TARPON SPRINGS, Fla. — The Greeks started filing into church about 8 a.m., but I'm neither Greek nor churchgoing, so I spent the morning walking.
I started where everyone would be in a few hours: the bayou just off the downtown, where more than 70 boys ages 16 to 18 would leap into the shallow, frigid water in pursuit of a cross tossed by a Greek Orthodox elder. Whoever retrieved the cross would win good luck for himself and his family for a year. He would be a town hero, a name on everyone's lips.
Locals already were setting up folding chairs and laying down blankets around the bayou's edge. Four TV trucks were in position for their live shots. The skies were gray and the air cool. Sheets of rain had fallen overnight.
It was Jan. 6, the Christian holiday of Epiphany (or Three Kings Day, if you prefer), and the annual religious and cultural highlight in this town of 23,000. Tarpon Springs, which has one of the highest percentages of Greeks in the country, has sent its boys into the water chasing crosses on this day for more than 100 years. The merging of cross and water commemorates Jesus' baptism.
I left the gathering crowd behind and wandered to St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, where cops waited outside to lead the four-block procession to the bayou. Across the street, in Fournos Bakery, the woman behind the counter told me everything in the glass case was baked that morning. I got a profoundly dense, chocolate-covered baklava and spinach pie with a deliciously creamy center. She asked where I was from. I said up North.
"Are you Greek?" she asked.
"No," I said. "Just checking out Epiphany."
Greeks started moving here as sponge divers in the late 1800s, and today they largely fuel the town, with Greek restaurant after Greek restaurant and the sponge docks, a collection of small tourist-ready shops. Tarpon Springs hasn't had much of a face-lift in recent decades, but the town is better off for it. Somehow Greek heritage seems more authentic when slightly weathered.
Though sponge diving brought Greeks here, its primary industry today is tourism — that is, being full of Greeks, and it is a tourist destination for that reason alone. But if there is one day to visit Tarpon Springs, it is Epiphany. On Jan. 6, the experience is more than being a tourist; you join them for a celebration of community, history and culture.
Back at the bayou, bodies were filling in — about 12,000, according to local estimates. The proselytizers were showing up with large signs about the afterlife, and the television reporters started going to work.
I squeezed into a spot beside two local women who never miss the cross chase. No one in town does, they said, never mind that it lasts no more than 30 seconds.
"You Greek?" one of the women asked.
"Nope," I said.
A helicopter started buzzing in place overhead. Epiphany was getting serious.
Just before 1 p.m., the procession showed up — the church hierarchy, including a Greek Orthodox honcho who had flown in from New York, and the stars of the day: the teenage boys, who were shivering in bathing suits and matching white T-shirts. Some looked ready for a fight. Bowed heads on others said they clearly did not want to be there.
The religious leaders, decked in long, flowing garb, took their places at the edge of the water and began to pray. The crowd was largely respectful but murmured lightly, ready for some splashing. The leader blessed the gathering, asked the Lord for mercy and then, in an ancient, accented voice, said, "Young divers, go." The boys hurled themselves into the water and sped to a series of boats arranged as a half-moon. They took their places in the boats and prepared to launch themselves when the cross was thrown. The family behind me started guessing who would win.
One said the kid in the blue swim trunks. One picked the kid in black. Another said the one in yellow. It seemed absurd. How could they pick correctly from so many boys?
After another few minutes of prayers, the cross went skyward. Cheers erupted, and the boys tore back into the water, all frenzied arms and legs, for the chance at victory and becoming a small-town celebrity. It didn't take more than 15 seconds for a kid whose family is well-known for — go figure — running a Greek restaurant to emerge from the pack. His competitors cheered him as loudly as anyone.
And behold — it was the kid in yellow. How did that woman get it right?
"Well, we come and bet on it every year," said Heather Iacovacci, 29, who sat with her brother and sister. "But really it's about the boat and what position he's in that determines it."
And with that, the cross chase was finished. Everyone walked back to the church for a brief ceremony to praise the winner before heading to the St. Nicholas community center for Greek food and dancing.
On the way, I heard a man lament that his kid didn't win. "I tell you, he almost got it," the man said. "I think the wind blew it."
Soon, for a mere $3, we were all packed into the community center, a combination of generic auditorium and generic gymnasium. Dozens of round tables topped with white paper tablecloths quickly filled with Greeks eating gyros, spinach pies and salads topped with feta cheese.
Children and adults decked in traditional Greek garb started dancing almost immediately as a band played the familiar sounds of Eastern Europe. At the booze line, while deciding what to drink, Angelo Gavrianis, 70, who lives in Brandon, Fla., counseled me to try the ouzo.
"This is my third," he said. "I haven't even been here an hour. Hey, you Greek?"
No, I said, and ordered ouzo. The licorice flavor warmed me.
Out back, a bunch of guys who went to high school together in the 1980s smoked Marlboro Lights, passed a bottle of Crown Royal and reminisced about chasing the cross 30 years ago.
Inside, the church hierarchy sat at a table at the head of the room, but when they rose to take part in the ceremonies, two women well into their 80s grabbed baklava from the priests' plate and giggled like schoolgirls. Stealing from a priest's dessert plate? On Epiphany?
"Yes!" one of the women said. "Here, take! Powder cookie!"
She put it in my hand and watched me eat it. It was quite delicious, made even more so by its illicitness.
"You Greek?" she asked, all smiles and baklava crumbs.
I was starting to wish I were.
If you go
Tarpon Springs is about 30 miles northwest of Tampa and an easy day trip while visiting the Tampa Bay area. It might not be necessary to stay in Tarpon Springs, but accommodations there tend to be on the cheaper side, so it can make for an affordable and quiet side trip.
Eating is a must. Many of the restaurants offer similar, if not identical, menus, and quality is relatively consistent. Hellas (307 Roosevelt Blvd., 727-934-8400, hellas-restaurant.com) and Plaka (769 Dodecanese Blvd., 727-934-4752, plakatarponsprings.com are both well-regarded.
Tarpon Springs, Fla.