Saturday, October 28, 2017


What passes as a hunk in 1987 Athens, haunted by his family's expulsion from Constantinople during the 1955 pogroms, is organising an exhibition of the everyday life of the Greek community of Smyrna before 1922. He does so, during the Sismik crisis, when tensions are heightened between Greece and Turkey, and war is threatened. Byzantine in appearance, and dwelling in the past, his girlfriend, on the other hand, professional, unsentimental, calculating and completely indifferent to the fate of the Greeks of Asia Minor save as a topic of scientific study, she is a symbol of the "new Greece."

A chance encounter with a blood-stained wedding dress and a mysterious photograph in Izmir (for as his Turkish guide responds to him when he asks what remains of Old Smyrna: "Not much,") will set our hunk upon a train of enquiry that will see him: a) destroy his relationship with his girl and almost immediately forge another, after a chance encounter in an antique shop, b) uncover the inconvenient truths of a family that has up until now, preferred to have had these remain hidden. That inconvenient truth is one easy to foresee. The elusive Roza's secret is that she had fallen pregnant to a Turk, with tragic consequences.

The brilliance of the lavish film "Roza of Smyrna" is that even though the plot is basically comprised of bunch of cliché's strung together upon an extremely flimsy, implausible and yet predictable plot, both the scenario and characters are treated with so much affection that these implausibilities don't really matter to the viewer, neither will the film's many flaws, detract from what is a pleasurable viewing experience. From an artistic point of view however, this film, is a conglomerate of fascinating and inspired potentialities, whose flaws and possible lack of research, prevent from coalescing into the coherent and epic narrative it deserves to be.

A few basic incongruities are indicative of this regrettable lack of attention to detail and yet rather than infuriate, they entertain the viewer, which is why this film abounds in charm:

Firstly, and this is my favourite, all of the motor vehicles appearing in the film present themselves as being waxed to a brilliant shine, as if they had just been driven out of the car detailers, quite an interesting juxtaposition to dusty, perennially water-deprived 1987 Athens and for that matter, 1987 Izmir.

Secondly, if Ismail, the main protagonist's lover, spent the years between 1922 to 1987 desperately trying to find Roza, the mother of his child, and had no idea of her whereabouts, (even though he is an extremely powerful man and could have plausibly obtained professional assistance in order to track her down), how is it that he could send her letters, which she was able to receive and keep unopened?

Thirdly, how is it that Roza, who has changed her name, can receive letters addressed to her old name, care of Athens Greece, with no suburb, or street name and number supplied. Is the inference that there existed at the time, dedicated Greek postal detectives who, nimbly and silently tracked down those to whom letters were improperly addressed? More importantly, what has happened to these selfless individuals?

Fourthly, while the film makers take great pains to explain to us the plausibility of Ismail signing his letters with the Greek initials Ι.Σ (which is silly because his name being Ismail Kulaksiz, his initials should be I.K), by having Roza launch into a lengthy and a rhythm disrupting explanation that many Turks used Greek letters because the Ottomans of the time used the unwieldy and difficult to use Arabic script, they present Ismail's first letter to Rosa as having been written in 1922. That letter, the text of which can clearly be seen, is written in the Modern Turkish alphabet, with Roman, not Arabic letters. And yet, the new alphabet was did not come into effect in Turkey until 1929, some seven years after Ismail's letter. Either Ismail was an early linguistic prophet, or some serious lacunae in the research have developed.

Fifthly, according to the film, in order to efface her sexual transgression, Roza is married off to a willing Greek, in exchange for a financial benefit. The wedding we are told, takes place after the Greek troops evacuated Smyrna. We know that this took place on 8 September 1922, that the Turkish army entered the city that evening, and that massacres began almost immediately. We also know that at this time, the Christian inhabitants of the city began to flee for their lives. Is the film maker's contention therefore plausible, that a wedding would have taken place during these circumstances, let along one where the guests are dressed in their finest clothes, completely disregarding the fact that marauding Turkish soldiers and irregulars are contemporaneously roaming the streets trying to kill them?

