My most favoured pastime during the years I took the tram to university was playing ‘Spot the Greek.’ This was a game of my own invention, with the sole aim of identifying which of my fellow passengers was Greek. Spiky-haired, sideburns Greek, who would rush into the tram sporting a harried, perpetually persecuted visage, was an easy guess, simply because after ten minutes, he would invariably receive a telephone call from a woman with a high-pitched voice. Her end of the conversation was garbled, but his responses, delivered at the top of his voice, resonated throughout the carriage:
“Mum, alright, είπα.”
“I will mum.”
“Mum, I’ve got my μπλούζα.”
“I’m not going to κρυώσει.”
Upon the conclusion of this discourse, he would roll his eyes, reach into his backpack, remove from within it what appeared to be an impossibly long, lovingly hand-knitted jumper and proceed to wear it, all the while exclaiming “Mothers!” as he tried, unsuccessfully, to tuck its various folds above his pant-line.
I applied the sobriquet ‘Greek ferret’ to spiky-haired, sideburns Greek, because his bizarre daily conversations with his mother (“no Mum, I’m not going to χύσει the φασολάδα,” “no Mum, I’ve got the κουτάλι in my τσέπη, wrapped”) – which I am convinced was actually code for a high-level international arms deal) elicited barely concealed smirks from other passengers that I had marked tentatively as Greek but was unsure, until their mirth betrayed them.
The Greek ferret was thus the reason for me being able to ascertain the Hellenic provenance of Bouffant hair man, whose uncanny resemblance to Robert De Niro threw me off for a few months. Bouffant hair man has been a constant presence in my life, though I have never exchanged words with him. I have witnessed him, as a single man: studiously attend to the grooming of the vegetation of his ample nostrils, on days when the tram seemed barely able to drag itself into the city and then as an attached man, being chased by the clearly excited object of his affection onto the tram, and observed his profile as he exchanged long, lingering glances with her waiting at the stop, as the tram slowly but dramatically, pulled away, film-noir style, causing all the ladies in the carriage to sigh. I see him around my local area still, his hair as bouffant and luxurious as it ever was many decades ago, whereas mine has paled and wasted away, with usually a child or two in tow. I offer him the smile that only veterans who have traversed the weary road of life in tandem can give one another but I am met with a look of chilled steely indifference. I am convinced he thinks I am weird. I am also convinced his ancestors derive from Peloponnesus.
Though the Greek ferret was good, he was not an infallible method for catching all Greeks. Take Greek Amazon woman, for instance. Impossibly tall and svelte, impeccably dressed in non-ethnic-specific clothes and possessed of hair so long, black and lustrous that it rendered the verses of the Song of Songs: ‘Your hair is like flock of goats bounding down Mount Gilead’ completely redundant, her ethnic provenance remained an enigma for many months. It was her eyes, which were of a speckled grey hue that caused confusion. Though there is, as I considered at the time, historic precedent for grey-eyed Greeks, after all, my grandmother was one, as was the goddess Athena, these were the serene, self-confident, at complete ease and peace with the world eyes of a confident beautiful woman, and they betrayed none of the inner turmoil of the stereotypical Greek. As a result, I remained irresolute in my judgement until I determined that something about her mouth was slightly over-proportioned, this causing me to adjudicate in favour of a Greek derivation.
In this case my judgement was tested in the final court of appeal for ‘Spot the Greek’ – Good Friday in my local Orthodox church, when invariably all my hard cases could be identified out the front, holding candles and looking for their relatives. Sure enough, there she was, Grey-eyed Greek Amazon woman, to the left of the Epitaphios, immaculately dressed in dolorous shades, gazing serenely at the crowd milling around her, her eyebrows creasing not once into a frown as her personage was buffeted by the frantic peregrinations of the shorter parishioners.
Our eyes met and her slightly over-proportioned mouth widened into a beaming smile. Walking towards me she asked with manifest delight:
“Hey, are you Greek?”
“Ha! You’re the guy from the tram, yeah?”
“I am he.”
“I’ve been wondering whether you are Greek or not for months now.”
