Archives for posts with tag: Greece

Some photographs of a walk through Ancient Thera in Santorini.

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?


 

I had a sneaking suspicion things were not going to go to plan. My mother, as is her wont, knew more than she let on. But then again I hadn’t bothered to ask her too much, having sensed from her tone down the line something was awry, and for my own peace of mind I didn’t want to know any more than necessary. She sounded angrier than usual, letting forth her hatred of Thessaloniki and all the people in it, saying she was going to leave as soon as this business with my father was over. I figured the stress of it all had got to her, but once that business was taken care of she would calm down and pull back from her threats to return to Australia. For the time being, however, all I could do was empathize with her, and I reassured her I would do all I could to help bring this matter to a close as quickly as possible.
She made her feelings known again the day I arrived from Reno by way of Helsinki, on a very hot day in the middle of August. That was when it finally dawned on me that, unlike my father, my mother had never shared his nostalgic yearning to live out her retirement in Greece. Perhaps this was because at fifty-four, she was still relatively young and wanted to keep working and earning, which wasn’t the custom in Thessaloniki for a woman her age and in her position, although it didn’t stop her looking for part-time work. Moreover, I could no longer ignore the fact that her staying put in Greece for the past three years was driven in part by her fear of provoking my ire by coming across as cold-hearted and disloyal to my father’s memory if she upped and left before his remains could be properly returned to their final resting place in the village.

No doubt another factor that had kept her tied down all this time, and which to some extent allayed my own guilt over having tacitly compelled her to stay, was the fate of the apartment she and my father had bought for themselves to retire in, situated in a rather nice part of Kalamaria, a sea-side suburb of Thessaloniki, and which looked out onto a tree-lined park right opposite. She knew that if she were to leave abruptly and hand the keys to her sister, that is, my communist aunt, now somewhat less strident in her opposition to capitalism and more enamoured of its material benefits, she would move her mother back into it, and by hook or by crook they would make it their own in her absence and eventually write her completely out of any right of ownership. If that weren’t enough, to complicate things, there were my father’s relatives she also had to contend with, and their own ridiculous claims of part ownership, believing my father’s estate vested in them, as per some 200-year old law dating back to Ottomans.

But now that she has resolved to leave Greece and put her faith in the wisdom of my sister’s judgment who’s been trying to lure her back to Australia under my nose, so as to have someone to lean on, I feel I’m justified to look upon her decision with some dismay, if not resentment. But for fear of upsetting her further, given her fragile mental state, I decided to keep my feelings to myself while I was here.

As for my own situation, I was back in Reno as an Assistant Professor at the University of Nevada School of Medicine. I say “back” because, after taking up a post-doctoral position there following my graduation from Monash University, I beat a hasty retreat to the relative safety of Australia in the wake of the Gulf War in 1991 which rattled my nerves and aroused by paranoia in equal measure. But less than two years later I had returned to Reno feeling somewhat contrite and still reeling from the turn of events in that far-off island continent which just can’t seem to shake off its colonial complex. This included the sudden and unexpected death of my father in July 1992 which was followed immediately after by the departure of my mother for Greece, leaving me with no real reason to stay there myself. And after I was offered my old job back in Reno, it wasn’t a difficult decision to pack up and return to the States, with a view to settling there for good.

In Thessaloniki, it was that time of day when all the stores and shops in the city center are about to close for the afternoon, ushering in a palpable lull that descends over the city. But not before there’s a mad chaotic scramble for the last buses out as people rush to make it home in time for dinner with their families. Then after sleeping it off for a few hours, they can venture out again for a stroll along the παραλία as the sun begins to set, or to do some evening shopping on one of the alternate days when stores reopen for business and buses resume more regular service. It’s such a fitting and salutary custom when you think about it, this adjournment from work and other work-related activities in the middle of the day when the summer heat is at its peak, honed over millennia of proven civilization in these hospitable climes, complementing the natural rhythm of life and the seasons. But one wonders how much longer it can continue given the demands of the encroaching economic forces for change.

Fortunately the bus we were on avoided the bustle and chaos of the exodus as it wound its way through the quiet backstreets of Kalamaria and the outer suburbs of Thessaloniki, stopping here and there to pick up the odd passenger. It was headed for the sedate surrounds of the cemetery up in the hills to the south-east of the city where the dense high-rise residential sprawl has yet to make any inroads. Three-quarters of an hour later the bus pulled up just outside the main entrance, and as I stepped out onto the gravel by the side of the road several meters short of the actual bus stop, I was struck by the sun’s baking rays which bathed everything in sight in a brilliant light that seemed to arrest time.

Save for the cicadas chirping away in the trees, the otherwise quiet ambience of the surrounding farming estates and stonemasons’ yards and various other types of workshops across the road was punctuated only by the few cars and trucks that whooshed past at ridiculously high speeds, not more than a meter from the edge of the road, for there was no curb as such. From there, one had a commanding view of the azure waters of the Thermaic Gulf to the west, and through the distant haze, I could make out the broad peak of Mount Olympus with what look like snow at the top; and next to it on the left, not quite as high, the conical dome of Mount Ossa. Somewhere between them in the foothills was Argyropoulion, my father’s village, and not far from there was Tirnavos where I spent the first seven years and eight months of my life, my formative years, so to speak. Thessaloniki itself was obscured by the rolling hills towards the sea, although the murky sky gave a fair indication that it lay somewhere down below to the right.

The white-washed administration building was a just short walk inside the front entrance. Directly opposite to the right I recognized the chapel where we had the service three years earlier. And just like on that day, there were wreaths and large crosses adorned with flowers and sashes, all arrayed out in the courtyard. No doubt they were set up in preparation for a funeral that same afternoon. Otherwise the grounds could well have passed for those of a monastery, or a retreat for quiet contemplation.

Inside, the clerk told us the gravedigger would arrive any minute to assist us, and my mother and I sat down to wait in the foyer. About ten minutes later he walked in wearing a wide-brimmed thatched sombrero, looking flustered and sweaty. His face and arms were smeared with streaks of dried mud, much like a municipal worker returning to the depot after repairing a burst water main deep in the ground. He greeted us with a wave and a smile as he wiped the perspiration from his forehead with the back of his arm, and then apologized for not being able to shake our hands. Not having met a gravedigger before, I was agreeably surprised. He seemed a reasonable, level-headed sort of chap, not the twisted ghoul I imagined from horror movies.

I was also pleasantly taken by the lightness of his demeanor and his courteousness. But when I thought about it, there was no reason for him to affect unnecessary gravitas, since his job entailed performing an essential service. Moreover, his cheery attitude had the effect of easing my own anxiety which had been building up since morning, having watched my mother in one of her more manic moods pacing around the apartment, sweeping the floor and wiping down the already clean kitchen sink and benches, and generally fidgeting with anything that could preoccupy her until the time came for us to go down and catch the bus. I assumed he had accumulated enough insight over the years to know it was best to greet the bereaved with a friendly, reassuring smile, because after all, life does go on. The note of condolence in his voice I thought was of just the right poignancy to convey his sympathy as a complete stranger, which didn’t fail to move me just a little, as if he could read I hadn’t quite come to terms with what it meant to be without a father.

Before he disappeared through a side door, he turned around to reassure us he’d be back in a short while. But I sensed something ominous and disconcerting in his remark when he addressed me as παλικάρι, a term of endearment normally reserved for someone young in years to express respect and admiration, and to give them courage in their brave undertaking. But the thing was that this gravedigger could not have been much older than me. If anything, he looked younger, with rosy cheeks and a rotund face, and from the tone of his remark, he wasn’t trying to be condescending or sound sarcastic either, like some kind of μάκγα. I assumed he was probably responding to the look of trepidation and uncertain expectation on my face, as well as to my physical features which I know from past experience tend to make me come across as young for my years, if not a little naive and gullible. Nevertheless I took his sentiment to heart and tried to draw some courage from it.

As we sat there waiting in the cool and quiet in the foyer, I reflected that he had probably come across others in my situation, sons or daughters accompanying their mother to the cemetery for the disinterment of their father’s remains, since men usually precede their wives in death, certainly that’s the case for Greek males living in Australia. I knew this for a fact because in the days immediately following my father’s death, as we were cleaning up the house in Five Ways and making preparation for the funeral and the transportation of his body to Greece, I took it upon myself to see at what age on average Greeks living in Melbourne died, from the death notices published in my father’s copies of “Neos Kosmos”, the main Greek-language newspaper in Melbourne which my parents collected to wrap the bunches of carnations in, and of which there was a large pile in the laundry going back several months.

From about one hundred and fifty odd cases, enough I thought to draw a statistically meaningful conclusion, which I collated into a spreadsheet on my computer, I discovered that the average age at which Greek men died was sixty-five, with a standard deviation of less than ten percent. This was smack-bang at the same age at which my own father had died, as compared with around seventy-five years for the average life expectancy for all males living in Australia I obtained from recent census data. The latter figure was actually lower by a few years than that for Greek males living in Greece. But for Greek women living in Australia, on average they died in their late seventies in line with the life expectancy of all women in the general Australian population, which was similar to that for women in Greece.

