They say New York is the City of Dreams. I say London is the theatre where it all happens. With over 2000 years of history London is a city where every nationality under the sun is represented; and where you can be and achieve whatever you want. For me it was about discovering some more about myself.
London has always had a history of welcoming Greeks. From the Roman times to Byzantine times, Greeks occasionally ventured to the city on the Thames. One of the most prominent Greeks to have visited was Byzantine Emperor Manuel Palaiologos in 1400 when he was trying to rally support for his battles against the Ottoman Empire. During his visit it is probable that he would have heard only the sounds of old English. These days, it is much different as there is probably no language that isn’t spoken here, including Greek.
Have you ever walked down a High Street in London? If you do, I suggest you stop for a few moments. Listen to the passersby talk to each other or on their phones. Count how many languages or even English dialects you will hear. On my favourite Street, Moscow Road (in Bayswater), I can count at least 20 in a few minutes. One thing though that I will hear again and again on Moscow Road is Greek.
Greater London on any given day has 17 million people. That includes all 32 Boroughs, visitors, those that hide from the Census which is taken every 9 years and EU passport holders such as myself. I was always told to look up when you are in London. If you do, you will see the architectural triumph, a feast of architectural history. I was also told to listen out for the Greeks, but I will get to them in a second.
I lived in London for 4 and half years . My editor and best friend asked me to write a story about the Hellenic history I found there. In all honesty, I would need an eternity to write about the Greek aspect of London. In fact there will be a prequel to this article for I was immersed in the local Greek culture and have many, many yarns to tell.
Until I arrived in London, I never had much of an affinity with the UK. I am a supporter of a Republic. I want Australia to have its own head of state and campaigned for that years ago. When I went to London, people born there, British and Cypriots, really went out of their way to look after me. Their thoughtfulness and generosity was appreciated. I would have been lost without them. I remember I met a nice, charming Greek woman in Athens, who had never been to London. Things were going well until she kept pestering me about how much she dislikes Britain. I explained that it was the people of that country that had looked after me. Unable to get her to tone down her prejudice, I made the choice of ending my association with her. I never forget those who made a positive impact on me in London.
Before I tell you some of my Hellenic London yarns, I want you to know that on the days that I wasn’t being a Greek, I was an Australian there. Between 2008 – 2012, it felt good to be referred to as the ‘Aussie.’ Friends would introduce me to their networks with the following, ‘guys I would like you to meet my mate, he is an Aussie…don’t hold that against him!’
Growing up in beautiful Australia, before it was cool to have a friend from Italy, Yugoslavia, Spain or Greece, it was tough being an ethnic kid. There was always a form of prejudice against people who were ‘wog,’ as we were called back then. The irony of it was, I was a kid who played with the Anglos, was good at Rugby League and cricket and hated soccer (football) or anything that was ‘wog.’ I stopped playing bouzouki at the age of 10, dropped out of Greek dancing, avoided most of my fellow Greeks at a school full of them and generally spoke with an Australian accent rather than the distinctive suburban ethnic accent that you might hear at the local Greek coffee shop.
Interestingly, by my late teens and 20’s I was president of one of the biggest Greek student (university) clubs in the world, ran Greek theatre, organised Greek dancing at university, edited a Greek magazine and did a lot of fundraising for Greek Studies. Therefore I was never really seen as an Aussie in Sydney. I was the Greek guy who wasn’t a wog. In London, I enjoyed every single minute being called an Aussie. I once managed a police project across all of London, all 32 Boroughs. About 2000 people knew me as the Aussie. Occasionally I would tell them I had a Greek heritage and they would scratch their heads. “Probably explains your dark, handsome features,’ they would say!
My period in London actually helped me gain a greater appreciation of my own Greek identity and it had a lot to do with the people I socialised with. ‘Vasilaki, pou eisai, pame gia poto…..’ This call from any number of my Greek born friends was a regular experience. At 5 pm on any given day, Lazaros, Giannis, Andonis, Dimitris, Tryfonas and the list goes on, would get in touch for a drink. There were times I would say no. They never understood an oxi and I would be greeted with, ‘what kind of Greek are you, an Aussie?’ if I didn’t catch up for a drink!
During my last 2 years in London, we had a Greek coffee club. I would meet my Greek friends for lunch near my work and on just about every other week, I had a guest from another country (usually Greece or Australia) to join in. I would sit there with the Greek crowd and listen to them speak really quickly about the state of Greek affairs. Then they would turn to me and ask me in Greek for my opinion. I would look at them, blankly, and would say, ‘yes I agree completely’ as I hadn’t understood anything they had said. They would all burst out laughing and start speaking in English for my benefit. I think I understood the word Malaka was said a few times.
