This book is not about very much: just my early childhood, and various events surrounding it, during the 1960s.
More importantly, it is a view of what it was to be me, a Greek boy, raised in an Australian suburb.
There is a saying: ‘Greeks in Australia are more Greek than the Greeks in Greece.’
Greeks who migrated to Australia in the 1950s and 60s were naturally drawn together and tended to live traditional lifestyles in closely-knit communities.
This meant that as the country of Greece moved forward with the times, many Australian immigrant Greeks hung on to their traditional ways.
Critical studies have been done, and recordings made, with the aim of preserving ancient and dying languages across the globe. When it came to the Greeks, the most authentic spoken Greek was found not in some far-off forgotten corner of Greece, but in the Australian cities of Melbourne and Adelaide.
My parents, who hailed from villages on the islands of Chios and Cyprus, were perfect examples. Having come from a Greek agrarian background, theirs was a very simple way of life that has largely vanished from our fast-moving digital world
My family moved into a predominantly lower-class white Australian suburb and did not assimilate into the Australian way of life, even though today’s Australia is multicultural and broadly accepting
of others. Instead, they kept their simple village Greekness proudly on display, living in a time warp from the past.
To this day, approaching her ninetieth year, my mother still does not speak English.
In this book I will attempt to give an account, free of bias, of many aspects of my early childhood. I want this to be taken as a light-hearted look at a child who was nothing more nor less than a Wog in a Fish Shop.
Everything that is recorded here is true, which is to say it really did happen, although there may be a
little embellishment now and again. I have changed the names of the characters, in the hope that it
will spare anyone who recognises themselves any unnecessary embarrassment. Unfortunately, this cannot be said for my immediate family. Their only hope is that nobody reads this.
It’s Great to Be Greek
Kefi: this is an important Greek word that basically means joy, passion, enthusiasm and high spirits, building to a frenzy of overwhelmingly positive emotion. You can even take it a step further and say it is the essence of the mercurial, and at times infuriatingly complex Greek character. Importantly, kefi is not just about blazing human passion. It also means staying positive, no matter how difficult life may be, and acknowledging that happiness is just a state of mind.
In the Academy Award-winning film Zorba the Greek, there is a scene where the Englishman Basil and Zorba (brilliantly portrayed by Anthony
Quinn) suffer the collapse of a business venture. Yet rather than become downcast, at Zorba’s instigation the two men enthusiastically dance on a beach
in Crete. This scene encapsulates the essence of kefi. It also illustrates how Greek music evokes the emotions that inspire kefi both in its expression and its surrender of the self, by integrating body, spirit and mind. Thus creating a cultural collective, heightening the social bonds amongst men and women.
Other examples of this Greek surrender to emotion can be found in the tradition of smashing plates, or dancing while balancing a glass on one’s head.
It was not until my later years that I realised that many of the silly, strange, and positively dumb things I witnessed in my childhood (many of which appear in this book) were in fact manifestations of kefi; the magical element of the spirit of Greece and the positive embrace of life to the full.
P.S. I should say that I have never actually witnessed a Greek break a plate.
‘Are you nuts! Do you know how much they cost!’
Later in life, I ended up with children of my own, a business and a dog. The ‘whole catastrophe’, as Zorba would put it.
One day, I dropped in to visit a good Greek friend of mine named Spiro Moustakis. He was a good-natured, compact, fit man ten years my senior who was always ready with a smile. Successful in business, he lived in an impressive home and had a loving family. His welcoming nature was reflected in the fact that he always had a house full of visitors, even when he wasn’t present. It seemed that people were naturally drawn to his family home.
On this occasion, I found Spiro, unusually, on his own. He asked me if I would stay for lunch. I agreed, expecting a sandwich or leftovers from the fridge. After an ouzo or two, he ushered me out the back door and proceeded to hunt about his garden for sticks and bits of wood, urging me to do the same. Perplexing as this was, I went along with it, caught up in his enthusiasm. At some stage he proceeded to pick up two bricks that were lying about and placed a wire mesh on top. Piling the sticks underneath, he lit this makeshift BBQ, going to great lengths poking about to get the fire just right before happily grilling two lamb chops, one for each of us.
I was utterly bemused by the whole smoke-in-your-eyes tearful event, but the chops were the best I had ever eaten.
On another occasion, Spiro came by my workplace for a coffee. When I asked what he was up to, he replied that he and his friend were digging the foundations for a block of units they were building.
‘You mean you are supervising a backhoe to dig the trenches?’ I suggested.
‘No Vre, we are digging it with our hands!’
