Saturday, August 27, 2016


That day the leaden sky was as low over the lake as the ceiling in my freezing ancestral home. I counted each of my nocturnal breaths etched upon the windowpane as I descended the steps and proceeded down to the lake lapping at the village entrance. It was dawn and in two hours I needed to be across the border in Argyrokastro, from where I was to find my way to Tirana, there to attend as an observer, the annual conference of the Union for Human Rights Party.
 I could not see my reflection in the ashen lake. Instead, its own reflection could be found in the sky and as I wandered along its deserted shores, I wondered how many aeons of human futility and dashed hopes lay submerged under the quagmire within, along with Kyra Frosyne, drowned upon the orders of Ali Pasha not so far from where I was standing, and my mother's wooden doll, lost in these waters forty years previously. 
 In the solitude of the rushes fringing the great silence of the lake, I availed myself of the stillness in order to answer a call of nature, musing as I prepared to do so, upon that unique sense of sweet sorrow, that which the inhabitants of Constantinople term hüzün, but which here at Ioannina acts as a great drain with the plug removed, dragging everyone, slowly, imperceptibly but inevitably into its watery sink of oblivion. 
 Poised, primed and ready to relieve myself, I gazed distractedly at the ground below, only to discover, coiled at my feet, within striking distance of my vital appendages, an enormous black water snake. One of the most vivid Greek expressions used to denote terror literally translates as: "My spleen was cut," and I bear living testament to its aptness. Backing away from the serpent with much care, I forgot to complete the primary task I had undertaken to perform, which would have easily foreseeable consequences later.
 All the auguries were awful, compounded by a developing migraine wherein each revolution of my taxi to the border’s wheels assumed the form of a circular saw, cutting its way into my skull in iambic tetrameters. In my delirium, in which snakes featured prominently, I retained only a dim recollection of crossing the border checkpoint into Albania and my bladder felt as pressed as John Proctor in The Crucible, as my taxi driver to Argyrokastro tactlessly and enthusiastically explained that he came from the village of Bistritsa, which was Slavonic for a “gurgling stream.”
The plan was to find in Argyrokastro, the bus terminal whence passage could be obtained for Tirana. Subordinate to that was the locating of a public convenience in which I could, the threat of ophidian beasts notwithstanding, achieve bodily release. Yet as soon as I alighted from my taxi, I was dragged under the arm by a waiting friend, who pushed me into a worn, but surprisingly sturdy BMW. “You are not getting on a bus,” he stated in a tone that brooked no argument. “Anything can happen between here and Tirana and your Albanian is cringeworthy. I’ve arranged for you a lift with these gentlemen. They are all delegates to the conference, and the man in the front seat is the eparch of the Greek village of M. You will have plenty to talk about. You are late, off you go.”
As the door slammed shut behind me (the Greeks of Albania share none of their Helladic brethren’s aversion to being assertive when it comes to closing car doors), I was greeted by long, expressionless glances by the young men seated in front and beside me. “Here, you are the skinniest, sit in the middle,” one of them offered, moving aside. They would have been only five years older than me and yet their faces were furrowed with lines and wrinkles, in contrast to their painstakingly coiffed hair, granted structural integrity via immense quantities of bryllcream. 
“So you are Australian?” the eparch asked, turning to me with a smile.
“Yes. I’m much interested in your views as to the constitutional efficacy of the new minority laws…”
 “Do you know Elle Macpherson?” he interrupted.
“No, I haven’t had that pleasure but I’m wondering from a human rights perspective whether…”
 “I’d love to do her. Είμαι καυλωμένος κάργα.»
 «Κάργα!» came a chorus from the boys in the backseat.
“What about Jessica Hart?”
 “Huh? Who is she?”
 “You live in Australia and you don’t know who Jessica Hart is? Η ομορφούλα η κουτσιοδόντω μωρέ.”
 “Sorry, I’ve never heard of her.”
 “I’d do her, gaps in her teeth, or no gaps.”
 “Ok, but how do the restrictions on private schools affect the status of Greek education in…”
 “Είμαι καυλωμένος κάργα,” the eparch exclaimed, clutching at his crotch.
«Κάργα!» the boys in the backseat diligently echoed.
“Now listen and repeat,” the eparch instructed. «Τα βόδια σύρονται.»
«Και τα πρόβατα μαρκαλιούνται. Say it
Ok. Τα βόδια σύρονται και τα πρόβατα μαρκαλιούνται. What of it? Is this a folksong or a line from some demotic poetry?”
Howls of laughter ensued as the boys in the backseat started chanting «Τα βόδια σύρονται και τα πρόβατα μαρκαλιούνται,» in manner akin to a soccer chant, but with greater and more refined attention to phrasing.
“These are the words we use when bulls and sheep mate,” the eparch explained. "Each animal does his business in a different way.”
 “What about humans,” I ventured. “Can we employ different terms for them, or is it the same across the board?”
The eparch considered this for a moment before remarking dismissively, as if it should be painfully obvious even to a foreigner like me: “No, humans are humans, naturally. Except,” he added as an afterthought,” for those humans who are βόδια. Human βόδια μαρκαλιούνται. You will find plenty in the villages around here.»
Peals of laughter ensued from the backseat as the boys once again took up their chant.
“Have you slept with Sarah Murdoch? She is Australian,” the eparch enquired.
“No. I can’t say that I have.”
 “Why not? If I was living in Australia, I would,” the eparch commented. “Beautiful women, kissed by the sun with no hair on their lips, their legs, or their pudenda.”

