Exploring exotic cultures, sampling their food, dancing their dances, rejoicing at their festivals: It was my kind of assignment. Globetrotting is my specialty. It would mean traveling back in time, but I'd never use my passport - or even need to cross the Florida border, for that matter.
Big Fat Greek Town
She bobs her kerchiefed head toward the man at the next table, looking for someone to supply the English word for "butter." Would I like butter with the small, round loaf of Greek bread she has given me as a gift? Her bakery, her language, my pleasure.
I have saved up for this visit. Calorie-wise, that is. Because when I think of Greek culture and Tarpon Springs, food always comes first to mind. And this long before My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The streets around the old sponge docks are perfumed with the aromas of Greece - lamb, feta, dolmades, fish, baklava, ahhh!
I am ready for the food, but nothing prepares me for this slam-dunk into Greek culture. "This is real!," third generation Greek sponge merchant George Billiris says. "We don't have to fake it. It's here!"
Stop to spend a day and Tarpon Springs' living Greek museum reveals Florida's most vital microcosm of Old World culture. In many ways more Greek than Greece itself, it thrives as immigrants continue to move in. Waiters flame cheese at Mama's Greek Cuisine and everyone shouts "opa!" Impossibly black-haired beauties keep their children (and husbands) in line with a shake of the finger and a fast-tongued rebuke in Greek. Narrow, twisty streets snake around markets, restaurants, a religious shrine, sponge warehouses and the colorful homes that sponge built.
George tells me that sponge, and only sponge, will sustain the town. His grandfather arrived here 100 years ago, along with scores of others from the Greek islands, to work the Gulf's fertile sponge beds. His father started one of Florida's first tourist attractions: excursions aboard the St. Nicholas (divers plunge off the boat and give educational and historical talks). George strives to keep the local industry alive by importing Greek divers to meet the high demand for sponges and to demonstrate to local divers the fiscal possibilities of a strict work ethic.
Thanks to George, visitors can occasionally see a traditional, wooden, tiller-steered sponge boat or a modern sponge boat pulling up to the docks along Dodecanese Boulevard. The boats unload wreaths of coveted Rock Island wool sponges, more plentiful yellow sponges and decorative fingers of coral sponge. Nearby, Spongeorama tells, in timeworn displays and film, the story of Tarpon Springs' heyday as the largest sponging market in the world, along with the fascinating, labor-intensive process of collecting and processing this second-lowest of life forms. Admission to the Spongeorama museum and a film about sponge diving are free.
Spongers built the extravagant, Byzantine-style St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, named for the patron saint of mariners and modeled after St. Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople. A statue outside depicts the Epiphany Day dive for the cross in nearby Spring Bayou. Tradition has it that the youth who retrieves the cross will enjoy good fortune for the year to follow.
I visit the Tarpon Springs Heritage Museum along the bayou to learn more about this and other local customs and history. (The museum is open Tuesdays and Friday only – call 727-937-0686.) Near the cathedral, a short walk from Dodecanese Boulevard's sponge shops and eateries, I explore true Greek culture in the religious bookshop next door.
Holy candles burn near statues of the saints, and small vials carry inscriptions that read "Stop Evil," "Attraction" and "Spell Breaker." The thick, heady aroma of cigar smoke accompanies the clacking of dominoes in the park. Brightly painted signs advertise in a strange dialect on Creole bakeries and tropical fruit stands. Kaleidoscopic costumes of sequins and crepe paper bob along the street in step with whistles, bells and the leathery thrump of African drums. The sensory input is rich: a sweet jolt of café con leche, vibrantly decorated rooster sculptures and the sexy strains of Latin salsa.
As I walk and drive the streets of Miami, I have the distinct sensation that I'm flipping through the pages of the Caribbean travel magazine where I once worked. Because the immigration of Bahamians, Cubans, Haitians, Jamaicans, Puerto Ricans, and other islanders to Greater Miami is so recent, I find that the culture breathes a vitality and authenticity that makes it a tourist attraction without trying to be. And as close to my beloved Caribbean islands as one can get without wing or rudder.
I explore the earliest evidence of island settlers in the Charles Avenue Historic District of Coconut Grove. Here, Bahamians settled in, building their clapboard Conch homes, and celebrating their heritage with the vivacious whirl of color known as Goombay Festival, still held every June. Northwest of downtown Miami, I switch gears in a colorful collage of neighborhood known as Little Haiti, adjacent and spilling into the historic African-American district of Liberty City. Mache Ayisyen, the Creole-style Caribbean Marketplace, poses as centerpiece for Little Haiti's rainbow-hued storefronts, Creole restaurants and voodoo botanicas.
But the most potent dose of the island culture I have admired and studied for years hits me in Little Havana. Cuban refugees began settling around Miami's Calle Ocho beginning in the 1960s, with another major influx occurring during the infamous Mariel boatlift of 1980. Today, the Cuban population constitutes a majority in the streets of Miami. Calle Ocho, Spanish for Eighth Street, the easternmost stretch of Tamiami Trail, is stage for the annual Carnaval Miami, among the nation's largest street festivals with its highlight the world's longest conga line.
Unlike some other Florida ethnic enclaves, the language and customs of the Cuban people have not been absorbed by American culture. To the contrary, the Cubans have successfully superimposed their own way of life on the city. Residents of all nationalities communicate in a sort of Miami-speak, as much Spanish as English.
I stroll Calle Ocho for an earful, eyeful and stomach-full of Cuba. Stars inset along the sidewalk remember Latino celebrities, from Sammy Sosa to Celia Cruz. Botanicas sell the trinkets and oils used by Santeria religion zealots. Windows open into restaurants and bakeries where locals order their bolstering shots of coffee, Cuban sandwiches and papaya shakes. Art galleries display edgy abstracts rife with the symbols of Cuban culture. Cigar makers roll Dominican Republic tobacco into facsimiles of the Cubanos they can no longer buy legally. Furniture stores sell white formica tables made especially for slapping dominoes; clothing shops stock guayabera shirts. Tower Theater advertises the latest Latin films.
I sit down to a platter of Cuban specialties and strong mojito rum drink at Versailles. With the chatter of Latin tongues surrounding me, I cannot feel any closer to Havana.