Τετάρτη, 27 Νοεμβρίου 2013

Mommy, I Promise We Will Never Be Hungry Again!

Justine Frangouli-Argyris
Huffington Post

"Mommy, take us home and we will never ask for food again!" With this heartbreaking cry, a girl residing at a nursery in the Kallithea area of Athens tugs on her mother's skirt and begs her to take her and her two siblings back home. The mother, visiting to cuddle and play with her children at the nursery that is providing them with food and shelter, runs away crying as she can not afford to take her children with her.

"But, sweetheart, we have nothing to eat at home," she replies. Undaunted, the child continues with a seriousness way beyond her years, "Mommy, take us home and we will never be hungry again, I promise you!"

This story, along with many other similar tales of destitute families unable to feed and clothe their children, has become so common in Greece that UNICEF reports an unbelievable 600,000 of the country's young are malnourished and living below the poverty line.

Yes, the phenomenon of malnutrition has become a reality in Greece ever since the beginning of the debt crisis in 2010, forcing a growing number of organizations and individuals into a daily fight to feed the hungry. For, hanging from most public garbage cans around Athens, one can find neatly packed bags full of cooked food waiting to be picked up. Almost like a secret code among the public, it is understood that these rations have been placed there for their needy co-citizens.

In dozens of Athenian suburbs, such as Keratsini, Tambouria, Agia Varvara, Peristeri and Ano Liosia to name but a few, but also in Western Thessaloniki and in Crete, there are ever-increasing incidents of starved students fainting in class. This has led to a rush by the myriad of Parents' Associations in the country, in the face of an absentee government, to provide assistance to the families in dire economic straits.

The Greek capital is teeming with soup kitchens that continue to pop up everywhere, everyday. As Mayor Giorgos Kaminis reported last month, more than 20,000 residents now rely on strained municipal services for their daily subsistence with another 20,000 being fed by the kitchens operated by the Greek Orthodox Church and other private donors.

The numbers are shocking with over forty percent of users forced to visit a soup kitchen for the first time within the last six months and with 18 percent of those going hungry holding university degrees. Almost two-thirds of the needy are in their prime earning ages of 26 to 55 years, devastated by the crisis and by endless austerity measures that have pushed unemployment to stratospheric levels.
Mothers no longer leave their children in orphanages and nurseries as a result of abuse as was often the case in the past but, rather, because they can not provide for them and the situation is worsening rapidly. The "Smile of the Child" organization has assisted 10,927 children so far this year compared to 4,465 in 2012 and the "Children's Village SOS" is providing for 900 families today compared with just 47 five years ago.

The dire news has reached this side of the Atlantic with Greek North American organizations such as the Greek Orthodox Church, AHEPA, and others steeping in to help those back home.
One Montreal-based group, the "Magic Mission," founded in response to the crisis, has shipped over $100,000 worth of food, clothing, school supplies and medicines to the many organizations helping Greece's needy children such as "The Ark of the World," the "Smile of the Child," the "Children's Villages SOS," the "Lighthouse of the World," as well as the to the schools of Kilkis, the municipalities of Veria and Athens and to MSF Cyprus. Founded only eighteen months ago, "Magic Mission's" members continue their work diligently and silently, striving not only to collect money but to identify specific needs to be addressed.

For all the Greeks around the world, proud of their country's heritage and its contribution to Western society, there is nothing sadder than to hear the voices of the young back home crying out, "we will never be hungry again, we promise you Mom!"



Follow Justine Frangouli-Argyris on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Justinakion

Δευτέρα, 18 Νοεμβρίου 2013

A Negative Press

Justine Frangouli-Argyris
The Huffington Post

In 2010, amid fears of an imminent default on the country's bond payments and the potential for this contagion to spread to other European countries, Greece's fellow eurozone members agreed to an unprecedented 110-billion euro rescue package. In the following year, an even larger bailout of 130 billion euros was arranged in order to stave off financial Armageddon. However, these two lifelines combined, amounting to a total of 240 billion euros, were not sufficient to completely close the gap in the country's finances and, by this year, it was clear that a further 10 billion euros would be required.

