Monday, 19 October 2009

Caramel milkshake (Μιλκσέϊκ καραμέλας)

There were times when growing up as a Greek in 1980s Wellington were very, very difficult...

Rachel was a repeating sixth former who wore mufti; we had crossed paths occasionally through our volunteer work at the library. She was blond, blue-eyed, skinny, pale-skinned, the exact opposite of myself, a dark-haired, olive-skinned, chubby brunette. With racial equality being practiced right throughout my school years, colour and race were never an issue in 1980s Wellington; we were all taught to be New Zealanders, a complete contrast to the home environment where we were all reminded that we were Greek.

There was a relaxed atmosphere at school on that day; some students had already gone on holiday before Good Friday, and we were being supervised during a supposed study period by Ms Golandovich, the French teacher whose idea of supervising a class of hormonal sixth form girls was to let them wander in and out of the classroom as long as they didn't bother anyone and they stayed on the school grounds (which she assumed we did, basing her hypothesis on the trust bestowed on us as more mature students). She was not keen on controlling the students; she preferred to endear them towards her with her tales of growing up in France. The more intellectual girls would stay behind in the class, while she reminisced about the years she spent in Paris studying at the Sorbonne. Her eyes would wander around the classroom, her glance falling on selected students. She addressed the special ones, the ones who could pronounce the rolling French 'r' correctly, the ones whose mothers were also French teachers in other schools, the ones that always got high marks in all their subjects. In this way she had formed a self-created group of admirers.

Rachel never stayed on in the class during this period. “I’ve been studying the same books two years in a row, I don’t think I need to read them all over again,” she'd tell me. I assumed she simply went into the yard and met up with the other older girls. She looked so much more mature in her jeans and fitted blouses than I did in my school uniform, so much older looking, yet she was only a year ahead of me.

“Let's go to the library, shall we?” she asked me one day. My time had come; the honour of being asked to accompany an older girl had finally been bestowed on me.

I don’t know what made me agree to leave the school grounds with her on that day, even when I realised that she wasn’t heading in the direction of the library. Surely someone would notice us leaving; it made no difference that it was the last day before the Easter holidays. I had never skipped a class before in my life. Maybe it was the lure of the
low risk of being caught; maybe it was an initiation rite. If I didn't take up the challenge, I might never be asked again. I didn't even know what the punishment was for wagging; I assumed everyone must have got away with it. In any case, what would they do with us on the last day of term? We walked out of the school grounds from the back entrance onto Brook St.

"How about a walk round the block before our options class?" It sounded good to me. I had never been round the block that formed the school before, not on foot, not even in Dad's car. It was simply not on our daily route from our home in Mt Victoria to my school in Thorndon; Greeks did not live there. Even if they did, we didn't know them, and my mother would have treated them as ostracised members of the community. The Greeks we associated with all lived in the southeastern suburbs, most probably to suit their southeastern European origins. (It helped that the Greek Orthodox Church was located there too.)

Most of the school district was filled with not very noteworthy edifices: office tower blocks, the view of the motorway above Tinakori Road, a lot of traffic. But there were still some remnants of the late 1800s, those charming Victorian cottages, constructed in period style with all the trimmings. They had plaques at the gates inscribed with hyphenated surnames (like "Barrett-Jones" and "Rhys-Davies") above very important-sounding jobs (architect, lawyer, accountant).
I could never work out if people lived or worked in those houses; there always seemed to be an absence of movement in them. I cannot recall ever seeing children coming in or out of them, even though the school was located on the same road. I knew this was considered to be one of the poshest areas in town - we were constantly reminded of it at school. My parents could never see its significance - old houses never held the picturesque appeal to them that they did for the average Wellingtonian; in their mind, they were in serious need of renovation, in the same way that they had renovated our family home (by tearing down the wooden bay windows and installing ghastly durable aluminium ones).

Options class was scheduled for the last period of the day. Rachel had History, I had Latin. At the sound of the last bell signaling the end of class, I would have to be at the school gates where my father would be waiting in the car to pick me up and take me to the family shop where I helped out, doing my school homework during the less busy hours. If I wasn't at the school gates on time, there would be no excuse. It would be too embarrassing to ask Rachel if this matter concerned her too. Punishment from home would be more severe than anything I could be made to do at school. Worst of all, it would be shameful.
This is what had kept me obedient throughout my school years.