I confess that at that time I had no idea who Sarah Murdoch was and was having trouble keeping up with the conversation, let alone steering it in the direction of minority rights, which was the purpose of my trip. Furthermore, my bladder ached with urgency and I pressed my legs tightly together. Seeking a further way to contribute, I offered: “The Albanian writer Ismail Kadare laments the modern taste for depilation as a key to sexual attractiveness…”
 “Bugger Ismail Kadare, he is probably gay anyway. I’m talking to you about a blonde beauty and you… I’d do her any day. Είμαι καυλωμένος κάργα.»
 «Κάργα!» the boys in the backseat dutifully repeated, clasping their crotches.
“Do you know what I’d do to Sarah Murdoch if she was sitting here?” the eparch continued.
“No but I’m sure I can guess. Can we make a stop here, by the creek? I’m dying to go to the toilet.”
 “Yeah, good idea. We can all take a leak. It will give us a good idea as to what size Australians are.”

We stopped under a tree and I ran as fast as I could, away from my fellow travellers who were sniggering behind me. Ensconced safely between some rocks on the banks of the creeks, I began to unburden myself. 

“Watch out, there are snakes here. Decent size by the way, though I was expecting something a lot more heavy duty, if you are to take on the Australian woman.”

To this day, I do not know how the eparch, who when last I looked was approximately one hundred metres away, attempting to “cross streams” with his friends and giggling like a schoolgirl, found himself at my side, his arm resting protectively upon my shoulder as he viewed my nether regions appraisingly. “If Elle Macpherson was here right now…” the eparch intoned before abruptly interposing another thought. “You know,” he mused, “It’s strange. Your skin is very smooth. Like a woman.”

My flow immediately shut itself off midstream and I walked to the car, my hands in between my legs. I am unable to fathom how I endured the next two and a half hours in which the eparch duly recited the diptychs of all American supermodels, past and present, revealing to all and sundry that he was καυλωμένος κάργα, the refrain of κάργα being unstintingly intoned by his entourage. All the while, I felt like the little Dutch boy of legend who was compelled to place his fingers in many dykes, a subject also canvassed by the versatile eparch, in order to stop an imminent flow that would flood the entire Netherlands, pun probably intended. When upon our arrival in Tirana I was able to enclose myself in the protective custody of a lockable lavatory, I felt a liberation of a magnitude that can only be conveyed by a Cecil B DeMille dramatisation of the Lord smiting Pharaoh with the gushing waters of the Red Sea. 

