“So, you’re saying if I don’t sign this, you can’t take her?”
My mama is sitting at the dining table in the small flat they rent in Adelaide with my baba and her mother-in-law. She has a document in front of her that they want her to sign. They’ve been pressing her about it for hours. It’s one that will allow my Yiayia to take me back with her to Greece, so my parents can work to save money for a house. The year is 1975. I am two years old. Forty-five years later, my mum still talks about that moment when her pen hovered over the dotted line. She tells me of how she flew to Melbourne from Adelaide just to see me for five minutes before I flew away. Within the year, she and my dad would spend all the money they’d saved on plane tickets to Greece to pick me up. They missed me too much.
She has a document in front of her that they want her to sign. They’ve been pressing her about it for hours. It’s one that will allow my Yiayia to take me back with her to Greece, so my parents can work to save money for a house.
For my part, I don’t remember my time in Greece that first time around. Most of my life I’ve thought of it as something interesting that happened to me when I was young. In later years though I have grappled with its legacy – a lingering sense that I am out of place and a feeling that no matter where I am, home is always somewhere else.
Growing up as a Greek kid in the northern suburbs of Adelaide in the late 70s and 80s was like being a fish out of water. I was a shy kid, and school made me shyer. New contexts made me nervous. I found friendships hard to form and the fact that I was so obviously different didn’t help. I walked around with a constant sense that the ground might shift beneath my feet. As the only Greek-Australian kid in my year, I copped all the epithets. I was an olive-skinned outsider in a sea of Anglo-Saxon. There was no hiding.
My sense of how Australian I was then went through stages. In the late 70s we swarthy ‘wogs’ definitely didn’t belong. By the 1980s that was starting to shift but by then we were happy to own our difference. I recall once some friends at high school questioning why I called myself a Greek Australian. Wasn’t I just an Aussie? I told them the country needed to make up its about whether we belonged or not. Until then I was a bit of both. Our white-washing would take time to set in, but by the 2000s everyone (including we Greeks) would forget that once upon a time we weren’t welcome here either.
My sense of how Australian I was then went through stages.
By 2001 though, I was back to feeling out of my skin. A holiday to Greece convinced me that I may in the end belong there rather than here. So back I went. This time, I thought, for good. My dad, who was holidaying there at the time, was at Athens airport to pick me up. His first words were ‘welcome home’, but I could see it didn’t make him happy.
I still remember our first drive up through the mountains of the Peloponnese on that trip. It was late Spring. The hills were green and bright. I was overcome with a feeling of being home. A gaggle of grandmothers were waiting at the village when we arrived to greet me and remind me of how they’d babysat me when I was a toddler. Did I remember them? No, I didn’t, but my responding smile was real. The affection I felt for them was too. I was surrounded by the spirits of my ancestors. I was sure I’d made the right choice.
I lasted a year and a half.
Ultimately what drew me home to Australia was a longing for the people who loved and knew me. Mountains are one thing, but they can’t embrace you when you’re lonely. And despite my sense of myself as Greek, I wasn’t the same as those around me. I hadn’t grown up and evolved with the land the way they had. I was out of place. Home it turned out wasn’t just where you lay your head, but also the people you lay it next to. I longed for home. It was 10 years before I could summon the heart to return to Greece.
All these years later, the Greek mountains still call to me more than any other place on Earth. I love the Australian landscape, but its history and mythology doesn’t include me. I’m not central to this nation’s sense of itself, not even now. And part of me is convinced this won’t change until we address the primordial wound at the heart of this country – the dispossession and violence committed on our First Nation’s people. Part of me wonders if any of us new arrivals will belong to the soil until we have Treaty with those to whom it belongs.
What is Australia then to me? It is the place of my birth, the home of my family and friends. It is the place I now realise I belong to even if it doesn’t fully belong to me. What is Greece? It is the home of my ancestors; the mountains of my blood and bone. It is the home that belongs to me, even if I don’t fully belong to it.
What is home? Home is wherever I am.