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Astoria Greeks glow with pride as Olympics begin

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Ten minutes before the opening ceremony, owner Nicos Constantinou hurried to hang a new, $7,000 flat screen television across from the bar. He bought it that day for his sidewalk cafe in the heart of the city's Greek community, hoping to give patrons who could not make it to their homeland the sharpest possible view of the spectacle."Beautiful no? Beautiful," Constantinou said as the ceremony unfolded with the Greek gods Eros, Medusa, Hercules and Athena parading across the 42-inch screen. He was among the scores of Astoria residents burning with Hellenic pride Friday, gathering in neighborhood bars and cafes to mark the Olympics' return to Greece after more than 100 years. "It does make us very proud," said Theodre M., 32, a waiter at the Zodiac bar on 31st Street who did not give his full last name. "We are a very small country."Unlike Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was scheduled to leave for Athens Wednesday to catch the games, 53-year-old Ionna Spanos could not afford to return home for the celebration. So she did the next best thing on Friday: she got together with friends to watch the ceremony. "I like to be there, of course," Spanos said between commercial breaks in the Zodiac bar. "Emotionally I'm down 'cause I'm not there ... Greece is the most beautiful country and I suggest everybody go all the time."More than 20 percent of Astoria is Greek, according to the 2000 Census, and the country's influence is all over the neighborhood. A bunch of Greek flags are strung from a clothesline across 30th Avenue near the N Train platform. A block away in Athens Square Park, statues of Athena and Socrates gaze out from the shadows of a towering replica of Grecian columns. It's a tight-knit community that often comes together to mark national triumphs. Flag-waving fanatics took to the streets for hours when the Greek national soccer team won the 2004 European Championship last month. "We are very happy together. Greek people are very close to each other," Spanos said. "We are immigrants, don't forget."And as an immigrant, Angelo Markopoulous said it is hard to maintain his roots, especially when American ideology clashes with the spirit of the Games. The 44-year-old, sitting with a row of friends in front of the Athens Cafe's new television, complained that the broadcaster of the games, NBC, had no respect for the Olympic spirit. The ceremony had too many commercials, he said, and since it was recorded hours earlier it lacked the urgency of live television."There is no continuity," Markopoulous said. "They break off every two minutes. Why isn't this live?"His friend, Angelo Brisnovalis, 39, concurred. "This is something no other nation in the world could have pulled off - this particular thing - 'cause they don't have there history," Brisnovalis said. "There is nothing about Coca-Cola there. There's nothing about McDonald's. It's all culture, except the commercials." Reach Reporter Matthew Monks at 718-229-0300 ext. 156 or by email at news@timesledger.com

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