Elizabeth Gertsakis

“Bravo! Bravo pedimou, Bravo my son, you dance like the men in our family have always danced.”

Stelios cried out, hoarse and spitting from the edges of his mouth.

“You have now learnt the alpha and the omega of the meaning of life. If you know how to dance at the beginning of the line, you will know how to dance at the end of it.”

His son Haralambous, spun, crouched, kicked and leaped as he led the line of poor and hungry looking young men in dance. Stelios wiped his brow, and sat back heavily in the chair taking another swig of sour retsina, wishing it was whiskey. He looked at his cousin Mihali, Mike as he was known to the American soldiers who had arrived some months back on their journey from Athens to Salonika via his town of Florina. Mike was popular with the soldiers, they supplied him with food and cigarettes and he supplied the ‘Yankee’ with hashish. Haralambous – Charlie, Stelios’ son also worked quietly alongside Mihali unknown to Stelios. As long as the town was getting what it needed everyone was prepared to lower their heads and pretend ignorance to any police officers making enquiries.

It was close to midday and the white fog that had been lingering in the valley had burned up. The sparse open market had closed and villagers, who had come into town from outlying districts looking for food to exchange, were back on their donkeys and leading them slowly along the main road of the town into the flat dry fields below. The horizon was grey and dull, here and there small figures could be seen in a winding yellow shimmer.  The local youths who had been hiding from the heat under the shade of torn canvas eaves, moved slowly out and gathered to watch the dancing.  As always the Gypsy boys, the town musicians, knew exactly what music to play and for whom – if the music brought the soldiers to the front of the kafeneon, then they too would get drinks and free cigarettes. 

For the Greeks, they played sirtia, for the Slavs, the poushcheno, for the Pontians, the drums came out and were played so hard and so fast that the even storks which lived in the top of empty chimney stacks and on the last few timber telegraph poles left after the bombings, would suddenly rise in unison and fly to the beat and rhythm into another valley. Alongside the dancing Greeks the Gypsies would form their own lines of dance but instead of a single line, would form pairs of two or more dancers, dancing more sinuously than the others, licensed by birth to express sensuousness which was neither flamenco or tango, but something else. 

Romeo and his sister Juliette always danced together, they would rise slowly and walk at first like stiff marionettes to the middle of the group, but once the clarinet and tambor started to whine and beat, their arms would rise and the life came into them. Juliette was no more than fifteen, thin and very dark. Victor, the Gypsy chief always reminded her that she was so dark because she had the purest soul which only came from the gypsy line that had started in India. Her long black hair was loose to her waist and she wore a black camisole with a pale blue scarf around her neck and a faded green cotton skirt that had prints of lilies around the edge. Romeo was older, perhaps twenty. He had the confidence and emaciation that only a decade of surviving military invasions could create in a boy grown from hungry puberty to slippery adulthood.

His family never forgot the day he had gone out looking for bread and come back to their shanty with a kilo of sugar. This was unimaginable and rarer than gold, no one had the courage to ask what he had done to get it. Greeks in the south, in Athens, were dying of starvation and even though no one could find bread, Romeo had come back with sugar.  There were so many secrets when it came to survival. This group of dancers in the market square seemed joyful and full of life yet so much of what they did had a double meaning. Dancing for others was more like a foxtrot for life. Their papa, Oscar, had always said that for a gypsy, fast feet were number one.  Amongst the American soldiers there was one that had been especially friendly, Romeo had nick-named him Zulu. He had shown interest in Juliette and brought her American chocolate. He was darker than the other Americans and the Gypsies liked him because he was of Mexican background and used to sometimes join in the dance swaying easily and making flamenco-like steps.  Afterward he would give Romeo cigarettes and they would sit in the square drinking in the dusk as the sun slowly disappeared from the square.

“Where do you want to be when the war ends?” asked Romeo

“I want to cross America from south to north; from the Sierra Grande to the snow covered peaks of Canada. I have a cousin who immigrated there and lives in Quebec. He is a green keeper for a golf links and he has promised to teach me how to play. The place where he lives looks so beautiful. Last year before Christmas, in November, for my birthday, he sent me photographs. There is a hotel there, it’s called Hotel Lima, seven stories high on the edge of the links with a background of mountain peaks covered in ice. It looks like a medieval castle and when the sun sets it is so intense the forests around light up like an x-ray and if you call out from the balconies across the valley below the echo goes forever.”

Romeo was always amazed by the Americans and especially Zulu;, they always seemed to be able to stop and think of what they would like to do, where they wanted to go and how they would get there. It was like they could dream of tomorrow and walk in a straight line to their future. Even during these years of war, there was hope and optimism in their conversations. For Romeo and his family, and for other people of his town, Greeks like Stelios and Mihali, there had been nothing but war, hardship and hunger over the generations; only a few things seemed to be possible that they could still do at any time – they could make music and they could dance.  It was their code for both joy and survival.

Bio ~ Elizabeth Gertsakis.

Elizabeth Gertsakis was born in Florina Greece in 1954. She received a degree in Fine Art and English from Melbourne University and a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature and Critical Theory from Monash University. She has been the Senior Exhibitions Curator of the Post Master Gallery, National Philatelic Collection, Australia Post since 1995, where she is responsible for developing exhibitions, drawing on material from the National Philatelic Collection of Australia Post and major national museums and galleries of Australia. In her concurrent artistic and critical writing practice Gertsakis’ interests include institutionalised racism and class prejudice within cultural institutions, visual history and identity, art and popular culture, nineteenth and twentieth century mass media illustration and photography. She has published more than 100 critical essays, contributions to anthologies and research papers in Australian and international academic, refereed, visual art, history and cultural studies publications; and, has had a number of notable solo artistic exhibitions, including a recent exhibition titled Police News – The Banner of Truth at the State Library of Victoria, in Melbourne.

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