Saturday, August 11, 2018


“The wine urges me on, the bewitching wine, which sets even a wise man to singing and to laughing gently and rouses him up to dance and brings forth words which were better unspoken.”

One of the elements that make Melbourne special for me, is its plethora of signs in other languages and alphabets that can be found identifying businesses. From Chinese characters employed for the various Chinese and Vietnamese languages, to Arabic, Ethiopian and tentatively hanging on in an age of assimilation, partly as relics, partly in a last linguistic assertion of dynamism, Greek and Italian, navigating the streets of Melbourne truly is a multi-lingual experience, one that pays tribute and bears testament to the enterprising nature of our vibrant ethnic communities.
In the context of multicultural Melbourne, signs like the one  here reproduced, on the shopfront of Liquorland in Oakleigh, welcoming all and sundry to the locality are thus entirely unremarkable. Displayed variously, are salutations and wishes of good health customarily proffered before or while imbibing beverages. Languages featured range from Dutch, Italian, French, Hawaiian, Spanish and Gaelic, though the Gaelic Sláinte, is misspelt, lacking an e. Also, in questionable transliteration, Japanese and Hindi make an appearance, the rendering of the words Namaste, Kanpai and Konnichiwa (sic) appearing to be an aid in pronunciation, while the Mandarin Chinese greeting Nĭ hăo is admirably provided in the romanised pinyin form. Its intent is clear, to greet potential customers and the populace at large in a large gamut of languages, and to wish them good health, implying that in this great Babel of the South, the one true language that unites us all is that of enjoying a decent alcoholic beverage, presumably, one purchased therein.
Sadly, not all of us appear to be called to partake of this grand linguistic communion of intoxication, something that has given rise to dysphoria among local members of the Greek community, who feel, like the virgins in the Parable of the Bridegroom, left out of the festivities. The Greek language inexplicably appears nowhere on Liquorland’s sign, neither as a greeting, nor as an aspirational expression for the overall well-being of the Hellenic would be consumer.
Sundry members of the Greek community who reside in Oakleigh and espouse the conviction that its locality is synonymous with the Melbournian Greek identity have interpreted the omission of Greek as a slight. Given the axiomatic importance of the Greek community to the municipal entity and the city itself, it is inconceivable to them that such an omission could be due to oversight, or disinterest. Instead, deep, dark, nefarious purposes are at play here, as locals variously commented: “An insult to the Greek community!” “Racism!” and “I reckon they done it on purpose.” Others used the omission to assert demographic claims of superiority over the region, bordering on the irredentist, thus: “Something is missing….the majority are Greek speaking, ” “Someone didn’t do their research about the main demographic in Oakleigh,” and the perceptive: “No need for Greek, it is the official language of Oakleigh, this sign is only for the ‘foreigners.’”
Of course, the Menander the Great prize for Greco-Bactrian excellence is awarded to the gentleman who perspicaciously pointed out on social media, that Greek is already represented in the form “Namaste’ (‘here we are,’) highlighting the polysemy of the Hindu greeting and the ancient links between our two venerable civilisations. After all, Dionysus, the god of wine, was said to have come from India.
What is noteworthy about all of these observations is just how tightly the conception of the Greek identity is enfolded within their Australian place of residence.  Consequently, any act or omission that elides or obfuscates their presence in that residence is tantamount to effacing the existence of Greeks itself, resulting in a particularly hurtful negation of the individual Hellenic hypostasis.
Yet I would argue that the exclusion of Greek from Liquorland’s signage is not just a slight, it marks the height of ingratitude. Long before the English language existed, the ancient Greeks invented the liquor trade, going so far as to sell their wares to the French. In fact, it is estimated that the Greeks of hallowed antiquity shipped nearly ten million litres of wine into Gaul each year through their colony Massalia, modern day Marseilles, while discoveries of grave goods in the Burgundy region reveal a heavy prevalence of Greek-made kraters, designed to hold over 1,000 litres of wine. An acknowledgment of France’s debt to Greek viticulture should ordinarily entitle each and every Greek to a complimentary bottle of Château Lafite Rothschild Pauillac, but the French are the French and Liquorland is but a parvenu in the annals of wine purveyance.
