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Australia’s Greek milk bars

By Marina Marangos

I met Effy Alexakis and Leonard Janiszewski when they came to the Greek club in Brisbane to present their new book, Greek Cafés and Milk Bars of Australia. Being a fairly recent import Down Under, I didn’t know the first thing about their subject matter. But by the time the presentation had finished, I was keen to find out more.

I started off by asking Effy about her family and their origins.

“My father, Spiros Alexakis, came to Australia in 1954 under the Assisted Migrant Scheme. The Australian Government brought out men to work – part of building the ‘New Australia’.

Often they were contracted for two years to pay off their fares. My father was sent to Queensland to work on sugarcane farms, and later sought employment in Sydney factories.”

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Having read the history of sugarcane farms and those who worked on them, I knew what an extremely hard, physically demanding life that was.

“He was the eldest of 10 children so he had the responsibility to do as much as he could to support the family.  He eventually brought out to Australia two sisters and three brothers.

“Two other sisters had moved to Athens, another brother had died at a young age and the youngest brother was expected to stay in the village to care for the elderly parents and to work the fields, which were primarily olive groves. The village is called Sikea, in the southern Peloponnese.

“My mother was 10 years younger than my father. She arrived in 1956 to marry him under a proxy arrangement. Her family, the Kritikos, lived next to my father’s family.

“My mother came out on what we now call ‘bride ships’.

“Growing up, we always felt we were migrants, never really fitting in. At school we weren’t allowed to participate in some school activities or excursions because I think my parents didn’t really understand what was going on; they were mistrustful and fearful we would become too ‘Australianised’.

“My parents often kept saying that we would be going to Greece, and so the idea always felt like a threat. I think most ‘migrants’ say they came with the idea of perhaps [staying] five years, to work hard, make some money, then to go back to Greece.

“I no longer like to use the word ‘migrant’ because it implies not being a part of the country; in fact it should be ‘settlers’ – settlers have remained and have a sense of attachment to their new land, ‘migrant’ suggests a transient identity.

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“My father had a fatal heart attack when he was 55. This event has shaped our destiny … No longer was there talk of going to Greece. Now we could get on with our lives as Greek Australians.

“At the time of his death, I was studying for a postgraduate diploma in photography. For myself, to understand this family disaster, I started to document, firstly, my immediate family, then … Greek-Australians at a national level. This was in 1983 and I think it was the defining moment for me to spend my life doing this work.”

The resulting publication, In Their Own Image: Greek Australians, is one of the most comprehensive archives on people of this heritage. Leonard joined her the following year and today they enjoy a successful professional and personal partnership.

During the course of their work, they realised Greeks were important in Australia’s catering industry due to the Greek cafés.

“Effy said that very little had been done in exploring this project. So after three decades and countless interviews, we are finally able to present our findings in a new publication …

Greek Cafés and Milk Bars of Australia,” notes Leonard.

“Other than Effy and myself, the one person who has lived and breathed this project with us is our daughter, Connie,” he adds.

The Greeks started coming to Australia in the 1850s, some of them following the gold diggers. A lot of them were enterprising enough to establish shops in the more remote towns.

As for the Greek cafés, they were an amalgam of the British-style Oyster saloon bar of the late 19th and early 20th century and the US style soda or sundae parlours.

Gradually, the concept started to take hold in Australia and, by 1937, some 4,000 milk bars had been established, almost exclusively run by Greeks.

To quote from Peter Comino, co-proprietor of the Niagara Café, Singleton, NSW, during the Fifties and Sixties: “The café was not only the place where everyone gathered … They were beacons of wonder and delight … [combining the] comfort of what was familiar with the dazzle and sparkle of something new.

Another voice from the book – that of Ellen Macarthur of New South Wales -declares the cafés to have been: “such a refuge for young people – I remember always meeting my cousin there and it was so much fun”.

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The 1930s to the 1960s were the golden years of the Greek cafés. They brought in the American dream, providing easy meals, selling sundaes and milk shakes and introducing jukeboxes and dancing. Some were attached to cinema halls, another source of entertainment in those days. Effy and Leonard spent many hours tracking down these establishments or what was left of them, viewing pictures of the day and listening to their owners’ or their descendants’ stories.

Consequently, the book has beautiful photos of the art deco cafés, the neatly uniformed girls behind the bar and the booths, which became such a popular form of seating.

There are moving accounts of how difficult life was, especially when some of the milk bars were vandalised, after which insurance companies failed to cover the damage. The closing of the cycle is also chronicled, with supermarkets and their flavoured milks helping to drive milk bars out of business. Some adapted by becoming takeaways, others sold out to the new wave of Chinese and Korean immigrants.

Regardless, the milk bars’ legacy remains a very strong one in having shaped the Australian society of those years, all while providing the unifying sense of community and fun that this publication rightly pays tribute to.

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