Saturday, February 24, 2018


When I was young, apokries didn’t exist in Essendon. Communal Greek celebrations back then consisted solely of the Greek National Day march to the Shrine of Remembrance, sundry dances and barbeques organised by various regional brotherhoods and the ubiquitous but now almost extinct, name-day barbeques.

I discovered apokries through my Greek school reader. An avid kite flyer, I was enthralled to learn that back in the homeland, there was a day called “Clean Monday,” when it was the custom for all young children to fly kites. The text was accompanied by respectable looking be-suited boys, all uniformly sporting the same low-fringe haircut, flying kites with their moustachioed fathers, on a rock which was identifiable as the Acropolis, as the ruins of the Parthenon loomed behind them. The text also explained that Clean Monday came immediately after the apokries, which was a time of festivity, the details of which remained unexplained. As a young boy whose sole dream was to behold the Parthenon in all of its Pentelic glory while wearing a suit, I thus longed to experience the apokries for myself, solely for its Parthenonic kite-flying conclusion.

 Around about the same time, I learned that the word apokries, meant “fasting from meat,” the word carnival having a similar meaning. In those days, no one I knew fasted, so this made no sense to me, until my friend’s grandmother, a lady who had been in Australia since the thirties, and whose diet consisted of lamb chops for breakfast, lunch and dinner, explained to me that in Greece, it was necessary to force everyone to fast from meat, because most people were poor and if they saw other people indulging in meat eating activities, they could become distressed and even violent. Apparently, there was a civil war fought just after the Germans left Greece, between meat eaters and those who had no meat. However, here in Australia, she explained, God had given us an abundance of meat and therefore, there was no longer any need to fast as we were now, all equal. According to her, τσικνοπέμπτη, the Thursday during apokries when it is customary to barbeque meat, was every day in Australia, kind of like Christmas in July. She also attempted to put paid to my Clean Monday proclivities by attempting to explain to me the meaning of the Australian expression: “Go fly a kite.” Consequently, she concluded, apokries, an event she described as being: “kind of like Moomba but without the birdman rally” were an irrelevant and superseded discourse for our Greek-Australian paradigm, unless one came from Patra, a place far from that of my own people, the Samians and the Epirots; the likelihood of my meeting such a person being as remote as experiencing the apokries in the flesh, in that fabled carnival city.

 Her prognostications notwithstanding and in complete contradistinction to the norms of cultural assimilation, which assume traditional customs erode over time, Greek Melbourne has, in the decades since, evolved into an Apokriatic town. Every year, in the weeks before Lent, a plethora of community organisations stage apokriatic events, each of them becoming more elaborate than that of the year previous. This current year, I have participated in four, the most brilliant being the Moorabbin carnival, in which the Manassis Dance Group, dressed in animal pelts, masked in ram skulls and girted by cattle bells, proceeded to shock, scare and titillate the pants of punters, enacting the apokriatic rituals of Northern Greece, to the tunes of gaidas and the samba.

 The annual Lonsdale Street Greek Festival, now a pre-Lenten fixture upon the community calendar, also purports to partake of the apokriatic spirit. During the two days of its duration, imported and domestic momogeroi perform Pontian carnevalic fertility rites, masked Genitsaroi from Naoussa jingle down the length of the street with their coin-sewn vests, accompanied by Manassis’ Icelandic heavy-metal nightmare beasts, while stylish stilt walkers loom benevolently over the awe-struck souvlaki-munching populace, tsiknopempti being a moveable weekend feast in our city. Considering that for much of the Festival’s history, its sole purpose was to celebrate Greek National Day and ourselves, the trend towards the carnivalesque is a palpable one.

