Saturday, January 14, 2017


The diminutive old man with the care-worn, drawn cheeks and the aquiline nose kneels rhythmically as he lovingly lowers his ear over the mouth of the clarinet. Then, slowly, his eyes half closed in ecstasy, he takes an inordinately deep puff of his cigarette, the type that only the Greeks can describe as σέρτικο, sensuously drawing the smoke deep into his lungs at the same time that he draws the sonorous notes of the clarinet from its mouth, deep into his soul. With a flourish, this sprightly octogenarian allows a great sigh to escape from the abyss within him, and immediately leaps up, beating the dust from his τσαρούχι, as if banishing his cares and woes forever, twirls around and, without losing time to the inexorable beat emanating from his chest, loses himself in the epic masculine majesty of a tsamiko that is as much from the heart as from the clarinet itself. Indeed, it is impossible to distinguish one from the other. 
If a single man could personify the region of Epirus, then undoubtedly that man is the late Giorgos Konstantinidis, whose loss, just before Christmas left the Greek community of Melbourne so much the poorer. Small and lean, with a physique toughened and forged in the bleak, minimalist mountain landscapes of Konitsa in Epirus, there was no pleonasm of flesh or feature about him, save for his luxurious, upturned moustache, the likes of which would turn Stalin green with envy. Here indeed was a man, who, though cast in the mould of privation, was possessed of an inexorable zest for life.
A founding member of the Panepirotic Federation of Australia, I knew him from my childhood days, marching with him at the annual Independence Day march to the Shrine. Back then, he would march proudly at the helm of a group of youths that included his daughter, nieces and nephews. He continued to do so throughout his life, showing no sign of slacking, as he marched proudly in step, turning his head sharply to the right, in order to greet the officials, one year resplendent in his foustanella, the next, in the μπουραζάνες that comprise the daily traditional costume of the Epirotes, the one constant in an ever-changing world. When we wanted to obtain an impression of what a traditional Epirot looked like or gain a few tips as to how the traditional Epirot comported himself, Giorgos Konstantinidis was our constant point of reference. After the death of my great-grandmother, when the pain of loss became too great to bear, I would seek refuge in his conversation, for he, like her was one of the last authentic repositories of the riches of the Epirotic dialect, the words falling of his tongue as mellifluously as the notes of the clarinet which he so adored. Giorgos Konstantinidis’ speech was chthonic. Having its origin in the land that according to legend was held to lead to the underworld, his speech emerged from the infinite chasm of the primieval Epirotic tradition, careful, considered and unconsciously idiomatic. It was the kind of speech that compelled silence and introspection, tying our generation, imperceptibly but inexorably, to the generation that came before. As such he was and even beyond the grave, still remains, a stalwart of the past, persisting in the present, in order to propel us forward to the future.

Ensconced every year since 2004 within the cultural tent of the Panepirotic Federation of Australia at the Antipodes Festival, surrounded by the various accoutrements comprising the re-enactment of a traditional Epirotic home, Giorgos Konstantinidis looked and felt at home, every part the image of an Epirot shepherd. Cheerfully treating passersby to some home made tsipouro, every so often he would grabs his klitsa and ring the cattle bells hanging from the tent emitting shepherd’s whistles and cries as he did so. Those who passed by, especially tourists, would view this wonderful phenomenon in natural habitat, that was, by virtue of his capacity to transcend time, in no way anachronistic, with awe and delight. Most were sufficiently moved so as to request to be photographed with him, or to drag their most often reluctant progeny, kicking and screaming, also to be immortalised with him in digital clarity. Within a few seconds of having his arms around them, they became calm and happy for this doting grandfather had a remarkable way with children.
A few minutes later, the indefatigable Giorgos Konstantinidis would once more be on the move. The traditional Epirot musicians would arrive and he, naturally, would be called upon to lead the dance, doing so with remarkable gracefulness of poise and noteworthy agility. Artfully placing a cigarette in him mouth, he would throw his skoufo down onto the ground disdainfully, as if expressing his complete and utter unattachment to the accoutrements of this world and dance around it, a titanic, elemental Kazantzakian figure, if there ever was one. Moments later, he would cast a side glance at me, a bespectacled ersatz anachronism masquerading as an Epirot, that glance conveying a mute command for me to follow his lead. 
Satisfied that everything was then in order, his roving eye would scan the enthralled crowd of onlookers. Ultimately, he would zoom in on one Asian lady with a bemused and nervous expression on her face. Before she had time to realise the fact, the tsamiko predator had already pounced and instantaneously lured her into the labyrinthine circle of the dance, a potent symbol of life itself, there to be instructed by a true master of the art.
As a beloved and instantly recognisable figure at the Antipodes Festival, the unassuming and completely unselfconscious Giorgos Konstantinidis well deserved the appellation of Festival Mascot. If one was to put words in his mouth, then it is quite possible that he would rationalise his motivation for spending forty-eight hours straight in a plastic tent on Lonsdale Street every year, as a desire to exemplify and thus pass on tradition. Yet this would only be partially correct. He is did not set out to re-enacting a dead tradition. Instead he constantly endeavoured to find a way to articulate harmoniously, a way of life that he believed, forms the basis of our identity, which lived within him. As one of the few living links with that authenticity, he was a Festival highlight and was cherished as such, especially by those who half in horror, half in glee, sought to evade his roving klitsa, as well as his bespectacled sidekick.
This year, the spirit of the indefatigable Giorgos Konstantinidis, who was accompanied to his grave by the laments of the Epirotic clarinet he so loved, will imbue everything that will transpire at the Epirus Cultural Tent at the Festival and in all endeavours of the Epirot community in Melbourne, for we cannot understand our communal life without him. Though without his corporeal presence we are much diminished, it is in the keeping of his values, his love of tradition and family which he understood to embrace the entire community, that we must seek to ensure his, along with so many irreplaceable others like him, place in posterity and so retain our sense of self, generations into the future.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 14 January 2017

