Saturday, November 27, 2021



If names signify the essence of an existence, then certainly this is the case for the newly enthroned bishop of Kerasounta, who is headquartered in the Archdiocesan District of Northcote. The name Εὐμένιος is compound in nature, comprised of the particle εὐmeaning good, and μένοςmeaning urge, literally, “good natured.” Kind, accessible and receptive to people of all generations, he won my heart even before I met him, when he organised camel rides for his younger parishioners at his parish festival, during the time he served as priest at the Transfiguration of our Lord parish in Thomastown. What a way to delight children, making them feel a part of their local community and assisting them to place their heritage in context with the locality in which their live. 

Behind his back, Bishop Evmenios is commonly referred to as “Bishop Nike,” because his response to any suggestion that concerns itself with strengthening ties with the community, reaching out to the vulnerable or the dispossessed or exploring novel ways to communicate, is invariably “Just Do It.” This is man of well-chosen words, for each one of his utterances is well thought out and manifests itself replete with meaning, but even more so, of action, especially when it comes to the community in which he lives and over which he now presides as shepherd. 

This can be evidenced in his speech at his recent enthronement at the church of St Nicholas in Marrickville Sydney. Bishop Evmenios could have peppered his address, witnessed by delighted Melbournians such as Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne president Bill Papastergiadis and Sydneysiders alike, with abstruse patristic allusions or quotes from theologians. He could have studded his oration with references to the Holy Fathers, or intricate expostulations of dogma and doctrine. He did neither of these things. Instead, he provided an extensive account of his experience growing up Greek Orthodox in Melbourne, from his early days, instructed by his parents in their faith, then at Saints Anargyroi parish in Oakleigh, inspired by the legendary Father Moutafis, to his decision to seek ordination, guided by Metropolitan Ezekiel of Dervis, Bishop Iakovos of Miletoupolis. He expressed gratitude to the Greek Orthodox Theological College of St Andrews for his education and facilitating his engagement with the limitless Orthodox theological horizons and to the late Archbishop Stylianos for elevating him to the rank of Archimandrite.  

As Bishop Evmenios recalled his list of names, humbly describing how each person on it had influenced him and made him the person he is today, culminating in Archbishop Makarios, who stood before him, beaming, a  thought pervaded my consciousness: Here is one hierarch who has emerged as a product of our community, completely acknowledging the community’s intrinsic role in his development and its importance in maintaining our integrity as a unique religious and cultural entity in the context of today’s multicultural society. This accounts for Bishop Evmenios’ well known community focus; his ability to collaborate with people from all walks of life, his innate talent for putting people at ease and bringing out the best in them, his capacity for identifying the key issues that affect the future of our community and his insistence of marshalling the resources of all Greek community organisations, no matter how ideologically disparate in order to perpetuate and preserve our community for all its members. It is this ethos of openness, of sharing and of partnership that informs his perception of his role as Bishop of the Archdiocesan District of Northcote.

Only if you have been reared within the Greek community of Melbourne, owe your understanding of your identity and your development as an individual to it can you fully appreciate Bishop Evmenios’ deep love and attachment to that community it all of its multi-faceted and often contradictory forms. This is a love that has been proven time and time again, most recently in the sophisticated manner in which Bishop Evmenios collaborated with other key community stakeholders in order to save the Modern Greek programme at LaTrobe University from extinction. Despite the difficulties caused by the pandemic, Bishop Evmenios shouldered the task of rejuvenating one of our community’s most important institutions, St John’s Greek Orthodox College. Since his appointment as Chairman of the Board of St Basil’s in the aftermath of the tragic Covid outbreak there, he has spent part of every single day in the facility, observing, investigating, training, reforming, improving and uplifting. When he speaks of the facility and those in its care, it is with a sense of tremendous urgency, of zeal and of uncontrived love and concern. Unafraid to reach out to others in order to supplement his own understanding and to acquire broader expertise, he has worked tirelessly to be present, relevant and in a position to assist all of those that he feels responsible for, a class of people so broad as to encompass our people in their entirety. 

