Greeks at the beach

While many Greeks head back to work in the dusty cities, others continue to get their daily swim in at the beach. Margaret Paul spoke to several Hellenes at home on the rugged coast of Victoria.

Anastasia Contos is not one to dismiss an afternoon swim.

The chairperson of the Australian Greek Welfare Society has a beach house at Airey’s Inlet, and she says she instinctively follows the Greek tradition of counting how many swims, or mbania, she’s had over the summer.

But the wild weather of the past few weeks has meant Anastasia and her three sons have taken up fishing.

“We hate it if we miss a beach day,” she says, cooking breakfast for the boys.

“I have an unconscious sense of whether I’m satisfied.” Anastasia tells me, when she and her husband first bought the house, 20 years ago, her father Leo wasn’t sure about this new village on Victoria’s Great Ocean Road.

He didn’t know anybody, she says. So he went for a quick drive around and returned having found five Greek families nearby.

“Greeks always tend to find each other,” she laughs. The families Leo met are Greeks who traded the grey-green olive groves of Greece for rustling eucalypts. While their ancestors sauntered in the shadows of Socrates and Ajax, these Hellenes walk in the footsteps of schoolies. Instead of goats, geckos crawl through the scrub.

Anastasia says she wasn’t surprised to find so many Greek Australians in the seaside town, two hours from Melbourne. “The sea’s part of our soul,” she explains, passing me one of her mother’s home-made kourambiethes.

“Aphrodite came out of the ocean.” While Anastasia’s father, like many Greek immigrants, moved to the gritty factories of Australia’s big cities, Kosta Talimanidis headed straight to the Australian equivalent of the Mediterranean: the Great Ocean Road.

Since arriving from Polypetron in 1956, Kosta has become a central part of the surf coast’s restaurant industry.

First, there were the decades of parties at Kostas Taverna in Lorne.

Then, six years ago, Kosta started up ‘a la grecque’, with his wife Pam and their son Alex, just down the road at Airey’s Inlet. And while he returns to Greece for three months of every year, when it comes to the beaches, Kosta says there’s no comparison.

“As much as I would like to believe Greece has got the most exciting beaches, as every Greek would say, I don’t agree with that,” he says, shaking his head. “There’s no doubt that the Lorne beach is probably one of the best beaches in the world.

“The whole Great Ocean Road, from Anglesea down to Apollo Bay, the 12 Apostles, you’ve got the most beautiful beaches, undoubtedly.” It’s not that Kosta doesn’t appreciate the natural beauty of the Mediterranean. It’s just, sometimes it feels like no one else does.

“The Greek young people, and the older people, they’ve been brought up with the idea that they’re gods,” he says dismissively.

“Like their shit doesn’t stink, their cigarette butts don’t hurt anybody, their cappuccino cups don’t hurt anybody, their plastic bags don’t hurt anybody.”

Kosta starts every day with an early-morning swim, before all the holiday-makers crowd out the beach with their sand castles, cricket sets and SPF 30 plus. He says he loves the naturalness of the Australian beaches.

“They’re clean, there’s plenty of room, and there are none of these chairs where you pay to sit on them,” he says, shaking his head.

“That’s quite annoying.” Lorne used to feel like a coastal village, Kosta says, but he’s worried about what he sees as the excessive development of the area. “It was a much smaller community,” he remembers.

“People used to know each other, and if you walked on the main street of Lorne, even in the summer, people used to know you and stop and say ‘good morning, how are you?’ These things have changed.” Well, if some things have changed, others have stayed the same.

Up and down the coast, Greek fisherman can still be seen standing ankle-deep in the surf, their rods set up, buckets teeming with bait, staring out to sea.

Andrew Katos’ father, Angelo, was one of these patient fishermen, over 50 years ago. After coming out from Laskava in 1949, he started his own seafood empire, and was one of the first to fish for scallops in Port Philip Bay. Now, in Geelong, the success of Katos Fish Supplies means Katos is a household name.

Until recently, Andrew Katos was the Managing Director of the business. But now he has other duties, as the newly elected member for South Barwon in the Ted Baillieu state government. His electorate meanders through Geelong, Barwon Heads, and Torquay, the gateway to the Great Ocean Road.

Despite his salt-water heritage, Katos says he’s “not much of a beach person”. “You get a 40-degree day, and I can think of better things to do than sit on the sand,” he says. But he says he takes his four children – aged seven, six, four and nine months – to the more protected beaches around Barwon Heads.

“You don’t really want a big swell surf beach with young kids,” he says. But the politician is quick to add that he’s lucky to be able to choose between different types of beaches nearby, ranging from quieter family beaches to the renowned surf of Torquay and Bells Beach.

A far cry from the calm Mediterranean. “In Greece the water’s cooler and more still,” he says.”And it’s that blue, a real deep blue.” Katos says the rougher surf explains the strong lifesaving culture in Australia.

His Baillieu state government this month announced an $110 000 partnership with Surfing Victoria – an announcement that was distracted by the premier swimming outside the flags at the beach at Jan Juc. “It’s very unheralded work,” Katos says of the thousands of volunteer lifeguards who patrol the coast.

“But when you need them, they’re there.” While lifeguards, surfers and sandcastle-builders inhabit the Victorian beaches all day, Katos explains it’s quite different in Greece. “You’ve got that different culture with the afternoon siestas,” he explains. “So, in the middle of the day, between two and five [o’clock], you don’t see many locals there.”

But, in the middle of summer, the beaches up and down the Great Ocean Road are teeming with people, many of them Greek Australian. Fisherman, businessmen, holiday-makers, all heading to the surf for their daily mbania.

As her sons eat their breakfast, Anastasia explains the beach is a great place to care for the soul. She says this could also explain the number of Greek Australians here.

“Greeks have this amazing ability to be balanced,” she says. “They can be religious but still dance and sing and live the good life.

“We just love life, we’re full of life, and we’ve got a great spirit that’s indefatigable.” But, she says, there’s no comparing the Great Ocean Road to the Greek islands. “But this is more of a natural beauty, with the roaring ocean,” she says, diplomatically.

“And there’s more stable weather there.” Of course, as she says that, the weather begins to clear. It looks like it could be a beach day, after all.