Archives for category: Remembrances

Tsootsoo lay dozing by the orange glow of the electric fan heater, the one my mother says brings sleep (φέρνει ύπνο), soaking up its warming rays through her big fat pink belly. From the angle of the sun piercing through the curtains onto my eyes, I figured it had to be well after four. My wristwatch said quarter to five, which meant I had slept for close to two solid hours. It was a deep, incapacitating kind of sleep, free of dreams, what my mother calls φυσικό φάρμακο, and now I felt thoroughly rejuvenated. 
    It was also that time in the afternoon when Tsootsoo usually had her dinner, and in case I forgot, she had twisted her head up off the floor and was looking directly at me with her big, brown, beckoning eyes. In anticipation of my getting up, or perhaps to prompt me into action, she propped herself up onto her backside, but sensing I was in no hurry to get up off the couch, she forlornly slumped back down onto the carpet with an audible thump, letting out a deep sigh, before rolling back on her side, while I continued to bask under the blanket in the sweet languorous after-glow of nature’s best medicine.

    With my sister out of the house and not likely to be back for another hour, I knew at some point I would have to get up and make her dinner, because to deny her at her accustomed hour would be sheer cruelty. Why couldn’t she open the refrigerator, I wondered, dice up a portion of dog loaf into her bowl, mix in some dry pellets, and feed herself? Then again, there was no guarantee she wouldn’t eat the entire loaf at once and make herself thoroughly sick. Dogs are like that; they will eat whatever is placed in front of them, to maximize their chances of survival in case of sudden scarcity. And Tsootsoo is no different. She has such a voracious appetite, she eats everything she’s given, to the point of regurgitating what her stomach cannot accommodate.

    She wasn’t always like that, but after she was neutered following the birth of her first and only litter of seven pups, sired by a beady-eyed red heeler-cross from the gas station across the highway in Five Ways where my parents used to have a small farm growing flowers, her gluttonous tendency gradually took hold, and in the ensuing years she gained so much weight that she now has to be lifted onto the couch and the back seat of the car whenever she goes for a ride. But she didn’t attain that portly state all on her own, and some of the blame must lie with my father. With her big, brown, beckoning eyes, she had little trouble seducing him into surrendering to her every nuanced demand, and with a simple bat of her eyes at dinner, he would shove half his plate into her bowl and slip it to her under the table, to the chagrin of my mother who had to watch her fine cooking on which she’d slaved hours in the kitchen preparing, being fed to a dog. But now that he’s gone, she’s turned her beguiling ways to the next available sucker who happens to be me.

    In fact, it was he who came up with the name Tsootsoo. I think it came from a female character in one of those black-and-white film comedies set in Athens in the 1960s, a “κορίτσι του εξήντα,” as they say. That was before the military junta seized power and brought the frivolity and exuberance of the times to an abrupt end. And within a year, my father and mother had immigrated to a strange new country on the other side of the world, and dragged me and my sister off with them. But that’s another story.

    It must be said my father had a particular knack for assigning apt nick-names not only to pets and people, but also to cars and various other inanimate objects. These included our utility bills for electricity and gas, which he named “Βασίλη”, as in “μικρός Βασίλης” and “μεγάλος Βασίλης” depending which was larger, a cross-lingual play on words for the name Bill in Greek, and the English word for the payment owing. But I always thought his choice of name for Tsootsoo was particularly fitting, because it had that coquettish ring to it which perfectly captured her flirtatious disposition, from her dreamy, Greta Garbo eyes, down to her overgrown toenails, and the way she liked to toy with his emotions.

    With her hunger mounting, Tsootso lifted her head up off the floor again, and stared directly into my eyes, this time with added purpose. In that primal mode of communication mutually comprehensible to higher mammals, she was telling me her hunger was becoming insufferable, and she would not stop staring into my eyes until I was so stricken with guilt, I would have no choice than to get up and make her dinner, or else risk falling ill. Now there’s a thought: can guilt actually make one physically sick? What about the pernicious curse of “the evil eye”? There must some truth in it, seeing it’s so deeply embedded in the folklore of so many cultures.

    I guess it’s possible, by suppressing the immune system through the hypophyseal-adrenal axis which mediates the body’s responses to stress, both physical as well as psychological. In fact, there’s quite a large body of literature on the subject, which comes under the general head of “psychosomatic illness”, although serious-minded scientists are still loath to acknowledge its legitimacy. Apparently, a particularly debilitating form of psychological stress whose effects have been well documented in mammals is “subjugation stress.” This results in the suppression of the subservient animal’s immunity, causing it to fall victim to various opportunistic infections, as well as driving it to self-harm. And in terms of psychological impact, it would fair to assume that stress occasioned by guilt and shame would not be all that dissimilar in it’s sequelae, depending, of course, on the degree to which the subject actually “feels” guilt or shame, or any other deeply conscience-troubling emotion. Therefore, in response to Tsootsoo’s imploring, guilt-inducing stare, my own immunological defenses could well be knocked out, and I too fall victim to some opportunistic disease. That’s on top of the neurophysiological effects on my brain to make me more pliant and submissive to her demands in the future, and avoid sickening guilt.

    I guess from an evolutionary perspective, guilt-induced stress may have arisen among social animals to ensure the group’s survival as a self-perpetuating unit. It may do this by acting as a disciplinary mechanism to enforce docility and cooperation among compliant members so they don’t stray from their assigned rôles in the division of labor, thus helping maintain the group’s functional cohesiveness. The present case, however, involved not an extended kin group, but two individuals from different species, albeit sharing a common ancestor in their distant past; that is, a neutered female canine using her wiles to induce an unattached and somewhat weak-willed human male in her eyes, into acting in her favor. This relationship was more akin to parasitism, or perhaps some kind of symbiotic codependence, than anything directed towards hierarchy enforcement, and alludes to advanced cognitive functions in dogs. Or does it?

    Maybe their brains are just wired to respond to sensory cues from humans with behaviors that appear perceptive, but which are nothing more than an elaboration of their in-born instincts for self-preservation within their social group. And conversely, our own brains are wired to recognize behavioral cues in them, as surrogates for human companions in our lives, and to respond accordingly, without any high level cognitive exchange. Nevertheless, perhaps my getting up to feed Tsootsoo had some hidden benefit(s) for me as well, apart from warding off any potential guilt-induced suppression of my immune system, although in her present physical condition, with her refractory obesity and signs of senility setting in, her ability to keep watch on the house and alert me of unwelcome visitors, is not what it once was.

    As I lay there pondering over the behavioral strategies of dogs vis á vis humans, suddenly, something a fellow student once said in my zoology class, came to mind, back when I was an undergraduate at Monash. We were having an informal discussion on the ethics of using animals in scientific research, when girl, I think her name was Cath, declaimed with the unshakeable confidence of a confirmed scientist-in-the-making, that the only reason people felt any empathy towards animals, especially mammals, was simply because they were “anthropomorphic.” She followed this by saying that no-one ever cried over a snake or toad left for dead on the road, and that was because they weren’t soft and cuddly like cats and dogs or guinea-pigs, and then smugly sat back for the rest of us to digest her succinct summary of the central delusion at the core of the animal liberation movement, which was starting to make waves on campus.

    Like the others present, I thought her argument made perfectly logical sense, not least because I couldn’t stand animal liberationists either, with their holier-than-thou sanctimoniousness, and their persecuted herd mentality. Moreover, we were rational scientists, or on the way to becoming ones, and we couldn’t allow such puerile sentimentality to get in the way of our search for knowledge and enlightenment. It was our duty to study nature objectively and dispassionately for what it was, a vast interplay of forces, actions and reactions, governed by immanent laws and relationships which it was our task to identify in the biological context. Purely subjective factors like emotions and feelings for animals had no place in our noble quest, because in the end, as human beings, we were distinguished from them by being uniquely conscious of our own consciousness, whereas they were incapable of reflection, let alone higher concepts like morality and ethics.

    I can’t remember whether I mentioned this to the class, as my contribution to the discussion, but I recall the issue had brought to mind my uncle in Greece, whom I had just visited the previous year, and how he put down tens of cows each day at the abattoirs with a single shot of his stun gun between their eyes, and yet he was the most even-tempered person in the world who would never intentionally harm another human being, or animal for that matter. But there he was slaughtering tens of cows each day, because to him they were just another source food that had to be harvested and processed to supply the people’s needs. Therefore, it was ludicrous to think that scientists who sacrificed animals in the course of their experiments were inherently evil, because it was all done for the greater good of humanity.

    On reflection, however, as I lay there in my cozy post-nap inertia, savoring the attendant clarity of mind, I now wasn’t so sure about this girl’s reasoned defense of animal experimentation. It wasn’t because I had since forsaken meat, with the exception of some fish and poultry, not for any ethical reasons, but simply because I developed a distaste for meat in general. I remembered there was something about her comment that had piqued my sensibilities that day, but because I was so taken by her apparent maturity and her succinct eloquence, like everyone else, I put my reservations aside and voiced my agreement. But some ten years later, I now recognized why I felt that twinge of resentment. It was because her argument was too glib. It was something a naive undergraduate would say, having heard it from others, without fully understanding its philosophical subtleties. It betrayed a firmness of mind in one who had yet to experience the vicissitudes of life’s fortunes, and in the absence of any vitiating self-doubt, she was fully convinced of its surface logic, and content to espouse it for her own self-aggrandizement.

    As for the logic of her argument, that purely emotive factors were at play in people’s objection to animal experimentation, and one could dismiss them as peevish, and their reasoning as false; well, I now questioned that as well, because the term anthropomorphism merely described the condition by which animals and humans shared recognizable physical similarities, and it was wrong and presumptuous to conclude that those similarities were to blame for the distorted views of animal liberationists and their like, simply because they could read in those anthropomorphic features signals that had the power to move. Her dogmatic belief in the truth of her own convictions had prevented her from contemplating the possibility that those signals may be a harbinger or warning of imminent calamity for society on its present course, even if the nature of the threat was not immediately clear. In other words, she had no appreciation of the absurd.

    As to why I might have recalled her comments that afternoon, while musing over my relationship with Tsootsoo, and the extent to which I was her slave, and she mine; I suspect it had to do with the fact that a few weeks earlier, I was looking for the telephone number of someone in the Department of Zoology at Melbourne University to discuss something they’d published, and I came across her name on the list of faculty, not knowing she worked there. And when I saw it, the first thing that came into my head were her comments in our zoology class, which were still floating around in my head just below the surface, on the off-chance they might inform some relevant thought.

    In any case, it appeared she’d found a comfortable niche for herself among fellow mockers of the psychic connectedness between humans and anthropomorphic animals. I say this in all facetiousness, because I’ve always regarded zoologists as these strong-willed, staunchly atheistic dogmatists who eschew mystical contemplation like it was the plague. And like the over-zealous, godless crusaders for nature they like to play, never having outgrown their penchant for cutting up dead animals and pulling the wings off flies and the legs off insects, they seem perpetually obsessed with classifying them down to their minutest details, to discover where they came from, and why they are what they are, and why they live where they live. And something told me she was not different and her views hadn’t changed in the intervening years, not that I knew her that well.

     What I did know, because she had told everyone, as is the wont of proud products of middle-classes everywhere, who draw self-affirming inspiration from their parents’ achievements, and those of their parents’ parents, including heroic exploits in World Wars, was that her father was a retired commercial airline pilot and her mother a teacher of some sort, and that she grew up on a large rural property, surrounded by farm animals and those native to the surrounding bush. Given that background, I assumed she had had a good, thorough education which had instilled in her at an early age a deep fascination for the natural sciences, so that the mere mention of the words “science” and “nature” conjured up a warm and welcoming place, in contrast to the cold “other worldliness” these same words evoked in my own mind.

    And true to her academic calling, and the implicit desideratum in its disciples for ideological constancy and resolute defense of one’s convictions, personal and professional, in all likelihood she still firmly believed that humans and animals could never have true intellectual intercourse. Ergo, like any other natural resource, they were at man’s disposal to be studied and exploited for the greater good of society, regardless of what some bleeding heart animal liberationists believed.

     With my memory jogged, something else she said on another occasion now came to mind, reinforcing my suspicion that her views had fundamentally not changed, given that people’s views in general rarely change, especially if there’s no reason.

    Anyhow, a few years later, we were reunited as graduate students in the Department of Physiology. And one morning she burst into the common room we all shared looking very excited and full of energy, and began to relate with manic glee how on the way back from a field trip with her colleagues to the koala sanctuary on Phillip Island the night before, they struck and killed a particularly plumb rabbit in their Landrover. She said they stopped and picked up the dead animal, still in one piece, put it in a box, and when they got home, they skinned and cleaned it, and cooked it for dinner, and it was the best free meal they’d ever had. Her story, however, left me annoyed, because I sensed she was using it to assert her superiority by implying that her research was much more important than ours and had wider significance, because it entailed going on extended field trips and studying animals in their natural habitat, whereas the rest of us were largely confined to our laboratories, slaving away on esoteric topics that no-one care about. Moreover I found her vain machismo somewhat repellent in someone who was ostensibly female. It was as if she was still out to prove her imperviousness to puerile anthropomorphic sentimentality, and debunk the perceived mental softness and emotional lability in her gender.

    By now, the animal liberation movement had become more vocal on campus, holding rallies and demonstrations, demanding an end to the use of animals in scientific experiments, especially primates. And as was her wont, Kath didn’t hide her visceral dislike of them, deriding their tactics and threats to sabotage laboratories with plans of her own to derail their efforts; whereas for me, I had grown indifferent to the whole issue. In fact, secretly I wished they would succeed in shutting down all the animal facilities, because I had begun to lose faith in science, and was struggling to maintain an interest in my own research project which entailed recording electrical signals from tissue samples dissected from the intestines of rodents, humanely sacrificed, of course, in accordance with the guidelines set out by the University Animal Ethics Committee. Moreover, with my increasing politicization in regard to the rôle of science in society, and exactly where I fitted in as a product of the immigrant working class, seeking to transcend my station, I figured there were bigger issues on the intellectual horizon to concern myself with, and the ethics of using animals in scientific research didn’t figure prominently.

    In retrospect, perhaps she was just trying to express in the only way she knew, the fact that the anthropomorphic lagomorph they had accidently struck and killed on the highway that night belonged to an introduced species that had done enormous damage to the environment, and had displaced many native animals in the process. Therefore, she or anyone else for that matter need not feel guilty about killing such an animal, when it would likely have been killed by foxes anyway. But as I thought over her story again, I remembered that what had annoyed me more than her dogmatic stance against the animal liberationists and her machismic bravado was what I perceived as her hypocrisy in regard to her views on anthropomorphism and the sentimentality it inspired.

    This had to do with the fact that her research project was concerned with finding a cure for a chlamydia-like infection that was rendering female koalas infertile. As such, it threatened to wipe out the colony on Phillip Island which was a popular tourist attraction, especially among big-spending Japanese tourists who flocked there to see these lovable, furry creatures unique to Australia. Thus, while she could belittle others and arrogantly accuse them of being irrational in their opposition to the exploitation of animals in scientific research, and in whatever other legitimate use sanctioned by society, duped by their anthropomorphic features, she herself, through her research project, had a vested interest in their continued anthropomorphic appeal to gullible tourists.

    I suppose in her mind curing koalas of a devastating disease was fully consistent with her views, because in doing so she wasn’t motivated by any particular anthropomorphic sentimentality inspired by these furry creatures, although she wouldn’t have objected if it came across that way. Her actions were fully in line with her beliefs that animals existed for man to exploit for his own benefit, humanly of course, even in the wild, and in the end, her work was intended for greater economic good of Australia, by ensuring the commercial viability of a key tourist attraction, which benefited everyone, including herself, through the research funds her laboratory received from the government through the taxes it collected from tourists and associated business activity they stimulated.

    Although, seen from this angle there was no contradiction between her beliefs and her actions, I wondered whether in working to save those koalas from dying off didn’t unwittingly betray her own anthropomorphic feelings towards them, given that the diseased animals were females, and as a woman and a future mother, one thinks, her faculty for empathy had driven her to reify that psychic connection between humans and animals, as loath as she would be to admit. Still it bugged me that I never once heard her express any skepticism or doubt about what she was doing, nor did she evince any interest in topics outside the realm of science, like politics, except in a strictly polemic sense, as it pertained to her own field, as per her views on anthropomorphic sentimentality and animal liberationists.

    It was if she was incapable of or didn’t allow herself any degree of deep thought outside her narrow field, lest it might undermine her beliefs and shatter her view of the world, and where she fitted into it. Moreover, since to me she represented the dominant class that underpinned the power structure in Australian society, her seeming arrogance had succeeded in provoking my burgeoning antipathy towards the wider social formation in which I found myself, concerning its historical foundations and the sociopolitical forces that had shaped it. Thus, it followed that I should project onto her my increasing rejection of that society.

    In her I could see glimpses of the conquerious mindset of those who had come before her to take possession of this ungoverned land inhabited by backward savages, and proceed to “improve” it unhindered, and install on it a society created in their own exalted image, based on strict property relations and the pursuit of profit. In her, that plundering spirit of her forebears had been transformed and refined into a desire to take possession of its heart and soul by extracting from it as much knowledge as she and others like her could, about all the resident life-forms, its flora and fauna, its geographical features, and everything else on which the sun shone within its shores, in the name of scientific progress, and thereby make the conquest complete. As such, she and her kind were anathema, and I saw in her proud exaltation of nature and science a sign of the inherited psychopathology and intellectual shallowness of a people too afraid to contemplate their own insignificance.

    If I had to say, in the end, I didn’t much like Cath. Not because she was completely bereft of any endearing qualities, because there was a certain tom-boyish charm about her, and at times she displayed a raw honesty, free of pretension, that was refreshing. But she seemed devoid of any engaging metaphysical bent, which I guess had served her well in her chosen academic field, helping her conform to the accepted archetype of a zoologist. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so critical, because Rosa Luxenburg was also a materialist and a devoted student of nature, and it didn’t affect her commitment to the revolutionary struggle. But she was a naturalist, as opposed to a zoologist. Her view of nature was informed by the material interconnectedness of everything in the physical realm, humans, animals, plants, and everything else, where countries and national boundaries had no place; whereas zoologists, to my mind, are hyper-vigilant narrow-minded philistines who, fearing loss of their fragile identity, under the threat of shame and ostracism by their peers, dare not question or transgress the defining principles of their discipline, whatever they are. Moreover, as academics, they are beholden to the whims and dictates of the state educational apparatus, and their views are necessarily informed by crass nationalism that stifles intellectual exploration and revolutionary thinking.

    On a more personal level, perhaps my dislike of Cath betrays my envy of her success, having secured for herself a tenured academic position, whereas I’m a mere research scientist on a soft-money, back at Monash, I’m embarrassed to admit. Moreover, if I were to be honest, I would also have to admit that at the root of my dislike was my jealousy of her outgoing, self-confident, and apparent freedom from self-doubt, while I was, and still am, constantly tormented by deep skepticism, and crippled by the fear that I didn’t know what I was doing, trapped among people I couldn’t relate to.

    It was different, however, when I first entered university. I was so relieved to be finally rid of the hellish trauma of high school, and took to my classes with enthusiasm to learn as much as I could. Despite not knowing anyone, except for one or two students from high school with whom I was never really friends, I felt I was now part of a privileged group of like-minded young adults who would one day assume the reins of power in society and guide it according to our own collective vision. In retrospect, my optimism was driven by a mixture of naive, post-adolescent pride in my modest scholastic achievements, and oddly enough, in Australia itself, the nation and the society, to which I felt a sense of belonging like never before.

    But after a few months, even though I had made a couple of new friends, I was beset by debilitating alienation and I began to question what I was doing here, not just at university, but in Australia itself. I sensed there was something fundamentally false about my eagerness to assume for myself an identity to which I believed I had a just claim, when the undeniable fact was that I really didn’t belong among these people, and had only fooled myself into believing I did. And once that idea firmly established itself in my mind I became increasingly preoccupied with finding a way of extricating myself from that horribly stifling environment.

    I ended up deferring the year and went to work in a refrigerator factory. I did that for about six months during which time I earned enough money to buy a 35mm SLR camera with wide-angle and zoom lenses, and pay for a trip back to Greece with the aim of discovering my true identity to fill the gaping void. There I stayed for about two months, hosted by my relatives, before returning to Australia, thoroughly dejected and disillusioned by the experience, and the following year I re-enrolled at university to continue my studies. To overcome the conflicting emotions and confused cultural loyalties, I threw myself into my work, determined to finish my degree, and not think about such intractable questions like where I belonged, until I had graduated.

    It paid off because I quickly settled into the routine of university life and started doing fairly well academically. And so long as I continued to mimic my fellow students and conformed to what was expected of me, it was easy to believe that I was expanding my intellectual horizons by participating in such discussions as the ethics of using anthropomorphic animals in scientific experiments, and that everything would turn out well, and I would do my parents proud. But that niggling feeling of being an outsider was always there, lurking below the surface.

    It was starting to get a little nippy and Tsootsoo needed to be fed. A hot cup of coffee would wake me up and warm my insides quite nicely. Pulling the cover aside, I put on my slippers and made my way to the kitchen, with Tsootsoo following, tapping out a pitter patter rhythm on the kitchen floor with her overgrown toenails. As she watched me preparing to grind some coffee, she slumped against the sliding door. Temporarily distracted by a flea on her hind leg, she began grunting and gnawing at it with her front teeth, but stopped and moved when I prodded her so she wouldn’t break the glass panel with the jerky movements of her fat rump. Turning to her, I reassured her in my dog pidgin, a mixture of Greek and English, spoken in a childish tone, in deference to her less advanced intellect, that as soon as I had set up the coffee maker, I would start on her dinner. She seemed to understand and lay down to wait patiently.

    While the coffee brewed, I diced up some dog loaf into her bowl, as Tsootsoo gave out a few plaintive yelps for me to hurry up. To remind her just who was boss, I teased her by lowering the bowl just above her nose and then pretended to take it away, at which she became agitated and let out a low disapproving growl. Then, as if scared into submission, I immediately put down the bowl and she leapt at it, covering it with her head and shoulders, in case I changed my mind. I filled her water bowl and then poured myself a hot cup of black coffee.

    It had to be regular dark roasted “Columbo Supreme.” I liked it straight black, drunk from my white porcelain mug, stained brown, because I rarely washed it, except to rinse out the grounds, since soap residue, even trace amounts, affected the flavor, not to mention my brain. I emphasize regular because of a rather nasty experience I had one time in Reno, where I went to work after I got my doctorate in 1987.

     Unbeknownst to me, I had bought a bag of hazelnut flavored coffee beans. The packaging on the regular and the hazelnut flavored varieties was almost identical, except for the flavor printed at the bottom, which I never bothered to read, having assumed from the label on the shelf that all the bags in that particular row were of the regular, unflavored variety. But when I got home and unpacked the groceries, I could smell a weird but vaguely familiar aroma coming from the coffee beans which I recognized as hazelnut. I assumed the bag must have been stored next to hazelnut flavored coffee somewhere along the way, and the packaging had absorbed some of that aroma.

    As I prepared to make coffee, I noticed the smell of hazelnut got stronger when I snipped open the bag. Ignoring it, I scooped some beans into the grinder and ground them up. But after taking off the lid, realizing the source of that abominable smell was the coffee itself and not the packaging, my heart sank in my chest. And picking up the bag, sure enough, right there at the bottom, the label confirmed its contents: two pounds of hazelnut flavored dark-roasted coffee beans.

    It appeared that someone at the supermarket had deliberately placed it among bags of the regular, unflavored coffee beans so that unsuspecting customers would buy it, since the stock wasn’t moving and they had to sell it somehow; it was the only explanation. I tried to calm down by telling myself that hazelnut flavored coffee wasn’t all that different from regular coffee, and my senses would soon become desensitized to it, and after a few days I won’t be able to tell the difference. So I went ahead and brewed some coffee and reluctantly drank it down.

    Next morning I ground up some more beans and brewed up a fresh pot, and sat down to have breakfast. However, with each sip, that nauseous aroma of sweaty socks was becoming increasingly intolerable. It was nothing like the invigorating coprous stink of regular dark-roasted Colombian coffee beans I was accustomed to. But I persisted, in the expectation that my senses would soon get used to it in the coming days, and in the meantime I just had to endure this minor irritation. But after I had drunk about half the cup, I promptly got up, went straight to the kitchen and poured the remainder down the sink and then emptied the entire pot after it, before thoroughly rinsing out both under hot running water to get rid of that ghastly aroma. In fact, I could only relax after I had taken the bag from the pantry cupboard, sealed it up, and disposed of it in the dumpster outside, so that no hint of that dastardly smell would remain in my apartment, forfeiting the $10 refund had I returned it to the supermarket. I took some solace in the fact that at least it wasn’t vanilla flavored, an even worse abomination I once drank out of curiosity at an airport and spat out all over myself.

    I’m sure there are others like me who abhor flavored coffee. Perhaps with the increasing penetration of chemical additives and flavorings in our food to trick us into eating more than necessary, and help the big food manufacturers increase their profits, we will eventually become extinct, there being nothing for us to eat. Or perhaps, under the mysterious guidance of an evolutionarily stable strategy encoded in our genes, we will organize ourselves into small sequestered communities up in the hills, growing our own food, eschewing all unnatural and chemically modified food products, and breeding among ourselves to preserve our recessive taste and smell alleles, so that when everyone else is dead from all the nice tasting artificial poisons accumulated in their bodies, which they happily consumed thinking they were harmless, we can re-populate the earth with a new breed of human beings, living in harmony with nature, and thus, the meek will finally reap their just rewards.

    I took a few aniseed biscuits from the cupboard and went back to the living room with my coffee. Tsootsoo, having cleaned her bowl had come and planted herself between me and the heater, oblivious of her fat backside sizzling away, as she stared at me imploringly with her big, brown, beckoning eyes. To tease her again would be too patronizing and lead her to question my fidelity and reassess her loyalty. So I promptly broke off half a biscuit finger, dipped it into the coffee, checked it wasn’t scalding and presented it to her supplicating eyes. Delicately, she picked it out of my outstretched fingertips with her front teeth, and in one quick gulp made it disappear.

    After I finished my coffee, it would be time for her constitutional, pausing at her leisure at every tree and telegraph pole on the way to the park to sniff for scent left by others. Somewhere along the way, she would drop her load which I would be obliged to collect into a black plastic bag, in case anyone was watching and reported me to the municipal authorities if I failed to do so. There would be no forgetting it, because she would sit by the door and stare at me until I was so racked with guilt, I had no choice than to get up, fetch her collar and allow her majesty to lead the way.

    Drawing the curtain aside, I could see the shadows getting longer in the low sun. In less than an hour it would be dark. I thought how easy it would be to leave if it weren’t for Tsootsoo. To take her with me at her age would be much too cruel.         

(Melbourne, 1992.  I had just returned from my father’s funeral in Thessaloniki. I was staying at my sister’s house in Chadstone, while my mother remained in Greece. Tsootsoo was now nine years old. But within a few months she’d be dead, from complications of surgery to remove a tumorous growth in her pancreas)

I want to express in words what I feel. But I am only me, there is no other. Meaningless non sequiturs and illogical metaphors follow statements like senescent leaves falling off trees in autumn. It’s now late July 2010, a measure of time, of the months in the year, and a count of the years passed since year zero, the birth of Jesus Christ our savior who died on the cross as a sacrifice to God for all our sins.

Since I last put pen to paper my mind has been subjected to incalculable sensory inputs, discrete to my perception, but in reality continuous and intertwined. It has organized those it can make sense of into recallable memories which obey the rules of cause and effect, or “objective chorality” as my housemate in Reno was wont to pronounce with paternalistic superciliousness, because his father was a physicist, whereas mine was a lowly cheese-maker-cum-factory worker-cum-flower farmer. He was paraphrasing Marshall McLuhan, his compatriot, because being bereft of any original thought he wanted to pass himself off as intellectually superior by associating himself with the ideas of famous others, even though I’d never heard of Marshall McCluhan. As for how well my brain has retained my life’s memories, all I can say is: do memories exist if they can never be recalled?

Last year one Saturday, almost a year to the day my mother died (she died, in fact, on August 23rd 2008), when the antipodean winter reluctantly makes way for spring’s indecisive entrance, I drove to Richmond to see the house we lived in after arriving down in Melbourne from the Bonegilla migrant camp outside Albury, in late February 1969. Like many of the other houses on Wellington Street it has been fixed up. In fact the entire area south ofSwan Street has undergone a rejuvenation of sorts, a makeover if you like, or gentrification. It is now inhabited mainly by young urban professionals with or without small children, content to be part of a medium-to-high-density, sustainable residential community with ready access to public transport and all the amenities and services the nearby central business district has to offer. While not quite bona fide members of the urban elite establishment, they live close enough to be demographically lumped in with them while still retaining a vicarious and ennobling connection with working classdom, albeit in acquired retrospection.

All this may sound like I don’t particularly like yuppies; that’s because I can’t stand them. The main reason they live in places like Richmond is because they’re so lacking in substance, they’re desperate to attach themselves to a historic and somewhat mythic demographic they believe embodies the character they wish to project of themselves, best described as conformist non-conformists, in the hope this will unequivocally establish their socio-political credentials in the wider social formation. This is despite the fact that every opinion they express reflects their fundamental vacuousness, which of course they vigorously and vociferously deny through self-fulfilling argumentation in the various channels of mass communication, electronic and print, and shake their fist with rage at anyone who dares hint that their sanctimonious self-righteousness is merely a bluff for their inner insecurities. Thus, I avoid them.

In any case, the semi-detached two-bedroom house we once lived in is situated towards the far end of Wellington Street, away from Swan Street, on the corner of Blanche Street where there’s a kind of dog-leg to the right, a disjunction if you like, after which Wellington Street continues south for a bit before ending in a cul-de-sac with two narrow blue-stone alleyway running of it in opposite directions. The side of our former house facing south actually borders Blanche Street, which is really a one-way lane, barely wide enough to accommodate one vehicle at a time. But since it’s paved and has a narrow sidewalk with houses that front onto it, I guess it still qualifies as an actual street.

On the side opposite along Blanche Street, running from the corner of Wellington Street to Cremorne Street is a twelve-foot high red brick wall topped with rusted barbed wire, somewhat reminiscent of a Berlin Wall from Victorian times, but on a smaller scale; or else it could be an outer wall of some sort of correctional facility on the other side. Originally it formed the perimeter of a factory the nature of which I’m not sure. But judging from the main building which the wall joins onto, and which sits diagonally across from our former house on the dog-leg corner, my guess is that it was a packing or storage facility of some sort that required goods to be hoisted up from street level, or lowered down to be carted away, by an over-hanging beam and pulley system on the upper level. The rusted beam was still in place when we lived here, sticking out of the boarded up door, but it has since been removed and the door opening has been bricked off.