The stark difference in the average figures for males both surprised and angered me, and demanded explanation. At first I thought the difference might be explained by the change in dietary habits that Greek men undergo after arriving in Australia, with the concomitant increase in consumption of meat, alcohol and processed foods leading to early onset cardiovascular diseases and various cancers, as compared to the more frugal pickings of the Mediterranean diet they’d been accustomed to in Greece, because it was all they could afford. But if that were the case, Greek women in Australia would have had a similarly short life expectancy as their husbands, which wasn’t the case. Thus, there had to be another explanation.

Given that the majority of Greek men who arrived in Australia in the ‘50s and ‘60s went straight to work in factories as laborers and continued to work there until they reached retirement age, this must have been quite a shock to their system, and one wonders how well their bodies adjusted to the conditions, if they did at all. Like my father, most of them had come from villages and small towns and were therefore unaccustomed to being subjected on a daily basis to the grind of factory life and to conditions therein that were harmful to their long-term health, both physical and psychological. And then on retirement, they sank into a morose, sedentary existence, deprived of the traditional social safety net and associated outlets for coping with idleness; or perhaps the discipline and rigors of factory life had extirpated any such expectation and they simply resigned themselves to vegetating away.

I had always assumed they weren’t as healthy as their Australian-born contemporaries, but the degree of difference in their life-spans was so startling that I set out to write to “Neos Kosmos”, not only to express my anger, but to point out this glaring discrepancy which pointed to the insidious ruin men like my father had led themselves into by coming to this country, which wasn’t so much a paradise, as a poisoned chalice. Half-way into my letter, however, I stopped writing. I figured it was something everyone already knew, and they didn’t want to be reminded of it. This of course assumed my letter would have been published uncensored, given that “Neos Kosmos” like other ethnic-oriented media outlets were licensed by the Australian government, and there was a tacit understanding they would not print anything critical of Australia if they wanted to keep their lucrative license. And certainly my letter would not have painted Australia in a very favourable light as far as the life-expectancy of Greek migrant males was concerned.

Besides, it was too late to redress whatever injustice the difference concealed. For what it was worth I drew some consolation that future generations of Greek males, that is, their children like me, will have longer and healthier lives, having benefited from their parents’ sacrifices, their father’s in particular. No doubt, these they will not fail to gratefully acknowledge when called upon, either out of humble piety, or as way of expiating whatever guilt they may harbor by paying lip service to their blood-stained legacy, so they can get on with their own empire building. It will be left to the odd one with a conscience and a will stronger than mine to try and put the sacrifices of their parents and their father’s specifically into a socio-political context, either purely for the historical record, or to delve deeper into the human psyche and gain a clearer understanding of the social forces that compel people to uproot themselves and go in search of greener pastures, with the attendant risk that their own equanimity be derailed.

In any case, what’s more certain is that a fate similar to my father’s has probably been shared by a great many first generation immigrant males who sought a new life for their families in other industrialized countries, especially those whose existing qualifications were rendered useless by their inability to speak the language, or simply because of who they were, and ended up dying before their time. But as unfeeling and selfish as it sounds, something also told me that it was just as well they did so and were spared the indignity of vegetating away in exile in some nursing home, or worse.

For all their perfunctoriness the gravedigger’s words struck a deep chord and I sensed my eyes beginning to moisten just a little as I sat there next to my mother who seemed lost in her own thoughts. They seemed to come from a deeper appreciation than the average person of the inscrutability of death and its aftermath. But then a troubling uneasiness crept into my head when I realized his words as consoling as they were, implied that there was something horrid about what was to unfold.

As we waited for him to finish his lunch and well deserved rest, I couldn’t help but listen in on an exchange between the bespectacled clerk behind the counter and a elderly woman who had come to pay for a burial, or was it the dues owed on the plot. As always happens in Greece, this involved a necessary degree of remonstrating on her part about having to pay for what she considered was the government’s duty to take care of its senior citizens, who had worked hard all their lives and racked up the necessary social security credits, and would no longer be drawing their state pension in death. But having made her point and accepted she was powerless to change anything, she grudgingly paid over the money, but not without one last damning glare back at the clerk, like a spurned Medussa enfeebled by age but having lost none of her spite, as if to remind him of his good fortune that she no longer possessed the power to will men into stone.

There was sense of fatalism about the whole exchange. It was as if both were playing their assigned roles in a oft-repeated, well-rehearsed, age-old drama which through the invocation of death brought the accuser and the accused down to the same mortal level. And although she had accepted her fate in the form of her pecuniary obligations in the here and now, the elderly Themis could still exercise her right to openly express her disdain and heap scorn on those she thought deserving, because if she didn’t she would be failing her ancestors.

The mild pleasant breeze blowing through the open doors and windows carried with it the smell of pine trees mingled with the aroma of oregano and the sweet fragrances of wildflowers, gently pushing along the minutes. It was enough to transport me back to Tirnavos of all places. I was at the church up on the hill overlooking the town. The occasion was my first visit back, in 1979, ten years to the month after my parents dragged me off to Australia with them. I had been staying with my aunt in Thessaloniki, the leftist high school teacher, now married to a physician, with a six year-old daughter. They were going through some marital issues, and her husband was also busy studying for his qualifying exams in radiology. Thus, to take her mind off her domestic situation, and spare me the tension inside their apartment, which she had probably hoped might be defused by having me stay with them, she decided we go visit my uncle in Tirnavos for a week, and take along her daughter.

While there, she took the opportunity to take me on a guided walk around the town and show me some of the old buildings, including the mansion where the local bey used to live during the Ottoman times, a mosque and what were once hamams where the local officials bathed, most of which I didn’t know existed, and only some of which I could vaguely remember from my childhood. The two of us ended up at the old church on the hill overlooking the town. It seemed deserted except for the priest’s dog loitering in the courtyard, a wiry little mutt, which after a few cautionary barks, seeing we posed no threat, backed off and didn’t bother us again. When we got to the forecourt up the steps, my aunt seemed very ill-at-ease as if something was playing on her mind, and she appeared hesitant about going inside. 

I thought that perhaps, as an avowed atheist, she was apprehensive of entering a place of Christian worship and coming across as sacrilegious and disrespectful should the priest happen to be inside and greet us, and she refused on principle to cross herself. But being a week-day, the church was empty and the priest was nowhere to be seen, and neither of us bothered crossing ourselves or lighting candles in the lobby as we quietly made our way into the nave, marvelling at the shiny gold inlaid icons hanging on the walls and on the iconostasis at the front, painted in that distinctive languid Byzantine style and dating back to the 1700s, with the patron saint figuring prominently among them, whoever it was.

My aunt still seemed nervous about something when we came out and went for a stroll among the pine trees in the church grounds with the smell of pine resin in the air. It made me wonder what significance that particular location held for her that she was so uncomfortable being here. She remarked that we used to come up here in the summer on feast days and holidays, along with half of Tirnavos. But as hard as I tried jogging my memory, looking around for cues, I couldn’t recall ever having picnicked here. I tried to picture us sitting in the shade under the trees, my mother, father and my sister, along with my aunt and other relatives, as we would have looked like from black and white photographs taken back then, eating, drinking and generally being merry. It seemed perfectly plausible, but my memory was a complete blank.

I noticed the branches of the pine trees were festooned with cones covered in layers of fine wispy thread. It looked like the result of some rampant insect infestation. I wasn’t entirely wrong, because as my aunt explained, they were the work of silk moths which laid their eggs inside the cones and then wrapped them in silk fibers to form cocoons from which the larvae emerged as moths. She said they were the legacy of the once thriving silk weaving industry from the 19th century when Tirnavos was a large producer of silk thread and supplied markets in Italy, France, Germany and Britain. 

This was all news to me, both heartening and somewhat depressing, because it meant the town where I spent my formative years was once prosperous and famous for something other than τσίπουρο, and probably more so. But because of competition from abroad, as well as the effects of wars and the financial crash before the turn of the century, and perhaps natural disasters like floods and droughts, the industry went into decline and the town fell into economic hardship, forcing many of its inhabitants to seek new livelihoods in other countries, mainly America and Canada, and possibly Australia, well before my own parents embarked on their own odyssey half way around the globe.

I checked my watch and half an hour had already elapsed. I expected the gravedigger to emerge from the back anytime soon and lead us out to the plot. And sure enough he came out looking reinvigorated and flashed me a friendly smile, once again addressing me as παλικάρι, giving me a needed lift. He donned his straw hat and asked us to meet him out by the grave site, and we followed him outside, watching him jump on his three-wheeled scooter. As he rode off ahead of us, I could see a spade and a pickaxe in the rear tray holding down some black plastic garbage bags.

The sun was intense but not harsh. Nevertheless, I wished I had brought along my hat. But from the funeral three years earlier, I remembered the grave was near the front rows, not far from the chapel, next to some tall trees which had provided ample shade for all those gathered here that day. Being more familiar with the layout, I let my mother lead the way. She still seemed very anxious and there was a briskness in her gait which forced me to increase my own pace to keep up. In fact, I had noticed since my arrival, she seemed to be always in a rush when out of the house, whether it was shopping for groceries or going to the bank or post-office.