Saturday, December 24, 2016


«Καλά δε νιώθς; Μη μ’ βανς ομελέττα, αφού δεν αρταίνουμι».
My grandmother placed the pan on the table and stared at me in horror. If looks were capable of parakinesis, then that stare would have had me lifted from the kitchen table, packed, despatched to the airport and bundled onto the next available flight back to Melbourne. This was due to the fact that since my arrival in the motherland, there to spend my Christmas on Mount Penteli with my maternal grandmother, she had been continuously lecturing me about my hideous (according to her) Samian accent.
“You are supposed to have been educated,” she would ponder. “How is it possible that you are still speaking in that horribly perverted way? How did they let you graduate high school?”
According to my grandmother, given the right factors, accents were transmutable. Thus, once one had completed high school, any rural accent they may have had the misfortune to have inherited by birth and geography would immediately and seamlessly transform into Athenian. My defence, which was that we all spoke Samian at home and didn’t know any Athenians was thus deemed invalid, since there was no doubt that I had finished high school, the fact that I had done so in Melbourne, rather than Athens, apparently having no appreciable effect upon the expected dialectic transformation.
“We have a certain standing in this neighbourhood,” my grandmother informed me, almost immediately after I had settled in. “You will NOT walk these streets speaking that vulgar tongue. I will not have our named shamed. If you must indulge your perversions, at least do so discreetly only within these four walls.”
Speaking Athenian was tough. Samian is economical, methodically removing all unnecessary and probably most necessary vowels. The cluster of ensuing consonants that the tongue must hurdle gives one time to pause and consider exactly what it is they are communicating. Not so with Athenian, which spurts from the mouths of its native speakers with the exuberance of a water fountain, spraying all those in the vicinity with an unrelenting lexical word jet.
Then there was the matter of vocabulary. Try as I might, I could not get the local fruiterer to understand what I meant when I spoke learnedly and enthusiastically about the cultivation of μπουρνέλλες back home, because δαμάσκηνα, the word Athenians employ to denote the plum, was unknown to me at the time. By that stage, I had lost any credibility I may have had with the fruiterer anyway, as, in fulfilment of my grandmother’s wishes that I complete her Christmas shopping, I made my debut in the shop by dutifully asking for κρεμμυδάκια, expressing incredulity when the fruiterer produced what I knew back home to be σπρινγκάνια. In my mind, and to this day I maintain that it makes logical sense, κρεμμυδάκια should be that which they proclaim: small onions.
The look of horror my grandmother gave me that fateful Christmas Eve was thus motivated by sheer exasperation. Not only was her antipodean grandson a Samian-speaking yokel, untouched by the benefits of education and western civilisation as a whole, now he was proving that there truly are no limits to the depths of his depravity, by uttering aphorisms in the manner and style of her own native and long-suppressed patois: the dialect of Ioannina.
“How quaint, he’s trying to speak Greek” my grandmother’s neighbour remarked, as she angled her aquiline nose into her coffee cup. “What is he saying?”
At that time, the film “Basic Instinct” had just been released in Greece. I had not seen it, but had been told that it involved a particularly murderous icepick. As I observed the camber of the neighbour’s nose, it assumed the sheen of steel in the gloom of the Pentelic kitchen. I had visions of detaching it from her face and using it to crush some ice of my own.
I despised her for two reasons, for the first of which she bore no blame. For in a manner deeply disquieting, she looked exactly like Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett, with the same furrowed brow and cheeks, even down to the stiff wiry hairstyle and the slightly slanted, yellow flecked, Stalinesque eyes.
Indeed it was those eyes that caught my eye and my ire earlier that day. After spending days ensconced in my grandmother’s kitchen mulling over times past, receiving sage advice and preparing for Christmas, I was bored. So bored in fact, that I offered to weed, prune and cultivate my grandmother’s garden, which was displaying signs of advanced rebellion from her authoritarian rule, this having been a particularly mild winter on the mountain. My grandmother too, Ι supposed, must have been bored, for she consented, even though this meant that I would be exposed to the linguistic scrutiny of the entire neighbourhood. Not having anticipated that a spot of gardening would be on my itinerary, I had neglected to pack suitable clothing, which is how I found myself in my grandmother’s front garden dressed in my grandmother’s lilac tracksuit, with matching lilac and white tiger print fleecy top and a pair of her wooden τσόκαρα, wielding a hoe with the determination of a boy who knows that he is so extremely comfortable with his sexuality, that he hath no need to protest too much. I proceeded to pull, heave, hoe and plough with gusto.
When Jeff Kennett spoke, she did so in the same rasping, reedy tones of her Melburnian doppelganger: «Μέσα είναι η κυρά σου;» I realised at once that I had been weighed and found to have been the help. Furthermore, from her superior tone, I deduced that I was considered to be the help of Albanian extraction and resolved to play the part, if anything, to enhance the standing of my maternal progenitor’s progenitor among her peers, as a lady who could and would, command help, when the need for such help arose.
“Është brenda,” I gestured towards the front door, adding in lisping broken Greek to add verisimilitude: «Κυρά μέσα είναι.»
As I completed my pruning, I wondered whether a Greek Jeff Kennett would nationalise Albanian domestic servants, just so that he could have the pleasure of privatising them. With that, having showered and adorned myself in garments of a less offensive hue, I hastened to the kitchen for the selamlik.
“This is my grandson, Kostas,” my grandmother announced with the poise of a dowager Sultan.
“But isn’t that the Αλβανάκι you’ve got digging for you outside?” Jeff Kennett asked.
“Please say that the Αλβανάκι is a different person, so I can go out and pretend to be him and thus confuse and confound Jeff Kennett,” I prayed, looking at my grandmother pleadingly.
My grandmother caught my eye and I saw the corner of her spirit levelled mouth fight to suppress a smile. Yet such indulgences as those I craved were not to be entertained.
“No, this is my grandson. He is over from Australia, to spend Christmas with me.”
“Oh, maybe that’s why I couldn’t understand what he said. I could have sworn he was Albanian. Mind you, these Albanians….Oh get off me Kari, stop being a Christmas pest,” Jeff Kennett shouted angrily as she attempted to shoo my eponymously named grandmother’s dog who was snuffling her feet.
I burst out laughing.
“What’s funny,” Jeff Kennett snarled.
“Well," I said, "It’s just that Kar is Albanian for penis,” I informed her.
“I don’t get it,” she frowned. “Are you an Αλβανάκι, or are you the grandson from Australia?”
It was at this point, that my grandmother attempted to interpose an omelette between myself and my interlocutor, eliciting the blast of Ioannite phraseology that so incensed her.
«Δεν αρταίνομαι,» means that I’m fasting,” I explained to Jeff Kennett. “It means the same thing as «νηστεύω.» I’m fasting for Christmas.”
“Really?” Jeff Kennett marvelled. “In Albanian? Do you Albanians fast too? But of course, it makes sense. Only Albanians go to church nowadays anyway.” My grandmother rolled her eyes, albeit with grace and dignity.
When Jeff Kennett finally withdrew her presence, my grandmother treated me to the longest and most impassioned stream of Epirotic pejoratives, uttered in the heaviest of accents I had ever heard. “Stupid old toad,” she finally concluded. “With her superior airs. Do you know her son has been supposedly studying dentistry in London for the past ten years?”
“Well, I came all the way to Athens to escape Jeff Kennett,” I replied. “A ten year sojourn in London to escape the same Jeff Kennett seems perfectly reasonable to me.”
That Pentelic Christmas formed a watershed in our relationship. Notably because it was the first of many Christmases spent with one of the most linguistically complex, fascinating and loving people I have ever known. But even more so because from that time, until the day she died, some two decades later, every single one of our Christmas greetings was prefaced by the following: «Φύγε από πάνω μου Κάρυ, μη μ’ενοχλείς Χριστουγεννιάτικα.» And it is in that expansive spirit that I extend to all, the greetings of the Season.
Saturday 24 December 2016

