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Edition 36

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Essay

My sweet canary

IT'S SEPTEMBER 2010, one of those gloriously bright, almost clichéd Perth afternoons. My husband and I haven't yet separated, but we will soon. At the moment, though, we have a house to sell, one that's been on the market for six weeks without an offer. The agent tells us it's slow out there, and we shouldn't worry, but I'm convinced this house is overflowing with accumulated stress, and that people walking through the front door are repelled by the weight of our tension. My solution is to redecorate, to fill our space with shades of yellow – potted marigold on the front doorstep, a pastel sketch of a haloed naked girl, tulips in a vase. Yellow, I tell myself, will bring joy. Yellow will change everything. In any case, the act of redecorating comforts me. I've read about this before – it's the process rather than the result, the act of moving things around, a feeling of newness. Rupture: that's the word the essayist Pauline Garvey uses for it. I'm trying to rupture my routine, my circumstances.

'Mummy, what's that?' my son asks.

My children, aged three and two, are supposed to be having quiet time, but my son can't sleep, or doesn't want to, so he's downstairs playing by the window. The sun lights up the couch and his hair too; it looks like fairytale gold spun out of straw. He is fixated on something outside.

'What have you found, hon?'

'It's yellow. It's yellow and funny and it's stuck on the ground.' He pauses. 'Mummy, I think it's a bird.'

I move to the window. He's right. It is a bird: a canary. And it's in shock.

 

WHEN I WAS little my dad would bring home all manner of ailing birds. He'd house them in an emptied-out laundry hamper, and for a week or two my sisters and I would peep through the criss-crosses of plastic, and fight over who was going to give out the feed. Mostly these birds would be magpies or pigeons with limp wings. But every now and then we'd hear the garage door open, and Dad's footsteps bounding up the stairs. 'Quick, quick!' he'd yell, and we'd see he had a dazed budgie or a canary in his hands. My parents worked well together: Mum making a human nest with the curve of her palms; Dad producing an old shoebox with biro-sized holes in the lid, cutting up an apple, waiting, hoping, for a small chirp that would say this bird was going to be okay. My sisters and I would be waiting, too, because, if the bird happened to make it, we'd be able to name a new pet.

It always fascinated me, this ease with which we could change the way something existed in the world just by naming it. On those long waiting-for-the-budgie/canary-to-chirp days, I'd speculate what the bird's name might have been in the home it came from, and how long it would take for it to start responding to the name we'd choose, and whether it would miss its old one, or just be happy with our inevitably better Lucky or Cotton or Sky.

Even as a child I equated naming with power. I would think about this constantly, saying my many names over and over again. Papas. Maria Papas. Maria Andoni (which distinguished me from the other Maria-cousins by identifying me as belonging to my dad). And then there was my legal surname – the one printed on my birth certificate – which was sixteen letters long and broke down into 'The People of Father Michael', and which I vowed never to officially change, because it held a hidden, if patriarchal, history of who I was.

Who had power? Father Michael had power. Men had power. I knew this because my mother, and her mother, and the mother before her, all routinely buried their names beneath the gold of their wedding bands.

Captain James Cook and Matthew Flinders clearly had power. And so did the Australian Customs Service. In 1950 Customs had enough power to tell my paternal grandfather that the name Argiris was too obscure for the Australian tongue, and that from now on the name Jack would be an appropriate substitute.

It was a funny little power, this naming power, unquestioned and non-controversial. I knew that much. Why else would women simply take on their husbands' names? And why did all the Greeks of my parents' generation automatically christen us one thing and enrol us at school as another?

On one of those bird-waiting days I watched my mother give whispery kisses to a barely moving canary, and I realised that in the space of about three years she had lost both her Christian name and her surname. The first was changed for her by the government and the second by my dad. I blurted out my discovery: 'What was it like? To change every sound and all the syllables?'

My mother shrugged. 'It's just what was done.'

 

I'M FORTUNATE TODAY because my parents happen to be in Perth for the weekend. One phone call and they're over: Mum making that palm-cave again, Dad sorting out an old shoebox.

'You got the Yellow Pages?' he asks.

'What for?'

'So I can find you seed and a cage.'

'I don't want to keep the bird,' I say. 'You don't need to buy stuff.'

The canary is firmly tucked away in my mother's grasp. I can see his beak deep in the hole her hands have created, but he hardly moves. My mother draws him to her chest. 'What are you going to do, then? You can't leave him like this. He'll die.'