All this, while the Greek economy continues to contract, its GDP having lost an astounding 23 percent in the last 5 years. At the prompting of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the country has been striving to reduce its debt ratio from an untenable 160 percent of GDP to a targeted figure of 120 percent and to recapitalize its banks in order to put them on sounder footing.

The conditions attached to the various rescue packages that Greece has received have included drastic cuts to public spending which have resulted in dramatically lower wages, slashed pensions and an astronomical unemployment rate 26.8 percent.

Following the events one can point to three distinct periods of negative press surrounding the Greek debt crisis...
The first period is the one immediately following the outbreak of the crisis in 2010 and can be characterized as being the worst and most negative. At the time, Greece was immediately placed under the spotlight of the world's media.

Initial reaction, especially in Germany, Belgium and Holland, was to characterize the problem as purely Greek in nature and to present it as resulting from the chronic structural problems in the Greek economy, the ineptness of the country's governments to resolve them and their unwillingness to tackle the issues of tax evasion and corruption. Often, the commentary was stereotypical, deriding the Greeks for being lazy and reckless and personifying them as liars who falsified official state financial statistics for years.

Everyone remembers the provocative cover of the German magazine, Focus, entitled "Traitor to the Family of Europe," showing the statue of Aphrodite of Milos giving Europe the finger and asserting that Greece cheated its way into the eurozone.

What is most insulting is not that the Northern European press was abusing sacred symbols of ancient Greek civilization to condemn modern Greek society, but, rather, the hatred that was emanating from a slew of articles that were not criticizing actual current events but, rather, negatively interpreting the evolution of post-war Greek political and social life.

Soon afterwards, however, the media could no longer frame the problem as purely Greek in nature as the crisis began to spread to other eurozone nations with two of its founding members, Ireland and Portugal, also forced to seek support and being placed under the Troika's supervision.
The derogatory statements in the press would take on an expanded target, the PIIGS, and lead to the stigmatization of the countries of south. This separation of Europe into a "good north" and a "bad south" by the traditional European press has been instrumental in undermining feelings of solidarity on the continent and have torn at the very heart of the "European ideal."

After the second bailout was decided in October 2011, the vitriol in the international press was directed at the Greek government and its inability to impose structural changes, reform the public sector and improve tax collection. The referendum proposed by Prime Minister George Papandreou late that same month sent waves of disbelief through the world's financial community and the headlines that appeared would describe the announcement as "the final bell before Greece defaults and quits the euro." The scenario of a Greek eurozone exit would quickly spread and dominate the world's newspapers' bylines.

After much consternation, a second bailout was ratified in February of 2012 and implemented one month later after all conditions regarding a successful restructuring of Greek government bonds was met.

Regardless, a mere three months later, the continuing crisis along with an inconclusive election that led to the impossibility of the formation of a new coalition government, would lead to strong speculation that Greece would have to leave the eurozone.

The potential exit that came to be known in the European and American media as the "Grexit" would become an ongoing drag on the world's markets and be instrumental in destroying any final shred of credibility that remained in the Greek economy. Terrified by the nightmare exit scenario and the persistent rumors that their savings would vanish into thin air, Greeks would send billions in deposits abroad, adding to an already critical situation. Those in the diaspora would be forced to explain, excuse and apologize for their country that was spiraling out of control and bearing the brunt of worldwide media ridicule.

Meanwhile, the harsh austerity measures imposed on Greece continue to wreak havoc on the country's economy with GDP being shrunk 3.8 percent in the second quarter of 2013, a fifth consecutive year of decline. The dire consequences are reflected in the everyday lives of the population with the phenomenon of malnutrition having reared its ugly head and many organizations waging a daily battle to provide food and resources to destitute families in the face of an absentee government presence.

This latest phase of the decline in the economic and social life of Greece has seen the worldwide media taking on a more sympathetic stance and focusing more and more on how gravely this devastated society is suffering under the incredibly harsh austerity measures.

Another element that has drummed up some positive worldwide publicity for Greece has to do with the government's recent raid against the extremist Golden Dawn party.
Regardless, Greece continues to wilt under the imposed austerity with its economy continuing to shrink and the negative publicity surrounding every new fault that the Troika finds in its investigations of government finances. It is an ongoing situation that will keep feeding the European and American press and keep harming the climate for recovery in the country.