Sixthly, Ismail relates how he entered the church while the wedding was in progress and during the confusion, Roza's father was shot dead, neatly explaining how blood stained her wedding dress, one of the film's supposed key 'mysteries.' He states that he entered the church with the purpose of disrupting the wedding as he did not want to lose his love, or his child. However, after Roza's father is massacred, he is shown placing her on a horse, giving her a tiny knife the size of a letter opener and letting her go. Considering that at this time, massacres were raging all around Smyrna, how can Ismail's professed love of Roza be reconciled with his willingness to allow her to venture, unprotected, into the midst of a raging genocidal mob, knowing that her rape or death was almost a certainty? And what purpose does the penknife have, except as to act as a silly and irrelevant symbol of who knows what, when at the end of the film and her life, Roza throws it into the Bosphorus, a stretch of water that has absolutely no significance for her?


One aspect of the film I found enthralling was this: Roza's granddaughter, who I suspect is a parody of Audrey Tautou, is a struggling artist with no recognition of her talent. When it is revealed to her that the only reason why her art is being recognised, purchased and exhibited in Istanbul is because her patron is actually her grandfather, Ismail, who has arranged for this to be so out of his own pocket, she barely bats an eyelid. If this was an Anglo-Saxon film, this revelation would have caused her immense self doubt and to question her talent and artistic value. In this film, directed towards a Greek audience, none of that betrayal or loss of validation is explored, presumably, because nepotism is so entrenched within the modern Greek psyche, that the thought doesn't even occur to her, or rather to the film makers who lack the insight to explore this aspect of the scenario they have created. Roza herself, provides insight into entrenched nepotistic values. While she is fully cognisant of the hunk's designs on her grand-daughter, she treats him with exaggerated consideration, when she forms the opinion that he is behind her grand-daughter's turn in artistic fortunes. Thus, in the case of both Ismail, an abductor, murderer and person willing to allow the object of his love to venture into a massacre, and our hunk, money, and favours, can buy you love.

Just as intriguing is the film's attitude towards to Ömer, who our hunky protagonist meets in Izmir. In their lame and clumsy attempt to trace the conversion of a racist hunky Romaic intellectual consumed with hatred into a modern, humanistic hunky European intellectual, the film- makers have the said hunk treat his Turkish companion appallingly. Stereotypes abound: The Greek is impulsive, effusive and passionate. The Easterner is accepting, passive, stoic and kind. As the relationship thaws to the point where hunk is comfortable enough to reveal that he speaks Turkish, we are led to expect that this is a seminal moment in their relationship. Paradoxically, however, the effect of this revelation is completely rendered irrelevant by the pair continuing to converse in English. Furthermore, the portrayal of the reputedly more intimate friendship is puerile: At all stages hunk acts as a western colonialist, rather than a friend. Even as the relationship warms, instead of being treated as an equal, Ömer is portrayed by the film makers as an errand boy or a trusty sidekick. Tellingly, he is conspicuously absent from the exhibition at the end of the film, one which could not have been held without his intervention. His absence, renders hunks public recantation of hatred and espousal of inter-ethnic love, presciently hipsterish.

In like fashion, the denoument, where after needless prevarication, Roza scurries to Ismail's deathbed, witnesses him succumbing to a heart-attack, throws his knife into the sea and then dies on the pier is mystifying. Grandmother and granddaughter are close. By this stage, Roza is at least eighty years old. It stretches credulity to believe that Roza would have been allowed out at night in a strange country without supervision, let alone be permitted to perish romantically upon a pier, just so the flim-makers can reference the romance of Layla and Majnun. (Note to the film-makers: Majnun was killed by Layla's husband. There is little or nothing to parallel their story to this one, except for an inept attempt at a little orientalist exoticism. Still, ten marks for trying).

While the movie successfully builds up suspense and creates mystery around the circumstances of Roza's secrets, their revelation is emotionless and the retrospective scenes do not succeed in allowing us to feel her pain or sympathise to the extent that we should, partially because they are not plausible but mostly because they are told by others and we do not get to understand them through her eyes. As such, her character remains criminally underdeveloped. This is because the film-makers, in spending time cramming as many disparate and interesting elements into the early part of the movie in order to build suspense, have forgotten the most important rule of narrative: Show, don't tell. This is a pity because the character of Roza gives rise to immense opportunities to fully showcase the ambiguities of moving within and transcending ethnic and religious boundaries. Perhaps the film-makers could have taken a leaf out of Alexander Billinis' brilliant: Hidden Mosaics: An Aegean Tale, where similar secrets are treated in a historically plausible and nuanced fashion.