'We'll find its home,' I reply, in part to my son, too, so as not to get his hopes up.

'You do that,' Mum says. There's a certain tone to her voice.

'Mum,' I say.

'The very idea of you finding his home is impossible.'

'I'm too busy for a pet.'

'You know it's good luck,' Dad adds.

'Where'd you get that from?'

'Your yiayia,' he replies, just as he's leaving for the pet store. 'She used to love birds, remember?'

 

MY DAD WAS five when he came to Australia. My mother was twenty. The year she turned forty was a milestone: I was seventeen, her eldest child, and soon to be leaving home for uni and the city. Back then I thought, in that very self-absorbed teenage way, that all her crying was due to me moving. But later, as an adult, and especially as a mother, I came to understand that she wasn't just letting me go – she was reliving her own desire to leave and the impact it had on her life. At forty, she recently told me, she became acutely aware she had been Australian as long as she had been Greek, a Sylvia as long as she had been an Argiri. Having just completed a trip to her homeland, she felt as if she belonged nowhere, neither Greek nor Australian, xeni, a stranger in both her countries.

In Greek the term xenos encompasses 'foreigner' and 'migrant' in the same breath, as 'stranger' and 'strange'. It is not a one-directional term. A person new to a town might be seen as a foreigner, but in the eyes of this foreigner the xenoi are the locals. Like many things, it's a matter of perspective. The outside, according to Madan Sarup, who wrote extensively on the migrant experience, 'is what the inside is not...enemies are the wilderness that violates friends' homeliness...but a stranger is neither friend nor enemy'. Much like Derrida's pharmakon, which can be a remedy or a poison, a stranger, Sarup suggests, stands between inside and outside, both physically close and culturally distant.

Don't I know this well. 'They are xenoi to us, foreign, unknown.' That's what my family often said about anybody who wasn't Greek. I used to hate this. To imply that any non-Greek person I had affection for, romantic or otherwise, was a xenos and therefore 'not for us' was to keep that person at a distance and to deny him or her (and me) the emotional and physical intimacies I felt others took for granted. So I pulled away from the Greek community. I developed contempt, especially against the Greeks from the city, whom I saw as too tight-knit and too unwilling to associate with anyone except each other. Subconsciously or consciously, I detached myself. I was living in a country town, going to a school where the most common physical feature was blond hair and the next most common was an Indigenous skin colour. Had I limited myself to those who were 'for us', my adolescence would've been rather lonely.

So I did what any good teenager would do. I rebelled. I sneaked out through windows, and found myself at the kind of bonfire parties where girls lost their virginity beneath trees or got raped or suffered a fuzzier yet more damaging in-between. Most of my friends' parents, regardless of nationality, were hesitant to let us go.

But I didn't see any of that. I wanted what I wasn't allowed to have. 'I'm never marrying a Greek boy.' That's what I used to say. 'They expect women to wait on them ... They live with their mothers until forever ... Theylove their cars, love their soccer, sit around in cafés and boast about the real estate they'll one day purchase...'

I developed my own stereotypes. What's more, I sought these stereotypes out, to confirm them.

Perhaps this is why I always found it difficult to own the migrant story. It was something I knew: my heritage, but not my past. I could appreciate what had happened in history – my great-grandfather's journey, my grandparents', my parents' – but again, only from a distance. My story was different. In fact, I didn't think I even had a story. I was born here. I slotted in. Greek sometimes and Australian at others.

Consequently, the word 'migrant' took on a different set of connotations for me. It wasn't simply about geographical movements or countries far away. Rather, when I thought of 'migrant' I thought of the feast days: St Nicholas Day, sweating in large numbers outside the Greek Hall; St John the Baptist Day, dipping an ornate crucifix into the fishing harbour; and midnight Easter Saturday, singing the Resurrection outdoors and by candlelight. What linked these events was a familiar sense of duality. I liked sharing these experiences with my family. But I was conscious that these events not only made us different, but also – since they were outside and in spaces shared by fishermen, people driving by and residential partygoers – exposed our differences. On most occasions I did the necessary slotting – demarcating my Australian and Greek selves as appropriate – but on these days, feast days, I saw myself as a spectacle, a migrant. I saw myself as strange.

 

MY SON AND I I knock on doors up and down the street. My son holds my hand. No one is able to help us, and after ten or eleven houses my son asks, 'Can we name him Jigalee?'

'We'll see,' I reply, not wanting to say yes, but also not wanting the tears that might come with a no. 'Let's try this next street, too.'

