Articles on Greece by AURELIA

It is fitting that Christos Tsakonas, the man credited with encouraging the first Greek immigration to the United States, was born in a hut in the Peloponnese—a land first immortalized in the third century as “idyllic” in the genre of poetry known as pastoral. The two most famous ancient pastoral poets, Theocritus and Vergil, celebrated shepherds and herdsmen as free men who lived in harmony with nature far from the corruption of the city. The poets sang of a bucolic ideal and they called it “Arcadia,” but it was more a state of mind than a specific geographic location in the Peloponnese.

In this enchanted land without time and precise place, the goat-god Pan, ruler of woods and hills, protected the shepherds, herdsmen, and hunters as he frolicked with his beloved nymphs, drinking deep of the sweet, running water. The lovely descriptions of the placid, limpid streams of water are central to the themes of pastoral poetry. The poets call the streams “life giving” and immortalize the waters as “sacred, symbolizing life, vitality, and the powers of nature. “

Christos Tsakonas was born in 1848 in the province of Laconia, which happens to be next to the geographic Arcadia. Laconia is the most southern part of the Peloponnese and even today it can be described as a bucolic setting not unlike that celebrated by the poets. As a young boy he lived a laconic life similar to that of his ancestors, the Spartans. It is noteworthy that the spirit of pastoral life, and the spirit of freedom and loyalty to one's neighbors—those very qualities extolled by the pastoral poets-- were deeply ingrained in Christos Tsakonas. Perhaps these attributes account for the remarkable life he lived in the United States and made possible for others from the Peloponnese. Perhaps these traits, so loved by the ancients, helped create the stuff of which myths are made.

The exact village in Laconia when Christos was born is Zoupena at the foot of the Parnon Mountains east-southeast of Sparta. In the hot summer months, those living in Zoupena and the neighboring village of Goritsa went to Tsintzina, now used as a mountain retreat to escape the heat. In Christos' time and still today, people from these two villages who shared this special sanctuary are known as Tsintzinians because Zoupena and Goritsa were settled centuries later than Tsintzina.

A plentiful supply of water from calm, murmuring springs was the primary attraction of the mountain residence in Christos' time. Villagers gathered at the springs of “Kamaraki” to scoop up water half a cup at a time to fill their urns, or went to either the Psito Spring or the Soumou Spring for fresh water, unaware that poets had described water from the mountain springs as “sacred and life-giving,” and the springs as places where the goddesses refreshed themselves as they “ushered in the movements of nature, guiding her rhythms.” Today, water flows in every house in Tsintzina and it is still life-giving and central to village life.

Nikolaos Caravasos, great-great nephew of Christos Tsakonas, lives now in Swarthmore, PA., but was born in Zoupena. He explains that the people of Tsintzina have lived peacefully in their village for centuries and life there is a time to rest up for the fall and winter chores, preparing their fields and harvesting their crops of wheat, grapes, and olives. It is a very picturesque village, he says, nestled between several hills and sitting in a valley surrounded by pine forests. Mr. Caravasos explains: “Even in the hot days of summer, life at Tsintzina is a breath of fresh air, especially when one takes a walk through the pine forest. Although primitive by today's standards, it provides a sense of tranquility, crisp cool mornings and serene nights.”

Christos grew up in Zoupena and Tsintzina not knowing his father, who died shortly before his son was born. A strong mother who instilled in Christos qualities of discipline, resolve, and selflessness raised the boy and his brother and two sisters in extreme poverty. While in his late teens and determined to seek a better life, Christos began his odyssey. He went first to Piraeus, next to Alexandria, Egypt, and finally to the United States. On his journey to the States, he traveled with Nikolaos Anagnostou, from the Arcadian village of Achouria near Tripoli. They arrived in the United States on March 8, 1873, on the S.S. Anglia.

The fact that this humble peasant was almost single handedly responsible for the growth of Greek entrepreneurship in the United States is a phenomenon on many levels. Poets celebrated men such as Christos as “rustics” living contented, simple lives in the song-filled, whispering glades of the forests of ancient Arcadia where sacred springs of waters were libations for the muses. The poets romanticized the rustic life as one filled with innocence and purity, but where emotions of friendship and loyalty to the village were extraordinarily intensive.

Against this backdrop, the young, wily adventurer left his village and eventually traveled to America. There, Christos set out immediately to become not a laborer, but an independent merchant in charge of his own destiny. He never forgot his village, however and the pull of his birthplace and his loyalty to his friends were strong. Over the years as he became successful in business ventures, he encouraged and paved the way for others to make the same odyssey. Soon large numbers of immigrants from the Peloponnese were settling in the United States.

Christos has the honor of not only encouraging, but also showing the way for other Greeks to go to the United States. When Christos journeyed to America in 1873, he was clearly a pioneer but also a visionary who quickly saw the potential for a productive life in his newly adopted country. Two years after arriving, he returned to the area of his birth and came back with five young men whom Theodore Saloutos, author of The Greeks in the United States, called “the nucleus for the succeeding waves of immigrants from Sparta.”

