Saturday, September 29, 2018



“Galamoo!” the freckled, red haired sports teacher roared across the astro-turf, sending flecks of spit in my direction.
I glanced at him nonchalantly, marvelling at how the Australian sports teacher always seemed to withstand mid-winter clad merely in shorts and a T-shirt. Under my wind-cheater, I was wearing two T-shirts, a thermal singlet and was still trembling with cold.
“Galamoo!” the teacher roared again and this time a small globule of spit landed upon my hand. “You’re playing on Saturday.”
I shuddered. Saturday sport, played against other schools, was compulsory at my school. If picked for the team, then no excuse save the recurrence of an arcane and hitherto extinct biblical disease could extricate one from this most holy obligation. The problem was, Greek school was also on Saturday. It was for this reason that a standing order had been issued to all students of Greek descent at our school by their parents: Do what you have to do, feign illness, or general incompetence, but whatever you do, do NOT get picked for Saturday sport.
            The more athletic among us chafed at their manifest skills being subordinated to the rites of hellenisation. More often than not, since feigning incompetence was beneath their dignity, they would allow themselves to be picked, and revel in having been reprieved of a Saturday morning of utter boredom, this, in their estimation, being more than deserving of an ear pull by their incensed parents. They would arrive at school on Monday, eager to regale us with tales of their weekend triumphs on the soccer field.
            I, on the hand, did not have to feign incompetence, for nature had blessed me with complete unco-ordination. Ever since that fateful day in year 5 when the soccer ball came hurtling towards me and I reached out and caught it, I was banned from the field and relegated, like those of my ilk to train for hockey, with an outsize hockey stick borrowed from my aunt, which, while regulation size and shape when she trained in the sixties, was definitely antiquated three decades later.
            Unlike my peers, though it would have been playground suicide to admit it, I loved going to Greek school. During that month, we were discussing Venizelos’ rise to power with a particularly inspiring history teacher with a lisp and I did not want to miss out. In order to make doubly sure that I would not get picked for Saturday matches, I took up the erhu, a traditional Chinese instrument, rehearsals for which took place, coincidentally, at the same time as after school hockey training. Thus for three years, I managed to evade training altogether, that is, until a brief break in rehearsals interposed itself into my otherwise foolproof routine. Now I stood on the astro-turf, pondering at how fake grass was symptomatic of a fake society, creating abominations in approximation and parody of the Sports-hating Creator.
            “I can’t come on Saturday, sir,” I responded.
            “Whaaaaaat?” screeched the teacher. Shoving his jaw under my chin, he barked:
“Why not?”
“I have Greek school on Saturdays.”
“Oh, you have Greek school on Saturdays,” the teacher crowed, placing his hands on
his hips and strutting around me in an effeminate manner. “Everybody, Galamoo has
Greek school on Saturdays.”
“My name is Kalimniou, sir.”
“Shut up Galamoo.”
“Yes sir. So sorry sir but I won’t be coming. And anyway, why would you pick me?
I’m hopeless at this.”
A hush fell over the field. Striding towards me, he glared at me with his slanted, yellowing eyes, with the intensity of a Beelzebub about to roast the souls of the damned in hell.
            “Listen here Galamoo,” he snarled. “I don’t give a fig about your Greek school or
whatever wog ‘commitments’ you reckon you have. I don’t give a stuff whether you
are the most uncoordinated no-hoper to ever blight my hockey pitch in my entire time
here. If you are not here, Saturday morning, with your retarded hockey stick, bright
and early you will be suspended. Period. Do you understand?”
“Sir, that’s not fair, you’re being racist and discriminatory….”

My tormentor turned purple: “Ten laps around the oval now Galamoo and shut up if you want to avoid a detention every Saturday until the end of the year,” he howled. With that, he turned to the rest of the C grade team. “Hurry up and start dribbling. Unless you want to end up dribbling from your mouth like Galamoo over there.” With a sigh, they, almost as uncoordinated as I, reluctantly picked up their sticks and set to work.
Τι θα πει θα παίξεις το Σάββατο;” my father asked, trying to stifle a chortle that evening, as I relayed the days news. “Έχουν δει πώς παίζεις;”
“Όταν κάνεις τον κάργα, αυτά παθαίνεις,” my mother weighed in. “Ορίστε μας. Πάει
χαμένο το ελληνικό σχολείο.”