I’ve not kept in touch a great deal with the eparch, single and living at home with his parents, but still fighting the good fight on behalf of the Greeks of Northern Epirus over the years and I was surprised to receive an email from him the other week, in which he enquired as to the prospect of him emigrating to Australia. I furnished him with answers to his queries, attaching as a coda to my response the following: "Τα βόδια σύρονται και τα πρόβατα μαρκαλιούνται." He effected not to know what I was talking about.


First published in Neos Kosmos on 27 August 2016

Saturday, August 20, 2016


In a sermon circulated among the Greek colonies of the Crimea in the early 1800s, referring to the Islamic poll tax or haraj paid to the Sultan, the following rather startling anarchist opinion was stated: “Ο κήνσος είναι δόμα και σημείον υποταγής,” that is, the κήνσος, a direct transliteration of the Latin word census, is a sign of subjugation. In the Bible, the word κῆνσος is used to signify a Roman imposed poll tax, being the reason why the counting of a population was conducted in the first place. The Romans conducted censuses every five years, calling upon every man and his family to return to his place of birth to be counted in order to keep track of the population and to determine the available amount of manpower that could be drafted into the army. The census thus played a crucial role in the administration of the peoples of an expanding Roman Empire, providing a register of citizens and their property from which their duties and privileges could be listed. 
Also in the Bible, we are able to find the modern Greek word for census, which is απογραφή. The most famous απογραφή of course is that which caused the Holy Family to move from Nazareth to Bethlehem where Jesus was born, not because wifi was more readily available there, all the better to complete the census form online, but rather because as was the custom in Greek elections until recently, one had to return to their place of birth in order to be counted: “Ἐγένετο δὲ ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις ἐκείναις ἐξῆλθε δόγμα παρὰ Καίσαρος Αὐγούστου ἀπογράφεσθαι πᾶσαν τὴν οἰκουμένην.” Fittingly, for the King of Kings, Jesus was born during a census that Caesar Augustus ambitiously wished to extend to the entire oecumene, or at least, the Roman part of it.
Yet before we dismiss the census as method of collating information about subject populations for the purpose of better fleecing them, (William the Conqueror certainly took a leaf out of the Romans’ tablet when commissioning the Domesday Book, all the better to denude the Anglo-Saxons of their property), it is important to note that censuses have been divinely sanctioned since Exodus wherein the Lord commanded the Israelites to  conduct a census of themselves, ensuring or course “that that there be no plague among them, when thou numberest them”, in order to levy a tax for the upkeep of the Tabernacle. Indeed an entire book of the Old Testament is based on a Census, the Book of Numbers, which basically records a number of stocktakes of the Israelite  population after the exodus from Egypt. 
On occasion, Biblical censuses have more nefarious purposes. In Samuel we learn that “Once again the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and he caused David to harm them by taking a census... So the king said to Joab and the commanders of the army, "Take a census of all the tribes of Israel--from Dan in the north to Beersheba in the south--so I may know how many people there are.” As this census was done for capricious reasons, the Lord insisted on a punishment, letting King David chose between seven years of famine, three months of fleeing from enemies, or three days of severe plague. David chose the plague, in which 70,000 men died. It is rumoured that persons claiming not to have completed the Australian 2016 online census because the site crashed or their computer was running a system, will be offered a similar choice of condign punishments.

