Sunday August 19, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- Maria Parastatidis and her mother Ellene dance in the middle of a large white tent as a traditional Greek song plays in the background. With their arms around one another, it's just the two of them performing a variation of a typical Greek circle dance -- usually performed by large groups.

The dance has a special meaning for the two of them because it's being performed in honor of Paul, Ellene's late husband and Maria's father, the former owner of Paul's Restaurant and Pizza in Pittsfield who passed away in 2009. It's the middle of the afternoon on Saturday, the first day of the 2012 Grecian Festival, which has been held for the past 20 years outside St. George Greek Orthodox Church of the Berkshires in Pittsfield.

John Papadopoulous, left, and Jimmy Alimonos cook chicken souvlaki on the grill. The Greek food offerings will be plentiful again today at the festival.
John Papadopoulous, left, and Jimmy Alimonos cook chicken souvlaki on the grill. The Greek food offerings will be plentiful again today at the festival. (Stephanie Zollshan / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

It's a clear day, with a blue sky and faint white clouds overhead that appropriately match the colors of the white tent and blue streamers that wrap around the tentpoles.

"This is so fun, I'm so glad we came out here," says a man tells a woman next to him, as they sit on the grass facing the tent. They are watching a much larger circle dance that has suddenly broken into a long line weaving in and out of the rows of tables filled with onlookers. The line is led by Eleni Hatzi, a vocalist and member of The Olympians, a Boston-based Greek band that came to perform. Hatzi motions to the audience to join her. Some shy away while others readily join the line.

"There is a fairly small Greek community here in PIttsfield, but we always get large turnouts each year to the festival," said Viki Gagliardo, who for the past six months has worked as the event's co-coordinator along with Parastatidis.

A congregant of the church, Gagliardo was born and raised in Pittsfield before moving away. She returned 14 years ago. She said that as soon as she came back to the area, she readily embraced the festival, enjoying the fact that the weekend event introduced Greek culture to a wider audience.

"Our motto this year has been ‘a taste of Greece, without travel,' and I think people really like the idea of being Greek for a day,' " Gagliardo said.

This is the first year that the two women have been in charge of the event, which continues today. Both days feature live music, performances by traditional ethnic Greek dance groups from Schenectedy and Long meadow, and a wide variety of food and pastries. While admission is free, guests have to pay for the food that was made by church's volunteers and donated by local restaurants. Most of the proceeds from the food sales will go local charities, including one supporting area veterans.

The giving back to the community while at the same time celebrating Greek heritage resonates strongly with Father John Maheras, who serves part-time at the church.

"It's very exhilarating to be a part of this festival," Maheras said. "It's a chance for parishoners to come together for a great display of their traditions, while sharing so much with the rest of the county.

Maheras was born in the United States, but speaks Greek fluently. Having served the Pittsfield church for the past 21 2 years, Maheras said the festival is a unique way to bring a wide range of people together, beyond the 150 famililes who are members of the church.

"It's a way of spreading the love around," he said. "We are such a diverse culture that it's important to understand where we all come from. We are sharing and understanding our collective heritage this way."

Heritage is very important to Parastatidis. She said her parents brought her to the festival during her childhood, and since running the family restaurant with her mother after her father's death, the importance of celebrating her heritage has been particularly resonant.

"This is so important for me to be here," she said, adding that after her father's death, she almost shied away from taking on a leadership role with the festival. She said it was the importance of celebrating her cultural background and sharing that with others that drew her back in.

"I come here every year," says Marjorie Mannion over the sound of Greek music in the background. A Pittsfield resident, Mannion comes to the festival even though she's Irish.

"There's amazing food, and it's a wonderful event," she says. 

For someone like Hatzi, who was born and raised in Greece and performs at countless Greek cultural celebrations throughout the year, there's nothing like a Grecian party.

"I haven't been here before, but look at it," she says, motioning with her hand to include the tables full of people before her band starts playing. "This kind of energy makes for a great festival."

For newcomers and old-timers alike, Greek and non-Greek, the festival is a way for Pittsfield residents and visitors from places like New York City and Boston to come together and celebrate the vibrancy of Greek culture.

And what should people take away from the festival? Gagliardo says she has a simple answer, as she looks on with a big smile at the long line waiting for food.

"I want them to walk out, feel great, and just scream out, ‘opa!' "