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Kaliarda VI: Revenioti
The trans activist Paola Revenioti has made a series of documentaries in recent years about sundry aspects of Greek society. On of these was a a documentary about Kaliarda in 2014; the trailer is available on YouTube:
There is an interview with her on Lifo magazine about the documentary, as well as an extensive review; a second interview appeared in Popaganda. (A third interview at the Athens International Film Festival site is much more about her than about the film.)
The documentary mixes talking heads (I was delighted to recognise linguist Costas Canakis, with a twinkle in his eye, saying “we shouldn’t refer to Kaliarda as a language; it’s rather a very extensive specialised vocabulary”); with people who witnessed or were part of the scene, and modern twinks speaking in reenacted Kaliarda. (That artifice is also used in documentaries about Polari.) At 00:09:
Καλέ φίλη; Το δικέλεις εκεί το τσόλι;
—Why, girlfriend? Do you see that scoundrel [“mop”] there?
And the next sentence, as is supposed to be the case with Kaliarda, went too fast for me: “over there, with the arse? something?”
[XXX] Μ’ έβαλαν τα ρουνά, με τζάνε μέσα, «σήκω φύγε»
The cops put me, they put me in [jail] [? τζά(ζ)ω is to take out, not to put in], [they said] “get out of here”.
One of the interviewees is Revenioti’s fellow sex worker, Nana Hatzi, cited in the previous post, who died shortly after the film was made; she’s at 0:21 of the trailer, saying to Paola: (in Standard Greek) “We served in the army together; are you going to ask me about Kaliarda?” (and in Kaliarda, as Paola chuckles) Εσάντες νάκα τζινάβεις καλιαρντά; “Do you not understand Kaliarda?”
(Hatzi had used a Kaliarda word in her own Lifo interview about her life as a trans sex worker: “Sex was free back then. The moudzes (= pussies = women) in our groups would ask trans women for advice on how to dress, how to put on makeup, how to have their breasts stick out.”)
From the Lifo review by Antonis Boskoitis:
- I mentioned Malvina Karali’s eccentric variant of Kaliarda that she used on TV in the 90s; the interviewed poet George Le Nonce refers to it as Kolonaki Kaliarda, after the high-class Athens suburb. Recall that Petropoulos in his second edition had used Kolonaki argot to refer to the cultured jargon that Betty Vakalidou’s autobiography drew on.
- My recollection of Karali’s variant was that it did not have a lot of Romani, but it did have a lot of grammatical genderfuck—randomly switching the grammatical gender of inanimate or abstract nouns, rather than referring to gays born male in the feminine. Because we don’t have much connected Kaliarda discourse, I don’t know whether that was her invention, or original to Kaliarda.
- Revenioti made the film because she wanted to preserve a dying idiom, as it is now only heard in conversations of aged homosexuals near Omonia Square.
- Kaliarda passed relatively quickly from a marginal language of outcasts to daily use of the social mainstream—a clear comparison to what happened to rebetiko music, and the koutsavakika slang of the petty criminals that it was sung in.
- The trailer was not misleading: the reviewer found both Canakis and Hatzi hilarious, and a welcome contrast to the usual talking heads, “who would lend the project prestige without having anything to do with the unconventionality of social outcasts.” (I don’t know how much of an outcast a linguist gets to be, but Canakis does list queer theory as one of his fields.)
- Revenioti had her own stories about the two gay priests who conducted a whole mass in Kaliarda; recall Petropoulos’ testimony of Kaliarda wedding ceremonies.
- The Kaliarda skits were noted, as predictable but necessary to the format.
- The film and Petropoulos’ dictionary are the only serious records of the cant—without being subordinated by mainstream sensibility, or the Kostopoulos Lifestyle notions which essentially entombed Kaliarda.
- That needs expansion: Petros Kostopoulos in the 90s published a series of pop culture, “lifestyle” magazines, full of undigested English, and glamourising the nouveau riches of the time. Kostopoulos went bankrupt in the early 2010s, and the world he was glamourising has now passed. (There’s some interesting reflections from him looking back in this interview from 2012; as he justly points out, it’s not like 10 million Greeks weren’t complicit.) The reviewer is hinting that the celebration of formerly marginal identity in the hipster pop culture of the 90s debased it. I doubt you even needed Kostopoulos for that to happen; as the reviewer admits, it had already happened to rebetiko in the 50s (not with uniformly bad results). The reviewer also says that Revenioti did a more conscientious job of documenting Kaliarda than a “Lifestyle” mag ever would; that’s true, but it’s hardly a high bar.