Saturday, December 17, 2016


 drive past the Nisyrian Society club building on Sydney Road, Brunswick at least once a week. On its be-curtained door, a sign proclaims forbiddingly, “Members Only.” This, I find interesting, because in the two decades that I have been driving past this imposing edifice, not once have I seen droves of aroused non-members lining up before this mysterious portal, in an attempt to penetrate the Nisyrians’ inner sanctum. Indeed, come to think of it, I have never actually seen the door actually open.

Nonetheless, it is interesting how we Greek-Australians identify or self-identify our own sub-cultural groups with reference to their buildings. Quite simply, in the common consciousness, if one does not have a building, one does not manifest themselves in any meaningful way within the broader Greek community, hence the resistance, especially of the older generations to any change in the real asset base of any given organization. Thus, much more focus is expended in maintaining or paying off unproductive assets, than in actually doing that which our regional brotherhoods were founded to achieve in the first place, which is to link people of the same background together and create cohesive micro-communities.

My own club, the Pansamian Brotherhood of Melbourne, has recently found this out of itself. Despite the Iphigenias of doom and destruction prophesying oblivion ensuing the sale of our clubhouse in Brunswick, we still meet and hold the same functions as we did before, as the exploration of the connections between people, is the main aim, realizing that a clubhouse, though admirable in many respects, is not the organization itself. When it becomes a carapace, excluding others and ossifying practices that are no longer relevant to the change face of the community, the clubhouse can actually become, an agent of a club’s destruction.

In the municipalities of Darebin and Moreland alone, there exist over twenty Greek regional clubs, most of whom own a clubhouse but none of whom until now have ever co-ordinated their efforts. Yet when one drives past or enters these structures, one thing becomes striking: Though these clubhouses and the clubs themselves are in their municipalities, they are not of their municipalities. That is, though rate-paying, that have little if no involvement in their broader communities, contributing nothing substantial to them. Rather than being an expression or reflection of the Greeks residing in those municipalities, their doors serve as portals to an isolation chamber, whose sole purpose is to hermetically seal its members from anything taking place “outside,” even when they are operating as social centres for the local elderly, as many of these clubs now are.

The reason for this is simple. When we Greek-Australians refer to our “regional” clubs, the word here does not denote the regions of the city in which we live, but rather, the regions in Greece from which we derive our ancestry. Consequently, “local” or “regional” clubs are anything but what they imply, purporting to serve instead, the needs of a geographically widespread population of Greeks with the same region, many of whom have little or no emotional, economical or social concerns or attachment to the area in which their club building is situated.

This is of concern because it is the area in which we live, the people who we see in our everyday social interactions that play a large part in the formulation of our personal identity. Where there exists no structure or forum within which a native Australian Greek local community can arise, one in which the Greek identity of emerging generations can be explored with the context of their everyday life, their relationship to their local environment and most importantly their relationship to other Greek-Australians in the course of their daily life, then such paltry networks as the topicistic brotherhoods provide become stale, rarefied and irrelevant to the point where the descendants of their members no longer identify with them and cease to attend them.

A corollary to this, is the fact that our community is primarily organized around such insular brotherhoods and not having as a criterion, the local areas in which Greek-Australians reside, contributes to language and identity loss. For if we live in our local communities disparate and unable to co-ordinate social activities with the Greeks of our own area, then our involvement in our brotherhood has and will continue to take on a tokenistic flavor, where the Greek language and the Greek identity, rather than being integrated into the warp and weft of mainstream society as a community language and a constituent identity of the broader Australian social fabric, is relegated to the margins as an isolated and irrelevant ancestral idiom, that has nothing to contribute to our daily endeavours as Australians and is thus taken out for a time and aired sparingly, after which time, it is generally discarded.

What is astounding is the fact that after a sojourn of a little more than a century in Victoria, we are yet to articulate a viable Australian Greek identity, one that is pertinent and germane to our experience in this country and which could provide a unique perspective and point of reference, in a truly multicultural society. By enclosing ourselves almost exclusively within the carapace of our brotherhoods, we have not only lost an opportunity to engage and add value to the mainstream: we have, by refusing to integrate our identity within the broader discourse, ensured the irrelevancy and ultimate failure of Hellenism as a discourse within Australia, altogether.

It is for this reason, that Hellenism Victoria, an initiative primarily of brotherhoods and clubs of the Darebin and Moreland municipalities must succeed. Its proponents simply cannot fathom how such a large agglomeration of with a few notable exceptions, stagnating and insular, Greek organizations has had little or no impact not only on the local municipality but also upon the Greeks living within it. They point to second generation, generally time-poor parents who cannot make the trip to Oakleigh on a regular basis “to get their [ersatz] Greek on” and lament the fact that their children are growing up disconnected to the Greek families in the neighbourhoods and streets around them, without access to Greek language childcare or even local non-Greek-place of-origin activities, which could instill a sense an intrinsic sense of belonging to something other than a mere institution – a community and a way of life. They comment that the existing clubs are cold, forbidding and irrelevant to those who do not derive from the area in Greece they represent, or whose parents are not on the committee of management and their sphere of action is, at any rate, quite limited. They also point out that the centralization of Greek endeavor within the CBD, while valuable, is not a panacea and can in no way replace pursuing organized Hellenism on the suburban, daily level.