“Yeah, I play this game where I look at everyone on the tram and try to guess whether they are Greek or not.”
“No way, so do I! I’ve been wondering whether you are Greek for months as well. I am pleased that I got it right.”
“Well actually, I’m Italian. I’m married to a Greek.”
“For what? The fact I’m Italian, or the fact I’m married to a Greek?”. . .
We forged a tacit agreement then and there that we would continue to play our game, having devised an intricate point scoring arrangement. Some of our targets were dead easy. Consider the hirsute (a decade before the invention of the hipster) Ελληνάρες, who in the company of a girl self-identifying as Παρθένα, (pronounced Par-theyna) and wearing probably the last ‘Greeks do it better’ T-shirt before they became extinct, strode onto the tram on our evening commute, singing: “Ο αετός πεθαίνει στον αέρα” their arms outstretched as they executed faux zeimbekiko moves. I wanted to take them by the hand and point them in the general direction of Oakleigh, for they seemed lost, but this was against the rules of the game. Instead, I looked on, as Partheyna attached herself to the powerful forearm of hirsute Greek No 1.
“Oh my gawd Γιάννη,” she gurgled, exaggerating every single syllable in staccato fashion, “your μπράτσα are huuuge ρε.”
“It’s not the size of the μπράτσο, it’s how you κουνήσει it Partheyna,” hirsute Greek No 2, riposted.
“Oh my gawd that’s like so funny,” Partheyna guffawed. “But that’s π . . . τσο, not μπράτσο isn’t it?”
An orgy of mutual groping, thinly disguised as friendly wrestling ensued.
Some cases were not so obvious. Take chatty Aussie tram lady for example. Possessed of mousy blonde hair, blue eyes and freckles, she would be constantly on the phone, throughout the duration of her tram ride, punctuating her discourse with Australian diminutives and expressions of affection such as ‘darl’ and ‘girlie.’ Something about her fell within my radar however, and for a few weeks I scanned her speech of evidence of an unaspirated t, or a voiceless alveolar retracted sibilant s, for sure signs of a suppressed Greekness. Having identified none of these, I resigned myself to scoring zero points, when, totally unexpectedly, I chanced upon her at a function organised by the brotherhood whence I derive my paternal ancestry.
“Oh, no way!” she chortled.
“I could say the same thing about you,” I responded.
“I’ve been wondering whether you’re Greek for ages, and here you are. And not only are you Greek but also from the same place as I,” she laughed.
“What can I say, we come in all shapes and sizes. If I hadn’t seen you here, I would never have guessed you were a Greek though.”
“Yeah, I had a hard time picking you out too. You don’t really look the type. But I figured it out in the end.”
“So what gave me away?” I had to ask.
“Two things. Firstly, every time you sit down, you let out a long sigh like this: «ουυυυφ». Then when you get up to leave, you make another sound «ωωωωωωχ». That was my first clue. But the second clue was the real giveaway.”
“Do tell . . .”
“Well do you remember, it would have been last year, when you were busted by the inspector for not validating your ticket? As he walked away, you whispered under your breath: “Τη φάρα σου . . .” It was almost inaudible, but I was sitting behind you. And that’s how I knew.”
I rode a tram into town for the first time in many years a few weeks ago. Lost in a reverie of games once played, I barely noticed someone tugging on my arm.
“Συγγνώμη, Έλληνας είστε; Μήπως ξέρετε σε ποια στάσάση να κατέβω για το νοσοκομείο,” a young woman asked. Based on the clothes she was wearing, and of course the fact she was speaking in Greek without prefacing each word by “um” which is a unique Greek Australian identifier, I formed the impression she was a recent arrival to these shores.
“Πώς με καταλάβατε,” I asked, enthralled at how quickly my game had manifestly been adopted among the newly-arrived migrant classes. In that split second, my thoughts turned to international play-offs, syndicates and global trophies.
“Μα από τον Νέο Κόσμο που κρατάτε στα χέρια σας. Δεν ήθελε και πολύ σκέψη,” came the simple reply.
Game, set, match.