 Even brotherhoods and community organisations with absolutely no apokriatic history are now “buying in” to the rediscovery of this tradition. Sometimes, however, it takes a few goes before one gets it right. Just a few years ago, I attended the first ever apokries dance of a regional club, in which fancy dress was compulsory. Sadly, the members of the club, most of whom had never celebrated apokries before, either in Greece or Australia, ignored that last injunction, which is why I found myself, clad in full authentic Bedouin garb, standing out among a long line of dinner suited and skirted members, waiting to pay at the door. As I waited, I could hear them whisper in full patois:

- Τι γυρεύ αυτός ιδώ;

- Δε ξέρου. Τι είνι; Κανένας αράψ πρέπ να᾽ναι.

- Κι τι γυρέυ ένας κωλοαράψ ιδουνά;

- Μήπους χάθκι;

- Για δεν τουν αρουτάς;

- Σώπα μη μας βάλ κι καμιά βόμπα αβδά κι μας ανατινάξ ολνούς…

- Μήπους ήρθι άπ᾽τν Αραπιά να αγουράσ᾽ του κτήριου;

Screwing up her courage, an old lady turned to me and asked:

“You spik Grik?”

- Καμιά φουρά, I responded, in her dialect.

Shocked, she replied: “You very good spik Grik. Where you learn et?”

- Απ´τουν μπαμπά᾽μ, I answered.

Frowing, she persisted: “And where you baba learn et thi Grik?”

- Απ᾽τουν παππού᾽μ, I informed her.

Puzzled, she shuffled away.

For the rest of the night, I had to endure dark and concerned looks by disturbed revellers. On the flip side, as rumours sped up and down the hall that I was an Arab sheikh looking to purchase the club building for a ridiculously overpriced sum, causing heated debates among the more socially active members as to how the profits would be expended, or rather, by whom they would be pocketed, the committee members acting as waiters, were extraordinarily solicitous. In breach of club protocol, our table was served even before that of the president, and the treasurer himself appeared in person to enquire as to whether the food served to me was halal.

- Μόνο η μπύρα είναι, I responded, αλλά χαλάλι σου.

 As drinks flowed, and mirth increasingly abounded, I was accosted by a particularly corpulent lady who, though she insisted that she was not wearing fancy dress, was eerily dressed like Carmen Miranda. “Get onto the dance floor and show us how to do a proper tsifteteli,” she whooped, her arms heaving.

I tried to explain to her that in my culture, only dedicated belly dancers were permitted to sway to the syncopated beats of the tsifteteli while drinking coffee under indigo tents in certain parts of the Nefud desert, but she was having none of it. Pulling me by the keffiyeh, she propelled me into the middle of the dance floor and proceeded to shake, rattle and roll, in front, behind and around my personage as I affected a look which I hoped conveyed lofty, rolling-in-money, sheikhic disdain.

Unsurprisingly, I did not win the “best dancer” prize but to my utter indignation, I did not win the “best costume” prize either, even though I was the only one in costume, simply, because the committee believed that the garb in question, was my everyday dress. When it was announced that no prize would be given owing to lack of participation, I abruptly rose and strode across the hall to the exit, two concerned committee members running behind me to ascertain what was wrong and to save a possibly endangered property deal. Curtly, I informed them that my helicopter was waiting. It was at that point, that they finally got it.

While we possibly not socially evolved enough to re-enact the traditional Phallus parades of Tyrnavos, in which giant, gaudily painted effigies of phalluses are paraded around town, (although several of my female friends argue convincingly that most committee meetings of Greek-Australian clubs serve exactly the same purpose), we have, as a community, managed to revive and in some cases, create new and exciting apokriatic traditions of our own. As a result, our communal life has become invariably the richer for it.

Cavafy, in his seminal poem: The Poseidonians, may have mused that: “The only thing surviving from [our] ancestors was a Greek festival, with beautiful rites… and so their festival always had a melancholy ending/ because they remembered that they too were Greeks… and how low they’d fallen now… living and speaking like barbarians, cut off so disastrously from the Greek way of life.” Our pre-Lenten apokriatic festivals in contrast, are vibrant, complex, and ultimately triumphantly exuberant interpretations of a unique Greek-Australian way of life. Καλή Σαρακοστή.


 First published in NKEE on Saturday 24 February 2018