Hellenism Victoria is therefore an endeavor to transmute the raw elements of Hellenism into something relevant to the place in which we all live. It is an attempt to provide some sort of cohesion in the face of the alarming unravelling of the structures of mutual obligation and recognition that have hitherto characterized our community, dispensing with a tribal framework which is fast becoming obsolete.

The manner in which Hellenism Victoria seeks to achieve the localization and revitalization of the Greek identity in the municipalities in which its constituents exist, is by co-ordinating a joint approach to issues of integration, socialization and manifestation of one’s identity via interested pre-existing clubs, in a spirit of mutual co-operation. Rather than being a “club for clubs” as some have commented, it represents the commencement of a concerted effort to rethink the parameters and structures of Australian Hellenism, without discarding, excluding or disparaging existing community stakeholders, but rather by including them in and making them responsible  a bold and exciting new initiative where their own histories and tribal affiliations are left intact, but liberating them sufficiently to allow them to cater to the needs of the broader, local and tribally unaffiliated Greek community, through competitions, joint events and most importantly, festivals that will see local Greeks who live close to each other being able to relate to each other as Australian Greeks, and not as members of an obscure tribe whose arcane rites have been discarded even in its place of origin.

This remarkable attempt at rebooting our community by Hellenism Victoria deserves our support and is historically significant as it represents the first time in our age that hitherto hidebound structures are attempting in concert, to radically reposition themselves in order to address the huge demographic and sociological issues that will challenge the existence of a coherent Greek community in Melbourne in the future. Whether or not, as an experiment, Hellenism Victoria will succeed depends, largely on the breadth and clarity of its proponents’ vision, the ability of existing community groups to work together but ultimately, on us.

First published in NKEE on Saturday, 17 December 2016

Saturday, December 10, 2016


The last time I saw the august leader of the opposition, Bill Shorten, I was just tucking into a feast of roast lamb at the glorious Philhellene restaurant in Moonee Ponds. In he walked, and a barely concealed gasp was emitted from the mouths of most of the patrons. “Hey that’s Bill Shorten,” one elderly lady seated a few tables away from me gushed. “Let’s go and say hello.” “Leave the poor bugger alone,” her husband said. “He has enough on his plate without having to deal with the likes of us, interrupting his tea. Still, good of him to support businesses in his electorate.” Quite part from the fact that I appreciated immensely the husband’s subtle play on the word plate, I was quite taken aback by what next ensued. Bill Shorten sat down with his companions and ate, unmolested and uninterrupted by journalists, patrons, autograph hunters or client’s seeking favours, as would have been the case in our ancestral homeland. This made be proud to be Australian.
Try as you might, you can’t ignore the Greek presence in the Federal Seat of Maribyrnong. Though not in one’s face, and not prone to congregate in large, noticeable numbers, except around the local shopping centres, (notably, the coffee and cake shops purporting to be Greek are awful, though the restaurants, Philhellene, Meltemi, Lindos and Nobel, a novel name for a Greek restaurant if there ever was one, are local landmarks)nevertheless the Greeks are there, their existence denoted often by the presence of olive trees in the front yard, or a brief whiff off incense emanating from a given home, as one drives past. In the summer, nine out of ten leather-tanned, white singleted, blue-shorted and leather sandaled elderly men driving around the streets of the electorate with a multitude of salvaged timbers in their trailer, tend also to be Greek. Our own family legend holds that we were the second Greek family to settle in Essendon, the heartland of the electorate, in 1954, though I have no way of proving this.
What having deep roots in one’s local area does do, however, is give you an enhanced sense of community, and of history. As I traverse the streets of my homeland, a myriad of family and village connections assume the form of an interconnected web in my mind. There on the right, my cousin’s house. Further down the street, the homes of people from either my mother, or father’s villages, continuing a social network of support and mutual assistance that transcends both time and borders. Here, the home of a friend from Greek school. There, the home of our local priest. On the main road, the local branch of the Delphi Bank. In the new estates now currently being built up with hideous box like constructions, lay the paddocks from which I would help by grandfather gather χόρτα. Up the road, the Child and Maternal Health Centre, which as built by the Greek community of East Keilor as a local club, until internecine squabbles caused the council to confiscate the building and put it to better use. Furthermore, in our electorate, there are four significant Greek Orthodox parishes: Panagia Soumela East Keilor, Saint Dimitrios Ascot Vale, Agia Paraskevi St Albans and Apostolos Andreas Sunshine. The City of Moonee Valley, in which the first two aforementioned churches are situated, where my grandparents settled, my parents grew up and into which I was born and introduced into a Greek speaking community, is without a doubt my πατρίδα. Without it, my sense of my own identity, both as a Greek and as an Australian would be markedly different to what it is today.
It is for this reason, more than any other, the almost total identification that the electorate of Maribyrnong Greeks have with their local community, that Bill Shorten’s failure to include Greek among the languages in which he expressed his Season’s Greetings in a card sent to his constituents, appears to have incensed the Greek community so much, as well as mystified it, for by all accounts, Bill Shorten has established a close relationship with the local Greek community of his electorate and has consulted widely and often with its leadership.
Granted, considering that we have been present in the electorate for over sixty years, one could argue that Bill Shorten, in omitting Greek from the other languages appearing in his card, these being Vietnamese, Maltese, Chinese, Italian, Korean, Spanish, French, Croatian, Arabic and Turkish, is paying us a backhand compliment, in that he is considering us so part of the fabric of the electorate, that no further effort is required to ‘accommodate’ us. The presence of an Italian greeting on that card would contradict such an assertion. The Italian community’s arrival to the electorate precedes our own and given the rate of language loss within its community, it is arguable that Greek is more widespread as a spoken language. Certainly, the Greek language is taught in over ten schools within the electorate, suggesting it is a major language within the electorate. Visiting the local cemetery, one notices that approximately a quarter of the gravestones are inscribed in Greek. Our ethnolinguistic roots within the electorate are thus more than merely superficial and its Greeks have not been able to understand why their elected representative would take the trouble to offer greetings in French or Korean, languages that few speak within the electorate and not the language of a major ethnic group that has contributed so much to the evolution of the electorate of Maribyrnong, and which for a matter of fact has been a constant en masse supporter of that elected representative’s party.
As the Greek language declines in use, (and certainly within the electorate of Maribyrnong, the Greek inscriptions or public signs that were once placed in the shop fronts of old Greek business, giving the area a cosmopolitan atmosphere are almost extinct, as the latter generations explore other employment opportunities), it is logical for the Greek community to become defensive, or possibly even hysterical about each perceived slight or insult, that is seen to diminish its importance or impugn its existence. Bill Shorten’s paralepsis however, does not give rise to hysteria. Instead, the Greeks, both of Greece and Cyprus, in his electorate are well justified in feeling affronted because after the passage of so many decades, it should have been axiomatic that Greek was a language to be included in any multilingual communication emanating from any member for Maribyrnong’s office, simply because the Greek people feel and they are right to do so, thatthey are inextricably interwoven within the history and social make-up of the area. For them, Greek is one of the native languages of the electorate.
When confronted with complaints by local Greeks at the omission of such an important electorate language from the card, myself among them, Bill Shorten’s staff seemed genuinely distressed at what they stated to be an ‘oversight’ and were extremely apologetic. What this episode teaches us however, is that we cannot and should not rely upon or assume as a given, any validation of our ethno-linguistic identity by a mainstream whose interests in this regard are not always the same as our own. The fact that omissions of this nature can take place, omissions that the Greeks of the electorate broadly felt, served to efface their existence as a social entity, even after more than half a century of active involvement within the local community, teach us that we must look inward, strengthening our own community institutions, engaging more with each other and finding meaningful ways to articulate a Greek-Australian identity not as prescribed by policy makers or by grant-givers, but rather for and of ourselves, if we are to persist as a viable, cogent and relevant entity to multicultural Australia, whether or not, we are the recipient of Season’s Greetings.