Whatever the business of the factory, it had ceased to operate by the time we moved into the area, and the high wall along Blanche Street enclosed the yard of a trucking company that went by the name of “Arthur’s Transport”, while the three-story red brick building on the corner lay disused. This my friends and I confirmed one Sunday after we crawled under the front gate on Cremorne Street to go and collect caterpillars from a native willow tree that grew inside the wall next to it, and then went exploring inside to discover that it was largely empty except for some old rusted machinery covered with layers of dust, with cobwebs entangling the beams and rafters, and all the windows broken and the doors falling off their hinges.

Back then, the street was filled with immigrant families from various countries around the world including Greece, Italy, Turkey and Mauritius, with a few Anglo-Australian families thrown in. I can’t imagine any of them still living here. I assume they or their children moved out to the suburbs long ago, like we did, or returned to their respective countries of origin; or the parents have simply passed away and the children sold off the properties. Having said that I have a strange suspicion the Greek family from whom we rented the house are still living next door at 61 Wellington Street in some capacity, either one or both parents, George and Georgia, on their own, or with one or more of their children and perhaps their own family. I say that because, even back then, as an impressionable eight year-old, they struck me as the type of people who had little desire to venture beyond their immediate surroundings, and despite having arrived in Australia some ten years before us, George didn’t even drive a car.

Perhaps after saving up enough money to buy their own house, and then the one next door which they duly converted into two rental units, they stopped looking beyond the horizon, and except for the occasional trip to Elwood Beach on the train in the summer, they never ventured further afield. It helped that they had close relatives living nearby, up on Richmond Hill north of Swan Street. They also had relatives in Sydney whom they visited once every couple of years. But according to George Melbourne was much better than Sydney by miles because, among other things, the trains here had louder claxons compared to the puny sounding ones on Sydney’s trains. Even though I’d never been to Sydney to compare for myself, it was something that stuck in my head, I guess because I could hear the trains from our house most nights sounding their horn as they pulled away from Richmond station next to Swan Street, and would assure myself they were louder than the ones in Sydney.

George’s vain pride in Melbourne and in Australia, however, left me confused, because like us they were Greek and compared to our own uncertain roots, he always liked to boast of his family’s Spartan heritage. But otherwise he rarely spoke of Greece, and when he did it was mostly in disparaging terms. Whereas for us, Greece was a constant preoccupation, with my mother always reminding us that we would be heading back the following year to be reunited with my aunt and uncle. Nevertheless, thanks to George’s avowed reverence for his adopted city, soon I too was infected with the same parochial pride in my new city, and in geography class I never wasted an opportunity to tell my classmates that Melbourne was much better than Sydney, proof of which was that trains in Melbourne had much louder sounding claxons.

When I look back on those years, sometimes I wonder how determinant my ready acceptance of such illumining disclosures were, however trivial or second hand, in shaping my character. Or was it merely a reflection of it, an expression of something already there, akin to the belief of ancient Greeks that all learning is recollection and knowledge is inhered in the soul? In this regard, was my unqualified adoption of the bombastic views of George and my regurgitation of them without reservation an indication of my nascent elitism and my innate desire to impress my peers with my privileged knowledge? Or was it just a reflection of a natural desire by any newcomer to want to assimilate into their new environment and be accepted by those around them, by ingratiating themselves with them through flattery and imitation? Or was it an early sign that I was starting to identify with my oppressors, something akin to a Stockholm syndrome, of which George had an advanced case, and irredeemably so?

Anyhow, on this particular Saturday I drove to Richmond from my house in Chadstone in the south-eastern suburbs, some ten miles away, and turning left into Wellington Street from Swan Street, I stopped and parked my car just around the corner from the red brick building which was in the process of being converted into loft-style apartments. Through my driver’s side window I had a good view of 63A Wellington Street without having to get out, and took a few photographs using the zoom function on my digital camera.

I could see that the front façade and the wall on the side abutting Blanche Street had been repainted the same color as forty years ago, a washed out lemony green. In addition it had a new corrugated iron roof put on in exactly the same style as the old one. The front picket fence, however, was a new feature, a faded grey of weathered hardwood. It had replaced the rusty waist-high Cyclone fence and the creaky gate of old which I could almost picture myself pushing open, walking the few steps up the narrow concrete path on the side of the patch of grass that was the front lawn, up onto the small veranda and front door.

The street itself was eerily quiet. Not a soul could be seen or heard either outside or in the front yards or verandas of the few residences that didn’t have a six-foot high wall along the front for privacy. This was in stark contrast to how I remembered the neighborhood from forty years earlier when you could see into the front yards of houses and front windows and my friends and I would chase one another up and down the street after school and on weekends, kicking around a plastic football or playing street cricket with the ball often landing on people’s roofs or front doors and windows, sometimes breaking them, while we yelled ununderstood obscenities at cars and their drivers who dared disrupt our games.

As I sat in my car, snippets of all kinds of memories came flooding back in a random stream seamlessly superseding one another. But they evoked little emotion. Perhaps this was because I was overly anxious that some paranoid house owner peering from behind the curtains would come out at any minute and confront this stranger taking photographs of their houses form inside his car. Somehow I didn’t think my explanation that I was only taking pictures of the house I used to live in for my photo album would satisfy them. Nevertheless I remained gazing across at our old house, curious to see just what type of people now lived there.

I doubted they were newly arrived immigrants; for a start, the rent would be prohibitively expensive. From its well-restored condition and the neat and tidy front yard, my guess was that it was owned and occupied by a young professional couple who took pride in their humble Depression-era, semi-detached dwelling. Whoever they happened to be, I felt a strange affinity with them all of a sudden, as if having lived in the same house and in the same neighborhood had imbued us with a like outlook on the world. But our respective circumstances were completely different, I thought, because, whereas we had lived there out of necessity, the present occupants more than likely owned the house and had chosen to live here over other less expensive areas in Melbourne, figuring it was a good long-term investment, given that Richmond was steeped in history and character, and such intangibles accrue with time, adding value to the property. But this was purely conjecture on my part. Maybe they too were compelled to live here, so as not to have far to travel to their workplaces, or because they preferred to walk and use public transport rather than drive everywhere. But I would only be able to confirm that if I actually met them in person, which wasn’t on my agenda that particular afternoon.

The adjoining unit was done up in the same style and was equally well maintained, and as I continued gazing at them and the cars parked on the street at the front, the more I could appreciate the appeal of wanting to live here. For one there was the physical proximity to one’s neighbors that encouraged social interaction and engendered a close sense of community that was so lacking in the alienating sparseness of outer suburbia. However, this was counterbalanced by the fact that the Monash tollway which carried tens of thousands of vehicles each day and well into the night when all the heavy trucks come out like nocturnal beasts was only a block to the south. In fact, by my reckoning, the main outbound tunnel ran more or less right under Wellington Street, if not our old house itself, and the exhaust towers had to be somewhere in the general vicinity. Moreover the area itself was surrounded by roads that carried heavy traffic throughout the day, filling the air with toxic exhaust fumes and fine, sub-microscopic particulates, which couldn’t possibly do one’s health much good.

As I sat in my car, I was also keeping a close eye on 61 Wellington Street. Compared to the well-looked after, semi-detached units next door, the house in which George and Georgia and their three children used to live had fallen into a noticeable state of disrepair. The trees along the side fence and the bushes inside the doubled-fronted Cyclone wire fence now thoroughly rusted were overgrown, as were the grass and the weeds in the front yard. It added to my suspicion that George probably still lived here with his wife, refusing to sell and having nowhere else to go, with no desire of returning to Greece to live out his remaining years. But he was now too frail to cut the grass with his push rotary mower, and she had grown too old to take care of the garden.

I could almost picture him in his dressing gown, with messy grey hair down past his shoulders and a long monastic beard, sitting in his arm chair under the lemon tree in the common concrete-paved back yard we shared with him and the other tenant occupying the adjoining unit, leisurely smoking a cigarette and loftily arguing religion and politics in his terse, laconic manner with my father who courteously obliged. Having arrived in Australia well before us, he probably thought he had something to learn from George about this new country. But if truth be told, he had little time for people like him, and when he had finished his cigarette, he would promptly excuse himself, leaving George to ponder confusedly over some cryptically sarcastic parting remark of his own.

For someone not much older than my father, with three children about the same age as me and my sister, George struck me as a peculiar figure when I first saw him. But there was something about his eccentricity that struck a vague chord. His thin and gaunt appearance, and his detached and unsociable manner must have subconsciously recalled my reclusive uncle back in Greece, that is, my father’s younger brother, from the few times I saw him before we left for Australia. Perhaps this resemblance explained my father’s veiled derision of George, because like his brother, he also shunned people and eschewed the modern world. But George’s unconventional appearance and his unpredictable cantankerous outbursts would strike fear in me, but at other times he seemed quite timid and withdrawn, and I felt more pity than fear when I saw him sitting on his own.

According to my parents, whom I overheard talking about him one Sunday with some visitors to the house, George wasn’t always like that. Apparently he had quit his factory job years earlier, having gone mad, “τρελλάθηκε,” they said. This happened after the family returned from Greece bitterly disappointed at having failed to settle back in their part of Peloponessus, at the height of the junta years. They said he had spent time at “Kew”, which was a reference to the psychiatric hospital situated in that sedate suburb in the leafy outer east of Melbourne, and which I believe is still operating in some capacity. For some reason, that particular institution was well known among Greek immigrants, and the refrain “θα πάς στο Κιού” had passed into the Greek migrant vernacular as a kind of admonition to those who dared stray too far from the approved path laid out for migrant workers in this faraway land, because if they did so, they were apt to go mad and be locked up in “Kew” and given pills to make them forget their woes and stop worrying.

After hearing all this about George, I realized he was in fact what a real-life “mental case” looked like. It was a term I often heard used at school among my new friends, but I had no idea as to who or what it actually referred to. But now I did. It was someone like George, with long hair and a beard, who didn’t work and stayed home all day dressed in his robe, shunning people and mocking whatever they had to say; while his wife looked after the house and went off in the evenings to clean offices in the city to earn enough to make ends meet. Although not all “mental cases” fitted his description, the allusion was clear enough for me to draw a general conclusion, which was that they didn’t look and act like “normal” people. And the fact that they didn’t meant one had to be wary of them. Thus, from then on, I avoided George when I could help it, and made sure he wasn’t sitting outside before I dared go use the shared toilet at the back of their house.

To be honest, I’m not exactly sure why I went to Wellington Street that Saturday. On the surface, I set out on a whim to drive to the city by way of Richmond to relieve my boredom. But on the way there, a more purposeful objective suggested itself. And this was that, by going to see my old neighborhood and house again, this might inspire enough of a sense of belonging to conciliate me with the idea of finally committing myself to this place for the long-term and settling down, as much as I abhorred the notion of having to formally pledge allegiance to a country, any country really, especially a monarchy, after I saw the effect it had .on my father.

He had put it off as long as he could. But when he turned sixty-four, he finally relented and decided to become a naturalized Australian citizen, believing this was a necessary step for him to qualify for his old-age pension when he turned sixty-five the following year. In fact, this wasn’t a strict requirement, but disconnected Greeks of his generation all believed it was, guided by blissful ignorance of government policy, in a country from which they felt largely disenfranchised, feeding a collective indifference to its laws, but at the same time a fear that if they didn’t take out citizenship before they turned sixty-five they would lose all their entitlements, or have to wait another ten years before becoming eligible. But when my father did take out citizenship, along with my mother, I suspect something of him died in the process.

He didn’t become morose or overly depressed, but he assumed a resigned humility which I sensed hid an even bigger inner resignation to whatever fate had in store for him. It was as if, by taking the oath of allegiance to a country which he was never able to adopt as his won, or adapt to, he had betrayed some core character-defining principle, and turned into that person he vowed never to become. And within a year he was dead. It’s not that I truly believe there was a causative link between the two. But in my mind I can’t help but look upon the negation of character and change of identity his conversion signified as death foretold.

On a more emotional plane, something else that brought me to Wellington Street that day was a non-descript nostalgic yearning that had been building up in me over the past year in the wake of my mother’s death. It was a yearning for a period of my life which despite its relatively short span, less than two years, still dominates my past. But sitting there in my car, across from our former house, as hard as I tried to reconcile my memories of growing up here with my present situation, I could feel no abiding affinity with either the house or the neighborhood. It felt like my brain was simply parsing memories and trying to string together coherent storylines that vaguely resonated with truth and meaning in the hope of discovering something deep and insightful about who I was and what I had become. Memories like the time I convinced my mother .to buy a can of a particular brand of air freshener because I wanted to prove to her that it had magical powers.

I was so excited when we came home from the shops with a can of “Air-o-Zone” in our shopping cart, that I grabbed the can, pulled off the cover and ran straight into the living room, spraying it on the mantle piece where an empty vase stood, with the full expectation that flowers would instantly spring up, as they did in the television commercial. But after waiting twenty seconds or so, ample time, the vase on the mantelpiece remained empty. After trying again and again, and the vase still flowerless, I was thoroughly perplexed. I just couldn’t understand why it failed to make flowers appear, when on television they sprang up out of nowhere almost instantly with just a short spray. Desperate to show my mother that it really worked, I went into the kitchen and sprayed some on the table. But again my efforts were in vain. It was as if logic itself had broken down. There was something missing, but I couldn’t figure out what it could be.

Watching me all this while from his arm-chair in the living room with a derisive grin on his face was my father. Breaking his silence, he said in a dismissive tone that the advertisement was a lie and that I was stupid to think that a spray could make flowers appear out of nowhere. As much as I resented his statement, I couldn’t hide my humiliation and I felt a wave of embarrassment sweep over me, because it suddenly dawned on me that, as shattering as it was, his explanation made full sense. Flowers only grew in the ground, or in pots filled with soil. Somehow on television, they had made it look like “Air-o-Zone” made flowers grow out of thin air, when in fact they just couldn’t. The pretty woman in the advertisement was lying; it was as simple as that. But why would someone with such a friendly face deliberately lie? In the end, I don’t know which hurt more; my father’s blunt disillusioning truth, or the fact that I had been fully taken in by the pretty woman on television.

As crushing as this realization was, I think this particular incident marked a turning point in wider education, in as much as it served as a cautionary introduction to the world of deceit and dissimulation on the one hand and my own willingness to go along with it on the other. I suspect the willful duplicity I now recognized in advertizing puffery, still too naive to appreciate its underlying commercial purpose, coupled with my embarrassing gullibility, subconsciously carried over into real life. And from then on, I was wary of believing anything I saw that appeared to be the result of magic, or defied rational explanation. And as for people who smiled a lot and acted friendly, well, they too were apt to be lying and couldn’t be trusted. Thus, when Christmas came round, I took it upon myself to convince my sister that Santa Claus didn’t exist, and that Jesus couldn’t possibly turn water into wine, or come back from the dead, as she’d been led to believe at Catholic Sunday school she used to attend with some of her friends.

This wasn’t the first time I had visited my old neighborhood. I had been back several times over the years, even stopping off at my old primary school around the corner on Cremorne Street to walk around the asphalt playground and relive the cricket matches we used to play at lunchtime, with the wickets painted on the wall of the toilet block still visible; and the tunnel-ball contests in training for the interschool sports games. This time, however, I sensed a finality about my visit. I came to the conclusion that no matter how many times I came back here, I would never feel a genuine affinity with the place, one that was free from that soppy, puerile sentimentality for the apparent simplicity of the past, whenever the confusion of the present and uncertainty of the future weigh on my mind.

Thus, I resolved to give up trying to contrive a sense of attachment for a place to which there exists a flimsy romantic connection only in my mind. And as far as the people who live here were concerned, safely sequestered in the privacy of their single-fronted, semi-detached former workers’ lodgings faithfully restored to their original condition, I had little or nothing in common with them. With that sobering, disillusioning thought, I drove away neither happy nor sad, but sure in the knowledge there was nothing special about the house we once lived in, or the street and neighborhood.

Now that I think about it, having rejected the possibility of discovering any character-defining attachment to my old house and neighborhood, I suspect my repeated attempts to do so over the years were motivated subconsciously by a desire for the exact opposite, that is, to arrive via the occult logic of my subconscious at a plausible reason to distance myself from it, in as much as it represented my doubtful baptism into Australian society, so open and receptive on one level, yet unable to absorb newcomers whole-heartedly and accommodate otherness. As such, it’s a society towards which I feel an irreconcilable mistrust, and still cringe at the sound of my own name in this strange sounding tongue. Perhaps the indifference I now feel was, in fact, what I was looking for all along, because deep down I really have no wish to belong here, simply because I never can.

As I mentioned, it’s now almost two years since my mother died. I must confess, they have been the shortest two years of my life. It’s like time has stood still even though in those two years I feel like I’ve aged five or ten, as the wrinkles and lines on my face attest, and the profusion of grey hair on my head and elsewhere.

In the aftermath of her ceasing to exist, I walked away from my job as a research scientist at the Australian National University in Canberra. I could no longer see the point of sacrificing the lives of small laboratory animals just to figure out how cells in their eyes converted electromagnetic energy into electrical impulses. Up until then I hadn’t given a second thought to the deontological implications of my work as a biomedical research scientist, both in Australia and all my years in various laboratories in the States. By following the ethical guidelines for humanely killing these creatures, as oxymoronic as that sounds, my conscience could be assuaged and I could proceed to perform the necessary experiments on tissue samples extracted from them guilt-free, record and analyze the data with my instruments, and then write up articles for publication in scientific journals, and feel that I was achieving something and contributing to human knowledge.

Now, however, all that’s changed. The idea of consciously terminating the life of an animal whose natural instinct by definition is to want to live and avoid death, all for the sake of scientific research with the aim of discovering something new that will bring me and my colleagues accolades and recognition, as well as promotion, and add to the existing body of scientific knowledge, well, all that just seemed absurd.

After quitting my job in Canberra and selling my apartment there in a panic, spooked by talk of house prices about to collapse with the global financial system on the verge of a major crisis rivaling that of the Great Depression, if you believed the hype, I moved into my mother’s house in Melbourne and devoted myself to looking after the welfare of her pet dog and cat, Max and Timothy, or in her language, “Μέξ καί Τσίμαθι”, while I looked for a new job. I suspect it was also a way of trying to keep alive her memory, in as much as these creatures lived through her and she through them, and in my mind the three of them were inseparable and I felt an obligation to honor her unspoken wish that they be looked after. 

On another level, however, one that straddles humaneness and religiosity, I also saw my commitment as a way of paying penance for having sacrificed the lives of so many animals in the course of my research career. Thus, driven by a vague but overbearing sense of Franciscan piety, I decided to devote myself to the needs of these two mutually cognizant fellow creatures and expiate my guilt for my past sins.

I suspect my reasoning, albeit buried in the murkiness of my subconscious, came out of a rather maudlin assessment of my situation at that particular point in my life, and I figured that by affecting outward piety I could justify my retreat from the concerns and demands of my hitherto specious existence where I felt increasingly drawn further and further away from an inner ideal. By adopting such an attitude, I figured I could draw on people’s sympathy, if not pity, and be excused for abandoning my career mid-stream and instead devoting myself to such a seemingly unavailing commitment, because my irrational behavior was understandable for one recently bereaved of the closest of kin, when concerns for the routine of life tends to give way to reflections on the immaterial and other-worldly. 

In any case, these two creatures have now become my closest companions, not just in a material sense but in a cosmic sense as well, and I can’t imagine ever walking away or abandoning them. Our relationship transcends human friendship and in their presence I feel as if I exist in a wholly different dimension. Sometimes I wonder whether my altered perception of time isn’t due to these creatures having drawn me into their own notion of reality.

As fellow co-inhabitants of this realm I am in awe of the way they resolutely and dispassionately go about their lives, dependent on my generosity and welfare on the one hand, while driven by their animal instincts to survive by exploiting my sense of duty towards them for supplying me with needed distraction and acknowledgement of my existence. As silly as it sounds, they embody the meaning of life, the basis of which is the will to maintain the functional integrity of the organism each of us constitutes by all the means at our disposal. Having said that, I get the impression they also possess the ability to willingly succumb to the inevitable when further resistance is futile.

Sometimes when I take Max to the park and let him wander off the leash I can also see my mother’s image in the distance. One instant I see Max sniffing the grass and the next, right there beside him, or in his place, I see my mother throwing me looks in case I take off without him or her. Perhaps I conflate the two because it was rare to see her without Max by her side, whether it was at the beach or at the park, or in the car when they went off shopping together. So now, when I see him on his own, my mind automatically supplies the missing image of my mother and overlays it onto the in-coming visual sense-image of Max, and in this hybrid, interchanging mental percept she appears as real and present as ever.

And it’s not just her image, because sometimes I can hear her voice calling him to quiet down and stop barking at the deliverer of junk mail stuffing leaflets and advertizing brochures into the letter box at the front, as Max watches him intently from his armchair, through the living room curtain, lest he or anyone else make a wrong move and step over the line. As for Timothy she’s naturally more aloof and projecting my mother’s personality onto this detached feline doesn’t seem to work. After all, cats are their own people, so to speak.

But one thing I’m certain of is that something of my mother lives in me, which is not so strange a notion when you think about it, given that more than half of my DNA is derived from her, if one includes mitochondrial DNA. And being a firm believer that, as much as one’s environment, one’s physical attributes define one’s character and personality in equal measure to the extent that they circumscribe one’s ability to interact with human beings around them and be acknowledged by them, or more fundamentally, the ability of others to relate to you, the fact that she and I shared a physical resemblance and had similar temperaments, it would only be expected that she would continue to exist through me in some way. But as far as Max and Timothy are concerned, I feel compelled to subjugate my life to theirs, because in that act of humble servitude I can free myself from my humanoid existence, so tied up as it is with that oppressive existential triumvirate of the past, present and future.

Speaking of time, I recently experienced a revelation of sorts which offered some insight into the nature of the universe, albeit from my own idiotic perspective. By idiotic I mean that it came from my own “private” view of the universe, which is what “idiotic” means in Greek, that is, something derived from my one’s intellectual processes, free from outside scrutiny. 

Specifically, this revelation concerned the nature of light at the conceptual level, that is, unsupported by mathematical reasoning in which I’m not sufficiently grounded to even attempt to provide any proof, although I did study mathematics as well as physics in first year at university and did reasonably well in both. However, I’ve always had an aversion to numbers and symbols with their bold lines standing out from the background, encoding a kind of secrecy and offending an inner esthetic of beauty. In any case, I suspect I suffer from occasional numerical dyslexia, or is it prosopagnosia, whereby at times, numbers and symbols with which I’m familiar seem to defy meaning.

Actually, I’ve come to the conclusion that an inordinate affinity with numbers is akin to a psychosis, or a “numerosis” if you like. What I mean by this is that numbers and their inter-relationships can delude the mind into believing it has the ability to unlock the laws of the universe and crack open the mystery of life. (I don’t know what I mean by this; it just came out) In those possessed of this obsession, or by it, mathematical logic becomes the means by which it spreads and takes hold, a bit like a psychic cancer that grows and spreads uncontrollably until it has subsumed its host’s consciousness, molding and shaping their brain to accommodate the mathematical processing their expanding madness demands, and co-opting the mind to direct the body to serve its expanding needs, at the expense of the myriads of other associations the mind could synthesize from sensory inputs to inform one’s consciousness of the world and harmonize it with one’s desires and fantasies. It’s also a bit like a religion, but instead of a strict belief that everything in the universe is the self-fulfilling work of a supreme deity, the demiurge, in mathematics, the ultimate delusion lies in the self-referential certainty of numbers.

When I say that one plus one equals two, I’m saying that one thing which is identical to another thing, when considered together, are now called two things. That is, when the word “two” or the number “2”, as a phonetic or a visual symbol impinges on my senses and conjures up in my cognitive brain the thought image of the word “two” or the number “2”, I know that it represents abstractly the existence of one thing grasped together with the other thing, both of which now form a new combined entity known as “two” or “2”. Thus when an object which stands out from the background is considered with another object, which doesn’t necessarily have to be identical with the first, but which is similar in the sense that it can be perceived as a separate and unique entity, both of them together now become “one” thing which is represented by the word “two” or symbol “2”.

As idiotically apocalyptic as it sounds, I’m driven to the inescapable conclusion that mathematics and all the scientific knowledge it underpins is nothing but a means to the final end, that is, the annihilation of humanity. That’s because human beings, actuated by a universal cosmic force, channeled through the myriads of cascading chemical actions and reactions within their cells, are driven by the inexorable need to transform their physical environment ad nihilum by whatever means at their disposal. And this includes the use of mathematics, which is but a hallucinatory attempt by the intellect to apprehend in symbolic form the infinite interrelationships between all the elements and forces of nature so as to feed our need for pleasure and sustenance, in the quest to reproduce more of ourselves until we no longer can. I think I’m digressing into the realm of incoherence, so I’ll go back to what I started on.

Well, this minor revelation I experienced happened one evening while I was sitting back in the warmth of my living room having a coffee after dinner, and as I said, it concerned the nature of light. This question had been a source of confusion, a veritable thorn in my intellectual side ever since I came across the idea that under some conditions light was a “wave”, but under others, it was composed of a stream of almost mass-less particles called photons that traveled through space at something like 186,000 miles per second, abbreviated as “c”, which is arguably the most important constant in physics. In high school, to reconcile these two aspects of light, I would try to picture these small particles zipping through space while oscillating about a central axis.

This baffling duality continued to niggle at my intellectual powers of reasoning through university. But driven by an inner need to come up with a unifying concept to account for both the particulate and wave-like nature of light, I couldn’t get past the idea that something with mass can also be a “wave”, and the image of photons oscillating as they traveled through space kept intruding. As a result, I stopped trying to visualize light and simply went along with the received wisdom that under certain conditions it behaved like a stream of particles that reflected off objects at the same angle of incidence, while under others it behaved like a “wave” as in the ocean, whose amplitude and frequency could vary, and so its energy. This enabled me to calculate equations and correctly answer exam questions, and convince my physics tutors that I had a firm grasp of the subject. But I suspect many of my fellow students found themselves at the same cognitive impasse.

I don’t know why a resolution to this niggling incongruity offered itself up on that particular evening. Given that it occurred close to the anniversary of my mother’s death, it’s possible that in my wandering contemplation of her passing and the moment she ceased to exist, which may have had something to do with the fact that I was sitting in the same exact spot on the couch she used to sit in on such cold evenings, and of the related question of whether the instantaneous vanishing of her life force, or anyone else’s for that matter, violated the physical laws pertaining to the conservation of energy and the transformation of energy into matter and vice versa; this stirred up various mysteries to other related physical phenomena, among which was the baffling duality of the nature of light. 

Or perhaps the thought of the instantaneous vanishing of her life-force evoked in my subconscious the extinguishing of a flame as a metaphor for death. And seeing the former event was beyond the reach of my intellect to explain in terms of physical laws, I turned the focus of my late-night inquiry on the more tractable problem of the duality of the nature of light. But before I could address this problem, I realized I needed to arrive at a clearer understanding of the concept of “space,” that is, the medium through which light travelled, either as particles or waves. 

I didn’t have to think very long to realize the word “space” as I had understood it was actually a misnomer. You see, I had always understood the word “space” to signify a three-dimensional emptiness devoid of all substance. This made intuitive sense because I, as an entity possessing mass, exist in three-dimensions, and those same three dimensions would continue to exist in my absence. Therefore “space” would still exist in the absence of all entities of mass and substance. But waves required a physical medium through which to travel, as in the case of waves in the ocean. So how could “space” possibly be empty, that is, a complete void?

As I thought over my hitherto misconception, I could see there was a basic contradiction in my logic. And this was, if “space” was “nothingness” how can it possibly exist? It was a patently absurd proposition, because for anything of a physical character to exist it must possess form and substance, whereas “nothingness” cannot possibly exist. In fact, it’s not even possible to contemplate “nothingness”; one can only account for it by assigning a word to it, like “nothing”, or a numerical symbol like “0”. But “space” existed, because without it light could not exist. Therefore “space” cannot possibly connote “nothingness”; it must constitute a “somethingness”, that is, a physicality that exists in three dimensions.

This then raised the question of what space is made up of, because if it is real and physical it must be composed of something. The inescapable conclusion I came to was that three-dimensional space was composed of indivisible units infinitesimally smaller than atoms which I called “spaceons”. These were its building blocks, as it were, of indeterminate shape, which give space mass-less form and substance. And suspended within this three-dimensionality of spaceons is mass-ful matter composed of coalesced elemental atoms and molecules.

Having demystified the nature of space at the conceptual level, I went back to the issue at hand, which was the dual nature of light itself. Within the framework of my idiotic understanding of space as a substantive medium composed of indivisible mass-less fundamental units called spaceons, I wanted to see if I could reconcile the particulate and wave-like natures of light. In the course of my audible soliloquy and expository gesticulation, with Max asleep in his arm chair, head half-dangling over the edge, his paws and mouth twitching and eyeballs flitting away under closed eyelids; and flea-ridden Timothy curled up like a furry coffee scroll wheezing away; in her padded basket in front of the gas heater, I realized why my hitherto misapprehension of space as a complete void had been so firmly rooted in my mind.

It was tied up with the fact that air was composed of atoms of various gases suspended in space and separated by relatively large distances. Thus, in this rarefied state, it seemed perfectly reasonable to assume that the probability of photons striking any atoms of gas in air and being reflected back to the eye of an observer was infinitely small, and that majority of photons passed through unimpeded, thus rendering air invisible. Therefore, it made intuitive sense to think of the space between the atoms of gas, and of space in general, as being a complete void, since it could not impede the passage of light particles, that is, photons. As for the transparency of solid objects like glass and crystals, this was explained by internal reflection of light particles entering at one surface and being reflected from one atom or molecule to the next internally, until they emerged from another surface into the more transmissive medium like air.

But having now postulated that space was not an emptiness, but a “somethingness” composed of spaceons inter-connected with one another in a three-dimensional lattice, either dynamically or statically, I was led to ponder how light rays composed of streams of photons could possibly be transmitted through this substantive omnipresent medium. The conclusion I came to was that light particles would not get very far at all, or they would burrow their way through for a short distance, rapidly lose all their energy, and come to a complete stop. Thus, it made more sense to think of light purely as a “wave”, that is a pulsatile transfer of force/energy from one spaceon to a neighboring spaceon, and so on, until that force was transferred to a solid, mass-ful object composed of coalesced atoms and molecules which it could be either reflected from, absorbed by, or through which it could pass and be re-transmitted to spaceons on its exit, attenuated in energy.