The above notwithstanding, the endearing Roza of Smyrna has the makings of a thoroughly evocative and enjoyable movie, one that invites thought and consideration, a feat in itself. Its cinematography, more a paean to a lost, confident PASOKian past that to Smyrna, is lyrical and elegant. It is worth a look, not just only, to trace what could have been, an epic masterpiece, had the film-makers the patience and the skills, to delve into what is, a fascinating amount of detail.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 28 October 2017

Saturday, October 21, 2017


When the dynamic Hellenic Women’s Cultural Association “Estia,” approached me with the suggestion that we collaborate in creating an exhibition of women’s traditional costumes and jewellery from Epirus, at the Victorian Parliament, I asked myself the question: What do a bunch of old clothes and old fashioned bling from an obscure region in the Balkans have anything to do with Victoria, Melbourne, and indeed the magnificent edifice that dominates Spring Street?

By way of addressing this is, I now poke you gently and with discretion, in the direction of Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, who, while her husband was out gallivanting with one-eyed monsters and particularly nubile demi-Gods, sat at her loom, weaving into it, imaginary scenes of her husband’s infidelities and misadventures.

Three thousand years later, and in roughly the same geographical position, the women of Epirus sat at their looms, waiting for their husbands, migrants to various parts of the world, to return home. Loss and longing formed the warp and the weft of their experience and they wove upon it, motifs that had barely changed over millennia. Those motifs can be discerned woven or embroidered upon the fabrics that will be displayed at the: “From Epirus to the Antipodes: Multicultural Foundations through Artefacts,” exhibition. 

The loom was then one of the most central implements to the Greek woman’s daily reality, which is why, not a few Greek migrants to Melbourne, my own great-grandmother included, packed her loom, a most bulky item to transport and brought it Melbourne with her, on a great Odyssey-like sea voyage.

Our family no longer has its loom. It appears that in order to fit the stereotype, the loom was only relevant if it was used in a Penelope-like fashion, the man of the house being abroad, and the woman of the house waiting patiently for his return. Now, through Antipodean metastasis, the whole paradigm was inverted, or if one pardons the cliché, turned ‘down under’. It was the woman who had embarked upon the Odyssean voyage, the woman who was to tackle the monsters and the pleasures of that voyage and considering that there was no gender stereotype waiting for a return, or at least able to imagine the adventures of those migrant women, nothing could be, or was woven. The loom, in the new country, was made redundant. Ours was secreted in a basement, where, unused, it proceeded to rot away.

The fruit of the loom, which is what the “From Epirus to the Antipodes” primarily concerns itself with, is thus a powerful symbol of the backstory of multiculturalism. The patterns, the motifs, the very fabric, transplanted here, to these Antipodean climes, forms the framework through which a significant number of Melburnians have in the past and still do, view the world around them. The application of age old tropes, connotations and ancient meanings which have their origin at Penelope’s loom, to an interpretation of Melbourne society describes the process of Greek acculturation here in Australia. This is a significant and yet unstudied, aspect of the multicultural experience. Belabouredly pushing the paradigm further than any paradigm should plausibly go, it is these motifs, the memories of these fabrics that form a new warp and weft for a new psychological loom, one upon which the travails of everyday life here are interwoven.

Of course the provenance of these costumes and artefacts is traced to Epirus, north western Greece, the place of origin of my mother and before her, a particularly significant line of strong family matriarchs. Long before multiculturalism, globalization and immigration became buzzwords with which to tax the tabloids, Ioannina, the capital of Epirus was a trading and cultural entrepot whose reach was surprisingly long. Thus, one will see among the exhibits, a silver butterfly belt, made in Ioannina, exclusively for the Bosnian export market, an ornate costume, made in Ioannina but exported to and worn primarily in Cappadocia, central Turkey. One will also see a shepherdess’ costume that can be found all along the northern Greek transhumant pastoralist continuum to Thrace, Bulgaria and beyond, in only small variations: the Sarakatsan costme. The motifs on the aprons to that costume are fascinating in that they are, by sheer coincidence, strikingly reminiscent of Australian Aboriginal art.