Greek Speakers in London
Around 280,000 people in London are Greek speakers and perhaps double that in the UK. This includes a majority of Cypriots. The UK is the only country in the world where Cypriot Greeks outnumber ‘mainland’ Greeks. When I was living in Sydney, I never realised there was much of a difference between Cypriot Greeks and the Greek Republic. In London, I could see the ‘division’ between the ‘two.’ The Cypriots have done well there, making money and getting ahead in London society. The Greeks in general come to the UK and go back, the Cypriots overwhelmingly stay. I could also see a big difference in the dialect between the 2 ‘countries.’ I use inverted commas for the following reason. Cyprus is just another beautiful Greek island with its own dialect. Their Hellenic heritage is just as pure at that of Athens.
That leads me to the many local Greek speakers who made an impact on my life. Whether it was the entertaining Panikos, the reliable John, Irene (one of my close friends, originally a Canadian), Charles, Leni, Maria and Gina, James, Panos the singer and the list goes on. I will single out Christalla. Like just about of any of my local, mainly Cypriot friends, I was treated like a cousin.
Christalla lived near me. I met her parents and sister and brother, and they all made me feel like a local. Whether I ate at their home (hence eradicating my homesickness) or just being there for me whenever I needed advice. I would go along to their Greek parties, cancer fundraisers, coffee days, Greek dinners and be introduced to other Greek speakers. Christalla and her boyfriend Alan, a champion guy who always made me laugh, were good near neighbours to have. I have even forgiven Christalla for getting me banned from our local coffee shop, Domali’s. You see, I had just been dumped by my girlfriend and she asked the very pretty waitress if she was interested in me…suffice to say the waitress never spoke to me again!
Speaking of neighbours, I had several in my area who were Greek and I would catch up with for a coffee and Greek/Cyprus political comment. When I wasn’t doing that, I was being entertained, cooked for, guided and befriended by Stella and Jon. I admit that Jon was my ‘bromance’ guy and a Phil Hellene. Every other day he would make me train and he in turn would keep my mind ticking with his banter and chats. Stella, to tell you how small the world is, was someone I knew from my university days in Sydney. She didn’t like me much then. One day she appeared on my facebook, and I added her. I asked the question, ‘are you in London?’ Her reply, ‘yes I am, I live in Crystal Palace.’ Turns out she and Jon lived 100 metres from me. O kosmos einai mikros, small world. Many a night I would relax at their place and steal some of their food, it was nice to have these people on my door step. In fact, Crystal Palace was full of amazing people, British, Greek or otherwise. People like Darren, Sam, Jack, Heath, Jake, Thomas the Greek, Rob, Caroline, Atif, the list goes on. People I will never forget.
I arrived in London on April 15, 2008 to stay with a friend of mine in an area called Gipsy Hill. When Akif took me there, I immediately thought to myself, ‘this is not Harrods!’ In due course the area not only grew on me, it became an important part of my life. Anyway, back to that day in 2008. It was about 14 degrees which was freezing in my mind and I went for a walk in the area, which is actually called Crystal Palace. I came across an impressive cathedral. Its design and stone made it tower above all other the buildings. I read the inscription on the Church and it was in Greek! Must have been a tribute to the Greeks I thought. I went into the Church and I could see the Byzantine style frescos and icons and I realised it was a Greek Church, Saints Constantine and Eleni. Until the day that I departed from London, I would usually start every Sunday with a visit to the Church.
South London Greek Society
Then one day Maria, Panayiotis and Gina thought they would set up a Church youth group. After some initial hesitation I decided to be their Australian Ambassador and to give them some guidance and support. Maria created the South London Greek Society and it was a great way to meet those interested in Greece and Cyprus or were part of the Greek Orthodox faith.
We each brought ideas to the group. Some wanted coffee afternoons, others trips to Orthodox sanctuaries, dinners and for me it was Greek dancing. I located a Greek teacher from Greece, Kostas and his wife Anastasia and we soon held Greek dancing lessons at the Church hall. There was a catch. I had said earlier that I had dropped out of Greek dancing as a kid. This was a chance at redemption for me. Unfortunately, the class times were held either when I wasn’t available or it clashed with other things in my life at the time. When I did attend, I would be called upon to give a history lesson on some of the regions where the songs had originated from.
The Greek group was fantastic. I met approximately 50 people of Greek heritage, mainly from Cyprus. Soon I was invited to birthday parties, dinners and of course we held our own events and Kostas would even convince me to play basketball at Crystal Palace with other Greeks.