In this, Bill Shorten, who in a follow up letter to the parish priest of Saint Dimitrios in Ascot Vale commented,  "The Greek Community has had an integral role in shaping the identity of our country and the electorate of Maribyrnong, and we are richer for this experience," before wishing him: "Καλά Χριστούγεννα και Καλή Χρονιά," has the final word.

First published in NKEE on 10 December 2016

Saturday, December 03, 2016


The inscription goes further to say that the purpose of the Zosimas brothers’ sponsorship is to ensure that the book, which is a philosophical treatise summarizing the major currents of thought prevailing in Europe at that time, is distributed among Greek youth free of charge, for the purpose of their edification and the cultivation of their souls.
The breadth of the Zosimas brothers’ vision is breathtaking. Having made vast fortunes in Italy and Russia, they and many other Greek pre and post-revolution merchants and businessmen living abroad, most of whom came from Epirus, arguably the most impoverished region of the Greek world at that time, set about securing the necessary infrastructure that would ensure the viability of an emerging Greek state.
Thus, Evangelos Zappas, from Lambovo in Northern Epirus, provided the necessary funds of the revival of the modern Olympic Games. He also founded Greek schools in several Greek-populated villages and towns, all over Northern Epirus. In Constantinople, which until 1955 had a large Greek population, he also founded a complex of nurseries, primary and secondary schools, which were collectively known as the Zappeion Institute. Quite apart from funding the modern day Zappeion building in Athens, he also was deposited a large amount of money in the National Bank of Greece to provide scholarships for Greek agricultural students in order to conduct postgraduate studies in Western Europe.
George Sinas, from Moschopolis in Northern Epirus, who became chief director of the bank of Austria in turn, financed the construction of the university of Athens, a number of medical and archaeological institutions, as well as the Athens National Observatory.
Apostolos Arsakis, from Hotahova in Nothern Epirus, who at one time served as interim Prime Minister of Romania, provided large sums of money for the establishment of a female educational institution in Athens, housed in a luxurious mansions at the city center and known as the Arskeion School.
George Averoff, from Metsovo, Epirus, founded of the School of Agriculture in Larisa, funded the construction of the Evelpidon Military Academy, donated to the Athens Conservatory, and provided for the refurbishment of the Panathenian Stadium where the first modern Olympic Games were held. He also funded the completion of the National Technical University of Athens and provided a donation for building the Averoff flagship of the Greek Navy.
Christakis Zografos, from Kestorati in Northern Epirus, donated an enormous amount of money for the erection of middle level schools in Constantinople, one (the Zographeion Lyceum) in the district of Pera in Constantinople and another, a girl’s school in Yeniköy on the Bosporus, as well as sponsoring the rebuilding of a Greek library in the city. At the Universities of Munich and Paris he made an 1,000 Franc endowment for awards in the fields of Greek literature and history. He also founded a teachers college, known as the Zographeion School in Epirus.
Similarly, George Stavros, from Ioannina in Epirus, founded the National Bank of Greece and served as its first director. At the same time, he, like most of the other great Greek benefactors, provided ample funds for the construction of institutions to serve the Greek communities abroad in which they lived and thrived.
Ioannis Pangas, from Korytsa, Northern Epirus, provided the most extreme form of philanthropy yet. Not content with building schools in his hometown, on 16 August 1889, he donated his entire fortune to the Greek state and all of his possessions, as an act of philanthropy to aid the rebuilding of Athens and the growth of the panfully emerging Greek state. He retained only 1,000 drachmas per month in order to lead a decent life.
A common thread can be perceived in all the above-mentioned benefactor’s activities. They all believed that it was vital, if the Greek nation was to be liberated and stand upon its feet in the modern world, that the Greek people were educated, understood the context and zeitgeist of the region in which they lived and able to play a significant role in the broader global community, as they had done, in the countries to which they migrated, George Sinas for one, being responsible for the founding of many of Vienna’s beautiful buildings. This then is the reason why the Zosimas brothers felt it necessary to distribute philosophical treatises to the book-starved youth of Greece, for free. True emancipation, in their view, had its starting in the mind and soul and not in the physical. True liberation would be achieved only when the book worked in concert with the sword and of course the moneymen. In order to achieve this lofty goal, the book would have to be given precedence, something which along the way, the feuding hoplarchs, oligarchs and politicians of modern Greece seem to have forgotten.
For it is trite to mention that without commerce and industry and without the active involvement of its practitioners in the founding of Modern Greece, it is unlikely that the said state would have been able to get up off the ground, let alone endure as a going concern. Their example that of planned, ideologically driven but methodical benefaction, is one we here in the Antipodes could emulate and it is for this reason that community groups that have been founded and exist to celebrate Greek involvement in commerce and industry provide exciting scope, not only for organized involvement with the current cultural, social and welfare activities of the broader Greek community, but also in setting the foundations for a future.
Henry Ford was prescient when he opined: “If money is your hope for independence you will never have it. The only real security that a man will have in this world is a reserve of knowledge, experience, and ability.” However, undoubtedly, being able to target and fund endeavours that fulfill perceived needs without having to constantly go cap in hand to various government agencies and navigate the ever changing swirl of policies and priorities that dictate grants does offer a modicum of independence to a community whose current community institutions are, in their majority, outmoded, and failing their members.
Though the Greek communities of Constantinople and Alexandria have been decimated by the vicissitudes of politics and fate, their welfare is still being provided for to the present day by the generous and far-sighted donations of the Epirote benefactors over a century ago. That in itself speaks volumes as to how a Greek community, could, in partnership with commerce and industry conduct its affairs so as to independently plan its future as a coherent and cohesive whole, where as many people as possible are provided for.
Discarding the already well-worn ethos of pat on the back social clubs for wealthy Greeks that have made it, let us all embrace Greek commerce and industry community institutions that a) can provide or facilitate vocational training for young Greeks within the businesses of the community b) can mentor promising or needy young Greeks throughout their schooling or early professional life c) can identify key areas of communal need such as aged care, child care, kindergartens and Greek schools and set up coherent funding strategies, via peer funding and d) identify key areas of expansion to meet the needs of the future such as credit co-operatives, programs facilitating enhanced contact with Greece, and e) fund those engaging with and assisting newly arrived members of the Greek community. The fact that our current commerce and industry community institutions appear willing to engage in this way, with a community in transition, is as invigorating as it is inspiring. For time is of the essence…
I have in my collection, an 1805 book by the great scholar of the Greek enlightenment and bishop Evgenios Voulgaris, entitled “What Philosophers Prefer.” On the cover page, there exists an inscription informing readers that the costs for publishing this book were borne by the Zosimas brothers, wealthy businessmen from Ioannina in Epirus, who among other things, financed the construction of the Monetary Museum of Athens, the National Library, of Adamantios Korais, one of the major contributors of the Greek Enlightenment movement, the Zosimaia college in Ioannina, and an orphanage in Patmos, as well as donating significant sums to the Philiki Etaireia for the purposes of carrying out the revolution.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 3 December 2016