It is perhaps fitting that Bishop Evmenios was, as is the tradition of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Australia, assigned the titular see of Kerasounta. Just as that city on the Black Sea constitutes a significant historical centre of Pontian Hellenism, so too does the Archdiocesan District of Northcote house the most vibrant and dynamic elements of Pontian Hellenism in Melbourne. Importantly, Kerasounta was not founded by migrants from the Hellenic homeland, but by the descendants of migrants, from the colony of Sinope, also on the Black Sea. The appointment of Melbourne born and bred Bishop Evmenios, a descendant of migrants, mirrors that foundation, by signifying an ethno-religious community that has come of age, confident in the ability of its native born to preside over it and determine its future, for it has, in his case, taken root and blossomed. 

Kerasounta is also known for those of its bishops that attended the great Ecumenical Councils that moulded and shaped the Orthodox Church: Gregorius at the Council of Ephesus in 431, Gratianus at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, Theophylactus at the Third Council of Constantinople in 680, Narses at the Trullan Council in 692, Ioannes at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787, and Simeon at the Photian Council of Constantinople in 879. We can thus confidently expect that following in their footsteps, Bishop Evmenios will, as an Australian bishop, make lasting contributions to Orthodoxy by articulating the relevance of its discourse to Australian society at a time when freshness of perspective and coherent alternative voices to the mainstream narrative are sorely needed and seldom expressed. The Orthodox Church, with an ancient unbroken presence in the lands that first adopted Christianity from the outset of that religion’s inception, obviously has, considering its venerable and unfathomably protean tradition in such spheres of life as spirituality, welfare, philosophy and ethics, much to contribute, offer and share with the discourse of modern complex communities, especially since it has been both a minority and state religion of empires as globalist and sophisticated as those of the Romans and the Ottomans, which offer interesting parallels to our own reality today. Bishop Evmenios sensitivity to these elements will ensure that the Orthodox Church shall be able to engage in discourse with this country’s dominant culture, to the full breadth and extent that its vast tradition permits. 

It is for this reason that Bishop Evmenios’ elevation, coming as it does after the elevation of other gifted, dynamic and youthful Australian-born clerics by Archbishop Makarios through the Ecumenical Patriarchate to the hierarchy is historically significant. Archbishop Makarios has presciently chosen for this most important position, clerics of integrity and spirituality, who have already formed compendious repositories of the knowledge necessary to propagate and perpetuate the Faith in Australia, navigating the linguistic and intercultural divide and also, because of their highly developed interpersonal skills, who are uniquely placed to engage with the mainstream and wrest from its political leaders, the requisite recognition of our Church as a significant stakeholder in Australian society. 

This includes broadening the base of the important and largely unsung welfare and social work that the Church has undertaken. It also means placing the Church at the helm of furthering study of our unique patristic and theological tradition – truly an unlimited resource. In attempting such undertakings, Bishop Evmenios will tread a tenuous tightrope between retaining the historic Greek origins of the Church, without this precluding its development as an inclusive Australian Church, in which peoples of diverse background have a role to play. As a corollary, he will be compelled also to address and direct partisans of both whose conception of the Church is either more exclusive or inclusive. 

Achieving all this and keeping the peace within our fractious community will be no mean feat indeed. Indeed, if there is one person uniquely capable of seeking to engage the disengaged, and granting the Church heightened relevance in a period of rapid social unravelling, engendering an environment of harmony, support, mutual assistance and love, it is undoubtedly Bishop Evmenios. Considering that as a community and a congregation we are at the crossroads of acculturation, how we engage with each other and plan for the future will determine the survival of the entities we have created and nurtured with so much effort. The state of that future, will most likely, be our new bishop’s legacy. 



           First published in NKEE on Saturday 27 November 2021 


Saturday, November 20, 2021




Two Christmases ago, my mother informed me that she had been afforded the honour, by Women’s Food For Thought Network Founder and community activist Varvara Athanasiou-Ioannou, of contributing her biography to the now recently published volume: “Her Voice: Greek Women and their Friends,”  a compilation of the accounts of lives of particularly special Greek-Australian and Australian women, narrated by themselves and transcribed by Varvara Athanasiou-Ioannou. 