Τετάρτη, 6 Νοεμβρίου 2013

To "Roam" Ancient Greek Drama to the Ends of the World

Justine Frangouli-Argyris
The Huffington Post

What a thrill it is to take your seat in the ancient Roman theater of Herodes Atticus, located right in the heart of Athens with the Parthenon perched immediately above, and experience a live classical performance. And what a blessing it is to relive Agamemnon, the first instalmment of Aeschylus' dramatic trilogy, Oresteia, under the superb direction of your fellow classmate and longtime girlfriend, Niketi Kondouri.

I have fond memories of Niketi when we were studying together in the Department of Political Science at the Law School of Athens. She was a joyful party girl who was taking drama classes at Athens' National Theatre School in tandem with her law studies. I was convinced that, one day, Niketi would cause me to shed tears of emotion and pride as a result of her great talent with respect to ancient Greek drama.

In replying to why she chose to stage Agamemnon, Niketi states, "I have seen various performances of the trilogy Oresteia in Greece and in Europe. I even took an acting role in two Greek productions and I must say that I found the theme staggering!"

In Aeschylus' Oresteia (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides>), the great ancient Greek dramatist grapples with the law of the Gods and the terror with which the "dark" Gods with autocratic ideas and values define the fate of a people. In the three parts of the tragedy, the common folk live in fear but it is through this fear that they are able to see what tyranny is and seek out some other system of ideas to redeem them from their fears. In the end, a fairer and more humane system of governance and justice evolves that can not be self-imposed but must result from the application of the rule of law.

What was it that attracted Niketi to this cruelest of Greek tragedies where Clytemnestra, the wife of the victorious King Agamemnon, coldly plots his death upon his return from the Trojan War? "Throughout the trilogy there is a clash of ancient and modern deities," she says. "Lots of blood is spilled and it is very violent but, in the end, democracy triumphs (The Eumenides, final play of the trilogy). The personalities of the Agamemnon tragedy are very modern whose relevance to today's world leaves you speechless. They have true values but, at the same time, are full of weaknesses and this combination of poetry and reality is paramount in its ability to produce glorious heroes. And the texts are a truly unique worldwide cultural heritage!"

Years ago, Niketi directed Medea, the infamous killer of her children, and last summer, together with the Municipal Theater of Kozani, she emphasized the role of Clytemnestra as brutal husband-killer. In response to why she is so fascinated by women murderers, she says, "I attempted to interpret Agamemnon through the use of the archetypical figure of the androgynous Queen of Argos, Clytemnestra. For Aeschylus, the sacrifice of his daughter, Iphigenia, by Agamemnon, in order to appease the Gods and bring his army to Troy, is the reason for Clytemnestra's hatred of her husband Agamemnon and for which she massacres him along with his mistress, Cassandra."
"The mother whose child is slaughtered takes on the role of 'mother-avenger-punisher" throughout the history of mankind. She may be queen or commoner but she will find a way to revenge what is, for her, the ultimate injustice. In Agamemnon, the recipient of this vengeance is none other than the mighty King of Argos and conqueror of Troy, Agamemnon himself but Clytemnestra is not done yet, carrying her rage one step further by murdering his concubine, Cassandra, as well."
Niketi goes on to explain that it was Aeschylus who opted to put a woman to kill her husband as Homer makes no mention of this in The Iliad.

As to why she prefers to mount ancient Greek tragedies rather than comedies, Niketi cries, "The tragedies have everything! They have strong structure, overbearing characters and suspense while, at the same time, they hide an underlying humor. Human conflicts and emotions may be easily recognizable and familiar yet they are difficult to interpret and capture as a process to self-awareness, as a vehicle towards the liberating euphoria of catharsis. I feel that every time I am confronted by them, that they open a new window in my life. We enrich ourselves by studying Classic ancient Greek texts," she continues, "and ancient drama teaches us that human nature remains unchanged through time."

