Continuing our longest-running and most popular series, Greek-American in Greece, this time, let’s meet a couple who live and run a business Crete.
Q&A with Greek-Americans in Greece Anna Maria & Vasilis Kokologiannakis
There’s a huge American expat community in Greece, including many Greek-Americans who’ve moved to the motherland. They’re devoted to Greece, and are committed to stay. Let’s meet a Greek-American couple who live in Crete and own and operate Chania Wine Tours. Meet Anna Maria & Vasilis Kokologiannakis.
Maria A. Karamitsos: Where were you born and raised? Tell us about your time there.
Anna Maria Kokologiannakis: I was born and raised in a small town outside of Boston called Methuen, MA. I imagine it was a very typical suburban upbringing. I went to the Hellenic American Academy in Lowell, MA for elementary school- a stark contrast from being the only Greek kid once I entered public school in 4th grade.
Vasilis Kokologiannakis:- I was born and raised in Modesto, CA. They used to call Modesto ‘Little Crete’ because of how many Cretan families moved to the area. While I was growing up there were a lot of Greek events and we grew up as a community of Greek-American kids.
MAK: Where is your family from in Greece?
AMK: Anna Maria- My father was born and raised in Heraklion, Crete. My mom was born in Springfield, MA. Her parents are from Chania.
VK: My mom is from a small village in Sfakia, Crete called Aradena. My dad is from Kampous, Keramia, an area in the mountains of Chania.
MAK: Tell us a little about your Greek community connections in your town, prior to leaving.
AMK: Growing up I was involved in GOYA and the Pancretan Association of America. The biggest Greek impact on my life was actually visiting Crete in the summers with my paternal grandmother.
VK: I was also involved in the Pancretan Association of America. I’ve traveled all over the U.S. for Cretan events, dances, and conferences.
MAK: Did you attend university in the U.S.? Tell us about you and your career.
AMK: I moved to Chicago and went to wine school through the International Sommelier Guild. I became a Certified Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2009. I’ve worked in almost every branch of the wine industry, from working in a winery to sales to restaurants to retail. I’ve also worked harvest in Santorini and Peloponnese. Most of my career I’ve been focused on Greek wines.
VK: I went to technical school to become an auto technician. I also became a Master Technician for BMW and Mercedes.
AMK: It works out pretty well because on our tours, I talk about wine and Vasili drives.
MAK: Do you still have family in the U.S.? Do you visit often?
AMK: My brother and extended family still live in the U.S.. My parents retired to Crete in 2015. I don’t go back that often. I find that my family prefers to visit me here in Crete.
VK:I have two brothers in the States. My parents also retired here a few years ago. We go back when we can.
MAK: When did you move to Greece? What precipitated the move?
AMK: We moved to Crete right before our wedding in July 2013. We had a 7-year plan to move that soon became a 7-month plan. It’s never a “good” time, but we took a leap of faith and we’re still here.
VK: One of the very first things Anna and I ever talked about, within a minute of meeting each other, was our mutual desire to move to Crete. I don’t think either of us expected that we would do it together.
MAK: How do you like living in Greece? Was it easy to adjust?
AMK: I love living here otherwise we wouldn’t be here. I think because I spent summers here since I was a child I knew what to expect so it was an easy adjustment. I managed my expectations and just went with the flow. There are of course things that make you crazy but you have to take a deep breath and go with it.
VK: I love living here. Easy adjustment? Yes… Easy to keep going after you’re here? It’s not easy to be here. You have to want to be here. I’ve revitalized my pappou’s vineyards and olive trees. I try to spend as much time as possible in the village.
MAK: Tell us about Chania Wine Tours. When did you start it? How’s it going?
AMK: I’m one of two Certified Sommeliers in Crete; and the only Certified Sommelier in Greece that does wine tours. We provide an in-depth luxury experience for our guests that want to learn about Cretan wine and experience the food and culture of Crete. This is a really exciting time for Greek wine. The quality has improved exponentially and the wineries have upgraded their tasting rooms to take better care of visitors. It’s only a matter of time that Crete becomes a wine destination. So far, our business is going really well. There’s a lot of interest in what we do by tourists looking to take a day off from the beach. We love what we’re doing and our customers love us, which is ultimately the best reward.
VK: We started in Summer 2017. We love what we do. We love showing tourists our beautiful island and making an impact on their impression of Crete.
MAK: Give a little perspective on being a Greek-American living in Greece.
AMK: I think there’s this contrast of the efficiency and go-go-go of America that is in direct contrast with the pace here in Crete. You need to adjust and plan accordingly to get into the same rhythm. There’s honestly just less stress here. A deadline is a suggestion not a life or death situation. I remember always looking at the time and worrying about being late to an appointment in the States and here it’s like, “Oh, awesome, you actually showed up.” It’s a different mentality. Nothing is the end of the world. Everything can be fixed.
VK: Professionally it’s been a harder adjustment for me. I was used to the latest technologies and working on the best cars. Here, because of the economy, the cars are older, and the mechanic shops aren’t up to the same standards.
MAK: With all the challenges, why do you stay in Greece?
AMK: This is where I want to raise my children. I have peace of mind knowing my children are safer here. Of course I have the usual anxieties of motherhood, but I love that my boys will grow up speaking Greek, eating this healthy food, and playing outdoors as often as possible.
VK: This is where I belong. I believe in Greece. I believe things will turn around. We moved here during the worst economic time. Since we’ve been able to thrive at its worst, I think we’ll be even happier when things start to turn around.
MAK: Why is it important for Greeks to stay, and work through it?
AMK: There is light at the end of the tunnel. Greeks are so resilient. We’ll get through this, too. The crisis has sparked some very creative minds. With a little bit of guts, anyone can survive this seemingly never-ending storm.
VK: Of course everyone talks about the brain-drain happening; doctors, lawyers, etc all leaving. It depends on what you value in life. Yes, a doctor will make MUCH more money working outside of Greece, but you have to decide if it’s worth the tradeoff.
MAK: What should people outside of Greece know?
AMK: That Greece is still here. It’s still amazing. People haven’t been jaded by their experiences. Greeks have this unique ability to be confronted with the darkest times and always find the silver lining. Granted, they may complain all day and night about it, but in their hearts they know that better days are coming.
VK: That there is more to Greece than just the beach. Winter in Greece is wonderful, too. A lot of people work seasonally so winter is a lot more relaxed and the friends and family that you visit will have more time to spend with you off-season.
MAK: What can Greeks outside of Greece do to promote Greece, and to help?
AMK: VISIT! The best way to help is to come here and see for themselves. Most Americans get one week a year to vacation and relax. I can’t imagine a better place than Greece. Amazing food, great weather, good wine! If you can’t make it — tell your friends to visit. Buy Greek products in the States. Most of the time they directly affect a single family back in Greece.
VK: I agree with Anna, visit. I remember being in the States and trying to find a strategy with work to get the time off to visit. Every summer that I didn’t come, I regretted it. Sometimes you just have to say, I’m going to Greece this summer no matter what it takes.
Meet another Greek-American in Greece soon!
Thank you, Anna Maria and Vasili. I know I want to hop on a plane right now! If you get to Crete this summer, call them for a tour!
We’ll introduce you to another Greek-American in Greece soon. Stay tuned!
Check out more of our Greek-American in Greece series: