As far as it is possible for me to know, my earliest memories of being among Greek people are inextricably interwoven with the alcoholic beverage known as Victoria Bitter, herein after referred to as VB. As such, I am able to conjure up vague, sepia tinted images of sitting on milk crates in sundry persons’ garages, listening to LPs reproducing the latest sounds from the motherland, while aged grandfathers, grand-uncles and other male relatives spoke longingly of the village, their right hands lovingly embracing the neck of a 750ml, brown ‘long neck’ VB bottle. If the said occasion for the gathering was a nameday, the heavy smell of the VB would be intermingled with the acrid fumes of Marlboro cigarettes, chemically conjoined with the fat laden aromas emanating from a well-tempered barbeque upon which chops were sizzling, my folk having been here since the fifties and as such, possessed of the belief that a souvla was a frivolous extravagance.
Long necks were ubiquitous in those days. One could locate them at the epicentre of the table at Greek dances, flanked by the impossibly incandescent pink tarama-substitute and the olives. By the end of the dance, a multitude of said bottles would be lined up around the perimeter of the table, with some vest-clad, open-shirted, pencil-mustachioed revellers clumsily gazing into their necks, in pursuit of remnants. Their wives would turn away from them in exasperation, fiddling the long stem of a brandy glass or a tumbler with lemonade. VB was off limits to Greeks of the fairer sex, and the logic behind this does not lie in sexism, but rather in there being need for a designated person to pull the men off each other, when, in their VB induced fervour, their discussion of community or overseas politics would lead to exhibitions of amateur pugilism.
My first taste of VB was at such an event at the tender age of five. One of my uncles felt it would be amusing to offer me a glass of the amber coloured beverage. The heady smell, which to me was possessed of the disconcerting familiarity of stale urine, assailed my nostrils, almost causing me to retch. Summoning all my resolve, I took a deep, long sip, and before I knew it, I had consumed the entire contents of the glass. Soon after, a warm, floating feeling made itself manifest and the room gyrate around me gently like a merry go round. There is not much else I remember except waking up in my bedroom to the sounds of my parents cursing my uncle, who soon after, appeared in my room, bearing a five dollar note and seeking indulgence. This, I found most pleasing and possibly lucrative, until the proceeds of the crime were confiscated by my progenitors and returned to the offender.
VB, I learned in my university days, was the drink of choice of the tradesman. In one of my summer jobs, servicing industrial scales, I was paired with a Greek Australian gent whose family had been here since the thirties and whose knowledge of Greek was minimal. Before the days of the GPS, he knew the location of every single pub in Melbourne and his exact distance therefrom. At lunch, he would procure two 350ml VB bottles, lovingly secreted in an esky in his ute, and compel me to accompany him in their consumption. “Get that into ya, old diamond,” he would cajole. “Go, on, all the way down.” His nostrils, the largest I have ever seen on a human nose, would flare continuously as he would down the beer in audible gulps. Then, wiping his lips on his sleeve which was covered in grease, he would invariably sigh and muse: “Yeah, beer’s the only drink for the workin’ man. Whisky makes ya silly and plonk’ll rot ya boots.” Then he would launch into a detailed and critical history of the development of drinking establishments in Melbourne, lamenting the loss of not a few waterholes, as faithless Melbournians sacrificed their passion on the altar of development and pseudo-sophistication. When I took my leave of him that summer, he made me promise that I would not drink any other alcoholic beverage until the end of my days. “If ya can’t get VB, any other beer’ll do,” he proclaimed solemnly, grasping my hand. “But not light beer. Light beer’s for poofs.”
Such is the enduring allure of VB that the memory of its taste lingers long in the memories of expatriot Greek Australians, subsisting on European beers in the homeland. I remember one overseas visitor, on a return visit to Australia after many years, staying at my parents’ house, who, having the propensity to consume vast quantities of alcohol, made a voluble request for the provision of beer. My father, wishing to impress him, had already stocked the fridge with a surprisingly diverse array of European and Japanese beers. “What would you like?” he asked. “We have all the Greek beers here. Mythos, Fix… Heineken.” The visitor’s lips tightened as his eyes opened wide with horror. “Τι να τις κάνω αυτές τις μ…… μπύρες;” he finally exploded. “Φέρε μου μια VB γ…..ω την [insert blasphemy here.]” Chastened and reluctant to deplete his own secret stash, my father hurried to do his bidding. I was then treated to a lecture by our connoisseur guest as to the relative merits of VB over all other beers in the world. When I timidly ventured to suggest that German beers were vastly superior since they were made without preservatives and were discarded after seven days, I was ordered from the table.
The long neck is seldom found at Greek functions these days. We are a wine and coffee culture now, and the mega beer-swillers of yore simply are not with us any more. Yet just the other week, at a function for the liberation of Ioannina at one of the Epirot clubs in Melbourne, peopled largely by people whose youthful days belonged to yesteryear, I was privileged to witness the revival of an old and hallowed custom – the ritual handing out of VBs, albeit in the 350ml size. In keeping with aged observance, beers were handed out to each male on our table and the only woman on our table, who just happened to the Greek Consul-General in Melbourne, Ms Christina Simantiraki, was pointedly left out. As the males on the table lavishly dished up praise as to her state of preservation, I noticed that the diplomat’s gaze was fixed upon the bottles of VB. As the tension grew across the table, imperceptible to anyone else, I reached over, twisted the top and watched her beam with excitement, as just a hint of froth emerged. “Is that VB?” she asked. “Yes it is,” I confirmed. “It is our national drink and it is imperative that you try it.” With the subtlety of a connoisseur and the panache of a veteran, she took forth the bottle and raised it to her lips.
Sadly, she was absent at the annual liberation dinner dance, where long neck VBs took pride of place on each table. Yet in crossing the great cultural divide and indulging in the ritual of consuming the saccharification of starch, she is now at one with us. Happy was the Babylonian who wrote in the Epic of Gilgamesh on the consumption of beer: “Fill your belly. Day and night make merry.” It is our fervent wish that in the aeons to come, archaeologists will find a similar elegy to VB, penned by one of our own community poets. For VB is the epitome of us. It is hard and it is well-earned.
* Dean Kalimniou is a Melbourne solicitor and freelance journalist.