‘Are you crazy, Spiro?’ I said, astonished. ‘Why would you do such a thing?’
‘For the fun of it,’ he replied with a smile.
On reflection, I realised I was in the presence of a real-life Zorba the Greek.
A Brief Greek Language Lesson
Malaka is a popular and much-used word among Greeks. It basically means ‘wanker’, as in someone who has jerked off so many times that his brain has become soft, to the point where he is now a
complete idiot. In everyday speech, the word malaka is used metaphorically to describe a person who displays no common sense.
Ela is another archetypal Greek word. In fact, if there’s a word you hear almost as much, if not more, among Greeks than malaka, it’s this one. Its meaning is flexible, ranging from ‘Come here’ or ‘Come with me’ to ‘Come on, are you bullshitting me?’
Vlakas is an alternative Greek way of saying ‘idiot’, or of describing a person who uses no common sense.
Vre is the Greek way of saying ‘mate’ or ‘buddy’. It is commonly used at the start or finish of a sentence.
Gamoto is another good Greek word. It means ‘fuck’ and is used in more or less the same way we use ‘fuck’ in Australia.
Pousti is a derogatory name for a homosexual, but again, among close friends, it becomes a term of endearment.
Diavolos is the devil, pure and simple.
Mana means ‘mother’, an exalted personage in Greek society.
Yeia sou (often truncated to plain Ya) means ‘good health’, but is also used informally in greeting and parting, much like the Italians use ‘ciao’.
Aragma: means ‘chill’, as in ‘let’s go down to the café and chill a bit.’
Skase literally means to ‘burst’, but is used colloquially when you want to tell someone to ‘shut up’.
When next you are walking past a crowd of Greeks yelling at each other, you will likely hear all the above being randomly thrown together in sentences. Don’t be alarmed, as this signifies that they are close friends.
Warning: if you are not Greek, don’t even think about testing any of these colourful expletives, as this may cause you serious injury.
Now I need to explain about the word ‘wogs’. Basically calling a wog a ‘wog’ is perfectly acceptable to Greeks. At least between friends. It’s the same as calling your mate any swear word: the closer the friend, in fact, the worse the swearing can be, and the more it’s seen as an endearment.
However, there is one thing you cannot say or swear about to another Greek for any reason whatsoever. And that is anything to do with their mothers. You see, if you are Australian, it’s perfectly fine to call your friend a ‘motherfucker’, especially during a drinking session.
But try that on a Greek!!!
At first, there will be silence; not a word will be spoken. Then the eyes will glaze over, and in an instant you will be in the midst of a Greek killing frenzy.
Actually, there’s a rumour that the epic story of the Trojan horse and Helen of Troy was just a
fabrication. The real reason the Greeks went to war with the Trojans was that Hector the Prince of Troy called King Agamemnon’s mum fat. The Helen of Troy thing was invented as it makes for a much better story.
One tradition that dates back many centuries which was still mainstream during the 60s (and remains even to this day) is that when a Greek dies, a candle which floats in an oil-filled receptacle is lit. The candle burns for many days and symbolises eternal remembrance.
Thus, the most offensive thing that I am aware of that you can say to a Greek is, ‘Gamoto to candili tin mana sou’, which is to say, ‘Fuck the candle that’s lit for your mother when she dies.’
This is so serious an insult that the Greek you aim it at may not attack you at all; it’s more likely they
will have a heart attack on the spot, or perhaps even self-combust.
Now, if you want to make a promise to a Greek that’s more binding than a signature on paper, a variation on the same words can be used: ‘Iposcheso sto candili tin mana mou.’ This translates as, ‘I promise you on the candle that’s lit at my mother’s death.’
Saying something as serious as this will have every Greek in the room immediately upstanding, some with mouths wide open, ashen-faced, with many
looking solemnly away, unable to hold eye contact. Someone might mutter quietly, ‘Po, po, po, aftos einai poly sovaro,’ which means, ‘Whoaaaa, he’s super serious.’
In the 1960s, Australia was a simple, wonderful place. As a child, my days were filled with either running away from my father, who seemingly had endless jobs for me to do, or finding amusement in the simple pleasures that kids entertained themselves with, like taunting ants. I was not a bright kid, and I had a strong sense that ants had been placed upon the planet especially for my
amusement. One of my favourite episodes occurred during what we used to call ‘incinerator night’. This was held every Friday evening, and was a source
of immense pleasure for all the children of the neighbourhood.
In the 60s, the main method for discarding rubbish of any kind was to burn it in the backyard in the incinerator. Every yard had one, and ours was
the biggest and the best of them. My father had constructed it using superior Greek know-how.
