It’s the phone call that I had waited years to receive…”Billy, I’m getting married.” Then the line went dead. A few moments later, George had called again to explain that he would be getting married in a matter of weeks in Stomio, Greece.
George Manetakis has been my best friend since we first met in detention at primary school. As he often recalls, “We lost years of lunch-times, but gained even more years of friendship in return.”
He moved to the ‘land of no frappe’, Japan, in 2002 and quickly mastered the language and the customs. So much so that at one stage he became somewhat of a celebrity in Kitakata, Miyazaki Prefecture, as locals and media were fascinated by his Greek-Australian background.
Unable to let go of his three-way love affair between Greece, Australia and Japan, George made the decision to work at the Australia Embassy in Tokyo. This allowed him to live an ‘Australia by day, Japan by night’ lifestyle, and also made travel to Greece easier.
It also gave him the opportunity to meet one, Maiko Ikemi, the lady who would be his future wife. They met at the Embassy in Tokyo on the night of the Beijing Olympics on August 8, 2008. His Greek charm won her heart in an instant…or so he likes to believe.
Maiko confided to me that she was taken aback by the initial topic of conversation: “You can probably tell by looking at my nose that I’ve got a Greek background. Would you like to buy a ticket to the Embassy’s Summer Night party?” She added, “I was impressed by his nose – his profile was reminiscent of the statues of Moai on Easter Island – but I couldn’t commit to buying a ticket just yet.”
The melding of cultures on that night was to prove an interesting narrative. Even though Maiko had spent four years in that ultimate paradigm of the Greek diaspora, Melbourne, her interest in Greece had yet to be piqued.
A year-long courtship with George and multiple viewings of ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’, was to change that, and prepare her for the unexpected in Stomio.
Stomio is somewhat of a hidden paradise. Getting there is no easy feat, only four buses a day run from Larissa, and the tree-lined coastline betrays no hint that the village is home to some of the best beaches in Greece. Apart from weekend beachgoers from Larissa and small tourist groups from Poland, its existence remains largely unknown.
It is nestled in between the Aegean Sea and lush forested mountains that house a number of monasteries. Hidden and tucked away with a population of 624 people, it was built on the site of the ancient town of Evrymenes. It is the birthplace of Greek poet Dimitri Kraniotis, and the effervescence of its people and numerous tavernas and cafenios prevent it from becoming another sleepy village.
Every year for the last several years I have made my way to Stomio; there is something about a good parea, frothy frappe, beach bars that play tunes from the 80’s and quality food (calamari at Tasso’s Taverna is a must) that draws me there. Though I always leave with the promise to my hosts that I won’t be back, I am never lost for an excuse to return. This year, I had the best reason yet to make my way back there: being best man at the most international of weddings Stomio has ever seen.
And besides the exceptional welcome I receive from the extended Manetakis family, who I have known for 25 years, it is always worth the trip. Everyone seems to go out of their way to make the visit special, be it from staying with Angela and Spiro (George’s sister and her husband) or having a home cooked meal with people I have met over the years and treating me as part of their family is an experience I cherish.
Maiko and George’s marriage in Stomio was a triumph of firsts: the first Japanese national to get married and baptised there, and the first time a Greek wedding was ‘small’ – with only 50 close friends and relatives in attendance. So how did a marriage of two ancient cultures play out? I decided to let Maiko put into her own words by interviewing her about the wedding, her thoughts about Greece, Greek food and more.
Are there many Greek speakers in Japan?
Hardly any, I suspect. Apart from my trip to the Greek Embassy in Tokyo, I’ve never come across any Greeks in Japan.
Why are you still with George (laughs)?
I think seeing the size of his stomach growing and growing is quite interesting – I’m curious to see if it’ll ever stop.
Did you know much about Greece and the Greek culture before you met George?
No, but since meeting George I have bought a number of Greek cooking books, and I enjoy making Greek food. I also recently finished reading a book on Greek myths.
What was your impression of Greece – especially Stomio, which is largely unknown to most Greeks?
I found Greek people to be very energetic, but at the same time very laid back. I was surprised to see how much importance they place on enjoying life. The historical and World Heritage sites were very impressive in Athens and other parts of Greece such as Meteora.
As for Stomio, what I really enjoyed were the little things such as having lunch right by the sea, eating fresh bread each day for breakfast from the bakery next door, taking my time drinking a glass of frappe at the beach…also having the beach and mountains next to each other is really amazing.
Did Greece meet your expectations?
