I HADN'T BEEN in Sydney that long and wasn’t used to much of it. As an Englishman everything was more familiar than it would be to most migrants to Australia, coming from the Balkans, Indo-China, Latin America and East Africa, but that very familiarity made it all the more strange. So many signs, institutions and English place names – Paddington, Kensington, King’s Cross, Canterbury, Cheltenham – colossal Victorian institutions, and cramped little red brick villas, but no Englishness at all. And, of course, it was hot. I had arrived in a steamy January heatwave; very different from what I was used to.
Then one day, after about a year, I had an epiphany. It didn’t make me feel that much more at home (that took at least two decades) but it connected me with others who might have felt even worse pangs of alienation. I was walking down King Street, Newtown, beyond the railway station around the corner and down the hill towards Alexandria. It had been a beautiful old shopping thoroughfare but now was rent with heavy traffic, and many of the businesses were run down or boarded up, but the signboard of one delicatessen caught my eye. The letters in black and green on a translucent plastic light box hanging from the awning said one word ‘Kalloni’. My heart jumped. I knew this word. Surely there could only be one meaning for it? I went inside. It was quite dark, but clean and full of Greek produce. There was yoghurt, fetta, sacks of beans and the yeasty honest smell of dried goods. There were stalks and flowers of oregano, sealed in clear plastic bags. The middle aged woman behind the counter did not speak much English, and my Greek has always been inadequate, but I had to ask her, ‘Are you from Kalloni?’
She looked at me in amazement, and a little suspicion. It was a squinty look, not hostile, but definitely concerned, and I came to see it on quite a few Greek faces over the years since then.
‘On Mytilene,’ I added. Her eyes opened wide. For many Greeks the island of Lesbos is known as Mytilene, probably because that’s the name of the capital town (and as with Rhodes or Patmos the town is the island) and there’s some understandable reluctance by the islanders to be known as ‘Lesbians’.
‘Yes,’ she said, and then, ‘You know Mytilene?’ She still didn’t quite accept what I was saying. Maybe I was a beggar; I did have long hair and sandals. But why would a cruising hippy Anglo know about an obscure town on a remote Greek island? I bought some rather dry fetta and a wad of well-aged oregano and told her I had been to her island, and that I’d been to lots of villages there as well as Kalloni. To prove it, I reeled off the names of the places I knew. There was Stipsi and Mandamados, Aghia Paraskevy and Skala Sikaminia and, of course, Molivos.
At the sound of these names her eyes filled and brimmed over, and immediately I too felt moved. It was as if an electrical surge had rushed through me, and our tears began to well and trickle on to our cheeks. I was sharing something with her I’d never felt about any other place in the world, and probably never will. A total stranger and I were weeping quietly together, while outside the trucks rumbled south to Wollongong. It was an unpredicted moment which made me realise that maybe the passive hostility which seemed to be so common in Australia was not directed at me at all, and now that I knew there were people from Kalloni, and maybe Vafios and Aghiasos somewhere in town, the place might, one day become my ‘home’. I didn’t need a coterie of joking and joshing English people. It did not matter that I had no tribal neighbours from my ‘home’ town of Mold in North Wales bantering over the garden fence. None of us would ever be authentic ‘Aussies’, anyway, but if Greeks from Kalloni could belong here, so could I.
Decades later, I went back to look for the shop but it had long gone. Opposite was a building I hadn’t even seen in 1976: the headquarters of the archdiocese of the Greek Orthodox Church in Sydney. Next door to that well decorated edifice was the Greek Welfare Centre. Melbourne’s legendary status as the second biggest ‘Greek city’ in the world I knew about, but it took me a while to realise how Greek certain parts of Sydney were.
THIRTY YEARS AFTER my Kalloni moment in Newtown, I had another encounter closer to home, in Rozelle. I recall my first visit there, in the early summer, late in 1975, pacing down Darling Street with Jane and baby Klio, looking for a house to buy. That day saw a hard burst of dry summer heat and we were shown a couple of weatherboard shacks near Easton Park. They were cheap, but we were warned they might be affected by a planned road extension – which never happened – and were certainly infested with white ants. The price of one was a derisory $18,000, but we weren’t that game. They seemed low, breezeless and hot. We waited nearly a year before finding our home near Balmain hospital in Booth Street.
This was the Rozelle that was: more than two decades before Tetsuya Waruda opened his exclusive restaurant; before the Darling Street strip became an organic gourmet avenue, with Herbies, La Grande Bouffe, the About Life gourmet hypermarket, Fine Food’s cheese room (now defunct), Common Ground’s organic bakery, Essential Ingredients, the Fishbowl, nouvelle cuisine and pavement dining. In 1976 it was fish and chips, chiko rolls, mixed businesses, sludgy Chinese food, budget butcheries, and only one estate agent.
On the wrong side of the Victoria Road arterial highway that slices it in half, Rozelle still has more than its share of charity stores run by St Vincent de Paul and the Salvation Army. In Balmain in the 1970s, the only place that opened at the weekend (even on Good Friday) was Ralph’s delicatessen. Now the entire peninsular has but one stand-alone butchers shop (it’s organic) and a supermarket meat section. I am reliably informed by Darrell, one of its longer-term butchers, that thirty years ago there were eight butchers in Balmain and another six in Rozelle. All shut on Saturday at midday sharp. They used to say you could fire a cannon down Darling Street and hit nobody until nine o’clock on Monday.