Saturday, November 26, 2016


My three and a half year old daughter’s favourite bedtime story goes something like this: There was once a little girl, paradoxically enough sharing the same name as her, who, in contravention of her father’s instructions, ventured into a deep, dark wood. As she inched further and further into the wood, it became progressively darker. The boughs of the trees bent lower and lower, the ivy grew thicker and more tangled, the wind picked up, becoming ever the more forceful and icy, strange sounds could be heard emanating from the gaping hollows of the gnarled tree-trunks…. «και μετά, ήρθε ο μπαμπάς και πήρε το κοριτσάκι από το χέρι, και το πήγε σπίτι του,» my daughter invariably interjects after about five minutes.

On the odd occasion, I tell her, «όχι ακόμη,» continuing my narration of an ever darkening, ever cooling, increasingly claustrophobic and lonely world. This rarely lasts for more than a minute before she interjects repeatedly and with increasing urgency, insisting: «και μετά, ήρθε ο μπαμπάς.» At this stage in her development, it is vital for her to know that μπαμπά will always be there, to clasp her hand and lead her out of the dark. This is how she consoles herself. It is also why her favourite story, is a παραμύθι.

In modern times, the words fairy story and παραμύθι are considered to be synonymous, yet in antiquity, the Greek term had decidedly different connotations. Used as a verb by Plato, (παραμυθησόμεθα) it meant to encourage or exhort, while in Herodotus and Thucydides, (παραμυθοῦμαι) it has the meaning that has persisted among traditional communities until now: to console, or to relieve, or to abate. Thus in the Deipnosophistae, Theophrastus, was held to have said that: «Παραμυθεῖται γὰρ ὁ οἶνος καὶ τὴν τοῦ γήρως δυσθυμίαν,»meaning that wine relieves or consoles, the melancholy of old age.

Similarly, the city of Paramythia, in Epirus, is, at least according to some, named thus, not because its inhabitants are particularly adept story-tellers (though I consider Paramythia to be a perfect name to give a Greek equivalent of Disneyland), but rather because its towers provided aid and safety to the local inhabitants from marauding barbarians of diverse descriptions, throughout its war-blighted history.

In his melancholy 1847 painting, also entitled «Παραμυθιά,» Greek painter Theodoros Vryzakis depicts a mother consoling her daughter on the loss of her beloved, on a backdrop of the Acropolis. The luminous folk costume of the grief-stricken women far outshines that of the ancient marbles, which loom above them, distant and disconnected and is juxtaposed against the darkness of their mourning. It is almost as if Vryzakis is insinuating that the old myths that supposedly exist to offer us guidance and consolation, are too remote and peripheral to provide us with anything remotely relevant or useful to apply to our contemporary predicament, which eerily enough, is perennially the same, throughout the ages.

Though I have been fascinated by Vryzakis’ painting from a very young age, I harbour vague childhood memories of the first time I learned of the connotation of solace to the term paramythi. These involve black-clad, harsh-browed, windswept old women visiting relatives during a time of loss and overtly handing over packages of coffee, «για παραμυθιά,» as they would say. Between the weeping, the lamenting of their fate and the inevitable gossiping that would ensue, I was incensed to come to the realisation that no fairy story was forthcoming, save maybe those myths that we weave about ourselves to convince, or rather console us, that our lives have especial meaning. Perhaps I unwittingly understood Vryzakis after all.

It was my daughter’s favourite παραμύθι as well as Vryzakis’ painting that came to mind during an exchange over coffee, with a couple of friends who revel in the newfound Hellenism of their ethnicity. “We are a race of warriors,” one proclaimed proudly, extending his inordinately muscular forearm, upon which the Star of Vergina was painstakingly tattooed, in order to place his short black into his custody. “Look at the Spartans. They are an enduring example for all Greeks.”

“Why?” I asked. We were at Degani, specifically chosen by my friends, because, as they advised, Oakleigh excepting, Degani is where they go when they want to “get their Greek fix.” This particular Degani was in a “white” neighbourhood. It did not purvey Greek coffee, which is my beverage of choice and as a result I was compelled to do penance via the sipping of a soy latte, because, as I opined, we are all σόι. This remark received the scant attention it deserved.

