Saturday, July 03, 2021


As a young boy, I was convinced that the periptero, a word mysterious and exotic to my Greeklish attuned ears, had something to do with the descent of the Holy Spirit. This was because every year, at Epiphany, prior to the cross being hurled into the pacific waters of Port Phillip Bay, I believed that in the hubbub of the milling crowd, the form of apolytikion the bishop would chant, went as follows: «Και το πνεύμα εν είδει περιπτεράς».  

I had not a clue how exactly the Holy Spirit was manifesting itself when assuming the form of a periptera. However, I deduced that it must have something to do with Life itself, this conclusion being reinforced by my father’s propensity to garble Greek song lyrics into plausible alternatives. His rendition of the classic «Εγώ δεν ήμουνα αλήτης,» commenced in this fashion: «Περιπτεράμες τη ζωή».... 

My conviction that a periptera was linked with life, especially imperilled, was further bolstered by my aunt’s selection of Greek music, when driving us to Greek school on Saturdays. Week after week, as we passed the old Magistrates’ Court on the way to Collins Street, Stratos Dionysiou would croon from the speakers of her feisty old Datsun: «Ένα λεπτό, περιπτερά, /βουλιάζει στα βαθιά νερά/το τελευταίο μου το πλοίο». In my imagination, therefore, the periptera began to appear as a doughty bronzed budgie-smuggler wearing Bondi lifesaver, fishing despondent lovelorn Greeks out of the briny with a long telephone cord. 

The ultramarine telephone cord was a necessary addition to the fantasy because even though I had never seen one, I was convinced that I had spoken to such a Bondi lifesaver who lived in my ancestral village. In that fabled locale, which I imagined to be a castle situated above the clouds, my great uncle resided without a telephone. Every time we wished to speak to him, we would be compelled to call the periptera, and he would then fetch my uncle. For a buffed and bronzed athlete, this particularly Grecian periptera had a disconcertingly raspy and wheezy voice, and every time I would ask him in my Greco-Australian accent: «Χάλαου θείοθέλω να μιλήσω στο θείο», a fit of coughing would ensue, during which, I presumed, the lifesaving telephone cord would be extended across the village and into my disgruntled at having his afternoon siesta interrupted, uncle’s lap. 

It was only when my cousins in the mid- eighties, returned to Australia after the then customary three-month long sojourn in the motherland, waxing lyrical about all things therein, that I began to obtain a true understanding of the hypostatic union between the periptera and his natural habitat, the periptero. 

“It’s like a box and there is a guy in it and you can buy things,” my cousin enthused. 

“What things?” I asked. 

Σεβενάπ,” my cousin responded cryptically. 

“What’s that?” I inquired, taken aback by the malevolent cadences of the word. 

“It’s a soft drink.” 

“Why would you go to a box to buy a soft drink?” I would ponder. “And how do they fit the man in there?” 

“Not just soft drinks. Chocolates as well. ION, for example.” 

“EON FM? Are you sure?” 

“No, it’s a chocolate. And σοκοφρέτες.” 

“Soccer Fred? What is that?” 

Τσούγγες and λόλλες as well,” my cousin added, exasperated. 


“Mints and chocolates…” my cousin listed the entire range of confections on offer. 

“No, I mean people who save lives. Any of them?” 

 “I can’t explain it to you,” the invariable response would come, in hushed, Eleusinian mystery tones. “The periptero is special. It’s something you can’t find in Australia. Only when you go to Greece will you be able to understand.” And all this before FOMO had even been invented. 


That last comment, about the exclusivity of the periptero to lands Grecian is something which has widely and often been repeated by the Greeks of Oakleigh ever since. It is of course a fallacy, whose creation can be attributed to the fact that those who live in Oakleigh, a self-contained enclave of Hellenism, seldom venture outside it, save to take the freeway that leads to Melbourne Airport, en route for Mykonos, and are thus oblivious to the fact that the Melbourne City Council currently lists fourteen periptera in the Melbourne CBD,  under the soubriquet of “newsagent (convenience) kiosks.” 


