Diplomat adjusting to New Zealand tastes

16:00, Dec 13 2013
Michalis Rokas
MICHALIS ROKAS: When you come to New Zealand, you don't come for the food. It's not well known. The seafood here is fantastic.

Last Christmas was Greek-born Michalis Rokas' first of a four-year term in New Zealand as the European Union's charge d'affaires.

He stayed in Wellington rather than go home to Europe with its familiar midwinter Christmas traditions and tastes. "It would have been odd to leave summer and go back for winter," he says.

The exotic version of Christmas 2012 he enjoyed was as a guest of the Chilean ambassador who entertained family, friends and diplomats. "Also in Chile there are lots of traditions. The residence was fantastically decorated, presents were exchanged, all the kids were there."

The fun of the day outweighed the food in his mind and possibly will this year, again in Wellington. "It will be with friends. We're still making plans as to who will cook."

It almost certainly won't be him. He will probably confine himself to choosing good wine. "I cook to survive," he says.

Rokas is a food buff and also needs to entertain, but he relies on a trusted caterer and Wellington's restaurants. "Wellington has surprisingly good food. When you come to New Zealand, you don't come for the food. It's not well known. The seafood here is fantastic. In Europe we love oysters. New Zealand oysters are amazing."

He can, after nearly two years, reel off a list of New Zealand fish, although he has still to organise a fishing trip in Wellington. Even the harbour, he has heard, has fish worth catching.

The 49-year-old remembers the Christmases and New Years of his childhood. His mother is an excellent cook and, like others in Athens where he was brought up and where his parents still live, prepared Greek traditional festive food. Christmas dinner was " just a good meal" Rokas says. But at New Year there was turkey with chestnut stuffing and vasilopita pie "like a cake, cut up on New Year's Day, one slice to every member of the family, with a little coin or pendant inside, and the person who gets the slice with the pendant has luck for the whole year".

For New Year his mother also made traditional Greek sweets including melomakarona – made of honey, olive oil and flour – and kourabiedes, "with crushed almonds and powdered sugar on top. In every house there would be a platter of these two sweets."

Another Greek New Year food tradition was to crush a pomegranate, tidily held in a plastic bag, on the doorstep, and distribute the seeds for the family to eat for good luck. The pomegranate, in season in Greece at Christmas, is a Christmas symbol on cards, calendars and as ornaments. "I was given a silver one."

Even in hard times, says Rokas, Christmas in Europe is wonderful. If Wadestown, where he lives, was in Greece or Belgium – where he has lived most of his life – the suburb would be elaborately decorated for Christmas, outside and inside the houses.

Rokas studied economics at university in Athens and then "took the step towards being an EU official" by studying European economics in Brussels for a masters degree. [jobs]." He wanted to be part of an organisation that brought European countries closer together and into a single market "but was also trying to make sure conflicts were a thing of the past".

The EU delegation to New Zealand was established in 2004. When Rokas arrived in January last year, there was a delegation of five. Next year it will grow to 11.

He meets regularly with diplomats from the eight EU member states that have embassies and high commissions in Wellington and helps co-ordinate them. He is also charged with developing and maintaining bilateral relationships in many areas.

Rokas' happy memories of his childhood extend far beyond the festive season. His father is an architect who has three modest cinemas quite close to the centre of Athens.

"As a kid, I was in and out of movies and I could take my friends for free." In a sense that influenced his life, "because you were exposed to the world, not only American movies but good French and German and Italian movies. Since I was very young, I was immediately exposed to the world, in Greece."


The Dominion Post