Life

For the author’s Greek grandparents, happiness revolves around food, family and togetherness in Australia. So why is connecting to her heritage so challenging? By Ella Mittas.

The cultural ties that blind

The author’s grandfather.
Credit: Supplied

Heat rises from the concrete slabs of my grandparents’ driveway. I notice the smoke billowing off the spit halfway down Grantham Street. The smell hits me first, swirling around and engulfing me, giving me what I call sore heart – excessively warm feelings that ache.

It’s my first Christmas back home and I’m greeted with a cheer as I turn into the backyard, always the last to arrive. They’re all sitting on plastic chairs around a coffee table dragged from inside and bottles of VB are being shared between ornate crystal glasses that are glinting in the sun. Rebetiko is playing from the ancient radio in the kitchen, the sound scratchy, blownout and perfect as it streams through lace curtains. Yiayia is offering around a plate of kefalograviera cut into tiny tiles, but suddenly she makes a beeline for me. I’m already in trouble. I’ll have to be the best, best granddaughter to make up for time passed. She calls me “κορίτσι μου” – or korítsi mou, which translates as my girl – holding my face in her hands, whispering it in my ear. It’s the kind of affection I shy away from, ashamed of never knowing how to reciprocate.

I heard from my grandparents only twice while I was away. The first time was in Istanbul. When they called, the sound was distant and muddled. And punctuated by directions being yelled out, half Greek, half English.

“Ella?” Yiayia said, “Where are you?”

“Istanbul, Yiayia,” I said. “Turkey.”

I heard Pappou from somewhere in the background: “Constantinople, Tourkía.” Then, “We want you home, we want you here”, and the conversation was over, the line dead.

The second time, I received a letter from my grandfather that read:

Hi sweet hart,

How are you? I hope you have a good time in Peloponiso, specially in Mani. Watch this people theyar abit stabin some times. Your parents left yesterday they will meat Maddie then to Greece, wot days I don’t know.

Yiayia sent you her love, all so Kathy Grace Zoe and Veronica.

I keep all his notes in my diary. Birthday cards, Post-its.

Now everyone’s safe together, here, under cherry trees encased in so much bird-proof netting they’re almost impossible to identify. On the spit is an abundance of meat – chicken, lamb, pork, quail. Pappou’s making a show of shaving the crunchy edges off as the spit turns, distributing the morsels delicately into eager hands with his tongs.

I go to stand next to him at the barbecue. He’s circling it, giving himself different vantage points, crouching down to eye level, then hovering over to inspect it from above. The meat glistens, the fat forming droplets that hiss when they hit the coals. There’s chicken salt on everything. Some additive in the salt makes everything crisp up and candied, turning the food an unnatural bright yellow. Pappou’s wearing one of his button-up shirts that matches his eyes: glass blue. This daily uniform is designed to hide a prison-blue tattoo of a jaguar that runs the length of his right arm.

He says, “What do you think, Missy?” and turns to me, holding out a piece of meat. It’s scorching hot. Saliva pools in my mouth as I try to chew, sucking in air and gnashing my teeth like a shark.

“Back home,” he says, “they used to make only the fatty bits, the neck. And put so, so much salt on.” He pretends to throw handfuls of salt at the meat. “It made everyone drink too, too much.” His eyes reflect his smile. “Did you learn lots of yummy things over there?” he asks. I nod, my mouth stinging from salt.

“I started learning Greek, too,” I say. He smiles as he turns back to the fire.

“What you wanna learn that for? We’re in Australia now.”

The dogs run past our feet, looping around the backyard and through the hole my grandfather cut in the fence that leads to Aunty Grace’s.

Back under the cherry trees, my cousins are fighting:

“What do you mean he was blindsided?”

“You don’t know what ‘blindsided’ means?”

“I know what it means, Veronica, I’ve just never watched Survivor.”

Dad’s holding out a drink to me, so I go join them. He’s the oldest of the siblings, the golden son. He’s been in the background making cocktails, which aren’t very traditional in our family but are starting to be because Dad needs something to keep him busy in group situations. He gets too awkward standing around. I have the same affliction. I think it’s why I became a cook: to be at the party but have an excuse to be partially absent.

“Ella cooks with tarhana,” Dad announces to the girls. “Yiayia makes it here, she dries it out on sheets. You don’t have to go to the village. We have the village here,” he says raising two margaritas to the sky.

“You’re the Greekest one now,” Grace says as I sit down. “The Greekest Greek. Did you sort out your passport?”

“It was such an ordeal,” I tell her. “I had to go to every office involved, one by one. And they all said they couldn’t find my paperwork or pretended they couldn’t speak English. I showed up at the police station every day just hoping they’d let me in.”

I’d been trying to get my Greek passport for years. The Greek embassy in Melbourne was open for about four hours a day, with no way of making an appointment. Their waiting room was a series of plush couches, all facing a TV that played Greek soap operas. Families congregated around the mock living room, looking angry or dismayed as the office workers smoked outside. Yiayia told me I had to stay until they gave me exactly what I wanted. I’d taken her advice with me to Greece.

“Then, after days of getting nowhere, one morning, they processed it on the spot. Made it on a laminator, my European ID. It took five minutes.” I shake my head. “Then the guy doing it said, ‘Can I ask you something?’ And I was so nervous.”

I have this stupid tattoo on my hand that was supposed to be in allegiance to the Kurdish separatist movement, in some vague way. When I got to Greece, I found out it was an aggressive anti-establishment tattoo there. And I was in the middle of Exarcheia: the most anarchistic area of Athens. Each day I wore a Band-Aid over it, though it kept falling off, so I’d try to clasp my hands together in a way that concealed it.

“I said, ‘Sure’, and all the cops turned to me. And then he said, ‘Have you ever seen the show MasterChef ? Do you know George Calombaris?’ I nearly died from relief. I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘We love him! He was here. He came to Greece.’ ”

Greece had come full circle since my grandparents came over. When I was growing up the Greeks in Greece said our family was stupid for leaving Greece to go to a country where everyone works so hard. But once the economic crisis hit, Australia was back to being the lucky country. And I was trying to complicate things by returning. They were watching me struggle against Greece – its bureaucracy, its economy – when it was what they’d walked away from.

Later, in the good room, we exchange gifts. There’s a ponytail palm with a single strand of gold tinsel draped around it, leather couches covered in plastic, opulent glass swans, a chandelier. Veronica gets a bag she wants to exchange and tells everyone so. Pappou gets something to do with home maintenance, and Yiayia’s embarrassed about receiving anything. I get money because no one knows what I like, and Dad does too. We all get Tattslotto tickets and $50. Every time I go to my grandparents’, a crisp note gets pushed into my pocket. My ex-boyfriend used to say, giving someone $50 is how you say “I love you” in Greek. My card reads:

To our Grantdaughter

Ella have a wonderful Christmas sweet hart,

Enjoy any thing you do

We hope that we have dinner all together next Christmas too

They just want to keep me close – turns out a global pandemic has taken care of that – and again I’m flooded with that sore heart feeling. I look up and lock eyes with Dad, who’s watching from the corner of the room. He smiles, gives me a slight nod and I’m embarrassed because I haven’t been paying attention. I wonder why I run away from this unbounded type of love, searching for my culture anywhere outside of this room.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 24, 2021 as "The ties that blind".

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Ella Mittas is a cooking teacher, chef and food writer.