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July 15, 2011

Elvis acts have popped up all over

Each summer on Corfu it's possible to see the 'King' perform all his (and your) old favourites one more time. From "Heartbreak Hotel" to "Suspicious Minds", from "Blue Suede Shoes" to "I Can't Help Falling in Love", my good friend Oresti Kovi, Corfu's Elvis impersonator extraordinaire, dressed to the tens and sporting a pompadour hair style and mutton-chop sideburns, croons the legendary tunes five nights a week with style and penache in packed bars and nightclubs.

Over the past couple of years, Oresti's Elvis act has become quite an event, and if imitation is the highest form of flattery, then Oresti is flattered by a number of those imitating the imitator: Elvis acts have popped up all over Corfu during the past couple of summers, though it is Oresti's lively performance that seems to fill the bars and clubs night after night. When one talks about Elvis here on Corfu, we all know who they're talking about: Oresti Kovi.

elvis impersonator

Even though this faux Elvis enjoys more than a little recognition these days, it has not always been so for him. Born and raised in Albania, Oresti Kovi came to Corfu fifteen years ago. The means by which he arrived were not only unconventional, but quite extraordinary.

One night, along with four friends, he set out to swim across the straight that separates Corfu from the Albanian mainland. From Kassiopi, one can easily see Oresti's hometown of Seranda, and on a clear day, one can even see many details, such as individual buildings, the newly constructed landing strip, or a church spire. Indeed, the distance across the straight does not appear to be long, and in fact it is only about four miles from shore to shore. As the five young, fit men in their early twenties entered the water that night, they must have thought the swim would be an easy one, and that they would soon be celebrating their arrival on Corfu. Sadly, only two of the five survived the waters that night.

Fifteen years ago, the advantages of living in Greece, as opposed to living in Albania, were more than obvious, not only to Oresti, but to many Albanians who left their homes and came to livein Greece , particularly here on Corfu. These days it is estimated that there are no fewer than five thousand native Albanians living on the island, and that figure may indeed be too low. Living here on Corfu, one is certain to make the acquaintance of any number of Albanian ex-pats. I myself know many. And while it certainly was true fifteen years ago that the disparity in quality of life on these two not-so-distant shores was, shall we say, world's apart, my friend Oresti tells me that today he's not so sure anymore that Greece offers the promise and economic advantage that he was once willing to risk his life to sample.

Oresti's history on Corfu has been both a varied and colourful one. During his first years spent on Corfu, he worked during the tourist season as a waiter. He never earned much money waiting tables, and when winter came, he searched out odd jobs to survive. Such a scenario is the rule rather than the exception for many if not most Albanian immigrants to Corfu. My friend Cosmos, for example, (also Albanian and a longtime resident of Corfu), is part of a troupe of Greek dancers that performs aboard cruise ships all during the summer season, but during winter this very talented, and very spirited, young man survives by picking up painting jobs when he can. On any day in San Rocco Square in Corfu Town, one can see scores of young Albanian men gathered there to sell their labour to anyone willing to give them a day's work, and the rate at which they are paid is nothing less than pathetic. Though their presence is tolerated here on Corfu, these young men are reduced to a class only slightly better than slaves, usually doing the hard physical labour that their Greek hosts and employers would rather not do themselves, or pay the going rate to a Greek workman. Besides being condemned to live as economic outcasts, Albanian immigrants on Corfu all too often suffer prejudicial stereotyping, if not outright verbal abuse. To say the least, life is not everything these immigrants had hoped it might be; on the contrary, many have grown bitter, or returned to their native country, humble though it may still be.

The winter that I first met Oresti Kovi, he had not yet begun doing his Elvis act. In truth, that winter we were both broke as a joke, and he and his girlfriend Teresa would come round to our apartment to visit Kelly and me. We shared simple meals as we schemed about how to survive until spring. It was during those visits that I learned about Oresti's deep and reverent devotion to Elvis Presley. On weekends, Oresti always sang karaoke at the Navigator's bar, but only Elvis's songs. During that same winter, Teresa sewed Oresti's first Elvis costume--by hand! For our part, Kelly and I helped him, via the Internet, to acquire suitable boots for his costume from a company in Texas. The boots, I remember, arrived just before his inaugural performance that spring.

Several summers have come and gone now, and Oresti has become well established as Corfu's premier Elvis imitator. He performs at least five nights a week all during summer at several resorts across the island. Seldom is there an empty seat for his performance, and often the street outside the venue where he is playing is crowded with those waiting for a seat inside. Money is also not such a big problem for Oresti these days, as his service is in great demand during the summer tourist season. I try to catch his act at least a couple of times during summer, not so much because I'll see something I've not seen before, but to renew our friendship--one that was forged during tougher times for us both. I not only respect Oresti's courage and his creativity, I admire his stamina, his courage, and most of all his sincerity. We have become good friends over the years, and I deplore the way many Corfiots treat the Albanians who've come here seeking a better future for themselves and their families. Frankly, there is no excuse for it.

Unlike in years passed, Oresti does not stay on Corfu during winter, he returns to Seranda, where his mother still lives. Seldom do I have the opportunity to spend evenings with him scheming or simply sharing dinner, but all in all, his absence is for the best, I suppose. Oresti has invited me to visit him at his home in Seranda. I've never been to Albania, but I would like to visit some time. Perhaps I'll have the opportunity before long. For now, though, we catch up by phone about once each month. When we do meet up again, whether next spring or sooner, I know that our friendship will be instantly renewed, as it was one forged in hardship, and in hope. We share the knowledge that we are both immigrants here, a fact that we never forget, and even as we thank the Corfiots for having us, we deplore the manner in which they treat the Albanians, many of whom have Greek ancestry.

Next time you're on Corfu, make it a point to see Oresti's Elvis act. I don't think you'll be disappointed, because anyone who reveres the 'King' as Oresti does, and renders the songs with respect and humility and sincerity, as he certainly does, will certainly win his way into your heart, as he has mine.