Sometimes you sit down with a cuppa and a notepad, and by the time the caffeine hits the story is finished. At other times, embarking upon a project is like rowing to China; it’s a long time before the journey ends. My work on Greek cafés and milk bars is an example of the latter.
The Greek café is a shared chapter in the histories of Greece and Australia: places like the Paragon Café in Katoomba were the social hubs of their communities and the means by which immigrants established a new life in their adopted homeland. Every city, town and whistle-stop had at least one, probably more, they were open all hours seven days a week, the food was cheap and plentiful, and the menu the same countrywide—they were the Maccas of their time. Over a decade ago, I interviewed three women who had been involved with cafés in Ipswich. After going on to publish what is still the only book dedicated to the subject, I am more involved than ever with this uniquely Australian phenomenon.
During the process of marketing and selling Aphrodite and the Mixed Grill: Greek Cafés in Twentieth-Century Australia I met hundreds of Greek-Australians who were keen to tell their stories. On the top floor of Patty’s Café in Brisbane a small boy rode on the backs of the great turtles, which it was his job to feed with lettuce until his father planned the next pot of turtle soup. At the Golden Gate Café in Winton a passing sailor left behind a macaw, which became the lifelong companion of the proprietor and the delight of customers. At the Niagara Café in Gundagai the proprietor woke in the early hours to find Prime Minister John Curtin on his doorstep wanting steak and eggs. I ask you: how can any writer resist stories like these? Thousands of interviews, photographs, phone calls, electronic files and emails later—not to mention notes scribbled hastily on ticket stubs and serviettes—I find myself sorting through myriad fragments of information for the next book: One Hundred Greek Cafés.
This is a photo of the Rainbow Café in Redcliffe, a shop that was once run by Jim Miller, the father of the great Australian film director George Miller. Last week I spoke at the Redcliffe Museum, where an exhibition of Greek café photographs is on display until the end of November. Well worth a visit.