“What is your favourite Greek word?” my friend Chris asks me. We are seated at a most genteel café in a suburb in which our unaspirated t’s draw the sideways glances of elderly ladies resplendent in gym attire. This is because Chris, being born and bred in Oakleigh, always refuses my entreaties to communally sip beverages in the fine Greek establishments that grace his birthplace’s environs, scorning their conviviality for the refinement of the ultra-Australohellenic paradigm. This has been the case ever since I once spurned his invitation to meet him there in order to purchase what he termed a “spana.” Seeking to grant him the gift of enlightenment, I met up with him, brandishing a spanner in my left hand and a home-made spanakopita in my right.
“See here,” I exclaimed. “In my left a tool, and in my right, a comestible. Those Greek Australian tools that insist on calling the apogee of Greek culinary art a “spana” will be cast into the outer darkness, with only a Nutella souvlaki for company.”
That Chris’ principled stand is not without merit can be evidenced by the following conversation we are treated to between two ladies, one younger, one earlier, on the question of the Gaza War and Christmas:
“What I object to about Christmas, is how it privileges people of a certain faith.”
“Yeah, the white patriarchy.”
Not being able to help myself, I intervene:
“You realise that Christianity is a Middle Eastern religion?”
“No it’s Roman Catholic,” one lady answers.
“Yes, but only as a result of colonialism,” the other instructs.
“And anyway, Jesus was a white, straight male. He is a symbol of oppression.”
“You reckon?” I ask. “A little baby for whom there was no room at the inn?”
“Don’t mention babies,” the younger one snaps. “I object to motherhood and now I’m feeling triggered.”
Not long after, a beaming waitress attends our table to take our order. For some obscure reason, we must provide her with our full names because the establishment practices what it calls “half-table service,” whereby it is happy to take your order, but you then have to collect it from the counter yourself. After three attempts, she successfully writes down my surname and attempts heroically to pronounce it.
“Don’t try and pronounce it, just accept it for what it is,” I tell her.
“What culture are you?” she inquires.
“Byzantine,” I tell her.
“Does your name have a special meaning in Byzantine?” she asks.
“Anal hair-plucker,” I respond.
“What?” she laughs inadvertently.
Feigning outrage I tell her: “Yeah, my great great grandfather was Grand Posterior Depilator to the Emperor Michael the Paphlagonian.
“Why?” she asks. “Was that a thing?”
“Well, apparently to be Emperor, you had to be ritually shorn all over and the Emperor Michael was enormously hairy, so it was a very important and sacred office,” I inform her officiously.
“So Paphlagonian means hairy?”
“You bet. You are most perspicacious. Are you sure you don’t have Byzantine ancestors?”
“I don’t know,” she responds, “but it’s a cool sounding word. I’m going to use it more often.”
Paphlagonians, who lived on the north-west coast of Asia Minor, west of Pontus, I neglect to tell her, were called pig-arsed by the Byzantines (χοιρόκωλοι) because they were seen as dirty and hairy, according to a Byzantine commentary on Lucian.
Chris, who has re-discovered his Hellenism relatively late in life, has recently embarked on formal studies of the Greek language and displays manifest delight in his scholarship, quoting to me, Virginia Woof’s famous essay on the Greek language. I inform him that while his progress is rapid and impressive for someone who attended a suburban Greek school in Melbourne in the nineties, his experience in no way exceeds that of the great Leo Tolstoy, who in 1870, expressed the desire to learn Greek. Sending for a theological student from Moscow conversant in the language, within a few weeks he could sight translate Xenophon, revel in Homer and decipher Plato. According to Tolstoy, the original Greek texts were like “spring water that sets the teeth on edge.”
On learning the language, Tolstoy wrote: “I’m glad that God inflicted this madness upon me! Firstly I enjoy it and secondly I’m convinced now that I knew nothing of all the human language has produced that is truly and simply beautiful until now,” going on to add: “Now I firmly believe, that I shall write no more gossipy twaddle of the War and Peace type.”
Chris has no aspirations to write a novel, although he has tried his hand at writing Greek poetry. Sadly, his poetry does not rhyme, which means it is eminently unsuited to the poetic zeitgeist of those Greeks in Melbourne who are possessed of literary pretensions. In praise of his poetry, I comment that five times Nobel literature prize nominee poet Aggelos Sikelianos died when he accidentally swallowed disinfectant instead of his prescribed medicine. When ingesting poetry, it pays to always first read the label.
A queue has now formed at the counter, for management is playing the collected works of Taylor Swift at a volume that makes it hard for the customer to distinguish between whether or not they go on too many dates but can never make them stay or their honey soy latte is ready for collection. As I strain my ears, I converse with a bearded deconstructed pine-cone milk coffee-sipping hipster dad who asks me which language I was speaking earlier, before I begin waxing lyrical about a Bohemian artisan hand nostril trimmer in Ripponlea, whose family has been plying the trade since the Defenestration of Prague. He is so enthused that I don’t have the heart to tell him I am pulling his leg.
The conversation takes a turn when he cheekily enquires as who attends to my grooming needs. He then goes on to inform me that he gives his beard a nourishing bath in turmeric water on a weekly basis, whereupon I riposte that I bathe my nostril hairs in φλασκούνι. At this time, I am interrupted by his partner, who wishes to know whether such a practice is environmentally sustainable.
When I return to the table, coffees and muffins the size of an ελαιόψωμο in tow, Chris, who has been occupying his time by direct messaging the latest subject of his ardent desire, whose profile he discovered on a friend’s social media page the night before, only to be almost immediately re-buffed, launches into a long discourse as to how more liberated the women of ancient Athens were compared to their descendants, tainted by the Semitic stain of Christianity. By way of counter-argument, I remind him of the Gynaeconomi in Athens, who were officials responsible for overseeing the behavior of Athenian women, similar to the role of the contemporary Iranian morality police. They not only supervised gatherings in private homes, such as weddings and festive events but also enforced a limit of thirty people for such gatherings. These officials had the authority to enter any residence and dismiss guests exceeding the stipulated number. To accurately assess the number of attendees beforehand, the hired cooks were required to provide their names. In essence, I conclude, the Gynaeconomi functioned as early contact tracers and as such would have been ideal employees of the previous premier’s administration.
Additionally, I add for good measure, the Gynaeconomi were tasked with punishing men who exhibited effeminate behaviour, particularly through excessive and unrestrained mourning at their own or others’ misfortunes, gently hinting that he should bear his rejection with fortitude and Aurelian stoicism.
“That is not true!” Chris expostulates, scattering latte froth over the bouquet of dried flowers on the table. “The ancient Greeks were wise, logical and disenthralled of superstition. Everything you have just said is a myth.”
As I attempt to staunch the flow of spilt latte, I muse that in the Greek tradition, the word “mythos” often means not a “myth” as we understand it, but a heroic tale presented as a discursive argument. The inability of occidentals and those orientals possessed of an occidental mindset to grasp this ritual relationship accounts for their inability to understand us.
“So, favourite Greek word?” I return to his original question. “I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours.”
“Κρεατοελιά,” he responds. “Undoubtedly κρεατοελιά.”
“Excellent choice,” I enthuse. “Definitely a word to be relished.”
“In 1863, the poet and artist Edward Lear sought to be granted the title of Ἀρχινοηδιφλυαροποιός i.e. Arch-nonsense-chatter-maker, with permission to wear a fool’s cap, three pounds of butter yearly, a little pig and a small donkey to ride on, from King George I of Greece. More than any other honour, it is the title I have aspired to my entire life.”