Monday, December 13, 2004


Traditional Greek folklore considers leap years to be most inauspicious, along with Tuesdays, the day that Constantinople fell. So much so in fact that the concept even occurs in popular songs such as those sung by Giorgos Dalaras and many refer to the entire period of the German occupation as «δίσεκτα χρόνια.» This year, also a leap year, has been tumultuous to say the least. The first half of the year did its best to maliciously lull us into a false sense of security while still retaining us on the knife-edge of suspense. Greece seemed poised to solve most of its so-called "national issues." We eagerly awaited the accession of Cyprus to the EU and lauded it as a 'final' solution to this age-old problem. We were certainly not prepared for the western-imposed referendum and upon the Cypriot people’s rejection of it for whatever reason, the West's championing of the Turkish Cypriot cause. Now we await Greece's stance on Turkey's European Accession talks with equal trepidation, while trying to swat the Turkish warplanes that swarm around our islands like flies, from our view.
We also observed the warmer relations between Greece and the government of FYROM with a sense of optimism, awaiting a final, mutually acceptable settlement between those two countries as to FYROM's name. Just as it seemed that FYROM was ready to talk, we were shocked to learn that the US had unilaterally recognized FYROM's right to the name Macedonia. Then, just as the US attempted to calm the trident-stirred wrath of Poseidon by stating that it will respect any Greek-FYROM name settlement, it is revealed that US Defence Department maps of the area, refer to the northern province of Greece, the western province of Bulgaria and a thin strip of Northern Epirus in south eastern Albania as "occupied Macedonia." Again we await developments in deep disquiet.
It has been a year whose highs and lows are enough to cause schizophrenia in an oscilloscope. We surprised the world and ourselves by becoming the champions of European soccer, only to fritter away that prestige by losing to such world class teams as that of Albania. Again we surprised the world and forced our detractors to grudgingly be astounded by the profundity of Greek civilization at the Olympic Games, only to have this sullied by drug scandals and speculation that the bottom well and truly fell out of Greek tourism this year.
On the ecclesiastical front, this year had us scratching our heads at the antics of the prelate of Greece and his incomprehensible conflict with his All Holiness Oecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos. We felt relief when the prelate decided to desist and then wept at the tragic loss of the Patriarch of Alexandria Petros and our very own Greek-Australian Bishop of Madagascar Nektarios, two men who have been instrumental in spreading Orthodoxy throughout Africa, in a helicopter crash. We felt horror at the continuous bomb attacks against the Patriarchate in Constantinople and the intimidation of orthodox Christians in Albania, the Turkish government’s denial of the Patriarchate’s Ecumenicity and its refusal to allow the Patriarch to worship at St Nicholas’ tomb at Myra. We despaired in hope as the matter of the re-opening of the Chalki Theological College, once more put on the world's agenda by the resolute Patriarch Bartholomeos, was swept under the carpet by the Turks as “injurious to the Turkish state,” at the same time as that government appropriated for itself, the titles to an Orthodox orphanage on the Pringiponisa.
It was also a year of new beginnings with PASOK finally being swept from government and a youthful driven ND government elected in its place. Once more, the year turned its razor sharp edge and most of the optimism that accompanied the new government's assumption of office has been drowned in the waters of confused management of the helicopter crash and its foundering dog paddle across the ocean of international politics.
On the domestic front, this year saw fewer students studying Greek at VCE or tertiary level, an increase in internecine strife and purges between rivaling factions of many Greek community organizations and a strange almost 'anti-Greece' campaign prevailing in the Australian media in the lead up to the Olympic Games, coupled with the Greek Consulates' inability to address this or effectively promote the Olympics here. However, it did also see the Greek community galvanized and united, spilling out onto the ever diminishing Greek street to make its joy at Greece's win in the European Championship known and to transform bleak wintry Melbourne into a summer carnival. It also saw a glimmer of hope for the future of what we will always call in our hearts, South Melbourne Hellas, after a brief sojourn in the depths of despondency. And the end of this year finds us furtively seeking each other's arm in support as we gird our loins to face the next year and whatever it may bring.
If St Kassianos, whose memory is celebrated only once every four years on 29 February feels shortchanged at the lack of perquisites his feast day provides and that the year in which his star is bright, is diminished by traditional ill-luck, perhaps he may be consoled by the few shreds of pure Divine Providence that did shine our way. Arguably, these outshine all this year's vicissitudes. Finally, after 800 years or so of captivity, the Vatican, continuing its gestures of good faith towards the Orthodox Church that saw the John Paul II apologise for the depredations of the Fourth Crusade in 2001, has returned to their native land, the relics of two of the greatest philosophers and theologians of all time: St Gregory Nazianzinos and St John Chrysostomos. If one considers that it is on the teachings of these theologians that both eastern and western Christendom was built, the worldwide significance of the return of these Saints' relics, venerated as far and wide as India and China, is commensurate with that of the much coveted return of the Elgin marbles and spiritually, far more so. For the Greeks, considering that the form of the liturgy they have used for almost 1600 years is thanks to St John Chrysostomos and that Greek poetry, rhetoric, literature and ethics have been profoundly influenced by both Saints, their 'coming home' is an event of unprecedented joy.
If the return of the Saints’ relics highlights a greater spirit of harmony amidst a troubled world, the generous and responsible gesture of the Bulgarian government in offering to return treasures and relics looted from Greece during the Balkan and other wars proves that old animosities can be assuaged. The relics include manuscripts, crosses, icons and vestments taken or stolen from the monasteries of Eikosifinissis and Timiou Stavrou in Drama, Dadias in Soufli, Panaghia Archangeliotissa and Panaghia Kalamous in Xanthi, and the cathedrals of Serres and Drama. At least 406 manuscripts have been scientifically identified and dated from the 11th to the 19th century — most are from the 13th and 14th centuries. They were known in Bulgaria as the “closed collection” because the collection remained closed from 1917, when they came into the possession of Bulgaria, until 1990. Suddenly, things are looking decidedly up.
Consulting as my late grandmother did, the «Καζαμία» in an attempt to divine our fortunes during our next revolution around the celestial orb, what shall we ask of the New Year? Possibly, given that everything is in such a state of flux as would astound even Heraclitus, all we can ask for is υπομονή. And let us hope that in having this granted to us that the old Dalaras song will not come true: «Στα χρόνια της υπομονής/ δεν μας θυμήθηκε κανείς.»

First published in NKEE on 13 December 2004