But the forces of peer pressure were strong in the mid-teens and I couldn't resist seizing the opportunity to play the role of the parasite of an older pupil, and a popular one for that. It was as if my status had been elevated somehow, that I was keeping the 'right' company. Rachel was a cheery girl; there was always a smile on her freckly face, another feature I admired about her. My Greek olive skin meant that I could never have freckles even if I wanted to. Walking along the road lined by the quaint cottages with the huge bay windows and those important-reading brass plaques felt 'cool', a sense of liberation; I was not being held on a leash by my parents.

Rachel led the way as we crossed Pipitea St onto Murphy St. It made no difference to me where she went; I was simply tagging along in tacit agreement. My legs had never set foot on these roads before, even though I had been been driven up and down them by my father for the last four years. We lived on the opposite side of town, outside the school's zoning area; I had never ridden on a school bus.

“Ms Golandovich is SUCH a LAUGH!” I wasn't surprised to hear Rachel crack up like this. For all her admirable traits, she wasn’t very academic;
Rachel wasn’t keen on continuing school after sixth form. She was hoping to be accredited so that she wouldn’t have to sit the exams (which she had failed the previous year), and would go straight on to Polytech, enrolling in a secretarial course. She would never be considered a candidate for the end-of-year "Girl Most Likely to Succeed" prize. I always thought she looked like a shop assistant. Ms Golandovich was too foreign for her overly Kiwi upbringing. I imagined Rachel's parents enjoying a Friday night out at the pub, never asking her about her whereabouts and what she got up to; if she announced to them that she was pregnant one day, maybe they'd congratulate her. This is what my mother had led me to believe.

“Yeah, she’s a little funny,” I replied, feeling guilty. The word 'funny' was not an appropriate choice. There was nothing funny about Ms Golandovich, a Russian refugee whose family had escaped communism and found a home in Paris at the end of WWII. She had travelled extensively throughout Europe with her diplomat husband and had a great many stories to tell, which she narrated over and over again, repeating herself, as if she could not remember hearing herself telling them before, but also because her little troupe of admirers loved to hear them again and again: walking along the Seine, young men asking her: “Voulez-vous prendre du café?”, her two years as a governess to the daughter of a rich family living in Montmatre. I was yearning to do a big OE after university, with the worry that times were changing too fast to allow me to repeat her experiences in my own time. Our French books had been written in the 60s, resounding Ms Golandovich's experiences perfectly.

"But she's had a hard life, I suppose," I added, trying to justify her peculiar Europeanisms that I suspected the average Kiwi could not understand: the two-piece skirt suit, the matching gold bracelet, ring and necklace with a small plain crucifix hanging off it, the bi-coloured pumps, the strong accent in her English, the nostalgic look in her slightly sunken eyes as she remembered bygone times and places, the slight look of terror in her facial expression when she spoke of the harsh post-war times as a Russian immigrant in France. I knew those looks well. Ms Golandovich did not need to explain them to me; I saw them in my immigrant parents' eyes every day, as they toiled about their daily chores, living with the hope that one day, they would be back in the place where they believed they belonged.

I couldn't explain these traits to Rachel. Nor could Rachel's History teacher, another dinkum Kiwi who was revered by the Headmistress because she herself had been an Old Girl of the school. These people had never been involved in war, nor had bombs going off near their homes which were burnt down by the enemy, nor been thrown out of the country they were born in for their beliefs or political leanings, nor treated differently from mainstream society. They did not have to make do without, in the hope that their children would be living a better life than they did. Rachel had probably never questioned her sense of belonging. She belonged in a way that I didn't feel I belonged; her looks, her gait, her attitude, they all typified her as an average Kiwi.

As we walked down Mulgrave St, I felt more of a stranger in my environment than when we first left the school compound. There were more quaint-looking cottages, some bigger than others, all lined with mowed grass and white picket fences. The doors of Old St Paul's were open. I glanced sideways at it, hoping that Rachel would also notice it and ask to go in, but she didn't. The church represented a refuge, a safe spot away from the main road where we were visible to all, and highly conspicuous in my case, since I was wearing my teal school uniform. I had been into Old St Paul's on school trips, the only church I had ever entered that wasn’t Greek Orthodox. After being raised on icons, bearded priests, and the smell of burning incense, St Paul's, with its decorative timber, stained glass windows and faceless effigies of holy people, came as an extreme culture shock. On the one hand, the church hardly seemed to represent holiness when stripped of the severe images; concerts were often held here and the pupils of our school were regular attendants. On the other hand, the beauty of the woodwork in combination with the colourful stained glass gave a majestic feel to the place. How anyone could put it in their mind to tear it down was beyond me. A church was a church forever, we had been taught; it could not be deconsecrated, as the site would remain forever holy.