I can’t go past the dinners at Yia Mas Greek Restaurant in Putney. The food was always exquisite and whilst Maria and Gina’s parents own it, it became our little meeting point for key events. Did I mention I gained a few kilos there…
One of the most pleasing aspects of London was helping fellow Hellenes that came through. I estimate I helped about 20 with providing contacts, editing resumes and passing them on, introducing people and being there to provide initial support. This was usually to the Greeks who came from Greece. I also took the time to make an effort to know Greek Australians who came into town. There was always someone who knew someone who would get in touch. And it made sense too, for when I came to London, there was a small group of Greek Australians that met every few months for the wog lunch.
The tradition of the lunch dates back to 2003 and the idea was to meet at real English Gastropubs. I was invited by a friend of mine Matina, the organiser, for an Easter gathering in 2008 at Bayswater. There I met Marissa, Maggie, Basil, Georgina, George and a few others. It was just like being in Sydney except it was cold and we had a feast at Aphrodite’s. I was anti-London food at the time which meant I didn’t really appreciate what we ate. I couldn’t understand why they were all salivating at the food. I had to return a few more times to see how good it was. Greek food in London is usually a letdown. Of the 40 that I visited, I would say a few were not as good as they could have been. The ones I mentioned in this article are brilliant and there are many others that you will have to discover, just like I did.
When Matina left London in 2009, I took over the coordination of the wog lunch with a friend of mine Vivian. It was always a joy to hang out with the gang, whether it was our dj friend Johnny Kaz or Michael who would always tell it like it was, these gatherings were great. The common link was either Greece, a mutual mate John C who brought most of us together when he was in London or a love of good company. I will never forget the time Marissa organised a wog outing to the Australian day club, the Church. There were about 10 Greek girls and me, the chaperone!
We always had a rule for our ethnic lunches. They had to be a Greek Australian or closely connected to us. One of the few exceptions I made was for Alex, Maria and Desi. I met them in 2009 and had an instant rapport with them. Alex is of a Greek British heritage, whilst the girls are half Cretan and Cyprus. They once gave a tour of the Greek suburbs. Perhaps, the next time I write I will give you an insight about that tour and Greek suburbia!
Another anecdote from the small world category was Anastasia, who I employed as a specialist contractor on a project of mine in Australia in 2005. We lost contact for a while and then, just by chance I had to send an e-mail to a girl called Anastasia about a Greek event in London in 2009. She asked me to call her, which I did. The response to my hello Anastasia was…‘Billy, do you still play that loud Greek music in the office haha!’
There are many Greek speaking areas in London, perhaps not as pronounced as what you will find in Melbourne, Sydney, New York, Chicago. One of my favourites was Bayswater. This is a great area, with its many white buildings designed around Roman and Edwardian style of architecture. It is on the edge of Hyde Park, full of tourists, bars, cafes especially the Arabic ones with the argyle and its where my favourite is, BYZANTIUM.
A number of my friends live in the area. Basil who was like a brother to me, Mary, Christina and Evi. I visited Bayswater more than any other place outside of Crystal Palace. If I was ever in need of a boost, I could meet friends from all over London here and have a frappe. There were times when I would be here from morning until the night and if it was too late, I was forced to sleep on a friends’ couch!
If you are ever in London, come over to Bayswater. My friend from Sydney, Chris, once came and stayed in London for a while and he made it his goal to get to Aghia Sofia as often as he could. I can’t blame him. The impressively designed Byzantine style (the Justinian Constantinople period) Church is like a beacon for the Greek community. I spent my final London Easter here, starting at a friends’ place, where as always I invited a few extras, before we attended the service at the Church, followed by a visit to Byzantium cafe and then Greek Farmers’ Market with whoever remained. At about 4 am I think it was just Basil, Marianna, Silvia, Irene and Christina having a Greek treat.
Bayswater, will always bring a smile to my face. Whether it’s the old men in the cafe who stay inside playing tavli for 24 hours, the Athenian Grocer, the number of Greek eateries (including in Notting Hill) or a bar where Greeks tend to congregate, you will never get bored. And here you will find the 4 types of Greeks that exist in London. Those from Greece, those from Cyprus, British Greeks and Hellenes such as myself born in other countries.
This is just the start of what I can reveal about Hellenic London. This article has been essentially a collection of what I have in the short term memory. There are an infinite amount of stories and I will have to update you next time on other aspects of Hellenic London. From the exhibitions, to the heart of the Cypriot neighbourhoods, Greek wine, festivals, Greek music, frappe and the mad dash to get to Greece every few weeks.
As I sit by the Sydney ocean and reflect on London, I think about the Hellenic awakening in me. London may be cold and dark but it can make a person warm and Greek on the inside. If it was good enough for a Byzantine Greek king, it was good enough for me.