At our local park, it always happens like this. Sundry parents, engrossed in their iphones, look up occasionally and call out to their children, who are attempting to extricate themselves from sundry play equipment. They do not hold lattes, for we reside on the other side of the Yarra, where such things have not yet been invented.
Indeed, the only time I have ever seen a coffee brandishing parent, it turned out that he was Greek and was grasping a frappe. Clutching it tightly, he was screaming at his five year-old son, who was trying vainly to kick a soccer ball through the goal. As he took desperate sips, one could see his dream of his son playing for Real Madrid and his early retirement turn into froth and pop into nothingness before his eyes. My curiosity compelled me to intrude upon the tender scene and I asked him whence in our neighbourhood the beverage derived, for such luxuries are not to be had down our way.
“I make it myself,” he responded. “I can’t do without my frappe re. It’s the essence of being Greek. For Chrissake, kick the bloody ball Liam!”
“What’s Liam in Greek?”
I used to fulminate against the existence of the frappe as the epitome of Greek cultural heresy, until I came to the realisation that the φραπέ, borrowed from French frappé, past participle of frapper “to hit, strike” is cognate with the ancient Greek φραπίζω, which appears in Herodotus and later loses the f as ῥαπίζω. Frappe is thus not the epitome of laziness as the orientalists and the self-haters maintain, but rather a doing word of extreme castigation, the perfect elixir for inculcating inter-generational Greco-Australian angst within our progeny.
Elixirs, by the way, are also Greek, as I tried to inform my new friend. Umara ibn Hamza, the secretary of Abbasid Caliph Al-Mansur, is said to have returned to Baghdad after a lengthy stay in Constantinople at the court of Byzantine Emperor Constantine V and to have reported to the caliph how the Emperor had transmuted, by means of a dry powder: τὸ ξήριον, lead and copper into silver and gold in his presence. Τὸ ξήριον was rendered in Arabic as “al-iksir” from where the English word elixir derives. By that stage Liam had kicked the ball out into the road in exasperation, his father has stormed off in enraged pursuit and I was conversing with the crows, which is a pity because it is more likely that Liam will discover the secret of Alchemy, rather than become the next Charlie Yankos.
When I call out to my children, I do so in Greek and smirk as I observe parents of Anglo-Celtic origin instinctively flinch and recede a few centimetres. As I push my son on the swing endlessly repeating the lyrics to «Κούνια Μπέλα,» a mother next to me, who has hitherto been conversing with her daughter solely in English, starts lisping Greek words:
«Έλα, let’s do big κούνια».
“Mum, why are you talking like that?” the girl asks, perplexed.
«Έλληνας είσαι;» the mother asks with some difficulty.
«΄Όπως κι εσείς».
«Πότε ήρθατε εδώ;»
«Πριν 44 χρόνια».
“I was born here.”
“But your kids speak Greek. I heard them speaking Greek to each other just now. I thought you guys were off the boat.”
“Yes, they’ve picked up all sorts of nasty habits.”
We start conversing about Greek schools and how her daughter Mary is not learning any Greek at the school she attends. I extol the virtues of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne’s Saturday Greek schools and suggest, if she is serious about Mary learning the language, that she send her there.
“Is it hard to enrol there? Do you have meson?” she enquires.
By way of response, I launch into a lengthy exposition of the word «μεσάζων» in Modern Greek which means a “middle man.” I enthuse that during the last centuries of Byzantium the term referred to the official who acted as the chief minister and principal aide of the Byzantine emperor, an early form of Prime Minister.
As her eyes glass over and she eyes the Anglo parents enviously, I reveal that term’s origins lie in the tenth century, when senior ministers were sometimes referred to as the μεσιτεύοντες i.e. “mediators” between the emperor and his subjects.
The holder of the μεσαστίκιον, (prime ministership), or in Greek-Australian “meson-stick,” according to emperor and historian John VI Kantakouzenos, was “needed by the emperor day and night.”
In the empire of Trebizond, the Pontians went one better and called their Prime Minister Μέγας Μεσάζων, (Big Meson Man). I conclude by calling for the Greek Prime Minister to be renamed Μεσάζων, according to hallowed tradition. He could then act as middleman between the populace and all those shadowy magnates that have «μέσον».
By this time, the conversation has steered in a different direction. She is an anti-vaxxer and she is wondering which of our parish priests has “meson” so that she can obtain an exemption upon religious grounds from the COVID vaccination. I muse that for anti-vaxxers and the government alike, obtaining the jab is the social equivalent to sacrificing to the Emperor for early Christians, in that for the Government, it is an issue of social conformity and the overall good regardless of what the recipients of the jab think, whereas for the anti-vaxxers it goes to the core of their identity and beliefs.
Considering that in North Africa, the issue of whether it was possible to re-admit Christians who had sacrificed to the Emperor back into the church, or whether they had done their dash, creating the Donatist schism which had profound social consequences, will lapsed vaxxed anti-vaxxers ever be readmitted into the fold in the future? I ask her. Or will this in fact create a Doughnutist schism? She shrugs, collects her child nervously from the swing, and walks away.
The parent tribes
In a corner of the park, a Lebanese extended family has set up picnic tables and are drinking tea and playing tavli as their tribe of children gambol about the park. Unlike the Anglo parents, who glance up anxiously from their telephones every so often and the Greek parents, whose eagle eyes are apprehensively fixated upon their children with the intensity of the Eye of Sauron at all times, the Lebanese mothers chat, drink their tea and cast not a glance in the general direction of their brood. Yet should they stray too far, never looking up, they automatically emit an ear-piercing siren wail that cows them instantaneously back into the fold. The elegance of their formidable poise defies description. One of them, who has heard me call out “Ela” to my eldest daughter, approaches and spends half an hour arguing passionately with me that the Greek «έλα» comes from the Arabic “Yala.”
Despite trying to show her that they have no etymological relationship, she is firm and unyielding in her assertion.
“It’s even in the Koran,” she offers.
“I don’t know, I’m an Orthodox Christian,” she responds.
I spent the next half hour trying to convince her that yala comes either from the Texan “y’all” or from “yolo”. She offers me tea and I accept in gratitude, avoiding the dirty looks being cast at me by the rest of the parents in the park.
As I contemplate the prospect of being the possible propagator of a super-spreader event, a lady nearby is complaining to her friend:
“So she is only twelve and she is already trying to dictate to me what to watch in TV. I told her get lost you little shit, we are watching MAFS and that’s final.”
“You have to put your foot down. Next thing you know, she will be telling you not to watch Gogglebox.”
Sprawled upon a blanket, metres away, a man is protesting to his girlfriend:
“So I told him: You aren’t a team player and you aren’t task oriented. And seriously my growth projections are bigger than his and I know how to fulfill my KPI’s.”
My youngest daughter, tired of playing, sidles up to me and asks me to tell the the story of Cinderella. I explain to her that the story of the first Cinderella is first recorded by the Greek geographer Strabo in his book Geographica sometime between 7 BC and 24 AD and that concerns a beautiful Greek slave girl called Rhodopis (Ῥοδῶπις) in Egypt of whom:
“They tell the fabulous story that, when she was bathing, an eagle snatched one of her sandals from her maid and carried it to Memphis and while the king was administering justice in the open air, the eagle, when it arrived above his head, flung the sandal into his lap; and the king, stirred both by the beautiful shape of the sandal and by the strangeness of the occurrence, sent men in all directions into the country in quest of the woman who wore the sandal; and when she was found in the city of Naucratis, she was brought up to Memphis, became the wife of the king.”
«Μπαμπά, μιλάς πολύ,» she yawns. «Πάμε σπίτι».