Because of his daring acts, Christos became the embodiment of the proud and simple man who demonstrated he had qualities central to the mythos created by the pastoral poets, particularly Theocritus and Vergil. These poets sang of men who had strong commitments to family, friendship, and their village, and they immortalized them in the pastoral poems set in villages where the streams murmured, the glades whispered, and songbirds were joyous.

The bold adventurer may not have become the stuff of which myths are made if he had simply been looking out for himself. The focus of Christos' life was still his village and in 1877, twelve to fifteen young men from Tsintzina left for America and in 1882, another seventy made the voyage in three boats. Saloutos says that Mr. Tsakonas “directly and indirectly” lured 1,000 young Spartans to Chicago in the 1870s and 1880s and that the first waves of immigrants during this period were “almost exclusively from this one village.”

Peter W. Dickson is a modern-day historian and Tsintzinian who is an authority on Christos Tsakonas and the Tsintzinians. Formerly with the U.S. State Department, he has written numerous articles for scholarly journals on this subject. Dickson calls the historical and sociological contributions of this initial band of Tsintzinians “profound” and he calls Christos Tsakonas “a prophet.”

The contributions are profound, Dixon claims, because these early pioneers founded the first Greek societies in both Chicago and San Francisco and the society in Chicago then established the city's first Greek Orthodox Church. With Christos Tsankonas as their leader, they became fruit merchants and supplied produce initially for a chain of about ten candy and fruit stores.

He calls Christos “a prophet” and elaborates that he was “a prophet who preached about the economic opportunities that America offered.” Dixon says Christos' message was “a strong one” and explains that the period of 1875 to 1890 was a time of mass migration to America for the Tsintzinians even though the area where they lived in the Peloponnese prospered during this period.

The historian points out that to understand the contribution Christos Tsakonas made in establishing the Greek community in the United States, one has only to look at Tsintzinians in America. In 1873, the year Christos Tsakonas arrived in America, the number of Greeks in all of North America was extremely small, especially when compared with other European immigrant groups. It is an astonishing fact, however, that by the mid 1880's, almost one third of all Greeks in the United States were from Tsintzina.

In pastoral poetry, the midpoint of the journey is highly symbolic and the “encounter on the road” can change the nature of the story. Christos Tsakonas knew intuitively about the importance of the “midpoint of the journey.” Before his pilgrims from the Peloponnese boarded ships for the United States, he arranged for them to have an encounter in Athens.

Pastoral poets have the adventurer traveling from the city to the country because the journey from the sophisticated city to the simplicity of the country gives the rustic setting its charm. The motif of this mythical journey as found in Theocritus and Homer is deeply rooted in Greek literary tradition. Christos Tsakonas reversed the journey. He moved his followers from the country (Tsintzina) to the city (Athens), where they had their first sophisticated “make-over.” According to Peter Dickson, the men were smartly dressed and groomed by Ioannis D. Zachariou, a prominent businessman and the only Tsintzinian living in Athens in the 1870's. Mr. Zachariou operated an impressive catering service for the Royal Palace and foreign embassies in the capital.

The midpoint encounter was very important because it prepared the men for their adventure. First, in a selfless way that matched the generosity of Christos, Mr. Zachariou used his many contacts to help the men secure passage. Then, he called upon his experience and innate good taste to groom the men for their fantastic journey. Dressing them all in fine European clothes, complete with suits, ties, and bowler hats, they must have been the smartest looking group of immigrants to ever step off the boat at Ellis Island.

All Tsintzinians who planned to migrate to America were told, as a rite of passage, to “go see Zachariou,” and they did. Zachariou himself never visited America because his business was so successful and unusual for the times that he could not leave it. In 1905, when automobiles were a novelty, he used motorcars to deliver caviar, champagne, and other delicacies to the Palace and embassies and the nobility became dependent upon him for this luxury and for his unfailing good taste and perfectionism.

In his book, The Greeks in America, Spiridon Kontakis gives an historical account of Greek immigration and claims that the turning point in the numbers of Greeks who came here occurred in 1882 when nearly one hundred people from Tsintzina and nearby villages sailed to these shores. Kontakis says that this captured public attention because such an exodus to the New World was unprecedented, given the traditional inclination of Greeks to go elsewhere in search of a better life. Prior to this, no more than twenty Greeks a year arrived in the United States.

Christos' message may have been compelling, but so were his efforts to establish the young men he lured to the promised land in their own businesses. Because of his selfless devotion to the welfare of his fellow Greeks, when Christos retired in 1907 to return to Greece, the young villagers he helped honored him on his birthday with a huge party. The birthday party was held in Jamestown, New York, now the permanent site of the Tsintzinian club house where the annual reunion is held and has been held every year since 1914, making it perhaps the only gathering of descendants from one village to meet annually over four or five generations.

