Saturday, March 02, 2024



It was while reading George Mouaratidis’ poetry collection “Angel Frankenstein,” some years ago, a homage to a past both real and imagined, as a migrant growing up in Thomastown, that I conceived of the idea of mapping my own topography of loss, growing up in the City of Moonee Valley within two very vibrant communities: that of my father’s people, the Samians, who arrived in the area in the early fifties and my mother’s people, where half of the village of Perama on the outskirts of Ioannina migrated to the municipality en masse in the sixties. Enmeshed within the complex networks they created, I was for a large part of my youth either oblivious of or indifferent to, the wider world beyond their collective hives.

Despite the one size fits all stereotypes of the Greek migrant in Melbourne, I found the differences between the two groups and other Greek micro-communities I encountered fascinating. It appeared to me that one is defined just as much by the place in which they live, as by the place from which they have come, and that there is a third dimension of place that is as equally important: the place in which one’s heart and mind inhabits, a place that is just as real as the physical, if not more so.

To grow up in Moonee Valley as a member of both communities was to be swaddled by a protective cocoon of belonging. Your place was predetermined by that of your family’s position within a series of village relationships that were long remembered even as those who were left behind soon forgot them. There was always someone watching, someone always ready to lend a hand but also to admonish and you quickly began to instinctively understand the complex social norms and ties of mutual obligation that kept people connected. Hard wired into you was also an extensive code of acceptable conduct that had to be adhered to, if one’s family’s standing was to be maintained. In those days words such as φιλότιμο, ( as well as υποχρέωση, λογαριασμός and ρεζίλι) were not mere buzz-words to place on coffee mugs and fliers for festivals. Instead, they articulated the way in which we saw ourselves, others and how we behaved, and this transcended the generations. Pointing to a group of people sitting next on the same table at a wedding once, my great grandmother instructed me: “If anyone from this family ever asks you for help, you help them no questions asked.” The answer to my question as to why was simple: “Their grandfather helped us after we fell upon hard times in the war.” According to our way, debts, as well as love, are passed down through and bind all generations.

Central to this way of life was the importance of the collective. When the elders clucked their tongues at one of the younger members’ transgressions of the moral code, the phrase «τι θα πει το χωριό» referred not so much to the village back home, as to the virtual village constructed in Moonee Valley and its environs. The acts of the individual impacted upon the collective because it was the collective, with a hive memory of centuries that defined, protected and sustained the identity of those belonging to it, even though people such as I, not entirely belonging to either hive, could slip through the cracks of its authority and dwell in its grey areas.

It was this world, its naivete, its unshakeable belief in its own immortality, its inherent contradictions, its strengths and its vulnerabilities that I wanted to portray when writing the texts that would come to comprise the play: «Όπου Γης και Patris», produced by Greek actors Helen Tsefalas and Stamatis Tzelepis in collaboration with the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne. This is a phrase which is commonly employed to support the argument that your homeland is wherever you put down roots, rather than the place you originally come from and although I have heard it time and time again being recited by first generation migrants, they do so with resignation because they don’t really mean it. Rather, it is their fall-back position, wherein they resign themselves to their fate, never truly at home in the country they have chosen to settle in, and yet never truly at home in the country they left.  The play thus asks the question: When does a migrant stop becoming a migrant? Is migration of limited duration or a perennial condition? It is for this reason that I chose to render the word “Patris” in English, for the Patris is an icon of the great ships that conveyed the first generation to these shores, highlighting that process of dislocation as being continuous and enduring in nature.

The play is in Greek simply because there was no other possible way of rendering the rich and fascinating cadences of the unique Greek-Australian manner of speaking Greek, developed by the first generation. The way in which they retained their native dialects but also managed to stretch these in order to receive and adapt English terms, or engage in bi-lingual wordplay displays a level of linguistic ingenuity that we do not celebrate nearly enough. This remarkable idiolect is also facing extinction, as the first generation sub-consciously adopt the grammar and terminology absorbed from Greek satellite TV, or depart this mortal coil, never to utter a syllable again. It is their words I miss the most.

All of the scenes in the play are based on real life experiences, some of them more personal than others. «Προ των Εισοδίων» for example was inspired by wife’s mystification at my refusal to go out for dinner to celebrate my birthday because my new-born daughter had not yet received her 40-day-old blessing, citing the traditional justification: «τι θα πει ο κόσμος». We did go out eventually, we were “seen” and responding to my wife’s inability to comprehend my ensuing consternation, I exclaimed: “You don’t understand, you weren’t brought up in a village.” “Neither were you,” she was quick to respond. This got me thinking as to the manner in which tradition can be used as a method of repression and control, leading me further to consider situations where (as is often the case in mixed-marriages) we re-discover our “Greekness” only so as to engage in “othering” other key stakeholders and achieving a level of ascendancy over them. «Προ των Εισοδίων» where the Aussie «γαμπρός» turns out to be more “Greek” and more “traditional” than the Greeks themselves, inverts the stereotype, seeking to gently poke fun at the “performative” aspects of the Greek identity.

«΄Οπου Γης και Patris,» on the other hand, explores the emotions of an elderly couple at the airport, about to return to Greece for the first time in decades. This scenario was inspired by my experiences travelling to Greece in my youth. Seeing me young, gullible and alone and learning that I was Greek, elderly fellow-travellers would foist their excess baggage upon me, even to the extent where in 1992, I spent the entire airplane trip with a set of stainless-steel cookware on my lap.

I was lucky enough to have some of my work come to the attention of Helen Tsefalas whose monumental tome: “One Hundred Years of Greek Theatre in Australia,” is a remarkable piece of scholarship. Together with veteran actor Stamatis Tzelepis, she resolved to adapt those works to the stage and commissioned a few more. What is outstanding for me, is that at a time when the narrative of the Greeks Abroad is either trivialised or is generally absent from the mainstream Helladic discourse these talented thespians feel inspired enough to wish to employ their art so as to portray us in all our manifold, wonderful forms. It is fitting then, that the play was first premiered in Greece, the very place in which the journey of migration commenced for most of us and it scheduled to tour Greece during the Greek summer.

«Όπου Γης και Patris», was promoted in Greece with the by-line: “comedy that will make you cry,” and is a testament to the vast acting and directing talents of Helen Tsefalas and Stamatis Tzelepis that they are able to bring out the bittersweet nature, as well as the absurdity of our apodemic pretensions with such comic effect. Most of all however, it is the poignancy of the migration experience which inhabits the souls of all of us, that provides for an inexhaustible well of inspiration.

«Όπου Γης και Patris», will be performed in Melbourne on 8,9,10 March 2024 at the Clayton Community Centre, 9/15 Cooke Street, Clayton. For bookings  visit the website:


First published in NKEE on Saturday 2 March 2024