The next day, seething as I threw my books into my locker, I felt an arm on my shoulder. It was Bruce, a fellow hockey trainee, about as enthusiastic as I, about his chosen sport.
“What a drainer,” he offered. “I reckon it’s below the belt getting picked on for having to do wog things as a wog. I mean a wog is as a wog does, right? My pop was in Greece during the war. He hid out in the mountains with the Resistance and says the Greeks were the maddest of the mad wogs. That guy is getting too big for his boots. He is just sore because they don’t let him coach the proper teams. If I can do anything, let me know.”
It was his evocation of Australian soldiers hiding in the wilds of Greece that caused the seeds of an idea in my mind to germinate. Leaning over, I whispered in his ear: “Actually, Bruce, mate, I’ve been thinking…..If you can get the boys together…..”

Saturday came. I arrived at school bearing my aunt’s relic of a hockey stick, in full school uniform. “Galamoo!” bellowed the teacher, with the tunefulness of a drill serjeant. “Where the hell is your gear?”
“Gear, sir?” I affected complete incomprehension.
“Your sports gear, boofhead,” he replied.
“I didn’t know I needed it, sir. I’ve never actually played on Saturday, so I didn’t know
that I had to bring it.”
“Nice try Galamoo, but you’re not getting out of this one. Oh no! You can play in your
uniform and your school shoes. Now get out onto the field and play, you sneaky little
w…easel” He had caught himself just in time.

We all shifted into position. Unlike us, the members of the opposing team seemed enthusiastic. More than that, they actually appeared to know what to do with their hockey sticks. They huddled around their coach, discussing breakouts and game plans learnedly, and even executed stretches, emitting whoops of enthusiasm as they pranced around the field. We looked upon them, and their shin guards, with incredulity and awe.

The screech of the whistle broke our fascinated reverie, as they sprung into action. Seizing control of the ball, a few short passes saw them fling it into the goal. A short time later, another goal, then another and another….in rapid succession.

“What the hell is wrong with you people?” our teacher shrieked. “Move your bloody arses. Do something!” For no member of our team was moving. Instead, we stood there, tossing and catching our hockey sticks, oblivious to the action around us. Bruce was even whistling. At the outset, our opposing team had indulged in taunts and trash talk as they scored one goal after another. A good deal of hand and butt slapping had taken place on their part. Now, mystified, they looked at us, leisurely sauntering around the astro-turf, me, with my hockey stick held horizontally across my back, like a shepherd’s klitsa, and Franco, the aesthete among us, casually leaning towards the ground, to smell an imaginary synthetic flower. They then stared incredulously at their coach, who was observing us with his mouth open and began to exhibit signs of extreme mental distress.
            It was precisely at that moment that Bruce gave the signal: “Now!” With that, swinging our hockey sticks high above our heads and emitting Whitmanian barbaric ululations in chromatic unison, we charged directly at our opponents and scattered them from the field, our teacher pulling at his hair in disbelief. Ignoring his screams, cries and finally, desperate pleadings, we proceeded to solemnly form up in the middle of the field and shouldering our hockey sticks like rifles, began to chant, each one of us in various degrees of plausible pronunciation, according to our capability, though we had rehearsing all week:
“Say gnoreeze apo tin cop-sea...”

Next Saturday, I was back at the Greek school, studying the Treaty of Versailles. In the two years that followed until I completed high school, I would often afford our hockey teacher a most hearty greeting whenever I chanced to across him, but he would never return it, instead, changing direction, muttering to himself as he did so. I never trained again.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 29 September 2018

Saturday, September 22, 2018


The title to the show currently playing at the Comedy Theatre is particularly apt, though regrettably, no reference to Star Wars, a genre that lends itself to infinite parody, is made in it. The iconic “Wogs” who subverted a pejorative and propelled a migrant culture triumphantly within mainstream Australian culture are now no longer out of work. They are no longer Wogboys. They have grown up, and so many decades later, they have, in the form of Nick Giannopoulos and Mary Coustas, become acclaimed Stars, hence the show’s appellation. These are beloved Australian personalities that have been elevated to the highest point of the  comedic firmament, illuminating us all.

