Tag Archives: greeks in the diaspora

Advice from Yiayia

Last week my Yiayia gave me some advice – and it was advice that her Yiayia had given to her when she was a little girl!

“Remember: poor people buy expensive things and rich people buy cheap things.”

Yiayia was explaining why, one time when she needed to replace the lock on her gate, she used her savings to buy a high quality one so she wouldn’t have to replace it for a long time. I liked receiving this advice. It was a good reminder to use money wisely. But also it was pretty cool to get a piece of relevant advice second-hand from a great-great-yiayia who I’m guessing would be more than 120 years old if she was alive today. I felt like I had travelled in time.

No-one in Australia Goes Hungry

This week I conducted food interviews at Summer Hill – lovely, local Summer Hill. EVen though only half my appointments turned up I had a pretty good time. Everyone I talked to was interesting and genuine. I loved most of all hearing about the local initiatives happening so close to where I live. There is apparently a caravan set up by the indigenous community in Marrickville offering free meals a couple of times a week. A lot of the supermarkets and fruit shops in the area helpfully lump all the discounted produce together so my participants knew that if they shopped in the right place at the right time they could get a pretty good selection of cheap fresh fruit and vegetables to cook up into soups and stews. One lady even talked about occasionally picking herbs from the new community garden and public herb and vegetable boxes which have been set up in Norton Plaza.

“You know it? The one in Leichhardt?”, she said.
“Yeah!” I couldn’t help blurting out. “I used to work there!”

I love the idea that Norton Plaza, even in all its attempts to be polished and cosmopolitan, has done something so wonderful for the community!

However despite the positive stories and coping strategies from my Summer Hill cohort, there were also terrible tales of woe. I had one woman burst into tears in the middle of the interview and another who, while calculating the number of days she had gone without eating a meal, excitedly remembered that today didn’t need to be counted: “wait – I get that voucher today! I’ll get a feed right after this!”. Most of them were skipping meals (or sometimes entire days of eating) and losing weight but they weren’t actually feeling hungry because they were so used to it.

After the final interview I headed across to visit Yiayia and Papou who are only a few blocks away from the new community centre. I was excited to visit while Papou was home and excited to spend some rest time with them after the draining interviews. It’s not actually what happened though. It was time to me to experience a whole other unexpected and draning aspect of the food surveys: the opinions of others.

“No.” said Yiayia, when she asked about work and I told her about what I’d been doing.
“I don’t believe it. No one in Australia goes hungry.”

I wasn’t really sure how to respond.

“You know what it is?” she continued. “It’s the pokies, the powerball. People waste their money. People are lazy.”

I had conclusive proof that she was wrong. But I was stunned, I still didn’t know what to say!

She followed with a tirade. People don’t know how to cook their own food. People eat junk. It costs $10 to get a sandwich at the cafe. People spoil their children. No one saves for a home. People are lazy with their money. Papou even chimed in to tell me about the overweight woman in the Ashfield food court who eats an enormous breakfast there every day.

Oh my goodness.

I know that she and Papou have been through much worse than many of the people I have interviewed. I mean Papou’s village was cut off by the Nazis in WWII and they basically only had what they could grow for a couple of years! And they both knew hard poverty from a young age and they grew up and worked menial jobs in Greece and Australia and they sacrificed so much to make sure that their children had food and an education and a home. And now they live on a pension and they still get by. But I also know that everyone is in a different situation and lots of people I have spoken to have had no control over the things that have led to their lack of food.

I tried talking about people who have to choose between expensive rented accommodation and going homeless. About single mums in “emergency housing” who indefinitely live in motels, without kitchens, until a department of housing place becomes available. About people who have high expenses for health conditions and disabilities. But she wouldn’t have a bar of it, and I couldn’t push her. What right have I to tell her what hardship and poverty is when I was brought up so comfortably by my own parents?

So I ended up at home yesterday with twice the usual angst. Not only was I carrying the stories from the participants, now I was burdened with the words from my Yiayia. Both her own tales of poverty AND her adamant denial of all the other stories I have been hearing. In her eyes there was no way they could be authentic. How could anyone in Australia, a country that gives out pensions, ever go hungry? After all, she and Papou get on fine. In her eyes, if it’s happening to anyone it’s because those people have brought in on themselves.

