In the 1980s, growing up in Melbourne was a unique time for an inner-city migrant kid.
My parents had been in town for ten or fifteen years by then. They were adapting to a new country far from their homeland and families.
It was all different here. Their way of life, their language, their values and being. Here, life was tougher in most aspects. Perhaps, only their finances were better, because that was, after all, the primary driver to leave. Being on the other side of the world, in a strange brand-new country, had to amount to something being better.
During this intense and long lockdown pandemic period, I have found myself reflecting on my childhood in Melbourne in the 80s. It seems to be a common thing for a middle-aged person to be doing, and in lockdown I suspect this was magnified. Quite stereotypical I know. Like many my age, we found ourselves caught between working from home, running a home, tending to children, and yet caring for elderly parents from afar, at arm’s length, with caution.
Yet, social distancing is an antonym to Greekness. So very strange for our little community, our culture, whereby embracing, close-contact (maybe too much) is what we have grown to know as the norm was now inappropriate with governmental regulations in place to police this concept.
Whilst in our recent curfew, I reflected and realised that the big family gatherings with the cousins which spanned all over the house, and went all night, were absolutely the highlight of the 80s. The simple feasts, the music, the warmth. Most of all, the strong sense of belonging we felt confined in our homes – gave us our strength, confidence and determination to succeed outside the house’s perimeter. Fast forward a few decades, and our children are primarily living in the confinements of their home, without the extended family and friends, and ironically, instead of strength and confidence, we worry about the impact, long-term psychological scars and fundamental behavioural changes.
During lockdown, subscribing to one on-demand TV company wasn’t enough. We needed options and we still all complained about the lack of content. Back then, as kids, we watched TV a couple of times a week, in between the SBS news and ‘A Country Practice’ – mainly, so the parents could practise their English phrases. We shared a TV. We had no remote control. We learnt to negotiate but we also learnt the pecking order.
We have moaned about the closure of retail during lockdown – even though the more appealing and simple option of using credit to purchase online with delivery to our front door was available. Back then, I remember an auntie buying me a stapler in a newsagency just before it closed at noon one Saturday. Everything was shut by noon on Saturdays. Then, there was a complete sense of stillness all afternoon in Melbourne. A stillness replicated during the recent lockdown, bringing all the memories front of mind.
During the lockdown, we were overwhelmed with the many and new forms of communication available. Yet, I still complained about not seeing friends in person or not being in the Pilates studio for my session. Then like a movie, in a flashback scene, I see my dad driving us to the GPO on Sunday afternoons. Where we would wait in a queue and eventually be given a phone to call our relatives in Greece. On the other side of the wire, we would reach the village mayor or the café owner and hope that our relative was within earshot to hear we had called. More often than not, they didn’t. So back to the line we would go to try again. As the kids, you waited for the process to be completed. There were no mobile phones that could get passed over to the kids to ease their boredom. Instead, as a kid you knew, you just had to wait. You also didn’t question or bemoan this process – because this was the process. You listened to the side conversations in the queue, and you wondered if your school mates had to endure this sort of thing on Sundays.
Things back then in Melbourne were really limited. Things to do were limited. Apart from the financial constraints – which held many migrant families back, the reality is, that’s how Melbourne was.
There was no café culture or late outdoor dining. Living in inner Melbourne wasn’t cool or exciting. It was dull. Hard work. Grey. And, it always rained. Colder, rainier and longer grey days.
One year, we managed to travel to Greece and see our relatives. His relatives hadn’t seen him since he left as a young, single lad from his island. Now, he was returning, with his wife and young kids – who were struggling to understand how on the other side of the world, existed this sunny, fun, blue country. A place with lots of people on the street, taverns, street theatre, music and an Acropolis. As a young kid transported to this alternative universe, you start to question their decision to leave. Why would anyone leave this to be somewhere so far, so grey and isolated?
This internal questioning – stays with you for life. Each Saturday morning at Greek school, like broken records, the teachers would revisit their favourite topic of exploring “what is the Greek-Australian identity?”. Like adding salt to the wound, it was. But now, I forgive them too, because nostalgia about the homeland was real back then. Each Greek-Australian household possessed a real strong nostalgia, and on a collective level, it translated to a whole-of-community nostalgia. But this had a side-effect, a positive externality, in that it made our community dynamic. As teenagers in the ’90’s, the Greek scene flourished. The dance groups. The Greek bars. The Greek-Australian student groups. The trips to and from Greece became more affordable and frequent.
However, simultaneously, Melbourne was changing. Melbourne was becoming brighter, lighter, and more interesting. It was starting to resemble what life over there was like. Melbourne opened up and it eventually became the city we want to love and live.
Walking within my home’s radius, I had time to think about all these matters. Lock-down brought back the grey, dark Melbourne days of the 80s. The days of homeland nostalgia. Of limited finances. Of communication difficulties. Of loneliness and separation from relatives in the homeland. When sandwich shops, hardly cafes, would close by 3pm sharp. When the start of 6pm nightly news coincided with the end of the day. It stirred back those memories and feelings of a Melbourne which was hard, cold and didn’t resemble the spirit of the persons living in it.
However, it also stirred the feelings of yearning for a life which was about hosting feasts (as opposed to the easier version of eating out or using delivery services we have become accustomed to doing), loud music and family members to fill all spaces of our homes. To give us and our children again, a strong sense of belonging, to gain our strength, our confidence and determination. To use this unprecedented time in history as an opportunity to regroup as a community and find new levels of dynamism. And, finally, to remember that we have seen our city transform before our eyes before, and we will see it again soon.