Reflecting the diverse nature of the social fabric of Epirus, long before words like mosaic or melting pot became popular for a brief period here in the eighties and nineties, the jewellery display will feature almost identical wedding crowns for Christians and Muslims, distinguished only by extremely slight details such as the presence of a crescent moon and, amazingly, a votive reliquary with the undeniably Christian symbol of St George on the obverse, while on the reverse, paradoxically, or maybe not so, the Jewish star of David appears, attesting to the presence of the vitally important Jewish community in Ioannina. Long before our arrival to these shores then, Greek women understood not only diversity, but also synchretism and the enriching experience of culture-sharing. This exhibition will argue that they packed their looms for the journey here, with a pre-disposition for pluralism.

These days, social media facilitates us wearing our hearts on our sleeve, or on our Instagram, our pinterest and all the other forms available of which I am blissfully unaware owing to an innate inability not to understand what purports to be modern technology. At the time when the costumes that will be on display were worn, and many of them were still being worn in Epirus, at least on feast days, at the time of Greek mass-migration to Australia, what set one apart was their bling. That bling, was in less words than a tweet, the entire articulation of a personality, including one’s standing in one’s family and community. An entire exposition of class relations can therefore be extrapolated from the costumes that will on be display. From urban formal wear, with sumptuous silks and intricate brocades, styled in the latest Ottoman fashions in the capital, to rural formal wear, slightly heavier and rustic, but no less ornate, to urban street wear for the more active woman, and there were few that were not, to rural street wear, formidable, durable, uncompromising and ready for action, kind of like most of the Greek community actually, the exhibition aims to provide a snapshot of the cultural diversity existing in one of Greece’s smallest and poorest regions.The costume of Konitsa that will be displayed, worn by women who spoke Vlach, a Latin-based tongue, is a testament to that diversity.

Of course, not a few counterparts of the costumes that will be on display were brought to Australia and adapted to Australian conditions in the 60s and 70s. I have heard stories of fashionable young migrants applying scissors and shears to brocade and embroidery that will make the skin of even the most indifferent crawl. But then again, if it is deemed acceptable for Valentino’s 2016 collection, in which bodices that look almost identical to Attic singounia are featured, it should be ok for us. Sadly I did not have the heart to seek to display the mini-skirt made out of an ornate nineteenth century caftan, a particularly enterprising acquaintance of mine created in an act of unspeakable desecration, during the late sixties. Yet this act itself, is one of supreme acculturation.

In keeping with our narrative of globalization, a large portion of the silver-works made in Ioannina, traditionally the silver-smithing capital of Greece are now made in Taiwan. Nonetheless what will be displayed at the exhibition, are not the dinosaur bones of that tradition, nor its ossification, but again, the warp and the weft of an aesthetic tradition that thrives today, within Melbourne, as can be discerned by a cursory visit to some of the jewelry shops in Oakleigh. Many of the pieces on display lent their wearer immense dignity, and a distinctive gait, a method of deportment common among many of the older ladies among the first generation Greek migrants, no matter their stature, who tended to walk in a particularly erect, and proud manner. Their deportment, was conditioned by generations of wearing of items such as those on display. Caroline Crummer, the first Greek woman to arrive in Australia in 1835 from Ioannina, to whose memory the exhibition will be dedicated, wore such pieces, during the formative years of the creation of Australia.

To point to artefacts of whatever nature, and to expect that they symbolise or encapsulate the breadth of any human experience is a task fraught with danger. This exhibition merely hopes to draw attention to the complexities but also the commonalities of that experience, within the Victorian multicultural context.


“From Epirus to the Antipodes: Multicultural Foundations through Artefacts,” will be launched at the Parliament of Victoria by Dean Kalimniou on Tuesday 6:30pm, 31 October 2017. The exhibition will run from 31 October 2017 to 2 November 2017”

First published in NKEE on 21 October 2017

Saturday, October 14, 2017


Tom is, perhaps, the closest equivalent to Noel Coward that a Greek-Australian could ever hope to be. Even his Greek, which is perfect, is inflected by Cowardian enunciation. His speech is playful and peppered with assonances, rhymes and glorious exaggerations. He is charismatic and professional, for he enjoys a high-powered career. He is stylish without being foppish, erudite without being overbearing, generous without being needy and immensely pious, possessing an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the history and practice of the Orthodox Church. One of my oldest and dearest friends, he is also, gay.

