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.
At last, it’s here: my very own copy in my sticky little hands. Sugar and Sweets was launched in New York earlier this year – sadly, too far to go for a book launch, but I take comfort in knowing that the world will at last get to read something of the rich confectionery and baking heritage of Australia and New Zealand. In The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets you will read about Sweetacres and Jaffa-rolling, Macpherson Robertson the Chocolate King, pavlova, lamingtons, Iced Vovos, Milk Arrowroot and lots more.
Writers are always looking for new skills and ideas. To this end I’ve been to dozens of workshops, seminars and artist talks, perhaps ten in the last twelve months. Peter Carnavas writes and illustrates picture books, and has numerous titles under his belt. His workshop at last year’s Sandcliffe Writers Festival was one of the most valuable workshops I have ever attended.
I have paid for workshops in which presenters wasted an hour or more allowing participants to ask questions or ramble on about their projects, but in the space of a few hours Peter tackled getting started, getting published, illustration and composition, use of language, character and motivation, narrative structure, the word-picture relationship and the difference between theme and moral. We copied characters he drew on the board—a tried and tested technique—and studied the great variety of books he distributed among us by way of example. Then Peter shared his approach to making storyboards.
I know what you’re thinking—that’s about four workshops, and much of it relates to any kind of writing—and you’d be right; the workshop included practical information that can be applied to writing picture books and to other aspects of the author life, not least being the demonstration of presentation techniques. Peter commenced the afternoon by saying, ‘Draw a cartoon of your own face.’ We all shrank inside. He added, ‘With your eyes closed.’ It was astounding how much freedom that one simple suggestion bestowed. Instantly, we picked up our pencils and drew. Because we couldn’t see. It was all downhill from there. What a great technique; drawing lesson and ice-breaker in one.
Peter shared his experience and resources with warmth and generosity; participants went home with drawings, a handout and a sample storyboard. The Sandcliffe Festival and Peter Carnavas’ picture-book workshop were free. Life doesn’t get much better than that.
Wonderland is eccentric characters, bizarre incidents and strange encounters with those who live at the bottom of a rabbit hole. You might find any of these at the Queensland Writers Centre when members dash down the Rabbit Hole and write non-stop for three whole days on their current writing projects. Twice a year the Centre offers writers the exquisite gift of a quiet space devoid of distraction, a haven humming with the energy of other writers tapping feverishly on their keyboards. No phones, no washing, no mouths to feed, no questions to answer—just the blank page.
The original Rabbit Hole concept involved writing ten hours a day for three days with the aim of producing 30,000 new words. And, yes, some writers actually achieved that. These halcyon Rabbit Hole days now last only seven hours, and some participants still write 30,000 words. But let’s not talk about them; we each have own goal, and most of us are pretty happy with what we achieve.
This year I’ve been working on a manuscript called One Hundred Greek Cafés, the sequel to Aphrodite and the Mixed Grill: Greek Cafés in Twentieth-Century Australia (2007). And in the Rabbit Hole last week I nailed six chapters: the Marble Café (Childers), the Blue Bird Café (Lockhart), Nennas’ Café (Aramac), the Paris Café (Barcaldine), the Rainbow Café (Redcliffe) and the story of café supplier Samios Foods (Brisbane).
When you come home after your last day in the Rabbit Hole you really do feel like you’ve been in another world; your family has seen little of you, you haven’t socialised or watched TV, and the world seems to have moved on a little. But you’ve got your word count. And some thrilling Wonderland adventures: an encounter with the colourful Speridon Nennas who, in the days before electricity, used a diesel generator to ring his café sign with coloured lights, something the good people of Aramac had neither heard nor dreamed of; the pursuit of an elephant that ran away from the circus in Barcaldine and was found scoffing bananas in front of the Paris Café in Oak Street, not once, but two years running; murmurings about the man who, in a desperate attempt to cover his murderous twin brother’s tracks, hid incriminating evidence behind a picture on the wall of Katoomba’s elegant Paragon Café—just three of the one hundred Greek café stories I’m working on. Do you reckon this book deserves a sexier title?
Greek cafes had all but passed from city streets and country towns when I first realised the vital role they had played in Greek and Australian history. I set about telling the story of the Greek shop-keeping phenomenon, and Aphrodite and the Mixed Grill: Greek Cafés in Twentieth-Century Australia was the result. It remains the only book dedicated to the subject. So obsessed have I become with this aspect of Australian history that every now and then I head off down shimmering highways and dusty country roads in search of whatever remains of the shops that were once the social hubs of rural communities.
I’ve just returned from a milkshake crawl through central New South Wales. The White Rose Café in Temora is in almost original condition, and whizzes up a mean vanilla malted—in icy aluminium containers or course. The leadlight façade on the Garden of Roses in Canowindra is as gorgeous as ever, even if the interior has been stripped of its original milk bar features. The Central Café in Warialda is now a gift shop, but the milk bar is still there, and the proprietor uses the counter to display merchandise while keeping less attractive things, like computers, out of sight down on the containers that once chilled milk, ice cream and lemon drink. Sadly, only derelict buildings mark the presence of Greek shops in the small towns of Yenda and Barellan.
These cafés, and others like them, will appear in the sequel to Aphrodite. It’s called One Hundred Greek Cafés, and will document the specific stories of 100 shops across Australia. I’m working on the Imperial Cafe in Quilpie at the moment. Reckon I’m up to about 80, so if you’re harbouring a Greek café story somewhere in your past I’d love to hear from you . . .
Bingara, in central New South Wales, really knows how to throw a party: white tablecloths decorated with olive twigs, great food eaten beneath the stars, a touch of 1930s glamour glittering in the candlelight, and Greek music bouncing through the wide streets of this delightful country town. Not to mention dancing and plate-smashing in the main intersection. Dinner on Saturday night was the highlight of a weekend of events that marked the opening of Bingara’s Greek Café Museum.
Congratulations to curator Peter Prineas, who has brought together a collection of artefacts, old photographs, films, interactive displays and stories representing the history of the Greek shopkeeping phenomenon in Australia. Still a work in progress, the museum is destined to grow as travellers from all over the country add their experiences of café life.
Breakfast in the nearby restored Peter’s Café was equally delightful. For two days the new proprietors were inundated by a hoard of visitors hungry for bacon and eggs, coffee and toasted sandwiches and, my favourite, Gypsy Omelette. It must have been like this when troops swamped cafés in the forties, or in the decades before television, when Greek cafés and picture theatres like Bingara’s Roxy were the centre of social life on Saturday nights.
As celebration of the Greek presence in Bingara grows—from picture theatre to café to museum and, potentially, guest house—there’s every possibility that this little town will become a mecca for Greek-Australians and, perhaps,the site of a Greek festival that is a significant event on the national calendar. I can’t wait for my next visit.
You’re invited to Bingara on the 5th and 6th of April, 2014 for the launch of the first Greek cafe museum in Australia. When Bingara opened the newly-restored Peter’s Cafe beside the Roxy Theatre in 2011 there was dancing and plate-smashing in the streets, noisy and nostalgic slurping at the milk bar, and a great gathering of kindred souls around the Greek food-laden tables that stretched from kerb to kerb. I had a ball. And the little New South Wales town is set to do it all again as it opens a museum in the rooms above the cafe. One of the highlights of the weekend – apart from seeing how the curators will represent Australia’s iconic Greek Cafe/Milk Bar – is the speaking program, usually held in the nearby theatre. This year I will focus on the food proprietors served and how that sat within the meat-and-three-veg cuisine of the time.