Thursday, January 04, 2018


Greek New Year’s lore roughly accords with Anglo-Saxon traditions about the changing of the wind: If, upon the stroke of midnight in the New Year, one is miffed, quizzical, or downright perturbed, cosmic forces will mysteriously ensure that such moods will remain immutable for the duration of our planet’s revolution around the celestial orb.
It is for this reason, then, that I smiled, when Greek friends manifested themselves upon my doorstep, bearing, instead of the requisite vasilopita, a boxed Panettone, this particular version being, the Motta Colomba. Interestingly, this avatar is actually the cake served at Easter, that coming in the shape of a dove, symbolises a time of peace and reflection. When my friends invited me to insert my own coin within the confection, because, as they informed me, this vasilopita comes without one, I continued to smile, taking the time, in peace and reflection, to visualize their offering being ritually impaled upon a toasting fork and immolated within the fires of Vesuvius by enraged New Year’s kallikantzaroi, of the Orthodox persuasion, of course.
Similarly, I allowed my lips to express joy, goodwill and mirth when an acquaintance also apparated at our place of abode some time later, bearing what he maintained to be a vasilopita. It was in fact, a plaited tsoureki, manifestly frozen at Easter time, its decay suspended in time and space and now thawed out and proffered wholeheartedly. It was the words: Χρόνια Πολλά 2018, inscribed in texta on the outside of a clear plastic bread bag, along with the hole at its rear, where a coin had been manually inserted, that provided the logical basis behind my deduction. As things transpired, the said tsoureki-cum-vasilopita was of historical importance, since the inserted coin turned out to be a two-cent piece, withdrawn from circulation in 1992. Furthermore, I relish the idea of a versatile Greek comestible making itself available to a multiplicity uses, as being the Greek-Australian equivalent of bringing out hot cross buns just after Christmas. Apparently, many Greek-Australian bakers feel the same way, for their vasilopites also look, taste and feel suspiciously like tsourekia as well.
For this New Year, I chose to attempt a recreation of my late grandmother’s vasilopita, which was hard, dry and bread-like, and topped with walnuts whose shells were charred, for my grandmother was a purist and would not cover them with foil. In pursuit of this lofty goal, I attended my local Greek deli just before Christmas, in order to obtain the requisite ingredients early and give myself enough time to experiment. As I waited at the cash register, I was treated to this following conversation between the proprietor and what appeared to be a second-generation Greek-Australian:
“Ela re, how are you going palikari?”
“Gamiseta re. How about you? Busy?”
“Tis trelis mate. Gamiseta.”
“You taking time off?”
-“No way mate. Closing the shop only on the main days. Too busy. Gamiseta. What are you doing for New Year’s?”
“Going to my pethera's re.. Gamiseta.”
“Gamiseta re.”
“How's the missus?”
“Giving me strain re, gamiseta. Wants to go to Queensland.”
“What is it with missuses always wanting to go on holidays to Queensland re? Gamiseta.”
“Gamiseta, alright.”
Turning to me, the smiling proprietor enquired:
“Esy megale?”
“No I can’t,” I responded.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“ I can’t do what you are encouraging me to do.”
“Huh? Why not?”
“I’m fasting,” I informed him.”
Whereupon both my interlocutors chimed in unison: “Gamiseta!”

Apparently, the more you conflate the two Greek words into one, and the more you repeat them, the more Greek you are. My antiphon to the ritual chant appeared to grant immense cheer to the proprietor, for he would not let me leave without obtaining custody of one of his vasilopites, one of the tsoureki-looking types, gratis. 
“Ellada," the proprietor exclaimed, spreading his arms expansively as I walked away. "Only we Greeks understand the vasilopita. The rest of the world? Varvaroi vre paidi mou, gamiseta.”
I attempted to explain to him that both eastern and western New Year’s celebrations derive from the ancient Greek Kronia, the festival of Cronus, the god of Time, which involved selecting a "king" by lot, and then, the Roman Saturnalia. I added for good measure that the traditions surrounding vasilopita are very similar to western European celebrations of the Twelfth Night and Epiphany, the king cake of France and Louisiana and the tortell of Catalonia.
“Yes, the proprietor responded, "but there is one thing we have that they don’t.”
“What?” I asked.