When the Sunday School teacher explained the history of iconography to us, she insisted that the Roman Catholics were wrong to allow three-dimensional pictures and statues of Christ, because no one really knew what Christ looked like, while the Anglicans were even more wrong not to allow any pictorial representations of Christ at all, since, by many people's accounts, there indeed was a Christ walking around the Holy Lands nearly 2000 years ago. Only the Orthodox Church was right, because they allowed two-dimensional representations of Christ, humanising his realness in an unrealistic way. It was so easy to accept without questioning, even though there was nothing democratic or equal about it. We had been taught to believe that we were simply 'better'.

The stained glass windows of Old St Pauls were much more appealing to me than the plain white opaque ones in the Greek Orthodox Church of Wellington. Again, the differences stuck out to me like a sore thumb, and we must have looked like a bunch of sore thumbs as we congregated altogether around the community centre adjacent to the church. We stuck out with our foreign chatter, the religious processions that took place outside the church and the band music played on a cranky tape recorder when we celebrated Greek ethnic holidays. But when we were isolated from such activities and removed from the masses, we blended more easily into mainstream Wellington.
Our colour did not give us away; it was to our advantage.

With St Pauls behind us and the aroma of freshly brewed beer from the the local Lions brewery infusing the air, I continued to walk beside Rachel, feeling more and more uncomfortable and she chatted on airily. She was a good one for girly talk: what's your favorite magazine, what book are you reading at the moment, where do you like to go shopping for clothes, what make-up do you use, do you attend a church group (I told her about Sunday School), and finally boys, the most important topic that I had to contribute to in any way I could, even though I knew I could not add much to the discussion. I listened intently to Rachel, as she told me about a boy she’d met through her church group, and how she’d go to his place on Friday nights, and he’d come to her place on Saturday nights.

"Are there any nice boys in your church group, Maria?”

“Oh, yes, of course!” I said, and indeed there were plenty, even though I couldn't remember the last time I had talked to one.

"Ever gone out with one?" I knew this question would come up at some time.

"My parents don’t want me to get involved with a boy until I’ve left school,” I explained, which wasn't far from the truth: I wouldn't be allowed to go out with one unless I was getting married to him.

We had reached the corner of Lambton Quay. "Shouldn't we be turning back?" According to my estimations, this was the southern end of the block. I now sensed the city converging towards me, as if it were closing me in. I had never felt so close to it, having never walked so far on this side of the town, not even with my parents. Historic Thorndon, where the houses all looked like life-size dolls' houses, seemed like a different country to me, one that had, prior to this ocassion, always been beyond my reach, even though I had been coming to school here for the past four years. The only place I knew well was Mt Victoria, and even then, only the main streets. Walking for the sake of walking was not encouraged in my house; if you haven’t got anywhere to go, then don’t go anywhere.

Rachel didn't answer me. We turned right at the traffic lights across from the Thistle Inn. I didn’t dare ask her a second time where we were heading. I thought that maybe she assumed I knew anyway, so I'd have sounded a little silly. I walked beside Rachel on the outer side of the pavement. Mr Leonidou owned a milk bar in the area; I wanted to avoid his seeing me pass by the shop. Mr Leonidou would recognise me, as he saw me every week at church. It may have meant nothing to him if he did see me, so it was pointless worrying about it, but I still worried all the same. It had been well instilled in me by my parents that I should not be seen anywhere if I had no business there. Right now, I was wondering what the shopkeeper would be thinking if indeed he did see me:

“Oh, look, there goes that Cretan woman's daughter. I wonder where she’s going with that Kiwi girl at this hour. Shouldn’t she be in school?”

Then he'd start wondering if his own daughter
was also out on the streets because maybe classes had been cancelled, or the girls were returning from a school trip. And when he questioned his daughter about it after school, she would have told him:

"Oh her, Dad, she was wagging."

I'd be ruined...

As this dialogue ran through my mind in fast-forward mode, I stole furtive glances at the shop window as I walked past it. Mr Leonidou was at the counter with his back turned away from the window. Feeling like I'd just scraped out of being discovered, I decided to sway Rachel into returning to school at this point.

"Let's check out the gardens outside Parliament Buildings." I said excitedly, although there was nothing really to be excited about. it was just a garden, sculpted in the common fashion of an English garden as the fashion of the time dictated. My mind was filled with terror from wandering too far from my environment.