We walk on: wandering, knocking, wandering, watching. Ironically, the suburb we live in was once a market garden, populated by Mediterranean and south-eastern European migrants. Over time the growing of fruit and vegetables moved further north to another wave of newcomers – this time from Asia. Now, the (mostly) Italians and Croatians in this area are well into their old age, and while some of them are stubbornly holding on to their 1960s bungalows, many have sliced and subdivided and made way for townhouses like mine. Regardless, this is still a suburb full of olive trees, the loquat of my childhood, figs, lemons and grapevines which will soon be blooming into a hard, unripe, matte fruit: the same fruit my cousins and I used to pelt each other with at the back of my grandmother's house.

I remember my grandmother both vaguely and vibrantly. She would deep-fry sticky doughy treats on a cooker she had set up in her outdoor laundry. She had two aviaries: one you could walk through and another, smaller one for her canaries. She was fat and robust. In love with Paul Newman. Different to the stereotypical Greek grandmother because she never wore black, and because, despite her fears about xenoi, she had befriended women with surnames like Warren, Pickersgill and McKeig. I remember Easter lunch at her house: lamb on a spit, and a stuffing made of rice and chopped liver bits, which I ate and enjoyed until the year I discovered what they actually were. I remember playing in the branches of her fig tree. And I remember standing by her floral skirt, looking at tiny eggs nestled like a secret, listening to her whistle and sing an old Greek tune about a bird that was driving her crazy. What's gone is the name for those treats. And the words to her song.

 

I MOVED TO the city when I was seventeen, met the man I'd marry at nineteen, and somewhere between then and the age of thirty-six I began to forget. I think my parents did, too.

My grandmother died, before I finished university. Her last words – 'Remember St Nicholas' – resonated for a while, and I faithfully made a yearly trip to my regional hometown for this early December feast day. Always, during that service, I would think how appropriate it was that such a community would choose the patron saint of travellers for their church's namesake. I was now swinging between the city and the country, more comfortable in moving spaces – on a train, in a shifting crowd, or on the edge of the ocean – than in any fixed location. Because I wasn't sure what to call home I felt some connection, some empathy, for those who had built the church.

But a few years on, the nostalgia of my grandmother's ghostly presence on the wooden pew three rows down from the front would diminish, and I would once again situate myself as an outsider looking in, this time my Australian self, finding it difficult to identify with what was largely an ageing city crowd coming to a tiny town parish for the day, being ultra-nationalistic, refusing to speak English, holding on to a version of the past: a version they brought with them, and which seemed to me to be almost non-existent, except in the performance of it.

 

'ANY LUCK?' MY mother asks when we get home.

I shake my head.

My daughter is awake now. 'We have a yellow bird,' she says, smiling and nodding, wide-eyed and animated.

'He's going to be a Jigalee,' her brother informs her.

Dad's car is in the driveway. He comes through the door with a cage and a shopping bag full of bird-things. The canary is covered up in a little shoebox. There are holes in the lid, just as I remember. I shift this lid a little, peek in through a corner. He's still crouched, still not moving. I can see a sliced apple in there, untouched. 'Will he be all right?'

'He'll be fine,' my mother replies.

Dad sets up everything, puts the perches in place, the cuttlefish on the wire. He fills a tray with seed and another with water.

Mum takes the bird out once more. She shows him the cage, puts him in. He dives for the seed.

'Poor thing. Must have been hungry.'

'Anyway,' Dad says. 'We're making dinner at your sister's if you're interested.'

'Sure. Thanks.'

And then, just like that, the two of them are gone.

IT'S GETTING LATE now. The pattern of light has moved away from the couch. Outside, the sun is low to the west. I don't know where my husband is, but he should be home by now. I fix the tulips, rearranging them so there is greater symmetry. We have a cold marriage, I think. One where there is little common ground. I don't look back and wish I had married a Greek boy. And I don't have the impression my relationship is what it is because of our cultural differences. But I do wish I had tried less to slot in, tried less to be the chameleon I learned to be.

'Who wants to say goodnight to Jigalee?' I ask, trailing an old cot sheet behind me.

I hear two voices in unison. 'Me! Me!'

I cover him. 'You know, my yiayia used to sing a song about canaries.'

'What was it?'

It hurts that I can't remember. The tune is pretty much there. I can even hear it: a bouncy, bouzouki-sounding thing, much the same as many of the other songs my grandmother used to sing. I know the dance that goes along with it too, a celebratory kalamatianos – performed in a half-circle with all of us holding hands, several steps forward, a couple back – but the only words that come to mind are kanarini mou glyko.I sing these words for the children, and fill the blanks with 'something-something-something'.