As I reflected on my new understanding of the nature of light, I was satisfied I had proved to my “idiot savant” self, as my housemate in Reno was wont to refer to me whenever I came up with a novel but simple explanation to a baffling conundrum, because I lacked his scientific pedigree and was therefore unqualified to speculate on matters pertaining to the “hard sciences”; I was satisfied, I say, I had proven to myself that light was composed of pulses of energy that imparted force to objects, and there was no longer any need to invoke the particulate nature of light; waves could explain everything. Light only appeared to be particulate because it required a particulate, albeit mass-less three-dimensionality of spaceons through which to travel, and therefore people had confused the medium with the message.

Emboldened by my revelatory insight into the singular wave-like nature of light, my inquiry now turned to the concept of gravity and how it is that objects composed of atomic matter tend to fall to the ground, and more generally, how planets are attracted towards the sun, and the moons to planets, and such like heavenly phenomena.

To address this question, I first considered the hypothetical case where there was only one atom in existence suspended in the three-dimensionality of spaceons. I postulated that this substance-less space was permeated by an omni-directional, universal cosmic force transmitted through spaceons. In the case where there was only one atom in existence, the cosmic force acting on that atom would be the same from all directions, so that the atom would undergo no displacement and stay put. But if there were two atoms in existence suspended in space, I hypothesized they would undergo net movement and eventually “find” one another and coalesce due to an apparent mutual gravitational attraction.

This would come about because the force acting on each atom would now be unequal over its surface, because each atom would shield the other from a portion of the cosmic force coming from the direction of its neighbor. Thus, the sides of the atoms facing each other would experience a weaker cosmic force, and as a result of this imbalance, the two atoms would undergo displacement and appear to gravitate towards each other. But this attraction is but an illusion because in reality the two atoms are being impelled towards each other by external cosmic forces acting on them non-uniformly. Moreover, the closer they approached each other, the greater this asymmetry would become, thus producing apparent accelerative gravitational attraction.

My line of reasoning raised further questions about the nature of the cosmic force transmitted through spaceons, like: was it simply light energy of an infinitely high pulsatile frequency so as to be continuous; or was it of a very slow frequency, with a period of eons, such that the entire universe was presently subjected to the force exerted by a single multi–dimensional wave which was either peaking or decaying back to nothing, at which point all matter will disintegrate, before the next pulse came along and the material universe can re-constitute itself anew? But where does this cosmic force come from, and how is it produced?

As I pondered over the implications of this co-revelation about the nature of gravity, I realized my ruminations were completely lacking in the scientific rigor necessary for them to ever be taken seriously. For a start, I couldn’t even recall the relationship between potential and kinetic energy, or many other equations I knew by heart at university. I would need to delve into my undergraduate physics text books, which were only introductory anyway, intended for biologists. But I reminded myself that I wasn’t interested in detail, because details were the slaves of concepts, and I would leave that to those with a mathematical obsession for quantifying reality and proving the existence of things with numbers.

As I took another sip of my coffee, still gloating over my powers of explication, I realized my spaceon filled three-dimensionality was nothing new; it was the “ether” of old which Einstein apparently refuted with his discoveries on the photovoltaic effect, although he himself never categorically dismissed the concept. But how can it be wrong when it seemed so right in my head? I thought a little further about my revelation of the singular, wave-like nature of light to see if it could explain various other properties of light such as diffraction, refraction, the change in the speed of light through translucent matter of different density, and the collimate nature of laser beams. On the surface it could, although it would be too tedious to go into here.

In light of my idiotic discoveries about the nature of light and space and gravity, I now turned to a more fundamental question, that being the nature of reality. Was reality simply space and vice versa, because without space, there truly can be nothing, as oxymoronic as that sounds. And where did time fit in, if it did at all? Scientific time was simply a reference to a numerical standard of rhythmic movement of matter in space, like the vibrations of an atom in a crystal, or the movement of the arms of a clock, or the swings of a pendulum. So what is time? Is it simply a human abstraction created out of memories that logically follow one another? Is it like beauty in the sense that you can point to an object embodying beauty and can touch it, but you cannot grasp beauty itself. That’s because it doesn’t exist; it’s the result of a purely mental process. And just like the standard measure of beauty can change depending on prevailing tastes, so can the perception of time.

I concluded there is no such actual thing as time; there is only space and movement of matter therein. Time is an illusion, purely a human mental construct. Take dogs, for example, which bury their bones. You would think on first consideration they too possessed a concept of time because they appear to be planning ahead for future scarcity. But in reality their actions merely reflect a behavioral trait honed by evolution over tens of thousands of years, that is, revolutions of the Earth around the Sun. This drives them to bury bones in places that become fixed in their memories, formed from visual inputs of the shapes and sizes and colors of various other objects in the vicinity of the burial spot, like trees and rocks, as well as from other associated sensory inputs, like smells and sounds.

Thus, when they’re desperate for food, their hunger causes them to recall those places from memory, triggered by some sensory cue, and see if they match incoming sense-images, and if they do, they go and recover the buried bones. They possess this faculty because somewhere in their evolutionary past it was likely that dogs or their precursors that possessed this trait for forming memories survived and passed it on to succeeding generations, while those lacking it starved to death before they could reproduce in numbers, and their kind eventually died out.

All manner of other side questions began to pop up in my head seeking clarification. Questions like, if time didn’t truly exist, then how can one explain time dilation? And how does space and matter fit into it? For example, if a human being were composed of a single indivisible atom, and they were travelling at or close to the speed of a light wave through spaceons, then what would happen? I predicted that light waves from behind would never reach me, and therefore I wouldn’t be able to “see” anything behind me; it will be total darkness. In addition, I wouldn’t experience any cosmic force behind me either. The cosmic force in front of me, however, would be doubled, as would the frequency of light impinging on my eyes as I stared in ahead. But if cosmic forces impart mass to atoms, which are loci where energy is transformed into matter, then in the absence of any cosmic force on my rear, and with my front compressed into a super-solid mass-ful state, wouldn’t I disintegrate or collapse into myself? And what would become of the disintegrated me-atom?

The questions kept coming; some familiar seeking clarification; others less tractable demanding explanation by my newly arrived at conceptual theories. Questions like, are the cosmic forces acting on the sun so immense that atoms are continuously fusing and coalescing into super-solid matter and releasing light/energy back into space as pulses of an infinite number of frequencies through the sea of spaceons? And how is matter converted into energy? And what happens to the sun’s emitted energy? Is it conserved as it must be? Does energy really crystallize into matter and how? And what happens to the entropy of the universe? Is the universe really descending towards disorder, as imbecilic as that sounds?

I sensed my already meager grasp of these concepts weakening. I was way out of my depth and the temptation to refer all unknowns to the omniscience of a supreme power was strong. Or should I take the more laborious approach and systematically study the voluminous extant scientific literature, as overwhelming as it would be for an ageing intellect like mine? I was sinking into a deep bog of confusion and I had no choice than to abandon my quest to understand the nature of the universe and reality if I was to avoid being consumed by its incomprehensibility.

Nevertheless, I felt pleased I had at least come to a clearer understanding, however idiotic, of the singular wave-like nature of light, and that space is not in fact an emptiness, and that I myself am a collection of atoms, apparently mutually attracted towards one another to form a corporeal entity surrounded by spaceons, indeed infiltrated by them, enabling my mind/body to be subjected to the three-dimensionality of cosmic forces which are distilled by the cells in my body to drive the myriads of chemical reactions therein. However, I am not a rock but a living creature, driven by a self-sustaining will that emerged from this agglomeration of atomic matter, just like in all the other life forms around me, including Max dozing away, with the tip of his pink tongue sticking out between his little front teeth. But what is this thing, “the will”? Is it the cosmic force internalized through the mind/body conduit down to its constituent elements, and finding expression in the “life force” which continuously drives the organism to seek sustenance by depriving other living matter of their own “life force”? And what are feelings and sensations? 

Only I can see and smell and taste what I see, smell and taste. Are sensations possible without the disposition to act on them? In other words, would I be able to see anything if I didn’t have a motor cortex in my brain connected to and driven by my visual processing centers? Do I “see” an object for what it is because that object evokes a neurophysiological response organized within my brain which in turn “thinks” of ways to implement an appropriate motor action? Thus, when I perceive the color red, is it “red” because my brain, having recalled all manner of images of objects colored red stored in my memory, albeit below the level of consciousness, is preparing my body via the motor centers in my cortex to lift an imaginary red candy apple in my hand up to my mouth, this being the dominant “red” object-image drawn from my memory at that particular instant, informed by the particular combination of incoming sensory inputs, from which I will take a bite with my teeth and chew it with my jaws, anticipating its taste and texture? 

Is “red” the sum total of these preparatory actions involving the act of eating a red candy apple, as well as the anticipated gustatory sensations thereof, in endlessly spiraling subliminal loops of potential action and anticipatory sensation? Is this what we understand by consciousness, a massively interconnected, sensory-premotor ying-yang formed of silent memories competing for dominance, triggered and gated by a waking flood of sensory inputs most of which completely bypass perception? And what is the soul? A living creature is ephemeral and can cease to be a living creature, whereas the universe is perpetual and eternal, a collection of bits each composed of smaller bits, and so on and so on.

My now late-night intellectual meanderings had all but exhausted my reserves of mental stamina. I was rambling and asking questions that were silly and profound, frivolous and profound. I decided to call it quits for the night and prepared to go to bed, but not before letting Max out for a pee. Timothy could come and go as it liked through the cat-flap in the kitchen door, although generally in winter she slept inside in her basket through the night and was first up at daybreak, sitting next to my pillow with Sphinx like patience, paws tucked under her, waiting for me to get up and feed her.

As I mentioned, it’s now two years since my mother died. But it could well have been yesterday. On the night I bid her farewell she lay narcotized in her hospital bed breathing in short gasps through her dry open mouth as PVC tubes hooked up to her nose delivered pure oxygen into her nostrils. She was oblivious of the beads of perspiration continuously forming on her forehead and my efforts to wipe them away and stop them flooding her flickering eyes. 

Irreversible ascites had set in due to an infection in her abdomen, probably contracted from the botched emergency surgery she underwent to try and restore her rapidly failing biliary and pancreatic functions. These had been severely compromised by aberrant cells that had abandoned their normal behavior and abode and turned into uncontrollable self-replicating freaks that knew no bounds. And now her abdomen was so swollen she could barely contract her diaphragmatic muscles to draw air into her lungs. And with the attendant decrease in blood volume, her heart was required to beat faster and stronger, causing the sheets above her chest to visibly quiver with each pulse.

In a weak voice she mumbled for a sip of apple juice. Obligingly I picked up the carton on the bedside table, bent the straw and placed the tip next to her mouth. Lifting her head up to the side she managed to suck up some juice, licking her lips ever so feebly to savor the sugary taste. But realizing it only dried her mouth even more she mustered a half-hearted frown and waved it away with her hand down by her side on the bed. She tried taking a deep breath, as deep as her distended abdomen would allow, perhaps it was a sigh of self-pity, before mentally collapsing back onto herself, opening her glazed eyes just a little to glance at the bare walls and ceiling, and then at me with a look that conveyed confused oblivion. I noticed her irises were a peculiar purple bluish-green; very different from their usual agate greenish-brown with blue edges. I assumed they reflected the altered chemistry of her blood and body fluids, from all the intravenous drips and antibiotics and narcotics she had been on for the past two weeks since the surgery.

As she lay there falling into and out of attempted sleep, closing her eyes and then wearily reopening them to focus on some object in the room while trying to moisten her parched lips with her tongue, I asked if she preferred some plain water. She motioned with a mock-angry nod of her head that she didn’t want any, and then tried to adjust herself on the bed so as to sit up a little more vertically. When she couldn’t manage she mumbled for me to help, and lifting her head and shoulders forward, I slipped another pillow behind her upper back and shoulders and lowered her onto it, as she tried again to take in a few deep half-breaths to express relief from the soreness.

For the past two hours I had been keeping her company in her private room on the second floor at Dandenong Hospital, just like yesterday and the day before. She had been transferred here from her bed in the public ward down the hallway, where she was brought to recover immediately after her emergency surgery at Monash Medical Centre. Apparently there was a shortage of beds there, and while still in excruciating pain, with drainage tubes coming out of her abdomen, she was loaded onto an ambulance and brought to Dandenong Hospital some fifteen kilometers away during the afternoon rush hour. I sat next to her all the way in the back, trying to reassure her that we would soon be there, as her moans got louder with each bump and turn in the road, until we finally arrived.

To pass the time, I flicked through the channels on the television up on the wall with the sound turned off; but it was all shit. But she insisted it be left on, even though she wasn’t watching. It was approaching nine-thirty and from the window I could see the hospital staff walking back to their cars in the lit-up parking lot having finished their shifts. The visitors in the public ward down the hallway had left hours ago in accordance with hospital regulations, but there was a tacit understanding between me and the nursing staff that I could stay for as long as I wished, although I had a feeling they didn’t like me hanging around too late.

My mother continued to fall into and out of short spells of light sleep, shifting her head while sighing and mumbling through half-hearted moans. I looked up at the message board above her bed, but I noticed something different about it. It had her surname on it as before, and the medication she was receiving, which was morphine. But in the very top slot, next to her name, there was a curious black square.

I recalled in the public ward, while she was still undergoing tests, that symbol had been a red diamond. I also noticed the intravenous line connected to the needle on the back of her left hand had been switched off; there was no fluid dripping in the chamber. I didn’t have to think hard to know what it all meant. I wondered if she had figured out what was going on; or were her perceptive faculties so clouded by the morphine infusing into her bloodstream, sapping her of any will to think or fight, that she no longer cared that people had given up trying to save her?

I decided to wait around till the nurse arrived to check on her condition before I left for the night; she usually came round just after ten. As I sat quietly watching the images on the television screen to the sound of her rapid half-breathing, I tried to imagine how it would feel to be without a mother. But her mumbled entreaties nudged me out of my thoughts and I turned to listen to what she was trying to say.

As she held out her arm and motioned to give her my hand, she was demanding my full attention. I obliged, and as she clasped it tight into her clammy palms I could feel how cold her fingers were, even though the room was quite warm and she was perspiring. It was an indication that her body was on the verge of irreversible shock. Despite the efforts of her heart beating furiously inside her chest, blood was being diverted from the periphery in a futile attempt to maintain her blood pressure, while at the same time sweat glands on her face and head were being activated to cool down her elevated core body temperature from the growing mass inside her, and the last ditch effort of her immune system to fight off the infection that had set in, in her peritoneal cavity. She squeezed my hand as strongly as she could and then attempted to lift it to her face, but lacked the necessary strength. I moved closer, and raising my hand in hers, she guided it to her face and held it there, squeezing it as tight as she could, and then pressed it onto her mouth to kiss with her dry lips.

I can’t remember exactly what thoughts were running through my head at that particular moment. Her actions brought up memories of her kissing and hugging me at the airport as I was about to fly out. She was sad to see me go on the one hand, but happy that I was returning to my job in the States, because as she always liked to remind me, “there is no shame in work,” as if there was no higher human virtue, even if it meant leaving one’s friends and family behind. But presently she was bidding me goodbye from her sickbed without the usual excitement, and there was no job for me to head back to overseas. I struggled to comprehend the poignancy of the moment. Why was she doing this now, when she hadn’t done so on previous nights? Did she already know, I wondered?

Abruptly she pushed away my hand and trying to affect that admonishing look she usually assumed whenever she wanted to exercise her maternal authority, she mumbled that I should go home at once and feed Max and Timothy, because they would be waiting in the dark, all hungry and cold. In her own mind, she still held sway over me, and with renewed though pained fervor, she demanded I do as she said. For a brief moment she seemed back to her normal self and the thought crossed my mind that perhaps her condition wasn’t as serious as it appeared, and she would soon be back home to resume her daily chores.

I said I would wait another ten minutes until the nurse arrived. But she was adamant I should leave at once and wait no longer. She said the nurse was going to come much later, probably close to midnight, and I should leave because she wanted to get some sleep. Obeying her order, I packed into my bag a book and some paperwork I’d brought but never resorted to, and before leaving, I made sure she was comfortable, adjusting the pillows and covers. As I did so, she held my hand up to her face once more, and then began nodding her head up and down while staring down at the sheets covering her bloated abdomen, conveying her bitter disappointment at how things had turned out. She knew what the score was and she could do nothing but submit to her fate. Not even Αγία Βαρβάρα could now save her. Her miracle-working icon remained safe in the drawer next to her bed at home, awaiting her anticipated return, because the cold heathen surrounds of the departure room of Dandenong Hospital was no place for saints or martyrs.

As I looked down at her weary face, eyes flickering, I realized she had given me the signal. She no longer needed to sustain the pretence that she would soon be well enough to resume her domestic duties, like cooking, gardening, feeding Max and Timothy, going shopping, or sneaking off to join her so-called friends, worthless hags if truth be told, at the hotel-casino down by Holmesglen to try and win the jackpot on the slot machines, only to lose all her money and self-respect in the process. It was no longer necessary because the simple truth was all around. It filled every corner of that bare cold antechamber. She was to undergo an abrupt and irreversible change, and our mutual awareness was about to come to an end. I was going to leave her and she was going to leave me, forever.

My eyes began to moisten and well up as I felt a sudden release from my present concerns. Tears rolled down the side of my face and dripped off my chin. Perhaps she saw them, I don’t know, but she ordered me to leave at once. “Go now, quickly!” she said. “Go and get some sleep, and feed Max and Timothy. I’ll be all right. I want to get some sleep. Go!” She seemed pleased when I got to the door, having asserted her maternal authority over me, her disconsolate, contrarian, misanthropic son. Before I walked out of the room, I turned around to look at her lying up in bed for the last time as she mumbled for me to leave.

On my way out of the ward I passed the nurses’ bay and bade them good night. When I got downstairs, I wasn’t quite ready to get in my car and drive home, and I stopped at the chapel just inside the main entrance. Posted on framed plaques on the walls were quotations pertaining to death as well as to life, for this was also a maternity hospital. They were drawn from the scriptures of various religions, reflecting the multi-ethnic diversity of patients at Dandenong Hospital and the outer suburbs in general which it served. They were so trite, I thought, that they could have written by a ten year-old. They left me none the wiser about the meaning of death, nor did I find anything comforting in their words. I made my way around the rest of the displays intended to console the grieved, and stopped at a small fountain in the middle of the chapel trickling water into a bowl. According to the inscription on the plaque, it said it depicted death as absence among other abstractions.

I was wasting my time, I thought, because the only emotion I could feel was the lack of one. I decided it was time to head back home to be with Max and Timothy. They were sure to be patiently waiting for me in the living room in the dark, looking out for headlights coming up the driveway, united by their shared expectation that someone, I or my mother, would arrive at any minute to reward their patience and feed them. But all the way home on the freeway, all I could think about was that soon I would be left without a mother.

Early next morning, just after eight o’clock, the phone rang next to my bed. It was a nurse from Dandenong Hospital, one I hadn’t talked to before. She wanted to let me know that my mother had fallen into a coma overnight and was not responding to external stimuli. She said they didn’t know how long she would remain in that state; it could be hours or longer. I said I would try and get there in the next hour and after hanging up I phoned my sister to pass on the news.

When I got there, I found her and her husband, as well as my older cousin sitting around my mother’s bed. She was in a coma all right, eyes shut, oblivious of anyone and anything, breathing very rapidly in short shallow gasps, interrupted every half a minute or so by an attempt to inspire more deeply, as if she were drowning and trying to take in a big gulp of air before sinking back under.

I don’t know what came over me, perhaps the non-descript anger I felt which had been building up inside me since I received the call in the morning had relieved me of my usual inhibitions and decorum, and I got up and, standing by her bed, reached down to feel her ashen face and hands. They were as cold as the metal bed frame. Then without any hesitation, I pried open her eyelids with my fingers to see that her pupils were fully dilated and she failed to blink at all when I lightly touched their purplish blue corneas with the tip of my finger. As I looked into her deathened eyes which once supplied her with a view of the world and which for whoever knew her served as a window into her soul, there was something alluring about the detached serenity they conveyed.

To all intents and purposes, save for her short, shallow irregular breathing, she was already dead. As I took a seat next to the others, I felt my anger growing. I was angry at myself for being in this situation, and angry at the fact that my mother was going to die a cold death in a foreign land, of an illness that seemed to come out of nowhere. I tried to conceal my rage, although I suspect the obviously manic state I was in had already alarmed the others into a fearful silence, not daring to say anything lest I be provoked into loud outbursts, or worse.

A nurse walked in to check the syringe in the infusion pump under the sheets, and in response to a question from my older cousin, which I thought, perhaps somewhat hypocritically on my part, betrayed a lack of respect for the solemnity of the circumstances, she said she had no idea when my mother would stop breathing altogether. “It could be minutes or it could be hours,” she said. With that, we all decided to go down to the cafeteria for a coffee, after which I drove back home, while my sister along with her husband and my cousin Rania went back up to the room to keep vigil.

Just as I arrived at the house, I heard the phone ringing inside. I rushed in to answer it and it was my sister. She told me that when they returned to my mother’s room she had already stopped breathing and the doctor had pronounced her dead.

By the time I got back to the hospital again, my mother’s face was as dry as chalk and had begun to take on a pale sallow hue. The morphine line had been removed from her arm and as I looked down at the sheets covering her bloated abdomen and at her swollen arms by her side I needed no explanation for what had happened. I kept my thoughts to myself, but my anger now returned. It was directed at the doctors and nurses, two of whom, both Philippinos, who, judging by their ready show of compassion with their sober countenances and demeanor, seemed accustomed to dealing with the relatives of the just deceased, had come in as if on cue to offer their condolences, saying how much they would like to attend the funeral. 

They were accompanied by one of the doctors, a junior resident, balding with glasses, who stood at the door affecting blank sympathy, looking down at the floor and saying nothing. He had been looking after my mother for the past few days in the absence of the senior doctor who was not much older than him and had mysteriously vanished after my mother was transferred out of the public ward to this room. And the tall fat senior nurse who’d checked the morphine pump in the morning, and who rarely spoke and showed no emotion, she wasn’t anywhere to be seen either. “How could she show her face,” I thought, “after what she’d done, when no one was here to see.” And given the mood I was in, it was just as well.

There was nothing more for us to do except pack up my mother’s personal belongings and bedclothes from the cupboard and leave. The body that was once my mother, her mortal corporeal shell, lay there cold and still on the bed, eyes closed. The nurses assured us they would take care of it and contact us the next day or Monday about picking it up for funeral arrangements. We all then stood up and left, going our separate ways, I back home to Max and Timothy, trying to put on a brave face, which was nothing more than a cover for the altogether novel sensation I was feeling of being without a father and now without a mother, a middle-aged orphan with no-one to scold me and tell me what to do.

The following day one of the doctors called. It was the young female doctor with an annoyingly grating Australian accent whom I caught flirting with her bald-headed fellow resident at the end of my mother’s bed one day in the public ward, while their senior colleague was looking over the charts and trying to explain in layman’s terms somewhat condescendingly the course of action available to us. I gave them both a stern look to convey my disgust, after which they stopped like a pair of clueless horny imbeciles.

In an arrogant, imperious tone, she said she called to ask me if I could go to the city morgue in South Melbourne where my mother’s body had been transferred, and identify her. Well that did it, and I exploded in anger down the phone. I let fly such a barrage of expletives at her and her colleagues for their incompetence in handling the necessary paperwork, threatening to sue them and the hospital, when they had assured us they required nothing more from us, that she had to cut short the call, her voice trembling with fear, while I took satisfaction from having made her seriously consider changing careers and opening up a hair salon.

I once had a mother, and before that I also had a father. But now those from whom I came are no more, and there is only me.

(Melbourne, 2010)

Before I completely lose my ability to reflect logically and coherently, I should say a word or two about the Vlachs, who they are and what distinguishes them from other populations in the Balkans. I should state at the outset that I closely identify with them, having parents who speak, or in the case of my father, once spoke the Vlach language, or Vlach for short, and therefore are, or were, in essence Vlachs. My grandparents also spoke Vlach, and I dare say their parents did as well, etc., etc., although beyond them my ancestry is rather obscure. Despite my undeniable Vlach heritage, I constantly ask myself whether or not I too am Vlach given that I have only a vague aural appreciation of the language which, as I elaborate below, is the main distinguishing characteristic of Vlachness, as it were.

At this point I should also say something about the word “Vlach” itself. Apparently it is said to be derived from an early Roman word, onomatopoeic for the bleating of sheep (the first letter was originally an “f” and the last syllable drawn out to more closely mimic the sheep’s cry). It was used by townspeople to refer condescendingly to shepherds and other rural folk in the Italian provinces, and was then adopted as a general term for the inhabitants of the regions colonized by the Romans, undergoing regional modification on the way, including “wallach” and “volokh” in eastern Europe, “fellah” in Egypt and the Middle-East, and “walsh” and “wolch” in Britain and Germany. The term “Vlachs” as applied to rural tribes in the Balkans only appears in history roundabout the 11th century and was`used to distinguish speakers of Latin dialects from Greeks, that is, speakers of the Greek language, or dialects thereof. One would assume Latin-speaking tribes existed throughout the Balkans well before then, mainly in inland regions, since Greeks living on the coast largely resisted Latinization. But since Roman historians were mainly concerned with chronicling the lives of prominent citizens and officials, including Emperors, and the exploits of the Roman military, there was no reason to report on these common folk.

The collapse of the Empire which entered its terminal phase around the 6th or 7th seventh century ensured the Vlachs’ historical obscurity, as anarchy gradually descended over the Balkans. As a result many retreated up into the mountains where they settled into a transhumant existence as shepherds and small-scale producers of animal-derived goods such as cheese and various handicrafts, and were largely self-sufficient. It was only after the Byzantines assumed sovereignty over the Balkan region roundabout the 11th century that Vlachs finally came to historical notice. No doubt this had to do with the fact that the Byzantines could not ignore the preponderance of Latin speakers in Epirus, Thessaly and Macedonia, who had since come down from the mountains, and begun to settle in the plains and towns, such that the region Thessaly came to be known as “Greater Wallachia”, that is, “the land of Vlachs.” But in allusion to their Roman heritage, the Vlachs actually referred by a different moniker, that being “Aromanians” (a combination of the prefix “a-“, meaning “from” or “out of” or “after” in Latin; and “romani” which means Roman; that is, “of Romans”), perhaps to distance themselves from a term the Romans had used on them pejoratively.

With the retreat of the Byzantines from the Balkans in the 14th century, and the coming of the Ottomans, the word “Vlach” gradually shed its arguably negative connotation, probably because Vlachs now enjoyed equal status with other subject groups like the Greeks. In fact, as Ottoman rule was consolidated, their standing to some extent surpassed that of Greeks, since the Latin dialect they spoke was intelligible with the Romance languages of the trading partners of the Ottomans in the West, and educated Vlachs were looked upon as valuable intermediaries. Following the downfall and withdrawal of the Ottomans in the mid to late 1800s, Vlachs fell out of favor in the “modern” Greek state and were subject to widespread persecution by vengeful Greeks resentful of their perceived favoritism under the Ottomans, despite the fact that the vast majority were fellow Orthodox Christians, and Greek citizens. The word “Vlach” once again acquired its old connotation and was used as a tern of abuse against these Latin speakers, who, since the schism within Christianity, were still identified with the despised Latins, inviting suspicion and distrust. Suffice it to say, discrimination continued well into the late 20th century, such that the word “Vlach” or βλάχος in Greek, still retains a bitter stigmatic quality.

Below, in this far-from-complete exposition, I wish to expand on the above brief outline of the history of Vlachs, including the process by which their Latinization might have occurred, and their relationship with the Roman colonists that facilitated it, as well as their relationship with Greeks, and along the way address questions regarding their differentness, or otherwise. My treatment of this topic is based on my own conjectural theories and some not so wild speculations which draw on various published anthropological and historical studies, as well as evidence which may well turn up in the future, what I like to refer to as “speculative evidence.” As such, even though I have aimed to approach the subject objectively, it is unavoidably colored by my own views and prejudices, of which I admit I may not be fully aware, as they pertain to my own upbringing and life against a changing landscape of language and culture.

In relation to my own Vlach heritage, I could if I was so inclined attempt to trace my origins further back than my grandfather’s father. But I find ancestral lineages of no real consequence. So what if my great-great-grandfather was a rich merchant and kept residences in Vienna and Moschopolis, dividing his time between Austria and the Balkans, travelling in comfort and staying in opulent luxury, dining in the finest restaurants and rubbing shoulders with the rich and powerful. How much of a difference would that make to my life at present from, say, if I discovered instead that he was a landless peasant who died dirt poor and destitute, and was buried in a common grave? Or if the person credited as being my great-great-grandfather was not in fact my biological great-great-grandfather because the latter was a terrae filius, and any attempt to trace my ancestry through him would come to a dead end.

In the first scenario, I might be buoyed by the aristocratic connection and wallow in the knowledge that I was destined to gravitate towards power and privilege. This might explain my apparent snobbishness, although I believe there’s a perfectly rational explanation for my shunning of crowds. And that is, it’s largely a defense mechanism to protect me against contagion by infectious agents, seeing I have a congenitally low white blood-cell count. As to possible connections with the rich and famous among my forebears, I’ve managed to dig up some information from the not too distant past in the form of a letter which alludes to such a possibility.

The letter was written by one Giorgio Vongolis, dated 1856, and is addressed to Giosue Carducci in Florence, who happened to be the Nobel Prize laureate in Literature in 1906. Well, it wasn’t the actual letter I came across, but a record of it on an internet web page that listed all the items of correspondence between this Italian man of letters and his many acquaintances, one of whom happened to be Giorgio Vongolis, whose surname is one of the forms in which my own surname has been transliterated into English over the years. Thus one has to assume he was a distant relative, either a manifold great grandfather or uncle, probably the latter. Unfortunately, my discovery came too late for my father to shed any light on the matter.

I’ve tried to contact the curators of the website in Italy to get a copy of the letter, but my requests have gone unanswered. I would have liked to read it not only for its content, to find out the nature of their relationship, and whether or not Giorgio Vongolis lived in Florence, or just where he lived; but also to analyze his style of writing and organization of thoughts on the page to gain some insight into his character and personality, and see if there’s anything I recognize. I assume the letter is written in Italian, in which case I would have to consider getting it translated into English. I thought about writing to the museum on Harvard letterhead and posting it in an envelope stamped with the Harvard logo; that way I’m sure to get a response. As much as I don’t like to admit it, my discovery of this letter did fill me with mild pride that perhaps my artistic and intellectual bent, albeit stifled and under-developed, may not be without precedent. It also stimulated my interest in my ancestry, and by extension, the roots of Vlachs and their Italian, or rather, Roman connection. But in my defense, this interest is driven purely by curiosity rather than any desire to assuage my vanity. In any case, since this present exposition on the origin of Vlachs is written from a personal perspective, perhaps I should say a little bit about myself.

