Tassos Mavridoldlou was a merchant marine who jumped ship in Montreal. Playing the bouzouki (Greek guitar), he earned enough money to bring his 18-year-old sister, Eleni, across the ocean. She shortened her name to Eleni Mavri and sang with her brother. A year later she was introduced to her first husband, a restaurateur 20 years her senior.
"It was sort of like an arranged marriage," her son Dimitri says.
"Bad arranged," Eleni says curtly. A few months after her wedding, her parents sold Astra, their restaurant in Piraeus (the port seven miles from Athens), and moved to Montreal. Her father hated the cold and moved back to Greece. Eleni's mother stayed while Eleni was pregnant, before rejoining her husband. Eleni told her mother she was unhappy -- her husband was a nice person, he was neat, he was clean, but every day she liked him less. She didn't want him near her. "I couldn't stand him," Eleni says. Her mother said to wait until she could come help her work things out. Afraid her mother would make her stay married, 21-year-old Eleni took her year-old baby and left.
Eleni's father died, and her mother moved to Montreal. She baby-sat Eleni's son while Eleni and her brother toured through Greek communities in America. Singing in New York City's Grecian Palace, Eleni met another bouzouki player and fell fast in love. She was 25 when she married him wearing a black dress at City Hall. A year later they had a son; the next year Eleni was pregnant with her daughter. While she was pregnant, her husband started sleeping with the belly dancer who toured with them; the dancer's daughter was four months younger than Eleni's. "So we divorce," Eleni says simply. She took her three children and toured through Boston, Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Athens, Tarpon Springs and Toronto before moving back to Montreal. Her scrapbook is filled with pictures of her singing in spike heels and glamorous gowns, posing with Greece's top movie stars and musicians. She cut three records, singing songs about men leaving. Singing in Montreal, the last day of June 1967, she met Chrisanthios Fetokakis. The next night was his 33rd birthday, and he asked her to join him for dinner. She said she'd like to, but she had plans with her sister; he told her to bring her sister.
Like Eleni's brother, Chris had been a sailor who jumped ship in Montreal when he was 17. He came from Chios, a Greek island filled with fields of evergreens and wild tulips; the small isle doesn't have tourists and doesn't want any. In Montreal, Chris got a job at a hot dog stand. Soon he bought it. By the time he met 30-year-old Eleni he had bought and sold 28 businesses. Many Greek immigrants gravitate toward restaurants because food is something most every Greek person knows. In Greece, everyone eats out; they don't sit home eating Lean Cuisine -- they like food that is fresh, not frozen. Greeks go out most nights to sing, dance, drink and eat. "That's the joy," Eleni says. "Wine and food and sex make everybody happy."
Greeks spend afternoons sitting outside, lingering over Nescafé. "It's so hard for us to do over here in the United States -- if you tell somebody you're going to go for three or four hours for lunch, they think you're crazy," says Frixos Hrisinis, owner of Mykonos Island Restaurant. At American dinner hours, Greek restaurants are empty, but from midnight until 3 a.m. they're jumping. "In Greece they sit at the table for hours and there's no looking at the clock," says Michael Papapostoulou, a manager for the Bibas restaurants.
Eleni and Chris were married March 19, 1970; he was the first man whose name she took. Planning to return to Greece, they sold everything and moved to New York City, but a cousin was running dice and card games, and Chris went in on the business. "He was a gambler himself," Dimitri says. "He could make $5,000 a night and in the morning it would be gone."
When Dimitri was born, two years later, Eleni quit singing and smoking. Chris kept gambling. He won big, but in a few years he lost everything. "We didn't have a penny," Eleni says. Eleni's daughter, Maria Michas, remembers it was Easter weekend when Chris sat the family down and asked the boys for suggestions on where they should move. "They didn't ask my opinion," Maria says. "They asked the boys -- that's how it is in Greek families." Maria didn't want to move; she wanted to stay in the city taking ballet and piano lessons. They sold the piano that week and moved to Houston. An aunt and uncle lived in the brick apartments next to the Hollywood Food Store on Montrose, so they rented an apartment there. "There were so many Greeks," Dimitri says. "Montrose was all Greek at one time."
Chris promised Eleni he would quit gambling. For nine months Chris worked as a cook at Zorba the Greek. The kids found a mutt they named Nikki; at first the landlady said it was okay, but then she changed her mind. Eleni couldn't ask her children to get rid of the dog, so she told her husband they had to move.
Sitting on the front steps of the complex, Chris and Eleni saw a "For Rent" sign on the old filling station. Chris went across the street and tore down the sign. With $50 in his pocket, he signed the lease on the storefront and moved his family into the house behind it. With a partner, Chris opened a fruit stand; they both had sons named Nikos (and Chris's middle name was Nikos), so they named it Niko Niko's.