Avgousti guest for Historical Society Speaker Series
The Historical Society of Hammonton (HSH) hosted their speaker series presentation at the Hammonton Canoe Club on June 1. This month’s speaker is Mario’s Auto Repair owner Mario Avgousti. Avgousti talked about growing up in Cyprus during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus and his family’s eventual move to New Jersey and shared funny stories that range from his upbringing to meeting his wife Anastasia.
Avgousti grew up as the oldest of three children and was 11 years old when his family came to Hammonton in 1978. Prior to moving here, Avgousti grew up during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus and he shared his experiences of what it was like living during the war.
“We used to sleep at nighttime on the floor with my grandmother because we were afraid.
They’d go and put a bomb in one guy’s house and the next night, they would go and put a bomb in another guy’s house. We were sleeping on the floor and it was scary until they overthrew the government, that was even more scary because we had a curfew. We had to stay in the house and nobody was allowed to leave,” Avgousti said.
Due to the curfew, they weren’t allowed to go to the grocery store and it was even more difficult with Greek soldiers on the streets, where if you open up a window, a soldier would turn the gun on you to get back in the house. Avgousti shared another story of when his younger brother was seven months old and the family needed formula.
“My father says ‘well, we got to do something, the baby’s going to starve.’ He goes out the door and there’s a young soldier and he turns the gun on him to get him back in the house, he said. My dad had the look, like Al Pacino in the Godfather when he looked at somebody and told him. He turns to the soldier with a gun and says ‘listen, I got a kid inside and I’m going to get formula. If you’re going to shoot, shoot now because I’m going.’ Guess what? He went and came back and got the formula. He had big cajones, my dad, and he wasn’t a fighter but he was good with words,” Avgousti said.
Before the war, Avgousti’s father had plenty of properties, new cars and money to turn over but afterwards, the economy took a massive hit. Banks weren’t able to lend money so he was unable to sell cars but that didn’t stop Avgousti’s father. He turned his showroom into a cafe and was successful in it before he returned to selling cars, which was unsuccessful due to the struggling economy in Cyprus.
The struggling economy in Cyprus was the turning point for the family as they moved to the United States. While they did settle in the U.S., Avgousti assumed they were visiting for his aunt’s wedding and then returning back, which wasn’t the case. Avgousti was signed up to attend school in Mount Laurel and stayed with his aunt for two months, but life in the U.S. got off to a rough start for Avgousti.
“Let me tell you something, it was horrible. I couldn’t speak a word of English but my brother and sister, they learned English in like a month and a half. I couldn’t get the hang of it, it was a year,” Avgousti said.
Avgousti eventually settled in the U.S. in 1978, moving to Cedar Brook, then Magnolia before settling in Atco. His father opened up a used auto shop but struggled, bouncing around different towns before hitting gold in Atco. But it was also a struggle as well in Atco before Avgousti was approached by a person from an Auto Trader magazine for free advertising of the auto shop in the magazine, which was the big break his father needed. The family then moved to Hammonton, where the shop moved to an old Ford dealership available.
Hammonton was his father’s favorite because of the culture and was a big factor to moving his family here.
Avgousti has owned Mario’s Auto Repair for over 20 years and has built a strong relationship with the town. He and his wife, Anastasia, have been married for eight years, to which he joked that he was old. They met at a barbecue party where Avgousti was cooking at the party where he saw Anastasia and started chatting up with her. Anastasia came back from Greece at the time and Avgousti questioned how she’ll get her green card, which prompted this funny anecdote resulting in laughs from the audience.
“I tell you what, you give me $10,000, I’ll marry you and get your green card. She’s a little bit of a loudmouth so she goes ‘I don’t need you, my mother and sister are American citizens.’ I said momma, schmomma. Ten grand, I’ll marry you and you’ll have your green card in six months,” Avgousti said.
Both of them exchanged numbers and started dating after that. Avgousti ended up knowing her family prior through her aunt and cousins as they owned a pizza shop in Philadelphia.
Both Avgousti and Anastasia then went to the immigration office for Anastasia to get naturalized as an American citizen. When Anastasia was being reviewed by the immigration officer and it was revealed to the officer that her mother, sister and niece are American citizens, this prompted the immigration to face Avgousti.
“‘You know, she doesn’t really need you to be an American citizen, you know that right?’ I said to her [Anastasia] ‘you’re lucky I kept my mouth shut because I was ready to tell him, would you shut up? I’m getting ten grand for this.’ But I knew he wouldn’t take it lightly,” Avgousti said.
Avgousti concluded the presentation by answering questions about life in Cyprus currently and the division happening. Both Anastasia and Avgousti shared stories about their vacation home as well as Anastasia’s favorite food in fish. Anastasia then served guests with a Greek dish in spanakopita, which is Greek spinach pie.