAK: What can Greeks outside of Greece do to promote Greece, and to help?
MM:If you really want to promote Greece, promote Greek businesses and events. Along with tourism, it is the private sector that will help the country overcome the difficult financial crisis. It’s not that Greece is beautiful or that the weather is great or that we have excellent food. Mainly it’s about sales – the bottom line. How much Greek olive oil is being poured on American salads? How many bottles of Greek wine are on display at your local wine shop? Do you know of any boutiques selling Greek designer clothing? Have you any friends in the film industry keen on Greek film festivals? Do you know anyone who needs excellent medical careor surgery at a deep discount compared to U.S. rates? Are you in the market for new jewelry or fine luxury items? Think Greek products and services, not just Greek landscapes. Think about the big picture, not the post-card.
Until next time…
We hope you enjoyed meeting Maria Michalakopoulou. We’ll introduce you to another Greek-American in Greece soon.
Read about other Greek-Americans in Greece:
Greek-American in Greece: Meet Psychologist Despina Konstas, PhD
Greek-American in Greece: Meet Entrepreneur Debbie Koutroumanos
Greek-American in Greece: Meet AWOG President Stacey Papaioannou
Greek-American in Greece: Meet Georgia Karountzou