From the Lifo interview with Alkistis Georgiou:
- The documentary set out to cover the intonation of the cant, its gestures, and so forth. (Petropoulos had intended to include a vinyl recording in the original edition.) She was also worried about preserving the testimony of the last remaining people who experienced Kaliarda.
- Kaliarda was in use up to the mid 70s, and kept developing. Its vocabulary is based on anagrams, onomatopoeia, metaphor, and loans from foreign languages: French, Turkish, English, Italian, Romani.
- Kaliarda arose from the conservatism of Greek society, which forced gays to seek protection in secrecy.
- Revenioti caught the tail end of Kaliarda as a living cant in the late 80s, in the beats of Zappeion Hall, but also in the countryside, where Kaliarda was used (contrary to what Petropoulos and aias.ath have said).
- The documentary covers not just the cant, but the development of gay life in Greece in the 20th century: love, sexuality, beats, and the problems gays encountered.
- Kaliarda was not restricted to young people: it was shared by whoever frequented the beats and hangouts of the time
- There are very few words and expressions still in use, mostly by the gay and trans community. Because of TV and theatre, some Kaliarda words have entered mainstream slang, with people not even being aware of their origins: dzus, tekno, puro, lugra, lubina, tsarði, tsoli “get lost!, twink, (dirty) old man, evil, gay, hut = house, mop = scoundrel”. But the language proper has died.
- With sexual liberation and gay liberation, and greater social tolerance, the reasons for Kaliarda have died out, so Kaliarda itself died out. The death of Kaliarda can’t be said to have been to the detriment of the gay community. (In other words, they can’t be too nostalgic about a manifestation of their oppression.)
- The interviewer watched the documentary in Revenioti’s flat; Golden Dawn’s Kasidiaris had just been yelling at a rally in the square outside.
- “I was in Omonia sqaure when I heard some 70-year old queers speaking Kaliarda. They were telling stories from the Jardin (= Zappeion Hall beat). I caught Kaliarda during its decline, when I was around 16, in the early 80s. I thought that this was a story that should not be lost, a piece of Greek culture.” (The dark park in the trailer is indeed Zappeion Hall, and the same park bench where Revenioti used to do sex work.)
- Kaliarda served both for protection, as a secrecy language from punters and cops; and as an emblem of their identity.
- Of the talking heads, Revenioti recommends the author Thanasis Skroubelos, telling tales from Hawaii, the first gay club and drag show venue of Athens:
Back then, if you wanted to fuck, you had to be married, or at least engaged. Boys back then had to find an outlet for their urges. To put it simply, all they were looking for was a hole. So boys who looked like girls and dressed like them were your only option. But inevitably, that wasn’t the end of it: there were some powerful love affairs that came out of it.
To which Revenioti comments, “What he’s saying is important: keep listening, and you’ll understand why Kaliarda died.”
- Nana Hatzi tells the story of the first drag show in Greece at Stasa’s taverna: a woman (Kaliarda: moundza—the word also meaning “cunt, pussy”) who encouraged gays to dance tsifteteli in her establishment, and earn some berde (Kaliarda: money).
- Nana’s Salonica was much more cosmopolitan and free in the 70s than Athens.
- I’ve already mentioned the hostile relations between bottoms and tops; Revenioti expands on that, starting with a definition. The slang term for tops is kolobaras “arse-fancier”, modelled after zabaras < Turkish zampara < Persian zan-pareh “womaniser”. On the face of it, that would mean the kolobaras was a homosexual top, since they were defined in opposition to womanisers in Greek slang. But in the world of gay sex workers back then, the top was a sex tourist; as Revenioti puts it,
Kolobaras, those who would fuck both men and women—and you know, they’d boast that they were doubly men for it: see how cunning we Greeks are, don’t you think? What stories we can come up with to make excuses?—The tops who fell in love with one of the boys at the Jardin or Hawaii were initiated into Kaliarda, and started making it public. Then came Malvina [Karali] who introduced Kaliarda into people’s living rooms. Gays were somewhat exposed by then, but they kept making up new words to protect themselves. The end of Kaliarda came when faggots wanted to become modern, to embrace normality, to become mainstream so to speak. There was no longer a reason to use it.
Revenioti has a fair few videos up on YouTube, including a 1992 interview with Malvina Karali. I encountered Karali when I was in Greece in 1996; I was initially enchanted, but I soured on her after seeing her proudly feature a military parade on a show, and say in an interview that her greatest joy was sharing obscene soccer slogans with her infant son. Military parades and soccer fandom: I’m used to rebels being a little more rebellious than that from the Anglosphere.