I put it down to her having adjusted to the more hectic pace of life in Thessaloniki where people are accustomed to getting around on foot, or by bus or taxi, and where you have to think and act quickly, whether it’s crossing the road, or pushing your way onto the bus to get a seat, or hailing a passing cab. Back in sleepy old Five Ways, there were no such pressing urgencies, and the only place she ever had to walk to was the corner convenience store a few minutes around the corner; everywhere else she drove. However, I suspected her hastiness also reflected a desire to keep her contact with the outside world to a minimum, a kind of agoraphobia confounded by an underlying contempt for the people and their petty meanness and unforgiving cruelty, including her own mother and sister. Presently, she was probably thinking that the quicker she got to the grave site, the shorter the entire ordeal would be, and the sooner she could return to the privacy and security of her own apartment.

As for me, I had a rough idea of what to expect, and to be honest I wasn’t all that perturbed by the rather unenviable nature of the grisly task at hand. Before leaving Reno, I had worked myself up into a very practical and mechanical frame of mind, and mentally I was prepared to do whatever was required of me in a calm and dispassionate manner so as to get the matter over and done with as expeditiously as possible.

After a few minutes, we came to a small mound past some trees which looked familiar. From there I could see the grave and the headstone alongside which the gravedigger had parked his scooter. When we got there, to my great surprise, though not my mother’s, we were met by my two aunts, my father’s sisters. They were both dressed in black from their heads down and were standing in the shade about three or four meters back. It looked like they’d been here for a while, and for some reason hadn’t bothered to come and wait with us inside the administration building. By the look of things, it seemed the rift between my older aunt, Katina, and my mother had still not healed. Nevertheless we greeted one another with muted kisses and subdued embraces befitting the solemnity of the occasion, and I was struck by how both my aunts smelled so much like my father.

As I turned my gaze towards the gravedigger who just had begun digging, my attention was drawn to my father’s name chiseled into that rough hewn slab of marble at the head of the grave, with his date of birth and death underneath for all to see, leaving no ambiguity as to just whose remains lay there. As I stared at the letters I couldn’t help but note the esthetic symmetry of his name, ΑΓΓΕΛΟΣ ΒΟΓΓΟΛΗΣ, with the double gamma in both his Christian name and surname both of which were composed of three syllables, with the third last letter in each being a lambda. In fact, his entire name rolled off the tongue in two identical tri-syllabic feet with the emphasis falling on the first syllable, adding to the manifold evocation of the mysterious unity in the trinity of things, tangible and abstract.

It could well have been the name of a film star, I thought, as I recalled how much he liked going to the open-air cinema in Tirnavos on summer evenings with my mother, sometimes taking me along with them to stop me throwing tantrums, all dressed up in Sunday our best, while my sister was left the care of my maternal grandmother at home. Given his love of the cinema, I surmised that he had probably harbored aspirations of becoming an actor himself, seeing how he considered himself a bit of dandy in his day. From old photographs, he certainly had the looks and the presence, if not the vanity, and bore an uncanny resemblance to Clark Gable, with his pencil moustache and jet black hair slicked back. I guess he was just born in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

For a while he and my mother continued the custom in Richmond, where we lived after coming down to Melbourne from the Bonegilla migrant camp, and where there were a number of Greek-run cinema houses in the vicinity to cater to the growing Greek immigrant community. That was until he realized it didn’t give him quite the same enjoyment, or perhaps the brief illusion it offered of being back in Greece for those few hours made too much of a mockery of the alienation and harsh reality of life as a migrant factory worker in this strange new country, and he preferred to spend Saturday nights at home.

Suddenly the ponderous silence my mother and I had fallen into was shattered when my aunt Katina, the more garrulous of the two, let out a series of loud wails while raising her arms in the air and pretending to tear out her hair, with her gaze fixed towards the grave and gravedigger. Her voice had a disturbingly haunting and piercing quality that took me back to the day of the funeral itself, when she and her sister and some other women from the village threw themselves onto the casket after the lid was finally closed and launched into their threnodies, crying and wailing loudly inside the chapel, as the rest of the mourners sat frozen in solemn silence. Her present vocalizations followed a similar cadence that not only impacted on my ears but penetrated deep into my psyche, jolting me out of my relative calm, and elevating me into a state of heightened awareness that brought home the fact that my father’s death had not only left a big hole in our own family, but had touched more deeply than I ever imagined the lives of others to whom he meant as much if not more.

Although I couldn’t understand a word she was saying, her facial expressions betrayed a decided hint of anger and contempt. It was as if she was berating my father deep in the ground for having abandoned her and her sister, leaving them all alone in this world, while at the same time, accusing someone in our midst of complicity in his untimely death. And when she turned her scornful gaze towards my mother while murmuring something under her breath as if casting a curse, she left little doubt who she thought was to blame.

It wasn’t the first time I had witnessed aunt Katina’s unuttered hostility towards my mother. It was there at the funeral. But back then I was too overwhelmed by the occasion and too mentally disconnected to give it a second thought. But now it was clear that the anger and bitterness she harbored towards her, and perhaps me as well, had abated little in the interim. Thankfully her wailing stopped and she then stood there staring at the ground in despair, as if she realized her lamentations were futile, because there was nothing she or anyone could do to bring back her brother.

An uneasy silence fell upon us again, punctuated by the thuds of the gravedigger’s pickaxe being repeatedly thrust into the ground, accompanied by his syncopated grunts. After a few minutes, in a calm voice my aunt resumed talking with her sister. They were discussing arrangements back at the village for the reception of my father’s remains. Now and then, she would turn her head to my mother standing some feet behind as if to imply that, as much as she disliked her, she hadn’t forgotten they were still related through marriage, and the information she was conveying was intended for her as much as it was for her sister. But she had the annoying tendency of interrupting her own sentences with semi-loud plaints, again imputing my father’s untimely death to other persons present, as if to remind my mother that despite her conciliatory tone she would never forgive her. Her demented mind games were starting to get on my nerves, and although I conceded it was probably her way of externalizing her grief, I thought she was being overly dramatic, and even her sister who was standing silently beside her, head bowed, seemed embarrassed.

As for aunt Eleni, I knew very little about her. This was only the third time I could recall ever having met her, although I’ve been told I was present at her wedding in Tirnavos when I was a child and too young to remember. The only time I can recall meeting her before my father’s funeral was on my first ever pilgrimage back to Greece in 1979. On that occasion, when she heard I was paying a visit to aunt Katina in Argyropoulion, she and all her extended family, all eight of them, drove all the way from Ioannina to get a chance to see in the flesh the son of her long lost brother, in the hope of seeing something of him in me.

She was just as quiet and meek back then as she was presently, so quiet, in fact, I cannot even recall the sound of her voice, whereas aunt Katina’s loud modulating tones never fail to ring in my ears whenever she comes to mind. But aunt Eleni’s reticence and quiet disposition reminded me of my father with whom she bears a striking resemblance, much more so than aunt Katina. I suspect her silence, as she stood next to her older sister masked her own deep grief at the loss of her brother with whom she must have been very close before they went their separate ways, she marrying and going off to live with her husband in Ioannina, and he leaving for Australia with his wife and young family a few years later. To take my mind off these peripheral thoughts, I wandered over towards the grave.

The gravedigger had removed the tombstone and laid it to one aside, and had dug away a fair amount of soil. As much as I tried not to think about it, the simmering feud between my aunt and my mother was bothering me. If this was an indication of the aggravation and mental torment my mother had had to endure on and off for the past three years, I couldn’t help but empathize with her wish to escape to the distant confines of Australia. But at the same time, knowing how scathing she can be of anyone who maligns her in the slightest, it was strange that she betrayed no hint of anger or animosity towards her silent accuser; nor did she have a bad word to say about her later back at the apartment. I don’t know whether this was out of respect for her sister-in-law, seeing she’s older and has a greater knowledge of life and its vicissitudes; or because my mother feared that if she retaliated and protested her innocence it would only lend credence to my aunt’s accusations. Consciously or not, she probably figured that keeping silent was the most expedient strategy for the time being, keeping her accusers guessing while denying them the satisfaction of knowing they had touched a guilty nerve.

Although when she married my father she was received by his family as his lawful wife, even as a child I could sense that she was never truly accepted by them as one of their own. This was especially the case with my paternal grandmother, Athena, who always gave her the cold shoulder treatment whenever we visited her in the village. I suspect her grudge centered around her belief that my mother had lured her favored son into marrying someone she considered unworthy of him, without so much as a dowry of any value. And when he announced he was immigrating to Australia with his young family, her hatred was crystallized and spread to the rest of my father’s family, including aunt Katina, who privately accused my mother and her scheming family of contriving to send my father off to Australia for their own pecuniary benefit.

No doubt, when they got word of his unexpected death, their suspicions and enmity were vindicated, and I’m sure among themselves they were convinced that if it weren’t for the extortionate entreaties from my mother’s family over the years that he and my mother remain in Australia and keep working and sending back money, my father would have returned to Greece long ago, and now be alive and well, just like his brothers and sisters. But as I learned from my maternal grandmother after the funeral, there was an added, more sinister twist to aunt Katina’s hostility. And this was her insinuation that my mother had an actual hand in my father’s death, aided and abetted by her devious and avaricious family back in Greece.

I’m not sure what her motive was in her telling me this. I have gathered that despite their avowed differences and abiding sub-surface enmity towards each other’s family, my maternal grandmother has always maintained an open line of communication with aunt Katina, and vice versa. I guess, like typical bitter and twisted old widows they can’t bear not knowing what the other is up to, and can’t keep a secret either. In any case, she said Aunt Katina started the rumor the day they received the news that my father had died more or less on the eve of his departure for Greece, with a hero’s welcome awaiting him in Argyropoulion, befitting his standing in the community as a decorated Korean War veteran.

