Jersey Girl Goes Greek for Adopted Homeland
One of the first things Kareen Farrell Kakouris, wife of Cypriot Ambassador Andreas Kakouris, likes to say about herself is, “I’m a Jersey girl.” This tall, stunning blond proudly and good-humoredly talks about her American heritage as the first-generation daughter of a German mother and Scottish father who settled in central New Jersey.
From the time she was young, Kareen, the oldest of three daughters, wondered about the rest of the world. “When planes would fly over, I wanted to be on that plane. I may have grown up in New Jersey, but I have the DNA for this diplomatic life. I have always been restless and curious. Plus, I love to cook and entertain.”
So it’s no surprise that she’s made Cyprus her adopted homeland. “I’ve fallen in love with a whole country and its people. It’s like adopting a child who you love as your own. I’m still learning Greek, but I’m happy to be conversant now and comfortable talking with family and friends,” she told The Washington Diplomat.
So how does a self-professed “Jersey girl” come to marry a Cypriot ambassador — a question she was once asked during her husband’s posting in Ireland. Her response: “She moves to New York.”
That’s where Kareen attended Fordham University, after which she landed a job in corporate training and marketing. It was then that her sister Maureen and her future brother-in-law “conspired to introduce me to some eligible bachelors,” Kareen recalled.
“One night, I was introduced to Andreas but I didn’t think he spoke English. The next night when we met at another party, I realized that he not only spoke my language but the King’s English! He had been reared in London by Greek-Cypriot parents who emigrated in the 1950s.”
After dating for three years, Andreas was reassigned to Nicosia, and they were apparently so ready to get married, they did not once, but twice — in ceremonies that epitomized the young couple’s union of families and cultures.
“We had two weddings. By that time, my parents had moved up to the Catskills and owned the Highland Fling Inn, so we were married there, just like my two sisters. My father wore a kilt and the bag piper, in full regalia, piped us down the aisle,” Kareen said.
“On our way to Cyprus, we were married again in London at St. Michael’s Greek Orthodox, my in-laws’ church — with 350 guests! I could have written that movie ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding,’” she quipped.
Kareen instantly bonded with her big new family though. She had already met her husband’s mother, sister and brother in New York, but didn’t meet his “wonderful” father until the couple’s engagement party in London, weeks before the wedding. She noted that her mother-in-law Lisa often says, “You are more like my daughter than if you had been my own.”
Kareen says that “embracing each other’s cultures has made our marriage a wonderfully enriching experience — and our chil-dren are a reflection of our multicultural union.”
“Stephen, a senior at the Hyde School in Bath, Maine, is funny and outdoorsy. Our daughter Andreana is 14 and a freshman at Sidwell Friends who likes field hockey and soccer,” Kareen explained. “I consider myself an American but a Cypriot too. Our children are both very attached to Cyprus, but they are also very American.”
Even the family pet is a reflection of their Mediterranean influence: “Our cat is called Kokkinos — that’s Greek for red,” she noted.
When her husband was appointed deputy chief of mission here in Washington from 1996 to 2000 and the children were begin-ning school, Kareen went back to school herself, earning a master’s degree in special education from the Johns Hopkins Univer-sity and later teaching in Montgomery County Schools in Maryland.
Following their return to Nicosia in 2000, Kareen taught at the American International School in Cyprus. And when her husband served as ambassador to Ireland from 2002 to 2006, she developed a U.S. studies curriculum for elementary schools, teaching American and Irish students, including her own children, at St. Andrew’s College.
Since returning to Washington, she has devoted her time to two main projects: the Washington Performing Arts Society’s Em-bassy Adoption Program and Innocents at Risk, a Washington-based foundation that fights the global trafficking of women and children. She also teaches English at Language ETC (Education, and Technology Center), a nonprofit program that provides English classes to adults new to Washington.
“As a teacher who has taught foreign service children, I have found our children are not just citizens of their parents’ countries, they are citizens of the world. We feel very proud that they have embraced this life with the same sense of adventure and curi-osity that we have. They learned about Cyprus from the Cypriots, Ireland from the Irish, and the U.S. from the Americans.
“Our children didn’t choose our path, but they are very much along for the ride and while it is a fascinating ride, it has its bumps along the way,” she added. “They, like us, must re-emerge in each new place to embrace new friends, ideas, cultures, expectations. It isn’t always easy but they now have a global view…. All four of us realize how lucky we are to have had endless op-portunities for ‘Kodak moments’ all over the world.”