It was much better than I expected. Greece is the complete opposite to Japan in many respects, and it was a real eye opener. In Japan, people tend to stick to the rules, while in Greece, people seem happy to just make them up as they go along. (I think this frustrated George, but I enjoyed myself.)
How did you react when you found out about being christened?
It wasn’t a big deal for me to get baptised. Actually, it was a happy occasion as I saw it as part of the process of becoming part of George’s family, and my parents also saw it in this light, too. I was a little unsure how I would feel about adopting a Greek name [Cleo], but the priest put my mind at ease by always referring to me as ‘Maiko-Cleo’.
Did you enjoy the experience?
I did! I only wish they had gotten a bigger tub for me to sit in when the priest poured water over me. It reminded of my ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ – so I knew what was going to happen.
How was the wedding?
It’s hard to put into words. It was like a dream. But at the same time quite comical: the lights in the church went out soon after the wedding ceremony started, and the priest left us to see if he could get the power to work again; meanwhile we were left standing there wondering if he was coming back.
The funny thing was no one around us seemed to know what was going on. So when it came to the part of the ceremony when I had to stamp on George’s foot with mine*, one of the photographers had to indicate to a guest at the wedding, who indicated to George’s sister Angela, who indicated to me when I had to stamp on his foot. I was happy to just go along with the flow.
*According to Greek custom, the bride does this during the ceremony when the priest says that the woman must obey her husband. By stamping on his foot, the bride sends a less-than-subtle message to the groom that she won’t be so readily subservient to his wishes.
What did you enjoy the most?
Watching George do Greek dancing – very dramatic and powerful. Though, I don’t think he had any idea as to what he as doing. Everyone seemed to have enjoyed themselves and that was what George and I wanted more than anything.
Is there anything you didn’t enjoy?
I was initially worried because it was low-key planning – but that actually turned out to be one of the best aspects: it kept the whole experience feeling very real and not rehearsed. Other than that, despite George having told me how great the weather in Greece is, watching the skies bucket down with rain three times on the day of the wedding was a bit unsettling, but the weather was perfect after that.
Did your parents accept George when they first met him?
Yes. They thought he had a very bright personality. They also liked the fact that he is so tall; they had no problem spotting him when we met outside a restaurant on a crowded Tokyo city street.
What was their experience of Greece?
For my Dad Greece is an ideal country: he had a great time drinking, eating and dancing with everyone. They only stayed for four days, but the experience rejuvenated the both of them.
Do you see George differently now that you have been to Greece with him?
Well his stomach is getting bigger! Now that I understand a little of Greek culture, it has helped me understood George better. Also, seeing what great people George’s family and relatives are, I understand why George is such a nice person.
Maiko also told me that she felt that Stomio was like her second home. Its something I can relate to – the warmth of the people make the trip there memorable.
I recall the walk up to the church on the wedding day when the entire village waited for the wedding party to walk by in order to shower them with rice and well wishes.
And what better place to have a reception than with the setting sun on the verandah of an elevated restaurant overlooking the sea to the sounds of a live, traditional band.
My other favourite memory of Stomio is seeing Maiko’s parents really immerse themselves in the culture. Despite arriving in Stomio after a gruelling trip via Rome and Thessaloniki (made gruelling by a two-hour delay in Italy and the search for luggage they had been told was lost, that wasn’t actually lost), they arrived in Stomio at 5:30am and immediately commenced their own Hellenic Travels by taking a walking tour of Stomio. I’m sure Maiko’s father ended up taking a picture of every square inch of Stomio, and no dessert was left untried by her mother.
A truly amazing aspect of their interactions with the people of Stomio was that language didn’t create a barrier between them. As one of George’s uncles commented: “Their [Maiko and her parents] willingness to enjoy their surroundings and have a good time is an important lesson for us. They are showing us how to be Greek.”
And what were George’s thoughts of the whole experience? “Nikos Kazantzakis detailed the hospitality of the Greek people towards strangers in ‘Report to Greco’, and as a young teenager, I remember doubting my dad’s assertions that it was all perfectly true. Seeing the people of Stomio, my relatives from Crete, and friends from Thessaloniki, Larisa and Athens greet Maiko and her parents with open arms, drink, laugh and talk with them – seemingly oblivious to the fact they are Japanese – was proof enough that both Kazantzakis and my Dad were right.”
A wedding is always a special occasion. Throw in a little beachside village in Greece and people from different countries drawn to each other more by their commonalities than their differences, and you have the best Greek-Australian-Japanese wedding you could ever hope to attend.