Apparently the rumor gained credibility at the funeral when my father’s immediate family, including Aunt Katina, seeing how very little emotion or grief my mother show as she sat beside her in-laws in the chapel with a blank countenance, interpreted her taciturnity as a sure sign of contrition and guilt. To be honest, the rumor didn’t surprise me. The circumstances and timing of my father’s death hadn’t failed to arouse my own suspicions at the time, given his outward joy and happiness in the days leading up to their scheduled date of departure, having already sold the farm and the only thing left for them to do was to decide which airline to take, whether it was Olympic which flew directly to Athens via Bangkok, or a Bulgarian airline which for some reason my father preferred, flying into Sofia and from there to Thessaloniki, bypassing Athens altogether.

But on the fateful night itself my mind was all at sea, and if such damning desultory thoughts did enter my head they quickly vanished, my mind being too preoccupied with trying to assimilate the novel sight of my father’s lifeless body lying on the bed, covered in a white sheet up to his neck, with his face drained of color; or I should really say “its” face to be consistent with my definition of death. But for convenience and clarity, I will stick with using the pronoun appropriate to the person to whom this body once belonged when living.

Only two days earlier I had seen him walking about the house, feeding Tsootsoo and having a quiet cigarette in the workroom in the evening, pouring himself freshly brewed Turkish coffee from his copper brik into his φλιτζάνι while listening to the Greek language program on the government-run radio station, mollifying homesick Greeks by magnanimously broadcasting its propaganda in their native language, interspersed with Greek songs and news from the old country to drive out for the time being any thoughts brewing in their heads of repatriating themselves and their small fortunes back to their homeland, although in my father’s case this argument no longer obtained, and the music and news served only to whet his anticipated return.

The face, his face, had a waxy, sallow appearance, and when I touched his forehead with the back on my hand and the rest of his face with my fingers to feel its contours and lines, I was surprised by how abnormally cold it was. The last time I could remember doing so was when I was child and my sister and I would jump up on my parents’ bed in the morning and get to squeeze the odd blackhead on his forehead as he happily lay there gazing up at the ceiling, just as he was now doing, but no longer seeing anything. And out of courtesy I did what he could no longer perform himself and pulled down his eyelids to cover his glazed eyeballs.

But no matter how much I stared at it, that is, his body, I couldn’t comprehend the absence of life in that familiar though lifeless entity in front of me, which was nothing more than a shell. It could not speak or walk or do anything except decay down into its constituent elements and molecules through the actions of physical and chemical forces, to be utilized by nature again as it saw fit. I could proceed no further in my intellectual impromptu quest, and in contemplative silence I resolved that this entity lying supine on the bed, all still and cold, was not really my father because it lacked the essential element that defined him, that is, his life force. But where did this go?

I began replaying in my head tales and superstitions I had read about pertaining to the immediate circumstances surrounding the event of death. You see, on the night my father died, which was actually sometime between two and three o’clock on the morning of the 28th of July 1992, it was the middle of winter, although in Melbourne the seasons are not truly analogous to those in the northern hemisphere at similar latitudes. Nevertheless, it was a little chilly and damp, having stopped raining by nightfall. But strong gusty winds were blowing from all directions across the city and outlying areas, swirling and howling as they rushed through trees and around houses and buildings. In fact, they were so strong I had trouble getting to sleep in my apartment in Armadale, not just from the noise, but from the dust they whipped up which found its way inside, stirring up my allergies.

Thus, I had no trouble hearing the phone when it rang. Thinking it might be Marie calling me from the States with some ridiculous plan she had in mind, or just to talk, or a crank caller who had been harassing me over the past month with lewd propositions, I hesitated to answer and let it ring out. But when it rang again, I realized it had to be someone close, and with some trepidation I picked up the receiver to see who it was. To my surprise it was my sister who had called to inform me that our father had had a heart attack and she had called for an ambulance to go to the farm to attend to him, and asked me to drive there, ending with the ominous admonition to “brace myself.”

I arrived there as fast as I could on the freeway some forty minutes later, but there was no sign of the ambulance. It would have been of no use anyway, because as my sister’s ashen face amply attested when I entered the house, my father was already dead with his lifeless body lying in perfect repose on the bed, with Tsootsoo keeping vigil on the floor next to it looking as sullen as a dog who had just lost her master, while my mother was being consoled by a neighbor in the living room.

As I looked around the room, my mind instinctively turned to the supernatural for an explanation for my father’s sudden death. Drawing on my confused understanding of the loose collection of myths pertaining to death, I imagined that as he lay there sleeping that night, a particularly strong gust of wind buffeted the house, much stronger than anything in the suburbs, there being no tall buildings or trees in rural Five Ways to break its force. And by some freakish occurrence, this wind blew open all the windows of the house, rushed in and went searching from room to room to find the one for whom it had come. And when it found him sleeping, or perhaps he was lying awake, having had a premonition that something supremely sublime was about to occur, with a swift swirl around the room, it snatched his life force from within him and then as quickly as it came, it disappeared out into the howling darkness. The fatal infarct in my father’s left coronary artery was merely a coincidence, a plausible excuse so that his death could be medically accounted for.

Suspicions about the involvement of my mother in his death didn’t seriously enter my head until a few days later as I sat up one night in bed in my apartment in Armadale weighing up the unthinkable that she might have precipitated his death for her own nefarious ends and those of her family, recalling her cold inertness on that fateful night before the ambulance arrived, consoled by the wife of a neighboring flower farmer but seemingly unreachable. My inquiring suspicions, however, never went beyond a fictitious curiosity, because when I weighed up the situation objectively and rationally, there were more than enough other reasons to explain my father’s death that night without invoking sinister intrigues involving my mother and her manipulative family back in Greece.

Prominent among them was the physical and emotional stress he had been under in the weeks prior, having to auction off the farm and hoping they would get a good price; and then a few weeks later, relocate to the other side of the world to start a new life in a city with which he and my mother weren’t all that familiar, and live inside a 85-square meter apartment on the third-floor. Given his earlier brush with death occasioned by the psychological trauma of being forced out of his job at the Dunlop Tyre and Rubber factory, eight years short of retirement, it wasn’t unexpected that this much bigger impending change in lifestyle and the uncertainty it brought would be just as devastating on his health.

As puerile as it sounds, this included having to separate from Tsootsoo, his faithful companion for the previous seven years, and the pain of longing it would bring. I could now see that behind his ironic joking over Tsootsoo’s head about having to put her down, seeing she was too old and overweight to survive the 22-hour flight to Greece in the cargo hold of an airplane, and neither my sister nor I were able to accommodate her, and requesting that the vet give him a lethal injection as well while he was at it, there lay a grim fatalism that was more prophetic than I realized. Then there was the contribution of the stormy weather itself on that fateful night.

Given the fact that my father also suffered from allergies and a chronic unspecified auto-immune condition that would flare up now and again, it’s not entirely implausible to the dust and pollen and fine air-borne particulates whipped up by the violent winds that fateful night could have conceivably played a role in precipitating his heart attack, by triggering a massive histamine release all over his body. This would have restricted his breathing and disrupted the rhythm of his heart already damaged by the toxic cocktail of chemicals and dust he had breathed in and out all day and night in his years at the Dunlop Tyre and Rubber factory, not to mention his chronic heavy smoking, and sent his cardiovascular system into a spin, resulting in a lack of oxygen to his brain and heart, and setting up a vicious death spiral that culminated in his fitful death, as my mother later recalled.

As for the rumor of mariticide itself, apparently my mother’s motive was to give control of their joint assets to her family when she arrived back in Greece as a widow. namely the apartment, but also a substantial amount of money my parents had saved away to which she now had sole access. According to this rumor, she was guided in this scheme by her sister in Thessaloniki who up until then had been acting as my parents’ proxy, purchasing the apartment on their behalf and setting up bank accounts for them, and generally orchestrating their return. To my father’s family, she was the actual brains behind this heinous deed, feeding my mother instructions from afar, although just exactly how my mother managed to dispatch my father that fateful night was never made clear.

As far as they were concerned, my aunt’s complicity was more or less confirmed at the funeral when she refused to join the rest of the mourners inside the chapel for the service, preferring to watch proceedings from afar, behind her dark sunglasses, adding insult to injury by wearing a brightly colored floral dress to all the other women’s strictly black funereal attire. On the one hand, I could well understand their attraction to this conspiracy angle, given the villainous reputation of my mother’s kin and their lawless past, going back generations. But to me, the theory was plainly ludicrous. My mother has neither the necessary guile, nor the calm to carry out such a cold-blooded act, whatever that was, with or without her sister’s connivance.. And how would she have done it when there was no sign of violence or a weapon? She would have to have poisoned him with drugs. But the only drugs they had in the house was a formulation of paracetamol and codeine they used to take for headaches.

Besides, her imputed actions would have been incompatible with someone who showed no hesitation or compunction in kicking out her own mother from the apartment which she had been occupying when she arrived in Thessaloniki, and extended not the least charity towards anyone with her money, her own family and in-laws included. As for my aunt’s frivolous airs at the funeral, it could all be explained by her dogmatic disdain for religion and the Church, being an avowed Stalinist, albeit one whose vigilance had lapsed with age and upward social mobility, and her belief that a person’s passing should be a cause for celebration of their life, and not an occasion for glorifying the cult of death to instil fear and blind obedience into the weak and gullible.