“They aren’t Ellines, re,” he crowed triumphantly. 'Even Agio Vasili was Greek."
I returned two days after Christmas, surmising from my experimental concoctions that my grandmother’s vasilopita recipe contained other secret ingredients I had not accounted for.
"How are you re? How can I help?" the proprietor asked, expending the last of his leftover Christmas cheer upon my insufficiency.
"Do you have mastiha?” I asked.

"Yeah re. Katse....Here it is re."
“Is that the Greek one or the Lebanese one?”
“ It’s the Greek one re, what do you take me for?”
Suddenly, he looked up at me, frowning. "Re, are you doing baking?"he enquired tentatively.
“Yeah, vasilopita.”

The proprietor shook his head in disbelief: "Seriously, re?"
"Yeah, why?"
Looking defensive, he hastened to confide. "Nah relax re. It’s all good. No judgment. Your secret is safe with me, re. Καλή χρονιά."
With the advent of the New Year, just before the vasilopita is served, it would be ideal to retrieve, from the depths of the cupboard, my invention, the Greek Australian board game for the holidays: ΠΑΡΕΞΗΓΗΣΗ. The object is to visit as many squares on the board as possible, which represent relatives' houses. If you wipe your hands on the tablecloth instead of using a napkin, go back three spaces. If you forget to gossip about your third cousin, go back two spaces. If someone makes a snide remark about your distant uncle’s Filipino girlfriend’s culinary prowess and you don’t join in, advance three spaces. If you fail to show appreciation for your newlywed investment banker brother-in-law’s new barbecue, go back one space. The object of the game is to get to the finish with the largest amount of relatives not speaking to you.
Extra points are awarded for:
1. Guessing around the New Year’s Day table, which of your relatives have deemed your Christmas presents unsuitable and have already surmised whence they were purchased and obtained a refund.
2. Guessing around the New Year’s Day table, which of your relatives know that you have deemed their Christmas presents unsuitable and have already surmised whence they were purchased and obtained a refund.
3. Guessing which new age relative will make the most outlandish New Year’s Resolution, including world peace, sustainable and ethically made yoga pants, the cooking of gluten-free lakhanodolmades and commencement of a communication embargo with their mother.
4. Guessing around the New Year’s Day table, which relatives will not be speaking to you by the end of the cutting and distribution of the vasilopita.

5. Referring to the cutting of the vasilopita as κοπή της βασιλόπιτας, and not κόψιμο της βασιλόπιτας, which is what happens when your vasilopita gives you the runs.
In keeping with the spirit of most Greek organisations, there is a rule book, but no one is expected to follow it. Sadly, since its invention, I have found no one within my social circle who wishes to play.
When my vasilopita emerged from the oven, it looked and smelled like a History Channel graphic re-enactment gone horribly wrong. Malodorous and hard baked on the top, it lacked structure and was soft in the middle, much like myself, really. The consensus being that it was not fit for human consumption, adhering to the strictures of hallowed custom required us to pull out the previously gifted tsoureki-vasilopita, upon which I chipped my tooth, thereupon discovering the ingenious insertion of the two-cent piece.
“Γούρι, γούρι,” one relative joyfully exclaimed.
“Don’t swear!” another advised, as I uttered nefarious idiomatic curses, clutching my mouth in agony. “If you swear today, you will be swearing all year.”
“That’s what happens when you play the fool and try to do a woman’s job,” a middle aged invitee observed darkly.
“What did you say?” I looked up, my eyebrows contorting like a Russian gymnast on steroids, in fury.
Τίποτα, τίποτα,” he retreated three paces. “Τίποτα, καλή καρδιά, καλή χρονιά. Και του χρόνου.”
“So you want him to chip his tooth again next year, do you?” an enraged aunt demanded.
“Όχι, όχι παρεξήγηση,῾he retreated a further two paces.
I sat back, mesmerised as I watched them play ΠΑΡΕΞΗΓΗΣΗ unwittingly, in a manner that exhausts superlatives, crumbs of tsourekovasilopita streaming from their mouths as they engaged in heated invective, my cheek muscles jerking my lips into a chasmic smile.
“That’s better, my overprotective aunt beamed, hurling a stream of pejoratives over the table. “Smile. Now you will be smiling all year round. Και του χρόνου.”


