Saturday, December 11, 2021



Marking my ceremonial return to the office last month after lockdown, I was crossing the street when I overheard two construction workers snigger with the high-pitched nasal diction that characterises the generation of Greek-Australians immediately prior to my own, proving correct James Merrill’s observation in ‘The (Diblos) Notebook that: "The modern Greek language can be said to have suffered a stroke. Vowels, the full oi's and ei's of classical days, have been eclipsed to a waning, whining ee." 


«Κοίτα αυτόν το μαλάκα ρε». 


The words assailed my ears with the impact of an expertly aimed spitball. In his speech "Pro Archia" Cicero maintained that Greek poets satisfy the Roman "lust for glory” which he confesses, is "excessively intense". He argued that the Greek language is the best medium for transmitting this glory to the world, since "Greek literature is read in nearly every nation, but Latin only within its own boundaries and those, we admit are narrow." He advocated that the Greek language be used as a tool of Roman imperialism: "We ought to desire that wherever the missiles from our hands have entered, our glory and fame should also penetrate." 


«Και οι μαλάκες έχουν ψυχή, παλικάρια,» I addressed themTaken aback, they apologised profusely maintaining that they were referring to the person walking behind me, who had at that moment, opportunely donned Perseus’ mantle of invisibility. As if to make amends, they offered to shout me a coffee, which offer, not having seen Greek construction workers for a while and wishing to bask in their infinite glory, I accepted with alacrity. 


«Εγώ κερνάω one of the workers grunted. As we waited, I informed them that the κέρνος was a votive vessel for offerings to the gods during the fourth century BC. It is this word that constitutes the root for the modern Greek word «κερνάω». Both shrug indifferently. 


The waitress arrives with the coffee and my hosts assert with some fervour. that a view of her bra is readily available from the arm-hole of her top. “There is power in a good bra, re,” one of them advises. 

The manner in which they appear to have their gaze transfixed to the undergarment in question makes me uneasy and I attempt to divert them by informing them that in the Iliad, Aphrodite lends Hera the "stitched, embroidered strap" that she wears about her breasts and which contains all her powers of seduction: 

"ἔνθ᾽ ἔνι μὲν φιλότης, ἐν δ᾽ ἵμερος, ἐν δ᾽ὀαρίστύς 

πάρφασις, ἥ τ᾽ ἔκλεψε νόον πύκα περ φρονεόντων." 

 "In it is intimacy, in it is desire, in it is sweet talk 

persuasion, which deceives the mind of even the clever." 

Ishtar on the other hand, as portrayed in the Babylonian Ammi-ditana hymn, only wears love itself: 

"She of joy, clothed in love 

adorned with fruit (ie ripeness), seductive charm and sex." 


“My wife went to Ishka once,” one of the workers muses. “Stinks and everything is made out of bamboo.” 


“You know you’ve lost your pair when you get forced to go to places like that,” the other nods sadly. The other day I had to hold her handbag in Zara. He makes a gesture like a moyel descending upon it prey as they both sigh in melancholy. I try to cheer them up by sharing the knowledge that an intelligence expert for the Kingdom of Naples recommended in 1559 that all Greek sailors arriving in Naples have their foreskins examined to make sure they had not become Muslims and were actually spies. For some reason however, this makes them sigh even more deeply, launching into a convoluted narrative about a newly divorced comrade, Gary, a Pacific Islander, who wines and dines the foremen and gets away with murder in his love-life, owing to the reputedly prodigious size of his reproductive organ, the source of their knowledge as to its dimensions being undisclosed. 


I have no empirical evidence to attest to the proportions of my associates’ members, or the manner of their revelry and thus feign delight at discovering that n 1850 princes Alexander Liholiho, later King Kamehameha IV of Hawaii and Lot Kapuāiwa, later King Kamehameha V of Hawaii met former Greek Prime Minister and ambassador to London, Spyridon Trikoupis in Paris who encouraged them to join him in a drinking and gambling session with him, against American physician and missionary to the Kingdom of Hawaii and advisor to the King, Gerrit Judd’s objections. 


One of the workers groans softly, revealing that he suffers from heartburn and opining that the beverage was excremental. He tries to imagine what his life would be like if he divorced his wife and didn’t have to spend time with his kids. A sentence later he comes to a halt as he realises that he has not really thought it through. I attempt to introduce him to "Gryllus" wherein the ancient writer Plutarch provides an interview between Odysseus and a talking pig who is unwilling to be turned back into a human because he prefers his new life. “What are you trying to say?” the man asks pointedly and I am saved literally by the bell as his mobile phone starts ringing. 


The man is possessed of an old-style phone. He discloses that he had purchased himself the latest I-phone the other week but his daughter appropriated it to give to her boyfriend and he was now using his old phone in which he had painstakingly entered Black Sabbath’s “Pranoid” as a ringtone using the phone keys. A devotee of the genre, he regales me with reminisces of the non-Greek girls he met at rock concerts while I was still in my infancy and  how he dreams of inventing a bass guitar with nine strings, a diagram of which he just happens to have in his pocket. In return, I tell him about the Barbiton, the Ancient Greek bass guitar, which Theocritus the Sicilian poet, called an instrument of many strings, usually more than seven. Since his attention begin to waver almost immediately, I tell him about  

Anacreon of Teos who sang that his barbitos only gives out erotic tones while Aristotle maintained that the instrument was not for educational purposes but for pleasure only. To my question as to how rich he would become if he could re-invent an instrument that only emitted sounds of love, kindling romances and resuscitating dying relationships, he could only respond in wide-eyed wonder. 


One of the workers sees a familiar face walk past, calls out “Tass!” and emits a Balkan shepherd’s whistle. Greek Australians who repeat translate everything they say are a special type of bilingual: 

-Τι κάνεις καλά; How are you good? 

- Κι εμείς καλά, τι να κάνουμε ; Yeah we are fine, what can you do? 

-Για που το βάλατε; Ψώνια, ψώνια; 

- Where are you going? Shopping shopping. 

-Δουλειά εμείς σιγά σιγά. We are working, slowly slowly.....” 


“Don’t look at her now but Tass was hot as hell at High School,” the guitar designer informs me. “She ended up marrying some guy that does loss adjusting. He used to write her love poems that he copied out of a book. But you can see she has hungry eyes. Now I’m not judging, but I reckon she hasn’t had her loss adjusted in years.” Eleventh century writer Michael Grammatikos was rather scathing when it came to critiquing the literary pretensions of a Byzantine judge who is otherwise unknown to us: 

νόμοις μόνοις σχόλαζε καὶ λόγοις ἔα. 

ὡς κρίνειν ἔοικας, ὅυτω καὶ γράφειν. 

"Occupy yourself with laws only, and leave words alone 

because you seem to write the way you judge.”  


“What do you do for a living?” the other worker interject. 

“I’m a lawyer, for my sins,” I respond. 

“Figures,” he snorts. 


We are walking outside now and having each smoked a cigarette, my companions throw their butts into the gutter. Even though the City of Prahran was abolished over twenty five years ago, the sign in katharevousa Greek prohibiting the dumping of rubbish remains. «ΑΠΟΡΡΙΨΙΣ ΣΚΟΥΠΙΔΙΩΝ ΑΠΑΓΟΡΕΥΕΤΑΙ ΑΥΣΤΗΡΩΣ». I laugh and take my leave. 


And as I cross the street, the wind brings to my ears familiar nasal cadences forming the phrase: «Κοίτα το μαλάκαρε». 


Perseus has been following me again. 



First published in NKEE on Saturday 11 December 2021