Saturday, March 02, 2024



It was while reading George Mouaratidis’ poetry collection “Angel Frankenstein,” some years ago, a homage to a past both real and imagined, as a migrant growing up in Thomastown, that I conceived of the idea of mapping my own topography of loss, growing up in the City of Moonee Valley within two very vibrant communities: that of my father’s people, the Samians, who arrived in the area in the early fifties and my mother’s people, where half of the village of Perama on the outskirts of Ioannina migrated to the municipality en masse in the sixties. Enmeshed within the complex networks they created, I was for a large part of my youth either oblivious of or indifferent to, the wider world beyond their collective hives.

Despite the one size fits all stereotypes of the Greek migrant in Melbourne, I found the differences between the two groups and other Greek micro-communities I encountered fascinating. It appeared to me that one is defined just as much by the place in which they live, as by the place from which they have come, and that there is a third dimension of place that is as equally important: the place in which one’s heart and mind inhabits, a place that is just as real as the physical, if not more so.

To grow up in Moonee Valley as a member of both communities was to be swaddled by a protective cocoon of belonging. Your place was predetermined by that of your family’s position within a series of village relationships that were long remembered even as those who were left behind soon forgot them. There was always someone watching, someone always ready to lend a hand but also to admonish and you quickly began to instinctively understand the complex social norms and ties of mutual obligation that kept people connected. Hard wired into you was also an extensive code of acceptable conduct that had to be adhered to, if one’s family’s standing was to be maintained. In those days words such as φιλότιμο, ( as well as υποχρέωση, λογαριασμός and ρεζίλι) were not mere buzz-words to place on coffee mugs and fliers for festivals. Instead, they articulated the way in which we saw ourselves, others and how we behaved, and this transcended the generations. Pointing to a group of people sitting next on the same table at a wedding once, my great grandmother instructed me: “If anyone from this family ever asks you for help, you help them no questions asked.” The answer to my question as to why was simple: “Their grandfather helped us after we fell upon hard times in the war.” According to our way, debts, as well as love, are passed down through and bind all generations.

Central to this way of life was the importance of the collective. When the elders clucked their tongues at one of the younger members’ transgressions of the moral code, the phrase «τι θα πει το χωριό» referred not so much to the village back home, as to the virtual village constructed in Moonee Valley and its environs. The acts of the individual impacted upon the collective because it was the collective, with a hive memory of centuries that defined, protected and sustained the identity of those belonging to it, even though people such as I, not entirely belonging to either hive, could slip through the cracks of its authority and dwell in its grey areas.

It was this world, its naivete, its unshakeable belief in its own immortality, its inherent contradictions, its strengths and its vulnerabilities that I wanted to portray when writing the texts that would come to comprise the play: «Όπου Γης και Patris», produced by Greek actors Helen Tsefalas and Stamatis Tzelepis in collaboration with the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne. This is a phrase which is commonly employed to support the argument that your homeland is wherever you put down roots, rather than the place you originally come from and although I have heard it time and time again being recited by first generation migrants, they do so with resignation because they don’t really mean it. Rather, it is their fall-back position, wherein they resign themselves to their fate, never truly at home in the country they have chosen to settle in, and yet never truly at home in the country they left.  The play thus asks the question: When does a migrant stop becoming a migrant? Is migration of limited duration or a perennial condition? It is for this reason that I chose to render the word “Patris” in English, for the Patris is an icon of the great ships that conveyed the first generation to these shores, highlighting that process of dislocation as being continuous and enduring in nature.

The play is in Greek simply because there was no other possible way of rendering the rich and fascinating cadences of the unique Greek-Australian manner of speaking Greek, developed by the first generation. The way in which they retained their native dialects but also managed to stretch these in order to receive and adapt English terms, or engage in bi-lingual wordplay displays a level of linguistic ingenuity that we do not celebrate nearly enough. This remarkable idiolect is also facing extinction, as the first generation sub-consciously adopt the grammar and terminology absorbed from Greek satellite TV, or depart this mortal coil, never to utter a syllable again. It is their words I miss the most.