“Re, the Spartans are the bodyguards of the Greek nation,” the Spartan-lover with the corrugated iron abdominal muscles responded, with an immediacy that implied that the events he was recalling had transpired just a few days previously. “They fought for the safety of all the Greeks and got rid of the Persians. They were a lean, mean fighting machine who stood up against tyranny and gave freedom to all of us.”

“You think?” I replied. Having downed my soy latte, I proceeded to turn the glass upside down, distributing the coffee dregs around it in an anti-clockwise fashion until they had dried along the sides. Picking it up, I scrutinised it carefully, for within, lay my future. I was, after all, at Degani. “Except that Sparta, if you believe the stories, was run as a military camp. Weak babies were killed, and really, save for a few key battles, history teaches us that Sparta was mostly interested in preserving its own freedom rather than that of Greece and indeed, during the Peloponnesian War, sought to enlist the assistance or arbitration of Persia against Athens. As for them fighting against tyranny, it was the Spartans who removed democratic regimes from Greek city states and imposed oligarchies, in order to make the Greek world safe for aristocracy. They even hired themselves out as mercenaries for a Persian contender to the throne during the time of Xenophon. Furthermore,” I continued, gasping as I noted the design of a stunted, chromosome missing double headed eagle in my latte glass, “the whole of Spartan society was based on their subjugation of the Messenians, who they enslaved and used like animals. So much for freedom fighters.”

My interlocutor’s biceps twinged nervously as he considered the implication of my words. Briefly, we mooted what would happen if the Laconian Brotherhood of Melbourne, inspired by the historical precedent of its ancestors, decided to conquer the nearby Pan-Messenians, seizing their club-house and subordinating its committee and members to the status of B-class members, the ones who constitutionally may join and pay a fee, but have strictly no voting rights.

“Anyway, we are the greatest people that has ever walked this earth,” our second companion interjected. Besuited, in one of those bespoke, ultra slim fit, cuffs above the ankles numbers that masquerade as serious men’s fashion these days, resplendent with thick black-rimmed glasses, immaculately spiked hair reminiscent of Superman’s polar hiding place and possessed of a dazzling smile, he was the intellectual of our parea, having read all the important Positive Thinking books, such as “Rewire Your Brain,” “Think and Grow Rich” and the classic “As a Man Thinketh,” which he derides as modish and outdated. “Look at Alexander the Great. At such a young age, he created the greatest empire in history. He willed it and it happened. He united all the Greeks. Now that’s the power of positive thinking. Now there is a model for modern Greece to follow.”

This white Degani did not serve chips with oregano and feta cheese and I felt dirty as I ordered a calamari salad. As I relinquished hold of the menu, I mentioned how Alexander, who he idolized, was paranoid to the extent that he felt it necessary to murder his friends and star employees. Far from uniting the Greeks, he not only destroyed the city of Thebes, but also ordered the deaths of Greeks whose ancestors had colonized a city in Central Asia a century prior to his arrival. By most Greek city states, used as they were to running their own affairs themselves, Alexander was a tyrant, not a liberator or a leader. Furthermore, Alexander’s Empire, was slightly smaller than that of the Persians, whose Empire he basically appropriated, and nowhere near as large, or as organized as that of the Romans, or indeed the Mongols, whose empire was not only the largest, but also, when they weren’t killing those who resisted them, the most religiously tolerant. And why, I asked, in these times, was it necessary not just to idolise a person, but consider him worthy of emulation, simply on the basis that he took over more of other people’s homelands than any one else?

“No, no, no!!!” my friends cried in unison. “How can you say that about Alexander? He is the last pureblood Greek king!”
“Really? I asked. “Then why is it that both Plutarch and Libanius mention that his grandmother, Eurydice, was actually Illyrian?”
“No! Lies!” they pleaded.
“And why is it so important that he be a pureblood Greek anyway?” I asked. The answer of course, was that everything is Greek culture was pure and existed ab initio. We owed nothing to anyone and we, the pure-bloods, maintain the same germs of genius within our DNA today.

In the heated exchange that followed, which took the form equivalent of that extended the dark forest path which my daughter traverses in her own paramythi, I showed my friends how archaic Greek sculpture had its origins in that of the Egyptians and the Assyrians, how Persian religion was just as rich and possibly more theologically sophisticated than that of the contemporary Greeks and, of course, how a good sprinkling of both ancient Greek deities and ancient Greek heroes were, even in their own time, considered to have been of foreign origin. The more I delved, the more violent the reaction came until such time as I felt it was time we were out of the forest.

“Re that was funny, you being the devil’s advocate and all that,” Spartan-lover patted me on the back as I paid the bill. “You had me going there with that Eurydice thing,” Positive Thinker guffawed. “But everyone knows that Eurydice is a modern name. Couldn’t have been Alexander’s grandmother. Imagine what we would do if we had a modern equivalent today. A corporate takeover giant. There is one in all of us. The Greek business genius is second to none….”

“What an Empire needs is muscle,” Spartan-lover mused. “That’s why within the DNA of every Greek lies the discipline of the Spartans. This is why neither the Germans, nor the Turks will keep us down…But wait till we get access to those pools of oil under Thasos. We are sitting on the largest oilfield in the world. Then they will see.”

«Και μετά, ήρθε ο μπαμπάς..... » I whispered, as I walked away, lamenting that for my people, there is no Balm in Gilead, merely coffee, in diverse cups, by way of παραμυθιά.

