A chilling, fell wind sweeps across the ashen paving stones. Pedestrians raise their collars and clutch at their jackets to entrap the last vestige of warmth within them. It is so cold that the smell of the hecatombs of meat sizzling within the restaurants flanking the square barely keeps pace with the speed of travel of the sound of piped Greek music permeating their walls, instead, expiring at their threshold.
It is June in Melbourne and the sky is grey. During this month, Greek Melbournians dispense with their usual greeting customs. There is no «Γεια σας,» or «τι κάνετε;» to be heard among them when they meet each other. There is no «Χαβαγιού λαβ; Γκουντ;» or even a «Χάλαου» to be offered. Instead, in the month of June, Greek Melbournians of a certain age greet each other urgently with a question: «Πότε φεύγετε;» or «Τι κανονίσατε;» Most of them will ask: «Πότε θα πάτε απάνω;» whereas Peloponnesians will betray their place of origin by asking instead, «Πότε θα πάτε κάτω;» providing an interesting commentary on their conception of their geographic position.
«Την άλλη εβδομάδα,» «αυτό το ουίκεντ,» are some of the most common responses and then they all make plans to meet each other, somewhere, if possible, but only after an important event, referred to with furrowed brow as «να τακτοποιήσω τα χαρτιά» comes to pass. Upon hearing the words «τα χαρτιά» they shrug their shoulders in sympathy, as for each of them, those terrible words have their own personal meaning and it is partially for the sake of those dreaded «χαρτιά» be these tax returns, gifts of land in specie, powers of attorney or innumerable other incomprehensible forms, that they are attempting their flight in the first place.
On the odd occasion, their interlocutor will answer their question with a disconsolate: «Δεν θα πάμε φέτος.» Only just managing to suppress the expression of incredulous horror that invariably floods their faces, the original questioners provide the response that was once generally employed only when hearing the news that someone’s offspring was marrying outside the ethnos: «Νταζιμάτα. Καλά νά’στε.» Once in a while, especially in my neck of the woods, the questioner will be assailed with the response: «Δεν πάω εγώ σ’αυτή τη σκατόχωρα.» Such uttered blasphemies barely rate a response and it is customary to back away from the ranter slowly while muttering: «καλά τρελάθηκε τελείως.»
Come July, the morning frost broods upon the roof tiles of Melbournian homes like a burgeoning tax debt. In the great meeting places of the Greeks, our compatriots are thin on the ground. During this month, Greek Melbournians dispense with their usual greeting customs. There is no «Γεια σας,» or «τι κάνετε;» to be heard among them when they meet each other. There is no «Χαβαγιού λαβ; Γκουντ;» or even a «Χάλαου» to be offered. Instead, in the month of July Greek Melbournians of a certain age greet each other anxiously with the question: «Καλά, ακόμα εδώ είσαι;» «Δεν έφυγες ακόμη;» «Τι περιμένεις;» They then regale each other with stories of the woe of unremitting exile: So and so couldn’t leave because at the last minute they discovered they had a heart condition, someone else couldn’t leave because the money they had earmarked for their travel had to be transformed into an emergency loan for their children, someone else had a death in the family . . . they shake their heads sadly and intone in unison, both in consolation and pious hope: «Δεν πειράζει…Του χρόνου πια, του χρόνου . . .»
Such customs do not pass the second generation by, except that it is those who have left us who continue to taunt us, via social media, posting impossibly impeccably constructed scenes of luxurious languor amidst deep blue seas and pebbled beaches, or photographs of wellness centres purveying “Ancient Greek Massage” captioned thusly: “OMG. Santorini is to DIE for. I can’t believe you’re not here.” Here the customary response in this instance, is an optional choice between: “You deserve it koukla/koukle” or, “OMG. Zileuw bad.” I once considered forging a new custom by posting by way of response, a photograph of me standing in line at my grandmother’s local IKA in Pallene, waiting to collect her pension but she has now migrated to places celestial and eternal and all my thoughts of flight are now invariably connected with an understanding that I no longer have a home to go to. I thus execrate and excoriate Santorini and all its ersatz connotations, massages and mud-masks included, out of the vilest of motives: sour grapes.
Come September, and the organised Greek community emerges from its hibernation, as all of its presidents return one by one to resume control of their organisations’ affairs, for perish the thought that these could run independently of their leaders’ will. The coffee and cake shops, the clubhouses and the nightclubs of Greek Melbourne are brimming with life again. Asked how they fared in the motherland, the elderly shake their heads and launch into detailed analyses of all the bureaucratic faults of the state of Greece, the degeneration in the moral fibre of its citizens, and most notably, the absence of a ‘system.’ They also seem to be bemused by modern Greek summer holiday customs, whereby modern Greeks, while on vacation, dispense with ordinary greetings and instead ask each other: «Πόσα μπάνια έκανες φέτος;», attaching special significance to the exact amount of times one has immersed themselves within the briny waters of the Aegean. But most of all, they rail against what they perceive to be a lack of reciprocity in hospitality. As one elderly returnee once remarked to me: «Τι να πεις γιαυτούς τους αχαΐρευτους; Όταν έρχονται εδώ τους μπαμπακίζουμε, (this is a Greek Australian verb that denotes the act of barbequeing) τους «δώνουμε ξερά καρπιά» κι αυτοί το μόνο που μας ρωτάνε είναι: «΄Ηρθες; Πότε φεύγεις;» Άχρηστοι άνθρωποι οι έλληνες.» Of course, the fact that said gentleman was attempting for the fifth time to obtain what he believed to be an equitable division of his family’s agricultural property, may account for the somewhat chilly reception he may have received.
Scathing assessment of Greece and Greeks notwithstanding, the aforementioned gentleman’s ire invariably begins to wane towards the end of the Australian summer, (at which time he is secretly researching the cost of tickets to Greece) to be completely dissipated at the coming of autumn at which time he, like so many others of his ilk, develops vacation negativity amnesia and having once more been lured by the call of the homeland, and attends his local travel agent to once more enact his escape from his exile. From this moment on, until the month of June, it is customary for him to greet all those that he meets with these words: «Τό ‘κλεισα το «τικέτο». Σε τρεις μήνες φεύγω.»
This then is the month of the Greek Melbournians as antipodean migratory birds, flying north for the winter. Whether we remain in exile awaiting our winter of discontent to be made glorious summer, or not, one thing is certain. Our antipodean hypostasis, is one of constant physical and mental travel between our place of abode and our place of origin. And each voyage, is one of return.