The kids stare at me. All I can think of is that they don't know this part of me, and that my husband hardly knows it either, and that the last time I danced to this song was at our wedding, and – now that I think about it – he did not join in.

 

'DO YOU FEEL very Greek anymore?' I ask my mother just before dinner.

My dad has often given me a stereotyped version of his schoolboy ethnicity – fancy lunches, hand-me-down clothes and chooks in the yard – but he has also told me that his earliest off-the-boat memory was the sound of a cheering crowd coming from a taxi radio. Aussie Rules has been a big part of his life; soccer hasn't. He was raised here. Perhaps given slightly different circumstances he might've even been born here. My Greekness, then, feels as though it comes from the women in my family. But my grandmother is gone, and my mother has long stopped reading Romanzo in favour of Victorian classics.

'No, not really,' she says.

Then she tells me there is little point in squeezing a heritage that is lost in time as well as space.

When I ask what she means, she says, 'You come to a new country and you hold so tight to what you had before, and then you go back and see things have changed, just as they've changed in the country you're now in, and you realise some of the traditions and values you were keeping weren't part of the place you came from, but of that time. It's better really, to release your fist a little.'

Then she says there are traditions she does keep. Not for show, but for herself. Fasting, for example, which she does for a fraction of the forty days she used to as a child. Feasts too. And in particular, the past-midnight Easter soup with her sister, who serves a mild avgolemono, rather than the innards in broth my uncle used to like. Things change. They are transformed. Goat's milk is pungent now, too strong a smell for her southern-hemisphere nose. Homemade grape or quince jam is served on toast and not in a little glass bowl.

'And no one wants liver bits in their rice anymore,' I interrupt.

'Liver bits are from your father's side, not mine.'

'Do you remember Yiayia's canary song?'

'I do,' she says. She sings me a bit, but I want more. I have a thirst for every word, not just the ones that come easiest to mind.

My mother stops. There is a small absence, a hollow in the conversation, which she soon fills: 'I'm makingtiropitakia, if you want.'

For the first time in years I sit across from her as she butters strips of filo for the cheese triangles I always considered to be authentically Greek, and I am shocked to see her open a packet of Kraft cheddar.

'You mix cheddar in there now?'

Mum looks at me. 'Yes,' she says. 'Ever since you were little.'

'But cheddar's not Greek.'

'You complaining?'

I shake my head.

'You sure?'

'What's it supposed to be?'

My mother shrugs. She is nonchalant and dismissive. 'I can't remember.'

Marc Augé, in his book Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (Verso, 1995), sums it up nicely. He speaks of patron saints and annual feast days, and he writes that in many cases these observations don't just disappear: they are transformed. What I see now, Augé would argue, is something projected at a distance: the place I used to believe I lived in from day to day (or at least the conditions of my living), but which now I'm being invited to see as fragments of history.

I pick at the scraps of filo. This is exactly like the time I learned that my mother's Greek lamb recipe was not from the village at all, but rather from Woman's Day.

 

TWO DAYS PASS before I realise I can search for the song on YouTube. I type in the words kanarini mou glyko. I'm not sure of my spelling, and because I'm using English language, letters, not Greek, I half expect to get no results.

There are more than sixty. I scroll down, click on an icon of a woman wearing a red dress. A circle revolves, footage loads.

My heartbeat is so loud it threatens to overpower the music. This whole thing seems so sordid and exciting. That I can access what's lost from my brain on something so public. That my grandmother can survive past her flesh and be given a different kind of life. And yet it doesn't escape my attention that I'm memorialising her in the same way as a museum might. What I'm creating is another site of memory: the internet, rendered a sacred portal to what is no longer accessible, no longer 'a part of everyday experience'.

The music begins. It is so familiar, so comforting. Madan Sarup asks us, 'How can the singing of a particular song...have such an emotional charge?' I don't know the answer. All I can say is that it does. It really does.

The woman in the red dress sings with a Turkish lady, the two of them swapping languages and verses, changing the song yet again, making me like it even more, shifting my memory of it, so that it's no longer only about experience, but also about the melding of politics, and cultures, and countries.