"Parliament? Whaddaya gonna do there?" I knew I had lost; my strange attitude to girly activities was becoming too conspicuous. “Let’s check out Jason York, shall we?” she continued. She wasn't actually asking me anything; it was a kind of rhetorical statement.

"Yeah, OK", I complied, "it isn't too far."

"They’ve probably changed their shop window with all the latest for spring and summer. I’d love to see what they’ve got in there now.”

“But, aaah, won’t we be late for the last period?” I didn’t want to miss Latin. My absence would be too obvious; I always sat at the front of the class.

”Hey, I don’t think anyone’s gonna miss us, Maria! They’re probably gonna let us out early anyway.” Great Scott, I thought, and my dad will be waiting for me at the school gates, while I'm ambling up from the wrong direction. I was starting to believe what my mother had been telling me for years about Kiwi girls: they get up to no good, they are loose and uncouth, they have no sense of shame.

I began to regret this outing. Even though I had been secretly yearning for this day to come, when I would be treated on a par with the other girls, as an acquaintance, a valued schoolmate, a trusted companion, one they could share their secrets with, without the fear of discrimination in terms of class, status, age or cultural heritage, I was not handling the situation very well. I wanted to be one of those girls who rolled up their sleeves, tied their jumper round their waist, smiled and laughed with the carefree look of teenagehood, the sound of girlish chatter following me as I strode proudly beside my confidantes. I wanted to be a bona fide member of the group, a member of the girly clique. Rachel was clearly the ringleader here; I was just a parasite, just as I had always been, tagging along, hoping not to be rejected or ousted from the happy troupes of young girls.

I was the one who laughed after they laughed at their own jokes, who waited for them to take their cardigans off and tie them round their waist before I did, the copycat, the tag-alonger. Was it me who felt different rather than they who regarded me as different? As I carried on walking away from the school, and into a world unknown to me, I thought about how my life was never really going to change radically. I wasn’t seizing opportunities, I didn’t want to risk losing what I already had: my parents’ world never excited me, but it held the promise that it would never let me down. If I maintained my poise at this point, my parents would be proud of me, but to the others, I would always be the chubby, dumpy, greasy Greek girl who no one ever noticed, the social outcast, the black sheep amongst the purebreds, the pimply four-eyed misfit amidst the pristine blue-eyed paler shades. My present predicament was a moment of freedom that I should have been enjoying, but here I was, still doubting the success of today's mission. The truth was that I could not conceive of any useful reason why I should continue to accompany Rachel. I now viewed the beginning of Lambton Quay with trepidation.

Rachel carried on with her carefree chatter, while I nodded, smiled, and laughed, in an attempt to show that I was listening to her and not hiding any fears. If Rachel sensed my nervousness, she might ask me what was wrong. I wouldn't be able to explain it to her. She wouldn't understand. I couldn't quite express myself about it either. I couldn't hear what she was talking about at that moment, as I was only listening to my thoughts, dreaming up all the what-if scenarios that I might come across, and what solution I would work out for each one. I prayed that none of them would actually materialise. I firmly believed that God knew my angst at that moment, and felt deeply ashamed of myself for acting so fraudulently. He probably wasn't very proud of me either; would He bother to help me now? I had a vision in my mind of His finger pointing at me, shouting out the commandment I had broken: "Thou Hast Lied!"

We were standing at the traffic lights on Molesworth St. Trying to hide my tormented state as much as I could, I told Rachel that I would head back to school.

"What, already?" She sounded surprised. "Don't you wanna go into town and check out the shop windows?" Of course I did, but it wasn't going to happen. Not today. Not until I was eighteen, or maybe 21 and had been given the Key of Life.

"My Dad said he'd be coming early to pick me up today," I lied ("Thou Hast Lied Again!"), "it's going to be a busy night tonight at the fish shop, you know, the pre-Easter rush." No, she didn't know, but at least I had begun to sound assertive.

"Well, if you're turning back, I may 'z well come with you." I was surprised by the complete turnaround she was making. Was I now in charge? I didn't have time to think about that at that moment; my point in life at that instant was to start walking up Molesworth St. I didn't turn to look at Rachel as I walked up the road. For some people, life was all about the power struggle up the social ladder. For me, it was simply survival.

"Hey, didn't you say you wanted to go into the gardens?" Indeed, I had, how silly of me to forget, now she knew I was queer, and she'd tell everyone else. By now, I had decided that whatever I did, it was bound to get me into some kind of trouble. To quote my mother, I had eaten all the donkey, and only its tail remained. I felt sweat running down my legs.

