Dennis Hodgson likes to eat and drink coffee at the old Eckerd’s lunch counter in north Asheville, and that’s why Asheville’s fourth sister city is Karpenisi and not some other Greek town, says his wife, Barbara Hodgson. Dennis is a former president of the Asheville Sister Cities board, among other civic service, and one day, he sat down at the counter (now run by Rite Aid, though none of the regulars refer to it that way). There, he struck up a conversation with George Kaltsounis, a Greek native who emigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s.
Hodgson told Kaltsounis that Asheville was about to pick a Greek town to be its next sister city. “That will never work!” Kaltsounis replied. And he told Hodgson why: Almost two-thirds of Asheville’s Greek immigrants are from the little town of Karpenisi (and thereabouts in the state of Evrytania). Karpenisi, located at the foot of Velouchi Mountain in central Greece, has about 10,000 residents, and making it a sister city—instead of Asheville’s initial candidate—would generate immediate interest and involvement, Kaltsounis argued.
Hodgson was swayed, and he persuaded the Asheville City Council to go along (each sister city selection requires formal governmental agreements).
The lesson in this tale, says Barbara Hodgson, is that community interest and commitment are crucial. Long before Asheville embraced Karpenisi, an informal group of Greek immigrants was already sending gifts and aid back to the town and region, she points out. Making Karpenisi a sister city simply affirmed the connection and expanded it in new ways.
Andy Apostolopoulos, who chairs the Karpenisi sister city committee, agrees. He was born there but has been in Asheville for about 40 years. And true to Kaltsounis’ prediction, Apostolopoulos got involved as soon as he heard about the sister city selection. “During the past five years, it has been an extremely rewarding experience for me to meet so many people from Russia, France, Mexico [and] Nigeria and experience a very small way of their culture right here in Asheville,” he says.
To date, the partnership has included an Asheville Sister Cities visit to the town; the gift of five wheelchairs for poor Karpenisi residents; plans for two professors and 10 UNCA students to visit there this summer; and a Greek dinner at the Mediterranean Restaurant (owned by Apostolopoulos’ first cousin) that raised money to help Karpenisi delegates attend a Sister Cities World Congress.
Not bad for what began as just a little coffee talk.
Info: Asheville Sister Cities Inc., 33 Page Ave., Asheville NC 28802 (firstname.lastname@example.org).