Tom rarely speaks of his sexuality because on the rare occasions that he has confided in me, he states that this aspect of his life is intensely private and he refuses to be defined as a human being by it. He lives with his mother, in a house festooned with icons and fragrant with incense. The shelves of his study groan under the weight of tomes concerning Church Canon Law, the lives of the Saints, studies in theology and a mouth-watering selection of antique, rare Bibles. He is seldom to be found without a komboschoini in his left hand, while his right hand is usually enclosed around a glass of finest scotch. If he could wear a smoking jacket while enjoying a dram, he would, but his mother is elderly and constantly cold. As a result, their home usually is maintained at the temperature of the sweltering Nitrian desert.

For Tom, the current Australian debate about expanding the definition of marriage in the Marriage Act is deeply distressing. This is because he feels that the debate has polarized the community into two distinct sections: pro-church (and hence NO voters) and anti-church (and hence YES voters, but also all gays). In his opinion, this polarisation is harmful when trying to understand the Greek community because it does not take account of the significant number of gay Greek-Australians who find comfort and solace within the Orthodox Church, and strongly identify with it.

In answer to the question: “how can you identify with an institution that does not accept who you are?” Tom is dismissive. In his view, he feels that the Church accepts him and everyone else for who they are, for all are made in the image of God. As he sees it, the Church encourages its members to divest themselves of those things that keep them tied to the world, in order to seek a higher, more substantive reality. In that process, the practice, though not the presence of his particular sexuality, is a hindrance. In keeping with his understanding of that teaching, he explains, therefore that he now lives a celibate lifestyle and believes that this is the only acceptable path for Orthodox “like him”. Unconsciously, as he speaks about this, he grimaces, and one can tell that he has only arrived at this position after years of pain, guilt and soul-searching. He has voted No in the current postal ballot because he believes that marriage is a religious institution, and that any form of union, whether heterosexual or otherwise, existing outside the Church, cannot be called marriage. His mother informs me in her village accent that Tom is now too old to get married and that anyway, he will never be married as he prefers men. Tom winces with embarrassment.

George, is exuberant, flamboyant and sporty to the point where his constant play-punches and faux-football marks scored off one’s back become slightly disconcerting in the way they intrude upon conversation. He lives with a partner who is non-Greek and has converted to the Orthodox Church. On the wall of their home, they have framed Cavafy’s poem “In Church”, with its majestic verses: “Whenever I go there, into a church of the Greeks….. my thoughts turn to the great glories of our race.” They attend Church every Sunday, armed with interlinear translations of the Matins and the Liturgy which they print from the Internet. They follow the service line by line and when they return home, they excitedly discuss passages or words in the text, that stimulated their interest. Frequently, they line up for communion. George relates that he has loved going to church ever since he was a small boy and that being immersed within the liturgy gives him an immense feeling of serenity and belonging. He recalls that the first time he ‘came out’ it was as a teenager to his former parish priest. The priest, shocked, turned his back on him, stating: “I have nothing more to say to you.” George is quite certain that his current priest knows that he and his partner and living together as partners, but he is never denied communion. “If they were to deny us communion, they would have to deny it to the entire congregation. After all, didn’t the Boss say, let he who is without sin cast the first stone?”

George’s partner exchanges recipes with his ‘pethera’ as he calls her, for tsoureki, fasting food during Lent and his Pascal lamb, basted with indescribable sauces is a vision of culinary Paradise. Both he and his partner have voted YES in the postal vote and would, if given the opportunity, marry. They provide me with books that argue that only certain types of sexual acts are prohibited by the Orthodox Church, and that these apply to everyone, whereas certain others can be enjoyed across the board. When I express my doubt at their interpretation of the Church’s position, as I understand it, they launch into a meticulous and lengthy deconstruction of the relevant verses, cross-referencing them to theological commentaries and expositions about grammar. They also point me in the direction of diverse websites such as “Orthodox and Gay,” whose content informs their convictions.