Incinerators were generally an upright box-like structure, roughly square in shape and built of bricks, with a hole in the top for inserting rubbish and another at the bottom to give air to this fire-breathing inferno. In the lead up to this glorious, stinky, smoky event I was always on the lookout for a specific type of plastic bottle. It was generally an empty orange juice container or any other drink that came in these very special plastic bottles. Not any bottle would do! They were transparent yet opaque and were kind of rough to touch, which signalled that you had just the right one.
I would joyfully scoop these up whenever the opportunity arose, then eagerly wait for Friday night.
I developed a special technique. This involved lighting a corner of the bottle by holding it over a flame on the end of a long stick, giving it the
marvellous ability to slowly melt and send droplets of smoky, flaming rage upon unsuspecting enemy ant colonies. These death-dealing bottles of joy made a distinctive sound when held up high, a zip, zip, zip of smoky, molten terror. It always transported me
to an imaginary scene in a war movie, with me as the pilot of a Lancaster bomber raining fire on the enemy. Those pesky ants had no chance.
The other kids of the neighbourhood would all be at their respective incinerators, often waiting there in anticipation an hour or so before the event.
As I grew older, from about the age of four, I was allowed to start the fire without parental
supervision. I would often hoist myself up and peer over the neighbour’s fence to see what goodies they had ready for cremation. Back in the 1960s, there was no such rule as ‘don’t play with matches!’ What the hell! We had way cooler stuff to ignite. On occasion, someone would have a car tyre ready. Wow, they were great, providing hours of satisfaction as huge clouds of billowing, black smoke rose into the ozone layer. If you had a tyre, it would always trigger admiring looks from the coughing community.
Needless to say, Friday was never the day you hung out the washing.
The 1960s was a simple time when political correctness had not been invented, the world was positive, and everything was good for you. So you want to drink six beers before dinner and then a few after? Sure, why not!
And back then, there weren’t fancy little metrosexual designer bottles of beer. No! There was the 750ml longneck of Victoria Bitter. A man’s beer! There were also Camel cigarettes with no filters. Or Marlboro, if you fancied yourself as a bit of a cowboy.
Back in the 60s, smoking was proven to be good for you. Cigarettes actually made you healthier, manlier and smarter.
Seat belts in cars were also unheard of. Airbags, pfft! What are they?
We travelled in the back of utes and trailers, where the sun shone and your hair fluffed into your smiling face. People in the 60s were indestructible; there were no child-safe anythings back then. If a child drank a bottle of Drano, you just had to buy another bottle, and the kid would know better next time because, ‘Re, voithei! xereis poso kostizei afto to Drano?’ which means, ‘Do you have any idea how much Drano costs, kid?!’
There was no need for helmets or knee pads when you rode your bike or skateboard either. Injured knees and scraped elbows were admired by your schoolmates who would treat them with reverence.
One night, a man crashed his car into a tree in front of our place. The attending police officers let him off with a warning. Their rationale was that, because he was drunk, technically it wasn’t his fault. The ever-obliging police officers then gave him a lift home, where one gave him a foot massage while the other put him to bed.
Yes, Australia and the world made a lot more sense back then. People were looking forward to the future, a future in which the Jetsons were not such a distant reality, television would become a part of every household, refrigerators would make their own ice, and man would walk on the moon.
And Zorba the Greek would be gracing our cinemas.
A Greek is born
I popped into this world in 1958 at the Adelaide Children’s Hospital. I was born so white and creamy-skinned that I could have been mistaken for an albino. My mother, Matrona, was dismayed as I looked nothing like my elder brother, who was born the perfect Greek with olive skin, dark hair, moustache and worry beads.
Further confusing matters, the blond-haired woman in the next bed had given birth to a dark-skin bundle of joy. She became distressed at the inexplicable colouration of her newborn. Her
[There are lots of these line breaks at the start of each new page. Presumably they won’t be an issue in the InDesign version?]
husband, a proud Aryan Caucasian, began to stammer, and his speech became strained. Maybe this was due to immense pride at becoming a father. However, the sheepish and furtive glances cast by his ever-angelic bride told a different story.
My mother quickly decided that there had been a monumental mistake. She tore the baby from the blonde woman’s embrace and threw me to my new white mum.
Apparently, my new mum and dad were both relieved but angry at the hospital’s apparent error. They beamed with joy at their reprieve. A blond-haired, green-eyed Aryan boy was all they could have wished for.