David’s son, King Solomon as we learn in the book of Chronicles, had all of the foreigners in Israel counted, it is this aspect of the Australian census, the manner in which the character of ethno-linguistic groups within Australian society will be recorded that has exercised the attention of the Greek community which broadly believes, anarchist discourse about government as repression notwithstanding, that the Australian Census was a unique opportunity for our community to declare its ethnicity, language and religion. Accordingly, Federal and State government utilise the information contained in the census in their planning for ethnic communities and the provision of services for them. Regardless of the fact that we Greek-Australians are a diverse and mixed lot it was broadly felt that it was important that we all ensure that we, pardoning the pun, stand up and be counted on Census Night.
Yet in all aspects dealing with ethno-linguistic minorities, the 2016 Australian Census suggested that its creators lack the capacity to appreciate the complex relationship between ethnic communities, the mainstream and other ethnic communities. Instead, they tend to view ethnic communities such as ours, as a monolithic bloc of homogeneity, ignoring or rather not realizing the diversity of experience, sub-identities and intercultural relations that increasingly form the norm within most integrated ethnic communities.
For starters, the Australian census assumes that there is no such thing as multilingualism, requesting that the population only declares ONE language other than English spoken. It therefore ignores or does not address the possibility that in many ethnic communities and families, a number of languages other than English, and not just one, are used on an equal basis. Many Middle Eastern and Balkan Australians, where functional multilingualism is the norm were thus unable to record this on their form. Families hailing from Florina, where Greek and the Slavic idiom of the region are both equally spoken were unable to have this linguistic complexity reflected in the Census and had to arbitrarily chose one. Furthermore, such a blinkered view of language fluency completely ignores the phenomenon of minority language acquisition and use as a result of mixed marriages. The members of my household speak three languages other than English on a daily basis and yet only one of these could recorded. While such a phenomenon may not be common, it exists and it is precisely these types of instances of diversity that a Census sensitive to recording the true nature of linguistic and cultural multiculturalism should capture.
 Further, no provision was made for people who cannot speak a language, such as infants, or the disabled. Thus, the good people of the Census asked me which language by three month old daughter speaks and I was compelled to respond.
A similar dearth of appreciation of the manner in which ethnic communities self-identify was also displayed in relation to the ancestry component of the Census. How will the ancestry statistics be used and/or interpreted? If someone is half Greek half Italian for instance, will he be numbered both among the Greeks and the Italians or will there be a separate category for Greek-Italians, Greek-Australians, Greek-Chinese, Greek-Lebanese etc and every other possible combination among all the ethno-cultural communities. Furthermore, what if one is only a quarter Greek? No provision was made for composite ancestries. Furthermore, it is difficult to see what purpose answering such a question on its own would serve. It would have been more incisive and useful to include a  question about a person’s cultural affiliation,  that is, how they identify themselves which often differs to their ancestry or language spoken. For example, in most cases of mixed relationships, many progeny end up identifying primarily with one, rather than both of their ancestral cultures. Others marry into a culture and embrace it entirely. In the case of persons hailing from Florina, or the ongoing debate within the Syriac speaking community as to whether they espouse an Aramean, Chaldean or Assyrian identity, identity becomes a vexed question and questions as to ancestry do nothing to address composite or conflicting identities within the one individual. These are important elements of multicultural Australia which are not reflected in the census and are of concern since it becomes apparent that our statistics gleaners and by inference our government may not understand the true complexity of the mosaic and melting pot of our multicultural community.
The listing of Greek Orthodox on the census form in the religion section is also problematic because while it may feed Greek vanity in that it singles us out as prominent, it allows other Orthodox communities to qualify their Orthodoxy with an ethnic affiliation, thus fragmenting the true number of Eastern Orthodox adherents in this country in the statistics. Thus the census does not take into account that Greek Orthodox refers to jurisdiction, not religion and that the religion that should have been recorded is “Eastern Orthodox” with a space, if required, to record the necessary jurisdiction. It is of concern that after one hundred years of a dynamic presence in this country, the powers that be appear not understand the basic nature of the churches within it.
Some members of the Greek community lament the fact that Australian Censuses are invariably conducted in August when a large proportion of the Greek-Australian community is lapping up the Greek sun, thus resulting in their diminished numbers in the Census statistics. Yet the quantity is not so much relevant as understanding the changing nature of our community, both in how it sees itself as a whole and in relation to broader Australian society. And in this, apart from the Biblical trials and tribulations faced by the populace, especially the elderly and those unable to speak English, the Census has been tied and found truly wanting.

