Tuesday, February 8, 2011

It's All Greek To Me

Image courtesy of http://www.crossed-flag-pins.com
Don’t tell anyone, but I’m having a love affair—with a city. I love Melbourne, Australia. I love being able to go to a sporting match during the day, then pick any country in the world and find a restaurant that dishes up their authentic cuisine. I love that I can move on to cocktails at a swanky bar and go to a concert or theatre production by world-class performers. I love the rattle of the trams down suburban and city streets, the open, green spaces and I am proud that my Melbourne became a UNESCO city of literature in 2008. What I love most, though, is the way this city embraces multiculturalism and anyone, no matter what nationality, is welcome. 

A classic example of this is Melbourne’s adoption of the Greeks. When I tell people that Melbourne has the world’s third largest Greek-speaking population outside of Athens, their eyebrows raise and a guffaw slips out of their mouths. “But it’s true!” I tell the cynics who shake their heads in disbelief. Then I take them to the Melbourne suburbs of Port Melbourne, Coburg, Preston, Oakleigh and Doncaster. The doubter’s nostrils are filled with the aroma of lamb, garlic, and rosemary wafting out of the restaurants with Greek names like Cafe Greco and Zorba’s. With a wry smile, I hear the sceptics say, “Oh. Maybe you’re right.”

Ever since the gold rush in the 1850’s, Australia’s state of Victoria (Melbourne is the capital, for the geographically challenged), has had a steady flow of Greek settlers. When the English arrived in Australian waters, the Greek sailors left their watery homes to try their hand at panning for gold. They had dreams of returning to their homeland with riches, but the elusive gold made them paupers and so they stayed in Australia to work in restaurants, cafes, and the retail trade.

Since then the Greek community has grown steadily through chain migration—relatives joining the settlers already in Australia. The rate of Greeks arriving on Australian shores increased so dramatically that a Greek-language newspaper was established in 1913 and still thrives today.

After World War II and during the civil war in Greece that followed thereafter, more than 160,000 Greeks came to Australia, with most settling in tight-knit communities in Victoria. At first, the immigrants worked in factories and farms as unskilled or semi-skilled laborers. Even the educated migrants had to undertake manual jobs. But as Melbourne grew and institutions taught English to the Greeks, the skills they possessed in their homeland were fully used in their new country. Australia boasts many knowledgeable and successful Greek-Australians across an array of professions.

It’s not uncommon to hear Greek being tossed around on the streets and city beaches. At the local markets it’s easy to find baklava and souvlaki sold alongside meat pies, an Aussie favorite. It’s hard to imagine Melbourne without the vibrant Greek population, especially during international events such as the Olympics and the World Cup (soccer, or football, depending on your take of what constitutes football). Greek descendents swarm the streets with blue and white flags and shirts, jumping up and down, hugging each other, and singing the Greek national anthem. “Skips” (Australians of Anglo-Saxon heritage) are often hauled into the mob and get to be honorary Greeks for a while.  

The bond with Greece is so strong that in 1984 Melbourne adopted a sister city--Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city. In the suburbs where there is a high percentage of Greeks, it’s easy to find signage, including street names, in Greek and English. And even though Greek-speaking Australians speak English, many are taught Greek at school or take classes outside school hours. Quite often, Greek is spoken at home. 

Melbourne Exhibition Buildings
In March this year, the theme for the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival will focus on Greece and the amazing cuisine from this country. And in the same month, the Antipodes Festival, a celebration of all things Greek, will be held in Melbourne’s city centre. We’ll devour Greek salad, saganaki, olives, tzatziki and rizogalo while the hoards listen to some of Greece’s hottest singers and bands. The streets will come alive with the aroma of fresh Greek coffee and, of course, we’ll consume the odd shot of ouzo (Greece’s aniseed liquor). 

My love affair with Melbourne is partly due to this city’s romance with the Greeks. In a way, I’m involved in a loopy love triangle. At times, it can be fiery, especially during sporting events, but somehow the combination of the Greek passion and the laidback Aussie lifestyle works beautifully. So in this particular love story, there is a happily ever after.


  1. Alli, what a fascinating history Melbourne has with its Greek community. I'm curious, are Australians in other parts of the country aware of the Greek influence here, or is this Melbourne's own well-kept secret? Your post makes me want to hop on a plane and head for those two festivals next month.

  2. That's a good question, Heidi! I'm not really sure but I imagine most Australians do know about Melbourne's Greek heritage as we love to boast about it. :-)

  3. I once went to a 'Greek' restaurant in the US. I won't name where. We were in hysterics just reading the menu. Having grown up with authentic Greek food in Melbourne and having Greek mates who just love to cook, the half-arsedness (it's a word) of this place was just too crazy to take seriously.

    I can highly recommend Jim's Tavern in Collingwood. There are no menus, the owner comes and sits with you and asks what you feel like, makes recommendations and shouts at his staff to make it for you. The place is pokey, the decor hasn't changed in 20 years, but the food is sublime.

    That, to me, is what Greek food is all about.

  4. Jim's sounds awesome. It's going on the list!

  5. Greeks are like Jews - they're everywhere. Astoria, the part of Queens where I live, is known as a Greek neighborhood, although the area counts close to 160 nationalities. For a while, we lived right in the midst of everything Greek - we had Greek landlords, Greek neighbors, Greek dry cleaners, and ate more Greek food than any other. I never learned to speak Greek, but because the alphabet reminds me of Cyrillic, I sort of read certain signs. Most of them still sound Greek to me.