The next day, during the ward rounds, the maternity consultant arrived. He was a reasonable and pragmatic fellow who had been alerted to this fracas by vigilant nurses. The latter were convinced that somehow there had been a divine intervention that resulted in the swapping of uteruses during the respective births. The sensible consultant, however, pointed out that each child had a wristband and
the fact that one didn’t have a moustache was by no means grounds for swapping children. So we were returned to our correct parents. My mum eventually accepted the situation and was thankful that at least I wasn’t a girl.
It is a deeply held belief amongst the truest of Greeks that, in order to prevent a male child from having
a receding hairline later in life, his hair must be shorn for several years. This is done during a child’s formative years when peers rolling around on their backs having a good belly laugh at your expense
is to be expected. The head is shaved to promote hair vigour and guarantee a full head of flowing, masculine Grecian locks when you reach adulthood. This is ever so impressive if you have to jump up
and shout ‘Ooppa!’ when someone starts plucking a
I grew up a fat kid with the complexion of a ‘Skippy’, which was what we called Australian Caucasians.
My head was bald, and I wore shorts that were five sizes too big. This was seen by my parents as fiscally prudent, the logic being that I would undoubtedly grow into them. These shorts had to be securely fastened around my chest in case I tripped over the legs. The fact that I was severely overweight, along
with the salami and tomato loaf of bread that I invariably took to school for lunch, left absolutely no doubt. ‘That kid’s a wog boy!’ But what did I care?
Being Greek was the best thing in the world.
At a very young age, I was taken to see the best Adelaide physician. He was Greek. My mother had become concerned. Even though I was way too skinny for her liking, my face had grown bigger and fatter than she considered normal.
Doctor Vlakis Frangalomenos was a small, rotund, balding man. Evidently, he hadn’t had his head shaved as a kid. He had a greasy pate from the gallons of pomade he used to persuade his combover to defy gravity and stick to the other side of his head. The curious silvery shininess glistening over the rest of his dermis seemed to imply that he had been too generous with the pomade. His room smelled of dank tobacco mixed with mints. He wore a forever studious, severe expression on his face, which gave him an air of professionalism and, I suspect, added to his fee. My skin was never truly comfortable in his presence. He examined me in detail, listening to my heart and breathing curiously without having the stethoscope in his ears, as it hindered the frantic conversation he was carrying on with my mother. Eventually, he took a particular interest in prodding my stomach. Putting me on the scales, the doctor pronounced with enthusiasm, ‘Ton treló papá, Pou ton Váftise, échei pachý éntero kai epísis parotítida!’ ‘By God, he weighs eleven stone, gee he’s a fat kid… oh and he also has mumps!’ [I would avoid using a different font for the Greek text. Instead, I’d use italics, but in the same font.]
Now mumps is a crappy kind of viral disease that was prevalent at that time, but thankfully vaccines for it and many other maladies were coming out thick and fast in the 1960s, and it soon became a thing of the past.
Yes, the 60s were great times.
Great Uncle Costa
During my early childhood, my great Uncle [should this be ‘great-uncle’?]Costa Loukoumades would often come and visit. This was always a special occasion as ‘Theio’, or Uncle, Costa was a ‘megalos ploutios!’ meaning a very wealthy man. Costa, who often stayed for several days, was highly intelligent and impeccably groomed, with deep, piercing eyes under bushy brows.
I looked forward to these visits with extreme excitement as he always brought the best of presents. Occasionally, other relatives would give you something like socks, or a hand-me-down jumper that someone had failed to grow into. These gifts were an extreme impediment to my early happiness, especially since they were accompanied by much kissing and cheek-pulling that was mandatory back then from visiting relatives. One particular aunt, Theia Bostakefalos, who smelled faintly of mothballs and bleach, filled me with dread.
An oddity during the 60s was that for some reason Greek mums all believed their beloved baby boys were destined to grow up to be strapping 6-foot-
6-inch-tall Spartans. How they came to that conclusion given the evidence surrounding them defies belief. However, when their bundle of Greek pride reached a full height of 5 foot 2 inches, their mothers seemed to love them even more. Clothing bought in anticipation for boys in the 60s always needed to be passed on when these sons didn’t quite meet size expectations. Consequently, presents frequently came in the form of clothing which also smelled curiously of mothballs.
During that period, there was quite a disparity in appreciation of the sexes. Girls were seen as an acceptable addition to the family, as the floor needed sweeping by someone, but a boy was celebrated as a blessing from God. What more could be asked!