A lot has happened since our “Star Wogs” redefined multicultural politics forever. Early “Wog” work, purported to assert a migrant culture that, despite differences in language, religion and tradition, found its commonality in Australian-born or reared “wogs” attempting to decode their parents’ world, while at the same time, reconciling it to a mainstream culture that was often disinterested or unwelcoming. Harnessing this trauma, our “Star Wogs” appropriated what was then a racial slur created by the mainstream and turned it into an identity transcending ethnicity. They taught us to be proud of who we were, in a way grounded within Australian urban reality rather than our parents’ village memory, in the process, liberating us from the quandary of being stuck between paradigms, through the prism of self-irony and laughter.

Subsequently, in shows like the historic “Acropolis Now,” they did a remarkable thing. For the first time, on prime time mainstream television, they seized control of the narrative altogether, creating a set of complex characters which enshrined a set of stereotypes and cultural identifiers that endure to the present day. What is significant about these stereotypes is that unlike modern shows that purport to be “ethnic,” they did not pander to perceived mainstream expectations of how “ethnics” should be portrayed. Instead, those characters and stereotypes were created by us, in order to tell our own fables to ourselves, satirise ourselves for ourselves, and through brilliant humour, make a revolutionary political point about the place of migrants within the definition of Australian culture. Unlike many contemporary “ethnic” comedians who, in their shows, indulge mainstream preconceptions to the extent that they only engage in their culture by demeaning it, creating a set of repellent, amoral and thoroughly self-loathing characters as vessels for what is ultimately an internalised form of orientalism, our “Star Wogs” imbued their characters, with dignity, a moral compass and a conscience, despite their superficial foibles, (one ignores the presence of Simon Palomares as the straight, intellectual “Spañolo” at one’s peril: he indicates that there is a multiplicity of wog forms that defy stereotype, thus subverting the whole ostensible stereotypical dialectic) making them thoroughly endearing, and ultimately redemptive, in a manner that was perfected then, and which others have found difficult to emulate ever since.

Our conception of ourselves as “wogs” in the eighties, driven in large part by the comedy of Nick Giannopoulos, Mary Coustas and George Kapiniaris, shifted in the nineties. At that time, the Greeks of Melbourne discovered “baraki” culture, as communication and travel to Greece became more frequent. Slowly, the “wog” identity was discarded for a specifically “Greek” identity that had its roots in the entertainment lifestyle of young contemporary urban Greeks rather than that of the rural cultural memories of migrants settled in Australia. During this time, young Greeks began to discover differences between themselves and other migrant groups. An emphasis was placed upon Hellenisation, both in language and attitude, rather than revelling in any sort of hybrid culture that was considered illegitimate and no longer socially relevant. Come the new millennium, and that great cultural movement began to peter out. Though still identifying themselves as Greeks, rather than wogs, Melbournian Greeks began to assimilate without realising it. At the same time, the older generation, containing such colourful characters as those that inspired the character Mimo in Acropolis Now, began to fade away, making it difficult for emerging generations to relate to their memory.

This monumental change does not appear in our “Star Wogs’” comedy. The self-assured, educated and affluent pontificating metrosexuals of the 21st century, and the permutations of ethnic culture they have created, do not exist in their world. The younger generations of Greeks who barely speak Greek and whose only exposure to Greek culture is visiting yia-yia and pa-ppoo (syllabised phonetically) in order to eat and get pocket money are irrelevant to their narrative, as are the Australianised yiayia and pappou who have been here a long time, and no longer feel comfortable in either their parent’s culture, that of the Greeks in Greece, or that of their offspring. Admittedly, these shifts are hinted at by the comedy of Sooshi Mango, whose Italian accents are deliberately contrived and implausible, cleverly signifying just how remote and unapproachable the memories of first generation migrants can be to their descendants, even as they attempt to negotiate their legacy.