All of the scenes in the play are based on real life experiences, some of them more personal than others. «Προ των Εισοδίων» for example was inspired by wife’s mystification at my refusal to go out for dinner to celebrate my birthday because my new-born daughter had not yet received her 40-day-old blessing, citing the traditional justification: «τι θα πει ο κόσμος». We did go out eventually, we were “seen” and responding to my wife’s inability to comprehend my ensuing consternation, I exclaimed: “You don’t understand, you weren’t brought up in a village.” “Neither were you,” she was quick to respond. This got me thinking as to the manner in which tradition can be used as a method of repression and control, leading me further to consider situations where (as is often the case in mixed-marriages) we re-discover our “Greekness” only so as to engage in “othering” other key stakeholders and achieving a level of ascendancy over them. «Προ των Εισοδίων» where the Aussie «γαμπρός» turns out to be more “Greek” and more “traditional” than the Greeks themselves, inverts the stereotype, seeking to gently poke fun at the “performative” aspects of the Greek identity.

«΄Οπου Γης και Patris,» on the other hand, explores the emotions of an elderly couple at the airport, about to return to Greece for the first time in decades. This scenario was inspired by my experiences travelling to Greece in my youth. Seeing me young, gullible and alone and learning that I was Greek, elderly fellow-travellers would foist their excess baggage upon me, even to the extent where in 1992, I spent the entire airplane trip with a set of stainless-steel cookware on my lap.

I was lucky enough to have some of my work come to the attention of Helen Tsefalas whose monumental tome: “One Hundred Years of Greek Theatre in Australia,” is a remarkable piece of scholarship. Together with veteran actor Stamatis Tzelepis, she resolved to adapt those works to the stage and commissioned a few more. What is outstanding for me, is that at a time when the narrative of the Greeks Abroad is either trivialised or is generally absent from the mainstream Helladic discourse these talented thespians feel inspired enough to wish to employ their art so as to portray us in all our manifold, wonderful forms. It is fitting then, that the play was first premiered in Greece, the very place in which the journey of migration commenced for most of us and it scheduled to tour Greece during the Greek summer.

«Όπου Γης και Patris», was promoted in Greece with the by-line: “comedy that will make you cry,” and is a testament to the vast acting and directing talents of Helen Tsefalas and Stamatis Tzelepis that they are able to bring out the bittersweet nature, as well as the absurdity of our apodemic pretensions with such comic effect. Most of all however, it is the poignancy of the migration experience which inhabits the souls of all of us, that provides for an inexhaustible well of inspiration.

«Όπου Γης και Patris», will be performed in Melbourne on 8,9,10 March 2024 at the Clayton Community Centre, 9/15 Cooke Street, Clayton. For bookings  visit the website:


First published in NKEE on Saturday 2 March 2024

Saturday, February 24, 2024


The Balkan Wars still loom large in the consciousness of those who come from Northern Greece or the Aegean islands, for it was in their aftermath that those territories were liberated from the Ottomans, completely transforming the political, social and economic fabric of the Greek state. February marks the anniversary of the liberation of Epirus and the popular narrative is a most androcentric one, in which the heroic Greek army stormed the fortifications of Bizani outside Ioannina after encountering stiff and determined resistance, aided by groups of local guerillas. Unlike in other parts of Greece, much is made of the chivalry of the last pasha of Ioannina, Esat, who was a philhellene and whose name has been given to one of Ioannina’s thoroughfares.

If any mention is made of the women who also fought for the liberation of their homeland, it is usually as being in a lesser, auxiliary role: holding the domestic fort in order to enable their males to fight, imbuing in their children a love of country, knitting undergarments or transporting munitions. These women are barely mentioned and we don’t know their names. The achievements of those women for whom resistance took other, more unconventional for the mores of the time forms are also largely written out of the broader narrative, even though their diverse experiences in an era when the place of women within traditional society was fixed, attest not only to their indomitability but also the manner in which they managed to transcend gender norms.

 Ioannis Lappas, Consul-General of France in Ioannina, ran the Greek signals operation from his home, from where military intelligence from Ioannina and all of Epirus was transmitted to Greek Headquarters. We learn that his niece Antigoni Tzavella, of the freedom-fighting Souliot clan of Tzavellas, was immediately recruited and assumed the task of encrypting and decrypting the messages, an enterprise not without danger, as being an Ottoman citizen, she was at least at law, committing treason and would face execution if discovered. Her valuable role in disseminating intelligence would have remained shrouded in obscurity today, had it not been for the fact that she retained the notebook in which she entered the contents of the deciphered documents. In it there are handwritten dedications by Chief Interpreter of the Greek Consulate at Ioannina Nikolaos Hantelis and General Panagiotis Danglis which corroborate and praise her contribution to the liberation of Epirus. Nikolaos Handelis refers to the “... self-sacrificing zealous cooperation of the gracious Antigone Tzavella in the days of trouble...” and General Danglis writes: “I acknowledge the valuable work of the patriot Miss Tzavella, who did much to enlighten the Greek army about the Turkish forces…”