In her introduction to the book, Professor Joy Damousi suggests that it “should be the beginning of an ongoing dialogue between women from all backgrounds, that can be passed on and down the generations.” Some of the accounts belong to women who are well known within the community. Yet the stories they tell provide insight into their own struggles against a traditional patriarchal culture, unsupportive parents, social groups or spouses, almost universally viewing education as a form of emancipation and for the most part viewing professional advancement as a yardstick for success. Some of the women whose life stories have been included in the valuable collection, endured harrowing domestic abuse, others mental illness, racism and sexism. Some are more forthcoming that others in outlining the obstacles they had to overcome in their quest for “success,” “self-realisation,” and “self-fulfilment.” All of them are extremely brave and we are grateful for the trust they place in us, in confiding in us, events that would have been immensely difficult to deal with. The inspired juxtaposition of the life accounts of Australian-born women, provides the reader with an unparalleled opportunity to gauge and compare just at how large a disadvantage many Greek-Australian women were in trying to navigate a course through Australian society, through a time of social, cultural and demographic upheaval.  


A close reading of the accounts will also focus on another aspect. Because the whole aim of the book is to permit the contributors to speak in their own voice, rather than have their unique perspectives mediated by others, there is much that can be gleaned not only by what is narrated, but also by the silences that permeate the text. Many of these silences, relating as they do to emotion and psychological pain, often feel overwhelming. Apart from granting the narrator immense dignity and embodying a source of empowerment whereby each contributor has complete control of the narrative, such silences, elisions or lacunae that exist compel us to reflect upon the experiences of women that are left unsaid, that are implied, hinted at or glossed over, encouraging us to examine tactfully, the reasons why.  


It was engaging in this creative process, that my mother’s account, became more than just part of an ongoing dialogue with women, but rather, an intense dialogue with her son about family history, her own intense struggle, the meaning of life and to what extent others could be granted access to it.  


“I’m not quite sure what to say” my mother confided, handing me a page of notes covered in her characteristic, almost indecipherable script. Immediately I was transported twenty years into the past. There at the table where I was holding her manuscript, my great grandmother was making pita, all the while relating family lore in her allusive, cryptic, idiomatic diction, whereby ordinary words had symbolic functions and one had to be initiated into the events that had transpired themselves in order to comprehend and unravel the implications of her narration, which never, ever took linear form and which focused on completely different aspects upon each telling. My mother’s handwriting mimics her grandmother’s speech. Letters double up, fold in and upon themselves, conjoining in uncanny ligatures, standing for different phonemes depending on the context, always alluding, insinuating but nevertheless confidently asserting a multiplicity of meanings and possibilities. When my mother speaks, my ears receive the sounds in the form of her handwriting. When she gesticulates, I see my great grandmother’s hands rolling out the thin sheets of fyllo. As I do so, I realise that my mother’s handwriting most resembles the folds of my great-grandmother’s pita, folding over, encapsulating, enclosing and encoding layers and layers of meaning. To view this pita is to appreciate the aesthetics of its form, but if one is to come to know it, to commune with it, then one must consume it in order to completely experience how its constituent elements transubstantiate into their fundamental essence. Immediately, I internalise my mother’s dilemma. Her handwriting is inedible.  


I venture to suggest she structure her narrative as a set of obstacles that she has been able to overcome. Each one that she has surmounted has led her on a path that made her who she is today. She looks at me through her grandmother’s fingers, white from pressing hard on the oklava that is flattening the fyllo into paper-thin sheets and I instantly acknowledge the paucity of my argument. My mother was begotten, not made, having sprung fully formed from my own forehead. To ascribe a linear progression to her corporeal manifestation is to miss the point of her entirely. She sighs and spreads each sheet of fyllo on the backs of the kitchen chairs to prove. Soon, I have nowhere to sit and am compelled to stand in the presence of the creator. 