Instead, in “Star Wogs: The Ethnics Strike Back,” we are largely treated to a reprisal of our “Star Wogs’’” most enduring comedy over the years. Well known characters such as Miroslav the Taxi Driver and Petroula the Cleaner make an impressionistic appearance. Though their jokes are well known and oft repeated, they assume a ritualistic, almost liturgical function. We laugh along at them because rather than being figures of derision, these characters are profound and relevant to our contemporary world. At a time where government has consented to the wholesale decimation of the taxi industry, the scatological but wily and resourceful Miroslav determines a manner in which to achieve his comeuppance. Similarly, in an ostensibly retrograde scene, where Petroula visits an Italian family in order to arrange a marriage for her son, a social practice which is now to all intents and purposes extinct within our community, she actually holds up a mirror to materialism and demonstrates fierce loyalty to her progeny. The implication here is simple. We may laugh at her pronunciation, we may consider the scenario dated, but it is the values displayed by Petroula, loyalty, devotion to family, mental agility and tenacity that form the bedrock of who we are today. Though the elderly are parodied, ultimately, the Star Wogs make them hold their own. Sometimes, we need to look backwards, in order to go forward.

Interestingly, the Star Wogs transcend conceptions of gender by having male players play female parts and Mary Coustas performs an intriguing portrayal of an emerging Greek ‘type,’ the grave ‘kamaki,’ widowers who visit their wives’ graves in order to elicit sympathy and more, from grieving widows. Again what is significant about these sketches is their total disinterest in engaging pre-conceived mainstream notions of ethnic comedy. This is us, playing just for us, on terms  that only we largely understand, and within parameters that we create for ourselves, a palpable “strike” against the dictatorship of the conventional.

Interspersed between the sketches are what profess to be personal autobiographical monologues by Nick Giannopoulos and Mary Coustas. They, like most of the skits in their show, look back upon a world that has now largely been lost: growing up in migrant communities in the inner suburbs, losing that social cohesion when migrating once more, into the culturally alien outer suburbs and most importantly, enduring racism. There is palpable pain in their voices as they relate incidents of prejudice. One gets the feeling that there is a trauma here that has not yet healed, even after decades of comedy and this is the primary reason that drives their comedy, explaining why there is need to return to the same tropes again and again. Given that the Comedy Theatre is packed night after night with an elated audience whose average age is between 35-60, causing the edifice to  rumble with laughter, it is evident that this trauma, or at least its memory, is shared by a significant section of the community and simultaneously with the hilarity, a good deal of healing and passing on of tradition is taking place, although this process is never finally is completed.

An impassioned speech by “wog” icon Effie, who despite her being alluded to as a “dumb slut” by the ABC’s Late Show, continues to personify (if one looks beyond the surface) in her complex contradictory character traits, neuroses, obsession with virginity and being adored, a complete deconstruction of the feminist paradigm and gender relations within traditional migrant communities, and a truly ingenious appearance by Pauline Hanson as she has never been seen before, serve to drive the message home. The Star Wogs’ comedy has not changed because the societal causes that engendered it in the first place, have not changed either. Instead, intolerance, bigotry, societal polarisation, gender and racial inequality still manifest themselves within our national discourse in ways similar to those extant in the eighties. By cleverly layering and juxtaposing inter-ethnic insults, the Star Wogs suggest how such racism can be internalised and reproduced among ethnic sub-cultures, once ethnic groups are considered assimilated and acceptable by their mainstream arbiters.  As long as these systemic faults within our society endure, the Star Wogs’  well known but no less profound satire, “striking back” as it has done for decades, will not only remain relevant, but perennial.

