Saturday, January 12, 2019


It was the eve of Christmas Eve that I saw him at the Deli, inspecting an oversized panettone. He circumambulated it slowly, then gingerly picked it up, and held it in his hand as if to weigh it, looked at it in wonderment and then took six of them into the custody of his shopping trolley. Seeing me observing him, he brightened.
“Just buying some last minute supplies for the Kids’ Christmas Party. You are coming with your kids, right?”
Two years earlier, the elderly gent, a neighbour and a friend, had talked me into becoming a member of his organisation, a club for persons hailing from Southern Greece, in order to boost its ailing membership. “You don’t have to do anything,” he promised. “Just vote for me at the elections, by proxy. Oh, actually, you won’t be eligible to vote, as you are a ‘xenos.’ I hadn’t thought of that.”
“So are you coming, or not?” the old man persisted. “I have to get the numbers. After all, είμαι ο τρέζιουρας.”
“I don’t I’ll be able to,” I responded.
“But είσαι μέμπας,” the old man insisted.
“I know, but we have a lot on and I don't think we can make it,” I explained.
“But there will be presents for the kids,” he pleaded.
“I know and thank you, but we are really especially busy leading up to Christmas, this year,” I elaborated.
“But the presents are free,” the old man pressed on.
“I understand that, but time is an issue,” I reiterated.
“But they are for free,” he repeated, again, so that I could savour the full meaning of his words. “Free presents.”
“Look,” I said, “You know that I only joined your organisation at your insistence, in order to help you boost the membership. I don’t hail from your part of Greece, I never attend your functions and consequently, I don't feel comfortable in taking my kids somewhere they have never been before and with which they have no connection, for the sole purpose of getting a free present. It just doesn’t feel fair.”
“But it’s for free, it’s your right as a μέμπας,” the old man argued.
“That may be so. But what will the other members say? Who is this cheapskate who never supports the club and only turns up to get free presents for his offspring? You can see that the position is untenable,” I riposted.
“But none of our children ever attend any of our functions and they always come along for the free presents, so why shouldn’t you? Κορόϊδο είσαι; Why would you want to deprive your kids of a present?” he continued.”
“They will receive enough presents,” I addressed his concerns, “including one from my own regional brotherhood, where there is a family connection.”
The old treasurer looked at me sullenly. “Δεν σε καταλαβαίνω καθόλου,” he shook his head in exasperation. “What am I going to do now? There is so much to organise and I have barely any help.”