Niketi would like to direct other works of ancient Greek writers as well as those of modern European and American authors. She would also like to complete the staging of the full Oresteia trilogy by adding the final two works to her repertoire. "Now I am beginning my beloved Justine," she says, "and I might not have time to finish. Between us, why would I want to put an end to this?"
Her real dream, however, "is to roam the ancient Greek theater to the ends of the world where there are lovers of ancient Greek drama, where people are moved by the principles of tragedy and its catharsis."

Niketi Kondouri has a B.A. in Political Science from Athens Law School and an M.A. in Theatre and Film from Hunter College. She has worked as an actor, musician, assistant director, assistant artistic director and director in Athens and New York. She has directed Medea (Euripides), Antigone (Sophocles), Tartuffe (Molière), Othello (Shakespeare), Miss Julie (Strindberg), The Dollhouse and Hedda Gabler (Ibsen), Siblings (Goethe), Betrayal (Pinter), Higher than the Bridge (Miller) and numerous other plays.



Follow Justine Frangouli-Argyris on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Justinakion

Τρίτη, 15 Οκτωβρίου 2013

Charter of Quebec Values or a Change in Immigration Policy?

Justine Frangouli-Argyris
Huffington Post

A major controversy has erupted in Quebec as a result of Premier Pauline Marois' proposed "Charter of Quebec Values," which aim to prohibit public sector employees from wearing or displaying any overt religious symbols. The proposed bill would ban the donning, for example, of a hijab or turban by government workers but, at the same time, permit the continued display of the large crucifix hanging in the province's legislature.

Quebec's ethnic communities were swift and unanimous in their condemnation but, surprisingly, two former influential separatist premiers and leaders of Marois' party, Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard, also turned thumbs down on the initiative. Arguing that they were in favor of the removal of religious symbols only from those in positions of authority, such as judges and police officers, they implied that the National Assembly's crucifix would have to go as well.

The official line from Canada's federal government, which was delivered by Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney, was: "If it's determined that a prospective law violates the constitutional protections to freedom of religion to which all Canadians are entitled, we will defend those rights vigorously."

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair also reacted negatively to the plan: "There's no expiry date on human rights. It's not a popularity contest, this for us is completely unacceptable and the NDP will be standing up foursquare against this project."

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau was no less forthcoming: "Madame [Pauline] Marois does not speak for all Quebecers when she puts forward an idea of forcing people to choose between their work and their religion, to set out an idea of second-class Quebecers who would not qualify to work in public institutions because of their religion".

The debate has turned bitter as today's growing immigrant population of Quebec, once predominantly European in nature, is overwhelmingly derived from the French-speaking countries of Northwest Africa and from Asia. How can Ms. Marois believe that with two out of every three newcomers to the province arriving from the former French colonies of the Maghreb and from Asia, from lands, that is, with vastly different religious beliefs from her own, that she can outlaw the display of the symbols of their faith?

If the Parti Quebecois is desirous of a more "homogeneous" community, perhaps it should attempt to address the issue by refocusing its immigration policies. For the current state of affairs in Southern Europe, where the economies of Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal have been devastated by the ongoing crisis, may present a golden opportunity for the government to invite willing, educated immigrants with cultures more similar to that of traditional Quebecers, provide them with intensive French language instruction and encourage them to settle here. An equally attractive pool of potential candidates with backgrounds closely resembling that of the Roman-Catholic Quebecois can be found in the countries of the former Soviet Union and the ex-Communist States of Central and Eastern Europe.

The reality, however, is that current statistics depict migration from Europe to Quebec in free fall, dropping to 16.6 percent of the total in 2010 and plummeting to a recent historic low of 15.3 percent in 2011. Instead of the province attempting to enforce short-sighted legislation that can do little else but foment division and anger among its citizens, it should be putting its efforts into creating and promoting a harmonious, inclusive society that is representative of the mosaic that is Quebec today.



Follow Justine Frangouli-Argyris on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Justinakion

Πέμπτη, 19 Σεπτεμβρίου 2013

Lefkas, a Picturesque Island Blended With Jetsetters


I was born on Lefkas, an island located between Italy and mainland Greece in the deep blue Ionian Sea. Lekada, as it is known in Greece, is one of seven islands that comprise the complex of the Ionian Islands and is situated a few kilometers south of cosmopolitan Corfu.