Lambrini Louli, a member of the influential Loulis clan of the Katsanohoria, went under the sobriquet “Themis,” meaning Justice. Joining the “Epirot Etaireia,” the clandestine organisation dedicated to the liberation of Epirus, she was, because of her broad learning and reputation for fairness, appointed Magistrate of the liberated territories of her region, tasked with dispensing justice and mediating disputes between the local inhabitants and the guerillas, an endeavour she undertook from her family home, which she converted into a courthouse.

Teachers were particularly prized during the struggle for liberation as they equated the renascence of their homeland with an intellectual rebirth, bringing about a more equitable society. Evanthia Soulis, a teacher from Ioannina, clandestinely preached the gospel of social and national emancipation to Greek students in Argyrokastro and Konitsa for half a decade before the war broke out. She also gathered intelligence, passed on messages and transported medical supplies from Athens to Epirus. Once, on the way to the village of Lambovo in Northern Epirus, where she was appointed as teacher, she was stopped by the dreaded Albanian warlord Sali Butka, who commanded her to turn back immediately. When she did not obey, he threatened: “I will come at night, set fire to your house and burn you alive.” Evanthia, unphased, turned her full store of scorn upon him: “What a man you must be, to pick on women.” She spat in his face and continued on her way, unhindered. According to the accounts of her contemporaries, her propensity to take out her revolver and shoot in all directions at the slightest hint of disrespect caused the occupying forces to treat her rather seriously.

Not all women who campaigned for the liberation of Epirus were educated or from well to do families. The correspondent of the newspaper “Patris”, in a despatch sent from Melihovo on 21 November 1912, enthused: “Heroic Souli is leading the way again. Two Souliote volunteers, Maria Kostakitsaina and Efthymia Yianni, have already taken up arms, leading their own volunteer bands.” In the columns of “Esperini” on 13 December 1912, it was reported that: "Four women, originally from Souli, fight valiantly, at the head of their own armed forces. One is called Lambro, who leads the Kypriadis band, the second is Panagio who comes from Gratsana and leads the Koletsis band, the third is Vasiliki and the fourth, the bravest of them all, is Maria Nastouli, aged 48, from the village of Giorganos who has formed her own armed band and has taken part in many battles.”

Nastouli, nicknamed Kostakitsaina, found herself leading her own armed band when the men of her village, fearing reprisals, refused to rise up against the Ottomans. Sneering at their cowardice, she took twenty of her compatriots up into the mountains and participated in many armed skirmishes, notably successfully repelling an Ottoman attack at Variades. After liberation, she was awarded two medals by the state  but steadfastly refused to wear them. Instead, she hung them on her iconostasis and would taken them down and reverently kiss them on the anniversary of the liberation of Ioannina.

The newspaper “Patris” in November 1912 also makes mention of women from the Northern Epirote villages of Kossovitsa and Lesnitsa making their way under the direction of their Captain Alexo Spironi to the front line and demanding that they be given weapons so that they may fight.

Perhaps the most thrilling story belongs to the eighteen-year-old irrepressible cross-dressing Lambrini Loli. Having fallen foul of the local aga of Kosmira for being rather vocal about her nationalistic fervour, she decided that she had seek refuge the mountains, rather than risk arrest. Being of a poor family, she had no shoes and thus resorted to knocking out an uncooperative fellow villager and absconding with his tsarouchia.

Once in the mountains, she discarded her women’s clothing and instead, donned the male foustanella, joininf the corps of guerilla chieftain Bratos, who put her in charge of his group of scouts. According to all accounts, she fought passionately against the enemy, even going so far as to annihilate an entire Turkish unit near Hani Cemal Aga and, on the eve of the liberation of Ioannina on 20 February, followed in the advance guard of Colonel Dellagramatika’s attack on the forts of Dourouti. After liberation, she also fought in the female unit of the “Sacred Band” formed for the liberation of Northern Epirus in 1914.

Though of Maniot stock, Aspasia Mavromihali, the daughter of the former Greek Prime Minister Kyriakoulis Mavromihalis, also travelled to Epirus originally to assist in the work of the Red Cross but subsequently, to take part in the armed struggle, participating in the particularly bloody battle of Driskos, with the Garibaldi brigade of Italian philhellenes.