My mother speaks to me about Thomas Cranmer’s wife and Charlotte Corday in the same familiar manner in which my great-grandmother spoke of her kinswoman, Tzavelaina of Souli as I traverse the labyrinth of her account. She pokes through the greens, picking out pieces of άνηθο, adding more μπαλάσες, subtracting βλίτα. I reflect upon the fact that I have accepted that these heavily edited greens have no existence outside the Greek language and thus have no significance for me in English.  My mother hasn’t written in Greek for a while. Sometimes when I am rummaging through her bookshelves, I chance across forgotten folded sheets of paper with half-verses scrawled upon them. I place them side by side and then on top of each other and press them down. They are in Greek and they ooze essence. 


My mother won’t divulge her great-grandmother’s recipe for pita. Not to me, not to my sister, nor to my wife. I sit and watch her at work, her grandmother’s knuckles white against the oklava, her gait slowing to a shuffle as she crumbles and measures the cheese in her hand as if attempting to weigh the deeds of her life against some undisclosed scale. A hole has developed in this particular sheet of fyllo and as I reach out my hand to take hold of the oklava, she gently pushes it away. This is her pita and in it, even the lacunae have their purpose. 

“How can I help?” I enquire. 

“Hmph!” she exclaims, taking the piece of paper out of my hand. “If I have to tell you that, then you will be of no help at all. Just sit, watch and learn.” 


Sometimes, I dream of making pita even though I have never made it on my own. In that dream, the ingredients are exactly the same and the fyllo, which in my great-grandmother’s tongue is called πέτρα, is identical for I instinctively am a repository of the sum of my mother’s totality. Yet the end result is never the same. Sometimes, the pita is exaggeratedly convoluted beyond all decipherment and other times, it is anaemic, insecure and collapses upon its own internal contradictions.  


I reach out to add more cheese and this time my mother slaps away my hand emphatically. “You should make mention of your overcoming of your health problems,” I point out. Instantaneously, I am eight again, and my mother, an aspiring principal at a local primary school, worn out from attending curriculum meeting after meeting, applying for grant after grant in order to foster a supportive culture within a school teeming with refugees and the underprivileged, running our household and struggling with debilitating Meniere’s disease, has experienced yet another attack of vertigo that has caused her to fall to the floor. As she crawls in leaden agony towards the toilet, my great-grandmother, who is in the kitchen making pita, rushes to her aid. Propping her up, she whispers in her ear: «Τι θα κάνειςΘα κυλιστείς, θα συρθείς, αλλά θα κάνεις αυτά που πρέπει να κάνεις». 

“Too much cheese,” my mother comments. “You have no sense of proportion.” 


I offer anecdotes as pivotal moments in the construction of my mother’s past and she sweeps them away like the residual specks of flour remaining on the table. Some of those flecks have congealed with water and hardened into callus-like structures, refusing to be removed. My mother scratches at them relentlessly with her fingernails until they change shape, before finally giving way to her cleansing fury. There are perspectives to these fixed points in time I have never before considered. She has said nothing, but I realise now why they must be effaced from the page. Her fingernail has split down the middle but it is I who feel the pain. 


When “Her Voice: Greek Women and their Friends” arrives in the post, I devour it excitedly. I am filled with immense admiration for the remarkable women who frame our lives, sometimes under the most onerous of circumstances, too often, in silence. Their passion, their indomitability, their uncompromising humanity fill me with reverence and awe. Then I turn to the page where my mother’s story begins. I am fifteen again and instead of the words on the page, I hear my mother’s voice reading:  «Και όχι να πείτε »from Ritsos’ «Kαπνισμένο Τσουκάλι» to me: «Βιαστικά λόγια, μια μικρή περίληψη της ζωής, τα κύρια σημεία μονάχα…». 


