Saturday, October 28, 2023



The sky was so heavy that day, that it sagged sodden onto my shoulders sending a biting wind to lacerate the exposed parts of my flesh. A day earlier I had completed the pruning of the trees in my grandmother’s enormous garden and those muscles unused to activity except at the time of this annual ritual, were protesting vehemently. “I have now come of age,” I had thought to myself, as I surveyed my handiwork with satisfaction. “There is absolutely no way that yiayia would have unleashed me upon her prized arboreal offspring unless it were so.” My grandmother’s comment, when she looked upon my work, mowed down my pretensions with the mercilessness of a scythe: Εσύγιόκα μ’ πρέπει να μάθειςγράμματα, γιατί τα χέρια σου δεν πιάνουν γι’αυτές τις δουλειές». My ego smarting from the lacerations of her tongue, I collected the prunnings and receded, crestfallen.

Now I was back, mystified to see lopped-off tree branches, trunks and twigs littering the front garden and barring access to the back. Pushing my way past, I noticed the flows of the knots and the meanderings of the tree bark at my feet and I gulped. I knew this alphabet. It was the first one I had ever learned to read, having clambered on the branches of trees that to me were my first playmates, benign and friendly beasts that gently yielded up their fruit. Now they lay, shattered and broken, their life ebbing away in globules of resin, sobbing in silence. Past the grape vine, cut off at the roots as if by guillotine, stood my grandmother, hacking away at the lemon tree with her pruning saw. Swoping like a scimitar, my lips mouthed a silent scream as its enormous crocodile teeth sawed through flesh and rendered the tree no more. This was the first tree she had planted when she arrived in Australia and now it was gone.

It was my father who pulled me away, with a glance, half of sorrow, half of frustration, that for all my education, my reading skills were still incomplete. For he could decipher the furrows on my grandmother’s pallid brow, even as she smiled at us knowingly, casting aside my question “What have you done?” with a swoosh of her shears and a half-murmured: “Don’t worry, It’s all alright,” thus accepted her death a month later with the same resigned air with which he accepted the prognostications of the weatherman as to the weekly forecast. Everything in the corporeal world, after all, is a physical phenomenon. She was gone. It made sense that her garden should be no more as well, by way of preparation.

I cannot prune my own garden without recalling my grandmother, for I inherited her secateurs and I lop, crop and clip using her movements, employing her rhythms and muttering her expletives. I prune in Winter, under a leaden sky that hangs so low that it scrapes my shoulders and makes my eyes smart. I prune alone, or as alone as one can be when in the company of their dead grandmother and will tolerate no other companion. When my eldest daughter was young, she would run out into the yard to play and surveying the carnage strewn at her feet would burst out crying: “You’ve killed them! You’ve killed them! They are all dead! Why? These are living things! Why would you do such a thing? What will happen now?” I would take her in my arms as she sobbed inconsolably and reassure her: “These ones aren’t dead, μάνα μου. Just sleeping for the Winter. And this one here is sick. We have to chop it off here so it will grow back stronger than ever before.” Unconvinced, her plaintive weeping would grow louder and even more protracted. By Spring, she would forget everything, greeting the new buds and the flowers with a joyousness and camaraderie that only new life can feel for its other counterparts.

On this wintry day the sky was no longer bowed, or sagged but fissured and cracked, threatening to shatter its shards into my body in an infinite number of pieces. As I pulled up into my driveway, I noted the myriad of amputated tree limbs and rose branches barring my way. And there, by the front garden bed, was my wife, her hairless scalp covered by a headscarf, wielding my grandmother’s secateurs.

A few months earlier, I had made a joke about those very secateurs. “I’m going to cut my hair,” she announced, her voice a quivering grace note. “I don’t want the kids to see me suddenly lose my hair and get shocked. At least if I cut it gradually, in stages, they will get used to the idea.” This lustrous Sargasso Sea of hair, in whose curls I would lose myself, in those heady days when effusions were considered to be passably passionate enough to permit me to recite the Song of Solomon: “Behold, you are fair, my love!...Your hair is like a flock of goats, going down Mount Gilead,” was to be shorn. “With that level of thickness, you are going to need is my grandmother’s secateurs,” I commented wryly, biting my lip. “I think we will save them for the operation,” she responded, and I walked away before she could witness the sap falling from my eyes.

