Olympia Milk Bar

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My beautician – a woman with deep reserves of beauty and guile, an abiding love of cherry red Mixmasters and the proclivity to whip up a salted caramel body butter at the merest hint of dry skin – suggests we meet at The Olympia.

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Through concertina doors we spill into the gloom, the Tin Lid’s chatter silenced briefly, replaced by his breathing, suddenly audible and rapid.

Lodged in the gullet of Parramatta Road, Stanmore, the Olympia Milk Bar is the stuff of legend. It is papered in memory, glued together by nostalgia and flapping tape, and within seconds I can sense the layers of story and tale, myth legend and rumour rife. The Beautician lays a perfectly moisturised hand on the formica table and asks what we’re having? The Tin Lid needs no further encouragement and quickly finds his voice, stumbling over itself to order a caramel milkshake. I order tea…

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She has been coming here for years, since solo Sunday dates to the Stanmore Twin to watch the $10-double screening at the age of 15. That was in 1991, and in those days the Olympia was fully lit, with chocolate in the display boxes that now lie barren, flapping disconsolately in time with the tape. The owner was moribund then, she reckons, watching warily from behind the counter…

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I dig deeper, curious about this curiosity, scratching a surface rich in supposition, like the skin on gold-top milk, taut with creamy expectation. A social media swoop offers up the Olympia Milk Bar Fan Club on Facebook, complete with over 2000 members. Woven into the threads are warnings to show respect to the proprietor, a Mr Fotiou, who has often asked no photos be taken of the place.

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The Beautician says she can see the old fella, over the Tin Lid’s shoulder. He can see my interest, and watches as I capture this shadowy world on ‘film’: on this occasion, he seems to take no offence.

I mean no disrespect Mr Fotiou – this space, your space, is an arrhythmia, a staccato beat within the daily drone. It is a thing of quiet, faded beauty, patterns repeated until the lino wears so thin it shines.

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And in this space is the rubble of a life picked through by time. I know as little as everyone else about Mr Fotiou’s story, and he remains tightlipped, serving the added-on ham and cheese sandwich to the table in mute fashion. The notes he returns with, to balance the red twenty I hand him, are cool and folded, from deep within his apron.

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Originally a billiard room – part of the skating rink that once stood next door, the previous incarnation of the cinema, now, too, ripped out at the roots – the Olympia Milk Bar opened in 1939 in association with the Olympia Picture Theatre, which replaced the skating rink. It was, in turn, replaced by the Stanmore Twin, upon which site now squats cookie-cutter apartments that jar against the history of this place.

Courtesy of f8 Group

Courtesy of f8 Group

Upstairs was once a hair parlour, known as the Olympia Salon, and reportedly run by Mr Fotiou’s wife and sister-in-law. Because Mr Fotiou has not always been the sole proprietor, alone in his workplace in the dark. He had a brother…

According to Janice Rowe, who skated at the rink in the ’60s, the Fotiou brothers who ran the Olympia – John and Nick – knocked through the walls so the skaters could slide up to the counter without having to leave the rink. Turns out it didn’t work out so well, with plenty of spilt milk and bruised pins, so the wall was reinstated, the skaters forced to remove their skates before ordering a milkshake.

There were glory years for a while, the Olympia packed with milkshaken teens and bursting with light, laughter and sound, crowded with late supper-eaters and smelling of steak.Those times didn’t last, though. they rarely do.

Legend has it that one of the brothers made a promise to the other on his deathbed, to never change anything of the milk bar that they once ran together. Which explains the vault of faded history on display, and why no-one knows if Mr Fotiou is Nick or John…

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Some people consider the Olympia a glitch in the matrix, a haunted spectre of a long-dead age.  And they may have a point: George Poulos – known as The General – was the proprietor of the Olympia’s sister milk bar in Summer Hill, The Rio. He recently tumbled from this mortal coil, aged in his 90s and his death marks the steadfast passing of an era, finite resources from the past sifting away on the winds of time.

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But to those of us who treasure the dank dark corners of the past, who relish a boarded-up beauty and the quiet solitude of a man who knows not only many ages but the bus timetables for Parramatta Road, the Olympia is a haven. Long may she last.

 

 

Home of the brave

In an effort to maintain my frenetic search for Australiana, and in a fit of wild-eyed idealism, I packed the Tin Lid and the Cowboy into the Holden and pointed her nose to Soviet wastes of Homebush and the Royal Easter Show.