To be honest, my mother didn’t help her own cause either, sitting there all silent, with the eyes of all the mourners upon her, head bowed and tilted slightly, flanked by her in-laws, and wearing too much the look of a martyred saint in imitation of Αγία Βαρβάρα, her namesake whose icons she kept in every drawer in the house. To my father’s relatives, however, her pitiful countenance came across as too much of a lame attempt to draw out their sympathy, and they weren’t buying it. 

But I also wander whether the ambiguity in my mother’s projected emotions didn’t reflect her own uncertainty that perhaps she did bear some moral culpability in my father’s death, in the sense that all women to some extent feel responsible, whether or not they admit to it, for leading their husbands to their grave, simply by marrying them and then proceeding to grind them into the ground by burdening them with the demands of that debased institution, including the raising of children; in other words, the whole catastrophe. 

That would explain Aunt Katina’s furtive looks back and forth at my mother at the funeral itself, and presently by the side of the grave, standing a few feet behind her. It was like she knew deep down both of them shared the same guilt, seeing she had been left a widow some years earlier. But by turning her accusing gaze onto my mother, she could conveniently deny herself of it for the time being and in the process transfer that guilt onto the new initiate into their secret covenant.

My father’s family, however, including Aunt Katina, had their own selfish motives in wishing to portray my mother as a nasty little black widow. These was centered on their belief that, in accordance with some feudal law dating back to the rule of the Ottomans in Thessaly whereby the estate of the deceased husband vested in his siblings, first in line being his brothers and then sisters, to the complete exclusion of his surviving wife and children, they were entitled to a large portion, if not all of my father’s estate. Although in local custom this law still holds sway in an informal sense, I don’t think they honestly believed it had any existing legal force, since in present-day Greece, in line with other European countries, the estate of a deceased husband, where there is no will, vests in his surviving wife, and then his children. The entire thrust of their claim was psychological, backed up by the rumor and innuendo of my mother’s complicity in my father’s death. It was all designed to instil sufficient guilt and unease in her mind, and in my own and my sister’s, for us to feel morally obligated to hand over a sizeable share of his estate, even if this meant lodging rights in the apartment in Kalamaria, as if it was something my father himself would had wished.

With these unsettling thoughts circulating in my head, I could understand my mother’s anxiety about having to come to the cemetery that morning, knowing my two aunts would be there waiting. She had now moved away to be by herself in the shade. As I looked around, I noticed an elderly couple tending a grave to the left. Between them, they were replacing the withered flowers in the vase with fresh ones, washing the headstone and assiduously polishing the glass panels of the small shrine next to the headstone housing a framed photograph of the person whose remains were buried there. Although I couldn’t see it clearly, I could make out that it was a picture of a man in a shirt and tie. I surmised it was probably one of their children who must have died under tragic circumstances; I couldn’t imagine anyone tending with such devotion the grave of an elderly relative who had died of natural causes at a ripe old age. Whoever it was, they had passed away quite recently because the mound of earth above the tomb looked freshly turned and grass and weeds had yet to sprout.

Having finished her chores for the time being, the woman took out a tray from one of the plastic bags they had brought with them and came round to offer us some dry biscuits. I politely took one and wrapped it in a paper napkin to put in the pocket of my jacket for later. For a brief moment I thought about asking whose grave it was they were tending, but I quickly changed my mind. Somehow it didn’t seem proper, and I simply nodded to express my thanks and commiserate on their loss. My mother seemed in a daze when the woman went up to her, as if she had blocked out all sensory input, but snapped out of it and politely accepted her offering. The two then exchanged some words, no doubt about their respective reasons for being here.

As I watched the gravedigger working away in his sombrero, digging up clumps of earth and scooping them up to the surface, I could hear my aunts in the background relating stories, ostensibly to each other, but also for the benefit of anyone who might be listening. It was just as well my mother was out of earshot, I thought, because they were talking about past disinterments at which they’d been present. As unmannerly as their discussion seemed, I had to concede they were merely trying to allay their own anxieties, as well as mine indirectly, about what was about to unfold. To some extent it worked because as I listened to Aunt Katina’s measured narration I felt a little more at ease. I realized as crude and regressive as this custom was, that is, having to be present to receive the bones of one’s loved one, it was a necessary step in my re-confirmation into a culture I thought had forsaken me, and which in turn I had all but abandoned.

The gravedigger continued digging into the rich, reddish-brown earth, alternating between vigorous swings of his pickaxe and scooping up the loosened soil with his spade, flinging it over his shoulder onto the narrow path between the graves. As I contemplated the object of his labor, I couldn’t help but think just how fertile the soil looked. He could well have been preparing a garden bed to plant vegetables or roses in, if only the hole he was digging weren’t so deep. After a few fruitless swings of his pickaxe into a hard and dry spot, he had trouble making further headway and started cursing the other cemetery workers for failing to water the ground adequately. Nevertheless he persisted and with each swing, he dug a little deeper into the ground until the soil was broken up enough for him to use his shovel more profitably.

Meanwhile, my mother had caught sight of a priest on his rounds. He was stopping at graves along the way, blessing the souls of the departed while chanting a prayer, as the bereaved crossed themselves and put a small monetary consideration into his hand before he moved on to the next one. Whether to redeem herself in the eyes of my two aunts, or because she simply felt obligated by custom, or else, out of some superstitious belief that if she didn’t something bad would transpire, my mother rushed over to ask him to come and say a prayer for my father’s memory. She returned to wait in the shade while my two aunts were busy watching the gravedigger with studied indifference, arms crossed, muttering observations and reminiscences to each another.

After refilling the oil lamp inside the glass-panelled shrine, the elderly woman lit the wick and some candles next to the photograph to keep alive the memory of their loved one, and then both began taking turns fetching water from a nearby tap to wash the headstone, all over again. It was like they were enacting a ritual that had to be repeated a requisite number of times to ensure the continued happiness of their loved one in the next world. 

As I looked around amidst their comings and goings, I was struck by the rustic orderliness of the cemetery with its crooked rows and uneven surface of the dirt paths, and the rough and ready nature of the fencing erected around the graves, many of which were overgrown with grass and weeds. I figured the reason for this was that the burial plots here were only temporary resting places. Therefore, there was no need to erect ornate monuments and embellish them with expensive personal touches for posterity and ostentation. Like many things in Greece born of necessity and limited resources, the emphasis was on practicality rather than technical perfection and faultless presentation, as if the underlying aesthetics were inspired by the seeming chaos and inexactness in nature itself.

The unadorned tidiness of the cemetery grounds was in stark contrast to the squalid state of the streets and public places down in Thessaloniki itself, which were littered with garbage and refuse of all kinds. Suddenly, I was struck by the errant thought that in all likelihood those responsible for this wilful neglect and squalidness were people just like the couple next to us, because, although they could affect piety and expend extra care and effort to maintain the grave of their loved one and the cemetery grounds clean and spotless, away from here, down in the city itself, they wouldn’t think twice about dropping their litter where they walked, rather than take the few extra steps to discard it properly in the waste bins, which, to be fair, were always crammed to overflowing and rarely emptied by the municipal authorities. But by now, I should have learned to expect such glaring contradictions in the attitude and behavior of Greeks, whereby they could heap scorn and abuse on anyone they caught flouting the law, but be completely oblivious of their own shameless culpability for doing exactly the same.

Call it brazen hypocrisy or whatever you like, but one thing about this wanton contrariness and capricious inconstancy of Greeks, as exasperating as it can seem to an outsider, is that it enables them to call their enemy’s bluff, and in the process expose their artifice. It’s not a question of winning or losing; it’s all about getting at the mutable nature of truth by engaging in the dialectical process, and thereby challenge the constraints set by social norms and rules, to draw out their opponent’s motives, and deny them the chance to sneer in hubristic victory when they think they’ve won. As Heraclitus said, “το πάντα ρει καί ουδέν μένει.” It’s all coded in the language and customs, and I cannot accept that Western society with all its technical sophistication and scientific knowledge has anything new to offer in the way of understanding the human psyche and such fundamental concepts as virtue, truth, and beauty.

But like all good God-fearing Christians conscious of their own mortality, however insolent and irreverent they may come across at times, Greeks instinctively revert to an almost child-like obsequiousness when confronted by His authority, eager to please and obey, fearful of retribution in the hereafter should they transgress in the here and now. That’s why the elderly couple dutifully washed and cleaned the headstone and grave of their beloved son, and took inordinate care not to desecrate the cemetery grounds by leaving any scrap behind, because this was God’s holy abode and He was watching them. The city and the agora, by contrast, were a cesspit of corruption and vice, devoid of His presence and grace, where people driven by greed and base desires cheated on and used one another, in the worship of false idols. That’s why they felt no shame or embarrassment about leaving their rubbish on the streets, to protest their alienation and mortal insignificance in the contrived madness called civilization.

My wayward intellectual digression was losing coherence. I was clutching at straws and starting to contradict myself, thinking one could gain invaluable insight into the collective character of Greeks by abstracting from their waste disposal habits. I doubted there was anything all that unique about Greeks, and my preoccupation with trying to define a national psyche, as it were, was an indication that I was regressing into maudlin ethnocentrism to compensate for my lack of a clear self-identity, the result of my forced separation from the land of birth at a critical juncture in my emotional and intellectual development.