Now she looked at me through eyes framed neither by eyelashes nor eyebrows as I felt the blood rushing away from my veins. Every single rose bush, planted and tended from the time we moved into our marital home, amputated, their lifeless stumps pointing futilely at the sky.  I gulped, suppressing my grandmother’s expletives from rising rapidly up my throat. And as I looked deep in those lidless eyes, I saw my grandmother’s eyes staring back at me, in defiance.

“When you prune,” I muttered hoarsely clasping my hands so she wouldn’t see them tremble, you have to prune where the eye, I mean, where the bud is. You have to allow for the new growth. Otherwise, you will kill them. Look here,” I pointed to the rose bush closest to me. “You have basically left the stalk but there are no buds here. This tree is going to die. And so is this one, and this one, and this one.”

I moved among the plants, inspecting their inoperable wounds, the rude gashes testifying to the violence visited by the blade upon the exquisite curves of their sensuous torsos, my mouth hanging open as I mutely attempted to suppress my utter anguish. Inside my head, it was no longer my wife laying in the hospital bed, muttering in painkiller-induced delirium, as she searched for those parts of her body no longer there, but the surgeon, flourishing a pair of secateurs and in my grandmother’s voice mocking me: “Sixteen years of marriage and not once has she ventured into your precious garden. And now she has decided to prune.”

As she moved to take hold of the pruning saw, I saw a disembodied hand snatch it from her grasp. “You’ve killed them!” I screamed in panic. “You’ve killed them! They are all dead! Why? These are living things! Why would you do such a thing? What will happen now?”

“Don’t worry about it,” she answered, unperturbed, wiping her pallid forehead. “It’s all right. It will be alright. Trust me.  It’s all ok.”

“Don’t worry about what?” I raged. “It’s not alright. They are dead. Dead! They will not grow back. They will not survive. They are dead. Since when do you determine what lives and what dies?”

“Stop being silly and go wipe your eyes,” she ordered. And come and collect all these branches. My hands and my feet are being pierced with thorns.  It will be alright.”

Spring has arrived in the garden and my wife is often to be found there, gazing at the new rose branches reaching vigorously for the sky. That sky is of a blue of such enormity that it casts its azure luminosity over her luxurious crop of recently emerged hair that stretches strenuously towards the sun. She sees me approach, her long eyelashes flutter and her eyebrows rise in welcome. Without a word, she hands over the secateurs and smiles.

“See, μπαμπά,” my daughter explains. “You have to prune them so that can recover from their sickness. When you do that, they grow back stronger than before.”


First published in NKEE on Saturday 28 October 2023

Saturday, October 21, 2023



A Greek festival with an Italian name may appear incongruous if not for the fact that the Italian expression: One Face, One Race, has made it into the Greek language as spoken in Australia. Consider also that my grandfather, who settled in the environs of Moonee Valley in 1954, never learnt English, owing to the social norms of the era, when non-English speaking “New” Australians were largely excluded from participation in the broader community, and instead, ended up speaking Calabrian instead, for his workmates and neighbours were all Italian.

It is for this reason that elderly Greek and Italian ladies are called and call each other “signora” in their day-to-day dealings at the local shops, this having evolved as an acceptable form of address for Greek ladies ever since the fifties. In almost every street in the municipality, you will find Greek and Italian homes, many espousing the traditional architecture of the seventies and eighties, with a lemon tree in the front yard, broad beans growing by the front fence and an olive tree on the nature strip. You can also identify the Greeks by their number plates. “Apsalo” the name of a village in Macedonia, lives a few streets down from me, as does “Aetos” and also “Atheos,” who often parks outside our local church on Sundays, waiting to collect his mother at the end of the liturgy.