First published in Neos Kosmos on 20 August 2016

Saturday, August 13, 2016


I am unsure as to when I precisely learned that the Greek word ρουφιάνος had dual meaning, one innocuous, the other anodyne, but I believe my epiphany came in my first year of Greek school. Our newly arrived teacher from the motherland was inquiring as to our fathers’ professions, having assumed of course, that our mothers were not possessed of same. This was an easy question to answer, since my grandmother had already apprised me of the fact that my father was an εντζιουνίας and therefore, I enthusiastically imparted this knowledge to my educator. Having spent ten minutes upbraiding me and the entire Greek-Australian community for my Gringlish, she moved in to the next boy in class. Quoth he enthusiastically, ᾽Κυρία, ο μπαμπάς μου είναι ρουφιάνος.᾽
-       Τι; She exclaimed in horror.
-       Ρουφιάνος, κυρία. Φτιάχνει ρούφια.
During the next quarter of an hour, through which our teacher cursed our collective Vlach ancestry and our manslaughter of the beautiful Hellenic tongue, I was finally able to make sense of my aged uncle’s mutterings when they collected at γιορτές and relived times past. According to them, there were many ρουφιάνοι, during the Κατοχή. Now I knew why. Obviously many bombs were dropped upon the homes of the hapless Greek people during the war, requiring an army of skilled ρουφιάνοι in order to render them water-tight once more. In my youthful eyes, the ρουφιάνοι were therefore as heroic as the women of Pindus who lugged ammunition to the soldiers up sheer cliff faces.
            There seemed however to be a preponderance of ρουφιάνοι in our local community, because all the older Greeks I knew seemed to consider most of the people they knew, either as ρουφιάνοι, or as τομάρια, which according to my limited understanding, had something to do with hides and leather. For this reason, it took me a long time to make an auricular connection between the word ρουφιάνος and ruffian, which in fact are derived from the same Italian word: ruffiano, meaning a pander or a pimp. From the fifteenth century onwards, this word was introduced into English and gradually came to signify a boisterous, brutal fellow, capable of committing any crime. In Greek, its sense remained extremely close to the original Italian from whence it came.
            My uncles’ ρουφιάνοι, were neither brutal, nor boisterous. They were the sly, slimy, insidious creatures who ratted on their friends and family’s activities and political beliefs, first to the Nazis and then to the government of the day. As a result of their denunciations, many Greeks lost their lives, while thousands of others were exiled, or denied the employment of their choice, and indeed any prospect of career advancement, in the aftermath of the Civil War. Indeed, many prospective migrants to Australia were forbidden from emigrating until they had formally renounced the political ideas, which according to the ρουφιάνοι, they espoused, in humiliating ceremonies of abjuration.
            Unbeknownst to me however, was the fact that in some cases, the relocation to Australia did not necessarily mean putting the ρουφιάνοι and all that they stood for behind them. Instead, for many Greeks, the Civil War was not over and continued to be fought in various ways, cleaving our community in two, as Greek consular authorities sought if not to dictate to Greek migrants what manner of political and social convictions were acceptable, at least to classify them in terms of ‘loyal’ and ‘disloyal.’ In an era where mainstream Australia was terrified of the existence of reds lurking under the bed, anecdotal evidence suggests that the Greek consular authorities shared with the relevant Australian bodies, details as to which Greek migrants they considered to be subversive, that is left-leaning, pro-democracy, or anti-monarchist.  As a result of such ρουφιανιές, on the part of the representatives of their homeland, some Greek migrants were denied the right to Australian citizenship for a considerable period of time.
            And the source of their epic ρουφιανιά? Why, other Greek migrant ρουφιάνοι of course, who, out of political conviction, coupled with sheer spite, thought nothing of defaming their fellow Greek community members to the consular authorities, as unreliable and dangerous influences. Our own Aussie-Greek ruffians therefore, translated a long-standing tradition of Helladic grassing, upon these Antipodean shores, along with Greek dancing and long-winded poetry.
