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Sunday, 25 May 2008

The annual Wellington Cretans Association picnic (Το ετήσιο πικνίκ της Αδελφότητας Κρητών του Ουέλλιγκτον)

My idea of the perfect picnic was one where the picnic site was covered in green grass, the picnic was placed on a blue-and-white gingham tablecloth, the plates and cutlery were all contained in a picnic basket, and the food did not resemble the kind of food we ate on a daily basis at home. I imagined pies, muffins, prepared juices, and all kinds of food you could pick with your fingers without getting dirty. Our family picnics never turned out that way, or at least the one and only picnic we went to every year. It was never a gingham-tablecloth affair. Instead, it was a hullabaloo of expatriates from the Mediterranean island of Crete, playing Cretan music from ghetto blasters hooked up to car batteries, breaking out into Cretan jigs and eating barbecued New Zealand lamb - the annual Cretans' Association of Wellington summer picnic.

On the eve of the picnic, the preparations would start, headed, as always, by my mother. Out would come the blue and yellow tumblers bought from a school fundraising venture - they were stored near the untouched packets of Girl Guides biscuits, also bought from another fundraising event. Naturally, we took those along with us, as it would be a good way to get rid of them (we preferred Super Wine at home) This was the one time we used plastic plates and cutlery, stocking up more than we needed, 'just in case; and don't forget to pack a sharp knife'. Boiled potatos and eggs would go in one large tupper bowl, while cucumbers, tomatoes and onions would go into another to make a salad. A recycled Coke bottle was filled with our salad dressing. The lamb chops would be marinated overnight in lemon juice, oregano and salt. A loaf of bread was also thrown into the crate, recycled from the fish and chip shop my parents owned, from where we also picked up a few bottles of Coca-cola and Leed lemonade. All the men drank beer; no one got drunk.

Thermos flasks would be filled with Greek coffee for 'afters', which were always accompanied by koulourakia and kalitsounia. My mother never waited for Easter to make those; they were a staple part of our regular diet. Whereas the meat and salad was more for our own family, the Cretan dishes were always shared out among other picnickers, who would do the same with their hampers. "Have a koulouraki with your coffee, Athina", "Try my kalitsounia Ioanna, I made the mizithra myself."

On the morning of the picnic - always, ALWAYS on a Sunday, because, back then, it was still a regarded as a weekend - we would skip church, the only time we were legitimately excused from the Sunday liturgy. A group of related families would set up a meeting point close to the highway, where their cars would form a convoy going from the Ngauranga Gorge to Upper Hutt, where Maidstone Park was located. Even though this was an annual picnic, whose site rarely changed from one year to the other, people still got worried that they would get lost and take a wrong turn, even though all the drivers - men of course - had been going to the nearby Trentham Race Course regularly enough, betting on the gee-gees; the picnic site was only a few kilometres away.

It wasn't as if the picnickers did not see each other regularly during the week to warrant such an ado about attendance at the annual Wellington Cretans' Association picnic. During the week, they would meet each other at the fish markets or the potato wholesalers. At weekends, invariably, someone was celebrating their nameday. Or there would be a Greek dance at the hall, maybe even a baptism or a wedding; a young person might be celebrating their 21st birthday party. On Sundays the women sit next to each other on the right wing of the Greek Orthodox Church, which was actually the left-hand side viewed from the altar (but no one complained about women's rights in the Greek Orthodox church). The men would gather at their own ekklisia, the Panhellenic Association of Wellington, for a round of poker. The annual Wellington Cretans Association picnic was an extension of the community, q wider form of networking, a kind of outdoor church service, where one could do what they did at church anyway, make polite conversation, catch up with gossip and find out what was happening int he general community, the main difference being that dress was informal. The Cretans moved about in their social circles as if they were still living in Crete. Contact with non-Greeks was minimal - they didn't know their neighbour's names, nor did they ever try to learn it.