But Revenioti’s first answer in her interview is delightful:
I’d like to ask you, my lovely. How did you find the courage to rid yourself of the social role of a man, wear women’s clothing, get your gorgeous blonde hair together, and go out into society?
… I didn’t give a fuck. And I’ve never really thought about it. It’s one of the questions I keep getting asked, and I don’t know what to say. I liked it, I did it […] I realised I had two choices in life, and I’m lucky I worked it out as young as I did. I could either become a yuppie, get married, have a family, and chase after boys in secret and pay them; or I could get the boys to pay me. And I chose the latter.
The half minute anecdote Revenioti recorded from “Zozo” is probably as close as I’ll find online to someone gay or trans speaking Kaliarda. (It’s not very close, and Zozo chewing gum doesn’t help; at the very end, you can hear Revenioti complaining about the poor audio. YouTube commenters had a hard time of it too.)
Ξέρεις τι μου ’λεγε ένας παλιός κωλομπαράς; Ότι η μπάρα δεν είναι φτιαγμένη για το μουτζό, είναι φτιαγμένη για την πούλη. Γιατί αν ήταν φτιαγμένη για το μουτζό θα ήταν σαν το παντζανταράκι. Και μετά, μου ’πε ένας άλλος, που μου ’κανε μπομπονάκι, μου λέει «δεν πιστεύω να είμαι λούγκρα». «Όχι καλέ,» του λέω, «μην το ξαναπείς αυτό, θα τσακωθούμε.»
You know what an old top used to tell me? That the “crowbar” is not made for pussies, but for arses. Because if it was made for pussies, it would be shaped like a beetroot (?). And then someone else who was blowing me told me, “I’m not a bitch, am I?” “Why, of course not,” I said, “don’t say that again, we’ll end up arguing.
The Kaliarda is limited to pussy, arse, blow job (“bon-bon”), and bitch. The words for “top” and “crowbar” (penis) are not Kaliarda at all, they’re generic slang.
Something I was not expecting to see was Petropoulos and Revenioti in the same film:
The full documentary about Petropoulos, Ένας κόσμος υπόγειος “An underground world”, is online:
The documentary came out in 2005, two years after Petropoulos died, and was filmed shortly before his death in 2003.
There’s a snippet of Revenioti speaking in Kaliarda in a bar. Revenioti recounts that when she was fifteen, getting started in sex work (which would have been by her interviews the early 80s, certainly not 1968), she was with a friend, hitchhiking at 1 am in drag (“not like trans women are now, we’d just put on a spot of makeup, and go”), and said “let’s get a ride with this balamo into Omonia Square” [Romani: boss, non-Roma; Kaliarda: client of sex worker]. The balamo—“some guy with a beard in a Volkswagen”—was Petropoulos; and as Paola and her friend were chatting in the back seat, he ended up correcting their Kaliarda.
(There’s the possibility that Revenioti is lying about her age—she certainly isn’t publicising the year she was born; she shifts between late and early 80s as when she got started; and I doubt she was 15 when she was editing the gay magazine Κράξιμο in 1982. Petropoulos had permanently moved to Paris in 1974.)
Petropoulos, for his part, recounts having gay sex workers over to his place to gather words for the Kaliarda dictionary (to the consternation of his concierge: “has this guy changed preference?”) When they’d run out of words, he’d proposition them to get a reaction worth recording; the one he recalls was “I’d rather swallow an entire kiosk”—Petropoulos at 40 in 1968 apparently being too unattractive for him. Or at least, that was Petropoulos’ impression.)
Petropoulos also says in that interview the following:
I don’t like the expression “marginal” (the Greek euphemism for “outcast”). It’s a faggot word (πούστικη). They are people of the underworld. And they are downtrodden by not just the bourgeoisie, but the proletariat, which is supposedly so progressive. And the communists. It’s very easy for communists to tread on the junkie. But the junkie is for me much more of a revolutionary than a communist.
The polysemy of πούστικη (in colloquial Greek: “dishonourable, dishonest”) is something I don’t expect Petropoulos to hide from; but it’s still quite discordant, given he was the guy documenting what the poustides spoke. Anyone who expects the actual proletariat to be socially progressive has really not met many proletarians. And yeah, sneering at the lumpen-proletariat is one of the more socially regressive things Marxists have done. But the rebellion for rebellion’s sake that Petropoulos admires is nihilist, and I’m not convinced it’s that helpful to the groups he was documenting.
Then again, I’m harsh on Petropoulos, and I’m bourgeois and straight. Paola, who is trans and was in the lumpen-proletariat, admires him. That means something, I guess.