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Greek for a Day

Experience the culture’s diversity at this annual festival 

 

photo by Wayne Bierbaum/ The annual Annapolis Greek Festival draws in more than 20,000 people and provides Saints Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Church with a majority of its operating funds.

      At the Annapolis Greek Festival, something magical happens. You become Greek for a day.

     Hosted by the Saints Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Church on Riva Road from Thursday, May 30 to the following Sunday, the festival thrusts you into a makeshift Greek homeland. In this land, you’ll find more than 30 Greek foods and dishes, as well as four dance groups, two bands and vendors selling unique arts and crafts.

     “Our slogan is You Can Be Greek for a Day,” said Jasmin Haralambatos, the festival chairwoman. “Many people come day after day because they want to find everything that we have.”

     “The largest annual Greek festival in Anne Arundel County is likely the biggest in Maryland,” Haralambatos said. Festivals in Lanham and Bel Air are its only rivals.

     Annapolis residents like Thomas Lynch, 56, are no strangers to Greek festivals. His mother dragged him to a festival in Dayton, Ohio, when he was in high school. Lynch, who is half-Greek, said his eyes finally opened to the wonders of his culture, an experience he hopes others have as well.

     “I think it is very important for people to go to these festivals,” he said, “to learn and dispel how they feel about how unique each country’s culture is — not how it is seen in a TV show or in a movie.”

     This year’s festival shakes things up with two new Greek-influenced bands, the Orkistra Mikrasiatiki, a family ensemble, and The Adonis Band. Perhaps the biggest attraction, The Adonis Band is a Lebanese pop/rock quartet that has released three albums, written music for Netflix and has a huge following in the Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern world.

     To complement the music, three children’s dance groups perform throughout the weekend.

     Greek dancing is largely collective, with the group holding hands and working in tandem in complicated maneuvers. The style creates a lot of “energy and community” in the performance, said Anastassia Vangraefschepe.

     Vangraefschepe, who is Greek and has three of her children in the dance groups, said the performance “keeps her culture alive” and introduces to those at the festival what it means to be “Greek.”

     “It’s not just about the food and the language,” she said. “The dancing is part of who we are. People get a fuller picture when they experience full aspects” of Greek culture.

     To prepare for the performance, Vangraefschepe’s children practiced twice a week at the church beginning in March, repeating each of the dances relentlessly.

     “It took a lot of time and effort,” she said, “but they make new friends” and learn Greek culture, too.

     Along with the various Greek sandwiches, appetizers and desserts, this year’s festival will add ­Nightly Chef Specials, which are essentially dinner specials with a side, typically rice. A popular item is the Arni, a slow-roasted lamb shank with a salad and pita bread, said Demetrios Haralambatos, the head chef.

     “It’s a lamb shank that has been roasted with a potato and bay leaf, and it is dripping and almost falling off the bone,” he said.

     A dozen selections of desserts go with that, he added, including Greek sundaes, puddings and butter cookies.

     The Annapolis festival is the largest fundraiser for the church. “It’s for the community entirely,” said Jasmin Haralambatos, as all proceeds go back to the church for charitable aid. Money goes to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore as well as locally through support services such as seminars for the opioid epidemic.

     “We want to give it back,” Haralambatos said.

     For many in the community, the Greek festival is a magical event that, when it comes around, creates a sense of wonder among the residents.

     Chuck Doelin, 40, said he’s been to the festival for five years. His business, Event With Trent, sets up the moon-bounce and play area for the children. Doelin said the festival effectively teaches what Greece is all about.

     "It’s nice to watch different cultures,” he said. “A lot of people don’t know what Greece is all about. They just think of a gyro.”