For me, my island has always been the center of the universe, the navel of the earth. I saw the light of day in the streets of its capital, the town of Lefkas. It is here where I ran and danced and suffered my share of cuts and bruises playing in the neighborhoods inhabited by the most welcoming and adorable people.

Lefkada town is all about magic. Entering the island by car over a movable bridge, you get the feeling that, with one snap of the fingers, you're back on the mainland. As you cross the bridge onto the island, you find yourself on a causeway with the azure blue sea on your left and the grayish waters of the lagoon on your right. The view remains etched in the mind of the visitor, creating an unforgettable first impression.

A little further down, the capital rises up with its brightly colored houses and their red and yellow roofs forming a lovely palette. The town, surrounded by the sea and the lagoon, sports a crowded western pier teeming with trendy bars while that on the east side is home to traditional tavernas and ouzeries offering up wonderful local specialties.

It is fringed by the beach of St. John, a unique stretch of all-white sand several kilometers long that is ideal for swimming and partaking in watersports. Here, amidst the refurbished windmills, you can sip the local sweet almond drink, or "soumada," while admiring the incomparable sunset in the soft dusk of summer or experience the twilight rising beyond the cliff side mansion of the Stavros family.

The eastern side of the island has the privilege of standing directly across the mountains of Aetoloakarnania, on the Greek mainland, that paint its waters with their golden colors. Small beaches and fishing villages adorn the winding coastal road, providing the visitor with a wonderful view of the small, "fjord-like" coastline.

Immediately south lies the town of Lygia, with its numerous fishing boats, and the village of Nikiana, with its many small, accessible beaches of pure, white sand. Further along, you find Perigiali, with its little bays, and Vlycho with its spectacular inlet resting beneath a tall, green mountain and offering one of the finest examples of the island's beauty.

A stop at Nidri, the cosmopolitan resort of Lefkada, is a must. Once a quaint fishing village, the town thrived in step with the persona of Aristotle Onassis who purchased the neighboring mythical Scorpios Island in 1963, married Jackie Kennedy five years later and transformed Lefkada into a playground for the rich. Legendary for his international "jetset" parties, Onassis also owned the adjacent, smaller island of Sparti which he used as a hunting ground to entertain his famous friends.

Today, Nidri is reliving moments of past glory as Russian oligarch, Dmitry Rybolovlev, who recently bought Scorpios from Onassis' grand-daughter, Athena, begins preparing this exclusive paradise to receive elite company once again. Purchasing the bulk of his supplies and renovation materials from local Nidri shops, Rybolovlev plans to restore the beautiful homes on the island while, in turn, giving a boost to the local economy.

Eastward, the shoreline passes Sivota, a sheltered bay of staggering beauty, where the clear waters reflect the view of the surrounding mountains. Continuing on, bypassing numerous small, landlocked villages, you arrive at vibrant Vassiliki, at the southern tip of the island. Strictly a commercial port in the pre-war years, Vassiliki is, today, the offloading point for the large ferries crossing daily from Cephalonia loaded with toursists. Here-in sits the small hamlet of Ponti which is famed for its stiff breezes and has become an international meeting place for champion windsurfers and sailboaters.
On its western shore, Lefkada offers spectacular views and wild seas. Following the road from the village of Agios Petros, down towards the stunning Athani and past Exantheia, you can gaze as far as the eye can see, far beyond the deep, blue color of the Ionian Sea. Snaking along the coast, you come to Agios Nikitas, where you can walk the cobbled streets of this picturesque fishing village, breathe in the saltiness of the water and stroll along its beautiful, rocky beach.

Dancing among a panoply of beaches on the way back to Lefkada town, you can discover the renowned Porto Katsiki with its turquoise sea, the stunning Ekremnous with their open waters, the expansive Kathisma with its ivory sand and cosmopolitan bars and the calm, more remote Peukakia.
If you're a the true sea lover, hire a sloop to sail around the Island and admire the cape of IRAS with its quaint monastery and bathe in one of the countless virgin beaches.