First published in NKEE on Tuesday 2 January 2018

Saturday, December 23, 2017


Even before I reach Odisho’s front door, my ears are assailed by the sound of Giorgos Dalaras’ voice emanating from beyond threshold: «Μες το μαχαλά, πέφτει κουμπουριά…» Then, the sound of shuffling and a heavy voice struggles to be heard over the music: «Εντάξει, περίμενε ρε φίλε, σού ανοίγω τώρα,» aspirating the s.
As the door opens, Odisho’s broad white grin is blinding. He bears in his hand a bottle of ouzo. «Χρόνια πολλά βρε φίλε! Έλα να πιεις ούζο.» Being led down the hallway and into the dining room, I note the conspicuously mounted Greek souvenir plates, the statues of the Greek gods on the buffet and a bouzouki hanging nonchalantly next to an unremarkable print of a non-descript blue and white church on some non-descript Greek island, all of which populates many a Greek home in Melbourne and which should not cause the eyebrow to be raised here, save that Odisho is manifestly not Greek, but Assyrian.

Every year, close to Christmas, Odisho and his nostalgic Assyrian friends, who lived in Greece in the late seventies and early eighties, prior to their emigration to Australia, get together to have a pre-Christmas dinner. The sole purpose of that dinner is to reminisce about a Greece that is inextricably linked to their lost youth. They mouth Greek phrases and speak to each other in nineteen eighties Greek, all the while drinking ouzo and playing the music that was popular in Greece during the time of their sojourn there, in order to evoke that era. My sporadic presence at these Poseidonian rituals, in some bizarre way, legitimizes them, for as a speaker of broken Assyrian, and as a Greek-Australian who did not experience Greece in the period in which my convivial diners were there present, I lend the solemn proceedings, a modicum of ersatz authenticity.
Tonight is different from other nights, however, because as Yiannis Parios’ «Να μ’ αγαπάς τώρα,» is allowed to play out its final grace notes, Odisho finally reveals to us how he got to Greece in the first place, in time to celebrate his first Christmas there:
“It was 1976. I wanted to leave Iraq to go to Greece, and I was a student. I went to the passport office and in those days, the forms were so complicated, that there were professional scribes with typewriters set up outside the office to assist people with their applications. I approached one and he asked me: 
“What do you do?”

“I’m a student,” I responded.
“That’s not good. They will never let you out if you are a student,” he shook his head knowledgeably. “Do you do anything else? What else can I write?”
“I don’t know, you are the professional. You write whatever you think is necessary,” I replied, in turn.
He wrote something on the form and told me to take it in to the passport office, where I would be interviewed. For some time I waited in the office, until an army colonel marched up to me briskly. 
“Follow me, young man,” he ordered.

I stood to attention and saluted him, as was the custom and gave him my papers. He pored over them diligently, his brow growing increasingly furrowed as he scanned down the page. Suddenly, he stopped.
“What is this? You are unemployed?” he asked.