Much was made of Aspasia’s heroism and she would go on to become the first wife of wartime collaborationist Prime Minister Ioannis Rallis. Georgios Hondrogiannis wrote a widely publicised poem about her exploits and artist Thalia Flora-Karavia, whose paintings of the battles became definitive of the period, sketched her replete with gun, cartridge belts and ready for action.

Lambrini Loli was treated rather differently. After 1914, she returned to her village and herded sheep and goats for the rest of her life. Despite Commander of the “Mixed Army of Epirus” Dimitiros Notis Botsaris putting her name forward to Headquarters for an award, she received no recognition, distinction or reward for her services from the state. Neither did the nameless women of Tseritsana, who over the course of 28 days, transported for the Greek army, 2,000 artillery shells, 650 of which weighted 4.5 tonnes each over treacherous mountain terrain, so that the Ottoman gun emplacements at Manoliasa could be destroyed.

Undoubtedly, the contributions of the women of Epirus to the struggle for liberation were met with awe and admiration by the rest of the Greeks, who, while acknowledging their achievements also struggled to fit them within the narrative of the Greek woman emerging in a free Greece with western aspirations. It is arguable that the tendency to link them with their Souliote ancestors, as women who assume male roles and transcend gender boundaries led to their “othering,” a myth-phenomenon that would repeat itself in the mountains of Epirus during the Second World War and would result in their final appropriation by the Greek national narrative. Finally, it should not pass without comment that their experiences are mediated primarily through the writings of the male journalists without their voices necessarily being heard.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 24 February 2024

Saturday, February 17, 2024



“She appeared to be a Greek in all the ripe charms of womanhood. Her hair flowed down her shoulders in long graceful curls, crowned by a little scarlet cap, embroidered with gold, and further ornamented by a tassel of purple silk.”

The Vampire of Vourla – 1845


While the West generally associates Vampires with the Slavic borderlands of Europe, this has not always been so. Scholars maintain that initial reports of vampirism entering Western Europe during the early modern age originated from Greece, focusing primarily on the particularly Greek undead ‘vrykolakas’, a term deriving from the Slavic and originally meaning “wolf-hair”. When reports of vampire incidents in Austrian-controlled Serbia reached Western media in 1732, the European public turned to the established Greek archetype, to interpret the accounts from the East. The association persisted in Western Europe until the turn of the nineteenth century.

According to Vampire scholar Alvaro Garcia Marin, prompted by his recent rediscovery of the lost Greek Vampire tale: “The Vampire of Vourla,” one could argue that the modern literary vampire emerged within the conceptual framework of Hellenism and Philhellenism, two interconnected discourses whereby Hellenism asserted the inherent human superiority of ancient Greek civilization across all domains, positing the modern West as its legitimate heir, and Philhellenism advocated for the political independence of modern Greeks, emphasizing their status as ethnic descendants of classical Hellenic culture—a contemporary incarnation with the potential for revival once liberated from their Eastern oppressors.

In the early western vampire tales set in Greece, such as John William Polidori’s, 1819 novella "The Vampyre," partly set in Greece, one can witness a fusion of Western and Greek elements and the tension between the discourses. Polidori, a critic of Philhellenism, also cautioned Europeans about the broader perils associated with the compulsion towards Hellenism. His vampire emerges at the intersection of an imaginary Greece influenced by Graecophilia and the classical West, becoming a transitional creation that surpasses its origins and impacts both contemporary Europeans and modern Greeks, leading to their respective downfall. Here, the Vampire is as subversive an element to the West as the Greeks themselves who were trying to overturn the established order and seek their own independence.

Lord Byron became acquainted with the concept of vampires while on his Grand Tour. His poem “The Giaour,” which notable for its inclusion of vampires. After recounting how the giaour killed Hassan, the Ottoman narrator predicts that in punishment for his crime, the giaour will be condemned to become a vampire after his death and kill his own dear ones by drinking their blood, to his own frightful torment as well as theirs:

“No breath of air to break the wave

That rolls below the Athenian's grave,

That tomb which, gleaming o'er the cliff

First greets the homeward-veering skiff

High o'er the land he saved in vain;

When shall such Hero live again?”


In the same poem, Byron also meditated on the fate of Greece in vampiric terms:

“Tis Greece - but living Greece no more!