Before departing, do not forget that you have a duty to visit the monastery of Phaneromeni, perched on the hill, high above the capital, guarding the precious image of the Virgin Mary and giving hope to the weak and courage to the strong.

Should you enjoy the journey, you will want return to the magical island of ancient Pegasus, again and again, as many have before you, to get to know the locals and become acquainted with a new Greek generation of Dorians and Ionians.



Follow Justine Frangouli-Argyris on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Justinakion

Πέμπτη, 12 Σεπτεμβρίου 2013

Sifnos, the Island of Wild Beauty and Food Tasting!



Photos :Courtesy Vangelis Rassias

Justine Frangouli-Argyris
The Huffingon Post

 Greece is a country of many islands, each boasting its own unique morphology, architecture and culture. The Cyclades, a group of twelve remote islands in the midst of the Aegean Sea surrounding the sacred island of Delos in a circular formation, are renowned for their "jet-set" destinations of Mykonos, Santorini and Paros.

However, it is well worth the effort to venture "off the beaten track" and visit some of the lesser known jewels of this Aegean archipelago. For, it is here, where the tourist masses have yet to establish a presence, that the visitor can discover the true splendor of the Cyclades.

This summer, I was fortunate to land on the hidden paradise of Sifnos, an island of wild beauty yet, at the same time, with a unique nobility. Hugging the sea but sporting steep mountains that stand naked in its midst, Sifnos immediately attracts for the ruggedness of its spectacular scenery.

Apollonia, the capital, with its classic white-washed houses dotted with Aegean blue and other soft shades that blend to form a soothing pallette, appears as if perched on a ledge, overhanging the ocean and offering an unforgettable panoramic view.

Artemonas, with its cobbled streets and predominantly larger structures, stands proud in its urban nobility. The expansive residences, with their large fenced yards, are pristine examples of Greek Neoclassical architecture. The wealth of the local churches, with their important byzantine icons and frescoes, are proof of the town's financial superiority, owing to its historical ties with the shipping trade.

The Kastro, a past capital featuring medieval fortifications, is, perhaps, the island's most picturesque village, resembling a living museum and overlooking the tiny cove of Seralia with its tiny fish restaurants.

Sifnos may not be blessed with a panoply of beaches like some of its more renowned neighbors, but it posesses a few very beautiful and easily accessible ones that house good services. The extensive Platis Yialos, for example, has fine, dark sand and brandishes small hotels and beach bars that offer parasols and lounge chairs at water's edge.

At the less-organized Vathy, where many yauchts are docked, the transparent waters allow the wader to gaze at the teeming marine life underfoot and to enjoy the sight of the quaint fishing village across the bay.

The sandy beach at Kamares, with its calm waters, is home to many shops, bars and cafés and doubles as the official port of the island, where the visitor is first welcomed.

Over the course of the summer, Sifnos hosts many cultural events. A splendid affair to which I was invited, the 7th annual Festival of Cycladic Tasting, is a three-day gastronomic exposition of Cyclades delicacies, many of which I had no idea were purely Greek in origin.

An intricate part of the celebrations is an event organized by the Cultural Association of Sifnos. "Sifnos makes the table," is dedicated to the memory of the famous Greek chef, Nikos Tselemendes. Born in the town of Exambela, Tselementes went on to international stardom by showcasing the flavors and products of his beloved Cycladic cuisine.

On exhibit were twenty separate kiosks, each displaying local agricultural specialties and offering up appetizers, indigenous wines, and Sifnian pastries. Visitors could even partake in the many cooking demonstrations that were a sight to behold.

The evenings were capped off in the central square of Artemona where local music abounds and island dance troupes performed. A stunning highlight was the annual reincarnation of the traditional Sifnian wedding that originated at the home of Tselementes and weaved its way through the narrow streets to the great square, signalling the conclusion of the festivities.

"Apart from traditional food, the Cycladic islands proudly display local agricultural produce chiefly cultivated by a new class of young entrepreneurs trying to succeed in a country that has been devastated by the economic crisis," confessed to me the President of the Cultural Association of Sifnos, Maria Nadalis.

