Saturday night at a Greek καφεζαχαροπλαστείον. I generally do not haunt such establishments because I have been born without a sweet tooth and for some perverse reason I prefer to make my own coffee. Furthermore, if one visits the cake shops of Cairo, resplendent in their pink granite benchtops, intricately designed cornices and offering a multitude of delectables, (infinitely exceeding the generally limited imagination of the most feverish of antipodean Greek pastry chefs), none of which are swimming in syrup, as is the case with their Hellenic counterparts, then one’s appreciation of the Greek Australian coffee-cake shop is somewhat diminished, though never, it should be added, quite extinguished.
It would be prudent not to overgeneralise however, for Greek Australian cake shops vary as to character and clientele according to their geographic distribution. One memorable visit I made to a Greek cake shop in the eastern suburbs was with a client. He was battling cancer, going through a particularly messy divorce, and was in a bad way. As we sat sipping coffee, we overheard two sandblasted local ladies remark nonchalantly to each other:
“I wonder if I should get my face lasered.”
“Oh you should you know, I got it done last month. Couldn’t live without it. Soooo terrible.”
My client looked up, tears streaming down his face and started laughing. “I’m going to be alright, aren’t I?”
As a matter of fact, he was and it is moments like this that unsuspectingly reveal to us the mystic, ridiculous majesty of life.
At Medallion of blessed Lonsdale memory however, I have, over a cup of Greek coffee, had the most bizarre but ultimately enlightening conversations with apologists for the Maoist regime, in which it was contended that the deaths of millions of Chinese during the Great Leap Forward was a mere fantasy and that the purge of the Chinese sparrows was a figment of the West’s imagination. A few tables down, a depressed theology student downing his fourth touloumba as he delved into the dregs of my coffee cup, once revealed to me one of the most amazing compound words in the Greek language: ‘Ἀκτιστοσυμπλαστουργοσύνθρονον’ meaning the uncreated, co-throne of the co-creator… an attribute of the Holy Spirit, as described in the fifth ode of the service of the Saturday after Pentecost, or at least of the world’s first and best barista. I vowed then and there to use it once a week in a sentence but have not remained faithful to that vow.
Theology students have a special affinity with Greek Australian coffee-cake shops. On one memorable occasion, at Axilleon in Coburg, noted for the Greek misspelling of its name on its upper storey thus: ΖΑΧΑΡΟΠΛΑZΤΕΙΟΝ, a particular dextrous group of would-be theologians, having downed impossible quantities of galaktoboureko, assigned Christian heresies to diverse forms of coffee:
· Decaf is Docetic because it only appears to be coffee.
· Instant is Apollinarian because it’s had its soul removed and replaced.
· Frappuccinos are essentially a form of Monophysitism, having their coffee nature swallowed up in milkshake.
· Chicory is Arian, not truly coffee at all but a separate creation.
· Irish coffee is Nestorian, being two natures conjoined solely by good will.
· Affogato is Adoptionist, being merely topped with espresso.
· The Café Bombón is Sabellian, appearing at some points to be foam, at others coffee and at others sweetened condensed milk.
· The Café miel violates Canon 57 of the Council in Trullo, ‘for it is not right to offer honey and milk’ in one’s coffee.
· The Cafe Mocha (espresso + steamed milk + chocolate) is syncretic and polytheist, for it presumes to adulterate coffee with another nation’s gods.
· The Doppio (espresso + espresso) is Monothelite, permitting only one will to dominate.
My own contribution qua coffee and faith, was to recite the old Epirot adage about Greek coffee: Καφέ χωρίς τσιγάρο, Τούρκος χωρίς πίστη. It was met with a polar silence.
I suppose you just had to be there.
On this particular Sabbath however, the cake shop is packed with a multitude of Greek Australian faces, from young Greek girls dressed uniformly in black yoga pants and hoop earings glaring at each other emphatically when not engrossed in an intense examination of their telephones, to ladies in their 40s laughing uproariously as they ask each other over and over again: ‘I had a coq,’ ‘how big is your coq?’ ‘How many coqs did you have?’ and the ultimate Lorena Bobbitt crowdpleaser: ‘I’ve cut this coq in half.’ They take a photo of the emasculated coq with their telephones, for posting to social media.