George and his partner do not feel rejected by the Church, nor do they feel it is opposed to them or their lifestyle. In their opinion, the correct interpretation that will reconcile the issue has not yet been revealed and they fervently hope and pray that it will soon, so they can marry, within the Church. After all they say, “Love, is love.” They point to the slow and careful way change is made in the Orthodox church as proof of reverence and correctness of doctrine. Above their dining table, they have gay Franciscan friar Robert Lentz's 1994 version of the icon of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, first displayed at Chicago's Gay Pride Parade, and who, they maintain, were an openly gay couple, during Byzantine times.

Maria and her partner, who is an Orthodox from the Balkans, live together and have a child. Maria’s partner freely admits that she has been estranged from the Church she was raised in and her family, ever since she came out to them twenty years ago. The revelation of her sexuality caused her to be completely cut off from her community and support network and she was also the victim of domestic abuse as a consequence. As a result, she harbours hostility both towards the Church and what she describes as “traditional communities.” However, when Maria told her that she wanted to baptize their child in the Orthodox church, she agreed, believing however, that such a thing was not possible and that they would be turned away.

Maria did not go to her local parish to baptize her child, for as she says, she wanted to avoid “scandal.” Instead, she found another parish. “When we arrived at our appointment,” she grins, “the father looked us up and down. His countenance was impassive. He opened up his book and said: “Right, make sure the godparent is Orthodox. What date suits?” I truly was astonished because I thought that he was going to send us packing.”

Maria and her partner frequently attend Church, primarily in order for their child to obtain communion. Maria will often line up to take communion herself. Her partner never does, for she is still angry but she concedes that though the odd glance is cast their way by elderly parishioners, they have never been treated with disrespect and those same parishioners will often hold their child and ruffle its hair. Both of them have voted YES in the postal vote and cannot understand, why in their view, the Church cannot accept them for who they are. Voicing their opinion in this regard to their parish priest one day, they were surprised to hear him respond: “But we do. You are here, aren’t you?”

Peter, in his early twenties, plausibly could be called a religious fanatic and a zealot. If he lived in Biblical times, then surely he would have been a Pharisee, for he takes great delight in keeping every single abstruse ritual or custom he has read or heard about, in relation to the Orthodox Church and criticizing others for not being so observant. Peter’s parents are irreligious and he came to Orthodoxy through the Internet. He has learned the Psalms of David by heart and quotes a Church Canon stating that all bishops should know the aforementioned Psalms by heart in order to impugn their piety and legitimacy. Peter is extremely conflicted by his sexuality, for he is attracted to people of the same gender and periodically engages in cross-dressing, but believes that this is wrong. He goes through periods of agonising repentance, punctuated by church observance, fasting and prayer, alternating with periods where he trawls the relevant nightspots in search of a partner. Consumed by guilt, for he believes that he is susceptible to possession by the demon of lust, after each bout of illicit, in his view, lovemaking, he confesses his transgressions via telephone to his spiritual father, who abides in a monastery in Greece. Peter confides that the spiritual father has given him dispensation to sleep with a woman, out of wedlock, in the hope that he will prefer the difference. He has voted NO in the postal vote and is a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage as he believes that this will compromise the doctrinal purity of the Orthodox Church. He is currently considering traveling to Mount Athos to become a monk, because the Greek community is too godless.

As the Orthodox Church, up until recently, has been inextricably interwoven within and has informed, the traditional understanding, articulation and practice of “Greek” culture and identity by Greek-Australians, it follows logically that the manner in which members of that broader community relate to their faith, its practice or culture, are, as the above examples suggest, complex and emotive, transcending considerations solely, of sexuality and gender. Conversely, the manner in which LGTBI members of our community negotiate their way within the structures and institutions of that community and respond to challenges outside it, also entail considerations that are not only informed by sexuality but also, by an agglomeration of the cultural and religious background in which they have been reared, or which they have chosen to espouse. The fact remains that a significant proportion of the LGTBI members of our community still have meaningful contact with the Orthodox Church, experiencing and relating to it in diverse ways. Any insightful analysis of the current marriage reform proposals, and their relation to the Orthodox Church and the broader Greek-Australian community, is incomplete, unless it provides a forum for their voices to be heard and considered.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 14 October 2017

