If people can aim their eyes past mouth-watering skewers of lamb, tzatziki drizzled gyros and honey glazed loukomades at this year’s Greek Fest, they might notice the Greek community centre has opened a museum.
Or they might not. As 300 lambs roast on spits and 20,000 souvlakis are dished out over two weekends, being captivated by anything other than food seems ambitious. For a relatively small ethnic group, Victoria’s Greek community has an outsized influence on the city’s gastronomic tastes, as evidenced by the 30,000 visitors that pack the festival.
“Greek Fest is growing every year. People do come here for the food, but also for the hospitality and the way we see ourselves as a mini colony of Greece,” said Michael Ikonomou, president of the Victoria and Vancouver Island Greek Community Society. “We try to provide what people like and the best entertainment we can.”
This 12th annual Greek Fest is split between the next two weekends – Aug. 23 to 25 and Aug. 30 to Sept. 2 – as opposed to a single week-long event, at Greek Orthodox Church and community centre, just outside of Saanich Commonwealth Place.
A hundred volunteers from the Greek community collectively donate 11,000 hours of time preparing food and hosting the celebration of all things Greek.
The Greek community society completed a 3,500 square foot addition to its community centre earlier this year, giving it a bigger kitchen, space for a museum and heritage centre, and more room for Greek language and dance schools.
Volunteers like Wendy Smylitopoulos are working feverishly to have the museum ready to go by Friday. “I may have to sleep here (this) week, but it will be ready on Aug. 23,” Smylitopoulos said.
Of the estimated 100 Greek families in Greater Victoria, Ikonomou said many have donated old family photos, mementos from the homeland and records of family arrivals to Canada. The museum will display a 1872 Greek prayer book, two icons hundreds of years old, donated fabrics from the old country, and old photos and keepsakes of the past.
“1912 had the first Greek men’s group in Victoria. We’ve got the actual roster,” Smylitopoulos said, and in its original copper plating. “Heritage is what it’s all about – it’s all about the Greeks before they came here and what they’ve done since.”
“We are going to dig deeper into the older families, how they lived and who we have here today,” Ikonomou added. “Building on genealogy is an ongoing project.”
The earliest known Greek arrival to Vancouver Island was several hundred years before the British established its colony. Ioannis Phokas, a.k.a. Juan de Fuca, cuts a square-jawed, Hemmingway-esque figure on a signboard that highlights his Greek heritage and entry into the Spanish navy.
Juan de Fuca explored into what is now the Strait of Juan de Fuca in 1592 and found the southern tip Vancouver Island, although later explorers like Captain James Cook didn’t believe his claims.
“Juan de Fuca was Greek? That’s the first thing we hear every year,” Smylitopoulos said.
Beyond the museum, volunteers will offer tours of the church, which Ikonomou said is one of the few in Canada with Byzantine architecture and genuine orthodox iconography, painted in Greece in a monastery. The church, the emerging museum and the festival itself prides themselves on authentic links to the culture and history of the Greek people.
“There’s a word in Greek that means ‘a friend to strangers.’ We are trying to exhibit that in the festival here,” said Ikonomou, who established Victoria’s Greek Fest, and who works as a federal fisheries scientist.
“There are tons of festivals in Greece like this. It’s not an artificial thing, its a natural thing. It’s a nice way to share the culture, as a fundraiser event and it’s good for the children in our community in the sense of what Greek Fest is all about.”
Entertainment this year includes dancers from Mesologi and Athens, in Greece, plus Greek dancers from Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver and Victoria.
“Greece is rich in dances. There’s 3,000 different dances in Greece and we try to capture some of that,” Ikonomou said.
The Greek community society donates part of the proceeds to Tour de Rock and the Greater Victoria school district hot lunch program, but funds raised will also pay down the new addition to the Greek community centre, which Ikonomou expects to take about a decade.
-Greek Fest runs Aug. 23 to 25 and Aug. 30 to Sept. 2, in the Greek community centre and church, 4648 Elk Lake Dr.
-See greekfest.ca for the lineup of Greek dancers and other ethnic dancer groups, starting noon each day until about 10 p.m. and times for free Greek dance lessons.