It was St Andrew’s Congregational church (est. 1853) that opened up Balmain ‘village’ by renting out space underneath its great Moreton Bay fig (since deceased) to stallholders selling old clothes, antiques, bric-a-brac, junk, ‘collectables’, incense and candles. The same church also pioneered wedding packages for Japanese couples spending up on glamorous nuptials, arriving by Austin Princess or horse and carriage. In the 1980s, both these smart entrepreneurial initiatives encouraged thousands of Sydneysiders to visit Balmain at the weekend for a sample of suburban exotica. In the early 1990s pub owners decided to make weekend nights a ‘scene’, and installed coloured lights, DJs and bouncers. Boozy ‘blood houses’ became cocktail bars. The Cricketer’s Arms (a hangout for Balmain Tigers Rugby League players and a place where it was said you could hire a bit of muscle) was converted into the Monkey Bar, with sofas, boutique beers in tall flutes and an instant reputation for being a pick-up joint for forty-somethings. Then came open-fronted restaurants with floor to ceiling cedar-framed glass doors, wider pavements, gas heaters on stands for alfresco winter dining, fashion stores with their own labels, FWDs, pedigree dogs that came in clutches and Greens on the council.
There may be vestiges of the world that closed on Saturdays, when people went to church to pray and sing, or to the club to get fed and half-pissed, but most social commentators like to allude to Balmain as the typical repository of the latte-snorting set; self-obsessed and upwardly mobile, and the greedy nouveau riche ‘yummy mummies’ browsing through niche cheeseries for pretentious foreign delicacies.
Rozelle strip’s last old style delicatessen was still selling salami when I went in there in October 2005, looking for some tumeric powder, but I noticed Greek music coming from a boom box behind the counter. A smiling older woman asked me what I wanted. She had a tinge of an accent. She wasn’t sure about curry ingredients, but took me to the back of the shop where the herbs and spices were kept. Yes, there was a packet of the yellow powder but also, at eye height on the other side of the narrow aisle, a generous wad of wrapped oregano from Greece. I picked it up.
‘You know what that is?’ she asked.
Some things never change. Greek shopkeepers always think nobody they don’t already know could possibly be familiar with oregano.
‘It’s from Greece. I’m from Greece too.’
‘I thought so,’ I said. Now the music on the community radio station had changed to conversation, in Greek.
‘I come from an island called Mytilene’ she said. I felt the faint surge.
‘Oh,’ I said, ‘I’ve been there’. Her brow formed the familiar suspicious frown.
‘When you been there?’
‘Oh, first time a long time ago. 1970, but also this year.’
Her eyes widened, and we had that old ‘Kalloni’ conversation. She came from up in the mountains, near Aghiasos, where her father had been an olive farmer and owned quite a few houses. Sadly, he died without a will so everything was split up among surviving relatives, the government and accountants, but she came to Sydney and got married. Her husband won the lottery, and for £300, they bought a tiny ‘lolly’ shop next to where she now was in Rozelle. The first house she and her husband rented in Balmain was four doors down from my wife Jane’s art-gallery-shop in Rowntree Street.
‘When I first got here me and my sister were the only girls in Sydney from Mytilene!’
Now she and her family did go back; in fact, she had been building a house at Perama on the gulf of Yeera, and would be there again soon. I said I’d been to Perama. Again she was amazed, but told me that people from that little village were all crazy. As they always are in the next village. But her eyes misted over.
‘Maybe I’ll build a granny flat there and spend three months of the year relaxing. Drop in again, we should have a proper conversation.’
I did, a few months later, but her son was at the counter. I went around the back and picked up a bag of the sacred herb.
‘Oregano’ I said. It was oregano vulgare packaged in Athens, its actual origins not specified.
‘Yeah’ he said ‘from Greece. But I’ve never had it.’
‘No. But I guess it’s good.’
‘You can’t make a Greek salad without it’ I said.
‘Greek salad? Nah. That neither.’
In 2008 the shop closed and the owner told me she was going to spend more time on Lesbos. On January 6 2009 she rang me at home to wish me ‘kallo chronia’ and told me to drop in on her at Perama any time. A few months later her shop re-opened under new management– the only 7-Eleven franchise on the entire Rozelle-Balmain peninsula.
AS I SIT here now, in Balmain, on a sunny autumn afternoon, it’s been warm all day, and humid. Balmain is quiet, but because we live high up we hear the sounds of Palmer street below. There’s a loud conversation going on. George and his brother Chris Seferis are doing some renovations for their mother. They are shouting because she is deaf, but they are also indulging in that special Greek habit of having a conversation at a distance. Many’s the time we had sat in the Cafe Paradiso at the top of Molivos town and watched and listened as one group of men playing cards, eating meze and drinking ouzo, were addressed by a solitary man across the balcony. He never got up to join them, but conducted his side of the discourse from twenty feet away. It’s normal. It’s what George and Harry are doing.