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What better environment to bear witness to the deranged mania of our cultural psyche than an oversized paddock swarming with small humans high on sugar and roaring with adrenalin, mobs of cattle lowing with good health, outlaw clowns, balls of fluff that careen into ankles with squeaking abandon, roustabouts clutching half-crushed cans of brew and harried parents with fairy floss smeared across their peripheral vision?

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This raging maelstrom is the crucible of Australiana: a small child coos lovingly at a helium-filled bunny snared to her wrist; an old bushie adjusts his hat to better see the young stags riding stallions in the rodeo; working dogs yip and holler, tucking sheep into corners as neatly as cobwebs. A stock whip cracks the air like a rifle, quivering knees or hearts depending on your view, and a sheep-handler sings a Kylie song out of key.

Here Chiko rolls and Dagwood dogs parry for supremacy, the doughnut stand puffs cinnamon into the air to attract its prey and pizza comes in cones. Here apples are juiced in front of you, offering a tart taste of the highlands, slabs of meat roast in the open and you get to have a beer with Duncan…

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The stark truth though is it is the cheese-on-a-stick stall that they queue for, lines snaking with sinuous indecency. A small sign in each booth reads; Hold on to Hope, a gentle message for those struggling with life. It’s a curious marriage, cheese-on-a-stick and hope. Perhaps the message is reassurance that if you can get cheese to stick on a stick anything is possible.

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Here ugg boots mate with flannelette in broad daylight and merry-go-rounds have heritage orders. Sensible shoes carry middle-aged knitters to the wool display passing Kermit and Miss Piggy, who hang suspended from their feet and, though clearly indisposed and eager to clamber down, are impossible to win.

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The wooden monkey racetrack tests the Cowboy’s prowess and his dismal failure does not go unnoticed, however a rapid retreat into the arms of a horse named Stan lessens the blow:

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Beneath a big-wheel shadow too small for its owner we find what we have come for, a barn that smells of the crush of fresh straw and the acrid smell of urine. It is fat with infants – human, poultry, bovine, ovine and swine – and life burgeons from the seams like jam from a well-held sandwich.

Obeying strict stroller parking instructions we duck to enter, and the Tin Lid hurls himself  in the teeming melee – he has found his mob…

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The public order riot squad lingers outside twiddling its thumbs, anxious to quell expected carnage. The bawking, squawking, bleating oink of the animal sheds does little to rearrange stultified expressions of derision, though a lone oik attracts attention, low-slung dacks and a tattoo of a Chinese symbol on his upper arm (which may or may not read #66 chicken chow mein) a dead giveaway of his criminal intent.

In the dairy shed a bored ringer cruises Facebook, a beer at his feet, his stock oblivious to his distraction;

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While in the poultry shed the art section cuddles up close to the Pigeon Fanciers Association. This little gem says it all really:

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In a quiet corner there is evidence of fowl play – a paper plate despoiled by sauce and sticky fingerprints, tiny bones littering the straw bale next to it, serve to remind of the tenuous nature of this show and tell…

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The Country Women’s Association beckons. A nice sit down and a cuppa is the ticket, before a stroll through the cake decorating pavilion, a shrine to iced invention and the dark arts.

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Closely followed by the fruit cake display…

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The necessary deliverance from this atavistic alchemy comes in the form of cold beer and a leather-carcassed biker slouched against a temporary bar discussing the drought out west with a mob of weathered stockmen, weary after a week in the city.

And as the sun melts from the sky smearing gold and crimson across the horizon the show comes into its own. The fading light sparks a flurry of fluorescence, neon flares stab and fizz and a cast of carnies loom from the darkened reaches of churning machines.

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Rides emit a shrill pitch, lights flash and sparkle and the tension mounts, an amplified unease that heralds the birth of night.

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Sideshow alley is the Apocalypse Now in this twisted grimace of entertainment, where life bellows in angry rebellion, strobe-lit in hot pink and lurid green. It is a giant step from fluffy bunnies to this greased oblivion, but the Tin Lid takes the steep learning curve in his stride, howling back his appreciation, slicing the air with a whirling blur of light that shrieks the opening chords to Waltzing Matilda.

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It is the revelry of fools, a poisoned spurt of excess gilded by feel-good fantasy, yet I cannot wipe the grin from my face and the boys know no limits, cramming hot chips slathered in chicken salt into mouths sluiced with saliva.

This is the home of the brave, an unmanned crossroads deep in the heart of Australiana.