Saturday, October 07, 2017


Saturday night at a Greek καφεζαχαροπλαστείον. I generally do not haunt such establishments because I have been born without a sweet tooth and for some perverse reason, prefer to make my own coffee. Furthermore, if one visits the cake shops of Cairo, resplendent in their pink granite bench tops, intricately designed cornices and offering a multitude of delectables, (infinitely exceeding the generally limited imagination of the most feverish of antipodean Greek pastry chefs), none of which are swimming in syrup, as is the case with their Hellenic counterparts, then one's appreciation of the Greek-Australian coffee-cake shop is somewhat diminished, though never, it should be added, quite extinguished.

 It would be prudent not to overgeneralise however, for Greek-Australian cake shops vary as to character and clientele according to their geographic distribution. One memorable visit I made to a Greek cake shop in the eastern suburbs was with a client. He was battling cancer, going through a particularly messy divorce and was in a bad way. As we sat sipping coffee, we overheard two sandblasted local ladies remark nonchalantly to each other:

 "I wonder if I should get my face lasered."

 "Oh you should you know, I got it done last month. Couldn't live with out it. Soooo terrible."

 My client looked up, tears streaming down his face and started laughing. "I'm going to be alright, aren't I?"

 As a matter of fact, he was and it is moments like this that unsuspectingly reveal to us the mystic, ridiculous majesty of life.

At Medallion of blessed Lonsdale memory however, I have, over a cup of Greek coffee, had the most bizarre but ultimately enlightening conversations with apologists for the Maoist regime, in which it was contended that the deaths of millions of Chinese during the Great Leap Forward was a mere fantasy and that the purge of the Chinese sparrows was a figment of the West's imagination. A few tables down, a depressed theology student downing his fourth touloumba as he delved into the dregs of my coffee cup, once revealed to me one of the most amazing compound words in the Greek language: "Ἀκτιστοσυμπλαστουργοσύνθρονον" meaning the uncreated, co-throne of the co-creator.... an attribute of the Holy Spirit, as described in the fifth ode of the service of the Saturday after Pentecost, or at least of the world's first and best Barrista. I vowed then and there to use it once a week in a sentence but have not remained faithful to that vow.

Theology students have a special affinity with Greek-Australian coffee-cake shops. On one memorable occasion, at Axilleon in Coburg, noted for the Greek misspelling of its name on its upper storey thus: ΖΑΧΑΡΟΠΛΑΖΤΕΙΟΝ, a particular dextrous group of would-be theologians, having downed impossible quantities of galaktoboureko, assigned Christian heresies to diverse forms of coffee:

 Decaf is Docetic because it only appears to be coffee.

•Instant is Apollinarian because it’s had its soul removed and replaced.

•Frappuccinos are essentially a form of Monophysitism, having their coffee nature swallowed up in milkshake.

•Chicory is Arian, not truly coffee at all but a separate creation.

•Irish coffee is Nestorian, being two natures conjoined solely by good will.

•Affogato is Adoptionist, being merely topped with espresso.

•The Café Bombón is Sabellian, appearing at some points to be foam, at others coffee and at others sweetened condensed milk.

•The Café miel violates Canon 57 of the Council in Trullo, “for it is not right to offer honey and milk” in one’s coffee.

•The Cafe Mocha (espresso + steamed milk + chocolate) is syncretic and polytheist, for it presumes to adulterate coffee with another nation’s gods.

•The Doppio (espresso + espresso) is Monothelite, permitting only one will to dominate.

 My own contribution qua coffee and faith, was to recite the old Epirot adage about Greek coffee: Καφέ χωρίς τσιγάρο, Τούρκος χωρίς πίστη.᾽ It was met with a polar silence.

 I suppose you just had to be there.

On this particular Sabbath however, the cake shop is packed with a multitude of Greek-Australian faces, from young Greek girls dressed uniformly in black yoga pants and hoop earings glaring at each other emphatically when not engrossed in an intense examination of their telephones, to ladies in their forties laughing uproariously as they ask each other over and over again: " I had a coq," "how big is your coq," "how many coq's did you have?" and the ultimate Lorena Bobbitt crowd pleaser: "I've cut this coq in half." They take a photo of the emasculated coq with their telephones, for posting to social media.