Kareen herself learned about different cultures early on through her diverse upbringing. Being close to her German grandparents, she accompanied them to Germany at age 9 for six weeks. As a teenager, she traveled to see her Scottish grandmother, getting to know her father’s homeland.
“My father was a marine surveyor, and he’d sing Irish and Scottish songs around the house,” Kareen recalled. “I put myself through school, working from the time I was 14 — first babysitting, then cashiering at a supermarket, and then as a front desk clerk at the local Hilton where I later worked as the banquet manager.” Without knowing any French, Kareen even flew to Paris for a time to work as an au pair and study French.
Still, when Kareen left New York to live in Cyprus for the first time with her husband, it was a tremendous change for the young wife — a transition made easier by classic Cypriot hospitality.
“I left everything behind for my new life — my job, my family, and my friends,” she said. “New York to Nicosia, it was a whole new life. Here I was this tall, fair-haired American — they treated me like a princess. The people were warm and embracing but not intrusive. Since it used to be a British Colony, even though I didn’t speak Greek, many spoke English to me. But I started learning Greek and asked storekeepers to only speak Greek to me. Often, it was quite amusing.
“The Cypriots are so caring and have such an incredible generosity of spirit. I never felt judged,” she continued. “During my pregnancy with Stephen when Andreas was back in New York, I had serious difficulties and was rushed to the clinic. When I awoke, I thought I had died because sitting around my room in a vigil were 20 people including Andreas’s cousin Costas, who was holding my hand. Relatives, neighbors and friends all came out of concern. When Andreas arrived and asked for me, the receptionist asked, ‘Who are you?’ When he said he was my husband, she said, ‘Then who’s that man holding her hand?’”
Indeed, Kareen has not only fallen in love with Cyprus’s people, but with the island itself, becoming an expert on its past and present.
“Cyprus has not only been a member of the European Union since 2004, but it is ‘Europe’s lighthouse in the eastern Mediterra-nean,’” she proudly pointed out. “It’s only the size of Connecticut, but it’s a pretty important little island with over 11,000 years of history.”
Cyprus, which was settled by Mycenaean-Achaean Greeks between the 13th and 11th centuries B.C., is the birthplace of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, according to mythology. For centuries, this island has been the crossroads of civilization from three continents, Europe, Asia and Africa. The list of conquerors is long: Phoenicians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Persians, Al-exander the Great, Romans, Byzantines, Franks, Venetians, Ottoman Turks and the British — until Cyprus gained its independ-ence in 1960.
“That’s why Cyprus is such a culturally rich country, a true mosaic. I’ve always been impressed with how you could go for a ride and see ancient aqueducts stretching across working farmlands and monasteries dotting mountainsides. There are original frescoes from the 10th century and when you stand at Kourion, the ancient Roman amphitheater where they still give perform-ances, you look out over the azure Mediterranean and it takes your breath away.”
Seeing the small island firsthand also gave Kareen an appreciation for its very large problem — known simply as the Cyprus problem — a festering territorial conflict between Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots who demand autonomy and are backed by neighboring Turkey, which controls the northern one-third of the island.
“My husband is very passionate about solving the Cyprus problem and I know how proud and honored he is to represent his country and the Cypriot people. However, only after I went to Cyprus did I fully understand why he cared so much and what he meant when he spoke of the division of this fabled country since the 1974 Turkish invasion and occupation. Cyprus is too small to be divided. It is one country with one people — the Cypriot people. Nicosia is the only divided capital in Europe,” she said.
“For an American, it is difficult to understand what it must feel like to be forced out of your home and become a refugee in your own country. Over one-third of the country is still illegally occupied. That would be as if 100 million Americans lost their land and homes and were forced to move to a different state. It’s heart-wrenching to see the effects of this division.”
Cyprus’s 34 years of division is a complicated story and Kareen knows it. “Here in Washington my role is not ‘arm candy’ but it isn’t foreign policy either. But I am a very direct person and I don’t like it when people or countries say one thing and do an-other.”
Kareen’s candor and pride in her adopted homeland clearly don’t bother her husband, who seems grateful to have a wife who has not only traveled to different countries for his diplomatic career, but has whole-heartedly embraced the country of his birth. “I thank God every day for bringing Kareen into my life,” said Ambassador Kakouris. “I’m so proud of her achievements and her positive attitude to life. I could not do what I do as ambassador if I did not have Kareen by my side. She’s my battery pack.”
About the Author
Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.