I arrive at her house. The recitation continues. From the kitchen I smell the aroma of freshly baked pita newly emerged from the oven. She is still reciting, but the words are no longer addressed to me: «Κι όχι να πείτε που κανακαι τίποτα σπουδαίο,/ μόνο που πέρασα κι ακούμπησαστον ίδιο τοίχο π’ ακουμπήσατε». 

I give her the book and she holds it for a while without opening it. Then she begins to flick through it, losing herself in its pages. And for the first time ever, as I reach out to grab hold of a piece of pita, she holds my hand and forbids it: “This is for your children,” she informs quietly. Seated at the kitchen table, I watch her in silence as she reads, rolling great-grandmother’s fingers over the pages as if they were sheets of fyllo, her recitation arriving at its ultimate conclusion: 

«Α, βέβαια όλα τούτα θα πουν, δεν είναι τίποτα. 

Όμως εσύ αδερφέ μου ξέρεις πως από τούτα τα απλά λόγια, 

από τούτες τις απλές πράξεις, από τούτα τα απλά τραγούδια 

μεγαλώνει το μπόι της ζωής, μεγαλώνει ο κόσμος, μεγαλώνουμε...». 



First published in NKEE on  Saturday 20 November 2021

Saturday, November 13, 2021



Byzanfest is the brainchild of Melbourne-based Chris Vlahonasios. Established in 2014, it is an international film festival totally dedicated to Orthodox Christian cinema. According to its founder, its aim is simple: to stream, screen and share the very best Orthodox stories with the world. Seven years since its foundation, it has a cult following, with participants throughout the world, speaking various languages and coming from diverse ethnic backgrounds, engaging in the creative process and submitting their films for review and criticism.

The choice of title for the annual festival is an interesting one. “Byzan-”, according to Chris Vlahonasios, pays homage to “the great Byzantine Empire, a place of great wisdom, art & Faith. Although it may no longer exist, the spirit and values of Byzantium shine out in the works of Orthodox Christians in the Digital Era.” Yet never throughout its long life did that Empire call itself Byzantine. And indeed, the word Byzantium, the original name of Constantinople, properly refers to its pre-Christian past, as the city founded by its legendary patron, Byzas of Megara. According to myth, the oracle at Delphi sent Byzas to found a city in "the land opposite the city of the blind".

Arriving at the spot where the Sea of Marmara meets the Bosporus, on the border of Europe and Asia, Byzas finally understood the meaning of the oracle. On the Asian shore, opposite to where he was, the colony of Chalcedon, had already been established. This was the prophesied 'city of the blind', as its fouNders had ignored the prime strategic location, where he would go on to establish his fabled city.

Byzanfest is therefore a particularly apt name because when it comes to film, a visual medium pat excellence, seeing is everything and the viewer who “attends in wisdom,” will be richly rewarded. Furthermore, just like Byzantium itself, the films are subtle, polyvalent and ambivalent.

As Orthodoxy is steeped in tradition, it has often been stereotyped as hidebound, conservative, apprehensive of modernity and fixated upon the past. How does it relate to the modern medium of film? Chris Vlahonasios is quick to respond: “The Festival showcases films which reflect Orthodox Christian themes, beliefs, culture and values. However, an entry’s storyline does not necessarily have to be ‘religious’. Although the film may not appear to have ‘Orthodox’ subject-matter, it can still be deemed Orthodox because it was created by an Orthodox Christian filmmaker who maintained an Orthodox phronema (‘mindset’) during the creative process, remaining faithful to their Christian sense of dignity, morality and self-respect.”

The short films showcased in this year’s festival reflect that diversity in approach. Some take the form of documentaries, telling the story of lesser-known aspects of Orthodox history such as the establishment of the African Orthodox Church, as part of a quest for political and social emancipation. Another, featuring interviews with British converts to Orthodoxy who now serve as priests in the Russian Orthodox Church explore their own personal journey, with one priest in particular outlining how Orthodoxy is a sensual experience, offering participation to all, from the youngest to the oldest, through touch, taste, sight, hearing and smell. Others still, record aspects of monastic and liturgical life, providing a visual poem as to how these relate to the modern world.