We are an old community, and unlike other Greek communities in Melbourne, we shun the limelight, preferring to associate with each other outside of institutions, associations and brotherhoods. In the eighties, we dominated Moonee Ponds Market, and it was impossible to spend less than two hours shopping because the shopkeepers were all friends and family, as were the shoppers themselves. That market no longer exists and the sense of close-knit community it fostered has gone with it, but the old ways remain: eyes, ears and hearts are everywhere as they should be within a community in which all of my close relatives still live within a three kilometre radius from my home.

More than a community, we are a conglomeration of villages. My grandfather came here first and found a smattering of Zakynthians, who had arrived before. One by one he sponsored the migration of his family and fellow villagers from Samos, including the late priests Fathers Stelios and Yiannis Aivaliotis, the latter being the first priest of the second Greek church to be constructed in Moonee Valley: Panayia Soumela. Most of the descendants of these migrants from Mytilinioi, Samos, still live within the municipality. When we get together, though we were all born here, we imperceptibly slip into the old dialect of our parents and grandparents and laugh when we consider that it is an idiom that is no longer spoken in the village. It only makes sense here, in Moonee Valley.

In the sixties, my mother’s people started arriving. There are now just as many people from the village of Perama in Ioannina living in Moonee Valley as there are in the village itself and the two halves, though separated by distance, still operate as an organic whole, all of us having been brought up on village lore and enmeshed within the neural networks of the collective hive mind.

It is our collectivity that has mitigated against us developing the coffee culture of Oakleigh which the first generation of our community considers indulgent and dangerously decadent, for according to the prevailing social mores, there is no time for coffee, for the right-thinking man. This is why on the rare day that I absent myself from the office, should I be found walking down the local shopping strip, I will invariably be accosted by a well-meaning θείοor θεία, who will pop out of nowhere to ask: “What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be at work?” That being said, our municipality is home to the best Greek restaurant in Melbourne: Philhellene, defying the stereotypes applying to Greek cuisine by purveying homely, authentic provender and providing a haven for performers of quality Greek music, patronised by celebrities and politicians alike, being my home away from home.

Because we are an ancient community, we are tinged with ennui and nostalgia. I drive around its streets and remember those who once lived in houses now renovated and changed forever. Most importantly, they also remember us. The year before last, my grandparents’ home was put up for sale for the first time since it was sold by the family after their death. Filled with longing for my childhood, I attended the open for inspection and admitted to the agent that I was the original owner’s grandson and merely wanted a look around. “I think you should come here,” the agent replied, and tugging me by the sleeve, took me into the backyard. There waiting, were descendants of my grandmother’s neighbours, reminiscing about her generosity, her ebullience, the abundance of her garden and her legendary kindness. That part of our family and community had become their family lore, treasured as carefully and lovingly, as our own.

The epicentre of our little community is the church of Saint Dimitrios which, my late grandmother maintained, was named after her local parish in Samos. Once upon a time it sat at the end of a street populated almost in its entirety by Greek homes. Those homes were compulsorily acquired and in their place, the Taxation Office was erected, a neat as well as dread dichotomy between God and Mammon if there ever was one. This is the church in which I was baptised, married and in which in turn, my children were baptised. It is also the church in which I have farewelled every single one of my departed loved ones. When I am there, I am in the presence not only of the Deity, but also of every single person who has ever mattered to me. It is not only my chief geographical reference point but also that of the rest of the members of our community, including those who remain outside smoking, waiting for the liturgy to end of a Sunday, because they are too cool or too crimson in persuasion to pass through its doors. It is also the reference point by which we are rendered intelligible to those who purport to benignly rule over us, our local council, our state and federal members of parliament. Because we have been here a long time and are secure in our tenure, we have no need to venture, cap in hand to their doors, in search of grants and favours. Instead, they come to us.

