Like a lot of people, I grew up Greek in Melbourne, Australia. It always surprised me how much I got bullied for being Greek growing up, considering they say (and by they I mean Greeks) that Melbourne, as a city, has the third biggest population of Greeks in the world (after Athens and Thessaloniki). When the boys at school would call me things like “hairy” and “gorilla” and ask to stand under my nose verandah when it rained, I’d unapologetically start resenting my Greek heritage. Unfortunately, being first generation Australian doesn’t remove you far enough from the fact—you’re Greek, and there’s nothing you can do about it. But as one very wise Greek once said (they were a nation of philosophers, you know) “celebrate the love of the one you’re with.” And so I came to love the Greek in me, and all the awesome things that came with growing up Greek.
Yep, I’m talking about cold, hard cash. It doesn’t matter how rich or not rich you are—I grew up in a family of modest means—Greeks like giving money. Amounts range from $5 to $100, but it’s always money. It’s your birthday? Here, have some money! It’s your name day? Take this money! Easter? Here’s a box of chocolate eggs with some money tucked in the side! New Year’s Eve? Buy yourself a drink with this money! Graduation? Money! Going to the dentist? Money! It’s Tuesday? Fuck you better have some of this money!
2. Greek Easter
There were a few petulant teenage years where I hated giving up one Saturday night of my year to go to church at midnight. I’d mope about all the way to my yiayia’s house, but when I got there, the same magic would always take hold and I’d set about wrapping our long, thin candles in tin foil so the wax wouldn’t drip on our fingers when we’d light them at church. I’d tell jokes with my brothers and cousins in the car on the way to church, and once there we’d become intoxicated in the atmosphere of old men smoking, young mother’s cradling their babies and teenage boys setting off fire works in the middle of the crowd. We’d light our candles and take them eagerly back to our yiaiya who’d be cooking in her warm kitchen—like her little disciples, we’d hand them to her, one by one. Then we’d eat. And eat. And eat. Finally, we’d bash painted eggs against each other, every one of us fearing our egg would be the one to crack, and we’d be out of the game.
3. Greek school
I had a love hate relationship with Greek school, but I went obediently every Friday night after regular school. It felt comforting to be amongst my ‘kind’, but frustrating to feel like I had a kind, and like that kind wasn’t welcome in the daylight hours. We’d learn dancing, reading, writing, speech, and yes, we’d play soccer. In summer the boys would climb the plumb trees in the schoolyard and drop the fruit down to us; we’d picnic at recess, swapping feta and salami sandwiches for olives and tzatziki.
Loud, pervasive and always up in my grill—that’s how my family was growing up, and still is, even when they’re all the way on the other side of the world. My family isn’t perfect by any stretch, but there was something about growing up knowing that no matter what argument, what indiscretion or what disappointment we inflicted on one another, when shit got real we’d always pull together. And that no matter what upset we were harboring, we’d all meet at yiayia’s house on a regular basis to eat and laugh, temporarily putting aside our differences in the name of food, and the blood that binds us.
5. The bucket of KFC chicken
At every family event—even at my papou’s funeral—there is a family bucket of KFC chicken. All the mammas, thieas and yiayias slave away for hours preparing yemista, dolmathes, moussaka and other amazing delights for a huge buffet. And right there, slap in the middle, there’s always a family bucket of KFC chicken.
I am of an average weight for my height. I am not skinny—I have thighs that shake and a belly that protrudes over the top of my jeans. And yet all 3 of my yiayias think I’m anorexic, simply because I’m not fat. Every time I go to yiayia’s house we eat. She’ll prepare a meal fit to feed a small army when only my mother and I visit her. We complain, but we secretly love eating the rich, oily, salty foods. I’ve always thought that it should be mandatory for old Greek ladies to adopt a malnourished child for a month—that’s all they’d need—and give said child love, and food; lots and lots of food.
7. The weddings/christenings/parties
I’ve always loved the way everyone gets together in Greek families. I love the high stress of special events, with everyone running around manically but not actually achieving anything; where everyone is screaming at each other at once, not one of them listening to what any one else is saying; everyone gossiping about everyone else and feeling like the whole world might explode with the deafening cacophony of shrill Greek spoken over shrill Greek.
But then, once the bride walks down the isle, or after the baby is given its blessing, everyone gets drunk. Everyone gets so drunk they laugh, shout, dance, embrace each other—and my uncle creates a circle in the middle of the dance floor where he does Russian dancing with a crowd cheering and clapping around him. We do the Zorba, sweat through its frantic crescendo and then the women lead the Kalamatiano. Papou roams around with fresh, warm meat he’s carved straight from the spit roast and he’s kissing us all on the face. The kids are sneaking booze but not so secretly because the uncles keep giving them beers (“pffffft,” they say when the mothers get angry, “beer isn’t alcohol”). It’s a circus—and I love it.
8. The back yard
My yiayia lives in inner city Melbourne, but she still has a full vegetable garden (cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots, pumpkins, zucchinis, green beans etc), 5 lemon trees, 2 olive trees, a fig tree, an apple tree, a pear tree, a passion fruit vine, 2 budgies, a chicken coop, rabbits and all sorts of other edible or otherwise flora and fauna. If the apocalypse came tomorrow our whole family could live quite comfortably for decades in her garden.
9. Stories from the ?????
My grandparents have the most wonderful stories of growing up in their respective villages in Greece. My yiayia’s family was part of the resistance against the Germans and Turkish armies in Crete and harbored injured fugitive English soldiers in the mountains. My papou, high from smoking heroin as a reckless teenager, was shot in the head playing Russian roulette. The bullet skimmed the top of his skull and he survived; the top of his head is still soft like a newborn baby where the bullet grazed his skull.
10. The club
Sometimes being Greek feels like being part of a secret cult. If I’m served by a Greek person in a store or a restaurant and that person suspects that I’m Greek too, they’ll ask me—in Greek, our special code. A Greek can smell another Greek a mile off, and are never wrong when it comes to identifying each other. Once contact has been made, we begin to reap the rewards—the 20% discount, the extra tub of paint for free, some shots of ouzo to share! A second round too, come on! Opa!