What I did this summer - I visited the Greeks of the Bahamas!

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“OPA!” shouts Peter Mousis over and over greeting the customers who stream into Athena Café, his wonderfully famous restaurant and cocktail bar in Nassau, the Bahamas.

By Ellen Tashie Frisina

Known as the place to have lunch and dinner whether you’re stopping off for the day in Nassau on a cruise or visiting the islands of the Bahamas for a longer period, Mousis opened the restaurant in 1986 and it quickly became one of the most famous eateries on Nassau’s Bay Street, the main thoroughfare of this island.

Nassau is the capital city of the Bahamas, located on New Providence Island. Probably the best-known of the several hundred islands and cays of the Bahamas, travelers will find the hospitality and warmth of Bahamian culture spread throughout the string of islands positioned a mere 50 miles off the coast of Florida.

Though it seems that Nassau, the Bahamas should be more known for conch salad than lamb gyro, it comes as no surprise that Mousis is only one of many Greek immigrants who have made Nassau their home – and who have contributed greatly to the culture and economics of this island, which relies heavily on tourism as the main income producer.

The story of Greeks in the Bahamas is easily understood when you compare the landscape of the Aegean Islands to the Caribbean Islands. As Greeks fled Turkish and then Nazi rule after the wars and invasions, they naturally looked for a new place to call home that would allow them to continue their trades. Those who were sponge divers and sponge traders looked for places to continue to ply their expertise and the islands of the Bahamas provided not only plenty of sponges, but a lifestyle that allowed the Greek immigrants to prosper financially with a high quality of life. Many of the more than 100 Greek families on Nassau are children and grandchildren of those divers, and today they are educated professionals and merchants who greatly impact the lives of Bahamians as educators, doctors, attorneys and business owners. Many of the families are descendants of immigrants from the island of Kalymnos, known as the center of the Mediterranean sponge trade. Young men fleeing Turkish rule settled in the Bahamas and basically took over the sponge trade – employing laborers to help them grow their businesses, moving from diving to owning warehouses that controlled the sale of sponges. Other Greek immigrants became bakers and restaurateurs, and currently the island boasts more than a half-dozen Greek/Mediterranean restaurants.

According to Father Theodore Roupas of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation on West Street, there is an active and lively parish of about 120 families. The church was built in 1932 and is a beautiful example of Byzantine architecture and style. The entire island looks forward to the once-every-other-year Greek Festival in February, and a Greek Ball is also held once a year. Bahamians love to watch the blessing of the waters during Epiphany when youths race to fetch the cross thrown into the sea.

“The Greek values of work ethics, honesty and great reputations” as businesspeople stand strong in the Bahamas, says Pericles Alexander Maillis, 61, a second generation Greek-Bahamian, and a noted attorney with offices downtown Nassau. Maillis is in practice with two of his three sons – Alexander and Peter. His middle son, George, is a banker in Nassau. Maillis is the grandson of spongers and tells how his grandfather came to the Bahamas via Tarpon Springs, Florida, from the island of Kalymnos around 1900. Maillis’ wife, Kalliope, is Bahamian born, and the family lives on a beautiful, large “family compound” by the sea, with houses for all the sons as well as Maillis and his wife.

“Education and professionalism has always been stressed by Greeks,” Maillis said, explaining how “children of spongers became architects, doctors, lawyers, and teachers” in true Greek tradition. Greeks sent their children to Universities in Canada, the United States, and England primarily, knowing they would return to the new homeland of the Bahamas to raise families and positively impact the economics and culture of the island.

As is usual in Greek communities, the families are very much intertwined, and Maillis is the nono to Athena Café’s Mousis’ eldest daughter, Martha. Martha, as well as her sister Anna and her brother George, work side by side with their father in the restaurant, as their mother, Maria (nee Constantakis) runs the International Jewelers store that the family opened below the restaurant in 1977. Mousis, born in Kalavrita, Peloponessos, was hired to work on the SS Britannia as a ship’s cook. “I went two times around the world, and then I stopped in the Bahamas and stayed,” he said, marrying Maria whose father came to Nassau from Skopolos, Greece, working with his brother in the sponge trade.

The Mousis live in a large blue and white home, reminiscent of Greece, on the Caribbean Sea. The home’s name is “The Moorings” and a large Greek flag flies proudly at its entrance.

Another very famous establishment on Nassau is the specialty market and wine boutique Balduccino’s on East Bay Street, owned by Antony Alexiou, who is 42. His grandparents also were spongers from Kalymnos, and the family came to the Bahamas around 1920. Alexiou’s father went to Canada for University education, but returned to the Bahamas after law school. “My grandfather owned a hotel on Nassau,” Alexiou says, and “I have lots of cousins in business here,” mentioning particularly cousin Tim Jenkins who runs Balduccino’s with him, and Christina Knaris who owns the upscale restaurant and club Blu on Bay Marketplace & Marina Bay Street. “It is the dream of every parent for their children to do better than they,” said attorney Pericles Maillis. “Especially when you take into account the dangers of sponging – drowning and crippling – Greeks wanted their children to be educated as professionals.”

Alexiou opened Balduccino’s in 2009, after owning a surf shop called Liquid Desert on Bay Street. Family friends with the Balducci family of Manhattan, Balduccino’s is modeled after the high-end market known to New Yorkers, and the Nassau store carries a wide variety of high end food stuffs, meats, fish, and exceptional pastries. The newly-opened wine boutique is also high-end and will soon start offering a tapas menu as well.

True to the Greek tradition of strong families and interest in education, most Greeks in the Bahamas are now part of the upper-middle class. They remain strong, solid, and rooted in their culture, religion, and family values. They have added to the depth of the island’s culture, and continue to make strong strides.

Whether on vacation or a short visit via cruise ship, visitors can easily find Greek language and pride throughout this island. As Peter Mousis says a hundred times a day, “OPA!”


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