My Melburnian geography is one of lost Greek landmarks. As I drive down the main drag of my suburb, I look at the thriving Greek restaurants and commemorate the demise of those who didn’t quite make it.
To my right, the Chinese bread shop in the place of a Greek cafe that sold inordinately stale cakes. To my left, a Malaysian restaurant is busy asserting itself in the remains of a Greek restaurant that failed to gain the confidence of the populace at large, for it would sell microwave reheated, pre-prepared food.
Further down, I see the three Greek restaurants that are doing a brisk trade. I only ever patronise one, a most excellent purveyor of gyros newly arrived from the motherland, but the others truly are landmarks, for they have been there for years.
Two main roads away and I am in the area where my people settled en masse before moving to outlying suburbs.
I drive through streets and identify the homes in which aunts, uncles, or people from my parents’ village once lived. They are no longer there. Their homes have either been sold or demolished by their descendants, and units erected in their place.
In the main street of that neighbourhood, I see ghosts: the ghosts of Greeks walking up and down doing their daily shopping.
There was a time when it was impossible to venture into the street without running into someone you knew, or more likely, someone who you didn’t know, but who definitely knew you.
I run into no-one now, and in the remains of the great market that once stood behind the street, a vibrant marketplace that housed more than 10 Greek businesses selling everything from fruit, to chickens to fish and chips, fabric and everything in between, a true focal point for the community, there now looms a faceless, stereotypical mall.
I don’t recognise anyone there now. Our communal encounters have, in the face of the changing demographic and the ravages of urban planning, receded to the point where they largely take place around one brilliant restaurant whose proprietor hands out business cards proclaiming that he is a μπιζιναδόρος, and the two churches that bookend our suburban hypostasis.
Yet daily, reality and memories converge as we navigate the topography of our communal loss.
I don’t need to stretch my imagination much to remember the Greek precinct when it was replete with Greek businesses and bursting with life.
I return again and again to the Cambodian eatery that was once the Greek restaurant in which over the course of a year or so, I managed to beguile my wife into believing I was worth entwining her fate to. I return again and again to the bar that was once Medallion Cafe, a business that even inspired a song by composer Christos Ioannides: “Στο Μεντάλλιον για καφέ, για καφέ και χαβαλέ, στο Μεντάλλιον για γλυκό και για κάτι ελληνικό.”
This was a place in which it was almost impossible to find a seat and even more impossible to view who was inside, through the thick veil of cigarette smoke.
It was here that I had or witnessed the most intense discussions of a political or historical nature; here, that so many Greek community deals were brokered; here, that marked the epicentre of community enthusiasm at Greece’s victory in the 2004 European Cup.
Now, a solitary stele on Lonsdale Street provided by the council commemorates a heart of Hellenism that no longer beats. It exists, in the memories of Salapatas and Pitsilidis but it is stilled.
In what was once Dion and is now a Chinese ‘Caribbean Fish Grill Bar’, the fossils of the bare bones of that existence remain: a plaster Hellenistic relief sculpture juxtaposed against the gaudy piratical decoration of the rest of the store, significant to those who remember, unintelligent to those without those memories.
As I walk down Swanston Street, I acknowledge the shops that once were Greek hamburger eateries, serving the greasiest and most satisfying hamburgers known to man. Time and time again I was the recipient of the kindness of their proprietors, upon their learning I was Greek, until their ultimate extinction.
Enshrining continuity of memory as a tradition not being our forte as a community, I have no emotional response to the long since gone pioneering businesses of Stanley Young (Yiannopoulos) or Alfredos Kouris (Alfredo’s) that the previous generation remember with fondness.
When a friend recently called me in distress to lament the closure of a Greek coffee shop in his neighbourhood, Northcote, the gentrification of another into a faceless establishment catering to hipsters and the closure of an eatery that was particularly good – at least in the beginning, before it changed proprietors – he made a bold suggestion: that the community at large communally invest in the acquisition of commercial premises in proximity to each other, which could be leased out to Greek businesses at concessionary rates, thus encouraging the growth of Greek commercial precincts in target areas.
My initial reaction was to snort dismissively: private trade after all, when viewed in a vacuum, is an entirely selfish pursuit. It is the communal endeavours that should be enhanced with funding. Yet to view Greek businesses along these terms is to completely ignore the context in which they exist.
Although we have been in Melbourne for over a century, and even though we have created a thousand negative stereotypes about the manner in which we relate to each other as compatriots, we persist upon invariably seeking out Greek businesses in order to entrust our custom to them.
Conversely, it is those businesses that sponsor the endeavours of Greek community organisations, whether these be festivals, dinners, dances, or charitable events, and it is those businesses whose advertising subsidises our community print and airwave media.
In the suburbs, the social interaction stemming from these businesses have been responsible for the formation of many Greek Melbournian subcultures, and are often the only means of interaction within a Greek context, for many otherwise isolated or disengaged members of the community.
Apart from being the means by which their proprietors feed themselves and their families, they constitute not only the oil in our communal engine, but also – as a visible point of reference for those sharing the same identity – our public face, the very means for asserting that identity openly, within the context of multicultural Melbourne.
It is for this reason that the closure of a Greek business, an unremarkable event in the ordinary course of commerce, is met with such force of emotion for many Greeks in Melbourne.
When a Greek business closes or vanishes, we feel that we are all diminished as a result, and thus lament its loss, whether or not we were patrons, or held its wares in esteem.
For us it is the mere presence of an identifiably Greek business as a point of reference in our local geography that is important and when we lose such points, we become disoriented. Further, the social structures that have evolved around them unravel in much the same manner in which life withers away upon the extinguishment of hydrothermal vents, Bridge Road in Richmond being but one of many examples.
Despite the fact that many postwar migrants emphasised tertiary education to the extent where large numbers of their offspring have sought ‘desk job’ employment, commerce and business occupy a significant portion of the members of our community.
As time passes, much of this business is no longer conducted in an overtly ‘Greek’ fashion, the target market being the entire social fabric of an area and not specifically a Greek clientele.
Outside certain areas, the ubiquitous signs proclaiming: Παντοπωλείον – or in one glorious instance: Φρουτοπωλείον – are now hard to come by, owing to marketing and linguistic assimilation.
Rather than advocate a planned approach to the articulation of the identity of Greek businesses that perpetuates past forms of social interaction and enshrines the nostalgia that is omnipresent in all of us, perhaps all we can do is celebrate the significant contributions made by such businesses to the culture of our organised community and enjoy all these have to offer, for as long as it is relevant to do so.
It is through attrition, interaction and mutual support that the relationship of Greek businesses to the evolving Greek community and its identity will be negotiated. In the meantime, as we pass by the stelae that mark our passage through time, let us rejoice that we, as the pharaohs before us, get to choose the manner in which we are remembered, at least, for a little while.