Even the earliest reference to a named wine is from the lyrical poet Alkman of Sparta. In the seventh century BC, he praised “Denthis,” a wine from the western foothills of Mount Taygetus as “anthosmias” (smelling of flowers.) No less a personage than Aristotle made a detailed description of the Lemnia grape, which he stated was the specialty of the island of Limnos, the same as the modern day Lemnio varietal, this being a red wine, possessed of a bouquet of oregano and thyme. Lemnio is thus the oldest known varietal still in cultivation, and Liquorland ought to pay the requisite homage. But then again, Heraclitus did observe that: “It is better to hide ignorance, but it is hard to do this when we relax over wine.” Or multilingual signs for that matter.
Those who would deny us the juices of the fruit of the vine do so at their peril. After all, it was the great Shakespeare who recorded in Richard III that the unfortunate Duke of Clarence met his death by being drowned by his brother Edward IV in a butt of Malmsey, a wine originating in Crete, and one of the most popular alcoholic beverages of northern Europe in the Middle Ages. Even before that, Commandaria wine from Cyprus, was served at the wedding of Richard the Lionheart. Furthermore, such was the Constantinopolitans’ adoration of wine and skill in trading it in times Byzantine, that the City earned the following appellation from denizens of Northern Europe: “Winburg,” which in the vulgar parlance, loosely translates as ‘Liquorland.’ Now the true reason for the absence of Greek is made abundantly clear. You didn’t think we would find out, did you, o hapless Liquorlanders? Ultimately therefore, not just a case, but the entire stock of the modern corporate entity that has appropriated our trading name is properly owed to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, payment to be made by way of delivery to its various sub-branches situated in those parishes proximate to  Liquorland stores, in order to save on logistics. The proverb: “Byzantium conquers all with its wine,” is particularly apt here, even though its source is unattested, and is probably spurious, which is for the best really, given that the ACCC is not that tolerant of monopolies these days and the Emperors predictable enough neglected annually to renew their business name.
To those who postulate: “while you were still swinging in trees, we were building the Parthenon, the historian Thucydides adds: “The peoples of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learnt to cultivate the olive and the vine.”
Euripides perhaps says it better: “Where there is no wine, there is no love.” For ultimately, that is all we ever wanted, Liquorland. To be invited in for a quick snifter, to love and be loved. And you did neither, at least not in the beginning. Such was the wailing and gnashing of teeth emanating from the Hellenic holdfasts of Oakleigh that Liquorland has come to realise the error of its ways and has proclaimed its resolve to include Greek among the languages upon its welcome board. As yet, there is no news about the status of negotiations as to the Byzantine naming dispute, although I am reliably informed that “Southern Winburg” and “Australo-Liquorland” have made the solution shortlist.
The last time I walked into a Liquorland store, I was in search of retsina. The young man at the counter looked at me quizzically, and informed me that it was not in stock. As I walked away, he remarked: “How can you drink that stuff? You know that Liutprand of Cremona said of retsina: "To add to our calamity the Greek wine, on account of being mixed with pitch, resin, and plaster was to us undrinkable?"
“Yes” I replied, “and an excess of undiluted retsina was supposedly lethal for King Eric I of Denmark and Sigurd I of Norway. Pouring oenopoeic scorn upon the Greek and his works places one in mortal danger.”  
“Relax,” he soothed me emolliently. “Was it not Homer, who said “The wine urges me on, the bewitching wine, which sets even a wise man to singing and to laughing gently and rouses him up to dance and brings forth words which were better unspoken?”
“I’m pretty sure that was UB40,” I responded, “but I applaud your sentiments.” Now that an entire Greek community is once more made welcome at Oakleigh through the graces of Liquorland, let us descend upon it en masse, bearing dockets, in search of discounts, mindful always of the words of the great cynic Diogenes: “I like best the wine drunk at the cost of others.” It’s your shout.

First published in NKEE on 11 August 2018