By far, the most fascinatin short film in Byzanfest this year, are the experimental ones. The soundtrack of “Dragonfire” and the selective use of the Celtic like decoration on the border of an icon, conjuring up in the viewer associations with the genre of Fantasy Film and in particular, with the Game of Thrones franchise. By the end of the short, however, we realise we are being exposed to a different type of lore, that surrounding Saint George, the dragon-slayer. Rather than being derivative, here the film-maker strikes at the heart of the essence of Byzantium: a civilisation that was neither European nor Asian, which transcends narrow generalisations and from which, although the West has forgotten, many of the legends, lore and stories that form part of the its canon, actually derive.

“Last Chance”, on the other hand, is set in a brutal dystopian environment, sometime in the future. This is a kill or be killed world and the main character does exactly that. Chancing across an abandoned monastery in the bleak landscape, he views, possibly without comprehension, a fresco icon of an angel. He falls to his knees and then collapses. In the next scene, a man wakes in a forest, with a noose around his neck, connected to a snapped branch. How is this verdant world connected to the blasted one at the beginning of the film? Who if anyone has been saved? These are questions that will engross the viewer as they grapple with the ethical premise of this powerful film.

Continuing the dystopian theme, is “Dystopic Virtues,” a moving film that inverts and subverts traditional biblical motifs. An incarcerated boy is taunted for talking to another girl who appears not to be able to speak. The boy tosses an apple out of his taunter’s hands as she mocks him. As we learn, the incarceration has come about because the boy accepted an apple from the girl, in violation of a law against sharing. The parallels with and adaptations of the biblical story of Adam and Eve are particularly apt in this poignant vignette.

Although it is probably not meant to be so, “The Meantime” for me is the most disquieting short film. Featuring an elderly Greek lady suffering from dementia, she disjointedly makes observations about her life, which was a particularly hard one, while viewing family photographs, or bizarrely wearing boxing gloves, as her grand-daughter grunts inarticulately in response. On several occasions, the old lady remarks that she is as afraid of the dark now as she was when she was a little girl. In a Proustian scene where she sings one of her favourite Sophia Vembo songs, a lament to lost time, the screen grows increasingly darker. Ostensibly, the film is about the lady accepting care after a lifetime of caring for others, but for me, the sense of loss, loneliness and of fear of death as life to draws to a close, is palpable.

“God’s Will”, a contribution from Serbia is hilarious, quaint and endearing in the unselfconsciousness manner of its narrative. A group of nuns are driving along a road, perilously close to being killed because the only driver among them, is more concerned with the welfare of her cat, Bagheera, than with the road safety. Stopping in a forest, they discover what they believe to be a fugitive war criminal. As the nuns prevaricate, and bicker in working out how to deal with him, they expose the conflicts within their own understanding of the notions of hierarchy, collegiality, forgiveness and ethics which come to a climax as they experience the loss of their beloved pussy.  When Bagheera, who eerily resembles Salem Saberhagen, Sabrina the Teenage Witch’s cat, is found at her delighted mistress’ feet, the concatenation of events leading to this fortuitous happenstance, God’s Will is exposed as mighty and uproariously funny indeed, proving that despite what the West may tell you, the Orthodox do have a sense of humour, however dark. Yet within the humour, the perceptive viewer will appreciate the matrixial gaze of the film-maker, which offers the female protagontists the position of a subject, not of an object, of the gaze, while deconstructing the structure of the subject itself, and offering border-time, border-space and a possibility for compassion and witnessing. As such, the film masterfully articulates the links between aesthetics, Orthodox ethics and trauma.

The feature length film showcased in this year’s festival range from documentaries about Orthodoxy and climate change, the relationship between Science and the Orthodox Church, and the lives of Romanian Saints. "The UnLost Homeland" by far the standout piece, follows the story of Twelve Greeks from Constantinople who lived through the harrowing Constantinople pogrom of 1955. Also eminently poetic and evocative is: “The Shepherd,” where Mavrogenis, a kind-hearted shepherd, takes literally his priests preaching about the straight path that people must follow in order to find Heaven and see God. Consequently, he starts walking straight in the hope to find Heaven. Just before he starves to death, he stumbles across a remote monastery where he stays a few days to recover. It is here that he will witness a miracle beyond all understanding.