The picnic was always scheduled on the last weekend of January before the summer holidays were over - unless it was postponed to the first Sunday of February. Wellington is well known for its extremely stable climatic conditions; you could always count on WWW: Windy Wet Weather. Summer was summer for about 20 fine days (if you were lucky) in the three months that typically formed the season. We never knew what kind of weather we would find at the other end of our two-hour trip. The journey would start in Mt Victoria with windy sunny conditions, and end up with a windless downpour in Upper Hutt, in which the Hutt river would be ready to burst its banks. I always felt that I had let down my parents when they had driven so many miles only to come back home drenched. As my father drove on, I kept my fingers crossed that the rain would stop. If I told them to turn back, I might have sounded like a spoilsport, especially if they heard from the other picnickers that they had had a good time. If I told them to continue, I sounded like a whinging nagging child. It was a no-win dilemma. Sometimes the rain stopped; other times it didn't. We'd see the weather turning bad all of a sudden on the motorway, but there was no turning back; mobile phones didn't exist. You could not check with the rest of the party whether it was worth continuing, so you just carried on driving. And hoped for the best.

The last time I went to the annual Wellington Cretans' Association picnic, the sun was shining in all its glory in Wellington, despite the wind, which was part and parcel of living in this city. I hadn't wanted to go, but I knew I would sound stingy, as if I didn't want to pay the $20 fee per person. Or maybe I would sound like a snob, that I didn't want to meet up with others my own sort; maybe people would think I thought of myself as superior to them. I could never get away from the fact that I was born a Cretan; even if my passport didn't make it clear, my name, my olive skin, my dark features all gave it away. My parents started off in the same way that these expatriates did, the only difference being that they (the ex-pats) did not return to the mother country for simple reasons: their children had married in New Zealand, their own parents had died, their next-of-kin had grown too old to be interested in their relatives living in the xeniteia, leaving them with no real reason to visit Crete other than nostalgia. They were always one foot in the door, so to speak; their feet were firmly planted on Wellington soil, but their hearts were set in Crete. I imagined myself having stayed on in Wellington, and shuddered.

I couldn't put it in words why I would have preferred not to attend the picnic, but I understood why when I got there: nothing had changed. The picnickers were the same, only older, and fewer. Even the tartan blankets and thermos flasks looked over-used. I felt as if I had travelled back in time, back to the days when the Cretan community was still organising weddings and baptisms instead of funerals and mnimosina. The Wellington Cretans had remained the same, as if they had never moved away from their villages, and had simply built a new one at the other end of the world to accomodate them.

The park was the only thing that had changed; it had been slightly refurbished, with the addition of a new roller-blader's paradise, probably attracting more street kid culture than was desirable. The mini-railroad and swimming pools had been removed, instead of being upgraded and made safer. The family element of the park I remembered eluded me at that moment. I hadn't realised how large the park was until that last trip. The tall trees bordered the gently undulating hills surrounding the picnic site. There were paths leading away from the main picnic area into denser forest. Somehow, they represented what New Zealand had always been for me: a safety net, as long as you didn't stray away from the main road. The paths led to the side of New Zealand that I had only heard about from the news, but never seen: Friday night binge drinking, teenage pregnancies, glue sniffing.

This time, I had no father to drive me to the picnic site; I sat in the driver's seat. At one point, my mobile phone rang. It was my cousin, complaining that I was driving too slowly and could be reprimanded by a traffic officer for causing a traffic accident. I was driving 70km per hour, my regular Hania speed. I asked my taxi-driver husband if he would like to take the wheel. He cracked up laughing. "I've never driven an automatic before, I've only ever driven on the right-hand side and I don't even know where I'm going!" So I continued driving, and tried to drive as fast as I would allow myself before freaking out when I saw the speedometer.

We arrived at the park and found a place to park. The barbecue had been set up and the first lamb chops were coming off the grill. Things had become a little less BYO, perhaps in an attempt to lure more people to the event. The open green fields of the park were a haven for the children. Aristotle was running haphazardly, arms spread out feeling the wind against them, like a dog let off its leash and chasing its tail.

