Kyra Koula and her daughter Anastasia have recently returned to our antipodean climes after their long-hoped for summer sojourn in the motherland. Separated from her own mother in the village due to the ravages of lockdown COVID-19, Kyra Koula, who was used to evading the winter of cold of Melbourne by enacting an annual privilege was in some distress, a large proportion of said discomfort being owed to the fact that the title’s office cadastral survey had reached her region and without her presence, even at the height of the period where no public service in Greece operates, was considered by her to be essential, if she was not to be cheated out of her grandfather’s inheritance by her unscrupulous first cousins, all of whom reside in the regional capital, but are perennially cash-strapped.
A year ago, when I confided in Kyra Koula that I had not visited the motherland in a decade, her eyes opened wide in horror and she clucked her tongue derisively at the enormity of my cultural crime. “You do yourself and your family a great disservice by not visiting Greece,” she pronounced solemnly. “Not only are you cutting yourself from your roots but you are depriving yourself of a holiday in the most beautiful country in the world.”
«Σαν την Ελλάdα πουθενά,» her daughter Anastasia chimed in, pronouncing a hard d for delta, for she grew up on the Peninsula before Greek schools were invented and only rediscovered her linguistic roots while conversing with bartenders on Ios.
I disputed Kyra Koula’s contention, advising her that my favourite holiday destination was actually Naples in Italy, where I regularly assume the persona of Dino Velvet, a fourth-generation Italian wedding singer who grew up in Coburg, but she would have none of it. “There is no place on earth like Greece,” she proclaimed. “Once you have been in Greece, the rest of the world is irrelevant.” Considering that outside of Athens, her village in the south, its regional capital and a mix up with flights in 1985 that saw her spend two gruelling days in sweltering Bangkok, Kyra Koula has never travelled anywhere else, I thought it expedient not to challenge her on her remark, especially since she as about to serve me the most epic lockdown-busting karidopita ever conceived.
This time around, Kyra Koula seems crestfallen and none of her usual passion or enthusiasm for our common place of origin is asserted. When asked how her trip was, she sighs. “Τι να σου πω παιδάκι μου. It was a quiet time. If you are a pensioner with a limited income, you can still live within your means. A tyropita, a coffee… you are still ok. But the problem is when your nephews and nieces come over and say: “Come on auntie, we will take you to a restaurant, or the beach. A nice gesture, without a doubt. But of course, once you get there, who is expected to pay for the food, the drinks and everything else? And then you get your constant array of relatives knocking on your door, making claims such as: “You know, my son Makis who is studying Puppetry Design and Performance in England is doing it tough, and you Aussies are loaded, so could you find your way to…” even though the whole village knows that Makis has shacked up with his partner William and have been operating an entrepreneur fatigue online course from Chalkidiki for the past three years, or “You know, my daughter Spiridoula needs to pay the fees for the transfer of your grandfather’s plot of land in… no it doesn’t belong to you, he promised it to us fair and square, ask your mum….”
Kyra Koula did ask her mum and the old lady took her into town to consult with the notary public. Apparently, Kyra Koula, steeped in Australian property law as she is (her husband left her two properties in Golden Beach plus the three investment properties her daughter-in-law ended up with after the divorce), must have asked some inane questions, for this occasioned her mother apologising to the notary on her behalf: “You will have to forgive her. Είναι ξένη. She knows nothing.”
“Can you believe it? Ξένη! A foreigner, even to my own mother!”Kyra Koula exclaimed repeatedly. “Even though I have been returning to the village almost every year since 2002! Ξένη!” For reasons of a technical and possibly legal nature that are beyond our competence to comprehend, Kyra Koula was unable to make the arrangements expected of her. This is probably why, in the evening before she was to return to Australia, Spiridoula, who during the whole time Kyra Koula was in the village, was too engaged in other important life affirming activities to see her, decided to pay her a visit, in the company of her husband, her brother and her koumbaro.
“You know auntie,” Spiridoula said gaily while rifling through her grandmother’s handbag as the old lady beamed in adoration, “it is downright ridiculous for you to be coming here, when you live over there. It makes no sense. It would be better for all of us if you stayed over there, saved your money and sent us the price of the airfare you would have paid anyway, every year. That way everyone benefits.”
Kyra Koula submits to the ritual rifling of her suitcases by her mother and nieces both upon arrival in Greece and the night before departure. The upon arrival rifling is of two-fold intent. Firstly, in order to locate the envelopes of cash sent by other relatives, giving rise to such queries as: «Δεν μας έστειλε ο Γιάννηςτίποτε; Δεν καταλαβαίνει ότι έχουμε ανάγκες;» or “Why is this envelope so light?” and secondly by means of fashion control: “We don’t wear these types of clothes here, aunt. Get rid of them. You will be a laughing stock. I need some clothes myself, so let’s go shopping together,” or “How dare you bring Taki a T-shirt with the word Australia on it! Who do you think we are? Your poor relations? Why don’t you try going about wearing your shame in public?” or “Oh look another stuffed Australian animal. Well, let’s stuff it with the others…”
On the evening of scheduled departure, the luggage rifling has another purpose: “My Miltos loves ouzo. I’m sure you have plenty in Australia. I’m taking it for him,” or “these dresses you bought last week would be perfect for my daughter. I’m taking them.” In their own way, as they explain, they are doing Kyra Koula a favour. Think of the money she will save in excess baggage fees.
Anastasia was not privy to these discussions because she has an iPhone. As she was born in Australia and has been working since the age of 16, Anastasia is possessed of the opinion that her savings are her personal property and that she is the sole arbiter as to how her funds are disposed of. Consequently, she is not really a person of interest in her mother’s village, nor in Athens where her cousin refused to take her to the Acropolis as he maintained he had never been and did not know where it is. This causes her to seek social networks further afield. Via social media, she can locate at any time, by means of photographs of feet on a beach and souvlaki and chips, which of her Greek-Australian friends are also sojourning in the motherland. Via clever sleuthing, she can also determine which of those said friends have their own accommodation and she can make arrangements to stay with them accordingly, a cost effective and convivial means of getting to know the highways and byways of the Hellenic public, with the minimum of contact with the Hellenic people. Consequently, having entrusted her mother into the capable hands of her relations, she has travelled the length and breadth of our most storied motherland, in search of parea.
“Honestly, what some clever businessman should do,” Anastasia opines, “is to set up Greek-Australian resorts on some of Greece’s best beaches so we could all go there. Then we wouldn’t have to deal with the Greeks at all, just Aussies.” Anastasia maintains that the highlight of her trip was drinking beer at a bar owned by an ex-pat Greek Australian in the Saronic Gulf, listening to Richmond thrash Hawthorn via her device, in the company of other Greek-Australians who cheered vociferously and made her feel like she was at home. Anastasia is only just now on speaking terms with her mother because Kyra Koula not only made no protest when cousin Stefo with the nineties ponytail demanded some money to repair his motorcycle, but dipped into Anastasia’s stash in order to comply with his request, her own having been depleted.
“So when are you planning your trip back?” Kyra Koula asks. I tell her that I hope it would be soon, for I have good friends that I dearly miss and lament the tyranny of distance. “Take my advice,” Kyra Koula confides. “Forget about friends. Blood is thicker than water. Stay with your relatives. You can save a whole heap of money that way.”