In My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Windex was ‘the wonder drug’ which dad Michael Constantine used to cure everything from “psoriasis to poison ivy”. The Facebook site, Early Greek Australians, which is filled with anecdotes from the lives of our grandparents and parents when they were new arrivals to Australia, is filled with stories of mistaken products. Mr Sheen was used to kill mosquitos, and suntan lotion was mistaken for shampoo giving a Count Dracula look with “slicked black hair” to the user.
Lots of things come in tubes and are easy to mistake. Many a Greek migrant rubbed toothpaste on their knees thinking it was Dencorub, and some even claimed it soothed them. Alternatively, brushing your teeth with Dencorub or using it on your haemorrhoids was not as positive an experience.
Any tourist who has ever found themselves gesticulating at a pharmacy abroad trying to mime their ailment can only imagine what the early immigrants had to go through when visiting hospital and doctors. One yiayia kept asking for a ‘happy toilet’ leaving Aussie nurses baffled. What she actually wanted was a ‘χάπι’ (pill) to go the toilet. Another early immigrant found that her headache tablet worked wonders and advised all her friends to go to the pharmacy and ask for the ‘yellow pill’. Early Greek immigrants also liked to innovate, such as one new arrival who would crush aspirin into powder to use on cuts and open wounds.
Many an unsuspecting early immigrant would tend to her coiffed hair with fly repellent rather than hairspray. But funny though this ‘mistake’ may seem to us now, there’s a direct link between WWII military bug spray and hairstyles. The misting mechanism used in hair sprays was first used in aerosol pesticide technology. In those days, hair sprays with their ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons weren’t as safe as they are today.
Menstruation in the early days was considered a taboo topic. New immigrant women used rags in their homeland and were grateful for disposable pads, however modern menstrual technologies baffled them. For this reason, the actual use of tampons were mistaken. Some early Greek Australians used them as shoe fresheners, while others thought they were ‘helicopter toys’ for their grandchildren to twirl with their friends at school to the chagrin of their primary school teacher.
Early immigrants had their own ways of practising birth control, and condoms weren’t always the go-to method. One innocent yiayia bought a packet home because she thought they were toilet antiseptic. “I always wanted to try these,” she said (but not the condoms).
This Australian spread is an acquired taste, and – frankly – why eat it when you’ve got melitzanosalata? Being an innovative lot, early immigrants found plenty of uses for vegemite. One mother used it to polish her husband’s shoes, another mixed it with baking soda to get off those stubborn stains. A natural disinfectant, vegemite was as popular with immigrants as it was with Aussies. Yellow, blood or ink stains on your clothes? Vegemite was the go.
The notion of pets was different in the homeland. Who would have thought that you’d have special pet food just for animals available at the supermarket where other groceries were sold? PAL dog food was mistaken as meat conserve by many an unsuspecting immigrant, whereas another lady thought cat food was corned beef and made keftedes (meat balls) with it.
White powdery stuff could be flour, right? Until of course you dip the fish inside and then place them in the frying pan only to have bubbles form.
As if it wasn’t hard enough trying to navigate through ordinary household products they’d never seen before, immigrants made their lives just that little bit more difficult by putting things in recycled containers. Many an unsuspecting wine connoisseur would have popped open a bottle of Shiraz to find olive oil or kerosene heater in a beer bottle.
- A number of these mix-ups were inspired by shared musings on Facebook sites and forums such as Early Greek Australians where we share early immigration stories.