Late fifties couples with heavy arm jewellery lispingly mispronounce Greek place-names as they show each other photos from their telephones of their holidays in Santorini, while logging into facebook to show each other what their friends', (also recently returned holidayers), cellulite looks like in their bikinis. In the centre of the premises, one witnesses cross generational family outings comprised of bored and unhappy kids, frustrated parents and a yiayia who is perpetually signing and whose expression, if it could be rendered into words would read: "Γιατί με φέρατε εδώ πέρα, καλά δεν ήμουν στο σπίτι, και θα γλιτώναμε τα λεφτά για τον καφέ."

A well to do family sits opposite. The mother, wearing leopard print leggings,a matching leopard print headband and criminally matching leopard print shoes, opens her Gucci bag and pulls out her mobile phone and starts going through it. Her bored husband, his protruding belly barely covered by an incredibly stretched Ralph Lauren polo shirt, struggling under the pressure of his impossibly tight pants, is already immersed in his phone. Next to him, his daughter, approximately ten years old and resplendent in leopard print exactly like her mother, fiddles with her phone, while her younger brother, his hair painstakingly peaked into an installation of the Matterhorn, picks his nose and also fumbles with his phone. I watch them for three quarters of an hour, mesmerised. When the waiter arrives, the mother snaps out her order, not once taking her eyes away from her phone. Indeed, not once does the family look up from their individual phones, even as they eat and drink. There is no communication, nor interaction. It is as if they are completely and blissfuly unaware of each other's presence.


Inside, barely a word of Greek is heard except from the lips of the polite "off the boat" waiters. Yet my ears pick up on conversation between two Northern Greek ladies commenting on a younger member of the clan's offensive tweet: "Τα χαστάγια την μάραιναν, την πούρλα. Γιατί είχενε κι η μάνα τς χαστάγια στου χουριό τς." Χαστάγια, apparently is good Epirot-Australian for the plural of hashtag.

 On the wall, a flat screen television relays the latest cricket match. Patrons gaze in boredom. Outside, however is the domain of the older men and is thus Hellenic in speech. They line the street, examining passersby appraisingly, their faces fixed in sneers, snarls or expressions of extreme boredom - that is until one of the yoga panted girls, young enough to be their grand-daughter walks past them, at which time they become animated as they share each other the known glances of the would-be veteran connoisseurs. On the furthest table from the entrance, a couple of old men animatedly discuss politics, oblivious to the presence of yoga-pants, for they are idealists. From them, we learn that the Greek-Australian term for Tony Abbott is ο μπατζησμάγκλας. Imperceptibly and without realising it, I am drawn into a conversation about the state of Modern Greece. The old men are incensed that I appreciate the historical role of EAM in the Greek resistance and seem ready to flick their Mille-feuille at me, that is until I advise them that this stands for a new party I intend to found in order to save the Greek state, this being the Hellenic Goat Liberation Front (Ελλαδικό Αιγοπροβατικό Απελευθερωτικό Μέτωπο).

I make a hasty getaway just as a former local councillor of Greek descent, besuited, sweeps into the premises, and makes the equivalent of a model's strut upon the catwalk. No gaze catches his steely eye and without losing momentum, he steps out, unnoticed. Proceeding to the counter to pay for a surprisingly brilliant βαρύγλυκο, I notice a sign on one of the cakes proclaiming "Yeniotiko," which is good Greek-Australian for Γιαννιώτικο. I pay heartened, that there was not a decaf in sight, revealing to the Slav-Macedonian girl at the counter, slowly and methodically giving me change in ten cent pieces, my retirement dream of opening up a shop in Oakleigh selling Γιαννιώτκες πίτες. With effusive enthusiasm, I advise her that I have even thought up a name: La Dolce Pita. Sweet!

Her response, when it comes, is poetry itself: "To paraphrase Nietzsche: "If sober you present such bliss, what would your representation be when your personae are in ecstasy?" I leave mute, my taste buds and much more besides, satiated in reverence and in awe at the extent of such glorious sarcasm and in praise and panegyric for one of the most important of Greek Australian institutions ever to uphold our communal edifice.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 7 October 2017