One of these used to be owned by my friend Selim, my main purveyor of Neos Kosmos when I used to work in the city. «Και εγώ είμαι Έλληνας», he exclaimed the first time we met. A Muslim migrant from Thrace and the most fanatic Skoda Xanthi fan I have ever encountered, he was engaged in a Worker’s Compensation Claim against his previous employer. Thus, whenever he would hand over the paper, he would lean forward, look left and right along the street to see who was watching, clutch his waist and emit a soul-piercing groan. I only found out that Selim had received his payout when after weeks of encountering his periptero hermetically sealed and being forced to cast my Neos Kosmos search net wider, I was curtly informed by the new owner that Selim had sold up and gone to live in Turkey with his new wife, who was twenty years younger than him. The new owner provided this last snippet of information with overtones of derision borne of jealousy and as he no longer stocked Neos Kosmos, we parted company. 


By that stage, I had experienced more than my fair share of periptera. Travelling to Greece for the first time in my mid-teens, in the early nineties, I was informed by my relatives that if I was to persist in my ardent desire to acquire modern Greek objects d’ art such as brass badges bearing the Star of Vergina and nifty pocket sized kombologia, I would be best served to visit the local periptero and that furthermore, I should have to do so unchaperoned, for the periptera was a Junta supporter who suffered from claustrophobia.  


That particular periptero was shut on the day I sought to patronise it and walking further down the street, I chanced upon another. Even before I got within ten metres of the establishment, I was assailed with images of engorged Scandinavian genitalia and pudenda of diverse description, in an enraged shade of scarlet, belonging to rather hairy individuals engaged in what appeared to be a game of Twister gone horribly wrong.  


Trying fruitlessly to shield my eyes from the images that burned themselves indelibly upon my retinae, I tentatively approached, trying in vain to locate worry beads and patriotic accoutrements among the assorted phalluses, breasts and posteriors. At counter level, next to the dirt encrusted telephone, there was a VHS cassette wrapped in plastic to protect it from the elements. Emblazoned across the front was the inscription in hot pink: «Η Μεγάλη Κότα Έχει το Ζουμί». I have not been able to eat chicken soup ever since. 


“Hey you little pervert,” the corpulent periptera with the permanent five o’clock shadow and the hirsute belly protruding from his unbuttoned shirt, growled from within the depths of his wooden enclosure, as he alternated between gawking at the open adult magazine on the counter,  taking a drag of his fag and licking an ice-cream sensuously. “Quit staring. If you aren’t going to buy something, buzz off.” 

«Έχετε τον Ήλιο της Βεργίνας;» I ventured politely. 

Consulting an illustrated catalogue festooned with reproductive organs of impossible proportions, he mused: «Δεν βλέπω καμιά Βιργινία εδώΚαινούργια θα είναι. Συλλέκτης; Συλλέκτης;» 


To his utter mystification, for the remainder of my first sojourn in the motherland, I steadfastly refused my uncle’s entreaties to go to the periptero to procure for him a packet of cigarettes. Consequently, in his mind, Australian-born kids were not only inarticulate and boorish, but also insubordinate and lazy. Yet proving that there in every cloud there is a silver lining, I attribute my aversion to smoking to this singular periptero experience, for every time I see a cigarette, I am taken to a singularly noir part of Scandinavia that not even the most jaded SBS viewer can endure. 


In my subsequent and increasingly frequent trips to the motherland, I developed a ritual whereby on the last day before my return to Antipodean climes, I would purchase from the periptero close to my grandmother’s home, a lovely, well-constructed stone edifice known locally as «το πέτρινο», an ΙΟΝ Αμυγδάλου to consume in the taxi with my grandmother on the way to the airport, by way of leave-taking.  On my last trip, the elderly periptera, a tall, thin man with an unhurried, dignified gait, smilingly handed me a whole fistful of chocolates and a pile of the literary and history magazines I would often purchase from him.  

“Take them, my boy. A present from me,” he offered wistfully. 

When I protested, he interjected. 

“No, you take them. Αccept them as a present. Something to remember me by. I doubt I will ever see you again.” 

Considering that at the time, I was in Greece every second year, I found this prospect ludicrous and said so. 

“No, its true. You are going to get married soon, you are going to start a family, you will be busy with your own life. Trust me, you won’t be back for a long time. And by the time you do, I won’t be here.” 


I don’t know what became of το πέτρινοbecause I haven’t been back since and my grandmother is no longer alive to tell me. But when I close my eyes, I imagine myself stepping out of the taxi excitedly, fresh on arrival from Eleutherios Venizelos airport, being welcomed by the beaming old man entombed within his stone carapace, as I purchase my grandmother’s favourite σοκοφρέτες, before bounding down the street to pound upon her door. He hasn’t aged a bit. 


First published in NKEE on Saturday 3 July 2021