I was born in Greece on the 21st April 1961, in the city of Larisa, the capital of the province of Thessaly. Unlike my peers among my cousins, my birth took place in a hospital. According to my maternal grandmother, being the first child, the doctors suspected complications with my delivery, and my mother was taken to the hospital when my birth appeared imminent. I don’t know whether or not complications did in fact arise, but when I was about five years old my grandmother told me that I was born with a large head, which perplexed me, not knowing whether this was good or bad. However, because she said it with a look of disappointment and sadness in her voice, I gathered it wasn’t such a desirable attribute, which leads me to suspect it could well have contributed to a difficult delivery for my mother.

The issue came up when I was trying on a yellow pullover my grandmother had just finished knitting in time for winter. I was having trouble getting my head through the neck opening, and despite my protestations it was too small, she was determined to get my head through it, and forcibly tugged down on the shoulders while I tried to keep my neck straight, which nearly snapped in the process, being violently jerked every which way. When I finally managed to poke my head through the hole, it was so tight I thought I was going to choke and began to cry loudly. Immediately she scolded me to stop bawling and threatened to smack me, saying she’d spent months knitting it, and with a touch of anger in her voice, sternly added that it was all my fault, because I had a big head, before reassuring me the neck would stretch out with wear. Since none of my friends brought it up, I soon forgot about my supposedly large head, and wore my new pullover with pride, despite the tight neck.

Although my grandmother was generally very giving of herself, and in fact, more or less raised me up until we left Greece at the end of 1968, bound for Australia, she’s always had this vindictive streak in her, whereby she derives perverse pleasure from cutting down anyone she feels the slightest enmity towards, for reasons best known only to herself, regardless of their age or innocence, and afterwards pretends she meant nothing by it. Her accusations usually center on the person’s physical appearance and attributes, but also on their mental makeup as she sees it, either or both of which reflect some immutable intrinsic flaws they’re stuck with. I think it’s her way of putting out of her own mind thoughts about her own shortcomings; or it could well be an indication of an underlying obsessive psychosis in her.

Although over the years I’ve learned to brush off her extemporaneous verbal jabs, some from my childhood remain deeply embedded in my memory, reinforced by events later on that strongly alluded to the veracity of her initial observations, like her remark about my large head.

In this particular case, the issue resurfaced unexpectedly some ten years later when I was in my teens. I was now living ten thousand miles away in Australia, in a suburb of Melbourne, and one day, although I can’t remember the exact circumstances, a girl in my high school class sitting behind me commented out loud so everyone could hear, that I had a disproportionately large head, at which my face promptly turned bright red as I was informed by everyone staring at me, inviting further ridicule. Immediately I recalled my grandmother’s remark and realized she was not lying. In fact, when I got home and looked over some old black and white photographs in our family photo album, taken when I was an infant, the evidence was right there. In one particular picture in which my sister and I are lying prostrate on a blanket laid out on the grass on a sunny day, stark naked (I must have been four years old at the time, and she two), my head does look considerably larger than hers, which is of normal size in relation to the rest of her body, while mine looks like a melon attached to a fat surly grub. As a result of this girl’s unwelcome reminder, all through high school I couldn’t fully shake off my self-consciousness over the size of my head.

The matter died down for a while after I finished high school, until I came across an article in the library at university. I had just started on my Honours year of an undergraduate bioscience degree and was researching the literature to find out what was known about the anatomy and physiology of the choledocho-duodenal junction, a muscular sphincteric structure that controls the flow of bile into the upper small intestine of mammals, on which I planned to write my thesis and conduct further experiments in guinea-pigs. I was chasing up a reference published in a medical journal from the early 1900s which was shelved up in the stacks, and an article unrelated to my field caught my attention. In those days, medical journals were not as specialized as they are nowadays, and published articles of a wider general medical interest across scientific disciplines, including the social sciences and anthropology.

I can’t recall the title of this particular article, but it concerned the relationship between intelligence and the sizes and shapes of the heads of various groups of people inhabiting the Balkans, which was the reason it caught my attention, because I’m sure if the subjects were people living in the jungles of New Guinea or Borneo, for example, I probably would have ignored it. Initially I was somewhat surprised to find a study of this nature in a medical journal, next to articles on the hormonal control of gallbladder contraction in dogs, and surgical procedures for alleviated biliary colic. But then I remembered that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, phrenology was an accepted science attached to the fledgling discipline of genetics, and the evolutionary theories of Darwin, whose purpose was to establish phenomenological correlations between various mental faculties, including intelligence, and physical features of the skull, in people from different races, ethnicities and even social classes. Although there was no mention of eugenics in the article, since science doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it’s very likely studies of this nature would have been inspired to some extent by racialist beliefs and theories current throughout society at the time, especially among the middle and upper classes in the industrialized countries of the West and northern Europe, and were looking for empirical evidence for these latter peoples’ technological and organizational superiority.

At the time, the Balkans were considered a wild frontier, inhabited by uncivilized, backward people, whom even the Ottomans feared, and who were seen as ideal subjects for anthropologists to find supporting evidence for their racialist theories. I can’t recall which country the authors of this particular study were from; it was either England or America, or both. But their results showed that there was not only a difference between the size of the heads of people in the Balkans compared to those of northern Europeans, but there was also geographic variation within the Balkans itself, whereby brachycephaly, or the condition of having a larger than normal sized cranium, was more prevalent among people living in the mountainous interior, in the region of Montenegro, between Croatia and Albania, than people living along the Dalmatian coast. Thus, their results seemed to confirm the notion that, because brachycephaly featured prominently among backward, illiterate mountain-dwellers, it was an anatomical indication of a less evolved human archetype.

Although my grandmother could not possibly have come across terms like eugenics, or phrenology, or physiognomy for that matter, I’m sure she and many of her generation subscribed to their own folk versions. And could she read English, she would probably have concurred with the findings of this particular study. But her reading and writing never developed beyond a rudimentary knowledge of the Greek alphabet which she used to scribble down phonetically her desultory thoughts at the bottom of my aunt’s letters to us in Australia, in a mixture of Vlach and Greek, dispensing with all punctuation. Although not quite as pithy or calligraphic, her messages resembled those terse inscriptions one comes across at the base of ancient Greek monuments, where one word runs into the next and sentences are unbroken, a window, perhaps, on the stalled literacy of Vlachs of her generation from the war and interwar period, and even earlier.

Nevertheless, she and women of her generation must have known from their own orally transmitted compendium of accumulated old wives’ tales which, as history’s shown, are not all myths, about the link between brachycephaly and intelligence. That was why she was so determined to rectify my apparent deformity, ordering me to keep still and quiet while she massaged and pressed on my skull like some dough with her fingers and palms, almost on a daily basis. She did so, not only for my own sake, but for a very selfish reason, and this was to save herself and my mother from the odium of having a child in the family with a large head, which would cast aspersions not only on my own intelligence, but on her family’s supposed flawless bloodline, and cause people to think they were descended from dumb fat-headed yokels.

As far as the aforementioned study is concerned, although there was no break-down in the sub-ethnicities of subjects, it wouldn’t surprise me if Vlachs figured among them, because Latin-speakers were known to inhabit the region between Croatia and Albania, one to two hundred years ago. If so, this raises the question of whether brachycephaly has a higher incidence among Vlachs compared to other groups in the Balkans. From my own passing observations, I very much doubt this, because Vlachs are quite a diverse lot in terms of their physical characteristics, and as I elaborate on below, they may not necessarily derive from a single Latinized population, that is, from a circumscribed region, and may constitute more of a sociologically and linguistically defined grouping, than a distinct racial entity. However, this doesn’t exclude the possibility they may share certain physical traits that distinguish them from non-Vlachs, so to speak. But brachycephaly would not appear to be one of them.

As far as their physical diversity is concerned, there’s no better example of this than among my own living relatives. Out to my second and third cousins, one would be hard-pressed to conclude we are at all related, when at one end of the spectrum, there are tall, fair-haired, blue-eyed individuals; while at the other, there are dark-skinned, brown-eyed representatives with curly, coarse black hair; and everything in between, with heads of various shapes and sizes, none particularly large. If indeed I do have a larger than normal head, then the only person in whom I can see any resemblance in this respect is my maternal uncle, which leads me to suspect this might have been the reason my grandmother was so obsessed with the issue, seeing her own son was born with it, and was determined to prevent its manifestation in me.

While still in my teens, to allay my self-consciousness over my large head, I indulged in my own eugenicist fantasies, although I had yet to come across that particular term. Instead of seeing my supposedly large head as a regressive trait, I now looked upon it as a sign of advanced intelligence, which I based on the notion that a larger cranium implied a larger brain, and since brain size relative to body mass was an index of intelligence in animals, this meant my intelligence was higher than average. But when I observed that some people in my class with smaller heads, including the girl who pointed out my own large one, scored higher in tests and essays, the validity of my argument suffered a blow. However, as I later appreciated, after finishing high school and entering university, one needs to train one’s brain in how to be intelligent, and thus, no matter how large, it will simply develop to meet the intellectual needs of the individual concerned, in their specific environment, and once the mould is set, so to speak, further training is of no use.

Such is its plasticity that in the case of a person with a larger than normal brain who is raised in isolation and has no need for spoken language, a large part of it will end up being utilized for purposes other than language. If this person happens to be a jungle dweller, this includes using the brain to store visual information to memorize the intricate paths through the jungle, or to work out the significance of sounds and smells through extensive association in order to find sources of food, or to know from the position of the sun and stars what the coming weather will be like days in advance. This knowledge will be encoded in the unique language of his brain, since he has no need to verbalize and share it with anyone.

I dare say a modern, civilized, educated human being with a smaller brain than our jungle savage, but with much greater language skills, would turn out to be much more “intelligent” by comparison, as measured by standardized tests. This is because he would have learned a lot more “useful” information from his parents and instructors through the medium of language at an early age, since language enables knowledge to be distilled into symbols, that is, words, combinations of which can be stored compactly in memory, or recorded in writing, without having to store vast amounts of minute details. Thus, words and sentences are a bit like mathematical symbols and formulas which encode knowledge and relationships, without the need to know how to derive them. In my own case, had my brain been properly nurtured in a structured manner from a young age, with language and culture, I could well have been a genius and fulfilled my parents’ wildly optimistic ambitions. But I digress.

As for my larger-than-normal head at birth, there may also be a pathological explanation which may or may not have left a lasting legacy. It could well have been the result of an illness I contracted in the womb which caused the ventricles in my developing brain to expand, a condition known as hydrocephalus. This is caused by blockage of the outflow of cerebrospinal fluid produced by cells lining the ventricles. This fluid normally flows out through canals at the base of the brain, to circulate up and down the spinal cord. But when these canals become constricted due to inflammation through infection, injury, or tumors, it leads to an increase in pressure within the ventricles, which then begin to expand. This in turn leads to compression of the brain tissue against the skull, which in the developing fetus, increases in size to accommodate the enlarged ventricular volume. While all this is happening, blood vessels in and surrounding the brain are compressed, compromising the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the developing brain. The end result is that many neurons in this critical developmental period die off, and the newborn comes into the world with a drastic diminution in cognitive capacity. In fact, according to the literature, enlarged ventricles in adults, but not necessarily enlarged heads, is positively correlated with schizophrenia. But whether or not this applies in my case, I’m not sure, because I’ve never had the volume of my ventricles measured in a magnetic resonance scanner. But if they did turn out to be larger than normal, it might explain the fact that I often feel frustrated with who I am, and have only above-average intelligence, when I feel I should have been much smarter.

In any case, I was born with a slightly larger than normal head, as my grandmother and photographs can attest to, to a Vlach-speaking mother and father, in a hospital in Larisa, the capital of Thessaly. My parents actually lived in Tirnavos, a town situated some fifteen kilometers north-west, with a population of about 10,000, and this was where I spent my “formative years” as Marie would say (Marie is someone obsessed with social status). My mother and father, however, were born and raised in different villages about five kilometers apart, and ten kilometers north-east of Tirnavos, on the foothills of Mt. Olympus. I know next to nothing of the circumstances of their betrothal, and I’m afraid if I dig too deep into it I might uncover things best left buried. Suffice it to say, their marriage was predicated on the transfer of assets, the bulk of which came from my father’ side, which has always been a source of mute resentment from them, because traditionally the wife brings more with her than the husband in the form of a substantial dowry. But since my mother’s family had few possessions, her father having died when she was a child, her contribution was minimal, and my father’s family believes he was duped into marrying her for his wealth, relatively speaking.

I dare say their marriage was also predicated on a degree of love and affection, which I feel would be a violation of my father’s eternal privacy if not dignity to explore, seeing he is no longer alive. Suffice it to say, my maternal aunt Katina told me he was quite smitten by my mother the day he first laid eyes on her, she being in her early twenties and he in his mid-thirties. I know little about my father’s life before he married, and what I’ve learned has come from anecdotes told by my mother and grandmother, and various other relatives in Greece, on my irregular visits. One such story concerns an incident that took place in the mid-1950s, and it stuck in my head because it offered some rare insight not only into my father’s character, but also into my maternal grandmother’s apparent antipathy towards him.

He was then in his late twenties, a veteran of the Greek contingent to the Korean War. But he’d been discharged from the army under a cloud, and had trouble finding regular work in Tirnavos and Larisa. And with his father having passed away during the war, he returned to live in the village and take care of the family’s sheep and olive groves. One day, as he was out herding the sheep up in the mountains, he was attacked by a fox. According to his older brother who was with him, the fox bit my father on the arm which left a deep gash. The wound however failed to heal and subsequently became infected, and got so bad that he had to be taken to the hospital in Larisa for treatment. But the infection failed to respond to antibiotics and with gangrene starting to set in, it seemed the only option left to the doctors was to amputate his entire limb at the shoulder. My uncle said that when my father heard this he declared he would rather die than be left without an arm, and got up, walked out of the hospital in agony, and went back home in the village to await his fate.

As a last resort, he was taken to a local practitioner of folk medicine, nowadays he’d be called a naturopath. This healer dressed his wound with extracts from various plants gathered from the mountains and surrounding forests, bandaged it up, and after several such treatments, the wound on his arm miraculously began to heal. Thus my father’s arm was saved. However, although retaining full function of his hand and fingers, he lost a lot of muscle tissue in his upper arm and forearm and was left with a long unsightly scar from above his elbow down to his wrist. Afterwards, among those who didn’t know the story, this fuelled various rumors, the nastiest of which was that it was an abnormality he was born with, something akin to club foot of the arm.

A firm believer in this rumor, if not its instigator, was none other than my maternal grandmother, as I learned when she came to stay with us in Australia in the mid-1970s. In one of her capricious and self-indulgent spiteful turns, she described to me one day when my father wasn’t around, how shocked she and her family were to discover that her cherished daughter had married a cripple, when they saw for the first time my father’s emaciated and scarred left forearm when he rolled up his sleeves to lead the dancing at the reception after the wedding. Although I found her account of her discovery and reaction rather repugnant, seeing it concerned my own father, I had no reason to doubt her, since he himself had never talked about how his arm got that way. Thus, I too came to believe that it was due to a physical deformity of some sort.

Not that I thought about my father’s mangled forearm all that often, except when I saw him trying to grip objects and his thumb couldn’t quite bend enough. But I never had reason to question my grandmother’s explanation. That was until my paternal uncle, the one who had been out herding with him, told me the story about the fox, a few years later on my first visit back to Greece in 1979. I can’t recall what prompted him to relate the story. I suspect it may have had something to do with fact that he and the rest of my father’s brothers had written him out of his inheritance after marrying my dowry-less mother, and my uncle was now trying to expiate his guilt by portraying my father as a brave and courageous fighter who had suffered more than his fair share of troubles which life had thrown at him. But I suspect he also fancied himself as a bit of a raconteur – this being before television in the village, and people spent their evenings telling each other stories.

In any case, he proceeded to describe what had happened that day and its aftermath in such detail and with such apparent frankness, that immediately I realized this was in fact the truth behind my father’s scarred and emaciated left forearm, and that my grandmother’s explanation was nothing more than a sheer lie, whether of her own invention or others’. At the same time, I couldn’t understand why she would want to malign my father by spreading such a vicious lie, and I had to seriously contemplate the likelihood she was indeed severely demented, just as I had suspected when one day, having become depressed with life in Melbourne when she was staying with us, she took off from our house without telling anyone, believing that if she kept walking, she would eventually find her way back to Greece. But luckily we found her wandering around aimlessly not far from the house, lost.

I should state that although my relationship with my father lacked an overt intimacy, he wasn’t tyrannical or over-bearing in any sense. It was just that he maintained this steadfast emotional aloofness to which I became accustomed. Then one day he died and I realized I knew very little about him. There were so many things I wanted to ask him, in particular, what he knew about his forebears, and what he made of his Vlach identity, or whether he even thought about it. He left behind no writings as such, except for a sparsely annotated army diary from his time in Korea, in 1952-53, in that small, tight script of his, now largely faded and illegible, although at some point it appears he tried to go over it with a ball-point pen before his notes disappeared altogether. And the few letters he wrote to me in Greek when I moved to the States in my late twenties, which were probably the closest he ever came to communicating with me on a personal level, I discarded after reading, because invariably they contained the same old platitudes and advice, as if he had long ago exhausted his reserves of fatherliness, and for my part, I wanted as little a reminder as possible of his cold distance. I suppose if I’d kept them, I could have gone back to them to analyze his style of writing and the nuances of the words he used, including those he crossed out so I wouldn’t read what he’d changed his mind about, and the order he laid out his meager thoughts on the page, and I could have gained some further insight into his character. But like him, those letters are no more.

I’m also reluctant to approach my aunts and uncles in Greece for more information. I get the impression that, for whatever reason, they too don’t want to discuss the past. I’ve had some success, however, with my cousin Vassiliki who is four years older than me, and with whom I feel a close affinity. I suspect this dates back to my childhood in Greece when we used to visit her family in the village and sometimes stay overnight. By then, my aunt Katina had conditionally accepted my mother as her sister-in-law, and it was something which transpired on one particular visit when I was about six that left a lasting impression and which I feel contributed to forging an extra-corporeal, dare I say, a strange mystical bond between me and Vassiliki, more so than with any of my other cousins.

It was a warm late summer evening and we were all gathered inside her house, the grown-ups talking away, in Vlach, while my sister and I were eating our sweets served to us, as Vassiliki kept us entertained with her drawings and stories. It was starting to get dark, when suddenly, Vassiliki, looking visibly excited, grabbed me and my sister by our hands and took us outside, as if to show us something. In the semi-darkness, she led us along a dirt road that ran at the back of their house, and after a short walk, we arrived at the village football pitch where we climbed down the embankment to be met by a small crowd of children at the bottom. She had brought us to watch a Punchinello-type show her younger brother and his friends were putting on, and the dozen or so children from the neighborhood were all gathered in front of a makeshift screen consisting of a white sheet hung from a curtain rod and some candles as sources of back-lighting. Then, when it was sufficiently dark, the show began in earnest, and we all eagerly sat and watched the silhouettes of caricatures drawn from Greek and Turkish folktales, the main one being the elderly Karagioz, prancing across the screen, shouting and arguing in a strange voice with the other figures. The show finally came to a climax with all the characters beating one another over the head to the accompaniment of raucous laughter from the captive audience.

I remember thinking how silly and primitive the whole thing was, from the poor quality of the puppets, to the untidy way the sheet was hung, and the fact that we had to sit out on the damp ground and get our clothes dirty. It was a far cry from the open-air cinema in Tirnavos my parents would take me to on Saturday nights, all dressed up, to watch the black-and-white feature films, Greek as well Italian and French and American, on the towering screen. There, one could sit down on proper chairs and drink a cold fizzy soda through a straw, or have an ice-cream at the intermission, something my cousins in the village had yet to experience, I was sure. Despite my reservations, however, I couldn’t resist being swept into my cousins’ and their friends’ enthusiastic laughter and enjoyment of the show. Subconsciously, I think there and then I recognized there was something genuine and honest about the quaint simplicity of their crude home-made entertainment into which they wanted to draw me and my sister and share with us, so that we too may experience their joy and happiness. In the end, I think it was this unashamed and uncomplicated openness which endeared me so much to Vassiliki.

Another reason I feel a connectedness with her is the fact that, just as she recognizes something of my father in me, and by implication, perhaps something of herself, there’s something about her own physical appearance, and perhaps her emotional make-up as well, that strikes a deep and mysterious chord in me as well. It sounds strange, but it’s as if I’m looking at my father, but as a younger woman, but also at my own self. In fact, I see in her more of myself than I do in my sister. That could be because my sister’s a non-descript amalgam of my mother and father, resembling neither to any clearly discernible degree, whereas I’ve often been told how much I look and take after my father, but surprisingly, how I also resemble my mother in certain respects. Perhaps because she doesn’t possess any readily recognizable features of either, my sister has never attracted the same level of interest and affection from my relatives on both sides. And, by the same token, seeing little of herself in them, she’s subconsciously pushed them out of her own mind, which may explain why she feels less of an attachment to her kin all round.

In any case, I’ve learned from Vassiliki that her village of Argyropoulion in Thessaly, or Caragioli as it’s known in Vlach, spelt Καρατζιόλι in Greek, which is also my father’s, was settled by the descendants of the present-day Vlach inhabitants back in the 1880s. At the time, Thessaly had just become incorporated into the newly formed independent kingdom of Greece to the south, but the neighboring mountainous regions of Epirus to the north-west and Macedonia to the north, as well as Albania, were still under Ottoman control. According to her father, who died of bone cancer about fifteen years ago, the first Vlachs to settle in Argyropoulion, in this “modern” wave, consisted of three main families or clans, those being my father’s grandfather’s family, her father’s grandfather’s family, and another family to whom I am probably also distantly related. These three founder families arrived from a place somewhere in northern Epirus which doesn’t show up on any map, but it was near the present Greece-Albania border. This was after they were granted land next to the village where they settled into a semi-nomadic existence, the men folk turning to sheep-herding and animal husbandry as their main occupations, while others worked as carriers, and the women stayed at home and made cheeses and weaved woolen handicrafts like blankets and rugs and clothes, for themselves and to sell at markets around Tirnavos and Larisa.

She didn’t say why they left their home up north, and with all their worldly belongings packed on the backs of mules, moved 200-odd kilometers south to Thessaly. I would think they were already acquainted with the area through their regular visits to the markets. So when they learned the village and surrounding region were to be ceded to Greece and the resident Turkish population repatriated, they decided to go and stake their claim. Apart from having their own plot of land, another motivation to go settle there would have been to escape the constant threat of social and political upheaval in Epirus which was still rife with revolt and plagued by banditry and lawlessness. In addition, by settling on the Greek side of the new border, it meant they could avoid paying tariffs when transporting their goods to market towns in Thessaly, now part of Greece.

Although my father’s village is now officially known as Argyropoulion, to Vlachs it’s still referred to by its Ottoman name of Caragioli. This name is said to be derived from the Turkish “Qara-chul” which translates to “black burnt desert”, a reference which is not immediately clear, although some claim the name refers to the dry barrenness of the surrounding land. The Turkish connection has its roots in the 11th century when mercenaries from the region of Konya in what is now southern Turkey were sent to Thessaly by the Byzantine ruler Alexius Comnenus as part of a military force to repel the invading Normans. With the Normans repulsed, many of these mercenaries ended up staying, and later, when the area came under Ottoman rule in the 14th century, they were joined by a new stream of settlers, also from the region of Konya. These new immigrants were granted land in the rich agricultural plain around Larisa, displacing the existing Greek as well as Vlach inhabitants, who were suddenly reduced to landless peasants, or rayas, having to work for the Turks, and not allowed to own any property.

Under the protection and with the blessing of the Ottomans, these new Turkish settlers established villages on or near existing Greek ones, Caragioli being one of them, which rose up near the site of the ancient Greek town of Elote, which appears in the writings of Homer. Thus, because of the Turkish settler connection, villages like Caragioli came to be known as “Koniaric” villages down the years, and are still referred to as such.

As for Konya itself, ir was a major city at the height of the Roman Empire in the 2nd 3rd centuries A.D., being situated on the main overland route between Europe and the Middle-East. Among the emperors who ruled in this period was Caracalla, famous for his edict that granted Roman citizenship to all free residents living within the reaches of the Empire, to counter the rising influence of Christianity. Given the tradition of honoring emperors and consuls by naming cities and towns after them, I wonder whether Caragioli, or a variation thereof, may not be a corruption of the Caracalla, the emperor, and originally may have been the name of a town near Konya from where a large portion of the Turkish settlers sent to Thessaly by the Ottomans originated, and who conferred this same name on their new settlement as a reminder of home, as is often the case with colonists sent to remote foreign lands.

Another possible origin of the name Caragioli could be from the word “Karachul“, which is the name of a Turkic tribe that overran what is now eastern Turkey back in the 12th century. Since their invasion took place well after the Roman Empire had collapsed and broken up, and Turkic tribes like the Karachul, one would think originated from too far north in central-East Asia to have come into contact with the Romans in their history, it would be logical to assume the word “Karachul” is of Turkic origin, although one cannot rule out Roman cultural and linguistic influences upon Turkic tribes that had settled in regions previously colonized by the Romans in the near East. But in relation to the mercenaries sent to Thessaly by the Ottomans from Konya, it’s possible they were actually of Karachul origin who had previously settled around Konya, perhaps in a village that bore their tribal name. And once in Thessaly, they conferred their tribal name, or the name of their village in their homeland, on their new settlement, which with the passage of time became known as Caragioli, or Καρατζιόλι, since under the Ottomans, Greek remained the lingua franca in Thessaly.

Following the withdrawal of the Ottomans in the 1880s, and the repatriation of the majority of Turks, Caragioli was renamed Argyropoulion (Αργυροπούλιον), perhaps to underscore the fact that it now belonged to the new independent Christian kingdom of Greece. As for the meaning of this particular name, my own translation of it is “silver town”, given that “argyro” means silver or white in Greek, and “poulion” means market or town, which accords with the fact that Caragioli was once in fact a center of commerce in the area. The “silver” may well refer to the surrounding granite mountains, or silver ore that was mined in the area in ancient times. Or else, it may refer to the whiteness of the broad snow-covered summit of Mt. Olympus which stands as a year-round backdrop to the village. But the fact that Vlachs still refer to it as Καρατζιόλι, i.e. Caragioli, provides interesting insight into the socio-political status of Vlachs in modern Greek society, as well as to their labile sense of identity, on which I have a very personal perspective.

As a child growing up in Tirnavos I well remember how perplexed I was by the constant switching by my parents and relatives between Vlach and Greek. I noticed that when they were among themselves, they always spoke Vlach and referred to my father’s village and others by their Vlach names. But in public, out on the street in Tirnavos, or in the company of Greeks, they always spoke Greek, as if they feared offending them. From this schizoid-like behavior of my parents and relatives I concluded that for some reason, it was taboo to speak Vlach outside the house, and their deference to Greeks suggested that in some way, they were inferior to them.

Since I couldn’t speak Vlach, although by some strange process, I learned to understand it from overhearing my parents and relatives, I felt increasingly torn between my allegiance to my parents on the one hand, and of that to my friends and teachers on the other, who like me only spoke Greek. And because of this, I began to experience an inner conflict over identity and what were probably the first stirrings of a nascent political consciousness. This tug of war was exacerbated whenever my maternal aunt, who was a school teacher in Thessaloniki, came to Tirnavos on weekends and holidays, and in her educated, modern Greek, would berate anyone in the house she caught speaking Vlach, including my parents who, for some reason, dared not defy her. It all reinforced my growing suspicion there was something inherently loathsome about the Vlach language and all it stood for. But at the same time, I could see no reason to dislike my parents and my grandmother and my other relatives in the village, even though they all spoke Vlach.

It wasn’t until much, much later, when I was in my twenties and living on the opposite side of the globe, that I finally discovered the reason behind my parents’ and relatives’ guardedness about speaking Vlach in public in Greece. It wasn’t just because they felt embarrassed about speaking a minor language which had no literary tradition, although I was to discover this wasn’t entirely the case; it was because of their own experiences, and the legacy of tales handed down to them by their parents and grandparents, of the way Vlachs were treated by Greeks, dating back to when the Ottomans quit Thessaly, all of which informed their unspoken collective memory and fear. As I discovered from my reading, this included violent vindictive pogroms conducted in reprisal for perceived privileges Vlachs enjoyed under the Ottomans, and various other acts of violence to fulfill various vendettas, all of which were largely condoned by the authorities of the new Greek state. Thus, under the wave of nationalist fervor, it was in the interest of Vlachs not to draw attention to their identity, and indeed, many abandoned their Vlachness, as it were, and became fully ‘Greekified”, as opposed to Hellenized, many of whom already were, since they were to a large degree bilingual. And this was why my parents and relatives, like their predecessors, remained circumspect about speaking Vlach in public, while doing their utmost to present themselves as Orthodox Christians and fellow Greek citizens.

No doubt another factor that aroused the resentment and hostility of Greeks was the fact that many Vlach families in northern Greece sent their children to Rumanian schools rather than to those run by the new Greek state. These Rumanian schools dated back to the late 1860s when the then newly created state of Rumania, although still under Ottoman control, was allowed to set them up throughout Epirus and Macedonia, then still ruled by the Ottomans. The excuse of the Rumanians was that Vlachs were displaced Rumanians and wished to be taught in their own language and learn their own culture, which the Ottomans were only too happy to allow, since it divided Greeks and Vlachs and suppressed any potential unified revolt, at a time when the Ottomans were on the retreat. But since there were few if any Greek-run schools in these regions, Vlachs took advantage of the Rumanian’s offer to gain an education and improve themselves, while their Greek neighbors remained comparatively illiterate.

The Rumanian assertion of a common ancestry was based mainly on the close similarity of Rumanian to Vlach, the latter of which by that time had been subject to scholarly treatment and much of its vocabulary had been transcribed using both the Latin and Greek alphabets. The Rumanian schools continued to operate after Epirus and Macedonia were incorporated into the new Greece, being sanctioned by the Greek government, which under a reciprocal agreement was allowed to set up and fund Greek-speaking schools in Rumania to cater for the Greek-speaking minority there which dated back to 18th century Greek merchants. Still, in Greece many Greeks resented Vlachs for taking advantage of the Rumanian schools to gain an education, which did little to sway Greeks from their belief that Vlachs were agents and conspirators in the territorial ambitions of Rumania. In fact, my own father attended one such Rumanian boarding school in Epirus up until he was about fourteen. That was when the Second World War broke out, and these schools were shut down after Rumania sided with the Axis powers. Although he valued the education he received and had ambitions of studying abroad in Italy or France, as far as I know he never considered himself a displaced Rumanian, nor was he in any way sympathetic with Rumanian nationalism, which I guess is testament to the failed propagandist mission of these schools, if indeed this was their aim.

