Monday, August 26, 2013


The incident took place on one of those sun-filled Melbourne afternoons when the sky is so blue and immense that you honestly believe that your childhood will never end. My sister and I were sitting on the lawn in my grandmother's backyard eating watermelon and competing with each other as to how far we could spit the pips, covering each other in red slime in the process. Suddenly, my sister looked up at the Hills Hoist and saw an interminably long, flesh coloured pair of knickers suspended from it. "What is that?" she asked, aghast.
"That," I replied, is «της γιαγιάς σου το βρακί.» Considering that my grandmother was five foot tall, the said undergarment must have come neatly just below her neckline. This caused my sister to collapse in the throes of laughter. Having composed herself, we then amused ourselves for the next fifteen minutes running around the Hills Hoist chanting a song our uncle used to sing to us:
«Ντάχτιριντι ντίρι ντάχτιριντι,
της γιαγιάς σου το βρακί,
κρέμεται στο μαγαζί,
δυό δεκάρες το πουλεί.»
Τhe recitation ceased only when my grandmother surreptitiously crept up behind me and landed me a cuff on the ear, exclaiming: "That uncle of yours, I'm going to kill him,"  causing my sister to fall helplessly to the ground, giggling uncontrollably.
My late uncle, a larger than life figure, divided people into two categories, κατσικοκλέφτες and καντηλανάφτες, the latter being the most useless of all. According to him, everything was variously comprised of λουκουμόσκονη and κατσικοκούραδα, while any foods not cooked by him were invariably to be possessed of the properties of τσίρλα and children were referred to as χέστηδες up until their wedding day and beyond. Ebullient and endlessly inventive, he also possessed a car horn that played the Zorba along with a gamut of animal noises, as well as an inexhaustible repertoire of children's songs that we thoroughly enjoyed listening to, perched upon his knee.
Until lately, I held the conviction that these songs were traditional Greek children's ditties, yet a reflection upon the lyrics gives one pause for consideration:
«Αχ μαρή του, αχ μαρή του,
έχει τρύπα το βρακί του,
και κρυώνει το πιπί του.»
Cause for concern and DHS Intervention? Surely not. Instead, this is lyrical recollection of a war-torn, impoverished society, a Greece in which children like my uncle were brought up in rags and who transformed their plight into song, most probably as a coping mechanism. A word of advice: Don't sing this song around people of Middle Eastern origin. For them the first two words mean "my donkey" and they will draw the conclusion that you are insulting the intended recipient of the said song.
Then there is this, a cautionary tale about maintaining a proper diet, delivered in the grammar and syntax of my uncle's region:
«Μια γριά, μπαμπόγρια,
την πονούσε η κοιλιά,
και την είπε ο γιατρός,
φασολάδα να μην τρως.»
Upon the conclusion of this song, my uncle would invariably commence another, which began: «Η Μαρίκα η δασκάλα, που είχε δύο βυζιά μεγάλα.» At this point, my aunt would always intervene and I never was able to ascertain the fate of this particularly buxom educator of the masses. When I ventured to ask him as a teenager, he looked me up and down with his twinkling blue eyes and guffawed, "Why do you want to know, you χατζαντζάρη?" He then started to sing the song, only to be stopped again by my ever watchful aunt.
My uncle's sense of humour notwithstanding, there is something rather dark about Greek children's songs. Take this gem, a Samian adaptation of a song from Lesvos, which was also sung to me as a child:
«Η θεια 'μ η Αμιρσούδα
τρία βρακιά φουρεί,
ώσπου να βγαλ'του ένα
τα δυό τα κατουρεί.»
So far so good. Our aged aunt is incontinent, and there being no pads back in the village, she is forced to wear three pairs of underwear. Yet by the time she takes one pair off, the other two become wet. Sensitivity to the needs of the aged abound here. Yet the refrain is even more disturbing:
«Κ'νώ κι κ'νώ  κι κείνου κλαίει,
του διαόλ' του μπασταρδέλ'
κ'νω κι κ'νω κι κείνου σκουζ',
θα του σκάσου σα καρπούζ.»