            Enter an elderly gentleman from Northern Greece, who I had the honour of meeting recently. As he related, he has been here since the sixties. Of a particularly enterprising nature, he operated several successful businesses and thus was able to travel to and from Greece on a regular basis, seeking to make improvements to the public amenities of his village as well as to construct various buildings on family land. Somehow, all his efforts, in obtaining the relevant permits were frustrated by the various municipal and prefectural authorities and he eventually abandoned his grandiose plans, returning once more to Australia on a permanent basis.
            In the eighties, he suffered immense pangs of homesickness and despite his previous experiences, decided to try to realize his dreams once more. This time, when ensconced deep within the bowels of his prefectural offices, a bored bureaucrat opened a file, read through it nonchalantly and then, uncharacteristically, gave a gasp of shock as his features assumed an almost human expression.
“What is it?” the man asked.
“Is so and so known to you?” the bureaucrat enquired.
“Of course, he is my koumbaro. Why do you ask?” the bewildered man replied.
“A fat lot of a koumbaro he is. According to this file he reported you to the Consulate in Melbourne in the seventies as being a prominent member of the Communist Party, a known communist agitator within the Greek Community of Melbourne and a man of base and suspect morality. See look. His name appears here and this notation is signed by the Greek Consul-General.”
“But I’ve never been a member of the Communist Party. I have never been involved in politics in any way,” the man tried to explain.
“At any rate, that’s all over now, it means nothing,” the bureaucrat shrugged, going on to explain that though the man had come to the correct office, he had  not had the appropriate forms stamped by the municipality, so he would have to go back, obtain the forms, re-attend to have them stamped, take them back to the municipality to have them verified and…. “By the way, be careful of your friends. Not that it matters now. We have heaps of files just like this. You should see your faces you Australians…”
            Thus through no fault of his own, a person he considered his closest friend, the archetype of the true ρουφιάνο, acting, in a fit of pique, in conjunction with the representatives of the Greek state, in an organized collaborative ρουφιανιά, saw fit to defame him, and ensure that basic rights and freedoms were taken away from him. It is probably for this reason then, that ρουφιάνοι and τομάρια go together.
            It is unknown just how many Greek-Australians were unknowing victims of Consular ρουφιανιές, as the evidence for these is anecdotal Certainly it beggars belief that a Consulate-General traditionally renown for being unable to service the needs of the Greek community in anything approaching a timely and professional manner was able to allocate the appropriate time from its commitment to being as inefficient and dysfunctional as possible, in order to methodically indulge in the recording of ρουφιανιές against members of the community. As the Stasi files of East Germany have been made open to those to whom they refer, perhaps, in the interests of history and sociology, Consular authorities could do the same, assuming of course that these exist, or, that they can be found, or that the relevant persons can be bothered retrieving them. Assuming that they are capable of addressing the issue and confirming the existence of such practices, surely an apology, however belated, is in order.
            Cretans express a belligerent view of ρουφιάνους in their mantinades, which should now be the motto of our entire community, for though the incentive is gone, the tendency remains the same among some, especially considering the slowly evolving polarization of the Greek people into political extremes: “Ρουφιάνοι να προσέχετε βαστώ καλό τουφέκι, να μην με ρουφιανέψετε σε τούτο 'δω το στέκι.” Sadly, a more realistic approach is that provided by Loudias, who has the final word, in his homonymous 2004 song, Ρουφιάνος: «Εγώ είμαι ο υπάλληλος που ξέρουνε οι πάντες/ Κοιτάζω τους εργάτες αν χτυπάνε τις κάρτες/ Τους βλέπω αν δουλεύουν ή αν ξύνουνε τους όρχεις/Το ρουφιάνεμα είναι ταλέντο, ή το `χεις ή δεν το `χεις.”