During the war itself, the suspicions of Greeks were further aroused when the occupying Italian forces in northern Greece briefly set up a Vlach-run breakaway pseudo-state and recruited Vlachs to fight for them. The Italians had also appealed to them on the basis of common ancestry, claiming Vlachs were descendants of Roman colonists from thousands of years earlier, as evidenced by the similarity of the Vlach language to Italian, and also by the physical resemblance between Vlachs and Italians. But the fact is that the vast majority of Vlachs were opposed to the Italian occupation and many actually joined the Greek resistance movement to fight against them and the Germans, as did my father. The few who did join the Italians were motivated less by fascist ideology and more by material gain, as were many Greek-speaking German collaborators in the cities and towns.

There are many unanswered questions concerning the origin and history of Vlachs, but one that has always puzzled me from a socio-political standpoint, which goes to the heart of the nature of the Vlach identity and character, is why Vlachs have failed over the centuries to form themselves into a politically distinct entity, that is, into a Vlach “nation”, not necessarily a “state”, given the depth of conviction of other self-recognized ethnic groups in the Balkans. I think the answer partly lies in the fact that Vlachs are a heterogeneous lot, both in terms of physical features, as well as culturally, and the language they speak, although based on the common Latin spoken by the Roman colonists throughout the Empire, varies somewhat between regions, as do customs and elements of culture, which when analyzed as a whole, are not all that unique to Vlachs per se.

There is, however, one often cited aspect of Vlach culture that distinguishes them from Greeks, and that is the status of women. As many outside observers have commented, compared to Greek women, Vlach women are accorded higher respect in Vlach society and are more liberated in their views and behavior. This has be taken as evidence of strong Roman influence, since in Rome, women had a more active role in society than in ancient Greece, and within the aristocracy they managed the financial affairs of their husbands, and were widely consulted for their views.

In any case, despite the efforts of proponents of Vlach nationalism over the years to unify Vlachs under a common language and set of customs and beliefs, this has largely failed to inculcate a pan-Vlach consciousness, as it were, enough to unify them under one head, and one wonders whether this is at all possible. It’s as if history itself has instilled in Vlachs an aversion to the very concept of self-determination and nationalism.

Another question that arises from the above is why the Vlach language has survived as long as it has, given the marginalization of Vlachs in recent times. My own theory is that, with its limited, largely utilitarian vocabulary adapted to the pastoral nomadic life, Vlach continued to survive so long as it supplied the basic linguistic needs for communication among Vlachs living in geographically isolated communities, enabling to be preserved through oral transmission. Thus it’s no coincidence that, as Vlachs have moved into towns and cities in greater numbers over the past fifty years, and begun to associate more extensively with the exclusively Greek-speaking population, the Vlach language has lost ground to the more sophisticated Greek which serves their needs for communication and expression as urban dwellers infinitely better, just as vulgar Latin did, in comparison to the crude ancient Greek dialect these dispersed tribes would probably have spoken before the Romans.

Although this process of assimilation and acculturation has been going on for centuries, it’s fair to say many urbanized Vlachs have retained a connection, if not with the actual language, then with the Vlach culture because of the identity it confers on them, even though they also strongly identify with Greece, but not necessarily with the ideology of the Greek nation-state. It’s a bit like having your own little secret which endows you with a sense of mystery and exclusivity that both baffles and invites awe and respect from your neighbors, whether they be Greeks or others. But it’s a fine balancing act because the differentness Vlachs project can also incite hatred and hostility, as Vlachs well know, and I wonder whether their lingering connection to their nomadic pastoral past hasn’t been ingrained in their psyche somehow over the generations, and they have clung onto it as a kind of insurance against potential social upheaval occasioned by the collapse of civilizations and economies. Nevertheless, one suspects that as long as Vlach urbanites feel that connection to their roots, however token or flimsy, communities like Caragioli will continue to exist as spiritual places of home.

The supplanting of Vlach by Greek was all too evident among my own relatives, as in the case of my maternal aunt, the school teacher. I suspect her desire to “cleanse” herself of any Vlach identity was no different from that of many other educated Vlach women, before and after her, because another cousin of mine on my fathers side, who also happens to be a school teacher, confessed to me on a recent visit that she felt no attachment to the Vlach language, and will shed not one tear the day when it finally dies out. In one sense, their active abandonment and renunciation of their cultural and linguistic heritage is nothing more than a manifestation of the tendency of women in general to seek out more advantageous positions in life for themselves, and marry up, given that Vlach confers no material advantage in modern Greece, and in fact, in popular wisdom, is associated with low social status.

Men on the other hand tend to hold onto their ancestral identity more strongly, probably because of a biological need to project strength of character and resoluteness, as well as constancy, as a positive trait to which potential mates are attracted. Oddly enough, Vassiliki, who’s also a school teacher, albeit pre-school, unlike my aunt and other cousin, hasn’t married and doesn’t seem to share their “self-hate”, as it were (I wouldn’t go as far as calling it shame), and has never looked down upon or denied her Vlach heritage. I think this is another reason I feel a connection with her, because I sense in her disregard for bourgeois conformity a subversive form of intellectualism, or perhaps anarchic surrealism, which transcends politics, as befits a free spirit, to the extent that some say she’s a sorceress. But I digress.

I suspect, however, that my socially upwardly mobile anti-Vlach aunt and cousin have justified their abandonment of Vlach because in their eyes it encodes and inculcates a backwardness that has always prevented Vlachs from advancing themselves. Although I’ve never discussed the matter with her, being an avowed socialist, my aunt might even see it in dialectical terms whereby Vlach, being the cornerstone of a backward and oppressed mindset, ensures a defeatist consciousness and continued backwardness. Thus, the only way forward is to reject it completely, that is, to stage a personal revolution against it, and in the process, gain the necessary self-awareness of one’s potential to transcend one’s backwardness, individually and then collectively, by adopting the superior language and culture of one’s masters, so to speak, in this case, the Greeks, thereby negating the negation, and achieving enlightenment and freedom, without the need for a national liberation struggle which would entail Vlachs attaining a “national consciousness”, which in all likelihood they’re incapable of. Who knows? Perhaps by forbidding us from learning the language of my parents, she did have our best interests at heart, after all. Still, I can’t help but feel that her and my cousin’s overriding motivation for rejecting their Vlach heritage was emotional, rather than coming from any intellectual rationalization of the limited usefulness of the Vlach language, driven by a sense of shame should anyone find out they speak the language of nomadic shepherds.

This conflict over language and identity assumed a new though not unfamiliar form after we arrived in Australia in the summer of 1968-69. In less than a year after enrolling in primary school, I had learned to speak English quite well, and despite my parents’ sending me and my sister to “Greek school” in the evenings, my hold on Greek began to slip away. This wasn’t helped by the fact that, with my scolding aunt ten thousand miles away back in Greece, they had reverted to conversing in Vlach at home. Compounding this linguistic disjunction was the fact that my sister and I began to speak to each other exclusively in English. This led to a strange politico-linguistic dynamic in our house whereby my sister and I saw ourselves as superior to our parents because they spoke little or no English and had to rely on us, me especially, to translate the most trivial of things for them into Greek, which I had more or less forgotten. But at the same time we were completely dependent on them for food and shelter, for our very existence, no less. Gradually the linguistic trichotomy in our family, whereby my parents communicated to each other in Vlach, my sister and I spoke to them in Greek, while we ourselves conversed with each other in English, led to our “cultural” estrangement, as my sister and I began to assimilate more and more into Australian society. And as a result, my parents were forced further and further into the background of our consciousness.

To a large extent, not yet being ten years old, I was unaware this was happening. But I was also unaware that it had precedent in Greece where, inspired by my aunt’s vigilance against infiltration and corruption of our hearts and young minds by backward Vlach, I had begun to regard my Vlach-speaking parents and relatives as inferior beings and as people unrelated to me. Although in Australia that vigilance was not there, I think subconsciously, hearing my parents speaking Vlach at home revived those dormant memories and feelings from Greece, and I suspect in our new environment, it was transformed into a sense of distrust and suspicion of my parents, which consciously or otherwise influenced my sister and me to adopt English as our own “private” medium of communication. But in all this process, the casualty was not Vlach but Greek, on which my tenuous grip had weakened to the point where I had largely lost my ability to speak and write in Greek to my aunt. Thus, just like Vlach had lost out to Greek in my early childhood, Greek, to all intents and purposes, my mother tongue, or should that my step-mother tongue, had now lost out to more dominant and infinitely more useful English. Thus, I was twice denied the chance of an identity.

To be honest, I too don’t feel any sense of loss at the decline of the Vlach; perhaps some sadness at the prospect that the language of my parents in which they communicated their deepest feelings and desires will soon be extinct, lost forever. At the same time I feel a little guilty, perhaps because deep down I still harbor a sense of shame about my residual Vlach identity, instilled in me by my aunt, and by Greek society in general. I wish that wasn’t the case, because I would much prefer my identity be defined by an acknowledgment of a connection with Vlach language and culture, than by a hidden shame of it. Still, despite the fact that, as a human entity immersed in a consumer culture which defines me as an atomized individual possessed of a supposedly free will, forever beset by constrained choices, where ethnicity, as expressed in a marginalized language and culture, has no place in the reproduction of my mental and physical labor, so that I can continue to participate in this consumerist hell, I can’t help but feel, albeit in an abstract sense, a strange attraction to the nomadic pastoral life of my descendants. But is this any different from any other human being looking for meaning in life by a return to nature? In the meantime I have to content myself with periodic visits to my geographic homeland and allow the landscape to seep into my subconscious and soothe my yearning to belong.

While it existed as a mode of communication among the mountain-dwelling nomads in the Balkans, one would think the Vlach language had some influence in shaping the development of a Vlach “race”, by drawing together people from scattered tribes through the medium of a shared language and customs, who would then have inter-married. However, because of the turmoil and political instability in the Balkans over the centuries, the Vlach language alone could not fulfill its organizing role on a wider social engineering level, if indeed any language can. All of which brings me back the origin of Vlachs themselves, which is still an open question. Are they derived from a pre-Roman group who lived in a specific region which adopted the language and culture of their conquerors, possibly interbred with them, and subsequently underwent dispersal and racial diversification? Or are they derived from scattered remnants of Latinized indigenous rural populations across the Balkans?

In answer to the first possibility, one theory I’ve come across proposes that Vlachs are descended from Dacian and Thracian tribes who were Latinized under Roman occupation, beginning in the 2nd century A.D. during the reign of Trajan. Afterwards, with the withdrawal of the Romans and collapse of the Empire in the East, and the invasion of the Balkans by various groups beginning with the Slavs in the 7th century, these Latinized Dacian and Thracian tribes were forced to flee southward where they sought refuge in the Pindus mountain range. There they remained in isolated pockets for centuries, practicing their nomadic pastoral lifestyle, preserving the vulgar Latin tongue and customs they had picked up or assimilated from the Romans.

In post-Roman Greece, through trade and commerce, these Latinized Thracian and Dacian tribes in the mountains would have come into contact with Greek-speaking populations along the coastal regions and plains, so that with time, they would have picked up some Greek as well, combining it with their vulgar Latin, or else they became bi-lingual. But in the absence of formal education, Vlach, that is, the mixture of vulgar Latin and crude ancient Greek, remained their dominant tongue. It was only after Byzantine rule was firmly established, which brought a measure of law and order to the Balkans, that Vlachs appeared in recorded history, as noted in Anna Comnena’s “Alexiad” written in the 12th century, having emerged from their isolated mountain communities in the meantime, to settle in the villages and towns of the valleys and plains, and in the process, adopting Orthodox Christianity as their religion. As mentioned above, because Vlach speakers made up a large proportion of the population in Epirus and Thessaly, the region came to be known as Greater Wallachia, the land of the Vlachs. It should also be noted, however, that once the Ottomans came to power in the 14th century, a fair number of Vlachs converted to Islam while retaining Vlach, since the Ottomans didn’t enforce a common language.

The other theory as to the origins of Vlachs holds that Latinized tribes were to be found throughout the Balkans before the 7th century, and were not necessarily derived from refugees or immigrants from a single population from the north. These scattered tribes spoke the local dialect, which was most likely based on ancient Greek, and became Latinized under the Romans, either as slaves or contract laborers, or providers of various services, adopting their language, seeing it was the language of government and commerce. Moreover, they may well have intermixed with Roman soldiers and support personnel during their long occupation, who, after being discharged, would have been given plots of land to settle in and cultivate, as was the custom in the Roman military, around which small communities developed.

The children from such mixed marriages, that is, between Roman men and women from the local tribes (women marry up, remember), would have carried Roman traits which were passed on to succeeding generations and preserved if not refined by marrying within their own “mixed-race” communities. One assumes the wives would have adopted the language of their husbands, and since children generally learn to speak the language of their mother, vulgar Latin would have been passed on to them. But it’s hard to say to what degree this form of transmission contributed to the diffusion of the language, as opposed to its adoption by the general population; probably it occurred via a combination of both vertical and lateral transmission, resulting in the unequal “melding” of the two languages, with vulgar Latin predominating. With the rise of Byzantium and its empire in which Greek was the lingua franca, these Latinized tribes would have resisted re-Hellenization, especially those living in isolated geographic regions, where Byzantine authority had limited penetration.

Of the two theories, to me the latter makes more sense, because the Roman invasion occurred firstly in the territories of present day north-western Greece and Albania, and then spread northward and east. Ongoing military campaigns would have brought over tens of thousands of Romans, not just soldiers to occupy the land and enforce Roman rule, and guard strategic passes through the mountains, but others as well, to build roads like the Via Egnatia, and other infrastructure for the administration. In the process, these colonists would have established their own towns and villages, or significantly transformed existing ones, and brought with them their customs and the common Latin spoken throughout the Empire. As the mass of Roman colonists did not speak Greek, which was confined to the Roman aristocracy and the Greek elite, it was to the advantage of the locals to learn the language of the colonists. Thus, their own crude ancient Greek dialect would have been largely supplanted by the more extensive and utilitarian vulgar Latin.

Although it’s not known to what extent intermarriage between Roman male settlers and local women took place, and whether it was an accepted means of upward social mobility, the strong likelihood that it occurred, as with the troops of Alexander the Great who left their genetic imprint on the populations of the regions they over-ran in Asia and the Middle-East, suggests that the “Greek” characteristics of the resultant inter-racial proto-Vlachs were passed down the maternal line, while the “Roman” characteristics were transmitted down the male line. If so, one would expect a higher degree of concordance in the nuclear DNA profiles of present day Vlachs and Romans (or Italians), whereas there would be a higher degree of similarity between Vlachs and Greeks in the profiles of their mitochondrial DNA which is transmitted down the maternal line. Of course, all this assumes that the native Balkan tribes and the Romans constituted homogeneous populations, which is probably very unlikely, especially for Romans, given the continuous influx into Rome of people from all over the Empire, including Africa, the Middle East and Northern Europe.

A similar process of Latinization of indigenous tribes would have occurred over all the Roman-occupied regions in the Balkans, hence the similarity not only between the Rumanian and Vlach languages, but in the physical characteristics of present-day Vlachs, Wallachian Rumanians, and Italians, and most likely people from other Roman-occupied regions in France, Spain, Britain, North Africa and the Middle East. Thus, a motley and geographically dispersed Vlach “race” may well begun to form, connected through their shared infusion with Roman blood, as well as a language and culture. Which leads one to wonder whether the variegated and partial Roman influence across the Balkans might not be a factor, if not a reason, as to why Vlachs have failed to coalesce into a unified “people.” What I mean by this is that such people would be torn between their connection to their respective “ancestral” homeland on the one hand, and on the other, to an abstract “political” attachment to something that was seen as foreign and not well understood, in the form of their Roman heritage, which is itself diverse and derived from many influences, linguistic, cultural and racial.

Much later, with the arrival of the Ottomans and the relative peace they brought, this would have given the more prosperous and entrepreneurial Vlachs, regardless of how they came to be, the confidence to settle in towns, and here they adopted the language and customs of the more sophisticated Greeks, Greek remaining the lingua franca in the Greek territories under the Ottomans. However, these urbanized Vlachs most likely retained their Vlach language in some form, not only because it afforded them a sense of identity, as mentioned above, but also because it fostered a sense of cohesion and unity with their fellow Vlach merchants, an “insiderness”, if you like, with whom they could share valuable information to the exclusion of Greek-speaking or Turkish competitors. In addition, because the European Romance languages were intelligible to Vlachs, it gave them an advantage over their Turkish and Greek counterparts in their commercial transactions with Western Europe, with which the Ottomans were also keen to trade, hence their favoring of Vlachs as envoys.

In support of the Vlachs’ orientation towards the West, compared to that of other Greeks, I can cite examples among my own relatives in Greece who have attended university in Italy, Bologna to be precise, and because they had a knowledge of Vlach, albeit spoken, they had little trouble picking up Italian and adjusting to the culture. And then there is Giorgio Vongolis himself, from as far back as the 1850s. For their facility to engage with Europeans on behalf of the Ottomans, in 1905 Vlachs were even granted them their own millet, to the chagrin of Greeks. This is somewhat similar to the position of Cypriot Greeks in modern Greece, who by virtue of their more extensive knowledge of English and of British customs and institutions, having being subject to British rule for generations, enjoy an advantage over Greek citizens in international business and trade.

The most plausible evidence for a transformation of a layer of Vlachs from pastoral nomads to burghers, and even intellectuals, was the city of Moschopolis. It was situated in what is now southern Albania and was said to have had a population of 70,000 in the mid-18th century, although this is most likely an exaggeration, as is the wont of Vlachs who as shepherds would boast of having more sheep than they actually owned. This city was home to many middle-class Vlachs who had amassed wealth from their business dealings with Europe and the Otttomans, and through their largesse, Moschopolis became a major center of culture and learning, albeit based on Greek language and traditions, a case perhaps of the Vlachs’ innate inferiority complex reasserting itself, as they sought validation in a superior culture. Whatever the reason, Moschopolis served as a conduit for many of the discoveries and teachings of the Enlightenment into the Balkans, and the city boasted many libraries containing thousands of books printed in Greek, Latin and various European languages, as well as the first printing press in the Balkans outside Constantinople.

Although the majority of inhabitants were Vlach, or of Vlach-speaking descent, the relative security of the town attracted other groups, including Greeks and Albanians with links to Western Europe, as attested by the publication in the city of a dictionary in the four major languages, including Vlach, which was transcribed in Greek and taught in schools. One assumes that while the Vlachs of Moschopolis still identified with their rural and nomadic origins, the Vlach language took second place to Greek. (Is this process of assimilation not going on today in Greece, where Greeks speak English almost as fluently as they speak Greek?) That connection with their unflattering past, however, must have played on their vanity because it is said that before it achieved prosperity and opulence, Moschopolis went by the name of Voskopolis, in reference to the fact that it was originally settled by shepherds (i.e. “βόσκος” in Greek). And the name was changed to Moschopolis to conceal its embarrassing past. As for Moschopolis, the name is said to refer to “cattle” in Greek, but the word “moscho” in Latin means “musk”, as in the fragrant aroma, perhaps in reference to the local flora, and not at all to cattle.

Unfortunately, the success and prosperity of Moschopolis all came to an end when it was razed by troops under the command of the renegade Turkish military leader Ali Pasha in 1788, after being subject to regular raids by Muslim Albanians since 1769. As a result many of its inhabitants, including Vlachs, fled abroad or south into Epirus, Thessaly and Macedonia, and perhaps reverted to nomadism to survive. Thus the efforts of wealthy urbanized Vlachs to formally elaborate a Vlach literary culture, which included the formal transcription of the Vlach language using the Greek alphabet, came to an abrupt and sad end. I can only surmise that among those wealthy burghers that fled south included one or more of my own forebears. But who really knows?

If Moschopolis represented the “coming of age” of Balkan Vlachs in a European historical setting, there was something symbolic about its tragic rise and fall which mirrors the changing fortunes of Vlachs before and since. It’s as if they’re destined never to rise to any significant heights of fame and glory under their own name. Instead, they are content to establish niches for themselves wherever they end up, straddling cultures, harboring no strong nationalist or secessionist ambitions, but at the same time resisting assimilation, without being totally averse to it. Their readiness and willingness to coexist with others perhaps is why an historian in the 12th century, Benjamin Tudela, who travelled through the Balkans, believed Vlachs were a lost tribe of Jews. But personally, I think they have too much of a detached view of themselves to be Jews, who create strong, distinct enclaves wherever they go to preserve their very sophisticated culture, so enshrined in elaborate myths and folklore, and recorded in texts like the Old Testament. Vlachs on the other hand, lack any true recorded historical tradition, or a desire for one. They’re the hippies of the Balkans who like to go with the flow, seeking peace and harmony, always wary of the dubious allure of national pride.

Although I can fantasize about my forebears being prosperous merchants from Moschopolis, I also accept they could well have been mountain-dwelling, landless nomads all along. Perhaps I am both of peasant and neo-burgher stock, because there’s every possibility after the collapse of Moschopolis my forbears headed back into the mountains and took up the pastoral life. There they lay low for generations until it was safe to settle in the villages and towns. I can well imagine this might describe the fate of my father’s descendants because my paternal relations have always struck me as possessing that reserve and composure one associates with people who at some point in their past had occupied honorable positions in society and garnered respect among their people; whereas my mother’s family strikes me as being descendant from cut-throats and renegades, possessing a deep ambition for material wealth, by whatever means.

Apparently my maternal grandfather, who died well before I was born, was a butcher by trade, supplying Tirnavos and surrounding towns and villages. He was Vlach, but because he was a merchant and readily interacted with Greeks, he considered himself above traditional pastoral Vlachs like my father’s family, as my mother likes to impress on me. She says her village of Rodia was wealthier than my father’s, because most of its residents were merchants like her father, whereas the Vlachs of Caragioli were all shepherds and carriers. For some reason, she also likes to boast that her grandfather fled south to Thessaly from a region near the Albanian border after he shot and killed a man over an argument, over what, she doesn’t know. In Thessaly, he changed his surname to Mentis – from what, she doesn’t know either, and married and had a family. His son, my grandfather, followed him into the butcher’s trade in Tirnavos and took over the business when he died.

Around this time, being just before the outbreak of the Second World War, my grandfather married, and he and my grandmother had three children, the middle one of which was my mother, who was born on the eve of the Second World War, in April 10th 1940. Being past the age of enlistment, he avoided the draft and the family came through the war relatively unscathed, although my mother remembers an incident where the German army came through her village looking for Resistance fighters who had ambushed and killed some Germans soldiers. To set an example, they rounded up all the men, took them away and executed them. But luckily her father along with some others had already fled when the Germans arrived. However, he was killed a few years later in 1949 at the height of the Civil War that ravaged Greece after the end of the Second World War, under circumstances that are not entirely clear, one account being more romantic than the other.

According to my mother, he died as a result of a landmine explosion on the road between Argyropoulion and Tirnavos while making a delivery run. He and his colleague were badly injured and taken to the hospital in Larisa. But while his co-worker survived, my grandfather died a day later. Apparently that stretch of road was known to be mined by the Communist guerrillas, and the locals usually travelled in convoys, behind heavy lorries. But my mother says her father and his colleague were travelling on their own that particular day. A more heroic version of how my grandfather met his death also involved a landmine, but the circumstances under which it exploded are entirely different. In this latter version, he and his colleague were in the process of actually planting one when it blew up in their faces.

This particular story was drummed into me as a child by my grandmother, I guess because it portrayed her husband as a revolutionary hero who had sacrificed his life for the Communist cause, fighting the hated right-wing post-war fascist regime in Greece. She said that, at the time he was working secretly for the guerrillas and was involved in various acts of insurgency and sabotage, including transporting arms and weapons, as well as planting landmines. I was so taken by this story that I fully believed it well into my late twenties and drew inspiration from it for my own involvement in radical left-wing politics at university.

Suffice it say I was left somewhat deflated when one day my mother decided to tell me the “truth” of how my grandfather died, that is, that he was killed when his cart ran over a landmine laid by the Communist guerrillas. It didn’t necessarily rule out his involvement with them, but I concluded my grandmother, the narcissist that she is, had lied again, this time to make her husband look larger than he really was. Still, I wasn’t entirely convinced of my mother’s version of events either, and couldn’t understand why she would want to contradict her own mother. That was until I discovered that her family had a vested interest in having his death declared an accident. This being the late 1980s, the post-dictatorship government in Greece had repealed a law that denied the pension to anyone who had had any affiliation with the Communist guerrillas. Thus, my grandmother now stood to receive her long-awaited widow’s pension. However this would have been jeopardized if my grandfather’s death was deemed to be the result of a terrorist act, and therefore it was in her family’s interest to have his death recorded as an accident.

However, as far as I’m concerned, this “official” account of my grandfather’s death paradoxically renders my grandmother’s more credible, because she just isn’t capable of inventing such a fabulous story on her own. Perhaps my grandfather’s association with the guerrillas was tied up with his butcher’s trade, running arms for them and planting mines, while they brought him customers and eliminated competitors, who knows? After all, such rackets are not unknown in time of war. If this cozy deal proved lucrative and brought the family material benefits, then my grandmother would have had every reason to like the Communists, and had convinced herself that behind her husband’s racketeering, lay a commitment to a noble cause. But all this is conjecture.

Perhaps he did, in fact, die while planting a landmine, but my mother was instructed by her sister back in Greece to accept the “accident” version, just in case the Greek embassy in Australia contacted her to verify it, and she contradicted them with the “romantic” version of his death. Thus, she felt compelled to pass on to me the one endorsed by her family in Greece, perhaps to reconcile herself with having to accept something she suspected was a lie, by sharing it. Maybe she doesn’t know herself what to believe, not having witnessed it. In any case, her family fell into dire poverty after her father died, and my uncle, then barely in his teens, went to work in the abattoirs to help feed the family.

Now, returning again to the origin of the Vlachs, I’ve often asked myself, if I really am descended from Roman colonists, then which part of Italy would my forebears have come from? Not for any delusional reason that accords a Roman ancestry more importance than say, a Greek, Turkish, Albanian or a Slav one, all of which I may possess to some degree. But simply to account for my physical characteristics which I feel set me slightly apart from other Greeks, although it must be said Greeks are a mongrel lot. This notion surfaced recently one weekend when I went for a stroll downtown to relieve my boredom. It was mid-afternoon and feeling somewhat hungry, I decided to stop and have lunch at an Italian restaurant I happened to be walking past in the North End which had a little map of the Abruzzo region of Italy on its front window. It must have just opened its doors because I couldn’t see any customers inside. Nevertheless I decided to go in, and sat down at a table near the front window, since the sign said I could sit anywhere.

The staff were gathered around the bar at the back and sure enough, they all looked Italian. But I was mesmerized by one of the women who even from a distance bore a striking resemblance to my cousin Vassiliki. Then as she approached my table, I could see she was the same height and had the same complexion and skin tone, the same almond-shaped, chestnut colored eyes, the same high eyebrows and prominent cheekbones, the same firm mouth and lips, and overall similar facial features and hair. The resemblance was so uncanny that for a moment I thought I was looking at Vassiliki’s double, while trying to avoid staring at her like some creep.

Given she was undoubtedly of Italian descent, the racial connection between Vlachs and Italians from the Abruzzo region immediately suggested itself. I was now convinced of the veracity of the claim that Vlachs are descendants, in part, of Roman colonists in the Balkans, perhaps soldiers who patrolled the passes in the Pindus mountains, or workers who built the fortresses and highways, who intermarried with the natives, and then settled in these regions as shepherds and farmers, spawning mini-communities. I wanted to ask her if indeed she or her descendants were from the Abruzzo region, but I was afraid she would tell me to mind my own business and fuck off with a telling look. From her physical appearance, however, it was very likely they came from somewhere in central Italy because she was neither sufficiently fair nor tall to be from the north, nor did she have the dark, lanky features of Sicilian women. In any case, after finishing off my spaghetti marinara with a glass of red wine, I left with the notion that I could well be descended from Romans after all.

To be frank, I can’t draw any inspiration from any of these theories, and I don’t feel any more or less pride in being of Roman descent, as opposed to being of Greek or Rumanian or Slav, or of Turkish extraction, all of which are entirely possible if I look hard enough, given that the Balkan peninsula has been such a crossroads of cultures and civilizations since ancient times. I am probably some weird admixture of all these, and therefore don’t belong to any one particular race or ethnicity. It’s like with anything: the more you examine it, in greater and greater detail, the less sense it seems to make. Still, why do I have this recurring desire to want to know who I am? Why can’t I simply accept that I am a living human being and do the things that someone with my physical attributes and intellectual capacity can perform, and not worry about such irrelevancies?


 

In the Antipodes you never know what to expect. You think you’ve worked people out and then out of blue they go and do something completely unexpected, like start speaking in idiom, dropping cryptic figures of speech here and there when plain English will suffice. They want to remind you there’s still a lot you don’t know. And having shaken you out of your certitude, they sit there with a wry grin on their face, arms crossed, looking at you as if they had all the time in the world. They want to see how you respond to their insolent exposure of your presumptuousness in thinking you could work them out so easily, just because they’re cut off from the rest of the world. Will you smile back in humble acknowledgement of your error of judgment? Or will you ignore their play at dominance, in which case you’re a marked man, because it shows you don’t really like them, or their country? It’s all designed to knock you off your high horse and cut you down to size, like a poppy that’s too tall for its own good, and to remind you you’re now very far away and there’s nowhere to hide.

You might even hear a semblance of laughter emanating from their mouths, half-open, teeth showing through a resentful sneer. It’s more like a demonic cackle than a laugh. It impinges on your ears and senses, making you cringe in your bones at its cacophonous dissonance. It beckons you to cackle back and flatter them by imitation, which you feel compelled, lest they interpret your failure to reciprocate as flat out refusal, insinuating something inane about their sense of humor. Or worse, that you think you’re above them, too big for your boots, in which case you should just pack up and go back to your own country!

You’re being implored to validate their cosmic insecurity and collective anxiety born of the emptiness of an open prison which has all but nullified their will to escape the arresting allure of the lucky country. But if an outsider like you, without prejudice or preconceptions, can give them their nod of approval, it means they must be on the right track and can continue their present lives with pride and confidence, knowing the world hasn’t forgotten them, and that they matter. Silence on the other hand would augur dangerous introspection, triggering hostility towards anyone suspected of undermining their equanimity. So you play it safe and laugh along, mouth half-open, teeth showing in a fixed half-smile, even if they suspect you’re only pretending. That way the onus is back on them to elaborate their suspicions about your motives in conforming to theirs.

In the next to farthest corner of the Antipodes, which is where I now find myself, in the city of Melbourne, named in honor of Lord Melbourne, the shortest reigning British Prime Minister, if I’m not mistaken, people firmly hold on to Western values refined over millennia of social progress, as if these traditions and customs form the last barrier between them and oblivion. But what do you expect from a nation of prosperous and proud cast-offs? That as citizens of an industrially developed, first-world nation, they would willingly break from their past and mark their emancipation by creating a new society ab initio based on an entirely new vision of human social organization? “Steady on, mate! Have a beer.”