So coldly sweet, so deadly fair,

We start - for soul is wanting there.

Hers is the loveliness in death,

That parts not quite with parting breath;

But beauty with that fearful bloom,

That hue which haunts it to the tomb-“


The association of Greece with vampires was deeply provoking for Hellenists, seeing the bloodthirsty horror of the undead as polluting the classical harmony of the Greek stereotype and thus undermining western identity. For this reason, in later vampire works, attempts were made to dissociate Greece from vampires. Thus in James Robinson Planché's 1820 melodrama, "The Vampire," the setting was removed from Greece and instead transported to the Slavic world strategically poised between civilization and barbarism. In Alexandre Dumas's 1849 novel, "Les mille et un fantomes" (One Thousand and One Ghosts), the undead entity Kostaki, causing terror in the Carpathians, is described as being only a quarter Greek.


This evolution and the tensions inherent in the appropriation of stereotypes can be evidenced in the “Vampire of Vourla,” published in 1845 in “the Chaplet.” Set in the coastal village of Vourla near Smyrna, the story revolves around a British sailor, Somers, who is captivated by the local vampire Heira, who possesses an "exquisite beauty" and communicates "in the purest Ionic dialect." Such is her allure that Somers comes to her again and willingly and allows her to feast on his blood until he wastes away.


Marin comments that the vampire Heira’s distinctly Greek physique transcends the boundaries between the past and present, life and death, serving as a connection across the seemingly unbridgeable divide between ancients and moderns, as well as the significant differences in various stages of conventional historical chronology. However, despite evoking the Philhellenic stance of modern Greece, this corporeal fusion of historical periods, symbolizing the long-desired revival of Classical Greece, is primarily laden with monstrous implications. In this context, resurrection takes the form of vampirism—a brutal assault on the living.


In like manner, Marin argues that the "Vampire of Vourla" reinterprets Hellenism and Greek identity, emphasizing a re-monsterization that contradicts the ideals of that era. Accordingly, the transformation of Heira into an animal at the story's conclusion, as she shape-shifts to extract the final drops of the victim’s blood, reinforces this narrative. The story implies that accessing classical Greece in its envisioned purity is an unattainable goal. Whether in the past or present, alongside harmony, beauty, and civilization, the Hellenic ideal will always carry elements of monstrosity, barbarism, violence, and an oriental dimension. While the story de-Orientalizes Greekness, challenging and resisting the provincializing strategies seen in earlier narratives, it also complicates normative portrayals of Greece as a Western cultural entity by highlighting the disconcerting, even uncanny aspects involved in its modern ‘recovery.’


“Vampire of Vourla,” acts also as a commentary on colonialism. As Marin observes, commentary both this story and that of Polidori acknowledge the colonial implications of Hellenism concerning the modern Greek populations of Southeastern Europe, as well as the Hellenic ideal itself. Western Philhellenes, by claiming ancient Hellas as their heritage, sought to actively appropriate a cultural and material legacy to sustain their global dominance and place modern Greece under their colonial tutelage. In Polidori's novel this insight is encoded in the transnational vampire's two-sided predation on both a modern Greek and a British woman. In “Vampire of Vourla” on the other hand, attention is subtly drawn to the striking similarities between the British sailor’s predatory sexual behaviour and Heira's vampiric violence. Thus, the vampire's onslaught is triggered, or at least enabled, by the British sailor’s approach to local women and his fervent desire to fully possess the Greek lady at any cos, paralleling Britain's ambition to exert political control over the East.

In his seminal article “The Significance of the Vampire of Vourla to Nineteenth Century Vampire Fiction”, Marin cogently argues that the "Vampire of Vourla," an anonymous text, deliberately challenges common Philhellenic assumptions, bringing their darker aspects to light. Accordingly, gender and power roles undergo consistent confusion and inversion. Initially, the British sailor Somers believes he has initiated the courting process and is in control of it. However, Heira soon reveals that she attracted him to her, stating: "did I not know your abiding-place, you would not now be here", and more significantly, she departs from the expected passive, feminine role to adopt an active, typically masculine stance. She objectifies the British sailor Somers, asking "you swear to love no other,—to be all mine?" and symbolically penetrates him with her dagger. This reversal extends to the colonial relationship, as the Greek woman representing Greece demands and controls, in her own terms, that Somers mixes his blood with hers, eventually annihilating the British man by draining his life-blood—a possibly inverted metaphor of economic exploitation.


