Just before Christmas I attended my cousin’s name day party on the other side of town where I got into a conversation with one of his guests about Coburb, the suburb where I live. This man came from humble migrant working class origins and once lived in the Northern suburbs of Melbourne, before making a lot of money and moving to, Canterbury. Naturally.

<p>I chose Coburg because it’s full of Greeks, Italians, poor people, intellectuals, Lebanese, Turks, plumbers, railway workers, carpenters, students, hippies, political radicals, teachers, musicians, wharfies, doctors, pastry cooks, poets and a few lawyers.</p>

Where else would one be expected to live if they had a lot of money?
Not the ‘dirty’, ‘woggy’, ‘dubious’ areas like Preston, Coburg and Brunswick which are these days, according to certain sections of the media, full of crime and terrorists cells.
In our conversation at the party, I got the distinct impression of pity from this man.

The assumption was that no one would live in these places if they could help it.

If you make serious money you go to Malvern, Armadale, Canterbury, Kew, South Yarra, Glen Iris – those leafy suburbs inhabited by moneyed lawyers, consultants, accountants and more lawyers.

And I must live in Coburg because I have no choice.
Well actually I do have a choice.

I chose Coburg because it’s full of Greeks, Italians, poor people, intellectuals, Lebanese, Turks, plumbers, railway workers, carpenters, students, hippies, political radicals, teachers, musicians, wharfies, doctors, pastry cooks, poets and a few lawyers.

I walk down Sydney Road and listen to Arabic music blaring from the stereo of one car and wonder who the musician is and where I could find the CD.

I sit in my local square where the intellectually disabled regulars gather for superb Italian espresso and wonder how a group of them would be tolerated in an Armadale cafe in their ill fitting clothes and nervous twitches and their raucous laughter as one of the men who has trouble walking complains that he hasn’t had sex on top since his accident.

Here, they sit with the lead singer of a major Melbourne band and the guy who sells the Big Issue and an elderly woman who my friend calls ‘Madame Hortense’ after the French woman in Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek due to her floral and frilly attire. In this square, total strangers will ask to share your table and begin talking to you freely.

One day last week, I was sitting in the square having a coffee with Irish-Australian journalist and fellow Coburgian, Colm McNaughton.

On the table next to us, three Italians in their sixties are talking when a woman they know approaches them to show them her tattoo.

On her arm, is a heart with Puglia written across it. One of the men takes a photo of it with his phone. The other simply nods.
“Brava,” he says, although the tone of his voice indicates he’s not that impressed.

Colm hasn’t always lived in Coburg. He grew up in the Far East of Melbourne and I ask him why he lives in Coburg.
“The Greeks and Italians who came here and brought their culture is what makes this place great.

There’s a real community here that you don’t find in Anglo suburbs,” he says.

“My Italian neighbour taught me about gardening according to the moon calendar, the Greeks give me food, there’s a generosity of spirit among them that is life affirming and I want to be among that.”

On hot nights, the Greeks in my street sit on their verandas facing the street, engaging with passers by.

Those who don’t have verandas bring their chairs out and sit on the footpath.

My neighbour from ten houses away, Manoli, walks past my house, inspects my roses while I’m pruning them, looks with concern at what I’m doing and offers advice.
And help. He comes with his own scissors and does it himself.

A Turkish woman comes and asks if she can have quinces from my tree. I tell her to take whatever she wants and three days later there is a jar of whatever she’s made at my front door.

Colm comes to my house for dinner with his own home made olives and salmon steaks.
“I thought we’d have this with whatever’s on offer,” he says.

It is true that in Australia, reinventing yourself is easier than in Europe where the weight of history is a burden.
You can work for twenty years in a fish shop and make a lot of money and leave Coburg for Canterbury where the ‘better’ people live.

You can send your children to private schools where they will mix with a ‘better class’ of people and graduate to become lawyers and doctors and own shares and buy more houses in Malvern and Armadale and feel safe and rewarded that they have ‘made it.’

But leaving behind areas which are as close to ‘edgy’ as you can get in Australia for an upper class kind of spiritual death isn’t what it’s all cracked up to be.
A teenager at my cousin’s party approaches me and asks me if I live in Coburg.

“Are there Muslims there?” he asks.
“Yes,” I reply.
“Are they really mean?” comes the next question.
For a minute there I think he’s joking, but he’s not. He’s asking the question in earnest.

I pointed out to him that it wasn’t all that long ago when people in places like Mordialloc were asking the same question about us, me, his dad, his grandfather:

“Are there Greeks in Northcote? What are they like?”
Is this what his daddy’s money has bought? Ignorance and fear?

It confirmed for me that even if I could afford to live in areas where a house costs $2m, I wouldn’t want to if my son was growing up where an Anglo hegemony is firmly in place and he’s wondering if Muslims are really mean.

I’m happy to leave the boring sameness of the eastern suburbs to those who aspire to a boring life.

I want to be where the action is. And, it ain’t in Camberwell!

Jeana Vithoulkas is a freelance journalist and a published author.