It was this expertly mapped guilt trip that saw me enter the brotherhood hall, that evening, true to my principles, without my offspring, in order to assist. A small sprinkling of children sat at tables in the converted milk bar, engrossed in their mobile telephone screens, next to their grandparents, who were either conversing or huddling around the kitchen, bringing forth multitudes of chops, and chips dripping with deep fried oil of an aroma that had not assailed my olfactory nerves since the eighties and which probably belonged to a vintage of that era, a plausible provenance, since most of the members were proprietors of such enterprises during that decade.
Strangely, no effort was made for the minor concatenation of children to play together or communicate with each other. Save for a few attendees also absorbed by their phones, manifestly oblivious to their surroundings, the children’s parents were also noticeably absent.
In the middle of the hall, a table laden with fairy bread, jelly, red cordial and chocolate crackles, comestibles that I had not seen since completing primary school and thus was convinced of their extinction, took pride of place.
“It’s probably a good idea that you didn’t bring your kids,” the old treasurer observed. “We are having problems with some of our older members who object to newer members having the same privileges as them. They want to introduce a tiered system where members who have joined for so many years enjoy more privileges than those that joined later, on a sliding scale. They want us to amend the Consitution.”
“A kind of deep South Hellenic segregation,” I mused. “Who will play Santa?”
“That is the President’s prereogative usually,” the treasurer revealed. “That way, he gets his photo in the paper, with a caption that states: “Ο Πρόεδρος και το Διοικητικό Συμβούλιο…” Which reminds me. Can you type out the Notice for the Annual General Meeting? The President’s typewriter has given up the ghost, the Secretary is illiterate and my son’s computer has that Symbol font that has no accents.”
“Χο, χο, χο μπόϋς και γκελς,” the President’s voice boomed, as a bedraggled, cigarette wielding Santa strode into the room. “Μέρρυ Νιου Γήαρ! Καμ, έχω πρέζεντς!”
All of a sudden, the denizens of the hall became galvanised with energy. Grandparents simultaneously took hold of the fruit of their progeny’s loins and propelled them onto the dance floor, centimetres before Santa, with the precision of javelin throwers and the grace of synchronised swimmers. Those that missed their mark hurled themselves into the heaving mass of the future of the race, juxtaposing their elbows and jostling errant children out of the way. “Μουβ ντάλι μου. Ο Ethan είναι first.”
As Santa began ponderously to distribute the pile of presents, struggling to pronounce the exotic names of Jacinta, Megan, Troy, Courtney, Dylan and Xavier, said progeny, having ripped their presents from the bearded benefactor began to tear them open eagerly, the old treasurer increased the volume on FOX FM, which up until then was playing quietly in the background.
“Wouldn't it be a good idea to play the children some Greek Christmas Carols, instead of this?” I suggested. “After all this is a Greek organisation and you could give the kids a taste of what Greek Christmas is all about.”
“Τζάϋντεν λαβ, νο όπεν δε πρέζεν τιλ δα Κρίζμας. Πούριτ ντάουν πλιζ...” the distracted treasurer yelled towards a young boy sporting a coiffure that entailed a half shorn head of hair, who having ripped his present, along with the wrapping, was now visiting the same fate upon his sister, Aylana’s present.
“Oh sick, George Michael,” a mother whooped, as she put her mobile phone in the back pocket of her pants. “Last Christmas, I gave you my heart….Oh my God, I’m such a wog. I’m even worse that these olds, koumbs,” she giggled, nudging the lady sporting antique highlights and hair extensions seated next to her, who judging by the patois employed, was the godmother to her child. “But at least the kids are getting some Greek kultcha.”
“The problem is,” a bespectacled man in his forties dressed in an immaculately pressed Tommy Hilfiger polo top, elucidated in English, to a glass-eyed elderly gentleman clasping a bottle of Melbourne Bitter and wearing the last surviving Foster’s singlet in the Melbourne Metropolitan Region, enunciating each and every of his consonants as a syllable, “that this club is not run as a business. You have to run it as a business.”
“And instead of these foods, why not introduce them to traditional sweets such as melomakarona and kourabiedes so they know that there are special foods that we prepare at this time?” I persevered. “You could also make it even more interesting and tell them also about the kallikantzaroi.”
The old treasurer shuddered. “Tό’ χεις χαμένο; Νομίζεις ότι θα καταλάβουν τίποτε; Αφόύ δεν ξέρουν ελληνικά. Θα σκωθούνε να φύγουν... Άκου καλικάτζαροι…”
I wanted to enquire into the mechanics of exactly how the children would vacate the premises, given that it was their grandparents who had conveyed them there in the first place, but before I could do so, an old lady sporting a DKNY T-shirt interrupted: “The only kallikantzaroi around here are the συμβούλιο which organises trips at cost, inflates the value and pockets the difference.” Raising her voice, she shouted: “You are all liars and cheats. Τρώτε τα λεφτά μας. Μόνο για να μας κουβαλάτε εδώ ξένους είστε ικανοί. You should all resign.”
The hapless treasurers brow was furrowed. His mouth was half-open in preparation for the broadcast of an invective of titanic proportions, when a large, visibly enraged woman clad in activewear interposed herself between DKNY and the treasurer, snapping in lisping English:
"What kind of present do you call this? Why does Elsbeth get the Barbie and my Sienna only gets this $2 shop troll doll? My dad has been a member for thirty years you know. This is unprofessional. No wonder you've lost the νεολαία. We don't have to be here, you know. We were supposed to go to Santa's Magical Kingdom instead. And you pull this crap. You will never see us again. Come on Sienna, mummy’s going to get you a chai latte.”
I looked around, expecting there to be a confrontation with Elsbeth's mother or grandfather but there was no one there. Having received and opened their presents, the children and their grandparents had now departed, leaving an artfully arranged installation of wrapping paper and plastic packaging on the dance floor, of a complexity that would make Pro Hart jealous, even beyond the grave.

“Καλές γιορτές,” the treasurer sighed.
“’Ὀ,τι επιθυμείς,” I responded, in sympathy.
Moments later, and to this day, I will never understand how, we found ourselves arm in arm, tapping forks on the empty beer wine bottles, our mouths intoning the κάλαντα, listening to them echo tidings of joy and good will to all men, as they reverberated, around the empty room.
I saw the treasurer again a few days after New Years Day, looking ruddy and decidedly worse for wear.
Καλή χρονιά,” I wished him. “How was the New Year’s Eve dance?”
“Well,” he confided thoughtfully. “From a point of view of numbers it was unprecedented. We haven’t had an attendance like this since the nineties..”
“But you don’t look happy.”
“Why should I be? Do you know what those members and their κωλόπαιδα did? They turned up demanding a free present for their ill-begotten brood because they were too busy to attend and then, do you know what? They then had the temerity to demand an extra present for New Year, since Άγιος Βασίλης visits the Greeks on New Year’s Eve.”
“So what did you do?”
“What did I do? I told them: Θέλεις δώραΣύρε στην Καισαρεία, βρες τον Άγιο Βασίλη και πάρε. Κακό χρόνο να᾽χουν όλοι τους.
And it is with these benign words of intense goodwill, that I wish, you all on behalf of beleaguered treasurers everywhere, a most superlative Year.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 12 January 2019