Viewed from this perspective, Marin postulates that contrary to the pervasive trope of disempowerment and dematerialization that reduced Greece to a de-realized historical revenance, vampirism, embodied by spectralisation in the story, provides a means to re-empower the Greek female and, consequently, Greece itself through an alternative, ghostly agency. This agency allows them to retaliate against the colonial attack. Heira's final assault on the British sailor upon the British warship in animal form mirrors, albeit constrained by a sneaky, monstrous outline, the sailor’s (and the British Navy's) intrusion into her land and home. These intricate strategies reveal the duplicitous nature of the tale, oscillating between a condemnation of the colonialist violence inherent in (Phil)Hellenism, cautioning against the enduring risks associated with Greekness and the lingering spectre of history and a pervasive apprehension regarding the potential of reverse colonisation.


The revenants of western perceptions of Hellenism still haunt our own identity discourses, sucking the life blood out of a culture dependent both for its self-esteem and vitality upon subjective interpretations of its putative past. “The Vampire of Vourla,” thus acts as a pertinent metaphor for the haemorrhaging fault lines within the modern Greek identity construct.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 17 February 2024

Saturday, February 10, 2024



“What is your favourite Greek word?” my friend Chris asks me. We are seated at a most genteel café in a suburb in which our unaspirated t’s draw the sideways glances of elderly ladies resplendent in gym attire. This is because Chris, being born and bred in Oakleigh, always refuses my entreaties to communally sip beverages in the fine Greek establishments that grace his birthplace’s environs, scorning their conviviality for the refinement of the ultra-Australohellenic paradigm. This has been the case ever since I once spurned his invitation to meet him there in order to purchase what he termed a “spana.” Seeking to grant him the gift of enlightenment, I met up with him, brandishing a spanner in my left hand and a home-made spanakopita in my right.

“See here,” I exclaimed. “In my left a tool, and in my right, a comestible. Those Greek Australian tools that insist on calling the apogee of Greek culinary art a “spana” will be cast into the outer darkness, with only a Nutella souvlaki for company.”

That Chris’ principled stand is not without merit can be evidenced by the following conversation we are treated to between two ladies, one younger, one earlier, on the question of the Gaza War and Christmas:

“What I object to about Christmas, is how it privileges people of a certain faith.”

“Yeah, the white patriarchy.”

Not being able to help myself, I intervene:

“You realize that Christianity is a Middle Eastern religion?”

“No it’s Roman Catholic,” one lady answers.

“Yes, but only as a result of colonialism,” the other instructs.

“And anyway, Jesus was a white, straight male. He is a symbol of oppression.”

“You reckon?” I ask. “A little baby for whom there was no room at the inn?”

“Don’t mention babies,” the younger one snaps. “I object to motherhood and now I’m feeling triggered.”


Not long after, a beaming waitress attends our table to take our order. For some obscure reason, we must provide her with our full names because the establishment practices what it calls “half-table service,” whereby it is happy to take your order, but you then have to collect it from the counter yourself. After three attempts, she successfully writes down my surname and attempts heroically to pronounce it.

“Don’t try and pronounce it, just accept it for what it is,” I tell her.

“What culture are you?” she inquires.

“Byzantine,” I tell her.

“Does your name have a special meaning in Byzantine?” she asks.

“Anal hair-plucker,” I respond.

“What?” she laughs inadvertently.

Feigning outrage I tell her: “Yeah, my great great grandfather was Grand Posterior Depilator to the Emperor Michael the Paphlagonian.

“Why?” she asks. “Was that a thing?”

“Well, apparently to be Emperor, you had to be ritually shorn all over and the Emperor Michael was enormously hairy, so it was a very important and sacred office,” I inform her officiously.

“So Paphlagonian means hairy?”

“You bet. You are most perspicacious. Are you sure you don’t have Byzantine ancestors?”

“I don’t know,” she responds, “but it’s a cool sounding word. I’m going to use it more often.”


Paphlagonians, who lived on the north-west coast of Asia Minor, west of Pontus, I neglect to tell her, were called pig-arsed by the Byzantines (χοιρόκωλοι) because they were seen as dirty and hairy, according to a Byzantine commentary on Lucian.


