Nicki Dedes on family ties and living life with intention
Lunch with: Conversations with interesting people in Kawartha Lakes
To understand what makes Nicki Dedes tick, we have to talk about family. Of course, we’re all shaped by our parents and our roots in one way or another. But there is something deeper within the Greek identity – something profoundly lineal and etched by the millennia of civilizations from which we owe so much to our own society today.
Naturally, first we must find her to have these conversations, which is the easiest task of all. As the proprietor of Lindsay’s iconic Olympia Restaurant, she is omnipresent as a community host, welcoming new and established patrons alike each day.
It’s an incredible-smelling potato bacon soup — which her husband, Costas, has whipped up for the day — with pita for her . It’s a Greek salad with chicken breast, a reliable favourite, for me. Saffron tea for Dedes and green tea for me are set in front of us, with small wisps of steam emerging from miniature stainless-steel pots.
It occurs to me that I seldom see this woman sitting down, let alone taking the time to eat. (It’s like spotting a deer in an open field; you know you shouldn’t be surprised, but it’s still nice to see.)
Her parents, Chris and Cathe Karkabasis, were both born in small villages in Greece about three kilometres apart, while both villages were equidistant from Sparta, about 10 km away.
But before they would ever meet, Chris had the itch to travel at a young age. He wound up in Toronto as a 16-year-old and “found he loved it here,” says Dedes. He first worked at Diana Sweets, a well-known restaurant on Yonge Street. Working mostly nights as a bar boy (now called a bus boy) he was eventually promoted to the position of soda jerk.
“He was working day and night shifts in multiple positions, intent on completing his high school diploma,” says Dedes.
Chris found a high school on Bathurst Street where English language courses were taught to the thousands of new Canadians coming to live and work in the bustling city. Between learning English and other needed courses, as well as working at multiple jobs, Chris completed his high school equivalent.
At the legendary Massey Hall venue, he would put chairs away at the end of shows and do whatever needed to be done once the curtain dropped. Like many immigrants who seek out the Canadian dream, he was earning money to send back home to take care of family.
“He was making connections and having experiences, saving as much money as possible, knowing he wanted to one day to open a place of his own,” says Dedes.
Within a few years his parents told him it was time to come back to Greece. They had found a couple of young women in the village for him to meet and told him it was time to settle down.
“It says a lot about my dad’s character to respect his parents’ wishes like that,” says Dedes.
Soon Chris would meet Cathe and they were married within months, in 1962. Cathe had trained as a seamstress in Athens, learning not only the basics but how to design clothes from scratch. No one in Greece really bought their clothes in a store at the time, Dedes says. “You made your own,” which made her mother’s skills invaluable.
Soon Chris would share his dreams with Cathe of what they could do in North America — and they weren’t the only people in their village thinking along the same lines. Indeed, they were a part of the third wave of Greek nationals, most of whom arrived for economic reasons, to make a better life.
Opportunity in Lindsay
While Chris and Cathe were in Toronto, they heard that the Cottage Restaurant on Kent Street in Lindsay was coming available. Seeing an opportunity, the family moved to Lindsay in 1969; Dedes was about four or five years old and her brother, Louis (who now runs Pane Vino restaurant just a block east), was about two.
The restaurant was open from 6 a.m. until 7 p.m., seven days a week.
“We loved growing up in a smaller community,” says Dedes. “It was very welcoming. Dedes attended Alexandria Public School, Central Senior, then LCVI — all from their same house on Peel Street where she lived for her school-age years.
Meanwhile, down the street, Eudoxia Tozios, a dynamic Greek woman, had been running the popular Olympia Tea Room for more than three decades. (And prior to it being the tea room, it operated as Olympia Candy Works in the 1920s, making the Olympia name in Lindsay more than a century old.)
In 1980, Tozios approached Chris Karkabasis. She was ready to sell.
For about a year, the Karkabasis family were running both the Cottage Restaurant and the Olympia at the same time before a cousin took over the Cottage for another decade.
“The Olympia was neglected in many ways but our family revived it and expanded the menu,” said Dedes. It became a busy breakfast and lunch place, sticking with the early morning Cottage model that Chris and Cathe preferred.
When asked when the Olympia shifted from being a breakfast-lunch eatery to more of a lunch-dinner establishment, Nicki laughed and said, “When we retired my parents.”
Dedes says her dad had “made it to suit their lifestyle, being early risers.” This was also before the town had many options and people pretty much had to flood into the downtown for breakfast in those days.
Looking at olives on top of my Greek salad, I ask her if they are really from her parents’ home in Greece, something I had long heard was the case. As it turns out that was true — up until about 2018.
“There was a time, when my parents were farming a lot in Greece, that the olives came from their property,” Dedes explains. Chris and Cathe had found a place in their old village in the 1990s and exported both olives and olive oil from their property during those two decades. “It was a point of pride for sure,” says Dedes. Now her parents have sold the farm property and just keep a handful of trees by the house.
However, her cousins are farming in the same region now and the Olympia’s olives come from them — all within the same geographic area, about the size of Kawartha Lakes. The quality, she says, is just the same.
Farming in Greece
In Greece, one’s home and farmland are typically in two separate places. Urban areas are dense and compact, and often walled, which historically was safer. In the old days, a landowner’s animals would graze wherever one’s property was demarcated, outside the city or town.
In the evening, the sheep or other animals were brought back, and lived on the main floor of the home. Their heat from the main floor helped warm the second floor where families slept, Dedes explains.
“That’s how my dad grew up, coming from a farming family.”
This month her parents are celebrating their 60th anniversary.
In 2019 Chris and Cathe went to their home in Greece to avoid the long Canadian winter, with the intention of returning to Lindsay in the spring. When COVID caused lockdowns in Europe, they decided instead to settle into life not far from Mount Taygetos, just outside of Sparta.
Dedes digs out her phone and shows me photos of the Karkabasis home in Greece where she visits at least a couple of times per year. In some shots chickens can be seen wandering the yard. There’s lemon and orange trees and bright hibiscus. It’s easy to see the appeal of the fertile land and the undulating foothills.
The Olympia owner finds she gets more rest when she goes back — and that doesn’t mean sleep or “lounging,” as she puts it.
“It’s more like rest for the mind. I feel more rejuvenated. ”I immediately think of Professor Guy Standing’s work on why he supports basic income policy. Standing writes of how Greek society distinguished between labour and work, and between leisure and recreation — and how vital they are for defining a balanced life.
“A new economy and political system should … encourage leisure in the ancient Greek sense of schole, the pursuit of knowledge and meaning, rather than endless consumption. Society must reconceptualise work, to develop a new politics of time ….” Standing wrote.
Dedes says the ancient Greek philosophers “required the fullness of yourself to be present, not just to pass through life … not to just get a paycheque but to also do the best for your community.”
The last of our tea consumed, Dedes says she is more determined than ever to “live a life with intention, and not just go through the motions.”