Late 50s couples with heavy arm jewellery lispingly mispronounce Greek placenames as they show each other photos from their telephones of their holidays in Santorini, while logging into facebook to show each other what their friends’ (also recently returned holidayers) cellulite looks like in their swimwear.
In the centre of the premises one witnesses cross-generational family outings comprised of bored and unhappy kids, frustrated parents, and a yiayia who is perpetually sighing and whose expression, if it could be rendered into words would read, ‘Γιατί με φέρατε εδώ πέρα, καλά δεν ήμουν στο σπίτι, και θα γλιτώναμε τα λεφτά για τον καφέ.’
A well-to-do family sits opposite. The mother, wearing leopard print leggings, with a matching leopard print headband and criminally matching leopard print shoes, opens her Gucci bag, pulls out her mobile phone and starts going through it. Her bored husband, his protruding belly barely covered by an incredibly stretched Ralph Lauren polo shirt, and struggling with the pressure of his impossibly tight pants, is already immersed on his phone. Next to him, their daughter, approximately 10 years old and resplendent in leopard print exactly like her mother, fiddles with her phone, while her younger brother, his hair painstakingly peaked into an installation of the Matterhorn, picks his nose and also fumbles with his phone. I watch them for three quarters of an hour, mesmerised. When the waiter arrives, the mother snaps out her order, not once lifting her eyes from her phone. Indeed, not once do the family look up from their individual phones, even as they eat and drink. There is no communication, nor interaction. It is as if they are completely and blissfully unaware of each other’s presence.
Inside, barely a word of Greek is heard except from the lips of the polite ‘off the boat’ waiters. Yet my ears pick up on conversation between two northern Greek women commenting on a younger member of the clan’s offensive tweet: “Τα χαστάγια την μάραιναν, την πούρλα. Γιατί είχενε κι η μάνα τς χαστάγια στου χουριό τς.” Χαστάγια, apparently, is good Epirot Australian for the plural of hashtag.
On the wall, a flat screen television relays the latest cricket match. Patrons gaze in boredom. Outside, however, is the domain of the older men and is thus Hellenic in speech. They line the street, examining passersby appraisingly, their faces fixed in sneers, snarls, or expressions of extreme boredom – that is until one of the yoga-panted girls, young enough to be a grand-daughter, walks past them, at which time they become animated as they share with each other the knowing glances of would-be veteran connoisseurs.
At the furthest table from the entrance a couple of old men animatedly discuss politics, oblivious to the presence of yoga pants, for they are idealists. From them, we learn that the Greek Australian term for Tony Abbott is ο μπατζησμάγκλας. Imperceptibly and without realising it, I am drawn into a conversation about the state of Modern Greece.
The old men are incensed that I appreciate the historical role of EAM in the Greek resistance and seem ready to flick their mille-feuille at me, that is until I advise them that this stands for a new party I intend to found in order to save the Greek state, this being the Hellenic Goat Liberation Front (Ελλαδικό Αιγοπροβατικό Απελευθερωτικό Μέτωπο).
I make a hasty getaway just as a former local councillor of Greek descent, besuited, sweeps into the premises, and makes the equivalent of a model’s strut upon the catwalk. No gaze catches his steely eye and without losing momentum, he steps out, unnoticed. Proceeding to the counter to pay for a surprisingly brilliant βαρύγλυκο, I notice a sign on one of the cakes proclaiming ‘Yeniotiko’ which is good Greek Australian for Γιαννιώτικο. I pay, heartened, that there was not a decaf in sight, revealing to the Slav Macedonian woman at the counter who is slowly and methodically giving me change in 10 cent pieces my retirement dream of opening up a shop in Oakleigh selling Γιαννιώτκες πίτες. With effusive enthusiasm, I advise her that I have even thought up a name: La Dolce Pita. Sweet!
Her response, when it comes, is poetry itself: “To paraphrase Nietzsche: ‘If sober you present such bliss, what would your representation be when your personae are in ecstasy?'” I leave mute, my tastebuds and much more besides satiated in reverence, and in awe, at the extent of such glorious sarcasm and in praise and panegyric for one of the most important of Greek Australian institutions ever to uphold our communal edifice.