Although this may be the meta-Hollywood age, we are constantly being bombarded with media, most of which expresses a similar world view and encodes the values and cultural experiences of the dominant ruling class. By instituting and successfully running Byzanfest for the past seven years, Chris Vlahonasios is assisting in the formulation and articulation of much needed alternative narratives, giving prominence to a wealth of tradition that exists on the margins of the mainstream. But then again, that is what Byzantium has always been about. G K Chesterton once observed that “Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere.” Byzanfest reveals where art, morality and the creative art of drawing lines, parallels and attention, meet in, diverge from and embody, the multi-faceted Orthodox perspective.




First published in NKEE on  Saturday 13 November 2021


Saturday, November 06, 2021



Mercifully, the Victorian government social media advertisement promoting vaccination against the dreaded coronavirus, the subject of this Diatribe, is not in Greek. Most of the time, the Greek in state sponsored advertisements is dreadfully stilted, often a painful word for word translation, as literal as Origen’s Hexapla. Indeed, the advertisement does not appear to address Greek speakers at all. Instead, it is directed towards their English-speaking descendants and proffers consideration by means of inducing compliance, presumably because there is a supposition that our tribe does not respond to direct orders: “My vaccination is my ticket to cups of tea and advice from Yiayia.” 

It was veteran journalist Kostas Karamarkos who first commented on the social implications of the advertisement thus: It's nice to see Facebook vaccination info material, run by the Victorian Department of Health, where they use the Greek word yiayia, instead of grandmother for example, but they have to know that... Greek yiayiades do not have a preference for tea...  

Nevertheless, I welcome the initiative as an attempt to produce a culturally diverse and inclusive message, in a multicultural society, that Australian bureaucracy does not really know well, after so many decades of officially practicing “celebratory” multiculturalism.” 


It was not the tea that made me uneasy when I first saw the advertisement. Rather, my eye was drawn to the vase with what look like elongated giant cinnamon sticks positioned on the counter top, near the kitchen sink. One can never generalise for this far along our history we are too diverse a tribe to warrant typecasting, but it is generally the case that the kitchens of Greek grandmothers are to all intents and purposes purely functional, utilitarian workstations. As such, the location of the vase so close to an area used for washing, drying and cooking reeks of artificiality.  


Below the vase are two bottles of what at first glance appear to be Bosisto’s Eucalyptus Oil, a staple in many Greek-Australian homes, although as an afterthought, it should be noted that the brand uses a red label for Eucalyptus Oil, while in the advertisement, the blue label properly denotes Peppermint Oil, an essence not generally utilised by Greek-Australians. Even if they do, it is more than likely that such oils would not be kept on the kitchen counter where food is prepared, but rather in the laundry or garage. 


One is unable to see the ubiquitous kandili burning before the icons in most yiayiades homes, or a souvenir tea towel. Rather, suspended from a rope from the doorknob of the upper kitchen cupboard door, is a koala, just a subtle reminder of which country we are in and where our loyalties should lie. The various paraphernalia that are the staple of the traditional Greek Australian kitchen are conspicuously absent. There are no photographs of the grandchildren, or of departed loved ones and no figurines from the trip to the homeland in 1997. If anything. the aesthetic is reminiscent of the time when, in her absence on that trip in 1997, yiayia’s son took it upon himself to renovate the house, remove all vestiges of mission brown and bring her Thomastown brick veneer house into the twenty first century. Thus, as if by means of accompanying the forced smiles and the way the grand-daughter refuses to meet her yiayia’s eyes but rather purses her lips and looks downward, the atmosphere is cold and sterile, the antithesis of the essence of everything that a Greek kitchen has signified since the time of Homer. 