I counted at least twenty expressions created by the Star Wogs that have sub-consciously been absorbed into my vocabulary over the decades. The migrant world they and I grew up in have changed. Its mores, attitudes and aspirations have broken down and morphed into elements entirely different. The Star Wogs do not claim that the characters they portray reflect the multi-faceted reality of life in ethnic Australia.  They merely point to one stylised aspect of them. New comedians must emerge to deconstruct and poke fun at what has emerged from the process of acculturation. But in the meantime, we can rely on their patriarchs, the celestial and exalted Star Wogs to constantly shine from on high, upon the direction whence we came, reminding us of the brilliance but also the burdens of our forebears,  prompting us to consider why we are the way we are, lest in the Lethe of modernity, we forget. They compel us, having been made comfortable in our own identity, largely by their work, to understand that each culture has its own inner note and lend us their ears, so we can hear and appreciate their infinite number of melodies.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 22 September 2018

Saturday, September 15, 2018


Βρε, what’s that on your arm?” I pointed to my friend’s prodigious muscular upper arm, bulging from within the confines of a particularly tight t-shirt.
 He looked at me warily with his bleary, blood-shot eyes and instinctively attempted to cover his arm with a remnant of sleeve. “It’s nothing. Leave me alone, my head aches.”
If his head ached, mine felt as if it had been cleft in twain by an axe, then put back together with nuts and bolts by Doctor Frankenstein and now was having a protective plate hammered around it upon a red hot anvil. Alcohol has never been my friend.
 I reached out with a trembling hand and grasped his shirt sleeve firmly. Then, as he made futile efforts to pull away, I yanked it up abruptly. “Βρε συ…..what on earth is that?” I exclaimed.
 Loud noises of any type seemed to have the effect of loοsening whichever bolts were holding my head together. I grasped the top of my cranium with my right hand, in order to prevent the contents of my brain from oozing onto the table, and with my left hand, clutched at my throat, for my larynx was issuing dire threats of emancipation through my mouth cavity. Sotto voce, I repeated: “What the hell have you done to yourself?”
My friend cast me a look of abject misery. Sighing, he elevated his slumped form from the bench upon which it was ensconced and clutched at his arm. Shaking his head sadly, he asked:
“What do you remember about last night?”
 “Well not much actually,” I admitted.
“You remember coming over and how I cracked open the tsipouro?” he enquired.
“That wasn’t tsipouro,” I disputed.
“Oh not this again…”
 “How do you mean?”
 “Do you remember how you between shots you were rubbishing it because it was apple flavoured and you were saying that real tsipouro……”
 “Should be unsullied by heterogenous flavours that mask the true unadulterated beauty of the beverage, just as garish clothes obscure the ethereal beauty of the female form…” I interrupted.
“No, that was Yianni who said that and he was talking about his latest girlfriend, who by the way he dumped last night. Something to do with a lack of inspiration, he said. I don’t know. I received an incoherent text at three o’ clock this morning.”
 “Well she is Italian. Our Italian cousins have always experienced difficulty in understanding the dark depths of the Greek soul. Our affinity is only fatsa deep, and Yianni's soul is particularly dark,” I mused.
“You said that real tsipouro tastes the way the Epirots made it and it should be no holds barred, no beg your pardons, just you and the alcohol, the way nature intended. That’s what you said,” he continued.
“If you say so,” I conceded.
“And then you went on for about half an hour about the spread of the ancient Epirot tribes throughout north-western Macedonia…”
 “As in our north-western, or their north-western?” I asked, lamely attempting to introduce some levity to the conversation.
“I’m not going to have that discussion again,” my friend cut in angrily. “Never again. I suppose you don’t remember how Yianni got upset and then called the Greek Consulate, singing «Μακεδονία Ξακουστή,» informing them he doesn’t recognize them as true representatives of the Greek people and is breaking off communication within them, and then begged them to come and arrest him?”
 “No, and I don’t think the Consulate does either. After all, they seldom pick up the phone. Actually, I have this faint memory of him calling his girlfriend and singing Christos Dantis' latest released hit. I’m positive it had nothing to do with Macedonia, whatsoever,” I confided.