First published in NKEE on 26 November 2016

Saturday, November 19, 2016


“Seriously, the way you Greeks carry on about inventing everything!” my Italian school friend observed. “But you haven’t invented anything that people actually like. Look at us Italians. No we didn’t invent geometry, or theatre, but we invented fashion and of course, pasta. Everyone over the entire world eats pasta. Not everyone eats souvlaki.”
This conversation took place when I was in year 9 and I had available to me no counter-arguments by way of riposte. My own inordinate love of pasta was the subject of family mirth and it was widely accepted that I must have been an Italian in a previous life, it being accepted without question that pasta was of Italian provenance, given that a rebetiko song observes: « Έλληνας φασολάς, Ιταλός μακαρονάς.» As a last resort, I reverted to the tried and tested schoolyard Parthian shot: “I don’t know why you are so proud of the Italians. You are from Sicily, therefore you are actually Greek.” This earned me what was in those days termed, a sconing.
Years later, while at university, I was invited by a pneumatic, in the Huxleian sense, Italian classmate, to her home where she demonstrated to me how home-made pasta was produced. Feeding the dough into a ruby red pasta machine, with slow, considered movements, she flicked back her flowing locks and glancing over her shoulder in what could only have been described as a Nigella-like flourish, save for the fact that Nigella had not yet been invented, she glided her long, sinuous fingers across the machine languidly, purring: “Don’t you just love its smooth lines?”
I didn’t. There seemed something perversely self-indulgent about a machine that reminded me of an ancient Greek water organ extruding lengths of self-indulgent dough from its multifarious orifices, yet I held my peace. For it was only much later that I discovered that according to Greek mythology, the great god of all artificers, Hephaestus invented a device that made strings of dough. His then, is the earliest reference to a pasta maker, suggesting that pasta, a foodstuff synonymous with Italy, is in fact Greek.
Or then again maybe not. Hephaestus’s forges were said to be located underneath Mount Aetna, in Sicily, so it is probably safer to speak of a Magna Grecian provenance for pasta, rather than a broader Greek one.
As Greeks, we generally don’t use the word pasta, except by those culturally suspect Heptanesians who have introduced us to pastitsio. Yet the Italian word, meaning dough or a pastry cake, is, according to scholars, a latinisation of the Greek παστά, being a form of barley porridge. Instead, as early as the works of the 2nd century AD Greek physician Galen, we find mention of the word itrion, signifying homogeneous compounds made of flour and water. This word must have been in use in Sicily right up until the Arab conquest for it passed into Arabic as “Itriyya,” in turn giving rise to “trie” in Italian, signifying long strips such as tagliatelle and trenette.
By comparison, the Greek word referring to pasta in all its manifold forms, is μακαρόνια, appearing also in Italian as maccheroni. Yet this seemingly Latin word also attests to the usages and customs of the Greeks of Magna Graecia, that is, of Southern Italy, who settled there as colonists in ancient times. For academic consensus supports that the word is derived from the Greek μακαρία a kind of barley broth which was served to commemorate the dead, much as Orthodox Greeks make kollyva to commemorate their dead in memorial services today. Makaria, in turn, is held to derive from μάκαρες, meaning "blessed dead", which is the word used to describe them in the Orthodox memorial service and ultimately from μακάριος, collateral of μάκαρ which means "blessed” or “happy,” which is exactly how I feel when I consume said μακαρόνια, especially alla puttanesca, which is always the source of saucy and imaginative conversation around the family dinner table.
Italian linguist Giorgio Alessio has looked further into the provenance of the world. He traces it to the Byzantine Greek μακαρώνεια, which was a funeral meal, comparable to the rice-based dish served at funerals in Eastern Thrace until modern times, which was known as μαχαρωνιά. Consequently, Alessio posits the term would be composed of the double root of μακάριος, meaning "blessed" and αἰωνίος meaning "eternal," always in keeping with Orthodox funerary customs.
Enough evidence exists however, to suggest a much older provenance for pasta and in particular, believe it or not, lasagna, which is about as Greek a dish as it gets. We know that lasagne has been eaten in Italy since Roman times, as a dish similar to the traditional lasagne called lasana or lasanum ( which is Latin word for "container", is described in the book De Re Coquinaria by Marcus Gavius Apicius, one of the oldest ever cookbooks. It also appears in the first century writings of Horace, as lagana, described as fine sheets of fried dough and as being an everyday foodstuff. Nonetheless, scholars hold that the word has a more ancient origin and is derived from the Greek λάγανον a flat sheet of pasta dough cut into strips. Other theories hold the Latin to be derived from the Greek λάσανα or λάσανον meaning a “trivet or stand for a pot" and it is postulated that Romans used the Greek word to refer to the dish in which lasagne is made and gradually, the name of the food took on the name of the serving dish, in the same way as Middle Easterners refer to a dish roast vegetables as «ταψί».
Greek rhetorician and grammarian Athenaeus of Naucratis, in his second century work “Deipnosophistae,” or “Dinner-table Philosophers, ” provides a mouth-watering recipe for lagana which he attributes to the first century Chrysippus of Tyana: sheets of dough made of wheat flour and the juice of crushed lettuce, then flavoured with spices and deep-fried in oil. The word lagana, of course, is still used in Greek today to mean a flat thin type of unleavened bread baked for the Clean Monday holiday, at the beginning of Lent.
Somewhere within the mists that shroud our history, the Greek people lost their macaroni making propensities. This is a great shame, as we were nowhere to be seen when the Italian pasta eating craze took over the world by store and were thus, unable to profit from it, our cuisine losing the sexiness that it might otherwise have had. This, it should be emphasized, took place through no fault of our own, but rather, as a result of Roman commercial aggression. Athenaeus described the Greeks of Italy as having created the first patents . According to his “Deipnosophistae” in 500 BC, in the Greek city of Sybaris in southern Italy, there were annual culinary competitions. The victor was given the exclusive right to prepare and sell his masterchef signature dish for one year. This is a practice that obviously was discontinued after the city was taken over by the Romans along with all intellectual property therein. Nonetheless, there is something truly comforting in knowing that our kitchen ruled aeons before George Kalombaris was assembled by the Australian television networks. Had we been able to cling to those patents and preserved them, chances are the Magna Graecian resturants of today, would be purveying Spaghetti alla dolmadaque, fettucini γιαχνί, ravioli γεμιστά and making an absolute killing. After all, while watching two star crossed lovers commence sucking at opposite ends of a strand of spaghetti in order for their lips to meet in the middle, witnessing two erotically charged Greeks gulp down chunks of souvlaki, tzatziki dripping ominously onto their chins, in order to achieve the same effect, is downright ridiculous.
Patents aside, the enduring Hellenic affiliation to pasta is best expressed by the late lamented Thanasis Veggos, in the movie: «Ο παλαβός κόσμος του Θανάση». Hired το participate in an advertisement for spaghetti, he cannot contain himself and gorges himself on the entire plate, all the while signing the jingle: «Τρώτε μακαρόνια, τρώτε μακαρόνια, είναι μια απόλαυση υγιεινή!
Τρώνε οι παππούδες, τρώνε και τα εγγόνια, είναι μια απόλαυση σωστή!» Move over then Elgin Marbles. It’s time we reclaimed our heritage. We are hungry for it.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 19 November 2016