“Oh, bugger." Rachel looked up. "It’s starting to rain. What a bummer." So I wasn't pissing myself. Finally something was going my way. We had to turn back now, didn't we? After all, it was raining.

"What a shame, autumn's well and truly here then," I said firmly. "Pity we didn't bring a brolly." The smell of beer was still quite strong on the street, coming this time from the open doors of the pubs, airing the premises to get rid of the stench of cigarette smoke. We were just about to walk past the fish and chip shop; it seemed to me at this moment that Greeks were everywhere, waiting to spy on me at the most inopportune moment. I had just managed to avoid one and now we were going past another.

"Mind if I pop in to buy a milkshake?" Rachel surprised me as much as I surprised her.
It didn’t matter that the day wasn’t so warm, or that it had started to rain. Milkshakes, ice-cream and other cold desserts knew no limits in Wellington; if you waited for a good day to have an ice-cream or a milkshake, you might as well have waited for the whole year to pass.

"No, not at all. Isn't there a takeaway bar up the road where you can buy one from?"

"The fish shop serves them too. Theirs are better than the other place. Want anything yourself?"

"Oh, no thanks." So close and yet so far away. Rachel was about to push the door open. I kept my feet firmly planted on the pavement outside the shop.

"Well, aren't you coming in with me? It's raining!"

"Oh... yeah ..." The door bell tinkled as we entered. Mrs Paraskakis was at the counter, dipping pieces of fish into batter and frying them in a deep vat. She turned round as she heard the bell, and quickly washed her hands in the basin on the other corner of the counter.

"Yes, pliz," she asked politely putting on a friendly smile. I knew that look well; it meant "Hello, I'm here to serve you, and I hope you'll find our products and services satisfactory and come back again or recommend them." Then she peered at me, registering some recognition and smiled again, a different smile this time; this one said: "I know your mother and father, what are you doing here at this hour?"

"A caramel milkshake, please." Rachel rummaged in her bag for her purse. I was carrying a minimal amount of money on me, not enough to buy a milkshake, but just enough to take a bus home just in case my father couldn't come to pick me up. How he would have informed the school to let me know he wasn't coming is impossible to conceive. Not once in my school days had my parents ever rung up the school, nor did they have the English skills to be able to relay such a message. The thought never occurred to me to carry any extra money on me. There was no perceived need for it. I didn't get any pocket money; instead, my parents gave me big handouts at Christmas and Easter to buy clothes, bags, shoes and gold jewelery, an important accessory of any Greek girl entering womanhood. I sometimes banked part of it. My lunch was a home-made packed one, my dad dropped me off and picked me up from school, I didn't use the buses, I didn't need to buy anything. With a life like that, I didn't even need to carry a purse.

"Want anything, Maria?" ("So it is Eleni's daughter," I could hear Mrs Paraskakis saying in her mind.)

"Oh, no, no thanks." I shook my head, smilingly timidly.

Rachel paid for the milkshake and we left the shop. We walked up Molesworth St somewhat silently with a damp feeling, like the sky above us.

"Wanna sip?" Rachel really was a friendly person. She had done nothing wrong, except, perhaps, that she had acted normally, which seemed so wrong only to myself. I had ruined a perfect afternoon.

I took a sip from her straw. I had never tried caramel milkshake before. The colour od the caramel flavouring mixed with the creamy white sugary milk resembled something like a milky coffee. it had a distinctly sweet burnt lolly taste.

"Mmm, it's really yummy," I said, as I turned the straw away from me and back to Rachel.

"I told you, they make the best ones here," she replied, making me feel even more inadequate. She was right; that caramel milkshake really was delicious. It tasted of Wellington, a dark lolly taste combined with creamy white milk, two extremes mixed together, combining to form a melting pot of flavour, a soupcon of reka, a frosty mouthful, just like a blast of the cold Wellington southerly that often lashed about the city. At that moment, the milkshake summed up the life I had been living in the bicultural world that I was growing up and trying to fit into. There was no real middle ground; it was one or the other, with an expression of tolerance from the Pakeha side to the foreign element and very little vice versa. As we turned into Pipitea St, the school's tower block came into view, and I wondered just how much more of life was passing me by.

*** *** ***

You can't make caramel milkshake at home the way a milk bar does, hence no photo. Order it some time in an old-fashioned milkbar (that is, if you can still find one) if you're ever in Wellington and remember this story as you enjoy it. For a visual aspect of my kiwi environment, use the google maps service and punch in the streetnames given in the story with 'Wellington' next to them.

This one is for you, Mickle.

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