“And you don’t remember telling us that the greatest cultural appropriators are not the purloiners of the Sun of Vergina, but rather, the Soviets because they appropriated the hammer and sickle from the nineteenth century coinage of Mexico?” he insisted.
“Doesn’t ring a bell, but somewhere along the line I have vague recollections of signing «Ζήτω το ΕΑΜ,» I remembered.
“No, by that stage you were cradling an empty tsipouro bottle in your arms and blowing into it like a clarinet,” my friend corrected me. “Then you started to hold forth on the futility of the human condition and concluded by singing an Albanian funeral dirge in Chinese.”
 “Which is when Yianni started singing «Στη Μακεδονία του Αλέξανδρου,»  I suggested.
“No, that is when Yianni did the Chicken Dance, to support his argument that the Italians of Australia have divested themselves of all knowledge of their traditional folklore, replacing it instead with Dean Martin songs,” he contradicted me.
“I thought that was you,” I wondered. “You know that the Chicken Dance is actually Swiss and was composed by an accordion player called Werner Thomas in the fifties?”
 “Yes, I do,” my friend confirmed. “You told us last night. You also wondered whether Werner Thomas was inspired to compose the piece by the Greek song in which the παπάκι goes to the river in search of companionship.”
 “Really?” I asked delighted. “Did I suggest that? That’s fascinating. I must give that some thought.”
 “At which time Yianni started raving on about the ravages of the Romans upon the Macedonians during the time of Aemelius Paulus while trying to burn his nostril hairs with a candle.”
 “I remember something about a candle? Wasn’t it someone’s birthday?” I asked.
“Mine, remember!”
 “Yes and that when you started signing «Απορώ Μακεδονία!» I recalled. “Not sure I remember anything after that.”
 “You don’t remember anything at all? Nothing about you trying to sing Candle in the Wind in Byzantine Greek?”
 “Something about a doorbell and you leaving. That’s about it,” I tried to recollect.
“Well yes. Because when I heard about Yiannis dumping Anna-Maria, I called her.”
 “Oh you did, did you?” my voice circumflexed in mock indignation.
“Partly in order to console her, partly because I was blind drunk and in need of a lift.”
 “Of course, goes without saying.”
 “Anyway, on the drive home, we realised we have so much in common. Just imagine. Her favourite movie is Raw Deal and her favourite colour is blue, just like me.”
 “It's uncanny,” I offered.
I was singing «Είμαι βέρος Μακεδόνας/και δεν αστειεύομαι./ Όταν λέω μια κουβένταξέρωνα τηνσέβομαι» and she literally had tears in her eyes. Imagine. She really felt it, μεγάλε. It was a moment.”
 “I bet it was. Your singing has that effect on people, in my experience. Especially considering that your people hail from Kalamata.”
 “Anyway, I demanded then and there that she take me to one of those all night tattoo parlours in Fitzroy.”
 “Why on earth for?”
 “I’ve been putting off two things in my life: Finding true love, which I have just found, and getting a tattoo of the Sun of Vergina. I decided I was going to fulfil both of my life’s ambitions in the same night. You can take the boy out of Vergina but you can’t take Vergina out of the boy.”
 “Except with a very good laser.”
 “So we pull up at the tattoo parlour, and I show the guy what I want. All of a sudden, Anna-Maria starts getting pouty. I’m telling her “Baby μου, what’s wrong? What’s the matter bella? Don’t hold back.”
 “And did she?”
 “Well, at first. She is very shy in the ways of the world, you know.”
 “As does Yianni.”
 “Then she comes out with it: “That design is sooooo ugly. It looks like a spider or something.” I told her: “It’s a sun ντάλυ μου, a Greek one,” and she replies: “You Greeks have absolutely no taste. That's not a sun. If you are going to get a sun, get a stylish one, like the Versace one.”
I gasped in horror. “You mean to say….”
 “Ναι ρε συ….” my friend sobbed. “I’ve made a terrible mistake. One night with you guys and I’ve ended up with the sun of Versace on my arm and a crazed girlfriend who won’t stop calling me. I can’t get it off my arm.”
 “Which?” I asked.
 As he tugged at his shirt sleeve in desperation, I began to sing by means of impromptu improvisation, in a loud, stentorian voice, oblivious as to whoever was listening, to the tune of the well-known patriotic march: “Versace ξάκουστε, των Ιταλών η μόδα/ Συ που έμπλεξες τον φίλο μου/ και ταλαιπωρείται τώρα.”
 “Bugger off,” he pleaded. “What do I tell my mum?”

 “Just tell her it’s Apollo and pray to him for enlightenment,” I advised. “The Italians have him too.”

First published in NKEE on Saturday, 15 September 2018