It is in celebration of our long history in the area and our deep ties with our sister Italian community that the Moonee Valley Una Faccia Una Razza Street Festival has been conceived. Taking place in Gladstone Street, Moonee Ponds, outside Saint Dimitrios Church, the Festival, the first of its kind ever to have been held in the municipality, aspires to highlight the complexity of the multicultural fabric of the area, providing a platform for the sharing of a multiplicity of stories relating to the migrant experience in Moonee Valley, through song, dance, cultural exhibitions and the purveying of street food.

Importantly, the festival will feature traditional Italian music, handicrafts and opera performances, exemplifying how cultural traditions meld, morph and adapt to an ever-changing demography, as well as an exhibition of nineteenth century Greek costumes and jewellery supplied by yours truly. Musicians from Greece have been co-opted to enthral the crowds, along with the renown Demotika Band and local exponents of the rebetika genre Anatreptix, who have a long history of performing in Moonee Valley, and whose guitar player, the Greek-speaking Wayne Simmons is living proof of what happens when cultures relate to each other and share. As the Festival ends the week in which the feast of Saint Dimitrios takes place, his legacy and all he means to Macedonian Hellenism is augmented by partnership with the Pan-Macedonian Association, providing a particularly Moonee Valley feel to the institution of the Dimitria, while the Florina Aristotelis Dance Group will illustrate the connection between Moonee Valley, Saint Dimitrios Parish and Hellenism’s northern extent through the medium of dance. For much of its existence, the Central Pontian Association “Pontiaki Estia,” was headquartered in Moonee Valley and it still plays an important role in the cultural life of the area. Its dynamic participation in the Festival, via rousing Pontian dance, is a given.

Writer Giannis Delimitsos mused that “The world, and we as a part thereof, are the carnival mask on the face of Nonbeing.” We on the other hand look to Psalm 149 for our inspiration and as a guide to our own exuberance, as we celebrate at the Moonee Valley Una Faccia Una Razza who we are, just how far we have come, looking forward together to the brightest of futures: “Let them praise His name in the dance: let them sings praises to Him with timbrel and psaltery,” remembering that whatever our face, whatever our race, we are all, one.



The Una Faccia, Una Razza Moonee Valley Dimitria Festival will be held on the street at St Dimitrios Church, 1 Gladstone Street, Moonee Ponds, on 29 October 2023 from 12:00pm to late.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 21 October 2023

Saturday, October 07, 2023



In the lead up to the Australian referendum on the Aboriginal Voice to Parliament, I have been re-reading Cavafy, whosepoem “Che Fece … Il Gran Rifiuto,” sometimes translated in English as “The Big Decision,” penned in 1899, seems eerily prescient:

“For some people the day comes

when they have to declare the great Yes

or the great No. It’s clear at once who has the Yes

ready within him; and saying it,


he goes from honour to honour, strong in his conviction.

He who refuses does not repent. Asked again,

he’d still say no. Yet that no—the right no—

drags him down all his life.”


Cavafy does not identify the decision that is to be taken, nor does he maintain that his rumination is of universal application. Instead, he speaks to the margins when toying with the ambiguity that is inherent in the decision-making process. The Sermon in the Mount as recorded by Matthew the Evangelist has Jesus enjoin us: “But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No.’ Whatever is more than these is of the evil one,” and it appears that it is the stark dichotomy and the different fates that can unwind depending upon which side of the binary one falls, that so absorbs him.


An obvious reading of the text is that it is easy for one to say (or vote) Yes when one is strong in their convictions. One who has already made up their mind, who is conscious of the fact that agreeing publicly with the mores and dictates of society will bring advantage, honour or approbation does not require too much of an effort, in order to espouse the prescribed opinion. This is especially so, given the overall positive connotations attached to saying ‘Yes’ as opposed to the negative ones associated with refusing to do so. Here, it can be argued, the word “strong” is used in irony. Cavafy thus maybe inviting us to consider just how “strong” are the convictions of someone to whom everything is absolute and resolved, without requiring the agony of introspection, analysis, doubt and consideration, whose opinions are neither questioned nor held up to scrutiny or tested but instead are rewarded, not on their merits, but simply because they are positive ones.