Perhaps Greeks were just plain vile and disrespectful of each other for reasons that had little to do with their past, actual or mythical. It could all be explained by the perpetually underdeveloped state of the economy, and on a more fundamental level, on the physical geography of the country itself, with its many scattered islands on the one hand, and the rugged mountainous terrain and secluded valleys on the other, all of which impeded communication and stifled free and open commerce of all forms, while at the same time favored tribalism and insularity. 

Then there was the language itself, the linguistic abomination loftily entitled “Modern Greek,” which in contrast to the fluidic conciseness of the ancient tongue, is so rigidly over-engineered and steeped in mind numbing redundancies as to impose a kind of cognitive despotism on the minds of those who have the misfortune of having to use it communicate, a triumph of exasperating form over meaningful substance, stifling creativity and free and independent thought. All these factors together fostered an intestine suspicion and hostility among the people, all but ensuring the country’s inveterate backwardness.

It seemed like the more I thought about it, the more my mind drifted towards an unflattering assessment of Greek society, and the near absence of any redeeming qualities that could turn it around. But I also realized that at the root of my silent digression was the need to address the anxiety and uncertainty I always feel whenever I try to picture myself coming back to live in Greece on a permanent basis, driven by that romantic ideal of returning to one’s roots to find one’s true self. As such, I had to concede that I was being insincere with myself in ignoring my intuition that told me that, as much as I dreaded the prospect of having to live in perpetual exile for the rest of my life, I could never come back to my country of birth. I wondered whether similar thoughts hadn’t plagued my father on the eve of his grand return, and informed an underlying trepidation which as much as he tried to suppress, he could not avert its insidious corrosion of his self-belief, and ultimately his life force.

I was also looking for a plausible reason to retreat from my stubborn conviction that I was wrongly removed from my country of birth, and to instead acknowledge the providence of my parents’ decision to take me and my sister along with them, so we’d be spared the poverty and squalor concealed behind every house and dilapidated building, and be given an opportunity to succeed without being burdened by the past, and all the obstacles this maddening country can throw up at you. These were all features of a society in decline where chaos ruled and order was a temporary disentropic anomaly. It was where the people despised one another while coveting whatever their neighbor possessed simply because they didn’t, while resorting to the most primitive animal instincts to assert themselves. And yet, it was that entrenched enmity and the daily struggle to survive that gave their lives meaning and purpose.

But I was judging Greek society by the standards of so-called advanced industrialized countries like the one I had grown up in, established on a proven socio-economic model with as few fetters as possible and little or no resistance from the conquered races. These countries had been built on the basis that the pursuit of material wealth and perpetual progress were noble ideals from which civility and wisdom flowed. All this was dependent on the continual exploitation of natural and human resources which necessitated the systematic inculcation among its willing agents of a soul-destroying acquiescence to the discipline of capital, and constant vigilance against renegades and naysayers in their midst, and their swift elimination by thousands of tiny cuts. Is this why I feel an instinctual recoil from such order and organization, and why deep down I am still drawn to the confusion and chaos of this backward primitive land?

As I stood there in the shade, absent-mindedly watching the gravedigger, I now questioned whether my parents had done the right thing.

Having observed the elderly couple going about their business for the past half hour, performing the same tasks they had completed only ten minutes earlier, I came to the conclusion they were deliberately drawing out their time to have a plausible excuse to be present when the casket was opened. The gravedigger’s thighs had now disappeared below ground level, and having struck the clay layer he was scooping up spade after spade of the brown loamy soil and depositing it up above ground, gradually closing off the narrow path on one side. Momentarily they would cease their cleaning to look and see how much further he had to dig, but their pretence of not having yet finished was getting on my nerves, as was their morbid interest in seeing what lay inside the casket.

But I kept my annoyance in check, because when I thought about it, I had no right to resent their nosiness. They were merely seeking contact with their own emotions through our grief as a way of reconciling themselves with the mystery of death and the memory of their own dearly departed. It wasn’t simply the excavation of my father’s casket they were waiting around for. They were there to participate in a communal rite in the hope of discovering something that could shed some light on that eternal mystery.

As I thought over this minor dramatic scene in which we were all playing our individual roles, I was overcome by a sense that I was part of a wider dialectic, one that went beyond my mundane concerns about the silent feud between my aunts and my mother, and the unwelcome intrusiveness of the elderly couple. As such, I had to renounce my idiotic ideas about respect for personal privacy and people minding their own business which had been instilled into me by my sheltered and atomized upbringing in the post-industrial societies of the New World. I needed to surrender myself to the delirium inherent in my aunt’s maddening wails and the unspoken judgment of people like this elderly couple hanging around like flies; because their uninvited interference into my life was exactly what I needed.

The priest finally came and went and asked my mother for some details. His arrival was the cue for the gravedigger to drop some unwelcome news that there might be a problem with the disinterment. This brought a look of disappointment to my mother’s face, as if she’d been half-expecting it all along, and now it came. Nevertheless, the priest took his position at the foot of the grave and started chanting something, and then recited a short prayer. He then circled around the plot as far as the pile of dirt allowed, making signs of the cross and invoking a higher power, while as my mother and aunts looked solemnly down at the ground and crossed themselves at the appropriate times.

Out of respect, the gravedigger had also stopped digging and stood upright in the pit with his hands crossed in front of him, as did the elderly couple, while I too stood silently by. It was at that moment that I felt the full impact of the fact that my father was no longer alive, as the image of his lifeless body laid out in the casket inside the chapel surfaced in my head, dressed in his summer sports jacket and slacks, and shoes laced up nice and neat. Of course I knew he was dead, everyone knew that. But that knowledge now assumed a greater significance that weighed much more heavily on my conscience, as if every cell in my body was aware of it.

For a brief moment I wondered what it would have been like were he still alive, living in Thessaloniki in the apartment he and my mother had bought to retire in. He would have been happy to be back in his country of birth in the comfort of his own home, savoring the release of being able to express himself openly in his own language with his fellow countrymen he passed on the street in the morning, or sat down with at one of the many καφνεία in the shopping mall in Kalamaria to sip coffee and discuss events in the news. Many of them were repatriated Greeks like himself, having spent their working lives abroad in Canada, the U.S., Australia, Germany, Sweden. And for those who sided with the Communists in the Civil War and fled to countries like Hungary and Czechoslovakia in its wake, he would be only too happy to listen to their own take on the collapse of communism in the Eastern Bloc.

He would have mended all his differences with his brothers and sisters, and forgiven them for writing him out of his rightful share of his inheritance. I could have visited him and my mother from the States on a more regular basis, and also arranged for them to come and visit me over there. Imagine that, sharing time with my father, driving around Nevada and California showing him and my mother the sites! I’m sure he would have liked it, even if he still didn’t fully trust me behind the wheel. Things could have been so different!

At the end of the priest’s prayer, my mother, my aunts and the other bystanders crossed themselves three times again, and my aunt broke out into another lament, this one short and not quite as loud, while I stood silently by trying to hold back inexplicable tears. Before he walked to the next grave, my mother put a few thousand drachma notes into the priest’s hand and made to kiss it, at which he reciprocated by giving her his blessing. But why was I crying at this moment when at the funeral itself my eyes remained dry throughout and I felt no emotion? Was it because it suddenly dawned on me that this maddening society into which he and I were born, and which to all intents and purposes had rendered him an outcast, driving him into exile in a far away land and caring not one bit about him thereafter; for all its ugliness and contradictions which can drive one to the edge of insanity; despite all of this, through the agency of this bearded and pony-tailed priest dressed in a long black habit, dispensing biblical aphorisms in his monotone delivery; this unforgiving, cold-hearted society had finally acknowledged the loss of one of its own, and its tacit complicity in his demise, in this incomprehensible mystery in which we were all but ephemeral bit players. 

Through this arcane ritual and its invocation of mysterious forces beyond our grasp, my father was no longer the disenfranchised migrant worker who had unceremoniously died one windy night in his bed as a result of a coronary infarct, brought about by an undiagnosed underlying chronic illness associated with someone of his age and maligned demographic, just another statistic. Something of him, call it his soul or his living memory, had been rescued from oblivion. It was saved because at that particular moment something was triggered inside my head that told me that after all that had passed between us, he was and always will be my father, and that’s all that mattered.

Having resumed digging, the gravedigger once again conveyed his suspicion that decomposition of the body had not proceeded as expected. But he couldn’t be one hundred percent certain, he said, until he had dug down to the casket itself. On hearing this, my mother’s dejected mood sank even lower, as she resigned herself to having to go through the entire ordeal in twelve months’ time, and having to put off her escape from Thessaloniki for another year. She went and sat in the shade well away from the grave, and figuring it would be another fifteen minutes at least before the gravedigger had dug down to the casket itself, I went to keep her company, reassuring her that she would not have to deal with it on her own.

My two aunts, however, were standing their ground by the side of the grave, eagerly watching the gravedigger working his way down, as if expecting a buried treasure to be unearthed at any moment. I tried to think where I would be in a year’s time. Would I still be in Reno, or will I take up that offer and move to Boston? Or will something come up in Europe at a pharmaceutical company, or a research institute? Or should I enquire about university positions in Greece itself, , as foolhardy as that seems, and look up that professor at the university here in Thessaloniki I met on my last visit when on a whim I took the elevator up to the Pharmacolgy Department on the senventh floor of the Biology building and he invited me into his office for a long chat? 

