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Greek-Australian author pens a compelling tribute in her new book Beneath the Fig Leaves: A memoir of food, family and Greece

Olympia Panagiotopoulos shares the passion and inspiration behind her debut memoir.

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Village girls. My Mother Giannoula and I on the mountain at Karasafka, Chrysochori, Greece.
Village girls. My Mother Giannoula and I on the mountain at Karasafka, Chrysochori, Greece.

It was the summer of 1955, when my parents and siblings boarded the ship, Tasmania at Piraeus, Greece. A long and arduous journey awaited them; but the promise of opportunities and rewards for those who worked hard, eased the agony of a separation that would remain raw for many years to come. The Tasmania sailed into Station Pier, Port Melbourne on September 23, 1955. It was springtime.

I can’t deny that being the only Australian-born child in the family made me feel like a bit of an outcast. The seeds of difference began early for me; I suppose it was inevitable that I would spend a good part of my life trying to fit in, wanting others to understand what I often didn’t understand myself. The concepts of belonging and identity are so intricately connected to place and time. Who am I? Why am I here, and why now? Why do I long so much for another place and time; what part of myself might I find there that isn’t already within me?

I love that my ancestors are Greek and that I come from a land that is renowned for its storytelling. A curious and imaginative child, Greece became a source of fascination for me, a mythological place where the hills echoed with folk songs, myths and legends, and tales told by firelight whispered across the landscape. The dream of Greece was unrelenting. I would come to ache for it so much that one would think it was my roots pulling me back into the earth of the village in Chrysochori. There in the fields and streams and rivers —in the stories my parents fed me as a child— I recognised a visceral connection that I couldn’t ignore. It wasn’t until I was older that I was able to understand the feelings of my childhood – the need for connection; to feel the heartbeat of my family.

My parents dancing at a ‘name-day’ celebration in Melbourne in 1960.

In 1981, I realised the dream that I had held onto so tightly; three magnificent weeks in the Peloponnese with my parents, Fotios and Giannoula Panagiotopoulos. I was struck by the realisation that my parents, and many like them, shared the spirit of their ancient ancestors. They, too, were heroes and warriors, visionaries whose courage and tenacity had spread to other lands that were now richer for having known them.

In the spring of 2009 in my mother Giannoula’s garden, surrounded by a field of fruit trees, vegetables and herbs, a sanctuary reminiscent of her village garden, we embarked on a cultural and culinary journey through my Greek heritage, to the people and places Mother loved to remember and that I ached to know.  As I collected the cherished pieces of my family’s history, I yearned once again to feel the Greek soil under my feet and to experience something that I felt had been missing: my own choriátiki zoí, village life. How I longed to walk with the sheep and goats in the fields and for my grandmother, Olympia, to know me and chase me through the vineyard. I wanted to be the girl in the stories that I never tired of hearing, but the tales of my mother’s village life played like a movie, scenes in which I had no part.

Plump, ripe figs from my mother’s garden.

I decided to document my time with my mother in a journal, to capture something of the essence of her indomitable strength, wisdom and loving nature and preserve the treasured memory of all she was imparting to me. My mother was in her nineties. What had I been doing? Such thoughts terrified me, but I chose to believe there was still time and that there was a greater purpose to our adventure.

As Beneath the Fig Leaves began to take form, inspired by my precious garden journals, I came to understand that this was what I had been moving towards since 1981: to honour my parents in the way that meant the most to me and to them – through love and through story.

As I reflect on my journey, I am more inclined to think that rather than being anchored in place or time, our sense of belonging and identity are found in our own sense of worthiness, that regardless of where we come from or where we go, the fabric of who we are remains unchangeable. In our feelings of separateness, in the agony of missing and yearning to belong, perhaps it is the connection and love for ourselves that we must cultivate in order to feel that which we so deeply long to experience.

Beneath the Fig Leaves by Olympia Panagiotopoulos (Affirm Press, $32.99) is out now.

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