Life

A conversation between a daughter and her father sheds light on the experience of migrant communities – and on the process of accepting family. By Ella Mittas.

Greece in Brunswick

Ella Mittas’s grandparents and father.
Credit: Ella Mittas

We are in the backyard in that good afternoon sun. The garden is true green. Mum’s brought out Coronas with lime crammed in their necks and I am lying on the verandah resting on my stomach. Light is refracting through the overgrown fennel she wants to pull out, a million hues beaming from its soft-looking fronds. I wish I could climb into it. It dances just out of my eye line.

“Your grandparents got kinda stuck in a time warp when they came to Australia,” Dad says. “They ensconced themselves in the community, but the community was all people they already knew. It became bloody Little Greece in Brunswick.”

Mum wants to get a landscape gardener out to put everything into planter boxes, but this is Dad’s backyard. He is sitting on his throne in the middle of the brick circle, surrounded by recycling tubs overflowing with tomato plants.

“And our house was the centre of it,” he says. “Pappou would sponsor anyone that wanted to come out, so there was this never-ending procession of folks staying with us. I’d forgotten, but the other day I was thinking of us watching TV as kids, and I had this image of this woman with hair rollers in, sitting with us. She was a nurse, I think, a boarder. There were always all these strangers around, all these different families. They’d live with us for a few months when they’d first arrive, then go off to start their new lives.”

Anyone who migrated had to be sponsored, and because Pappou was the one to do it, there were lots of people who had time for my grandparents. I still feel that warmth. At my first job at the IGA on Bell Street, people would point at me behind the deli counter and say, “I recognise your face, I know your family.” I’d feel protected against some sort of evil as they watched over me from the supermarket aisles.   

“Then they’d come back to celebrate name days and Easter,” Dad says. “All that kind of stuff was fantastic, but no one ever progressed. It was our little bubble in Brunswick.” He leans back in his chair. “But out of the Greeks, my parents are the most…” he shrugs. “Accepting? When I wanted to marry a skip, Pappou didn’t bat an eyelid. He said straight away, ‘Of course you’re going to, we live in Australia now.’ ”

I smile. That was Pappou’s stock phrase to cut off any conversation that was too complicated. The older Dad gets, the more like Pappou he becomes. Or maybe it’s that he is becoming more Greek – even in the way he cooks. He’s started asking Yiayia for her recipes, but doesn’t believe she’s honest when she gives them to him. He thinks we have a conspiracy against him, because his results were never as good as mine; his lemon potatoes were always too dry. At the dinner table, Yiayia whispers to me that Dad never used to like Greek food when he was a kid, that he used to cover everything in sauce to drown out the flavour.

“You know the story of how Yiayia and Pappou got together?” Dad asks.

I shake my head, embarrassed.

He tells me Pappou had been in Australia for two years before he wrote to Yiayia in the village, asking if she’d marry him. They didn’t know each other, but she came from a good family: they were well known, well respected. She was 16 when she came alone by boat, to be with a man she didn’t know. She had Dad at 18, then Yiayia Evungeli, my great-grandmother, came out to live with them.

“After she’d arrived, she lived with them for like 40, 50 years.” Dad shakes his head. “And she wasn’t the easiest woman to live with, I don’t think. But there’s no way she was going to live anywhere else. It was a matter of honour. You looked after your oldies.” He winks at me. “I’m trying to pass on this stuff to you, so you’ll look after me.”

I smile and turn my head. I know he is joking but lying here, feeling the wind through the fennel, I realise I’m thinking about which parts of the culture I want to take on. What a luxury, I think.

Dad is getting older. New lines are showing on his face, highlighted by the sun. There is no longer volatility between us, but there is still silence where there shouldn’t be. Even the fact we’ve never had this conversation is testament to how little we speak about real things. Real things like family and feelings, not about if my car had enough oil in it or when it was due to be serviced.

“Did you love it, though?” I ask. “All the Greekness?”

He frowns comically, throwing his head back. “I spent my childhood trying to be Australian,” he says. “I spent my childhood running away from being Greek.”

I frown back at him as he polishes off his beer.

“I railed against my folks,” he says. “I was embarrassed by them. And I think I hurt them a fair bit. I used to carry on, come home pissed all the time. It wasn’t until I got married that I thought, ‘Okay, it’s time to make some choices about accepting my family.’ ”

He looks at me and I hold his gaze. I know it’s that same time for me. He gives me a soft, knowing smile, the flicker of a mood I can’t quite grasp.

“I never understood that,” he says. “I spent my life running away from it and watched you keep trying to go back.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 11, 2021 as "Greece in Brunswick".

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