What It Means to be Greek
The other day my friend in Bangkok asked, “What are you? Australian? Greek?”
To which I replied, “I am both Australian and Greek. I am a citizen of both countries, but I don’t really associate with the Greek-Australians from Melbourne nor the Greeks in Greece”
“So you’re a third culture kid?”
“No, that’s not quite right.”
It’s a little more complicated than that. To understand why you need dive into my family history.
As stated in my previous post, my dad was born in Thessaloniki and then grew up in Athens. He grew up in the city and he famously didn’t get along with the Greeks in Australia as they were all from the village or the islands. Like a lot of villagers, they were more concerned about gossip than he did the culture.
My mum, on the other hand, is a first generation Greek-Australian. That is, her parents are Greek and she was born in Australia. She grew up under your typical migrant family. Study hard, work hard and if you stuff up, you’d get the belt or, in this case, the pantofla (slipper). She also grew up in Melbourne and spent her teens in the hippy years and went to Monash University in the 70’s. Needless to say, she was quite the feminist then and also, to this day.
So, growing up I had a mixture of ideas, thoughts and cultures. My friends weren’t all other Greek-Australians, they were from a range of cultures and in high school, I was associated with a group of kids that called themselves “The Hybrids” for this very reason. In fact, I hated going to Greek school and I didn’t make friends there like my brothers did.
All the Greek kids my age talked about “chicks and how they banged them HAAARD”, “fully-sick WRX Turbos” and “doing Chap-laps*” But, of course, I was told to respect women from my feminist mum and I didn’t get along with the other Greek kids, as they were the progeny of the village Greeks, from my dad. So I wasn’t interested in fast cars.
But did this mean that I renounced my Greekness? Was I doomed to be forever an Australian? To question, as we do every Australia Day, what it means to be Australian? Lucky for me, Greece has a strong, deep and lengthy history and culture so defining what it means to be Greek is a lot easier than what it means to be Australian.
I look into my history, into ancient history. My name, Iάσων/Jason, is named not only because it sounds awesome, but after Jason and the Argonauts. The legendary hero who quest it was to get the Golden Fleece. Admittedly, I know less about the story of Jason than I do Odysseus but the passion remains the same. Heroes on a quest do something gallant all in the pursuit of love.
My brothers also have ancient names, Alex, after Alexander the Great and Kimon after a statesman and general. So all of us have names after leaders. Strong names, powerful names, destined to do something great.
I also look into my ancestry on my father’s side. My grandpa, a colonel. My great uncle, a priest. Apparently, there was a slave-trader with the name Tsitsopoulos**. I’d like to think that the name Tsitsopoulos has something to with Sicily and Syracuse. That we were descendants of the Greeks that were in Sicily***.
Whatever the case, I like the fact that my name remains in mystery. That my ancestry is full of strong, powerful Greeks. That I’m named after a strong and powerful hero. It gives me courage and a sense of duty. I like the fact that my family is the only Tsitsopoulos family in Australia. I like the fact that I am the only Jason Tsitsopoulos in the world (well at least on facebook). Before Facebook, I got a real sense that this family is the only family left and that we must carry the Tsitsopoulos name and that the name should be heard across the world. In fact, when my Dad was young he met a psychic who told him that he’d travel across the oceans, he’d have three children and that the Tsitsopoulos name will be heard far and wide.
There you go. That’s my quest. That’s my journey. But there’s something more to what it means to be Greek. That, I think, is passion or the Greek word with no translation, κέφι^. And that I get solely from my dad.
You see it when he talks of Greece. You see it when his favourite song would go on. You see it when he tells you stories of riches and sorrow. You saw it when in the last week he heard Μα εγώ είμαι Έλληνας (But I am Greek) and despite the pain and sadness, you saw his eyes light up and his loud voice telling us to turn it up.
Kέφι, it’s something you feel and it takes over you. It’s a combination of happiness, passion, sorrow, fun and everything in between. I am reminded when I went to a Greek night out in Perth and the boys started dancing around their drink, a white girl wanted to join in and was asking why she couldn’t.
“Because you’re not Greek. You don’t have κέφι. It’s about one man’s relationship with their drink. But it’s not only their drink. It’s the relationship with guilt, pain, suffering, struggle, a breakup, a wedding, happiness, immense joy, everything. All that feeling is transferred into the drink and also from themselves.”
“But it’s sexist… This is Australia…”
“…The girls have their dance too.”
Dad was the embodiment of what I understood κέφι to be, what I understand to be truly Greek. He lived by a strange set of morals and beliefs that got distorted and twisted as his life went on but it was still there. To the very end. He kept fighting and so will I.
*Chap-laps – Back in the day when all the wogs would go to Chapel Street (a street full of bars and clubs in Melbourne) they would often bring their suped-up cars playing techno on full bore going a speed slower than walking pace. The police eventually brought in laws to stop the “hoon behaviour”. RIP Chap-laps.
**My brother says he was actually a coffee magnate who had Africans working for him.
***Tsitso sounds like Siso which sounds like Sicily. Poulos sounds like the Greek, poli, which means city but I looked it up and it actually means descendant of.
^ A note about κέφι. It has been brought to my attention that κέφι is a thirst for life, an expression of everything positive in life despite life’s hardships. However, I often see it expressed through dance together with more negative situations, a break-up, a death. The songs that are the catalyst for the trance/frenzy/feeling often talk about the struggle and the right to be alive and free. Hence my definition is one I have adapted through experience. For more on what κέφι means click here.
Favourite Dad Quotes
Οι γκόμενες? – The chicks? He would always ask this as a question. We would be talking about a girl perhaps and he’d ask oι γκόμενες? Or just sometimes γκόμενες? As in, hey dad can I go to a party? Γγκόμενες?
Leave me alone (pronounced: lee me alon) – Usually when we were playing late at night when dad was sleeping or in the morning when he was sleeping and we wanted him to get up.
Iάσων do you have a girlfriend? No, baba. Did you grab any ass? No? Remember, always use a condom – I was about 12 when he started saying this. And funnily enough in year seven and eight I would grab girls’ butts. So sorry girls, it wasn’t my fault it was my dad’s?
Boxia – A Grenglish mash-up of the words box and κουτιά. Used in a sentence Φέρτε τα boxia εδώ πέρα (Bring the boxes over here). Dad either speak in Greek on in English!
Like this post? Want more of it? You’re in luck you’ll get another post about my dad in a few days. What about you? Do you have dual nationalities? Do you feel more one nationality than the other or do you feel both equally? If you like this post don’t be afraid to share it and leave a comment here or on Facebook or check out my Instagram. Make sure you check out my last post “Dad’s life with Mental Illness” and my last in the series “Stories of Old”
I’ll leave you with two notes. The first being I don’t really relate to the Greeks from Greece that are my age but I see my dad in a lot of the older Greeks I meet. Their dirty humour is so on point with what my dad was like. So if you want to know what my dad was like, go visit some older Greeks in Greece.
The second is the song Μα εγώ είμαι Έλληνας by Νότης Σφακιανάκης. I’ve included the English translation so you get a sense of what the song is about and what it means to be Greek and to have κέφι. Until next time…
For years you’ve been hitting me
For years I keep standing
For years you’ve been selling me and I tolerate it
For years your goal has been to annihilate me
A lost Greek, an adequate project
A buried Greek, a land without a God
But I’m a blessed Greek
Raised on revolutions
I’ve fought, I’ve won
I have crushed wild beasts
I won’t retreat, I will fight
And I will destroy the traitors
Those who for years now,
Have opened your way towards downhill, my Greece