The only certainty, however, was that I would be back here, under the same hot blazing sun, hopefully to bring this matter to a final close. My two aunts would be standing there by the grave; or would they? Because many things can happen in a year. Should I ask my mother to come and live with me in the States if she can no longer bear her isolation in Thessaloniki and the constant badgering from her sister and mother?

Then there were more immediate questions like, why had the gravedigger bothered to keep digging when he was more or less convinced my father’s remains would have to be reinterred? Did he want to keep his end of the bargain so we wouldn’t think he was cheating us? Perhaps he was doing it out of his own interest. I also had a feeling my aunts’ curiosity would not have been satisfied without seeing the evidence with their own eyes.

From the shade under the tree, I could see they had repositioned themselves to be closer to the pit, and the gravedigger had dug down to waist level. He had dispensed with his digging tools and was trying to position himself at one end as if to make room for something. I assumed this was for the lid of the casket. My two aunts continued watching intently, standing so close to the edge that they looked like they were about to jump in and join him. I reported to my mother that it looked like he was about to remove the lid and got up and walked towards the grave. Reluctantly she followed behind, keeping her distance. 

The elderly couple having ceased all work had also positioned themselves at the top to get a better angle, while I went and stood on the opposite side, with my mother well back with her head turned the other away. Then suddenly, for some reason, Aunt Katina started berating me for standing too close and ordered me to move back and look away. I shuffled back a few feet so as not to appear insolent, but still had a clear view of the pit and the gravedigger who had dug most of the way around the casket and was now scooping up dirt and clay from the corners with his bare hands to enable him to pull off the cover in one piece. This was also the cue for both my aunts to start chanting in low key another dirge in a mixture of Greek and Aromanian, punctuated by loud wails expressing unfathomable grief for their departed brother.

While all this was going on, a short and squat elderly woman with a hunched back and wild messy grey hair, dressed in old rags that fell about her stooped frame appeared out of nowhere, stealing glances around her as she weaved her way between me and my mother, and my aunts and the couple watching on. She was muttering something to herself and talking to anyone and no-one at the same time in a low, creaky voice admonishing us to close our eyes and not to look down. She didn’t seem to be soliciting alms or begging for money, and began relating the horror of being witness to the exhumation of her own husband which she said had driven her mad and reduced her to eternal wretchedness as was plain for all to see.

I couldn’t help but note the theatrical character of how she seemed to appear at that very moment the casket was about to be opened. It felt like we were playing out a scene from a Greek tragedy, with this hideous looking woman in the role of a messenger from the god of the underworld sent to haunt the living and instil in them fear and horror of death. It was like she’d been waiting in the wings, behind a tree, or in the chapel, and on some hidden cue from the gravedigger, or perhaps the priest when he left, she came forth like some wicked, ill-boding deus ex machina to deliver her cautionary monologue. Or else she really was as disturbed as she appeared, and it was just her habit to go around the cemetery and annoy people with her horror stories. Because it’s not like there’s a shortage of demented, creepy old women in Thessaloniki. At one point, I thought I recognized her from a few days earlier as the same repulsive old hag on the bus on my way home from the city center.

The shops had all closed for the afternoon, and having managed to jump on board the last outbound bus for Kalamaria, I had to stand in the aisle in the middle with one foot on the turntable, pressed against the other passengers. At about the third or fourth stop, where the bay curves out and the main thoroughfare turns inwards away from the sea-front, my attention was drawn to a short and disheveled grey-haired woman who had just boarded from the front carrying some stuffed plastic bags, and who despite the heat, was dressed in layers of dirty and tattered clothes. As the bus took off, she began to make her way down the aisle, squeezing past those standing, looking for an empty seat left and right, all the while muttering to herself. I tried to make room but she ignored me and pushed her way past, at which moment I was overcome by an incredibly foul stench, like that of human excrement which was obviously coming from her person.

I glanced around to gauge other people’s reactions and saw that they were even more visibly repulsed by this horrible smelling old hag and were doing their utmost to get out of her way and avoid all possible contact. Soon, her bodily stench filled the entire bus and passengers began uttering audible abuse at her while desperately trying to open all the windows. But she remained oblivious and kept babbling to herself, having taken a single seat towards the front from a man after she planted herself next to him in the aisle and silently implored him with her foul odor to give up his seat. He and about half the passengers rushed to get out as soon as the doors opened at the following stop, all visibly and audibly irate, heaping abuse on the old woman as they alighted from the front, middle and rear, while exhorting the driver to throw her off immediately.

With only two more stops to go, I decided to remain on board and moved to the very back of the bus to breathe some fresh air through the open windows. When I finally got out I was so relieved that I had to sit down on the ledge of a nearby garden wall for few minutes to regain my bearings, while nodding my head in disbelief at how anyone could be so inconsiderate and unashamedly offensive as to board a bus in such a filthy physical state; unless, that is, they were completely insane and had lost all sense of civilized behavior, let alone decorum. I then remembered once reading an account of a middle-aged woman’s descent into madness, left traumatized by personal tragedy, whereby she would lock herself up in her bedroom for weeks on end, refusing to come out and wallowing naked in her own excrement, and throwing handfuls at anyone who tried to enter. 

Whatever demons this repugnant bag lady had had to battle with, it appeared they had left her irreversibly bitter and twisted, with just enough of her mental faculties intact to allow her to venture out in her squalid state to buy cat food to share with the strays in the neighbourhood. I wondered what could have possibly driven her to hate the world and all humanity as much as she did.

I wasn’t one hundred percent certain this old hag bothering us was the same wretched woman on the bus. Thankfully she kept her distance and I didn’t get a chance to ascertain whether or not she stunk of shit. But it would not have surprised me if she was, because Thessaloniki, with a population of just over a million inhabitants, largely concentrated on a narrow tract of reclaimed swamp land that skirts Salonika Bay and slopes up to the Old City hasn’t yet got to the size where the degrees of separation between people are such that no-one knows a mutual acquaintance. But presently, whoever she was, I did my best to ignore her, as did the others.

My two aunts were now kneeling by the edge of the pit, looking for a way to climb in, as they eagerly watched the gravedigger trying to get a firm footing in the boggy soil. Then, when he thought he’d done enough, he slowly pried open the wooden lid and slid it to one side, opening up a small gap. But almost immediately he straightened himself up and pulled back, overcome by the smell, and turned his head away to catch his breath. The foul stench of putrefied flesh and bone combined with the humic pong of damp soil and clay wafted over in my direction, and instinctively I covered my nose and mouth and turned my head to avoid breathing it in. My mother who was standing too far back to see, sounded exhausted and exasperated when she asked what was happening.

After the horrible smell had dissipated somewhat, the gravedigger resumed work, and lifting the cover completely off the casket, he stood it up against the side, fully exposing the decayed contents inside. To my surprise they were largely covered in mud and silt which had obviously seeped in through the gaps and holes in the rotted lid and wooden side panels of the casket. Bending down, he then attempted to remove what remained of the corpse itself, as my two aunts launched into another round of wailing, this time louder with complete abandon, as if calling out to their brother across some vast invisible divide, haranguing and scolding him for not heeding their advice all those years ago.

Grabbing the body by the front of the jacket in which it was still cloaked, the gravedigger tried heaving it out of the casket. But he succeeded only partially because the torso separated from the legs which remained inside, weighed down by the mud. Then the torso itself fell from his grasp onto the boggy soil in a contorted liquefied heap. Despite being thoroughly stained with mud and other detritus, I recognized my father’s summer grey polyester sports jacket with its once bright colored woven check. He had bought it with my mother on a shopping trip to Dandenong to wear on his grand return to Greece. She thought he looked so good in it she made him model it when I visited them one weekend at the farm in Five Ways, just as they were in the middle of preparations for their long-awaited trip, having already forward shipped all the furniture and household items they would need in their new apartment. It lent him such an air of levity and gaiety, I thought, something I hadn’t seen in my father in a long time, so becoming of one who was about to retire in the sun, having achieved all he set out to achieve in Australia, and now happy to be going back home at last, picturing himself stepping off the plane in Athens to the delight and envy of his friends and relatives who had travelled all the way from the village to greet him at the airport.

But there was also something disconcertingly ominous about seeing him in such a gay and buoyant mood, relieved at having finally sold the farm and no longer having to worry about growing carnations in the hothouses and cutting and packing them. It was as if the excitement and elation surrounding his imminent return had erased all his bad memories of Greece and relieved him of his bitterness at being rejected at every turn and forced to seek a new life in a far away country. He was like a man who wasn’t so much returning home, as about to undergo exalted transfiguration. But how was I to know that that disquiet I felt was a premonition of the tragic final act of his life?

“Could those really be the remains of my father, in his summer sports jacket,” I wondered, “all soiled and muddied, with the sleeves folded back on themselves at improbable angles?” How different he looked laid out in the polished wooden casket at the funeral parlor in suburban Carnegie, so still and impassive, for the few relatives and friends of the family to come and pay their last respects, prior to being shipped out on an Olympic Airlines jumbo jet bound for Athens in the cargo hold, while my mother and sister and I sat among the passengers in the main cabin, pretending we were on our way to Greece for summer holiday. As puerile a gesture as it seemed at the time, dressing his lifeless body in the same sports jacket he had planned to wear for his grand return made perfect sense. It was as if we were fulfilling a final wish of his to show his relatives just how happy he was to be coming back home.