Chris, who has re-discovered his Hellenism relatively late in life, has recently embarked on formal studies of the Greek language and displays manifest delight in his scholarship, quoting to me, Virginia Woof’s famous essay on the Greek language. I inform him that while his progress is rapid and impressive for someone who attended a suburban Greek school in Melbourne in the nineties, his experience in no way exceeds that of the great Leo Tolstoy, who in 1870, expressed the desire to learn Greek. Sending for a theological student from Moscow conversant in the language, within a few weeks he could sight translate Xenophon, revel in Homer and decipher Plato. According to Tolstoy, the original Greek texts were like “spring water that sets the teeth on edge.”

On learning the language, Tolstoy wrote: “I’m glad that God inflicted this madness upon me! Firstly I enjoy it and secondly I'm convinced now that I knew nothing of all the human language has produced that is truly and simply beautiful until now,” going on to add: “Now I firmly believe, that I shall write no more gossipy twaddle of the War and Peace type.”


Chris has no aspirations to write a novel, although he has tried his hand at writing Greek poetry. Sadly, his poetry does not rhyme, which means it is eminently unsuited to the poetic zeitgeist of those Greeks in Melbourne who are possessed of literary pretensions. In praise of his poetry, I comment that five times Nobel literature prize nominee poet Aggelos Sikelianos died when he accidentally swallowed disinfectant instead of his prescribed medicine. When ingesting poetry, it pays to always first read the label.


A queue has now formed at the counter, for management is playing the collected works of Taylor Swift at a volume that makes it hard for the customer to distinguish between whether or not they go on too many dates but can never make them stay or their honey soy latte is ready for collection. As I strain my ears, I converse with a bearded deconstructed pine-cone milk coffee-sipping hipster dad who asks me which language I was speaking earlier, before I begin waxing lyrical about a Bohemian artisan hand nostril trimmer in Ripponlea, whose family has been plying the trade since the Defenestration of Prague. He is so enthused that I don't have the heart to tell him I am pulling his leg.

The conversation takes a turn when he cheekily enquires as who attends to my grooming needs. He then goes on to inform me that he gives his beard a nourishing bath in turmeric water on a weekly basis, whereupon I riposte that I bathe my nostril hairs in φλασκούνι. At this time, I am interrupted by his partner, who wishes to know whether such a practice is environmentally sustainable.


When I return to the table, coffees and muffins the size of an ελαιόψωμο in tow, Chris, who has been occupying his time by direct messaging the latest subject of his ardent desire, whose profile he discovered on a friend’s social media page the night before, only to be almost immediately re-buffed, launches into a long discourse as to how more liberated the women of ancient Athens were compared to their descendants, tainted by the Semitic stain of Christianity. By way of counter-argument, I remind him of the Gynaeconomi in Athens, who were officials responsible for overseeing the behavior of Athenian women, similar to the role of the contemporary Iranian morality police. They not only supervised gatherings in private homes, such as weddings and festive events but also enforced a limit of thirty people for such gatherings. These officials had the authority to enter any residence and dismiss guests exceeding the stipulated number. To accurately assess the number of attendees beforehand, the hired cooks were required to provide their names. In essence, I conclude, the Gynaeconomi functioned as early contact tracers and as such would have been ideal employees of the previous premier’s administration.


Additionally, I add for good measure, the Gynaeconomi were tasked with punishing men who exhibited effeminate behaviour, particularly through excessive and unrestrained mourning at their own or others’ misfortunes, gently hinting that he should bear his rejection with fortitude and Aurelian stoicism.


“That is not true!” Chris expostulates, scattering latte froth over the bouquet of dried flowers on the table. “The ancient Greeks were wise, logical and disenthralled of superstition. Everything you have just said is a myth.”


As I attempt to staunch the flow of spilt latte, I muse that in the Greek tradition, the word “mythos” often means not a “myth” as we understand it, but a heroic tale presented as a discursive argument. The inability of occidentals and those orientals possessed of an occidental mindset to grasp this ritual relationship accounts for their inability to understand us.


“So, favourite Greek word?” I return to his original question. “I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours.”


“Κρεατοελιά,” he responds. “Undoubtedly κρεατοελιά.”


“Excellent choice,” I enthuse. “Definitely a word to be relished.”


“And yours?”


“In 1863, the poet and artist Edward Lear sought to be granted the title of Ἀρχινοηδιφλυαροποιός i.e. Arch-nonsense-chatter-maker, with permission to wear a fool’s cap, three pounds of butter yearly, a little pig and a small donkey to ride on, from King George I of Greece. More than any other honour, it is the title I have aspired to my entire life.”


First published in NKEE on Saturday 10 February 2024