“No, sir, I am a student,” I responded, still standing to attention.
“A student, do you say? Then why have you written that you are unemployed?”
“Go and tell the idiot who helped you fill out this form to change this to ‘worker’ and come back here at once,” he barked.
I did as I was told and returned a half an hour later, submitting the amended documents to the colonel.
“Ah, see that’s better,” the colonel beamed. “Now when you go abroad, the foreigners will have respect for you and for Iraq. Who would respect a country full of the unemployed? Bon Voyage.”
As it turns out, I did not make it to Greece at that time. In those days, visas were issued on the day of travel by the Greek embassy and a series of mishaps intervened that resulted in me missing my flight. At the commencement of the Iran-Iraq War, travel restrictions were instituted and I could not get out. As things worsened in the country, I left Iraq illegally through Turkey and stayed in Istanbul. From there I tried on seven separate occasions to cross into Greece over the Thracian border, but each time, we would be caught either by Greek or Turkish border guards. However, you will find my last attempt interesting.
It was Christmas Eve. We three, [he points to another two of our fellow diners] had just crossed the border just after midnight and as the people smugglers had taught us, we were inflating a rubber dinghy which we were going to us to cross a river. We managed to get all of our party across safely when the guards found us. They took us to an outpost. On the way, they questioned us about our nationality and our religious affiliations. I pulled out my cross and showed it to them. “Jesus, Christmas,” I told him.
Taking me aside, one the guards whispered: “Look, I recognize you. You’ve tried to come this way before. I’m sorry but I have to take you to my commanding officer. Just be wary of one thing. If he asks you where you came from, do NOT, under any circumstances say Istanbul. You say Κωνσταντινούπολη. Can you say it? Say it with me slowly. Make sure you don’t forget. It’s important.”
When we arrived at the outpost, there was no one on duty. Instead, we could hear the radio blaring and a lot of voices singing. The guards were having a Christmas party and were blind drunk. We were taken before the commanding officer, a squat, bald man with a thin moustache. Teary eyed, cheeks flushed crimson with alcohol, he shouted: 
“What animals are these?”
He staggered off his chair, and poked his swollen face into mine. Reeling even closer towards me, he coughed:
“Where did you come from?”
“Λέγε. Where did you come from?”
I had a mental blank. I could not remember how to pronounce the word the guard had told me and was terrified we would be beaten and sent back.
“Tell me now you animal,” the commanding officer screamed.
“ K,,, Kostadinopoli,” I stammered, finally.
“Of course you did palikari,” he crowed triumphantly. “You came from our city but those filthy Turks have taken it from us. But the time will come when the city will be ours and the Turks will be sent back to the Red Apple Tree….” He walked away, only to turn back and command indifferently: “Let them go. It’s Christmas. Χρόνια πολλά. Ο Θεός μαζίσας.” That was the first time in my life that I could celebrate Christmas openly. I was alone, but ecstatic.

I celebrated six wonderful Christmases in Aegaleo, and was the last of my friends to leave Greece. When I arrived at Melbourne Airport, just before Christmas, they all came to greet me, all of these guys sitting around the table here today. But what type of welcome do you think I received? As soon as I walked through the doors, they started yelling at me: “What are you doing? Are you crazy? Go back! Greece is far better.” And it is true. There is no place like Greece. The years we spent there are golden.”
We listen to some of Mitropanos’ early songs and they ask me whether I am familiar with the type of music a certain group of Greek musicians used to play at the Retreat Hotel. I gasp. “You mean Apodimi Compania? How do you know them?” Odisho and his band of Greek nostalgics then reflect upon how important the rebetiko outfit “Apodimi Compania” was in making them feel at home and adjust to their new life in Melbourne. Week after week, they would visit the Retreat Hotel, listen to Apodimi play and contextualise their own experience of double ξενιτιά. I extract an early Apodimi Compania CD from my car and begin to play it. I am unsurprised to note that they know all the words by heart. For this is Apodimi's greatest achievement: to manage to touch the hearts of all who heard them, regardless of ethnicity and to help them find, in their interpretation of rebetika, a common human denominator.
As his friends attempt to execute a rather wobbly zeimbekiko to the strains of a karsilama, I help Odisho to wash the dishes. One slips out of his hands and smashes on the tiles below. Immediately, the dancers whoop: «Σπάσ’τα! Σπάσ’τα!» One of the revelers, looking distracted for a moment as if he had lost his car keys, tentatively offered: «Γούρι;» When I nodded, he beamed at the affirmation.

It was only when Thanos Petrelis’ «Θυμίζεις κάτι από Ελλάδα,» made itself manifest upon Odisho’s playlist that I determined it was an opportune time to leave. I farewelled the party in Assyrian, and they responded to me in Greek. «Αχ βρε φίλε Odisho sighed. «Η Ελλάδα είναι μόνο μία. Καλά Χριστόυγεννα. Και του χρόνου στην Ελλάδα» And we both turned away, so that his tears could not be seen.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 23 December 2017