It was only then that I noticed the tea and it took me a while to consider why this was not the first thing that leapt out at me upon my original exposure to the advertisement. The answer is simple. My family came here before Greek coffee was readily available and thus tea was the only beverage of choice. Further, my paternal grandmother, who came from Samos, on the Asia Minor littoral, already came from a tea-drinking culture, whether this was the ubiquitous camomile which grows on its hills, or Greek mountain tea, which is a native species of the island. Our time together was punctuated by tea drinking, served always in enamel glazed mugs that I am certain contained lead paint, while she would lecture me on the evils of coffee drinking. During those tea drinking sessions, an entire village lore, family history and code of conduct were passed down to me. The tender act of the granddaughter receiving advice while imbibing tea, appeared perfectly natural to me although it should be pointed out that while the granddaughter in the advertisement is depicted agitating a tea bag in a stylish mug, the grandmother’s beverage remains a mystery, covered by an illustration of a mobile phone.  


While Kostas Karamarkos is undoubtedly right when he suggests that among the majority of elderly Greek-Australian homes, Greek coffee is the beverage of choice, had this been substituted for the tea in the advertisement, would its depiction be considered a form of stereotypisation, entrenching a restrictive code pertaining to our portrayal by the mainstream and restricting an appreciation of the multi-faceted nature of our social norms ? Viewed from this perspective, the tea-drinking suggests an understanding of the diversity within the Greek-Australian community. On the other hand, is the portrayal of tea drinking a manifestation of mainstream ignorance of the traditions of Greek-Australians? As Kostas Karamarkos asks, Is tea the predominant or the representative Greek-Australian [beverage] when we visit yiayia or pappou?” 


Underlying Kostas Karamarkos’ argument is a particular understanding of the symbolism of tea in Australian culture. He highlights the tension between: “stereotypes vs representation. Especially, when tea is a characteristic of the hegemonic culture.” Tea in British history is undoubtedly a tool of colonial oppression. Commercial production of tea was first introduced into India by the British, thus destroying local microeconomies and industries, in an attempt to break the Chinese monopoly on tea, so as to weaken the Chinese markets and render them susceptible to penetration. Similarly, it was the British excise on tea that proved the catalyst for the proclamation of the American Revolution. Is the depiction of migrant Greek-Australians drinking a beverage traditionally produced by exploitation and utilised as a form of colonial oppression thus implicating them in a discourse of violent appropriation of the lands of the First Peoples? Is their tea-drinking a subconscious attempt to legitimise that conquest? All of these are pertinent questions. 


I, for one believe that the act of drinking the traditional herbal teas of Greece can be considered a subversive, not a subservient act, one that expresses solidarity with the First Peoples and their plight. We know for example, that several First Peoples drank an infusion from the plant species leptospermum. Upon reaching Australia, Captain Cook noticed them drinking it and called it tea. They sourced it naturally from the environment around them, just as our pappou and yiayia did. Both parties did not subjugate anyone or force them to grow it on their behalf, taking only what they needed when they needed. In both cases, the relationship with land is one of respect and harmony. By drinking tea, are we therefore not subverting the entire colonialist paradigm, asserting an understanding of country and environment completely antithetical to the dominant discourse? 


Possibly not, for the young lady in the picture appears to be drinking conventional tea, picked, packed and perfected in the cool highland of Ceylon for her enjoyment. As my discussion with Kostas Karamarkos grew deeper, we postulated what cultural determinants or stereotypes would be displayed in versions of the advertisement targeting other communities, causing former Federal MP Carlo Carli to intercede to point out, that the advertisement in question appears to be specific to the Greek-Australian community, possibly: “a reflection of a higher level of vaccine hesitancy in the Greek Australian community...” In that case what is therefore encoded in this advertisement is a deeply disquieting set of governmental assumptions about our trust in government, our propensity to obey health directives, our method of engagement with science and politics and our perceived level of social responsibility. But analysis of the racial and other considerations that engender those assumptions and reinforce their presuppositions, make for a stormy tea cup indeed…..DEAN KALIMNIOU

First published in NKEE on Saturday 6 November 2021