The Naysayers on the other hand, seem to be, according to Cavafy, the mirror image of the Yes voters. They remain as the poet says, eternally unrepentant. No matter how many times they are asked, they are just as “strong” in their convictions as the Yeasayers and it is implied that no amount of debate or discussion will change their minds. Their position is so entrenched that it is no longer an intellectual or moral position but rather, constitutes an entire identity within itself, creating an unbridgeable chasm between Yes and No.


That identity is further augmented by its ancillary attributes. Whereas honours and progress are an aspect of the Yes declarants, a sense of martyrdom is attached to those declaring No. According to the poet, their decision will afflict them for the rest of their life, presumably retarding their progress and creating obstacles to their progression, yet as the poet says, if given the chance, they would do it again anyway. Is the poet juxtaposing the fixed and immutable nature of their stance with the “strong” convictions of the Yes declarants, or is he paralleling it with and showing it to be of the same nature? And do we take the poet’s word for it when he claims that voting/declaring/saying No will engender victimhood? Or is the “No” made  consciously in pursuit of such marginality and identity, in which being marginalised within that paradigm is equivalent to being afforded honour, albeit of a different nature?


Cavafy is possibly suggesting then, that no decision is ever Manichaean in nature and there exist a multiplicity of considerations, conscious and not, that inform how such decisions are made. This is evident in his nuanced employment of the term “right” to qualify the “No.” There are evidently right No’s and wrong No’s and the poet is deliberately ambiguous as to how these are defined. Is a “right” No one which is declared on principle, via a logical thought process and careful consideration, or is the “right” No the one that will ensure that the “No” voter is marginalised, victimised and pilloried, at least in their own mind, engendering an already constructed sense identity or tribe? The absolutes of right and wrong under Cavafy’s careful gaze become as compromised as those of Yes and No. Everything, it appears, depends on the motivation of the decision-maker.


The title of Cavafy’s poem is paraphrased from Dante’s Inferno. “Il Gran Rifiuto,” - The Great Refusal being the error attributed by Dante to one of the souls found trapped aimlessly at the Vestibule of Hell. “After I had identified a few,” Dante writes, “I saw and recognized the shade of him who made, through cowardice, the great refusal.” It is believed by scholars that the verse may refer to Pope Celestine V who laid down his papacy on the grounds of age. It appears that Dante was influenced by theologian Thomas Aquinas’ concept of recusatio tensionis, the unworthy refusal of a task that is within one’s natural powers, when condemning Celestine.


And it is this liminal space between Yes and No, the refusal to make any decision or take any stance at all, that seems to escape the attention of most readers of Cavafy’s poem. For while we fixate our attention on the dichotomy of those saying Yes or No, we neglect to comprehend that the real tragedy lies not between the two absolutes which by and large are predictable and reflect each other, but rather with those who resile from making a decision whatsoever, out of indifference, ignorance, or as Cavafy ostensibly implies, cowardice. It is their obstinacy that Cavafy appears to condemn, their refusal to engage with the decision-making process that is far more heinous than the position that they might come to espouse. Such persons in ancient Athens, were known as ἱδιῶται, (idiotes), private persons who did not wish to engage in civic participation. In New Testament Greek, the term is used to denote an unskilled outsider and it is from this word that the modern English word “idiot” is derived. It is these people, the selfish and timid ones that Cavafy derides.


Or does he? Beyond the dichotomy of saying Yes and No, is Cavafy introducing a further dichotomy, one between decision and indecision? Can the decision not to make a decision, to walk away from a debate ever be a “right” one, or does this entail a form of purgatory where expiation is required? As we approach the Referendum on the Aboriginal Voice to Parliament, one in which we are called upon to become Yeasayers and Naysayers, and in which resiling from such a decision is punishable at law, let us reflect upon the “strength” and “righteousness” of our convictions, lest these “drag [us] down, all [our] lives.”


First published in NKEE on Saturday 7 October 2023