Through the years, Christos Tsakonas noted that the Greek Diaspora tended to settle in small towns in the Midwest, in large metropolis such as Chicago and New York City, and in the thriving industrial areas of Pennsylvania and Ohio. He built his chain of fruit and candy stores by traveling from town to town where the immigrants settled and establishing stores that offered ready employment to the young Tsintzinians and Spartans who apparently were lured to America by stories of his success. He would turn the management of these stores over to those who had business skills and thus encouraged his compatriots to become entrepreneurs.

This large population of Greeks led to the formation of churches and societies, including the first Greek Orthodox Church in 1891 and the Therapnean Society,. Of all the organizations, however, the Tsintzinian Society is unique. It has been meeting for more than ninety years in its own private clubhouse on the shores of Lake Chautauqua near Jamestown, New York. Peter Dixon says this is “unique in American cultural history… there appears to be no other group of people from one village anywhere that has continued to meet more than a century after arriving in America.”

Spiros Andritsakis, a Tsintzinian who lives in Athens says there are other qualities that make the American Tsintzinians unique and it is the generosity they have demonstrated in remembering their homeland. Mr. Andritsakis explains that it is because of fundraising done in America between 1923-26 that a road was built connecting Skoura to Goritsa. Later, a beautiful church was built in Zoupena with funds from America. Mr. Andritsakis also credits a number of individuals from America with making significant cash donations to improve village life.

Many of the fundraising ideas were discussed during the gatherings at Lake Chautauqua. They began as businessmen's conventions to help foster commercial ties as well as social contacts and evolved into annual conventions that served to preserve old ethnic ties. Yearbooks of the 1920's list more than 500 Tsintzinian businessmen who came together to socialize, cement business contacts, and reminisce about their heritage. Today's gatherings continue to draw two to three hundred participants, although many fourth and fifth generation Tsintzinians have never been to Tsintzina or even Greece. It is estimated that thousands of Tsintzinians and hundreds of descendants of Christos Tsakonas now live in the United States.

The large numbers of Greeks who followed Christos Tsakonas now live successfully in the United States, including Hawaii. They are the fruits of the bountiful harvest Christos created when he had the imagination to begin his journey from the country to the city, a journey that began in Tsintzina and ended on the distant shores of America. Just as he was unaware that he came from a land celebrated as a pastoral paradise by the poets, so too he was unaware that he created his own “Thalysia,” or “harvest festival,” a theme that is mythical and sacred to the pastoral poets.

The Thalysia celebrates that which is fruitful, bountiful, and mystical. It is a public celebration of nature's generosity. It is lush, joyous, exuberant and, above all, fertile. It is the supreme moment when the human world and cosmic order come together and man finds meaning. For Christos Tsakonas, the Thalysia he created in the United States—the supreme harvest festival—was his Ithaca. It was the end of his heroic, restless journey, and the beginning of the journey for all who followed him. (Interestingly enough, Ithaca, N.Y. is the home for many Tsintzinians residing in the United States.)

Those who followed him call themselves The Tsintzinians. John Zacharias, one of five principals of Gateway Financial Group, Pittsburgh, is current President of the Tsintzinian Society. John and his brother Sam are in the life insurance and investment businesses and they serve Greek American clients nationally and internationally, helping them manage and transfer their wealth. The Zacharias brothers are typical of many Tsintzinians who are self-made, successful, and have close ties to the Greek American church and community.

Mr. Zacharias said this year's reunion was attended by almost two hundred Tsintzinians. He said most of the members are self-made men and women who have their own businesses, valuing self-sufficiency, freedom, strong family ties, and the bonds of friendship. The highlight of the conference was the unveiling of a magnificent stone sculpture of one of the springs in Tsintzina, perhaps Psito or Kamaraki. Constantin Seferlis, an artist of world renown who carved sculptures at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., and teaches stone carving at Northern Virginia Community College, created this outstanding work of art. It depicts the ancient spring with a woman drawing water and another carrying a jug of water on her shoulder. This is the very spring that must have been used for centuries by villagers, and it is also the one Christos Tsakonas must have visited many times in his childhood.

Some say before Christos left on his odyssey he stopped at a peaceful place in his village that the pastoral poets would call “a lovely setting.” It was here that songbirds welcomed Dawn as she made her shy, rosy entrance. It was here that the spring offered its cool life-giving waters—waters that the poets called “sacred.” Christos stepped deliberately into this setting, as if beginning a journey. They say he reflected there in tranquility on his simple life. Nearby the goat-god Pan and the nymphs looked on intently, unseen. Others claim that as Christos Tsakonas cupped his hands to drink the cool, life-giving water he appeared to have a vision. They say a magical glow surrounded this simple, humble man as he stood slowly, drank deeply from the life-giving waters, and looked toward the West.


A Lone Red Apple
Aurelia is the author of A Lone Red Apple, a love story set on the Greek island of Mykonos.

A Lone Red Apple