Sunday, April 29, 2012

Greece + Russia Meet in NYC

Christofis Mavromoustakos was my waiter at La Parisienne Diner on 57th and 7th in Manhattan. I found myself there after work a few weeks ago, bemoaning a bad day. A thin man with distinctly Greek features and intense eyes took my order from the other side of the counter. The friend I’m talking to on the phone suggests that I start interviewing people and writing about them. This excites me, since I am constantly meeting and talking to new people in the city. And this would give me the unique opportunity to go deeper than small talk. I tell Christofis I’m a writer and ask if I can interview him. He is eager to help. This romantic English major is excited. We agree on a time to meet the next day. Chris hands me a pen that says “Thank You--Your Server, Christofis New York, USA”. I like this gesture.  The man has gusto.
La Parisienne, where Chris works
The next day, I approach his restaurant and ask where he wants to conduct the interview. We decide on a pizza place a few streets away, and after settling in with some pizza slices, we just get right into it.

Egypt, 1950—Chris is born. He and his family move to Kasos Island, a part of Greece, in 1960. As a boy he enjoys fishing, swimming, and soccer. Six years later his father unexpectedly dies at fifty-seven years old. Christofis is sixteen and left to be more or less the man of the house. He has four older siblings, one sister and three brothers who all moved to the United States by this time.

Two years later Chris enters college in Athens and studies mathematics and civil engineering. He felt like a rookie at first—not knowing anything, and being away from his home—but he points to his head and says that he is tough there, and this propelled him forward. After finishing his studies, he worked for the Greek army, doing drafting (drawing engineering plans). Shaking his head, he recalls that during his stint working for the army, there was a conflict between Cyprus and Turkey unfolding and that war was absolutely no good.   Chris then decides to join his siblings in the United States, a place of more opportunity. He is 24 years old.

“I had no money, no English...” Chris says in describing his young, ambitious self.  He joined his future brother-in-law’s restaurant as a dishwasher, eventually working up to a waiter. He proved to himself he could achieve this. He laughs while telling me how much he made in those days, working twelve hour days, seven days a week; one hundred dollars. His monthly monetary breakdown went like this: $100 for the room he was renting out in the Bronx, $50 to his mother in Greece, and $250 to live on and save.

After saving money and gaining work experience in the U.S., Chris goes into business with his future brother-in-law. They owned and managed a few coffee shops together. Soon after, he felt financially stable enough to get engaged to his sweetheart, Marina, a native New Yorker with Greek heritage whom he met while she was visiting Greece. The pair married on June 19, 1977, and spent a lavish week honeymooning in Hawaii. After Chris tells me this, he gets serious and says he made a mistake. My smile drops in anticipation of bad news--I am thinking he’s going to confide that he married the wrong woman—but he replies, “We should have stayed for two weeks!” (Did I mention Chris has a sense of humor?)  He says that he and Marina enjoyed their time in Hawaii so much that when their son got married, they made sure that his honeymoon was longer than theirs.

Marina and Chris have  two children, Nikolas, 30, and Anna, 27.  He says he has good kids and loves them a great deal. In describing his wife, Chris remarks that she is not a “fantasy person,” in that she doesn't have unreasonable expectations within their marriage or outside of it—she’s not full of vanity or hot air.  He illustrates this point by telling me about shopping for a dining room set.  Marina wanted a set that was beyond their price range at the time, and Chris is big on living within one’s means..  He wanted to buy her this set, but didn’t have the money then. He wanted to buy it for her, but couldn't immediately. Marina said she could wait, and Chris saw her patience as a gesture of love. Seven months later they had saved enough to buy the set.  There seems to be graciousness,mutual respect, and understanding within their marriage—Chris says he doesn't force or demand her to do anything, but asks.  He called her a “power woman”--someone who gets things done. (And me too, which was so touching.)

With regards to lifestyle, I asked Chris more about his feelings on money, since it was clear that he took money management seriously.  He said he doesn't need expensive clothing or a BMW—that “a Toyota or Honda will do just fine, and his two-dollar thrift store shirt is just as good as anything, since he’s not naked, he says with a grin. Chris is more about doing his job and doing it right than looking flashy while doing it—his reputation and character are of more value.  And his financial behavior doesn't translate into being a Scrooge either—he remarks “I enjoy my life.” He then leans into the table and says,“If you want something, and you have the money for it, do it for yourself.”  

Christofis is also a bit of a philosopher.  He loves reading and reads history and some obscure texts like Rasputin’s life.   He’s read the Bible through twice but doesn’t consider himself too religious, though this does not hinder his belief in God.   Not a big gambler or drinker, he’s been to Atlantic City twice.  He says he always has a good time, but keeps from the extremes. He admits he’s not perfect and has  made his share of mistakes—but he doesn’t make the same one twice.  

Chris is a straight talker.  I got all of the above and more in an hour interview, in a noisy room.  I am so grateful that he shared his life with me.  Christofis and his family travel back to Greece every few years to visit family and keep the heritage alive.  If I'm ever in Greece I know who I'm asking to show me around.

Somewhere in beautiful Kasos


  1. Hello, my name is Anna and I am Christofi's daughter. I am so glad you got the opportunity to meet my dad. He is one of the most amazing men I know and I'm not just saying that because he's my father. He has taught my brother and I very valuable lessons in life that I will carry with me forever. My dad has taught us how important family is, and I am who I am toay because of my parents. As children, he never said no to us, and when he did an explanation would always follow. He is the hardest worker I know and even after a 12 hour day he comes home full of energy. My dad finds comfort in seeing other people happy. On behalf of my family and myself, we are very proud of him.

  2. Anna, thank you so much for the comment, Christofis is definitely an amazing person and you're lucky to have him for a dad :) He reminds me of my dad in many ways.

    I am going to send a copy of this to him too.

    take a look.......