None other than Lenin himself was at a loss to explain why a country as free from the constraints of the Old World Order as Australia, unfettered by stultifying class divisions and a feudal system of land tenure, had failed to seize the opportunity to transcend the capitalist mode of production and organize itself along socialist lines. He didn’t say so, but he must have been thinking that, if socialism cannot take off in Australia, where all the preconditions are more or less set up for it, then what hope is there for the rest of the world, unless of course, Australia is an exceptional case. On the other hand, why dispense with building on the those proud imperialistic traditions which have given rise to such advances as the discovery of planets and new continents, and democracy with one man, one vote? If it means re-creating the same social and economic stratifications, then so be it, because there’s always been rich and poor, and if you don’t like it, you can always go back to your own country.

 Who knows for how long Western civilization will survive in the Antipodes, or what will become of it? For the time being, it seems to have established itself quite nicely, attracting people from all countries of origin in continual supersessionary waves of immigration, to come and live and work in the expectation of attaining a standard of living unimaginable in the “old country”, while cautiously assimilating their own customs and values into a bastardized, post-colonial Victoriana, lest they encroach on the sacrosanct hegemonic sensibilities of the colonial order.

In contrast to the divine principle of “manifest destiny” that fired the post-Revolutionary American consciousness and guided the transformation of the geographic and the socio-political landscape of that country, inspiring generations of pioneers to go forth and assert their self-absorbed idealism, the non-descript Antipodean concoction of constitutional monarchic rule and a culture derived from the contained conflict between aristocratic understudies and emancipated convict subjects, has informed a consciousness that neutralizes the most fervent of utopianists and converts them into complicit adherents of vague ideals encapsulated in such succinct mantras as, “God’s own country”, “have a go, you mug”, “she’ll be right, mate”, AND “if you don’t like it here, you can go back to your own country!”

 Thoughts along these lines were running through my head on this particular Sunday, not quite as ordered or reasoned. They reflected my wish that I were somewhere very far away, so as to be relieved of the heavy tedium weighing on my mind since arriving back the week before, in the middle of a cold and wet Antipodean winter. In the distance, the low grey cumulus clouds merged with the horizon over the water, suffusing the view with a palpable dullness, as a stiff cold breeze coming off the bay infused the air with a biting dampness. Out in the choppy water, wind surfers in full-body wet suits were testing their skills against the elements, skimming over the crests of waves, whisked along by the breeze. Beyond them I could see tankers and large container vessels anchored or making their way to the mouth of the Yarra and the docks upstream, while another trailing wisps of smoke was heading south towards the Port Philip heads, and then out onto the high seas. 

On the promenade next to the near empty beach of the St. Kilda foreshore, seagulls, miner birds and the occasional crow were fighting over scraps of food, and scavenging through discarded plastic and paper bags picked out of the rubbish bins, as a steady procession of urbanites of various ages, in varying degrees of cover, reflecting their susceptibility to feel the cold, leisurely strolled past. Some had brought along their dogs on leashes, while new mothers seeking mute praise and admiration proudly pushed their strollers before them, defying any red-blooded male to think of them as any less eligible for their fallen status.

Meanwhile, inside the café a sizeable crowd was keeping the kitchen busy, as the electric bar heaters up on the walls glowed red-orange, making for a warm and cozy atmosphere. Among them were couples, married or friends, others with children, sitting and chatting, content to be out of the cold, sharing random thoughts and musings while they pondered the view and wandered about the state of mind of the few who dared sit outside on the deck. My sister and I were seated next to the floor-to-ceiling windows at the front, affording a panoramic view of the beach and the bay, as well as the Sunday crowd strolling past on this particularly dour afternoon.

We were waiting for the waitress to come and take our orders for coffee and cake, “Caffee und kucken”, as the Germans would say, while privately musing over our sibling relationship and how we had come to this point in our lives. Periodically we turned our gaze to whatever caught our attention, mentally noting the peculiarities or attractions of the subjects. Being older and not having inherited my father’s disposition for taciturnity, I felt like saying something to fill in the niggling absence of dialogue that had set in after we sat down. But the background chatter sufficed to make up for the deficiency as we occupied ourselves with the fragments of conversations of others, to figure out what passed as an appropriate topic of discussion.

When the waitress did arrive, I was quick to order a thick slice of the rich brown Black Forest chocolate cake I saw in the display window on the way in, mentally salivating at the thought of sinking my teeth into it, and a cup of their strongest regular black coffee, without milk, I added last, so she wouldn’t forget. She was in her early twenties, probably a student of the arts or social sciences, and quite accustomed to approaching strangers, oblivious, or perhaps not, of evoking intimate fantasies in which she figured prominently, dressed in her black apron tied around her slender waist, with matching black shirt opened down to the third button, and her long black hair pinched off in a high ponytail.

 My sister ordered a slice of lemon sponge cake and a coffee with milk, I think. I know it wasn’t what I ordered because she doesn’t share my like for dark chocolate or strong black coffee. But in all honesty, I must confess, she’s always been a peripheral figure in my consciousness, which is why I have difficulty recalling what she said or did on a particular occasion, or indeed if she was actually present, and I have to rely on the testimony of others. I don’t do this intentionally, out of malice, or anything, because, since I was very young, I’ve always had a tendency to look past her, unless her words or actions impact me directly. I’m convinced she thinks my amnesia is selective and deliberate, a manifestation of my innate narcissism, intended to remind her of her subordinate rank, when in fact I do it automatically, without thinking. I like to believe that, primarily this emanates from the fact that I’m first born, and since there was nothing for me to learn from her, she was just as easy to ignore.

Having said that, I’m always intrigued when told how much I adored her when we were young, and how much I wanted to hold her in my arms when she was still a baby and I could walk. But I have absolutely no visual or emotional recollection of that. Presently, however, there is no such deficiency in my memory, because it was her idea to go to St Kilda that Sunday, to walk down Ackland Street and stroll through the handicraft market on the Upper Esplanade, and then stop for a coffee at that popular café on the foreshore whose name escapes me. If it weren’t for her, it would never have entered my head to go there on my own, not in a million years.

After taking our orders the waitress smiled as she collected the menus and walked to the next table. While we waited for our cakes and coffees my attention was drawn to a man sitting outside on the deck when the door swung open and the fumes of his smoldering cigarette wafted into the café. I’d noticed him sitting there when we came in, but the noxious aroma of his cigarette now impinged on the back of my nostrils, and seized by a sense of panic my immediate reaction was to stare at him through the window to try and discern any distinguishing physiognomic features on which I could focus my irritation. Features that pointed to his lack of civility and utter disregard for the feelings of others by smoking so near the door and presuming to expose everyone inside to his toxic second-hand cigarette smoke.

I was about to get up to close the door when to my relief the waitress pulled it shut, and the smell began to dissipate. It wasn’t just the poisonous nature of the cigarette smoke that disturbed my calm. It was also the knowledge at the back of my mind that the aroma itself would invariably awaken my own dormant craving and stir up memories of my smoking past, and likely evoke a wistful nostalgia I would rather not bring up, for fear of being driven back to the habit in the belief I could recreate that longed-for past. As anyone who’s smoked well knows, it’s this Proustian quality of cigarettes to evoke events buried in one’s memory with which they’re inextricably bound, that can prove to be so powerful a stimulus as to make one who hasn’t smoked for years suddenly light up again.

From the lingering aroma, slightly sweet and musky, they smelled foreign, European I’d say, perhaps “Gauloises”- definitely not Australian tobacco. And suddenly, against my wishes and my mental powers of resistance, my cigarette-filled memories had been awakened, and I was being transported to another place and time.

I was driving west on I-80 in my iridescent azure-blue, two-door 1981 Honda Civic, inhaling the intoxicating vapor of smoldering tobacco amidst the fresh, crisp mountain air rushing in through the partially open driver’s-side window, my left hand on the steering wheel, my right resting on the gear stick, with a Marlboro between my fingers. Every now and then, I would lift it to my lips and take in a slow draw and exhale, as I headed up the incline towards Donner Pass, to the doleful sounds of “Riders on the Storm” playing on the cassette deck.

It seemed such a ridiculous pairing, really: inhaling the smoke from dried leaves of Nicotiniana tabacum, while controlling the speed and direction of a metal-clad cubicle on four wheels, propelled by an internal combustion engine, fuelled by gasoline, itself derived from organic matter, albeit decomposed over tens of thousands of years and extracted from deep in the ground. But on the open highway, it seemed so natural to reach over to the flipped open pack of Marlboros sitting beckoningly on the passenger’s seat, pick out a thin stick wrapped in white paper, place the filter end between my lips and light up the other with the glowing tip of the cigarette lighter, draw into my lungs the smoke and feel the strange combination of a sensory numbness and disorientation giving way to a soothing clarity, with a hint of hallucinatory transport.

Then on the return journey from San Francisco to Reno, to heighten the anticipated pleasure of lighting up again, having resisted the urge all day, walking around the city, I would tease myself to see how much longer I could hold out. Usually this lasted until I was across the Bay Bridge and past to tolling station in Oakland. But when the traffic was heavy, like on a busy Saturday night, requiring my utmost concentration to look out for Californian drivers cutting in front of me, having noticed my Nevada plates, or suddenly braking, it would be well past Vallejo before I lit up. On other occasions, however, when I could afford to relax, after a particularly enjoyable day in the city, having watched the sun’s descent over the Pacific at Land’s End, I would forego my self-imposed test of resolve and light up as soon as I had turned onto the lower deck of the Bay Bridge and assumed my place in the procession of vehicles heading East, with the setting sun beaming intermittently through the grey steel latticework in my rear-view mirror.

When there weren’t enough cigarettes left, and I couldn’t be bothered pulling off the highway in the middle of the night to buy another packet at a gas station in some meth-hole in the foothills, I would mentally work out the required interval between cigarettes for my supply to last the journey home. I would base my calculations on the remaining miles to Reno from my odometer, that is, if I remembered to reset it in San Franscisco, knowing Reno was 232 miles away; or else, rely on the remaining distance posted along the highway, assuming an average speed of sixty miles an hour, and dividing the time thus obtained by the number of cigarettes left, less one for when I got home. But if the packet was near full, and there was no likelihood of my running out, I would go through as many as my lungs could tolerate, with the window rolled down so I wouldn’t suffocate, filling the ashtray with buts to the brim.

I wasn’t a heavy smoker by any means; my maximum rarely exceeded four or five a day. I think the most I ever smoked in one day was when I went for a job interview at University of Massachusetts in Worcester. I was so nervous the night before the interview and my presentation, I went through an entire packet in my motel room, smoking well into the small hours, watching soft-porn films on the television. In the morning, my eyes were bloodshot with dark rings around them, and despite showering, I must have still reeked of cigarettes from my clothes because my host and potential future boss kept repeating how much he detested cigarettes, and that no-one in his department was allowed to smoke. It never crossed my mind that he was alluding to me until I was back home and reflecting on the reasons why I wasn’t offered the job.

Usually my first was after breakfast, while sitting on the toilet seat in the en-suite bathroom in my apartment in Reno, so as not to offend my roommate. And since there was no one in the department at work with whom I could share a cigarette at lunchtime, I would sneak off home have a Marlboro or two in the bathroom after having something to eat. As the afternoon wore on, my irritability would begin to grow, and as soon as I got home in the evening, I would shut myself up in the bathroom and have another on the toilet seat, with the exhaust fan sucking out the smoke-filled air. My last for the day was also in the toilet, just before I went to bed.

As with other things in my life, I started smoking relatively late, in my early twenties. In high school, many of my friends smoked but I always managed to decline their invitations “for a fag behind the sheds.” Smoking was associated with “common” people who lacked self-restraint, and I saw myself above them. But the main reason I refused to join them was because I feared my parents would find out and I would draw my father’s unspecified ire. But once I got to university, desperately hoping for a drastic change in my personal fortunes, and looking to broaden my social horizons, having lived a fairly sheltered life up until then, my hitherto inhibitions vanished and I decided to take up the habit, in the knowledge that so many notable figures in literature and film, rebels to varying degrees, also smoked, and looked so suave and carefree doing it. Among them were philosophers like Camus and Sartre, and actors like Alain Delon, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Humphrey Bogart and even John Wayne, even though he espoused right-wing ideas. It seemed smoking was an essential part of their persona, and a means of attaining that superior outlook they projected. So one day, I decided I would do likewise in the expectation that I too would be imbued with the same sense of individuality and independence.

To unequivocally announce my arrival into socially recognized manhood and attain the level of sagacity and sophistication of my heroes in as short a time as possible, I went out and bought a packet of “Camel – Turkish blend”, the strongest of brands, unfiltered, with the highest tar and nicotine content. I was also attracted by the exotic imagery it conjured up, of a desert oasis, or some smoky gin-joint in Casablanca, or a coffee-shop in a quiet corner of a Middle-Eastern bazaar. The mere thought of lighting one up instantly transported me to a place very far away from the mundane surrounds of suburban Melbourne and the utter alienation of university.

But in the beginning, it wasn’t as easy as I imagined. Inhaling the searing vapors burned my throat and bronchial passages, provoking dry coughing fits and tears in my eyes. I couldn’t understand how people could put up with the pain and irritation, especially my father who would take long draws on his Marlboros to fill his lungs and then blow out the smoke through his mouth and nose like a chimney. But I was overlooking the fact he had been a smoker for forty odd years, and a heavy one at that. After experimenting with various inhalation techniques, I learned to draw in the caustic smoke more slowly, so it didn’t burn my throat and lungs, and with time and practice, I could inhale more deeply with less discomfort, and even blow smoke out of my nose, although this made me sneeze, so I avoided it.

Having satisfactorily mastered the technique, I was somewhat disappointed that I couldn’t really feel any of the hedonic effects experienced smokers said they enjoyed from cigarettes. In fact, rather than calming my nerves, I found they clouded my judgment if anything, and left me slightly confused and in a state of mild delirium. But I refused to give up, largely because I was conscious of being seen by my peers, and especially by my father, as a weakling if I were to quit so soon. I wanted to prove to him and them that I was truly up to this manly ritual.

After a while, having all but worn out my bravado, and still unable to get any real pleasure from cigarettes, my affinity was now sustained by a vague sense that I belonged to the broad community that included not just famous writers and actors and other prominent figures in society, but people from all walks of life, like my father, with whom I was beginning to bond through our shared habit, or so I thought. This leveling aspect of smoking was no doubt subconsciously kindled and reinforced by the myriad subliminal messages promulgated in the popular culture, through advertising and the mass media, impinging on my senses and brain on a daily basis. Although I knew it was all contrived illusion, designed to sell cigarettes, still I couldn’t help but be drawn into the delusion of seeing the world through the eyes of a detached cowboy-cum-stoic philosopher sitting astride his horse, looking out over the range, puffing meditatively on his Marlboro (I had now switched brands, Camels being too harsh).

Having been a regular smoker for about two years, during which time cigarettes were there to mark such notable events in my life as my first encounter with the pleasures of the female flesh and all the existential questions it posed, as well as my first trip to Paris to inspire my vanity and to pay homage to such famous smokers as Sartre, Camus and Simone de Beauvoir, another aspect of smoking cigarettes now revealed itself, and that was my physical addiction.

I first became aware of it at a conference in Las Vegas, or was it Monterey (I had moved to the United States after graduating). Seeing none of my colleagues smoked, I decided to abstain for the duration of the meeting and purposely left my cigarettes at home, and resisted buying any. But on the second day of the conference, I was so hyper-excitable, that I’m sure many who came up to talk to me at my poster must have thought I was on drugs, talking very fast and gesticulating wildly with my hands to explain things.

For my part, however, I found that state of heightened arousal bordering on mania not entirely undesirable. It removed my usual inhibitions, and suddenly I felt less hesitant about approaching people I would normally avoid out of shyness or awe, and talk to them and ask questions. Moreover I found the craving produced by a period of abstinence strangely appealing, priming my mind and senses with the heightened expectation of imminent fulfillment. Thus, whenever I went without cigarettes for more than a day, a kind of tug of war developed in my head, between the urge to light up and satisfy my craving for nicotine, on the one hand, while trying to resist doing so on the other, so as to heighten and prolong the delirious exuberance brought on by withdrawal. But then when I did light up, to my disappointment the feeling of relief from satisfying that craving was short-lived, and I found myself back in that familiar state of physical inertia and mental torpor, while resolving the next packet would be my last.

I knew I could quit at any time if I really wanted to. Moreover, the surge in energy levels I experienced whenever I went without cigarettes for more than a day made me realize just what a physical burden they were on my body, apart from the disgusting gobs of phlegm I would cough up in the sink each morning. In the end, the main reason I decided to quit had more to do with the realization that, as welcome a delusion as it was while it lasted, smoking had not delivered the change in fortunes I expected.

When I did finally quit, I not only rid myself of that self-deceit, but also of a niggling guilt which I had never been able to shake off completely. It was this same guilt that forced me to smoke in the toilet in my apartment, or inside my car where no-one could see me, or in some hidden corner of a building, away from people’s critical gaze. It was also this guilt and associated shame that would waylay me whenever I ran out of cigarettes, and had to go out and buy another packet. It was altogether different from buying a bottle of vodka at the liquor store, for example. Even though it was perfectly legal, and cigarettes were much less likely to impair my judgment than alcohol, for some reason, buying cigarettes felt like I was committing an immoral and terribly shameful act. At the time, I couldn’t figure out why, and it wasn’t until sometime after I had quit and reflected back on it that I realized this guilt had its origins in the uncertain relationship between me and my father.

You see, as I mentioned, when I first started smoking, I saw it as a rite of passage of sorts into manhood, seeing that my father and most of the men among family friends and relatives all smoked. Being in my mid-twenties, there was no need for me to seek my parents’ permission, and when I did start, neither my mother nor father appeared to have any objections. Moreover, I figured once my father got used to the sight of me smoking around the house, we would share cigarettes, as did my friends with their own fathers, which I could only bring us together. But just when I thought he’d accepted me, something occurred one day that reawakened my deepest insecurities and caused me to question my understanding of my father, and what he really thought of me.

It was the middle of summer, on a weekend, and I was lying out in the shade in the back yard of our house in Five Ways. I was reading a book while puffing on a cigarette, when I saw my father coming out of the house. I put the book down and looked up, thinking he might want something from me. But his face had that enigmatic lipless look of barely concealed disdain as he walked past, throwing me a blank look without saying anything. My immediate reaction was one of confusion. I couldn’t understand what he was so upset about. It obviously had something to do with me, and like a dog overcome by guilt at his master’s sudden accusatory look, I felt a wave of shame sweep through me as I tried to figure out just what I had done that had so displeased him.

I waited for him to disappear into the workroom before taking another cautious puff. But that discomforting self-consciousness our transient visual exchange had stirred in me gave way to frustration and anger, and I could no longer concentrate on my reading. I suspected it was my smoking he resented, and seeing me lying in the sun must have brought back memories of his indolent, good-for-nothing brother who he believed I had taken after. That’s when it dawned on me that, contrary to my assumptions, my father’s apparent indifference to my smoking habit didn’t imply approval; in fact, if anything, it implied the opposite.

Although eventually he reconciled himself with seeing me smoking around the house, it wasn’t until well after I had quit altogether, and not that long before he died, that I was satisfied I had figured out what lay at the bottom of his lingering disdain. It had little to do with any concerns for my well-being, given his own smoking-related health scares. It was tied up with the fact that ever since I started to think for myself and assert my independence, of which smoking was a belated manifestation, he saw me as a threat to his hegemony as patriarch. By smoking in his presence, I was directly challenging his rule over the family, because smoking was his way of stamping his authority and expressing his dominance, and only he had the right to engage in it. In other words, his entire identity was more or less tied up in this male-dominated ritual.

Thus, when he walked past me in the back yard that day, what he actually saw was not just someone trying to mock him, but attempting to usurp his power and render him superfluous. But because he couldn’t directly challenge me, either physically or verbally, given his quiet nature, he resorted to the next best thing which was to undermine my equanimity and self-esteem psychologically, by deriding my puerile effort to assert my manhood by copying him. He did this through his cold, stern glance, so I would understand in no uncertain terms that I was nothing but a good for nothing sod who knew next to nothing about life and the responsibilities that came with being a man, and no matter how much I smoked, I would always remain one.

I suspect this incident served as a constant reminder that to my father, I just didn’t measure up, and was destined to remain a mere pretender. And cigarettes were a direct link, so that whenever I put one to my mouth in plain view of others, a non-descript anxiety would rise up within me, over my attempt to assert my manhood through this stupid ritual, but lacking the inner confidence to do so without knowing why. This was because the reason was buried deep in my subconscious and I couldn’t see the connection, hence the inexplicable guilt and shame. But was it really cigarettes and smoking that lay at the root of my father’s resentment and his distance? Or was it an excuse, an outlet, if you like, for his reservations about me as person, that is, his son? Whatever it was they represented to him, in my mind, subconsciously or otherwise, cigarettes became a symbol of the fact that I was trying to be someone that the person who had brought me into this world said I could never be. Perhaps my father could see something in me that I couldn’t, and I guess in the end, that’s why I decided smoking wasn’t worth my while.

When I did finally quit it wasn’t “cold turkey”, so to speak. Since I wasn’t a heavy smoker, the effects of withdrawal were never going to be as serious as what some of my friends described. Moreover, the sense of order that the daily smoking ritual had introduced into my life, much like prayer times for Moslems, was insufficient argument against the obvious health benefits of quitting. The fact was that cigarettes and smoking just didn’t suit me. That reflective wisdom and insight I imagined would come, never really arrived. I came to the conclusion it wasn’t tobacco or cigarettes per se that inspired all those philosophers and artists to scale the heights of fame and perspicacity. It was their respective social and political milieus in which they moved that made all the difference. Smoking was simply an affectation, an accoutrement that drew attention to themselves and their art, a kind of sublimated masturbation which one becomes so accustomed to, it seems natural. And so one day, after I had smoked the last cigarette and the packet of Marlboros lay empty on the table, I never bought another one ever again.

Although cigarettes are now a thing of the past, I can’t say I will never return to them. I can well imagine a situation arising at some point in the future where I’m so bored with life, or facing the end, that I see no objection, driven by a wistful nostalgia for my smoking past, to take my mind away from my woes. But for the time being, my resistance seems to be holding up, despite the fact that whenever I get a whiff of cigarette smoke, it brings up such vivid memories, like driving through the Sierra Nevadas with my window rolled down, or along the Pacific Highway heading south to Santa Cruz, gazing out at the ocean, rejoicing in that sense of shared freedom with my faithful friend.

There was something odd about that man sitting out on the deck, quietly puffing on his cigarette. I kept glancing back at him to try and discover why he looked so out of place. There was no evidence he had company since there was only a single coffee cup on his table next to the ashtray. Although seated, he looked of solid build, like an athlete of some sort, but past his prime. He was somewhere in his late thirties, with medium-length black hair parted down the middle – not your regular office type out on the weekend. He looked European, south-eastern European to be more precise, but not Greek. I was sure of that. For one thing, a Greek, that is, an Australian-Greek, or Greek-Australian to be non-judgmental about it, regardless of the signifier and signified, would rather die than be seen sitting alone on the deck of a café on the St Kilda foreshore in the middle of winter, in an open-necked shirt, smoking cigarettes while pondering the sea and sky. A Greek-Australian, neutralized as he is of all but the most obsequious imitation of verve, would be completely lacking in the necessary detachment to be able to step outside himself without appearing ridiculous, or resorting to self-deprecating buffoonery in the form of golliwoggy humor and flatteringly imitative idiomatic turns of phrase.

His face betrayed no emotion and offered little hint of what was on his mind. Now and then he would steal a quick look at someone who attracted his attention passing by and take another long draw on his cigarette while turning his gaze back to the sea and at the ships out in the bay. From his angular, slightly non-classical features, my guess was he was Yugoslavian, which went along with the understated self-assurance he effused, something one associates with the fiercely independent-minded Yugoslav character. I also noticed a small personal travel bag on his table, the type fashionable with men about town in Europe. It probably contained money, in local and foreign denominations, his passport and other documents, which would mean he was a visitor, for he also bore the look of one who had the freedom to leave at short notice. My guess was he was a seaman on shore leave from a merchant ship whose route takes in Melbourne where it stays tied up in dock for a few days while freight is unloaded and loaded. That explained why he kept staring out to sea, as if he was thinking about the voyage ahead.

After stealing enough glances at his profile, I had one of those weird feelings where I was convinced I’d seen him before. He was a soccer player at an International friendly match I went to at Olympic Park many years ago. It was either between Red Star Belgrade or Dynamo Zagreb, and a local Victorian representative side made up of semi-professionals, most of them southern European migrants who at one time had aspirations of becoming professional soccer players back in their home countries. I was there with my uncle, since my father had absolutely no interest in sport of any kind. The few times I managed to drag him along to come watch me play basketball, he anxiously sat in the bleachers as if on sharp nails, and after the game, he said absolutely nothing in the car all the way home. He must have had his reasons not to like sport, and that’s all one needs to know.

The match had drawn a large crowd comprised mostly of Croats and Serbs, but also of other nationalities including Greeks, Italians, Poles, Hungarians, Germans and Scots, among others, most of them first-generation immigrants. I recall the atmosphere being very tense, and there was sense of foreboding in the heavy, smoke-filled air in the terraces, as rival fans either cheered or jeered in unison in that booming thunderous roar produced by mobs of angry, semi-drunken, testosterone-charged adult males whose repressed nationalist fervors are suddenly given an outlet.

The first-half finished without incident, but in the second-half, the overseas team drew ahead, not surprisingly. This was the signal for those in the crowd opposed to the sub-ethnicity it represented in that uneasy alliance of a country brewing with open conflict between vengeful half-relations to start throwing bottles at each other and whatever else they could lay their hands on. Then all-out fighting erupted, as my uncle and I took cover. To an outsider it seemed mindless and without purpose. But to the rival Serbs and Croats, they were merely exercising their inalienable right to vent their feelings and emotions in the manner befitting their respective national characters, honed over hundreds of years of internecine mortal conflict. Moreover, they had one another’s tacit approval to inflict and bear whatever injuries their confrontation resulted in. That was until a contingent of police officers stepped in with reinforcements to subdue these violence-prone savages who lacked the decency and intelligence to leave their intra-ethnic hostilities back in their own country.

My guess was this ex-Yugoslav international was a striker as opposed to a defender, someone who liked to head the ball into the back of the net from high crosses from the flanks. He exuded that air of detached, self-confident individuality that strikers must possess, being the virtuosos they are. But with his career now over, he had decided to take to the sea and travel the world rather than remain in his home country, bombed into subdual for the time being, by an international coalition of armed forces, in the name of peace and justice. I had no evidence that was indeed who he was. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t important.

Seated a few tables away was an elderly couple dressed more appropriately in their thick coats and scarves. They were sitting quietly, content to gaze at the passers-by, and feel the stiff breeze blowing around them. My guess was they were East Europeans, immigrants or displaced persons who had arrived in Melbourne after the war, either of their own volition or as part of a resettlement program sponsored by the United Nations and the Australian government. But they were now fully naturalized Australians, and long retired from the work-force, receiving a fortnightly pension while living out the rest of their lives away from their country of birth, the thought of which must have held so many bitter-sweet memories.

Behind them I also noticed a woman leaning on the railing. She had walked up the few steps from the promenade below and kept looking around her furtively as if to see whether she was still being followed. She was dressed rather lightly in a loose shirt that hung out from her jeans, and was barefoot. From the way she carried herself, she looked to be approaching forty, or slightly older. She picked out an empty table between the railing and the elderly couple, and sat down with her arms folded tightly to keep warm. Her reddish brown hair which fell about her shoulders in a disordered mess bore all the signs that repeated attempts had been made to pull it out from its roots.

As she sat huddled in her chair, switching her stare from one non-existent object in front of her to another, it was obvious there was something unhinged about her. She had an aura about her that suggested something dramatic was about to unfold. For a moment it crossed my mind that she might be a prop who made an appearance when the occasion called for it, like now, to lend an authentic melancholic air to the gloomy wintry idyll. Or else, she was a semi-professional actress with a theatrical troupe in St Kilda, one that focused on productions based on gritty urban themes, or contemporary adaptations of works by Russian realists, and she was immersing herself into her character as a middle-aged woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown to gauge her ability to carry an audience.

Finally the waitress arrived and brought us our cakes and coffees, flashing a perfunctory smile before walking out to the deck. As she opened the door, a gust of cold air rushed in causing everyone inside to instinctively turn their heads, unanimously imploring her to quickly close it. Suddenly a loud commotion broke out on the deck which the waitress blithely ignored and came back inside, closing the door behind her. The disheveled looking woman had got up from her chair and was rushing about yelling loudly in angry tones at someone she believed was violating her privacy.

That someone was a man slightly older. He was trailing her around the deck. He reminded of Roman Polanski, of all people, being rather short with hair just below the ears, parted to one side, and he had squinty eyes with a long nose on a rat-like muzzle. Strapped around his shoulders was a piano-accordion, the bellows of which he periodically squeezed in and out while fingering the keyboard to play a chord or two, as he attempted some verses from what sounded like a love song. He was earnestly beseeching her to turn around and listen to him as he weaved his way between the tables and chairs to get her to at least look at him.

They were moving in tandem from one end of the deck to the other, with the wretched woman doing everything to evade this persistent troubadour’s attentions, bumping into tables and pushing chairs out of her way. But he wasn’t one to give up so easily, and I got the impression cajoling depressed middle-aged women with romantic melodies was his specialty. I wandered whether they weren’t a duet. Then having cornered her, he got down on one knee and begged her to listen to him. But all his efforts were in vain because just when he thought he had finally charmed her with his doleful strains, she turned around and darted off to the other side, calling for him to leave her alone and stop harassing her.

It seemed the harder he tried to win her over, the more agitated she became. “Leave me alone!” she cried out, causing everyone inside to stop their conversations and stare out. “Stop that! Get away from me! I hate you! Leave me alone!” she shouted for everyone to hear. But the man with the accordion, undaunted, kept playing to the romantic strains of a song emanating from his smiling mouth as he crouched down in front of her again in the hope she would see the lighter side of life.

Then all of a sudden, he stopped playing, straightened himself up under the weight of his accordion, and resigned and exasperated, started muttering something to himself. Having exhausted all his efforts to cheer up this wretched peri-menopausal female, he turned around and made for the steps, chastising himself for foolishly thinking that what worked perfectly well in Vienna or Budapest or Paris, where his talents were appreciated, and in fact, people like him were part of the fabric of life, that it could be transferred with the same efficacy to a place which on the surface appeared cultivated and welcoming, but lacked all the intangibles that attach to cultures steeped in romance and tragedy. He was pissing in the wind, rowing upstream in shit creek with a wire paddle, etc., etc. He should have learned by now to accept the fact this was Melbourne, where things are done differently. That elderly couple knew that. That’s why they were content to simply be with one another, and one day die in peace, and be buried without ceremony in their pre-paid cemetery plots, far away from home.

