Newlyweds marry Greek and Lebanese traditions

Zeina Berchane and George Fellios dance into married life June 22, celebrating their Greek and Lebanese heritages.

Lekkas Photography

Zeina Berchane and George Fellios dance into married life June 22, celebrating their Greek and Lebanese heritages.

TAMPA — If Zeina Berchane was tired from her 22-hour Beirut-to-Tampa trip or stressed out from losing her luggage, George Fellios would never have guessed it.

Two hours after she landed, showered and borrowed a pair of shoes, the bank office manager born in the Lebanese village of Mashghara met the Wells Fargo financial adviser from Tampa.

He liked her energy.

She liked his dancing — right into the lobby of the Seminole Hard Rock Cafe, their third stop on the evening friends introduced them.

"A man who likes to dance loves to live," said Zeina, who came to Tampa to visit a Lebanese girlfriend married to one of George's friends.

Zeina, 37, and George, 39, saw each other every night that week in January 2012. She told him of her village's incomparable view of the moon. He introduced her to Gasparilla.

Then she was gone, to Los Angeles, to see cousins. One day, an Armenian-Lebanese woman offered to read her coffee cup.

"She told me, 'You are thinking of someone in America,' " Zeina said, recalling that she laughed when the powdery, soft grounds foretold a marriage. "I told her I would invite her to the wedding, which I did."

The pair communicated only occasionally after her return to Beirut.

"I struggled a couple of months with how this could work," George said. "There were a lot of aspects I doubted, including that she lived in a dangerous part of the world."

A thoughtful text message sent an epiphany.

"On St. George Day, April 23, she wished me a Happy Name Day," he said. "Culturally, we have so much in common ... food, music, religion."

Zeina grew up a Melkite Catholic, praying the same Byzantine blessings, sacraments and hymns in Arabic as George does as a member of the Greek Orthodox Church.

The anise-flavored drink she calls arak he calls raki. The steps to the folk dance she calls dabkeh are nearly identical to his kalamatiano. Her grandmother grows olives and figs in her back yard like his did in Greece.

"It's been a daily discovery," he said. "One night I sent a photo of my green bean, tomato and lamb Greek dinner and she was eating almost the identical meal."

Six months after they met, Zeina returned to meet the Fellios family.

"My mother who has three sons immediately had a daughter," George said. That visit ended with a shopping trip for wedding rings and a plane ticket to Beirut for George.

On Aug. 15, at a monastery in Hamat in northern Lebanon, as they kneeled before Our Lady of Nourieh, George asked Zeina to be his wife. He could barely take his eyes off her to admire the breathtaking view of the Mediterranean coast.

They heated up Skype until George flew back to celebrate Christmas and New Year's Eve. "Once I saw the beauty of Lebanon, my anxiety disappeared." On that trip, paperwork took priority as they documented the yearlong relationship to secure a "fiancee visa" from Homeland Security.

Then all they could do was wait. And wait.

With the U.S. Embassy in Damascus closed, all Syrian immigration issues are resolved through Beirut, as well as those for Lebanon.

Further complicating matters was a typo on Zeina's birth certificate. Her date of birth did not match her passport and government ID, a common problem for children born during the Lebanese civil war, they learned.

Wedding invitations went into the mail anyway.

"It was very stressful, lots of tears," Zeina said. In February, flying to Tampa for 10 days on a tourist visa "to be with my valentine," she whirled into action, sampling cakes, choosing flowers, buying a wedding gown, hiring a photographer, booking musicians and meeting with the priest.

At last, the embassy called. Her visa was issued April 27. A month later, she was unpacking in George's South Tampa condo.

Mr. and Mrs. Fellios married on June 22 in a traditional ceremony, officiated in both Greek and Arabic, at St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Hyde Park. Then onto the dance floor at the Rusty Pelican, where bouzouki players and a pop band inspired the newlyweds' and guests' lively steps.

Amy Scherzer can be reached at ascherzer@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3332.

Photo from Lekkas Photography

Zeina Berchane and George Fellios dance into married life June 22, celebrating their Greek and Lebanese heritages at the wedding reception at the Rusty Pelican in Tampa.

Newlyweds marry Greek and Lebanese traditions 07/13/13 [Last modified: Friday, July 12, 2013 7:59pm]

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