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What a time!  And what a place!  It’s festival time at St. Demetrios and after a huge amount of work organizing, baking, prepping and setting up, it’s time to party!  When I got to the church this afternoon, people were still working out the kinks.  All around I heard “does anybody know where I can find an extension cord?” or “we need another table over here, please” or my favorite “where’s Jim?  does anybody know where Jim is?”.  Slowly but surely it all smooths out to one good time.  I made my way through the big hall and stopped to visit with my favorite Philoptochos ladies.  They are amazing!  They bake unbelievably rich pastries for the festival year after year.  They knit blankets for babies in crisis and have pediatric cancer wards under their wings.  They tell jokes that will make you blush!  These are women from which you truly will learn.  They applaud your smallest triumph.  In conversation, I used the word “avrio”, the Greek word for “tomorrow”, and they immediately noticed and congratulated me.  Hard to believe, but I AM shy and I don’t enjoy someone laughing at me if I’m trying to expand my horizons!!  If ya ketch mah driff!!

Anyway, let me walk you through this mecca of sweet delights!  There were handmade Kourabiedes, hundreds of them, buttery, melt-in-your-mouth, rolled in confectioner’s sugar, cookies.  Mmmm.  You just can’t have too many of those.  Diples.  Thin sheets of dough, rolled, deep-fried and tossed in sugar and cinnamon.  One cannot stop breaking off little pieces, working through the roll, until…oh, no!  There’s none left!

My favorite are the Koulourakia.  Butter cookies, not too sweet, perfect with a cup of coffee.  Or grab one on the fly, to tide you over until you have a chance to eat.

But James’ favorite?  (And everyone elses!)  Well, that would have to be the Loukoumades.  Think Greek donut holes but lighter, NEVER greasy, fried morsels of dough bathed in a syrup of Greek honey and orange juice then dressed with finely chopped walnuts.  Finally, after a shower of powdered sugar and cinnamon, they’re handed over to you steaming hot in a bowl with three or forks sticking out SO YOU CAN SHARE THEM WITH YOUR PAREA…YOUR FRIENDS???!!  Honey, it gets no better!!

I’ve helped at the festival for a few years now and I’m always struck by the love these people have for their church and each other.  At the booth where I was working, I was asked to go to the church office to have some admission signs printed.  I went and Susan, who works in the office said “sure, just give me five or ten minutes”.  The office leads into the church.  I wandered in and there was Father Spiro giving one of his scheduled church tours.  I quietly sat down and listened.  He was discussing the iconography, the architecture of the church, and the reasons the Virgin Mary is so revered in the Orthodox Church.  I was riveted.  And, I decided, tomorrow I’m leaving my booth to sit through an entire tour with Father Spiro.  The richness of it all leaves me hungry for more.  Did I mention the tours are free?  Oh, and ask any question you want.  My admission signs ready, I hurried back.  I passed so many friends!!  In this community, family is sacred, and guess what?  We’re all family!  Mothers watch out for other people’s children.  People who have worked all day, and worked hard, give up their seat for that person who might not be feeling that terrific.  Every once in a while you get a boy or girl, dripping with perspiration in a BOILED WOOL costume, fresh off the dance floor who wants a coke, a Nescafe frappe, or Baklava sundae.  Something to help them cool off.  And they’re short a dollar or two.  Time and time again I’ve seen adults dig into their own pockets, with a “Don’t worry, Niko.  Enjoy your ice cream!  You look good on the dance floor.  How’s your Mama and Daddy, Niko?  You give them my love!  Now, go have fun!  Ella!!”

I miss James when I’m there.  I see his friends and they give me such joy!  When you’re in college, sometimes you can make it back and sometimes you can’t.  But it’s all good!!  We all remember the kids who have left, they all come back at some point!  And they dance!  And dance!  It’s just fabulous!!  They know the words to all the songs, make faces at each other and laugh when someone makes a mistake!  They looked exceptionally good tonight, they had just won platinum at the annual Hellenic Dance Festival in Atlanta. There’s a word in Greek that really can’t be translated, “kefi”.  It’s a combination of happiness, good time, joy…I can’t explain it, but it’s a great thing and, at festival, everyone has it!! Later on, as I was leaving, I found my Jimmy and discovered he hadn’t eaten.  Since 7:30 this morning.  That’s not a good thing as Jimmy gets mean, REALLY MEAN, when he doesn’t eat!  How about some juicy, tender, roasted chicken with orzo, giant butter beans and a Greek salad?  Oh, hell yeah!  Poor thing.  He needed to eat!

With my man fed and happy, I made moves to head out.  And I saw something that just made me grin from ear to ear.  All grown up, Katelyn, Adam and Mikey, laughing and carrying on with the familiarity of children who had grown up together.  Which they had!  Together, year after year, serving on the altar, dancing at countless practices then at Festival, youth group car washes, church bake sales, the list goes on and on.  I remember one year James chose to miss a big dance at school because GOYA, Greek Orthodox Youth Association, had committed to sing Christmas carols at the VA hospital.  NOT a pretty place.  As I said, the kids always return.  And here they are, once again, giving back to their church.  Bravo, pedia!!

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