There she is. Not my grandmother. But her voice. Or at least the voice of the stories she once told. And it's not just the song: it's the dance as well, and the look on all those faces. I've seen that look before. This is apanagyri, a festival. The tables haven't been cleared, and the music's begun, and the crowd is dancing, and smiling, and everything's looking gluttonous and indulgent. I am seduced. I succumb to the disease of nostalgia. I can't tell what's worrying anyone. I can't tell what their problems are. What's written on their faces is pure euphoria, a rupture to (and maybe rapture for) the pain of everyday life.

Ela konda mou

stin aggalia mou

na se hortaso

me ta filia mou.

My Greek isn't the best. I can't read and I struggle to speak it, but I understand fairly well. This may be a song about a woman who is driven to distraction by her canary, but it goes much deeper. It's also about her longing, her want.

Come close to me

into my arms

so I can satisfy you

with my kisses.

Time is spherical. I learned this from the nature poet Annamaria Weldon. Time is not just behind us or in front, a linear trajectory from past to present to future. Time is beneath our feet. It is above us, around us. We carry it in our flesh.

My house does sell. We don't need to move because for the moment we're able to rent it, but in a way I wish we could move, if only for the opportunity to start out fresh.

The compulsion to reorder grows in me. I change the colour of the bathroom towels; buy a new floor rug, a duvet. I watch myself as if there are two of me, one doing, one reflecting. Redecoration, Pauline Garvey confirms, is an attempt to reinvigorate a perception of staleness, or a way to impose a missing dynamism, a lack you feel about yourself. It is, she says, closely linked with identity. I can see that now.

We do keep the canary. He comes to me: this stranger with both the remedy I need and the poison. He ruptures my routine, my thinking. And at the same time as my marriage is pulling apart, something else is piecing together: me. We name the canary, change the way he exists in the world. Change the way we exist too.

In December, after my husband has gone, I put my hand in Jigalee's cage. He climbs all over my fingers, my knuckles. I can feel the tickle of his claws and the brush of his feathers. But when I go to grab him, he jumps away. He sings: beautiful, haunting, loving melodies. I am ambivalent about keeping a bird in a cage. I understand captivity is all he's ever known, but that doesn't make it right.

Now and again I watch kanarini mou glyko on YouTube. It speaks to me, the closeness yearned for in this song: how much I crave that same closeness; how unfamiliar it is to me. There is certainly a power to naming, and especially to renaming. Some might say there is also dissidence in keeping a hidden name, swinging between multiple identities, never quite allowing those from one segment of our lives access to our other. But I also know the long-term effects of slotting in, and the difficulties of pretending.

In Greece a festival is what tightens a social bond, what removes all barriers, if only for a night. And yet it also works on a more insidious level. You can tell an insider, by whether he or she knows the intricacies of that community's dance. The steps are seemingly easy to pick up, the newcomer is invited in but, inevitably clumsy, he or she is relegated to the end where rhythm and beat no longer matter. In the meantime those with experience remain at the front, in step, in time, leading the group. In many cultures, if you learn the music, the song, the stories, you survive. You bring one another close. But how do you do this without burying your past? How do you locate your self? How do you ask, 'Who am I? Where have I come from?' How do you say, 'Acknowledge me, please, without erasing my heritage, my identity'?

If the migrant story is to survive past me and past the next generation, then my children need to know a few things. They will never be insiders – at least not to a collective Greek identity and not to an outdated colonial notion of Australia. I don't expect them to just slot in or divide themselves into their many aspects of community. But I do expect them to enter another type of knowledge, a mixed heritage, a tasting plate, transformed to their own liking, received from and given to as many others as possible.

I take their hands, one each on either side of me, and show them a few dance steps. Right now I am the string on the bouzouki, the carpet under my toes, the warmth of soft child-skin.

Time hovers. It haunts and teases. It is the ball we move in. It is the history we walk on. This comforts me on many levels, because it means what I had forgotten needn't be so far away.

 

References

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MjiB3COuJ_o

Auge, Marc. Non Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. Trans. John Howe. London: Vergo, 1995.

Garvey, Pauline. "Organized Disorder: Moving Furniture in Norwegian Homes." Home Possessions: Material Cultures Behind Closed Doors. Ed. Daniel Miller. Oxford, New York: Berg, 2001. 47-68.

Nora, Pierre. Realms of Memory. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996

Sarup, Madan. "Home and Identity." Travelers' Tales: Narratives of Home and Displacement. Eds. George Robertson, et al. London and New York: Routledge, 1994. 93-104.

Weldon, Annamaria. "Place." Creative Non-Fiction. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. 13 April 2011.


From Griffith Review Edition 36: What Is Australia For? © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review