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between two worlds

Vegemite and feta cheese toast: an immigrant’s experience Peter Papathanasiou

I recently visited Greece, my fourth trip in twelve years. I grew up in Australia, but my family is originally from northern Greece, far from the idyllic and heavily-touristed islands in the south. Initially, if I’d written about the area, I may have called it ‘travel writing’. And because so little is known about the north, I probably could’ve written a lot. But given my connection to the place, writing about the mountainous north feels more like I’m describing my home.

I was born in 1974 in Florina, a small town in northern Greece, not far from the borders with Albania and the country now known as North Macedonia. I was then adopted as a baby by my aunt and uncle. They took me to Australia, which was where they’d immigrated after World War II. They moved there for a better life in a new country unburdened with the headaches of an old country like Greece. My biological family remained in Greece. I was raised as an only child in Australia without knowing of the adoption; my adoptive mum only told me the news in 1999 when I was twenty-four-years-old. It was then that I learnt I had two biological brothers, Vasilios (Billy) and Georgios (George) still living in Greece. Billy is intellectually impaired. George is his carer.

You can probably imagine the existential whirlpool into which I fell when I heard this news. Who am I? Who could I have been? These are questions that are fairly universal as we each search to find our own identity and where we belong in the world. I just happened to have a very tangible opportunity to explore them.

Looking back, that opportunity was too tangible. Picture yourself being told you had siblings on the other side of the world. People who are around your age, who look like you, and who have similar mannerisms. Stop and think about it and it’s actually a little creepy. Then imagine having to meet these people, face to face. I can tell you now, it wasn’t easy. But it was also very rewarding.

Who am I? Who could I have been? Questions like these are particularly strong in the minds of second-generation immigrants. If you are the child of a parent who came from another country, you know what I mean. You’re torn between two places, neither here nor there. You live in one world but are constantly influenced by another.

At school, I always stood out with my long surname and cocoa brown eyes and hair. Australia in the 1980s was still overwhelmingly sandy blonde hair and blue eyes, meat pies and sausage sizzles, and my classmates had surnames like Read and Carroll and White. When I finally went to Greece in 2003, hearing my surname pronounced correctly by the airport customs officer was like beautiful music. But then, in conversations with my brothers and their friends, I found my Greek limited, and was immediately identified as a non-native speaker by my pronounced Australian drawl.

On my most recent trip to Greece, I met one of George’s good friends named Stavros. They grew up together in Florina, ran a small café slash bar when they were dashing young bachelors in their twenties, chatting up girls and partying till dawn. But then Stavros moved to Melbourne, where he lived for many years. He even adopted an Australian Rules football team and learnt the rules of cricket.

Stavros was immediately drawn to me. He said he loved Australia and told me he even felt Australian. Personal circumstances meant he had to move back to Greece. He was not unhappy about it, he loved Greece too, it was the place where so many friends and family lived. But he also admitted that he was desperate to return to Australia. Within half an hour of meeting him, Stavros looked at me with profound, quizzical eyes and said:

‘In Australia, they call me the Greek. I come back to Greece, they call me the Australian. Who am I? Even I don’t know anymore.’

I felt my heart twinge with familiarity. It was something I had thought of and heard a hundred of times before. It’s all too common a story, going back years. It even reminded me of the story of my grandfather, an Orthodox Christian refugee forced to flee to the mountains of northern Greece from Turkish Anatolia in 1923. My adoptive mum said he once told her about his arrival in Florina to start a new life:

‘The Turks ousted us like Greeks, and the Greeks greeted us like Turks.’

At the end of the day, these are just lines on a map. Yet these lines define so much how we see ourselves and how the world sees us.

But the world has also changed. To buy a Greek salad in an Australian café now costs twenty dollars.

To share two cultures, to have a ‘hyphenated identity’ – in my case, Greek-Australian – comes with certain challenges. It comes with a feeling of constant displacement where you don’t really exist in either place, but instead in an abstract third country shared only with other immigrants.

And yet, deep down, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Ultimately, it’s a blessing to share two cultures. My view of the world is broadened and my life is enriched. And I even get to eat toast with Vegemite and feta cheese.

Peter Papathanasiou’s debut book is published as Little One by Allen & Unwin in Australia and as Son of Mine by Salt Publishing in the UK