LOOKING BACK I realise I have never used the word ‘escape’ to describe what I, my friends and contemporaries from the 1960s were trying to do in our movements beyond our native shores, whether to Greece or Australia. Maybe it’s so obvious it needn’t be said that was what we were up to, but then again it’s always a mix of motives that informs any decision to make the big move, never a singularity. In the 1950s, the word ‘escapism’ as an existential condition was not yet in common use. You ‘escaped’ from prison or servitude, not from suburban inertia or rural decrepitude.
Much later we realised that there was an equation at work between repulsion and attraction, push and pull. Perhaps we fled winter, failure, feelings of inadequacy, disgrace, or bad décor and were drawn to warmth, opportunity and a classier but simpler aesthetic. Anthropologists and demographers talked about people being pushed out of countries by war, famine, persecution, and then pulled towards prospects of freedom, prosperity and security. The push got you out and the pull decided your destination: the USA (most obvious option) Canada (near the USA), Australia (warm), New Zealand (safely away from everywhere).
As to phase two of the process: settlement, induction, assimilation, I never gave it a thought. If it was about national ‘identity’, how could I become an ‘Australian’ any more than a Greek? Of course, I could be a citizen, but never an Aussie, any more than I could be a Yorkshireman. I never imagined becoming something other than what I was, but that wasn’t really that well defined for or by me. Like any migrant, I was expected by my hosts to be positive and accepting of their belief that they had inherited, created even, the best place in which I or anyone could possibly live, and that I should quickly forget the inferior experiences of my home country as just bad memories best ignored.
For a mature migrant in a foreign country, however congenial, hospitable or appealing the new environment might be, there is no cultural continuity, no connections with your real life story and the influences that created you before you arrived. There’s nobody in this town from my school days, university days, hanging around days. I was thirty-four when I arrived in Australia. When people talk about the school they went to, the suburb they lived in, the sweets they ate, the bikes they rode, the TV shows that give them warm feelings of nostalgia, the characters they all knew, local and national, I have had nothing to offer. I am like the woman from Kalloni, Newtown, a Non-Aussie-Background person.
Unless they’d been there, and could claim it as their own, I noticed how many dinki-di Australians didn’t like me being nostalgic about my place in the English world. To be tolerable, England had to be a place for their memories, not yours. There could be no sharing what they hadn’t experienced. Of course, not every Australian who has been there, lived there, worked there, ‘claims’ England as a place that only exists in the way they see it, but I have had enough of those encounters to make me wary of ever raising my routine ‘past life’ as a topic for conversation in company. I learned to tell stories from my pre-Australian life that were surreal, self-deprecating, ridiculous, so nobody would feel threatened by the idea that my life had been in anyway real before I lobbed. If your life before meant anything, why come here?
I occasionally re-imagine the landscapes of childhood, and wander through ‘my’ woods of Wales, my father and mother’s Suffolk fields, or just gaze at the view from Eleni’s big wide naked terrace in Keretzi street, Molivos, but I know none of it will ever be ‘mine’. Not that it matters; over the back fence in Balmain, blinking in the warm spring evening there are the lights of Rozelle like the lucky country’s Fez. And when I now look at the map of Lesbos I see something I didn’t even notice until writing this here now. As seen from one of NASA’s earth-watching satellites space, its shape is not all that different from Australia. It means nothing but could explain everything.
I’d always sublimated the need and obligation to become an Australian citizen. As I said before how could I become an Aussie? The government of John Howard made it even harder with ground rules about what it meant: how you had to have respect for a ‘fair go’ and ‘mateship’. Except for the argot, neither attribute would be unique to Australia, but expressed as a patriotic duty they have become elusive, exclusive and repressive. Anyone critical of the public rhetoric proclaiming these ‘values’ might not be a welcome person. I suspect most complainers might be born-and-bred, or dinky-di, or ‘skips’ as Aussies are known to the people they call wogs; and I have often wondered what it all means to the 40 per cent of the people born in scores of foreign countries living here. And how can young people, of whatever origin, take on an understanding of what it meant to be an Australian in the 1920s, when the ‘spirit of ANZAC’ was devised? They can put another sausage on the sizzle, watch the marchers on April 25, even go surfing at Gallipoli, but must they turn up at the MCG and cheer for Australia’s cricket team? Or make sure they only belong to non-Christian religions that are ‘moderate’?
I’ve also wondered whether the persistent proclaiming of these Aussie attitudes and attributes and vaporous values, might not be another manifestation of what used to be known as ‘the cringe’, that fear peculiar to Australia, that supposed all things Australian were copycat but inferior versions of those in the Mother Country. In the 1960s young people left to avoid the encroachments of Australia’s conservative culture. Now the cringe is something that evokes not revulsion but pride and boastfulness, and conservative commentators comfort their own alienation by cynically vilifying ‘elites’ for being ‘out of touch’ with the glories of the suburbs.
Is this where I came in? Since there is no going back my citizenship papers are in.
‘No going back’ is the opening chapter (and closing pages) from his memoir My Island, Your Island.