Faces of the International Marketplace: Meet Aggeliki Nicholetta Tsoukalas
Growing up, Aggeliki Tsoukalas always felt a bit different from the other kids, even in school.
“Every time they did roll call, the teacher would get down to the Ts and she’d be like, ‘Oh, this is a tough one!’ I’d raise my hand like, ‘It’s me, you can just call me Kiki,’” she recalled, laughing.
Although Kiki has a lighthearted perspective now, she admitted that school was difficult for her. As the daughter of two immigrants from the island of Zakynthos off the western coast of Greece, Kiki grew up in a primarily Greek-speaking household on the south side of Chicago. Well into middle school, she struggled with the language barrier.
Kiki’s family relocated to Indianapolis in 1996 when she was 13 years old. Moving from a Greek “bubble” in Chicago to Indianapolis was a culture shock that Kiki was not prepared for.
“Growing up in a very large Greek community and being with people that understand the American-Greek barrier [made it] easy until [we] moved here, where nobody understands it and where the Greek community was rather small,” said Kiki. “It was very challenging to make friends, to keep them, to be involved.”
Not until high school did Kiki lose her accent and adjust to the cultural norms of her new home. One custom she learned not to share was greeting others with a kiss on both cheeks.
“Oh, these people do not like that,” Kiki recalled thinking.
Having owned a Greek restaurant in Chicago, Kiki’s parents decided to open a new establishment in Indianapolis, where doing so was cheaper. Noticing a lack of Chicago-style restaurants in Indianapolis, the family saw an opportunity to offer something unique to the area.
“We were one of the first Chicago restaurants that opened in Indianapolis 22 years ago, [with] authentic Chicago food. [We served] things Chicago is known for: their hot dogs, their Polish sausage, their Italian beefs, that kind of thing,” said Kiki. “They chose the location of a former Popeye’s Chicken off 38th Street and have been here ever since. “The restaurant is obviously family owned and operated, so unless one of us dies, we don’t really do a lot of hiring.”
Kiki’s father had previously worked as a farmer, waiter and chef. Owning a restaurant was a perfect fit for him, Kiki said, because he liked cooking, eating and being in charge. Still, the restaurant absorbed much of her parent’s time. Working seven days a week meant that Kiki’s mother and father missed out on attending her volleyball and rugby games, as well as other activities. While it was difficult at the time, Kiki said she understands now the sacrifices her parents made.
“At the same time, I don’t want that quality of life for myself,” said Kiki.
Even though she currently operates the family restaurant, Kiki does not envision herself staying there for the remainder of her career. She graduated college with a degree in nursing that she hopes to put to use.
“Nursing is something I am very passionate about,” said Kiki. “I love to help people and feel a great deal of satisfaction knowing I have made some sort of difference and positive impact.”
While circumstances forced her to put nursing on hold, Kiki prioritizes her family, which she calls the most important part of her life.
“You can see it, too; because here I am, with a college degree, working at a restaurant seven days a week,” said Kiki. “If it wasn’t important, I wouldn’t be here,”
The restaurant not only supports Kiki’s immediate family but her extended family in Greece. She describes a characteristic of Greek people, “Filotimo,” which means love of honor.
“We honor those that we love with the utmost respect, and we all help each other out,” explained Kiki. “If one falls, two are there to help pick up. If we are poor and can only afford one loaf of bread, we will cut it into 25 pieces and each person will get a sliver.”
Kiki and her family return to Greece at least once a year to be with family. Kiki said that she has not ruled out taking advantage of her dual citizenship and moving there permanently.
“I would consider it because I would be closer to my family. The life is wonderful [in Greece], the food is wonderful,” said Kiki. “But also I have no regrets as of now because I wouldn’t have had the opportunities that I have had here. You’ve gotta take the bad with the good.”