Before descending the steps, he glanced back in the direction of the café one last time. But when he saw the people inside were unmoved and could well have taken the side of that mad woman, he shook his head a few times and disappeared. I turned to my sister and said something to the effect of, “Hmmm,” to express my undecided take on this impromptu matinee performance, before going on to other thoughts. I took a sip of my strong black coffee and followed it with a big chunk of Black Forrest chocolate cake carved off with my teaspoon. As I savored that immensely satisfying taste of dark chocolate melting in my mouth, suddenly I felt much better. It took only a few more spoonfuls to clean off the plate, save for the brown streaks of chocolate and some crumbs which I wanted to wipe of off with my fingertip and lick it, but stopped short so as not to embarrass my sister.

It’s true. In this particular part of the world people project an unnerving and infectious guardedness, and have a tendency to keep their thoughts as well as their lives very private. It doesn’t do one any good to too get excited and show one’s hand. That poor miserable woman sat herself down again, arms folded tightly around her midriff to shield her from the cold breeze, and resumed her fixed stare at nothing in particular. I had no further interest in her, and a few minutes later she got up and also disappeared down the steps.

Meanwhile the one-time Yugoslav soccer player, now sailor, who had sat watching impassively the scene between her and her luckless serenador lit up another cigarette. To him, nothing had really happened, except that some dumb bitch in need of attention was too confused or stupid to articulate her desire. Or perhaps, on an intellectual plane, she was a casualty of a clash of cultures, whereby her outward signals were misinterpreted by her foreign-born interlocutor as her wanting something which she wasn’t receptive to, or not quite in the way he had reciprocated. And by humiliating the only person who could have saved her from her own madness, she made it even worse for herself. What she really needed now was a few swift backhanders across her face and a couple of whacks on the back of her head, something to conflate pleasure and pain, love and hate, so that amidst her confused and battered mind she could offer herself to the first punter that came along to rid her of her burden.

It didn’t bear any more thinking. Besides, he was too preoccupied with his own situation, like how he was going to spend the next few days in this far-off corner of the world. He probably had contacts here, friends or relatives, and was contemplating whether or not he should pay them a visit. Or maybe he should just spend a couple of nights in a cheap hotel with some cheap company. He took one last drag on his cigarette, snuffed out the butt in the ashtray and got up and made his way down the steps to the promenade.

I finished my coffee, but I noticed my sister had only drunk half hers and had left her cake unfinished, lest she appear gluttonous to anyone watching for signs of lack of cultural refinement and feminine restraint. Who could that be, I wondered? 

I can’t remember exactly what we talked about for the rest of our time there. Since she wasn’t forthcoming, I recounted an incident on my flight I thought she might find amusing. She sat listening, but I have a feeling she wasn’t all that interested in my off-beat observations because they all pertained to me. And being the reticent type, she much too self-consciously tried to keep her disinterestedness to herself.

I don’t know what she really thinks of me, and I wonder if she senses my confusion over the lack of direction in my life. I sense she suspects I have no real interest in what she says or does, but wishes it weren’t so. But she also wishes she weren’t in the position to think that. But it was her idea to go out for a coffee that afternoon with the underlying purpose of reconciling me with the notion that Australia wasn’t such a bad place after all, despite the isolation and distance. “Hmmm! Yeah! I don’t know,” I said to myself.
(1996, Melbourne)

The obstinate and ungrateful Mr. M

Australia is a strange place. It’s the least populated country in the world and yet it’s where in vitro fertilization, IVF for short, was born. These two facts are connected even if they appear contradictory. I mean, you wouldn’t expect a scientific breakthrough of this type to occur in, say, China, or India. There, there’s no need to artificially conceive human beings, since there are more than enough produced by natural means to meet the demand. In fact, in China married couples are restricted to one child! And the practice of infanticide of healthy female babies is prevalent in the provinces where girls are deemed a burden on the family.

In Australia, it’s as if the very sparseness of the population inspired a scientific discovery that has the potential to supply the deficiency. Thus couples who would otherwise go childless can now contribute to solving the nation’s “population or perish” quandary by having their very own children. An interesting fact about IVF is that the technology was actually developed in sheep of which Australia has the highest population of any country in the world!

I recall all this from my days as a graduate student at Monash University, and one day in particular. That day, my department was abuzz with talk of the upcoming seminar by the scientist who was credited with a breakthrough discovery that made IVF possible, an alumnus of both the university and the department. Therefore it would have been tantamount to treason not to attend, and would have assured my ostracism. I was already on the margins for failing to be properly overjoyed at Australia’s win in the America’s Cup, when the entire Department of Physiology went ape-shit, prompted by the declaration of the then Prime Minister of Australia that any boss who sacked a worker for failing to turn up on time that day, and academics were workers after all, was a bum!

There were Australian flags everywhere, at the entrance, in the main office, in the corridors, and people were going around with glasses of champagne in one hand and a little Australian flag in the other. I felt uneasy confronted by this spontaneous show of nationalism first thing in the morning, and not wishing to spoil the party I put on a wide grin and happily accepted a glass of champagne from one of the secretaries. But I guess my feigned joy couldn’t hide my inner revulsion, not least because I couldn’t see the connection between the bourgeois leisure sport of yachting and the physiological sciences. But unbeknownst to me, the skipper of the victorious Australian yacht was in fact a Monash alumnus, and had a past connection with the department, which was reason enough for everyone, including the chairman, to stop what they were doing and celebrate. Had I known this, it still would not have altered my attitude, because there was something repugnant about people’s collective exultation that morning. It was like blind folk pride devoid of any mythistorical foundations, which was perfectly encapsulated by the “Men at Work” song they kept playing and singing over and over, with its familiar refrain, “I come from the land down under, where beer does flow and men chunder.” It both lauded the larrikinism and irreverence at the mythical heart of the Australian character, while at the same time acknowledging its unenlightened inspiration.

The seminar was held in the main medical building, and when lunch-time came round, off I went to hear this now world-famous reproductive biologist who had put Monash University on the map. When I arrived, the auditorium was literally packed to the rafters, with people crowding the front entrances trying to get a look inside where there was only standing room along the walls. I managed to get in via the late entrance at the back and found a spot to stand at the top row. From there I had a good view of the podium and could just make out the back and the side of Prof. A.T. He was sitting in the front, unperturbed that he was the center of attention of this large crowd who had come from all over the university and beyond to hear him speak.

Although seated, he looked on the short side, a bit stocky and swarthy with thick lips, but not “ethnic” looking. Perhaps it was his French-sounding surname, but to me he could well have passed for a peasant in a Zola novel, although with his silver-framed glasses, it appeared that in his present incarnation he had transcended the lowly origins of his forbears. He was somewhere in his early forties, young for a professor, and his face seemed a little flushed in the hot and stifling atmosphere of the over-crowded auditorium. He gave one the impression he wanted people to think he had little interest in his personal appearance. Thus he wore a plain open-necked shirt without a tie, sleeves rolled up to his elbows, ready for work, and his mop of curly, pepper colored hair which covered his ears and came down to his glasses was in bad need of a trim. His maverick persona was completed by a noticeable shadow around his jaw and face.

Seeing the time had arrived, the dean got up to the podium to introduce the speaker and the noisy din turned to a polite hush and then an attentive silence. He began by going through the speaker’s biographical details, as Prof. A.T. listened with studied indifference. As the dean explained, his breakthrough contribution to the IVF revolution was to develop a method for a critical step in the process which involved the safe freezing and thawing of human eggs. He had developed this particular trick in sheep and then in collaboration with endocrinologists in Britain, they were able to tweak it and apply it to human ova which enabled their safe storage. The dean, who was a medical doctor by training, went on to say this invaluable discovery made it possible for infertile couples around the world to experience the joy of parenting their very own children, something undreamt of until now.

As he sat listening with head bowed at this long-winded introduction, Prof. A.T. could not have failed to pick up on the hint of condescension in the dean’s praise. He not only resented this pompous ass trying to pass himself off as some kind of patron of the medical sciences, he was thinking of some less than flattering remark with which to return the compliment, something that conveyed his disdain for his host and everything he stood for, which his fellow scientists in the audience would pick up on and be reassured he had not “sold out” to these mockers of their oath.

Perhaps I was trying to channel my own prejudices through Prof A.T., but I couldn’t suppress my own disdain for the people in dark suits seated alongside him. Invariably they were all educated in proud imitations of English public schools which turned out these anachronistic defenders of British culture to fill the higher levels of administration in tertiary educational institutions in this colonial outpost. In any case, I sensed a definite tension there, but being the professional that he was, at the end of the dean’s introduction, Prof. A.T. rose from his seat, flashed a perfunctory smile at his host, and to huge applause, assumed the podium with the affected nonchalance of one who was master of his domain.

As I stood listening to him detailing the history and development of IVF, I was struck by a sense of futility. Although I was mildly intellectually engaged by the science, I had no real interest in knowing how eggs could be taken from a woman’s ovary, fertilized in a dish with donor sperm and then inserted back into her womb, or that of another woman, for implantation, gestation and ultimately birth of the fetus. Or in the subtext of his talk, that the climactic paroxysms of ecstasy that informed human sexual relations that had evolved over tens of thousands of years so people could procreate by following their instinct for sexual gratification was now superfluous. The real reason I was there was because I’d been caught up in the mob hysteria of wanting to be witness to a supposedly historic event which had more symbolic significance than any practical import as far as my own research was concerned. It was intended to inspire people’s pride in Monash, and bolster Monash’s rapidly growing reputation as one of the world’s leading institutes of higher learning, as paltry and vacuous as that sounded.

Moreover, I couldn’t really empathize with childless couples, now given the opportunity to become biological parents. There was no logical reason to expect their children would be any happier, because children, regardless of how they’re conceived, have no say in their creation, and I dare say, given the choice, many would not want to be born in the first place. That is, unless the parents of test-tube babies lavish them with so much more love and affection that they develop much more advanced emotional and intellectual faculties than normally conceived children, and grow up to become model citizens. Unlike “crack” babies, for example, who are born unwanted to drug addled whores and start life with severe brain damage, unable to adjust to the world, and end up criminals themselves.

In retrospect, my cynical view of IVF reflected a creeping cynicism and skepticism about science which began in my undergraduate years. I mean, I was always questioning new ideas and concepts from a young age. But at university this inquisitiveness assumed a wholly new dimension, to complement my wider politicization. If I was to attribute my antipathy to any root cause I’d say, indirectly, it had to do with my being brought up in an anti-religious household, or rather one that was riven by conflict over religion and politics. Had I been brought up in a more structured and disciplined, Christian-based environment at home, for example, I feel my mind would have been much better conditioned to receive concepts from above, and the transition to adulthood would have been smoother. But as it was, the fallow field that was my adolescent brain was so overrun by weeds and wild flowers that any new, cultivated species of thought had to compete and overcome this dense undergrowth of skepticism and disbelief before it could find a niche and take root.

Despite this, in high school I had a very avid interest in science and enjoyed reading and learning about how things worked, whether it was in physics, biology or chemistry, and my questioning attitude, although annoying to some of my teachers, I feel helped me grasp concepts by bringing out my misunderstanding. But when I entered university, I realized it wasn’t enough to be wide-eyed and curious. Now I had to be more serious in my approach and regard science with more awe than fascination. Unlike my teachers in high school, my lecturers were all PhDs, with titles like Doctor or Associate Professor or plain Professor, whom one couldn’t address by their first name.

Moreover, they didn’t seem to care whether or not I understood anything. It seemed that their aim was not so much to impart knowledge, but to make students like me feel worthless. Thus, their standoffish attitude instilled in me early on, not only a deep antipathy towards self-centered and arrogant academics like them, but a stubborn cynicism and skepticism about what they taught, that is, about science in general. This was because in my mind, science was now inextricably linked to these horrible people, and as a result, my desire to learn suffered, and even the word “science” took on a horrible tone, and conjured their horrible images whenever I came across it. Instead of being an invitation to enter the doors of knowledge and explore nature, this innocuous word now engendered hostility and exclusion.

In retrospect, I could have spent my years at university more profitably had I studied languages or literature. Even though I enjoyed learning about logical explanations behind natural phenomena, largely through my own efforts, some of the most petty and superfluous excuses for human beings could be found among academics in science departments at Australian universities, and Monash University was one of them. With the exception of one or two, who had an internationalist outlook and made no assumptions about the background of their students, most were completely lacked the basic capacity to inspire, and rather than enlighten, they were simply content to mystify and confuse.

As I stood listening at the back of the auditorium, I didn’t know which was more annoying: the smug arrogance of Prof. A.T., who despite his anti-establishment airs, no doubt was conscious his discovery could one day secure him a Nobel Prize if he played his cards right and sucked up to the right people, or have someone pay them off; or the university administrators and clinicians who stood to gain financially in one form or another. Then there were the scientists in the audience, eager to line up for collaborations, like the cheap little whores they are, and have some of his glory rub off on them as well. In the end, none of them gave a fuck about infertile couples and concealed their selfish self-interest behind a crass, cock-hardening nationalism, derived from the fact that this was an “Australian” discovery. They were also well aware that to cringe at such puerile provincialism would be un-Australian and could potentially harm their chances of promotion, so it was best they played along. So much for IVF and Prof. A.T. The seminar ended and I went back to being an outsider.

My cynicism and skepticism assumed a more virulent and selective form as I progressed through university, and by the time I was a graduate student, it bordered on an irrational obsession, perhaps even a psychosis. It was directed especially against those lecturers and instructors who projected an air of unassailability so as to keep students like me from getting too close and discovering their intellectual insipidness they tried to hide by arrogantly dismissing opposing scientific views that were too revolutionary for their own narrow thinking, with self-professed authoritativeness that didn’t extend beyond the walls of the lecture theater.

It was enough motivation to make me take up the cause of the proponents of these opposing theories and defend them. I was convinced the criticism they received from my shitty lecturers was based on personal factors, like their nationality, because generally the authors of these articles were non-English, and by implication, the veracity of their data could not be trusted. Strangely enough, even Americans were not immune from their suspicions. Canadians, however, were given the benefit of the doubt because Canada belonged to the British Commonwealth of Nations which automatically accorded its institutions a much higher degree of trustworthiness that those in America which lay outside this holy covenant, and had chosen to go it alone.

At times, my vigilance against signs of blatant chauvinism became so consuming that I ignored key arguments disproving the validity of the work I was trying to defend, just for the sake of not aligning myself with my asshole instructors. As a result my grades suffered, as well as my having to put up with ridicule for my obstinate defense of discredited theories and lost causes as much from my lecturers as my fellow students. However, I drew satisfaction from the fact that my actions riled my instructors, because in my opinion they lacked the basic qualification for intellectual enquiry, which was an open mind. They didn’t seem to understand that one needs to explore all alternative possibilities, however ridiculous they may be, before one came to a final understanding by a process of elimination, i.e. reduction ad absurdum. They were too stupid to realize that the role of scientists was to question everything, even themselves, and as far as I was concerned, they were all guilty of the most heinous form of narrow-mindedness, and worse.

However, what really lay beneath my contrariness was something much deeper than mere disenchantment or disagreement with the opinions and attitudes of my instructors over the scientific process, and their chauvinism with regard to the integrity of scientists they liked to put down. And this was a deep resentment of a society and a culture which I saw as responsible for having transformed me into a mere object increasingly stripped of any identity. And as loyal representatives and agents of that society and culture, I saw not only my instructors, but anyone I suspected who vaguely shared their values and ideas as fair targets of my scorn. That subterranean anger threatened to break through the surface one day in an incident which to an outsider would seem not only trivial but just plain silly.

The issue centered round the meaning of a simple word which to a normal person held no significance outside its express usage. But to me, it was like a red rag to a bull, and its impact was particularly strongly felt in its spoken form. That word was migration, and variants thereof, especially when applied to people, as in, “they migrated to Australia,” or “they’re migrants,” etc. The occasion was an informal seminar given to our research group by an invited speaker (I had then just started my doctoral studies and had joined this particular group in the department). Throughout his talk, the speaker kept using the word migration to describe how nerve cells in the intestine of newborn mice spread distally along the intestinal wall as the animal matures until they covered the entire gut. At first, I sat there listening enthusiastically to what he had to say, but soon my attention would be disrupted whenever he uttered the word migration, or variants thereof, and with each successive utterance, I could feel this non-descript tension and anger building up inside me. Eventually it got the point where I could no longer concentrate on his talk, as I sat there getting angrier and angrier.

Having ceased listening altogether, I began to formulate a rational objection to his use of that word which I could put to him when he finished. What’s more, I had now taken a personal dislike to him for thinking that, just because he was a general surgeon and a scientist at that, this gave him license to misuse words like this one so flippantly, without regard to their negative connotations which others might find offensive. After running several versions through my head, I came up with what I thought was a watertight argument why migration was inappropriate and misleading in the context he was using it. This was because the process he was describing didn’t actually involve migration per se, because the nerve cells, once they spread out from their source in the upper small intestine, did not return to their place of origin. Whereas migration, by definition, implied that the subject concerned can go back to where he came from, and does so periodically, just like migratory birds, for example, whereby in winter they migrate to warmer climes, and then return to their habitats with the arrival of spring. I was even prepared to offer a few suggestions as alternative descriptors for the process he was describing, like translocation, or colonization, or invasion.

At the end of his presentation, however, I was so stricken by nerves that I kept my hand down, and with my heart pounding from my last-minute abandonment of my attempt to enlighten the speaker, I listened to him answering others’ questions, none of which touched upon his misuse of the word migration. I was still shaking inside when I left the room because I realized just how close I had come to making a complete fool of myself over such a trivial matter, and then lamented over my stubborn tendency to always “see the red line”, as one of my supervisors accused me of one day, fed up with my captious attitude to everything, in his opinion. “Why couldn’t I just rid myself of my ridiculous obsessions and prejudices and be normal like my fellow students, and not read sinister motives into everything people said?” I asked myself. The reason was that my obsession was not a whimsical stand I took for the sake of being different. It was a manifestation of a deep-seated emotional conflict raging in my head, one which the word migration had now stirred up with particular efficacy.

This was because the word was pregnant with deprecation and hostility when applied to certain people, people who were very close to me, as close as you can get. They were people who were prepared to sacrifice their dignity and identity, and transplant themselves to far-off countries they knew nothing about, to work as wage-slaves. They were people who believed the shortest route to happiness was through amassing money and material riches, and when they had amassed enough, they could return to their own countries where, like vulgar boors, they could parade their hard-earned riches to the envy of their countrymen. But most never got the chance, because in the process they were transformed into imbecilic dullards and left to die on their own, in a foreign land. Among such people were my own parents, and as such, I couldn’t accept the fact I was a child of people who had forsaken their home and dignity for the triteness of “a better life.” In short, I hated being reminded that I too was a migrant.

As for the surgeon, I actually came to like him after he came back to work in our laboratory on a short sabbatical. In fact, I relented and started using the word migration quite freely in our research-related discussions, hoping that by repeated use I could inure myself to its derogatory connotation. I guess the fact that he was a Jew and married to a Korean woman, herself a doctor, took the edge off its harshness, because as one with knowledge of the “migrant experience” and what it’s like to grow up in Australia as an outsider, I couldn’t imagine he meant any offense by it. Therefore, I thought he could be excused for misusing it. I had in mind to explain to him my “problem” one day, but I never got the courage to do so, and I wonder if he suspected anything.

In some way, my reaction to the word migrant is akin to the reaction of African-Americans to the word nigger, because among themselves that particular word is fairly benign. But if a non-African-American uses it to refer to an African-American, the word automatically takes on a much more seriously racist tone. I think it’s because among themselves, African-Americans are all niggers, and whatever negative connotation is attached to the word in wider society, is automatically negated. Actually, the word itself changes meaning, because, whereas from a “white” mouth, the word nigger is used to vilify blacks, when used by a black person against a fellow African-American, it’s intended to humiliate him or her for trying to deny their “blackness,” either jokingly or in a half-accusatory manner.

The same applies to the word wog in the Australian context, when used in reference to those people of southern European heritage, mainly Greeks. Thus, it’s an insult for an Anglo-Australian to refer to a Greek as a wog, but much less so for a Greek to refer to a fellow Greek as a wog, although I find the word quite grating under any circumstances, no matter whose mouth it comes from. Thus, if a fellow Greek calls me a wog, I feel slightly insulted not because I feel belittled for personifying all the negative qualities Anglo-Australians attribute to wogs. But because I’m made to feel guilty for trying to deny of myself those same qualities, which in the eyes of my fellow Greeks I should be proud of, as an act of defiance. The word migrant has a similar socio-linguistic particularity associated with its use. But because of its apparent benignity, being applicable to a wider cross-section of the population, an ambiguity persists over its exact meaning under different circumstances, which nevertheless, to me makes it all the more insidiously corrosive. So much for linguistics.

Another feature of my obsessive cynicism at university was the problem of accepting the received wisdom that science was a noble profession and that the pursuit of knowledge was its own reward. It sounded so pompous and pretentious to hear someone refer to themselves as a scientist, as if they were selfless, humble servants of society, striving for truth and knowledge, with little or no expectation of pecuniary rewards, satisfied with the simple recognition of their peers and society. But from my observations, scientists were nothing more than venal, self-centered hypocrites, eager to sell themselves to the highest bidder, just like Prof. A.T., because while they affected selflessness and humility, the entire structure around them that supported and enabled their endeavors was dependent on the systematic exploitation of the mass of people who were largely kept in a state of perpetual stupidity and ignorance.

By the end of my first year of my doctorate, my obsession with the “personal” aspects of science and of university life were beginning to wear on me to the point where it began to seriously interfere with my ability to focus on my studies. I started to question whether my involvement in science was as futile as it seemed. But at the same time, I felt I had to stay the course in the hope that all this overbearing discontent and disconsolateness weighing down on me was a product of my specific circumstances, and once I graduated and left Australia which this degree would allow me to, I would be rid of all that negativism and be able to see the world from a completely new perspective, free of the silent taunts of being a wog and a migrant.

With this new perspective on my situation, it was only then that I seriously began to think about science as an intellectual pursuit that could provide me with a lifestyle into the future, a career as it were. But at the same time, I couldn’t resist being drawn into the politics of it and the nature of the science establishment, so as to put my cynicism and muddled skepticism into some sort of perspective. I could see that my views were quite irrational at times, colored by personal prejudices against certain people and society. But I was convinced they were not entirely unfounded, and I needed to address them, because, after all, the degree I was studying for implied I should have knowledge of not only the basic scientific methodology and principles, but also an understanding of the nature of science from a philosophical perspective. That is, to know what it means to know.

Since my degree didn’t include any course specifically on the topic, I took it upon myself to try and educate myself on the philosophy of science. To this end I started reading various books by authors such as Kuhn, Popper and Feyerabend, and whilst they made sense while I was reading them, I guess because I had no-one with whom to discuss the various ideas they expounded, my understanding was necessarily superficial and evanescent. In the course of my extra-curricular readings, I also came across various references to the writings and philosophy of Hegel and to Marx in regard to the dynamics between competing forces in nature and society, and the contradictions involved, at the level of theories and ideas, including the underlying causes of revolutionary change as it pertained to human societies, which immediately piqued my interest.

You see, throughout my undergraduate years I had been dallying on and off with Marxism, to try and come to grips with the meaning of communism and socialism from an economic as well as a political perspective, and thus give my half-baked leftist views, a legacy from my aunt, a firmer theoretical foundation. I had already read various works including “The Communist Manifesto” and other historical texts by Trotsky and others, but to be honest, although I could understand the basic premise that “communism” was a system of organizing society on the basis of equality, where workers owned the means of production and ran society according human need and not greed, without the profit motive of capitalism, my understanding was still largely dominated by emotional and moralistic appeals, as opposed to the “scientific” analysis that communism was inevitable heir of capitalism which would soon collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. But now that I discovered a philosophical convergence between science, politics and economics in the writings of Marx and other leftist thinkers, I was keen to explore this area anew and get to the bottom of socialism and communism, and how it pertained to society and culture, and the role of science therein.

Having completed my first year of my doctorate working alongside people I once regarded as unapproachable, but with whom I was now colleagues, my harsh, unrefined opinions of academics had softened somewhat, and I felt I knew them well enough to express my views openly on various topics. Invariably these touched upon items in the news, and whenever a discussion ensued, I found myself more often than not adopting the contrary, or as it was seen by my senior colleagues, the radical position, while they remained guarded in theirs, and when they did say anything, it usually reflected a very conservative viewpoint. This was most evident whenever the subject broached politics, that is, outside the acceptable topics of local or federal elections, and the political parties contesting them, and their policies. It was obvious they were extremely reluctant to address any questions relating to the nature of political conflict itself at the philosophical level, especially as it pertained to the sphere of economics and social issues and classes, as if it were taboo.

Their obduracy, however, only increased my determination to bring up thorny intellectual issues relating to science and politics, especially after I joined a socialist group on campus, with the aim of gaining a more structured understanding of Marxist philosophy as it pertained to science and society. Having already labeled me a “communist” for sticking up for the U.S.S.R., China and Cuba among other “socialist” countries in our tea-room discussions, my colleagues became even more wary and began to marginalize me inside the laboratory, especially they saw me selling the group’s newspaper in front of the Union building at lunchtime. But by now I was familiar with their conservative views. Still, the vigor of their reaction surprised me a little, because Marxism was a legitimate subject which was taught in the Politics faculty, and therefore sanctioned by the university no less. Moreover, as academics, or as a pre-academic in my case, I thought we were all protected by academic freedom to think and say whatever we liked.

As for this socialist group, it wasn’t exactly with boundless enthusiasm that I joined up. I had bought some of their literature in the past and was intrigued why they were allowed to operate on campus whereas other leftist groups had very limited access. From my impromptu discussions with some of the members, I discovered to my surprise that they were strongly opposed to the Soviet Union and China in every respect, and their slogans had a sophomoric, rebellious ring to them, lacking the usual glorification of workers and the Communist Party. Nevertheless, piqued by their unusual position on the two strongest “communist” powers in the world, I decided to take up their offer and go along to one of their meetings to find out more.

These were held on the fourth floor of Curtin House, a turn-of-the-century, mock-Victorian building on Swanston Street in the city. Apparently, they passed themselves off as a “history club” in case the landlord got cold feet about renting out rooms to socialists and kicked them out. There, I got to talk to quite a few people that evening, and seeing they had views that generally were aligned with mine, with the exception of their position on the U.S.S.R. and China, they seemed friendly and welcoming enough for me to go back the following week.

Soon I was a regular weekly attendee, and by listening to the various speakers each week and engaging in political discussions with people there, members and visitors alike, I discovered that not only did it improve my ability to articulate my thoughts more coherently, but enabled me to comprehend more clearly some of the more theoretical concepts. Moreover, it seemed the more I learned and understood about the Marxist analysis of capitalist society, the more I realized just how relevant it was to explaining my own circumstances, including my views on science in society. Armed with this new way of looking at the world, I felt there was no argument my colleagues in the laboratory, or my fellow students could throw at me that I couldn’t shoot down into pieces, and in the process, subvert their own smug, conservative world view.

As far at this socialist group was concerned, many of the members were students like me, and most of the older and established members had once been students in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Those who worked, since many were jobless, generally had clerical jobs, although there were some who worked as laborers in factories. But there were also some professionals, including medical residents, teachers and at least one accountant who turned up to meetings in his suit and tie, in contrast to the more casual attire of the others. He was always accompanied by his wife who seemed to be his minder, or carer, and rarely said anything. I don’t think he was ill or anything, but his breath always reeked of alcohol, and despite being slightly unsteady on his feet, I was struck by how articulate he was in his London accent, and by his insight into national and international politics. I suspect his drinking had prevented him from taking a more active role in the group, because he had a much broader and deeper knowledge of Marxism than any of other members. As for those involved in running the organization, many had trained as journalists and wrote for the group’s newspaper and magazine, and I assumed the monthly dues paid by the regular members were enough to cover their living expenses.

Although I attended meetings regularly, I was hesitant about formally joining the group. It wasn’t just because of their stance on the U.S.S.R. which I found difficult to accept. But I couldn’t countenance having to openly endorse their imbecilic mission, as it were, which was “to change the world.” It was the first question they asked potential recruits, as in, “Do you want to change the world?” to which invariably they answered, “Yes” with a baffled smile and an uncertain shrug of the shoulders. But after a few months, and feeling the pressure to either join or leave, I decided to take the plunge and answered their pledge question in the affirmative, after which I was accepted as a provisional member. I never enquired why this was so. But I suspect it was to determine during this probationary period I could comply with the rules of the organization, and espouse their brand of socialism, and they could assure themselves I wasn’t some kind of saboteur.

But not everyone was equally welcoming, like this girl with a quavering nasal voice, who affected the look of a junkie, and could well have been, and dressed like a “Led Zeppelin” groupie. She was about my age and said she worked as a house-maid in Toorak where she helped herself to the liquor cabinets of the mansions she cleaned. But I couldn’t quite picture her as a maid, unless she was one of those maids who supplied her employers with drugs or something illicit. Or else her employers were rich relatives, because I had a deep suspicion she was Jewish from a well-off family and was trying to pass herself off as a rebel by assuming this most menial of job descriptions. She also had an extremely toxic personality and tended to look down her nose at whoever she was talking to, especially those she sensed could see through her act. For that reason, she took an instant dislike to me from the very first day, and always contradicted whatever I said, as if it was her role to aggravate newcomers she suspected might be impostors.

Then there was the middle-aged ex-student activist who would boast of dropping acid before exams at Monash University in the 1970s, and how a number of his friends had jumped to their deaths from the top of the ten-storey Menzies Building, because “they thought life was shit.” There was something fundamentally phony about him too, and his hip nihilism, and I suspect he knew what a shit-head I thought he was. There were others too who, for no reason, would come up and surround me at meetings and start patting me on the back, all smiling, to show how friendly they were and to cheer me up when I could see no reason for it because I was feeling just fine. It all felt rather creepy, because as far as I was concerned, I was there to learn and not necessarily to be loved.

I figured, however, that once they realized I was no threat, they would accept me as equal and treat me normal. For my part, I had nothing to hide, and seeing I was now among fellow socialists, I openly talked about my family’s history. Deep down, I knew their slogans were so hyperbolic and absurd that only an imbecile would actually believe in them, yet, there I was uttering the same trite phrases when called upon to preach to the unconverted at rallies and at bookstalls at university, or in the Bourke Street mall on Friday nights. At times, it felt like I was stepping into a different character, one who fully believed in all the prophecies about the imminent fall of capitalism and the need to prepare for the revolutionary moment by building a worker’s party NOW, before the world descended into barbarism.