Now I have to work out how to hear and affirm her own story without letting her discount the stories I have heard from everyone else. It makes my heart tired.

On not belonging

Along the short route between Parramatta train station and my office I walk past St John’s Greek Orthodox church. Usually it is shut up but occasionally I get a glimpse in when it is open early in the morning on special feast days. There are Yiayias dressed in black trickling in, and as the doors open for them the smell of incense tumbles out onto the street. I can see the icons and the candles lined up in the bed of sand out the front – not too many because not that many people go to church early in the morning on a weekday!

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I know that I would go crazy if Greek church was my only church, yet mornings like these still pull painfilly at my heart. I can recognise all the sights, smells and sounds and they bring back many memories. Part of me yearns to go inside and experience it all again, but I never do. I know that now the language and cultural barriers are insurmountable. Even if I enter the building I will still be an outsider.

It’s ironic of course. From a Christian perspective these people are my brothers and sisters. From an ethnic perspective I share their history and ancestors. But these ties are just ideals which mean nothing without real relationships. With no-one in the building actually waiting to welcome me, I’ll never get to experience the connection I’m supposed to have with the saints at St John’s Greek church in Parramatta.

On a completely tangental note, I think that St John that Baptist is totally up there as one of the coolest saints you could name a church after. I know I’m biased from churching at Ashfield, but it’s true. He literally pointed to Jesus, physically enacting the thing that all churches are supposed to be doing. You can see him doing it in the picture above! 

Family history and my identity

Before I even start writing up what I want to say, I need to make something very clear: ‘Lesbian’ is not just a word used to refer to homosexual women. Thousands of years prior to the (female) homosexual movement adopting this word to summarise their identity, people were living on the Greek island of Lesbos. For many many thousands of years, this people group have been identifying themselves as ‘Lesbians’. Which makes sense. That is a good word to use to refer to people from Lesbos.

My Yiayia is from Lesbos (see here and here for previous references). She is a Lesbian – ethnically. And so I also get to call myself a Lesbian – ethnically. Sometimes I wish I could just say “Lesbian” without everyone assuming that I am referring to a homosexual woman. But I guess that’s the way language works. I am about to write an entry about my Lesbian heritage. To make the language work for you, I will use the term “Lesvian” instead, because the “b” sound and the “v” sound are the same in Greek.

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Last night Matt and I went to a book launch. Vasilis Vasilas, a younger Lesvian migrant, has been archiving the photographs and stories of the older pre-war and post-war Lesvian migrants online and has finally published them into a book. My Aunty Fay invited us to come along with her and my (second) cousin Parry (a fairly recent migrant himself). Yiayia and Papou didn’t come. Yiayia knew she would get very emotional and she wasn’t really prepared for that. Also she doesn’t leave the house very often.

The launch was very interesting, even though it was mostly in Greek. My favourite professor, Vras, was the big speaker, and he was excellent. There was great food and it was nice to hang out with Aunty Fay and Parry. It was also nice to get such a great insight into the experiences of the migrants themselves.

However the experience of sitting in a room packed to the brim, bustling with people speaking Greek, dressing Greek, gesticulating Greek, breathing Greek – it was kind of alienating. I really want to grab hold of this community’s story and say:

“Yes! If there were no Lesvian migrants to Australia, if no Lesvian community existed here, then I would not exist! I belong to this community!”

But I can’t say that. I can’t even speak the same language as this community. It’s a very awful feeling, this kind of half-belonging. I know that I am a Lesvian. I will carry Yiayia’s story with me as long as I am alive, and I will pass it on to any of my children and let them know about what she went through to live here. But I am not actually a Lesvian. I am Australian. I am a rag-tag mish-mash product of the “Populate or Perish” agenda and the multicultural policy. My family history spans the globe, but I don’t actually belong to any of the places it came from.

I guess that’s OK and I just have to learn to be content with it. But still there is a small part of me that yearns to be able to understand Greek and to go to and understand the topos my ancestors came from.

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Georgia and I celebrating the sunset in Napi, Yiayia’s village

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Philip and Georgia pretending to drive Theo Yani’s truck, somewhere on Lesbos