Everyone wanted to meet my husband, who epitomised the macho species of the Cretan role model, the real McCoy complete with Cretan dialect. Were we to have overstayed our sojourn in Wellington, his presence would have been the new blood that was so needed in a community facing extinction. But they were dismayed to find that he was too pale-looking, like a blond, blue-eyed Scandinavian tourist, to be Cretan. Where was the twirling moustache, the woven headscarf, the black shirt? He never took off his jacket the whole time we were at the park, complaining that the breeze was too strong for his liking, even though Wellington had put on a fantastic display of its finest sunniest weather for the annual Cretans Association of Wellington picnic that year.

My attention was constantly being demanded by my the other picnicker: "Oh my God, Maria, it's you!" "Welcome back!", "Are these your children?" People who hadn't seen me 15 years suddenly wanted to learn everything that had happened in my life since I left. They always asked me if I missed New Zealand. I didn't really like enjoy answering this one.

"Well, there's always something you miss when you're away," I lied; I didn't finish off by saying from home. We were due to leave in a few days; I looked forward to returning to my Cretan house on the top of a hill with its panoramic vista looking out towards Souda and the ferry boat.

It was during one of those conversations - someone wanted to know if we still threw our used toilet paper in a pedal-lid rubbish bin next to the porcelain instead of flushing it in the toilet - that I lost sight of the children. I had bought along a pram for Christine to nap in. But Aristotle treated it like a toy. "Pao volta," he would say, and start pushing it while she sat in it. I was constantly looking left, right and behind of me as I was talking, keeping an eye on them. But that park was enormous; and they say it only takes a second to lose a child running on limitless energy.

"Aristotle? Christine?" It was useless to call their father to help me. I didn't know where he was either. I Looked around, but I didn't know where to start looking; the park was like a giant unfenced field. They could be anywhere. I looked around to find the other children that they were playing with. I suddenly realised that not only the Cretans' Association of Wellington were staging their annual picnic; there was a huge crowd of Indians - or were they Pakistanis? And another group of Chinese - or were they Taiwanese, or Chinese Malaysians? At that moment, it was insignificant what they were; they were not one of us.

I looked around randomly, heart beating, panic coming over me, just like any person in the world would feel when they lose their child - in my case, all my children - in a large drove of strange faces, trying to remember where I last saw them, what they were wearing, what they were playing with. This is how I found Christine; she was sitting in her pram, parked under a tree. Aristotle must have been distracted by something and let go of the pram.

Christine was too young to be able to tell me which direction he had disappeared into. I grabbed the pram and began stroller-jogging, calling out his name, starting among the Greek families and the myriads of foreign faces of the Indo-Chinese picnickers, who were greater in number than the Cretans. They were clearly more established in New Zealand, a settled minority whose cultural links were strengthened by recent migration; they were not planning to leave the country and return to their homelands like the Cretans, many of whom were happily picking up their New Zealand pensions in the mother country.

I can' t remember how much time I spent looking and screaming panic-stricken. I eventually saw Aristotle being led by the hand by a Chinese woman who was also pushing a pram, a larger one in brighter colours, with a little umbrella on the side to shade the baby.

"Aristotle!" I shouted. He looked very happy. He looked up and ran to me.

"Is this your son?" she asked me in a New Zealand accent, with a slightly perplexed look on her face. I suppose she thought I was a bad mother, leaving my child unattended. She wouldn't have believed me if I told that this was the first time it had ever happened to me. The woman stared at Christine - or was she looking at the pram? I think she was thinking the same thing that I was. I didn't ask her where she found my son; it was easy to guess what had happened. Aristotle must have taken off with the other pram while the mother was sitting on a picnic blanket next to it. She probably jumped up alarmed and stopped him. He was clearly not part of her clan. She might have asked him where his mummy was, and he would've answered: "Ekei pera" (= over there). I wonder if she tried to recognise the language; it would have all sounded Greek to her.

I don't know if I will get a chance to attend another of the Wellington Cretans' Association picnics in my lifetime. The numbers of the members have dwindled down to only a trickle. The brotherhood is in danger of extinction, and the ex-patriates have started calling themselves Mediterranean kiwis; perhaps they might take up flying lessons some time.

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