“Souvenirs are perishable, fortunately, memories are not.” Susan Spano
A decade ago, when I last visited the palaeontological museum of my ancestral village of Mytilinioi in Samos, I did so with the intention of viewing the stuffed carcass of the leopard immortalised in Alki Zei’s childrens classic “To Kaplani tis Vitrinas,” published in English as “Wildcat under Glass.” I also wanted to see the skull of the Samotherium, a short-necked, horned giraffe, first found in Mytilinioi and which is portrayed almost intact on an ancient Greek vase as a monster that Heracles is fighting.
Having marveled at these and the singular fact that Mytilinioi seems to be a fossil graveyard, I was somewhat disconcerted to find, proudly exhibited, at some distance away, standing stiff and erect, a stuffed fur kangaroo, of the type that can be readily purchased at Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market or sundry souvenir stores about town. At the kangaroo’s feet and to scale, sat a koala, also stuffed.
“Why are these here?” I asked the guide, perplexed.
“They were gifted to the museum by an expatriate from Sydney. We didn’t know what to do with them, so we left them here,” came the curt response.
The perspicacious traveler granted access to the inner sanctum of Modern Greek homes, especially those of the elderly, will soon come to realize that there is a disproportionate amount of Australiana displayed therein. Casting to one side the nostalgia of expatriates who, especially in villages, exhibit a remarkable tendency to display the Victorian number plates of cars they used to drive in the eighties upon the façade of their homes, even the homes of those never resident in Australia are not safe from the incursion of Australian touristic paraphernalia.
Pride of place above the stove in my grandmother’s Athenian kitchen, for example, is afforded to a brass wall clock in the shape of the map of Australia. From the rail of the oven door, there invariably hands an Australiana tea-towel, in one of four designs: a platypus, a koala, a kangaroo, or a wombat. On top of the kitchen cupboards, there sits, among century old saucepans, a nonchalant pewter kangaroo. Given that the discolouration of the wall behind the clock is of a square, rather than a map of Australia shape, and the remarkable state of preservation of the said tea towels and the commendable absence of dust visited upon the pewter marsupial as compared to its cooking companions, one cannot shrug of the sneaking suspicion that said items are stored carefully away, to be retrieved and displayed only when one of her Australian relations comes to stay. I have put this to my grandmother and she flatly denies it, though the absence of any wall dish bearing photographs of the Sydney Harbour Bridge or of a pair of benign but disinterested rainbow lorikeets in any other room of her house save the kitchen, condemns her soundly. On another trip to the homeland, one of my aunts displayed a good deal less tact and a surprising amount of honesty when she begged me to request of our relatives that we desist from sending her Australiana, for as fascinating as the flora and fauna of the mysterious continent were, she could not understand why they should be afforded an organic place in her modern Greek living room.
The flow of souvenirs is mutual, with Greek souvenirs arriving upon Australian shores as immigrants made their first trip back to the homeland. My grandparents’ sitting room was adorned with two gaudy coloured plates featuring a particularly leggy evzone in an impossibly short foustanella blowing a trumpet in front of the Parthenon. As a child, I would gaze at these plates for hours, imagining that instead of school-bells, Greek students would be ushered to class by skirt-clad manly teachers with parabolically turned mustaches. When my grandparents went to Greece for the second and last time, I already knew what they would bring back by way of a gift, for such things formed the stuff of social convention: a plate bearing a mythological scene – in this case a soldier bandaging another soldier’s leg during the Trojan War, a male and female doll clad in traditional costume (which is still in its original packaging), an alabaster statue of the goddess Athena and for me, though this broke precedent, a plastic Cretan lyra that played Pentozalis when wound up and a plastic tsarouchi key-ring, replete with woolen pompom, also still in mint condition. With these accoutrements in tow, I felt that I could finally achieve my full Hellenic potential and I would fondle them for hours, imagining how lucky the Greeks of Greece were to have immediate and everyday access to a plethora of such treasures, and only speculating on the use they made thereof.
Few households in the eighties were without such souvenirs and those that were, were considered bare and somehow, ethnically suspect. My grandparents gifts fit seamlessly with the paraphernalia amassed, during their honeymoon and proudly displayed thereafter, by my parents,. On the living room wall, not one but three wall-plates displayed mythological scenes, grouped around a brass etched plate bearing the double headed eagle of Byzantium. Then there were the small brass souvenir urns, one resting on a coaster displaying the map of Samos, next to the clay coffee cups also bearing the logo ‘Samos,’ the alabaster statues of the goddess Artemis, Hera and Athena and the black amphora bearing a picture of Oedipus and the Sphinx. It was during one particularly desperate attempt to distract me in my obstinacy for long enough to shove some food in my mouth, that my mother, pointing to the amphora, told me the story of the Riddle of the Sphinx, embarking me upon a love-affair with Greek mythology I have enjoyed my entire life. Hanging from the wall of the kitchen was the komboloi with the impossibly fat beads, rendering it unfit for use and a thick, orange tassel. Over the kitchen door there rested and still do so perch, two metal peacocks, lovingly crafted in Ioannina.
So ingrained are these items in our collective identity, that when my parents renovated in the late nineties and decided that their sense of identity was secure enough to allow itself to be overridden by their sense of style, that they could not bring themselves to discard them. Instead, they were lovingly packed away and when I married, I took most of them with me, hanging the same komboloi in an inobtrusive part of the kitchen, proudly displaying the familial clay Samian coffee cups, copper briki, brass mortar and pestle, with pride of place over the stove being granted to that same Oedipal amphora, looking decidedly worse for wear.
We look kindly upon the kitsch of yesteryear for it fulfilled a longing in the hearts of our parents for a world they had lost and which they valiantly sort to reconstruct. It was from this peace-meal mosaic of memory, hope and loss that we constructed our own composite sense of identity, dislocated from its place of origin and informed only by plastic surrogates imported once or twice in one’s lifetime. Now, in an era where one can pop down to Lonsdale Street or Oakleigh and purchase the Greek souvenirs of their choice at whim, not even this longing is left to us. If we truly are to preserve a sense of the history of our identity in Australia, then a local museum of Greek souvenirs, examining their change in style and subject matter over the decades with special attention given to the shift in subject matter and the appearance of the Sun of Vergina in the early nineties and inexplicably, the preponderance of satyrs bearing erect phalluses, in affiliation with the Mytilinioi paleontological museum, must be established.
First published in NKEE on