First published in Neos Kosmos on Saturday 13 August 2016

Saturday, August 06, 2016


As he cradled her dead body in his arms, μπάρμπα Νάσιο crooned softly: Ήσουν καλή, η καλύτερη, before embarking upon a heart-rendering soliloquy about how much he loved her. My great-aunt lay still and silent, her eyes disconcertingly half-open, as if she was still observing our behaviour from beyond the boundaries of this life. 
Θειά-Ρήνα’s eyes were the first thing you would notice about her, for they were tremendously black and piercing. The inexorability of that gaze was framed by an almost constant frown that has been inherited and passed down among five generations of our family. On the surfance, it rendered her fearsome and awesome, yet that frown’s ferocity represented a fierce attitude towards the vicissitudes of life, towards those who lacked decency and especially, to any obstacles standing in the way of family cohesion. Her ferocity was thus an imperative to kindness, a tough, all consuming love of mankind that can only be understood and appreciated by those who have lived within the legacy of the Epirote saints. Sometime after her father was shot during the Occupation, she found her calling. She would be the family protector. It was in this calling that she wore her frown as military stripes and a badge of honour, for her responsibilities were great and she assumed them without question or complaint. And it was only when I noticed that her visage no longer bore the frown we all bear, upon her deathbed, that I finally accepted that she had gone.
The next thing you would notice about my great-aunt was the girth of her forearms. Hard as steel and almost three times the size of my own, these were the tireless arms that lifted countless bales of hay and innumerable bundles of wood as she went about her work in the village fields. These indefatigable arms would come to roll an infinite number of dim sims upon their arrival in this country, her skill and speed becoming so legendary that it was spoken of in hushed tones of awe among the dim sim manufacturers of Flemington. Again, it was with these arms that she insisted upon hand-washing her family’s clothes well into her eighties, for she never possessed a washing machine. And it was also with these arms that my formidable great-aunt struck a blow for feminism: As the village nurse, she would rise from her bed at all hours of the night in order to administer injections, saving scores of lives over the years. During one of her nocturnal journeys through the village, she was accosted by a misguided male, who delivered a smut-filled greeting. Two seconds later, the hapless individual lay flat upon the road, having been floored by a back-hand sweep of my great-aunt’s arm. Long before Christos Tsiolkas, in an Epirote village far, far away, θειά-Ρήνα invented ‘The Slap.’ No one ever dared question or contradict, let alone harass her, ever again.
Well into her seventies, θειά-Ρήνα ‘s hair was long, black and lustrous, reaching well below her waist, for in keeping with traditional custom, she never cut it and being immensely proud of it, would tend it carefully, combing it lovingly into a long, thick plait of the same thickness as my wrist. As she walked, always briskly and decisively, for she was seldom idle, her almond-shaped eyes encased in a frown, her golden prosthetic teeth flashing, grasping her plait in one hand, she looked like Manchu royalty and I would call her the Dowager Empress, always behind her back, for to make light of our family protector, was inconceivable, inviting unimaginable and yet never ever delivered, wrath. 
This is because despite her fearsome, imposing countenance, θειά-Ρήνα was unfathomably kind. As a child, I was certain that she was the veritable Cornucopia of chocolates, soft drinks and fifty dollar notes, for these would be dispensed with unfailing regularity among all of her grandchildren, grand-nieces and grand-nephews upon our frequent attendances at her court. As she sat, ensconced upon her arm-chair with the regal air of the Dowager Empress Ci Xi, she would dispense artfully created quince spoon sweets. To refuse such bounty was unthinkable and unwise given that they, along with her γαλοτύρι and Easter soup, in which she would melt a 250 gram pat of butter, have achieved the status of hallowed culinary lore within our family and were remarkably comforting.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, a considerably larger pool of people was a recipient of her largesse. Over the years, tales emerged of struggling Greek families in her local area, as well as friends and relatives back in the village, and even local business being discretely financially assisted by the determination of a woman, only marginally better off than them, resolved to extend her role of protector not only to her own family, but all of mankind, given that in her selfless giving, the entire communion of humanity is sanctified. This is especially so given that in my local church, we receive communion from a chalice that she donated, upon the church’s foundation.
