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submitted by SBS Radio on 23.05.2014

The cafe culture in Albury Wodonga

'How did I end up working in cafes?" asks 77-year-old George Kotsiros, checking he’s got my question straight. My own concentration is being severely tested by the garlicky goodness wafting from the kitchen where George’s wife, Toula, is busy. 'I was heading to the Mitta Mitta River from Melbourne, for a water supply job. When I stopped at Wangaratta, I overheard some people speaking Greek in a cafe and, naturally, I wanted to talk to them. They told me about a job going at another cafe in Wodonga. With no experience, I had no intention of chasing it, but I fell asleep on a park bench and missed my train to Mitta Mitta. So Wodonga and the cafe it was."

His siesta delivered George full circle, as he arrived back in the vicinity of Bonegilla, where he had stayed for 23 days after leaving Arachamites, a small Greek village, in 1955. He was just 19 years old when he said goodbye to Greece. 'I arrived on my own after convincing my father to sign the form that the Australian Government had been handing out in our village, because I was too young. They were offering us free passage so I thought I’d go, stay for a while and return to Greece after my adventure. That was 57 years ago."

Today, Albury is still home for George and his family. And he stayed in the cafe industry, eventually opening his own – Rex Milk Bar – where he worked for 17 years.

Former President of Albury Wodonga’s 80-family-strong Greek Community, George Veneris, also 77, estimates 95 per cent of the Greeks who settled in the area during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s worked in the 13-or-so Greek-owned cafes that flourished at the time. George himself followed his father into the business, running the Spot Cafe with his dad and brother, while his wife Mattie, worked in her father’s Hume Weir Cafe, on Albury’s Dean Street.

'My dad immigrated to Australia from Greece 11 years before the rest of my family, and was sponsored by a friend who had settled in Albury and had his own cafe. As Greeks trying to make our way in a new country, we were passionate about running our own businesses, and cafes provided a way of doing that," he says, pushing a yellowed piece of card – an original cafe menu from the 1960s – across the table.

'Back then, there weren't any fast-food restaurants or supermarkets around here, so cafes were it, particularly late at night after a movie. The cafes are not only an important part of Greek history here in Australia, but played a big part in the country’s social scene, too. And we served American-style food, which introduced people to that."

Sitting in the house that the couple built 46 years ago, complete with a zucchini- and broad-bean-laden vegie patch in the back garden, Mattie offers me a trinket to take home. 'This is the island George and I are both from in Greece," she explains, pointing to the images of Cythera with its cobalt-blue bays, which are splashed across the key ring. At this point, I wonder where George and Mattie consider home; here in Albury or somewhere amid the photo in front of us.

'I think we’re both Greek and Australian," says George. 'In my heart, I’ll always be Greek, but in every other way, I’m Australian. This great country is our home."

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