It was obvious that the wobbly, dismembered jelly-like mass contained within the buttoned up, soiled sports jacket had not fully decomposed, even before the gravedigger looked up despairingly to inform us it would have to be reburied. He said that was the best option because it would require lots of time and effort to remove the bones from the corpse in its present state, and it was better for all concerned if it was allowed to decompose in the ground for another year. For my mother, the news confirmed her worst fears, resigned to stay here for another year.

After he climbed out of the pit to recover his strength, I was both amazed and horrified to see my two aunts rush to lower themselves into the space he had just vacated, and then begin to feverishly pick through with their bare hands the exposed and covered parts of the corpse lying inside and outside the casket. They began working on the head which had separated from the torso, removing bits of adherent decomposed skin and flesh from the underlying bone, exposing the non-cartilaginous part of the nose, jaws and bones, all vaguely reminiscent of my father’s facial structure. My aunt Katina then peeled off the scalp with the hair attached still in the same recognizable pattern, as if removing a hair piece, to reveal the bare white skull underneath, while muttering something under her breath with a mixture of anger and grief.

In their long black dresses, the two reminded me of a pair of over-zealous nuns-turned-archaeologists sifting through the mud and dirt, having discovered some human remains from an ancient civilization. But their coarse delving into the muddied body parts without the aid of instruments, poking their bare fingers through the eye sockets, pushing out bits of mushy brain tissue that was once the seat of my father’s consciousness and higher thought processes, indicated they lacked the rudiments of scientific training, and their actions were driven by other, more occult motives.

For a moment I thought I was witnessing some macabre pagan ritual performed by a pair of black witches for whom these decomposing human remains held secret powers they were attempting to harness by direct physical contact, while trying to recover the skull and other key bones for the purposes of worship and ritual. I was both appalled and at the same time fascinated as I watched them working away, as if it was second nature to them. But as revolting as their actions appeared I had no reason to pass judgment on them, or intervene, because, although the inescapable truth was that this was what remained of my father, these two people were of his own flesh and blood, and this lent their actions a legitimacy that transcended morality and decorum.

Not satisfied with his head, they then began pulling out the arms from inside the sleeves of his once light grey sports jacket and proceeded to feel the mud-covered bones of the fingers of his left hand. This struck me as odd, until I later learnt from my mother they were looking for his gold ring, either to keep as a memento for sentimental reasons, or because they believed it had some monetary value. I surmised it was for a similar reason they had given his head a thorough going over, looking for any gold crowns present in his teeth, unaware that my father had been fitted with dentures years ago.

By now, I had seen quite enough. It wasn’t so much the sight of the horrible mess of my father’s decomposed body that I was repelled by, but my aunts’ unashamed ghoulishness which had assumed grave robber dimensions. I walked back to my mother who was standing well away and had refused to look. In a weary voice, she asked me whether it was over yet so we could head back to the office and settle the account and go home. I reassured her again that she should not worry because I would be back the following year to see that everything was taken care of. In the mean time, my aunts, having climbed out of the pit, unclear whether they found what they were looking for, launched into another round of loud wailing. I looked around, but the repulsive old hag was nowhere to be seen; she had vanished just as mysteriously as she had appeared, and the elderly couple were in the process of packing up.

Amidst all this, an irrelevant yet comforting thought entered my head. And this was that my father’s grave was situated in a rather picturesque part of Thessaloniki, up in the hills, set among pine trees and oregano and lavender, far from the madness and noise and grime of the city. I contemplated the absurd notion that he would have been happy knowing he was buried there, before realizing such soppy sentiments are nothing more than a way of reconciling ourselves with our fear of death by conjuring up a vision of the afterlife as a continuation of life here on earth, except for the inconvenience of not being able to communicate our thoughts and feelings with those still living, and vice versa. It was such an imbecilic rationalization of death that I wondered why it even entered my head.

I don’t know what death is, which is as trite a statement as it is profound. Can one really say that one doesn’t know something which cannot possibly be known? All I knew for certain was that those were the remains of my father in that casket and had been the object of my attention for the past two hours, and now I had to make plans to return the following year. By that time I hoped that they will have decomposed more fully to enable the bones to be recovered, with or without my aunts present, and taken back to the village to be stored alongside those of the rest of his family in the ossuary next to the church where he was baptized and married. That way, his vacant plot can become temporary home to another Greek from abroad whose term here on earth had expired, however tragic the circumstances, and whose family believed they were fulfilling his unstated patriotic wish to be buried back in his country of birth. But nothing was guaranteed because according to the gravedigger, another year might still not be sufficient time, because he had come across bodies brought to Greece from overseas for burial that had taken longer to fully decompose.

I looked back at the grave and I could see him unfolding some large plastic garbage bags. He then climbed back into the pit and began collecting the remains into them. When he finished, he climbed out and walked over to tell us he thought it was my father’s sports jacket that was partly to blame for the slow progress of decomposition. But mostly, he thought it was the fact that his body was too well preserved by the undertakers in Melbourne, which he admitted was normal, due to the strict regulations of airlines for transporting bodies overseas. Another contributing factor, he said, was the fact that his grave was situated on high ground where the soil doesn’t retain moisture as well, especially in the summer. But now, the remains would be reburied at the back, down the hill where the soil was moist, and to ensure there would be no problems in a year’s time, he would throw on some extra lime.

My aunts, having thoroughly washed their hands and whatever jewellery and mementos they had recovered from the my father’s fingers and pockets declined my invitation on behalf of my mother to accompany us back to the apartment for cake and coffee, and stay the night if they so wished. But to my huge relief, they declined. They said they were taking the bus back to the village that evening, although I suspected they were going to stay with my cousin Demi, aunt Katina’s daughter, who also lives in Thessaloniki.

After paying for the current expenses back at the office, my mother and I walked out to the bus stop in front of the main entrance to wait for the bus back to Kalamaria. It was still quite hot and the sun was blazing down, but there was a pleasant cool breeze coming off the sea as we sat in the shade of the bus shelter. With her mood visibly lifted, my mother struck up a conversation with a woman not much older than her who was waiting for the bus to the city center. They began exchanging stories of their lives and the circumstances of how they had come to be at the cemetery that day. 

I tried listening in, but there was nothing really of interest in the other woman’ story. It was the usual sad tale of how her husband of so many years had collapsed and died after a history of ill health. She said he used to fly light planes for a living and that they had a large house in Panorama, an affluent suburb up in the hills. She seemed to be over his loss but she also sounded as if she was trying to put all the blame on him for dying and leaving her to care for his memory.

My mother who has a tendency to embellish facts when it suits her was trying to out-impress the other woman with her own account of her comfortably well-off life in Australia with my father, living on a large semi-rural property of ten acres, she said, and running a flower-growing business in which they employed a dozen people, owning three cars and two other houses they rented out, as well being proud parents of two adult children, both university graduates. She said she and my father were planning to start a business in Greece, but this was cut tragically short by his sudden and unexpected death. I could almost see the supercilious glee on her face at having aroused the other woman’s sympathy and envy in equal measure, knowing she had no way of verifying her account.

Perhaps because I knew my mother had puffed up her life in Australia, I thought the other woman’s tale sounded more tragic than ours, having lost a husband who used to be a pilot, usually a well-paying, professional occupation that requires much skill and training, and then having to relinquish the lifestyle that came with it. But then I wondered whether she too hadn’t exaggerated her past to make it sound like her fall was so much greater. I mean, anyone can learn to fly a light plane, especially in the States where her husband had lived for many years before coming back to Greece; and not all the houses in Panorama are mansions. Besides, with her look of bored indifference she reminded me of one of those middle-aged, kleptocratic Greek hags who, despite having fallen on hard times, keep up appearances by sneering contemptuously at those seated next to them on the bus and like to blame foreigners for Greece’s ills. I’m sure in her eyes we were mere μετανάστες in whose boorish nature it was to hype up their modest successes abroad to hide their embarrassment at being nothing more than uneducated cast-offs.

But in both cases, my mother and this woman had something in common. And that was that they were both aiming to deceive by affecting sympathy and friendship, driven by a primeval instinct passed down the female line to cut down the other by stealth and deviousness to ensure that her genes and those of her fucker, as embodied in their joint offspring, prevail. “Women are indeed evil creatures,” I thought, recalling what my mother once said to me with a demonic glint in her eye as we were watching a story on the evening news about a woman convicted of luring her husband into a trap so as to get rid of him and then run off with his money and her lover. “And the older they are, the more malevolent and spiteful.”

I got up and walked out to the edge of the road but could see no bus coming just yet. Up in the sky an airplane was banking hard over the water – Austrian Airlines, from the red logo on the tail. It was bringing in more tourists for the busy holiday season in Chalkidiki, a destination much favored by Germans and Austrians. As it lined up for its final approach into Macedonia Airport, wheels lowered, I figured it would most likely pass directly over Kalamaria, if not the apartment itself at 21 Οδος Μουδιανων, rousing from their afternoon nap all but the most inured to the loud descending whine of its engines.

(Boston, 1996)