The sharpness of θειά-Ρήνα’s tongue, the quickness of her temper and her custom of calling things as she saw them meant that one could neither prevaricate, hide nor dissemble in her presence. To do so was to deliver an insult to a lady who had your welfare as her utmost consideration. When invited in jest by one of her daughters in law to assume the role of a docile old grandmother that could easily be managed, she riposted triumphantly: "Έχω τον Νάσιο μου εγώ." This is because the last seventy years of her long life comprised one of the most passionate and moving love stories I have ever known. A couple brought together during the tragedy of war, my saintly, ever-patient μπάρμπα Νάσιο and my querulous, passionate, generous θειά-Ρήνα were absolutely devoted to each other, relying upon each other in everything, and in turn, receiving the love and respect of all around them. Delivering my great-uncle home from church on Sundays, I would find her waiting outside her home, her immense arms folded across her chest, gruffly asking why we late, her eyes betraying her unspoken fear that something had befallen her husband on the return journey, for she could not bear to be separated from him, even for the briefest of moments.
To perform a great-uncle drop off was unthinkable. I would be ushered into the kitchen where I would be seated at the table and asked to relate my news and run through my plans with her, which I would do, as she listened intently, bidding my great-uncle make some coffee and ply me with cake. Then, having force fed me and processed the information provided, she would deliver, in the form of a Manchurian decree, amazingly pertinent and practical advice, of facile application, always ending in the words: “Honour, but don’t listen to your parents. Make your own way in the world.” Such was the force of her counsel and the intensity of the concern that informed her guidance that I always adopted it, almost unthinkingly, wholesale.
As the years passed, the delivery of such advice became difficult. A number of strokes rendered my great-aunt struggling to communicate. “I know what I want to say but I can’t remember the words,” she would complain to me, her frown turning into a sob. We witnessed her, this monolith of vitality, slowly lose her power of speech and almost turn to stone, which is why her brief moments of lucidity, when she would look at us and her eyes would flash a smile of recognition, meant so much to us. And through all of those years that she remained in thrall to the degeneration of her faculties, my great-uncle remained at her side, tending to her, speaking to her , holding her hand and loving her more intensely than ever before.
Baucis and Philemon, the archetypal ancient loving couple of Ovid’s 'Metamorphosis' entertained Zeus and Hermes unawares and as a result, were afforded protection from destruction, longevity and a great boon: to be permitted to die together. Upon their death, the couple was changed into an intertwining pair of trees, one oak and one linden, standing before their home. Such a boon has been denied to my intensely Christian great-aunt and great-uncle, who is now entering his nineties, for the first time in seventy years, alone. Yet in the place of trees, this loving couple, has sired a legion of descendants, some with the tendency to frown and others not, all of whom are imbued with a fierce love of humanity and a thorough disdain for the petty and mean-spirited things of the world. This too, is truly a blessed legacy.
As I light the lamp before the icon θειά-Ρήνα gave me on my wedding day, her words: f you have an opportunity to help someone, do so. Like Lot, you never know if you are entertaining angels unawares, resound within my mind. I shed a tear because our Queen-Protector is dead. In her passing, our Greek-Australian lives are much diminished, for the time of Queens is past. We shall have no others.

First published in Neos Kosmos on Saturday 6 August 2016