Whenever Uncle Costa visited, he brought the best and most frivolous presents for my siblings and me. Once I got a pocket knife, which I still have to this day. I always beat him at draughts, too, but in hindsight, perhaps he was just letting me win.
On one of his earliest visits, when I was about three years old, he somehow convinced my parents that the translation of Lambros, which is my birth name, was actually ‘Bob’ or ‘Bobby’ in English.
My parents considered themselves progressive in the Greek community, and they always listened to Costa. So from that day forth, I became ‘Bob the Wog Boy’. In later life, I never thought to question Costa regarding my dubbed name. But I very much doubt that the name Bob exists in any Greek literature.
I sometimes wonder if my uncle had been around during ancient Greek times and happened to visit Socrates’ or Plato’s parental home, history would have been rewritten. In which case, Plato or Socrates might not be taken so seriously today.
Certainly, ‘Bob the ironist and moral philosopher’ doesn’t have quite the same classical ring to it. Nor does The Classic Theaetetus of Bob. In any case, I was stuck with this moniker for the next few decades. It was only much later in life, frustrated
by the frequent misspellings of both my first name and surname, that I changed my name to Ross, short for Lambros.
Another ubiquitous Greek tradition is for children to be named after their grandparents. For instance, I was named after my grandfather Lambros on my mother’s side.
If only the villagers had known back in Chios that there was a Bob in their midst. There would have been many a gathered ‘Malaka, einai’, and plenty of belly laughs.
I was the oldest among several Greek cousins to be named Lambros. With many more born after me, it became gospel that ‘Bob’ was the Australian pronunciation of the name of their beloved grandfather in Greece. Strangely, none
of my relatives found this odd or even a little bit unusual, and it was never questioned. At our family gatherings, you could hear the shouts, ‘Soula! Voula! Matrona! Spiros! Giorgos! Yannis! Bob! Get up and do the Zorba.’
Funny to say, whenever the name of Bob was called out at family events, several very un-Bob-looking individuals would immediately jump up to answer.
In 1828, after four hundred years of Turkish occupation, Greece was bankrupt and hungry. Greece’s first prime minister, Ioannis Kapodistrias, saw a solution to this plight: he would introduce the Greeks to the potato. It was initially a huge letdown for him when, on the arrival of the shipments, and after much coaxing, the Greeks showed no interest in these dullest-looking of all objects.
Kapodistrias, knowing his fellow countrymen well, placed armed guards around the potatoes and forbade anyone to go near them, explaining they were reserved only for the rich.
The response? ‘O kolos tous plousious, as sto diavolo!’ ‘Fuck that!’ in other words. The angry populace duly launched many daring raids. Eventually they stole every last potato from under the very noses of those useless malaka guards; Who, they laughed, couldn’t even guard a stupid potato. The culprits defiantly went on to plant potato crops everywhere. The victorious Kapodistrias had no choice but to back down. These days potatoes are ubiquitous and chips with fish is an iconic Australian experience, which is infinitely better known than the South Australian culinary classic, the ‘pie floater’. A pie floater is a strange marrying of pea soup with a meat pie, the pie being dropped upside-down into the greenish soupy slurry and topped with a good sloshing
of tomato sauce. In Adelaide, pie carts are open through the night, with the main custom usually appearing around 3 a.m. in the form of groups of swaying and sorry-looking souls who, after drinking too much liquor, have decided that a concoction
of green soup and spongy pastry will soak up the delirium and bring back a little sobriety, and consequently help them to get home in some kind of self-respecting manner.
The origin of the modest chip goes back, some say, to seventeenth-century France, but ask any Greek and it is more likely to have been Athens, depending on who you believe. Oddly enough, it may have been invented as a replacement for fish, rather than an accessory, during harsh winters when rivers would freeze over. With fish unable to be caught, clever housewives began frying up potatoes that they cut into fishy shapes as an alternative. Around the same time, fried fish was introduced into Britain by Jewish refugees from Spain. Street sellers would ply their fishy merchandise with large trays hung around their necks, often accompanied by some bread or a baked potato. But there was no sign of the familiar chip as yet in the UK. To this day, it is a mystery to all but the Greeks as to how fish and chips became irreversibly married. The British attribute it to a northern businessman called John Lees. As early as 1863, it is believed, he had a fish and chip shop located in a hut at a market in Lancashire. Others claim the first fish and chip shop was actually opened by a Jewish immigrant, Joseph Malin, in London around 1860. Yet (and as the Greeks have always known) the truth is fish and chips have always been available in Syntagma Square, in the heart of downtown Athens, and any
argument to the contrary would signal the intent for full and immediate hand-to-hand combat.