Thus, the hapless mother rocks her baby and it cries, so she calls it a devil and a bastard. She rocks it again and it continues its lament, thereupon the mother states her intent to 'burst' her progeny 'like a watermelon.' This rather chilling counterpart to the song "Rock a bye baby" is inexplicable, save as an expression of a mother's frustration at having a difficult child and yet owing to the inclusion of the word μπασταρδέλι, was one of my favourites, in my infancy.
Even seemingly innocuous mainstream Greek songs have nebulous undertones. The national favourite «Μια ωραία πεταλούδα,» describes a butterfly flying through the plain, visiting various flowers and greeting them one by one. Yet «όταν έρθει ο χειμώνας, πέφτει κάτω και ψοφά.» When winter arrives, she falls down dead and the song ends on this rather macabre note, though in other versions, Christ-like,  «όταν έρθει καλοκαίρι, ζωντανεύει και πετά,» there is a remarkable resurrection.
The death of a hapless "petalouda" is nothing compared to the organised cannibalism that seems to take place in the children's favourite «΄Ηταν ενά μικρό καράβι.» This ditty, whose refrain is «ω-ε, ω-ε, ω-ε, ω-ε» is notable because it also exists in an Australian adaptation. At a Greek School Christmas party some years ago, the clever students changed the refrain to ole ole ole ole, adding for good measure: "feelin' hot, hot, hot,"  something that was sadly lost upon their adoring grandparents in the audience. A close inspection of the lyrics of this song, reveals this Νeo-Darwinian, Lord of the Flies type situation:
«Ήταν ένα μικρό καράβι, που ήταν αταξίδευτο
κι έκανε ένα μακρύ ταξίδι, μέσα στη Μεσόγειο
και σε πέντ'-έξι εβδομάδες , σωθήκαν όλες οι τροφές
και τότε ρίξανε τον κλήρο, να δούνε ποιός θα φαγωθεί
κι ο κλήρος πέφτει στον πιο νέο, που ήταν αταξίδευτος.»
Having related how the starving sailors resolved to eat the youngest, weakest and least experienced member of the crew, this ghastly song ends with the words: "And if you liked this song, we will sing it again for you." Is this an attempt to inculcate children from the earliest of ages into an ideology of the survival of the fittest? Or do these tales merely appeal to children's sense of enormity, in the same way that horror movies appeal to adults? How can one explain that my sister and I would walk around in a circle singing:
«Εμείς οι τρεις οι φίλοι που τρώνε το σταφύλι
κι οι άλλοι δυο κουμπάροι
που τρώνε το κουράδι.»
Most of the traditional Greek children's songs, refer to a bygone agrarian world that I could relate to my grandparents, aunts and uncles, much better than "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." The cautionary tale of the long eared donkey who, not content with his stable, sought after finery and frippery, or the story of the tortured cat: «Μια φορά κι έναν καιρό, πήγε ο γάτος στο χορό, και δεν χόρεψε καλά, και του κόψαν την ουρά,» helped me, albeit without by knowledge, to place the world of my place of origin in some sort of context, that made better sense than the world of Humpty Dumpty. These and their many regional variations are songs that would enrich the lives of Greek-Australian children and enhance their sense of their identity no end. As such, the need for them to be taught in schools, or kindergartens (and the desperate need for Greek speaking kindergartens is a pertinent topic for another time) is felt as keenly as ever before and the fact that a generation of Greek-Australians is growing up without the bleak humour contained therein truly makes one mortally sad.
Whenever my grandmother uncovered of my pranks or misdeeds, I would find out immediately because I would hear her slow steps down the corridor as she would chant menacingly: «Κούνελακι, κούνελακι, ξύλο που θα το φας.» Now what other nursery rhyme acts both as an early warning system and precursor to punishment? Certainly not my late uncle's equally lyrical but more blunt admonition, to wit:
«Αν δεν φας το φαεί σου όλο,
θα σου βάλω νέφτι στον κώλο.»
First published in NKEE on Saturday 24 August 2013