For his part, Mayor Andreas Babounis hopes that the festival will continue to flourish and eventually become international in scope. "Our aim is to further communication and networking amongst the Cyclades and every year we invite representatives from some other island groups in order to promote interaction between our individual cultures. Our ultimate goal, however, is to give a wider connotation to the event and, at some point in the future, have European participants showcasing their cuisines."

Sifnos, the island known for its chick pea soup, or "revythada," and local wild sheep, or "mastelo," is, truly, a rare paradise that captivates with its wild beauty and offers the best of the reputed Aegean good life.



Follow Justine Frangouli-Argyris on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Justinakion

Τετάρτη, 4 Σεπτεμβρίου 2013

John Catsimatidis, a people's man

Justine Frangouli-Argyris

What can be written about John A. Catsimatidis, the boy from the small Aegean island of Nissyros in the Dodecanese, that hasn’t been penned already?  Arriving in New York at the tender age of six months, folded in his Mother Despina’s arms alongside his Father, Andreas, in search of a better tomorrow, John is the embodiment of the ‘American dream.’  

What can be said about the entrrepreneur who began as an assistant in his friend’s uncle’s grocery store in Harlem that hasn’t been heard many a time?  For, from those early days, John has gone on to conquer the business world and is presently ranked as the 132nd richest man in the United States, according to Forbes.

This past January, his story became national in scope as John declared his intention to run for the Mayoralty of New York City, setting his sights on the Republican nomination at this month’s primaries and, eventually, hoping to capture Gracie Manor, on November 5th.  

John Catsimatidis was born on the Greek island of Nissyros in 1948 and emigrated with his family to New York City when he was six months old.  He spent the past forty years of his life building his company from a single grocery store into a conglomerate with vast holdings in real estate, energy and aviation.  He still retains ownership of Manhattan’s largest supermarket chain, Red Apple Stores, but this represents only a tiny slice of his empire that has been estimated at $3 billion according to Forbes, although, as John claims, “it is actually between $3 and $5 billion.”  Before annoucing his candidacy for Mayor, Catsimatidis denounced the poor quality of the declared and presumed candidates and stated that “he was willing to spend whatever it takes to win City Hall.”

John may be reputed as being “tough” but those who know him closely describe him as a “man of the people.”  True, given his role as businessman, investor and dealmaker, he is renowned for being a hard-nosed negotiatior but he prefers to describe himself as a devoted father and a passionate citizen of his beloved New York.

To know John personally is to know a man who has raised his children “hands on,” rising at dawn to prepare breakfast and to share in their most serious conversations at the morning table with his charming wife, Margo.  To have lived close to the Catsimatidis family is to know that, even today, with the children having become young adults, they cotinue to be showered with love and attention.  Vacations are still planned in unison and the family, although great American patriots, continues to honor the culture and land of their origin, the distant Nissyros, as one.

To walk with John in Manhattan is to realize that he is intricately familiar with every building, every sidewalk and every stone in town.  To travel with him by car, to the Bronx or over the bridges to Brooklyn or Queen’s, is to hear him describe      
how he hopes to reshape the city, revive the New York World’s Fair and make the metropolis “the capital of the world.”

John Catsimatidis is not an accidental successful entrepreneur.  Originating from an important family in Istanbul, Turkey, where his grandfather was chancellor of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, his mother, Despina Emmanouillidis, was educated in French and graduated from the renowned School of Rhodes.  It was she who shaped him with kindness and devotion and through her deep knowledge resulting from her classic education.  His intimate beginnings are well known to me as I have authored the fictional biography of his mother, For the Love of Others.  

In a few days, John hopes to obtain the Republican nomination for Mayor of New York and, should he succeed, it is my belief that his persuasion and gentle demeanor will lead him to City Hall.  Once there, John is adamant that municipal policies will take their clue from the everyday citizen, not from individual interest groups.  He will bring along his patriotism, his cosmopolitainism and his management skills as well as his unique ability to touch people’s hearts.

In my opinion, with John at the helm, New York will have a true people’s mayor who will make it the shining light of all the world’s great cities!