It never ceases to amaze me how the phrase “It’s a small world” is so often casually used and yet so often is so unbelievably true. It’s also very true that it is never too late to follow your dreams, regardless of your age or circumstances. Here’s how I found out…
In July 2018, I travelled from Cyprus to San Francisco, California to visit an American friend I had met at University in the UK in 2014. It was my first trip to the U.S. and I was very curious to see how different the life and the people were, compared to other countries I have visited. I stayed in California for a total of 3.5 weeks, during which time my friend and I explored as many areas as we could fit into that time. We had a great time travelling to nearby cities including Los Angeles, San Jose, Palo Alto, Monterey, and Oakland.
As I’d expected, this trip was an amazing experience. I got to meet lots of interesting people from all walks of life and from many different cultural backgrounds. On the last day of my trip, my friend suggested that we had lunch at a Greek restaurant, as he was curious to see if I might find the ‘Greek’ food on offer there any different to the food I was used to in Cyprus. I eagerly agreed to go as, being half Greek-Cypriot myself, I was curious to see if I would get a taste of home. I was also surprised that, despite San Francisco’s cultural diversity, I hadn’t yet come across any Greek-speaking people until that point. We decided to make our way to a little eatery in Downtown Financial District of San Francisco, called ‘Greek Town’, as we had read good reviews about it.
On the way there, my friend explained that the owner of Greek Town was a man called Mr. Christos Iacovou. I could tell the name sounded Greek although I didn’t assume it was likely that Mr. Iacovou would actually be there.
In no time at all, we were outside the very Greek looking little restaurant. A big blue sign outside with big white letters, reading GREEK TOWN assured us that we were about to have a very Greek experience. We walked in and were immediately approached by a very smiley, friendly, obviously Greek gentleman greeting us and welcoming us in. He introduced himself as ‘Christakis’ (Mr. Iacovou), the owner, who proceeded to make it his mission to ensure that we would have a wonderful time and delicious food to go with it.
He began to explain the menu to us, which was up on the wall when my friend asked him ‘Are you from Greece?’. He replied no ‘No, I am from Cyprus!’. I immediately told him that I was from Cyprus too and he was both astonished and overjoyed. He shook hands with us and invited us to take a seat, obviously incredibly happy to be hosting us. I must admit, I was quite overwhelmed as I really didn’t expect to come across a Cypriot while I was in the U.S. Mr. Iacovou on the other hand, was very excited and displayed the Cypriot hospitality that I have always been familiar with, whilst taking our orders. ‘The drinks are on me!’ he said and ‘I will give you some sweets to take to your friends’, – typical phrases I have so often heard from my Cypriot friends and family back home.
He continued to chat with us describing many of his personal experiences, both in Cyprus and in San Francisco and told us about his family members and his ex-colleagues from when he worked in Cyprus. After a while, it felt like we had known each other for years.
Mr. Iacovou was born on the island of Cyprus and had worked there all his life. He made the big, brave move to San Francisco from Cyprus in January 2017, at the age of 58. His decision to make this move was largely due to the fact that both his son and also his brother had already been living and working in the US for a few years and had for a long time been encouraging Mr. Iacovou to follow them. The idea of opening his own restaurant, in a place where Greek restaurants were not on every street corner, as they are here and in Greece, held the most appeal. But also being able to host his guests first-hand, as opposed to just working as a chef in a ‘behind-the-scenes’ capacity. So, after much deliberation, off he went, taking with him all his experiences from the many hotels he had worked in, in Cyprus, including the Londa Hotel, the Elias Beach Hotel and the Atlantica Bay Hotel in Limassol, and also the Athena Royal Beach Hotel in Paphos.
He started over by opening up the ‘Greek Town’ eatery with his brother, last year. Despite the risks involved it turned out to be a very worthwhile move. The food is typical Greek fare, using ingredients sourced mainly from a supplier called Greek Imports located in Daly City in California. Today Greek Town welcomes visitors from all over San Francisco, both locals and tourists alike, and especially those with Greek heritage or just simply a love of Greek food.
When we asked what it was that helped him to overcome the differences in the culture and way of living in California, he replied that it was simply a combination of both patience and determination to start a new life in a new place. He continued to say that the U.S. offers a myriad of possibilities for those willing to work hard to make their dreams come true. Even for someone used to living in a small and sheltered place like Cyprus, the opportunity is there to make dreams come true. When asked what differences he had to adapt to he said that one of the things he found difficult was the driving on the other side of the road. He also said that he found that there was a significant difference in the cost of living, especially the rent. An average apartment can set you back a hefty €3,000 per month in rent.
Mr. Iacovou is a true food master, who was awarded five prestigious Gold Medalist Executive awards in Greek and Mediterranean Cuisine. Most importantly though, he was the ‘type’ of Cypriot I was used to. The one who will eagerly say hello (in Greek: “Yia Sou”), want to shake hands and have a long conversation with you. He is the type who will insist on buying you a Cypriot coffee, making sure you take some sweets home with you for your family and friends and doing anything possible to make you feel at home with his kindness and generosity.
Meeting Mr. Iacovou on my last day in San Francisco, just before my flight back home to Cyprus, was such a nice way to end my trip. It never ceases to amaze me how possible it is to come across a Cypriot person in places that you wouldn’t expect, even though Cyprus is such a small country with such a small population. Moreover, I can’t get over how the Cypriot hospitality and welcoming mentality remains the same, regardless of where in the world you are. It turns out that the world is a very small place and travelling can sometimes leave you speechless. Sometimes it can even turn you into a storyteller. I couldn’t help but be inspired by Mr. Iacovou and his warm and welcoming persona. His food was delicious too and as it turned out, I tasted the best Moussaka ever, in San Fransisco!
So, if you ever find yourself in the Downtown Financial District of San Francisco, call in at Greek Town. It will be well worth your time as I am sure you will have a great meal and some wonderful memories to take away with you.
( This article was also published in the Cyprus Mail on September 5th, 2018. You can find it HERE )