There were even times when I indulged myself in the delusion of progressing up through the ranks of the organization to become a fully-fledged revolutionary socialist serving on the executive committee, one who could stand up confidently before a crowd and expound on the contradictions of capitalism, and exhort the masses to rise up and seize power. But when I was back home, in the solitude of my own thoughts, my suspicions about the group would resurface, as if to remind me I needed to be cautious. I realized no-one could be stupid enough to believe that as a member of this group they had the ability to “to change the world.” This was nothing more than a cathartic dare, akin to the evangelical entreaties of street preachers for sinners to give themselves to Jesus and repent, and be saved from eternal damnation. Moreover, from the passionate declamations of the more dramatically trained members to “smash the State”, intended to rouse the fervor of newer ones like me, it was obvious that the firmness of their convictions was in direct proportion to their disingenuousness. One evening, the seriousness with which they took themselves came into question from an unlikely source, and I couldn’t help but be amused myself.

That particular evening, a union delegate from South Africa was attending the meeting as a guest, and I happened to be standing nearby listening to a discussion between him and some senior members. He was sharing his views on the labor movement in South Africa and the involvement of leftist parties, and comparing it to the situation in Australia, what little he knew of it. He seemed in a jovial mood, sipping on a beer, and had a habit of referring to our organization as a “tendency” with a polite, though slightly condescending smile. As I listened in, I couldn’t help but smile myself because here was someone who knew what he was talking about. He didn’t just go around with shitty students pasting up posters on campus walls to publicize lectures on the Kornilov coup in pre-Revolutionary Russia, or the role of the Leninist party during the economic downturn. He was a “real” practicing socialist and knew what it was like to face the full force of the State’s repressive apparatus for putting his political beliefs on the line. And if he thought our group was nothing more than a “tendency”, then that’s all it was. Seeing we new members were listening with interest, the senior ones quickly led him away before he completely undermined our faith in the organization.

That was another aspect I had trouble adjusting to, namely the rigid hierarchy, and the gap between the executive committee and the rest who were subdivided into ranks known only to one another. I had always equated socialism with egalitarianism and transparency, but from what I saw, there was a definite separation between the new members and the established ones, and very little open communication between them. However, this was defended by the need to maintain discipline and clarity of purpose, and since I was not yet fully acquainted with the concepts as “democratic centralism” in the context of a Leninist party, I deferred to their authority. But inside, I faced a moral dilemma, because on the one hand, I couldn’t overlook the crypto-dictatorial nature of the organization, but on the other, I felt indebted to them for allowing me into an environment where I could learn about Marxism in a much more structured manner than I would ever have achieved on my own. However, the more I thought about it, I couldn’t ignore the fact that my involvement smacked of “bad faith”, on their part as well as mine, and I could see that my continued involvement would be problematic.

My suspicions about the nature of the group were also fed by the fact that those higher up came from wealthy middle-class families, largely of Anglo stock. They liked to boast of their privileged petit-bourgeois upbringing, and how their parents were managers or company directors who disowned them when they found out they’d run off to join a socialist organization. One such person was a guy about my age, I was then in my mid-twenties. I guess because he was of Dutch heritage and his parents had immigrated to Australia in the early sixties, he didn’t fully conform to the middle-class pedigree of his comrades, and thus spoke with a hint of humility, which perhaps is why I felt some rapport. Nevertheless he was keen to hold up his father as his own reason for becoming a socialist. He said he was a greedy capitalist who owned two dozen rental properties all over Melbourne, rented out to welfare recipients and poor people, and in every second one kept a mistress. Such was depth of capitalist depravity in his family, he would have you believe, that he had no choice than to rebel and become a socialist.

At times it seemed they were competing with one another to see who had lost the most in having forsaken their middle-class privileges for the insecurity of life as a revolutionary socialist, thereby demonstrating their whole-hearted commitment to the organization and its mission of radical social change. There was even a daughter of an ex-Governor-General who was a member, although she seemed rather shy and tried to remain inconspicuous, saying very little and smiled whenever she talked. Suffice it to say, I could barely conceal my growing disdain.

After about a year and a half, and still a provisional member, it got to the point where I could barely tolerate their imbecilic rhetoric and amateurish urban activism, and I was looking for an excuse to get out. I realized I had nothing more to learn from them about Marxism, politically or philosophically, and from here on in, my involvement would require me to undertake more propagandist duties to which I wasn’t all that agreeable. Then there was their crypto-Australian nationalism that riled. It seemed to inform in one way or another, all political discussion. On top of that there was the atmosphere of secrecy and paranoia that got on my nerves. By now, I had grown to dislike almost everyone in the group, and rued the day I ever got involved, stupidly consenting to want “to change the world”, like some lame-brained idiot. At times it felt like I was among a bunch of angry adolescents playing a game of grown-up in which I was obliged to join in, for fear of being ostracized, or beaten up.

Inside, I felt deeply embarrassed for failing to heed my father’s admonitions about joining, when I came home from one of the first few meetings. All charged up and excited, I explained to him and my mother how as workers they were at the forefront of the class struggle and the only true agents of change. I shocked even myself with my zealousness and how easily the rhetoric flowed from my mouth, as I told them how they needed to start building workers’ committees in their factories, independent of their trade unions which were in collusion with their bosses and didn’t truly act in their interests. That way they could develop the necessary class consciousness to seize control of the means of production and overthrow capitalism when the time came.

I was so fired up, I couldn’t see the seething anger under my father’s taciturn countenance while telling him that, as workers, he and my mother were the source of all profits, because their employers didn’t pay him them the equivalent of what they produced, and profited on the difference. When I declared how grateful I was to this organization because I’d finally made some real friends who thought just like I did, that was the cue for my father to burst out and tell me I was a complete fool for allowing myself to be sucked in by the empty words of pampered idiots who were using me for their own ends.

He said, one day they would betray me and think nothing of it, and I’d be left alone with no-one to turn to. Hearing this, I got angry and retorted by accusing him of trying to sabotage my political education, because he was envious I’d found like-minded people with whom I could exchange informed views on the world based on a Marxist analysis which he didn’t understand, because if he did, he would know I was right. As I stormed out of the house, his comments still reverberating in my head, little did I know they would now come back to haunt me.

It would be many years later, after he had passed away, I would learn the reason for my father’s stern rebuke that evening. My mother said my “communist” rant had rekindled bitter memories of his own involvement with the Greek Communists in the Civil War, specifically the actions of the intellectual cadres who recruited people like my father into the guerrilla movement. In the end, these leaders betrayed the rank and file by capitulating to the Americans and the British, who with the Russians carved up the Balkans into their respective spheres of influence, at a time when the Communists in the north of Greece were on the brink of seizing outright power. Subsequently, many guerrillas who turned themselves in were executed or imprisoned, or else fled to the Eastern bloc countries to work in the factories and mines until they could return to Greece after the fall of the military junta in 1974. She said my father had seen the writing on the wall and quit the guerrillas before they sold him out, and in disgust, joined the National Army of Greece, from where he was sent off to Korea as part of the U.N. Expeditionary Forces to fight the Communists. Coming from my mother, this was probably an approximation of the truth, but still there was a ring of truth of it. Only my father new the real story.

His angry words now resounded in my head. My so-called comrades were not the innocent, altruistic idealists I first thought. They had ulterior motives in opening their door to me. They wanted to use me for my “ethnic migrant background” to boost their “internationalist” credentials and appeal to a wider, more worker-derived demographic. It was all too obvious when I thought about it, and I had no choice than to get the fuck out of there. Moreover I had nothing to thank them for; it was the guilt trip they’d laid on me that made me think I did. It then got me thinking: if they weren’t what they purported to be, then who were they? At most they sold only a dozen copies of the paper each week, and most members were not in a financial position to pay dues, being students or unemployed, with my own contribution coming out of my scholarship. All of which raised the question: where did the money come from to pay all the bills? Were they nothing more than a history club after all? But why the secrecy and seriousness and with which they took themselves?

With each passing week, the rhetoric at meetings and rallies began to sound more and more absurd. I became increasingly self-conscious that my querulous attitude had aroused suspicions, especially after I declined to go away with them on a group-bonding camp, because of a prior family commitment I purely invented. It was about this time that a faction headed by some disaffected senior members split off over differences in strategy and political orientation, or so they made out. It was preceded by a heated debate at one particular weekly meeting, very orchestrated and highly theatrical, evocative, or perhaps imitative of a pre-revolutionary meeting of Bolsheviks arguing over how to seize power in post-Tsarist Russia. The stakes here, however, were nowhere near as high, but you could have been mistaken they were, with speakers channeling Lenin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, or lesser known revolutionaries whose personalities they had assumed from too close a reading of their biographies. There was something tragic-comic about the entire proceedings and the way speakers truly believed power was within their grasp, but for the right strategy.

I wondered whether others shared my doubts, or were they so stupid as to believe all they were hearing? Or were they forcing themselves to believe the rhetoric, because they didn’t want to relinquish their tenuous connection with the group and the sense of belonging they drew from it, having opened up their souls, so to speak. Otherwise they could well find themselves adrift with nothing to believe in, with the added blow of having to face the fact that they’d been deceived so fraudulently that their trust in people was forever shattered. In the end, it felt like a sect which exercised similar group psychology to instill guilt in its followers in order to keep them in line.

The denouement as far as my own involvement was concerned came when I was asked to give a 15-minute talk on socialism in the Eastern bloc (this was the mid-1980s and the Soviet bloc had not yet broken up). I figured they thought I’d been in the group long enough, albeit still as a provisional member, to have absorbed the core ideas of their particular brand of socialism, with its emphasis on the state-capitalist nature of the bureaucracies in the Eastern bloc economies, and my presentation was to be a review of my progress, if not an audition for admission to full membership. Moreover, I suspected the subject was chosen to assess my residual “Stalinism”, because I got the impression they still considered me a doubter, since I had never openly condemned the Soviet Union at meetings, like my peers had done.

Nevertheless, I took up the challenge and went and researched the history of East Germany, and how it was established as a “people’s democracy” after the Second World War along so-called socialist principles. The group had their own sources of material they expected everyone to use. But I found them too blatantly propagandist and their analysis was too simplistic and lacking in intellectual rigor for my liking. Instead I went to the university library and picked out a book written by an American academic. It laid out clearly the circumstances and the events that led to the establishment of the German Democratic Republic and the economic and political influence of the Soviet Union, and I took it home and promptly read it from the first page to the last.

The book presented the topic from a realpolitik perspective, juxtaposing the geopolitical and economic interests of the West versus those of the U.S.S.R. and its allies, and avoided taking sides; it was unbiased, one might say. So I dutifully summarized the relevant events, citing the protagonists involved and their motivations, in a chronological and logical manner, and then practiced my talk at home so that it didn’t run over fifteen minutes. Even though I knew it wasn’t as overtly anti-Soviet bloc as the senior members would like, I was quite pleased with my effort. My conclusion was that both the Americans and the West on the one hand, and the Soviet Union and the regime in East Germany on the other, were responsible for the political stalemate that followed the end of the Second World War, which came to be known as the Cold War, and how the respective “ruling classes,” the capitalists in the West and the bureaucratic elites in the East, benefited from the situation.

A few days before my presentation, a member, someone about my own age who had already been in the group for a number of years, asked if he could have a look over my talk. Since I had no objections, I gave him a copy and he came back the next day and said it was fine, although he didn’t sound all that enthusiastic, and suggested some changes to improve it. I agreed to incorporate some of them, to get across the notion that the Soviet bloc countries were not truly “socialist”, but I told him that was as far as I was prepared to go because the point was clear enough. Otherwise, I said, it would come across as too pedantic.

On the evening of my presentation I was a quite nervous, with the result that I talked so fast, I finished well under fifteen minutes. I noticed during my talk that while most people seemed engaged and were listening, some of the senior members appeared disinterested, looking up at the ceiling or down at their notes. I knew I wasn’t the most exciting orator, but fifteen minutes wasn’t long enough for anyone to start spacing out. Nevertheless, I was pleased and relieved when at the end I received mild applause. The member who reviewed my talk and the “leader” of the executive committee came up to congratulate me, but I knew from the tone of their voices, of what little they had to say, they didn’t like it at all. They said it could have been more “polemical” to emphasize the “state capitalist” nature of the Soviet bloc economies, because as it was, my presentation was too dry. I nodded to acknowledge their criticism, but inside I was seething with anger that I should have been so stupid to do what they were suggesting.

When I got home that night, I was still angry that my talk wasn’t good enough for them, that is, that I wasn’t critical enough of the Soviet Union. I figured that was why their applause was muted; no one wanted to be seen endorsing my dissenting view, which was more in line with the Spartacists’, their arch enemies, who held that the Soviet Union was a degenerated worker’s state that could be salvaged politically, while the International Socialists saw nothing redeeming about it. It finally dawned on me that I was never going to fit into this organization, or “tendency”, because I wasn’t prepared to be told how I should think and act. I simply had to leave this cartoon show as soon as possible, but something told me it wasn’t going to be as easy as walking away from it. In the meantime I continued attending meetings and rallies, still as a provisional member, gluing posters on the walls of buildings and selling newspapers to the ones and two’s, but I was politely kept away from any new recruits, in case I corrupted them.

My focus and suspicions increasingly turned to the main personalities to try and figure out just who and what this group really was. People like the “leader”, since I can’t remember his official title. He was somewhere in his forties, short and thin, perhaps anorexic which might have explained his blithe and detached aloofness. There was something disconcerting about the way he avoided all eye contact, suggestive of paranoia that if he and the other senior members didn’t keep a tight rein on proceedings, there was a danger the organization might be exposed for what it really was. Then there was the acid-dropping ex-student activist whose impassioned visions of revolution and the end of capitalism at each meeting were as uninspiring as they were silly. He said that he was a manager at a branch of the state unemployment office, which seemed to explain his reveling in the role as agent provocateur at demonstrations, climbing on fences and jumping on top of cars, while call on members to run amok.

Then there were the overly passionate literary types inspired by “Ten Days that Shook the Wolrd” to follow in the footsteps of John Reed and write their own best-selling account of a workers’ socialist revolution from within. But in the meantime they had to be content with honing their journalistic skills by writing bit pieces for the paper. Then there were the sober-minded “bureaucratic” types, usually older members, who like Marcus, the superannuated student radical, also worked in government departments. One could always count on them to make prepared and articulate contributions at meetings about the need for a workers’ party with a clear political position and vision, united by a common goal “to change the world.” They effused that disinterested nonchalance of people who had no real faith in their convictions, which nevertheless had to be stated because proper process demanded it. They all irritated me, like a bad case of hives.

But there were also those who actually “believed” in the socialist cause, the bleeding hearts, as it were. To them, the organization was more or less a “church” which provided a needed sense of belonging. They had long ago accepted they would never likely to witness the coming of socialism in their own lifetime, but nevertheless were content to put their faith in the organization to lead “the struggle” forward. In the meantime, there was the ongoing struggle to convince the masses which gave their life meaning and served to placate the contradictions they had to live under. Much like the Christian movement in its struggle against Roman rule, they too were driven by a kind of persecution complex. And like the Christians, their struggle too was divinely ordained, not by God, but by a steadfast belief that eternal virtue and justice will one day come through the agency of socialism, and then communism, which required the pre-existence of an organization to receive and spread “the word” among the masses. The whole group was just one frightening collection of deceivers, of themselves and others, and was enough to make one thoroughly sick just thinking about it.

One evening my shit detector started ringing especially loud. The “leader” was giving a talk on the role of the workers’ party as a vehicle for instilling the necessary class consciousness in the working masses. In the middle of it, he broke off to remind everyone that during an economic downturn, as was then the case, when the membership of the party tended to decline, and it was necessary to throw open the doors for survival of the organization. Being one who had joined during this period, I naturally wondered whether he was referring to people like me, who might otherwise not have measured up, but were admitted to make up the numbers.

He then lamented that unavoidably, among those admitted were bound to include police spies and informers whose aim was to disrupt and bring down the organization. He said the best strategy was simply to ignore these people, because they would quickly become discouraged and leave of their own accord when they realized the discipline and patience required to be a functioning member of the group. Instead, he said, we should all focus on the task at hand, which was to develop a clear strategy and build the party so it would be ready to lead when the economic upturn arrived, and workers went on the offensive.

As I sat listening, I couldn’t quite understand the logic behind his argument. If spies and informers had indeed infiltrated the group, posing as willing converts or sympathizers, and they eventually dropped out of their own volition, why did he need to raise the issue at all? Or was he attempting to instill suspicion in the minds of members by pointing the finger at certain unnamed individuals who were not whole-heartedly behind the strategy and politics of the organization, and who might have doubts about its nature and purpose, and was inviting members to take their revenge on them, or make it so uncomfortable for those impostors that they’d leave. It was all starting to get very weird and fueling my own burgeoning paranoia. I needed to seriously find an exit, and quickly.

In deciding to leave, as weird as it sounds, I had to overcome my own deep disappointment that I lacked the necessary delusion to believe that a just and egalitarian society as espoused by these so-called International Socialists was possible and worth fighting for. Next came the anger I felt towards the group as a whole for all their deceit and subterfuge, and certain members for having led me along. In the end I took comfort in the fact that my shit-detector had come to my rescue, and I got out before they drove me insane with their imbecilic politics and guilt trips. I’m sure had I stayed, I would have been rewarded with further favors from the likes of Lucy and Judith. It was their way of showing their commitment, because Judith for one had no idea what she was doing there when I asked her in the midst of feeling her up in the front seat of my car one night.

As for Leslie, I don’t know what to say other than I became mysteriously attracted to her. It was something akin to the mild attraction you felt for that girl in high school, but one day you see her in a new light, and you’re completely infatuated with her.

She was about ten years older than me; it was hard to tell her age because she had a deep voice, yet quite a youthful appearance with a short, Pixie-style hair cut. What attracted me initially was her ability to articulate her views so clearly and succinctly at meetings, free of the usual hyperbole others too readily resorted to. But the more I saw of her, the more I detected an endearing vulnerability and sensitivity beneath that self-confident exterior which left an impression. It was as if she was conscious of the falseness of the façade she projected, and was trying to suppress her own doubts and uncertainty over her avowed beliefs.

That self-doubt was all too apparent at Christmas in 1986. A bunch of us were gathered at the club rooms in the city after a rally and were discussing our plans for the holidays to see who could help out with the house-keeping chores. Since I was going to spend Christmas at home with my parents in Melbourne, I volunteered to come in. This prompted Leslie to add that she too was going to spend Christmas at her parents’ place. But since it was interstate, she wouldn’t be able to come in and help. I noticed she seemed a little embarrassed by her admission, and quickly explained it was the only time of the year they ever got together, and by way of clarification, added that she was an atheist and it had nothing to do with observing Christmas as a religious event, and was purely a family gathering.

Some of the others then began talking about their own families whom they were also obliged to visit over Christmas out of family tradition, after which they all concurred with Leslie that after the revolution, the first decree of the workers’ central committee will be to revoke Christmas and replace it with a holiday that celebrated the “smashing of the State.” A more general discussion then ensued that verged on the banal and boringly nostalgic, as they all recalled their childhoods and the places they used to go for their Christmas holidays. Anyhow, Leslie, who was half-Dutch and half-Indonesian, being the most senior member present, then shared with us how she became interested in Marxist politics at university, back in the 1970s, in the manner of a wise master sharing parables with her acolytes.

As we listened with interest, she began by telling us how it all started with the student protest movement against formal assessment of university courses. From there, gradually all those involved moved more and more leftwards as they realized their own interests in abolishing formal assessment were aligned with those of workers fighting against their bosses, because in both cases, the aim was to prop up the exploitative capitalist system and the class structure that underpinned it. Thus the worker’s struggle was their struggle as well. She said her parents didn’t get in the way, because they thought she was merely going through a rebellious phase, and once she graduated, she’d go back to being a normal person, get married and have a family. But how wrong they were, she said, because ten years out of university she was as committed to Marxism as ever, which proved it wasn’t a fad, because it’s the only way of realistically analyzing the world and making sense of it.

Despite her candor, her confession sounded a little too rehearsed and slightly contrived. It was if she was trying to fire up our interest, in case we had begun to vacillate in our commitment, while at the same time, exorcise her own doubts over her involvement in the organization. From this and other occasions in which she reminisced about the history of the group, being one of its founding members, I got the impression she was too self-conscious to be an effective cheer-leader, and her interest in Marxism, well, now at least, didn’t really go deeper than an intellectual flirtation, perhaps not so much for her own self-aggrandizement, but for her sense of identity, because for her, the organization had become something of a substitute for family.

My suspicions were confirmed when one Friday evening after a rally I spotted her in the cosmetics section of a department store through which I was taking a short cut to the train station. She was seated in one of those high swivel chairs in front of a mirror on the counter, with bright lights all round. She was applying various shades of lipstick to her mouth, pouting her lips and smacking them together, admiring her reflection, as the assistant dressed in white looked on approvingly. From the angle she was seated, I don’t think she saw me transfixed by the image of her indulging her feminine vanity. In itself, it didn’t contradict the received precepts of Marxism, but there was something decadent and fetishistic in what she was doing, and for my part, I couldn’t help but feel a strong desire for her that was both liberating and illicit.

Then suddenly I realized why I was so transfixed by her. It was because she reminded me so much of my communist aunt in Greece. She too was a teacher, and both were about the same height and of a similar physique, and like Leslie, she too wore her hair very short, in the manner of Jean Seberg in Godard’s “A bout de souffle (Breathless).” In fact, my aunt was the first woman I ever saw naked, or consciously so, when I peeked through the half-open door of the living room as she was trying on a dress my grand-mother had sewn, in front of a full-length mirror. I must have been about six at the time, and was so fascinated by the sight of the naked body of a woman and that strange patch of hair between her thighs that I couldn’t look away until my grandmother saw me and told me to scram. As I discreetly stole glances of Leslie from afar while making my way across the store, I felt a similar guilty pleasure.

For a brief moment, the thought of the two of us escaping to some desert island to live together for the rest of our lives, away from all the crap, flashed through my head. And all the way home on the train, I couldn’t stop thinking about her, with her waif-like figure, dark brown-black eyes and glossy lips, and her deep sultry voice playing in my head, transposing her features onto my aunt’s nakedness. But alas, she was in it too deep, and I wasn’t prepared to follow her, no matter how many times she called me at work, reminding me to come to the meeting that evening.

It was now early in 1987 and I was quickly coming to the end of my doctorate. I had accepted an offer for work in the U.S. which I was keen to take up as soon as I handed in my thesis dissertation, so I could leave Australia for good and make a new start overseas. This dovetailed nicely with my decision to formally quit the International Socialists, which I no longer saw as a political organization that had anything to do with socialism, but a weird student sect that wielded mysterious power over its members through a guilt-laden Marxism-infused morality. I thought they would simply accept my written resignation, stating that I had no choice but to leave because I had accepted a job offer overseas, and they’d be only too happy to see the back of me, seeing I still harbored Stalinist sympathies. But in the month leading up to my departure in March of 1987, after I had already nervously stood up at a weekly meeting and announced my resignation in front of everyone, they began calling me up at home and at university, including Leslie, to talk about my reasons for resigning, unconvinced I was actually heading overseas.

For some reason, they were trying to persuade me to stay in Australia and become a full member, because the place I was going to, which was in Reno, Nevada, had no Marxist organizations, apart from the right-wing union representing casino workers. They warned me that if went there I would drift to the right and eventually lose all interest in Marxism and socialism, and I’d never be able to get it back. It seemed they were playing their last cards, laying the ultimate guilt trip, hoping to make me crack under the emotional strain and confess my real reasons for quitting. But all they achieved in doing was to incense me even further and increase my determination to remove these duplicitous, manipulative assholes from my consciousness, except for Leslie perhaps, who I was convinced I could turn if only she dropped her guard.

The final straw came when a member called me up one evening at home. It was the same guy who reviewed my talk on East Germany, believing he had my confidence. He was trying to console me by saying it was normal for new members to feel disillusioned after their first year. But he thought I had acted too rashly in resigning. He wanted to know whether my leaving had anything to do with the politics of the organization, and whether I had any fundamental disagreements with their strategy for winning over the one’s and two’s. As he said this, I realized it was the first time I had actually been asked my opinion on this issue, and something clicked inside my head. I thought, “What a strange question to be asking me at this stage of the game?” I realized he was trying to get me to tell him what made me see through their act. I paused for a moment and then answered by saying I had no problems at all with the group and was in full agreement with their strategy and politics.

He didn’t immediately respond, waiting for me to keep talking in the hope I’d say something revealing. Then in my most contrite tone, I confessed I just didn’t have what it took to be a reliable member of a Leninist party, and that “if it wasn’t already obvious, you asshole,” I thought to myself, “I’m a Stalinist through and through, and if it was up to me, I’d have all of you two-faced bastards, with the exception of Leslie, lined up against the wall and shot, and your bodies fed to geese.”

What I actually said, however, was that I had no truck with anyone, and I would do my best to remain a loyal sympathizer while overseas, and when I eventually returned to Melbourne, I would like to rejoin. Before I hung up, I apologized in my meekest voice, that I couldn’t be of any real use to them after all they had done for me, and further humbled myself by saying how very little I understood about Marxism before I joined, and had them all to thank for my education. After I hung up, I felt relieved to be rid of them at long last, and could now put the whole thing behind me. Or so I thought.

In the weeks leading up to my departure, I occasionally bumped into them on campus, but already they had forgotten about me, and more or less ignored me, which suited me just fine. I figured they were pissed off because they had failed to recruit a literate, university educated son of migrants who could attract more people from a similar demographic into their ranks, and enable them to build up their credibility outside their narrow middle-class Anglo student audience. And for all their efforts, I despised them like dog shit. But like dog shit that sticks to your shoes, it was difficult to get rid of their lingering stink, and for a while I had to contend with nightmares involving these horrible people, under strange and frightening circumstances, accusing me of treachery and crimes against socialism, in show trials at meetings.

Thankfully it stopped when I finally left Australia and had settled down in Reno. It seemed I had come full circle, having gone from being a skeptical, idiotic contrarian, to a semi-subscribed Fourth Internationalist revolutionary socialist, and then back to an angry, somewhat disillusioned realist contrarian who still idolized Stalin for the way he put his own spin on Marxism and made the U.S.S.R. into a superpower by implementing the most ambitious program for the primitive accumulation of capital in modern history in an industrially backward country, but in the process, led millions of people to their deaths.

In Reno I maintained an interest in the various intellectual currents within Marxism after I discovered there was quite a wide collection of literature in the university library. I even managed to contact a branch of the American counterpart of I.S. in San Francisco. But after I realized their politics were just as lunatic as those of the organization in Australia, and they both received their instructions from the “mother” party, as it were, in Britain, I decided it wasn’t worth my while to maintain contact. Nevertheless, I still consider myself a Marxist at heart, because, just like Leslie said, the Marxist analysis of history and capitalist society, and the nature of money, politics and economics, cannot be faulted, and doesn’t invoke such inanities as Adam Smith’s “hand of God.”

In the intervening years I have read all three volumes of “Capital”, the first of which three times at least and I consider it one of the best pieces of literature I’ve ever read. But the problem as I see it, is in extrapolating from this, because Marxism may well lay bare the workings of capitalism, the power relations inherent in money and the brutality and injustices that lie beneath “the market.” But that’s about as far as one can take it, and even though Marx and other political philosophers, indeed anyone with half a brain, came to the conclusion that capitalism was a system that dug its own grave, and would eventually be replaced by something different, which they dubbed “communism”, there was no clear time-line or process by which this was going to occur. Judging from history, something catastrophic will have to befall society for change to occur, if it can at all, because, in the end, human beings are animals and will resort to their base instincts when faced with life and death decisions for survival, regardless of how much of Marxism they understand.

“But,” I hear them countering, “real socialism can only be achieved when the means of production are sufficiently developed in all the countries of the world to ensure there is plenty for all, so that there are no material disparities between peoples, and there’s no need for wars. And we are very close to achieving that level of development. That’s why we must start to organize, or else society will descend into barbarism when capitalism finally collapses under the weight of its own contradictions!”

“Whatever! Yes, I know all about the premise that human beings can create a society free from hunger and war, is predicated on there being sufficient material wealth to support this new society which will be organized on socialist principles at first, where the state serves purely a transitional organizational role before communism establishes itself, and money and property become things of the past, and all peoples’ needs will be taken care of because everything will be planned and nothing will be wasted.” Who said that? “But the question is, what exactly are people’s needs? Can you tell me that?” “Well, we cannot possibly know until socialism is established and people’s fetishism for commodities comes to an end, and cooperation replaces competition. No-one can predict what “real” socialism will look like, or communism for that matter, because it’s never existed on the basis of material plenty. The so-called “socialism” of the former Eastern bloc was based on the exact opposite, that is, material scarcity, and that’s why it collapsed.” “No, I cannot accept your premise, Socrates. Socialism is what you make of it.”

When I returned to Australia in the early 1990s my bitter hatred for the International Socialists was still as strong as ever, and would resurface whenever I came across a flyer on campus for a meeting or rally. Sometimes, I would watch them from afar selling their newspaper in front of the union building, just like I used to do, and I’d be filled with such nausea and revulsion that the nightmares would return. Sometimes I wondered what happened to those who had joined along with me. I suspected some of them got disillusioned and left, and turned to drugs when they couldn’t face the fact they’d been duped, and lost all trust in people, especially those without a family safety net to cushion their fall. The more connected ones rose up through the ranks, internalized the rhetoric so it became second nature, and learned to regurgitate it without so much as a hint of self-doubt. And now they go around hypnotizing more suckers. Others took their “people skills” elsewhere and now enjoyed comfortable positions in upper-management in advertising companies, or employment agencies, or even in academia, as well as in government. The question, however, still remained. Just who were they, this ostensibly Marxist “tendency” targeting students, and given such free rein over university campuses?

Officially they belonged to the Fourth International which distinguished itself from other leftist movements by their steadfast denial of the possibility of any form of “socialism in one country”, and that so-called socialism in the U.S.S.R. and China was merely forms of state-capitalism where the profit motive still ruled, but where profits were reaped by the bureaucratic elite, as opposed to the bourgeoisie in openly capitalist Western countries. While their clarity of vision and action was admirable for avoiding the slippery slope of compromise and corruption which had tainted so much of the Left, their petty obsession with correctness smacked of academic analism which alienated them from the masses they sought to lead. But like latter-day Quixotic crusaders for truth and justice, they remained defiantly unapologetic. In the end, their political Puritanism could only serve to divide the workers’ movement, and perhaps that was their real raison d’etre, whoever was behind them. As for me, I blew my chance at becoming a respected member of the Australian bureaucratic elite. I will say no more!