Tuesday, March 28, 2006


How the mighty have fallen. First we had the colonies, (yes, we invented colonies) such as Marseilles, Nice, Barcelona and Syracuse, then we had the kingdoms, namely the Greco Bactrian kingdom and the Indo-Greek kingdom, destroyed owing to internecine fighting between Greek colonists, then we had the Byzantine Empire and affiliated cultural Commonwealth, only to resort to Greek Street, not the 1930 movie, mind you, but its homonymous street in London, which is not home to a noticeable Greek presence any more but is home to Norton Balon, the rudest landlord in the world.
One way of psychologically dealing with our loss of status and constant downgrading as a relevant municipal entity is by glorifying our own supposed 'achievements', and lusting after an endogamous, DNA-restricted social caste system, where those in the highest caste are known as "bizinadoroi" and those in the lowest are dismissively referred to as "haramofaides." Or we rename the paltry evidence of our manifestation in the hope that this will magically augment our importance. For example the deceptively named "Greektowns" of Vancouver, Detroit and Chicago are not towns at all. Unlike Melbourne's "Chinatown" they do not even encompass the length and breadth of an entire street. Nor do they have a Greek population of any importance. Thus in the case of Chicago Greektown, an American journalist writes: "Many [Greeks] have left the neighbourhood, leaving mostly restaurants, although a cultural museum and an annual parade hope to ensure the continuation of Greek heritage in Chicago." Vancouver's Greektown is extinct. During the eighties, a combination of cultural assimilation , an influx of baby boomers, rising property prices, and Asian immigration began to significantly erode the Greek influence in the area. During this time many Greek businesses moved or ceased operation, the Greek television station that existed went off-air, and Greek Day was canceled. However, Arbutus, the strangely-named Athenian Social Club faithfully remains within its boundaries. There is hope for Greektown Detroit however, presumably because it houses Greektown Casino, one of the few places where the ancient Greek god Mammon is still worshipped in the form of the sacrifice of votive dollars by Greek pensioners.
We in Melbourne share the affliction of our antipodean cousins when it comes to identifying our own geographical markers. Thus, according to most, Lonsdale Street is the "heart" of our community. If this is so, then it is no wonder that our community is in cardiac arrest, given that if we look at the relative magnitude of the Greek presence on the same street, which comprises not even half a block, and transpose it to the science of anatomy, our community's left and right ventricles have atrophied. This means that there is little or no circulation of new oxygenated blood within it. None of it reaches our community's brain, resulting in a lack of direction, the rumour that our community leaders are ανεγκέφαλοι and are unable to be removed, not through a lack of democratic process but rather because they, along with the 'custodians' of our identity, have suffered an aneurysm of relevancy.
If one of the remaining few coffee shops along Lonsdale Street could be said to be the lungs of our community, given the immense amount of political and other talk that takes place within it, then certainly our community is suffering from emphysema, and not only because of the clouds of smoke that greet one who walks through its portals, only to stumble upon the ample bosom of a scantily clad waitress, an exact clone of the one who used to work there three months ago. This is the dragon's lair of yesteryear, a treasure trove of decrepit relics, lamenting the bygone age of their own virility, recounting scam after scam, extolling opportunities that can still be grasped, if only the waitress serving frappe would bend down within reach. Amidst the leering and the jeering, the puffing and the wheezing, eroded alveoli belonging to collapsed bronchioles cut and make electoral deals that will render their organizations gasping for even more air. Yet no one seems to notice.
Further down, the stargates to a parallel universe loom ahead, like leucocytes fighting off the infection of assimilation. To enter their doors and emerge clutching an aeroplane ticket to the homeland is akin to going through a marginally successful bout of chemotherapy. The hand of death has for the moment been stayed, but for how long? Kitschy posters of 1970's Greece still adorn their walls, possibly because this is the homeland to which we long to return, yet the stargate offers no passage to it and taunts us mutely. One of these stargates now lies empty and ravaged, like a great big whitehead that has erupted upon the surface of our community epidermis, spilled its pus a long time ago and remained an empty crater, bearing only upon its walls, a hand-painted advertisement for a Greek theatre production that has come and gone but which no one can remember. Its name is symbolic however as in our heyday, it could have also been used as a synonym for our collective whole: "Ο υπερφυσικός μπεμπές." Now we have grown old, and we are dying.
Yet we are sustained by the collective cholesterol of Greek restaurants, the knowledge of whose existence transmutes to fatty deposits which clog our arteries. While no self-respecting Greek that does not work in a factory and owns three investment properties will admit to hungering for τσικνίλα, and though such restaurants cater mainly to the tourist market, preferring foreign antibodies that have not yet mutated to develop a culinary immunity to their allure, the call of the dark side of the taste bud is strong and at least once a year most likely during the Antipodes festival, we can be found there, not taking account of the times that we take dignitaries, celebrities or friends from Greece there, in order to maintain the illusion that we still have a community. The arteries of our soul lead not to our hearts, but to a cul de sac and they shall bulge in inflated self-importance, until they burst. Yet it was here that I sat, outside a restaurant that now purveys Cambodian fare during my lunch breaks, watching antibodies float by in pursuit of Hellenic bacteria, and eloquently attempting to convince a particularly pneumatic foreign organism that a symbiotic relationship of our respective haploids could prospectively produce a zygote that would be beneficial to mankind. I have given thanks to τσικνίλα ever since.
Just as Orpheus, the messianic bard of old continued to sing as his severed head floated downstream, so too do our music shops continue to blare out the propaganda of a Greek presence. It is life itself that is being spurted out of their doors, by the urgency of the dying heart in a severed body. Yet there is much organic matter here that must not go to waste. The neo-greeks know it and that is why they and their self-appointed leaders have tried to emulate Shelley in producing a hybrid, Frankenstein creature that though moribund, bears the illusion of life and consequently acts as a salve to the wounds of their incomplete conscience. Now it is getting late and as the sun sets on this macabre Mel Brooks send-up and we drive away after buying the latest Despina Vandi CD, or the collected works of Fame Story, we wonder, as Igor did in Young Frankenstein, whether like him, we have managed to steal the wrong brain from the local brain depository.
Yet though the spores of our original fungal infection spread to inflict themselves upon other suburbs and climes, namely Oakleigh, though percentagewise Preston has a high Greek concentration, Lonsdale Street, the hub of the original malignancy, remains holy ground in a way that Bridge Road, Sydney Road and comparable streets with a greater historical concentration of Greeks do not. Perhaps this is because the heart, however ailing or addled with disease is more important than the periphery, which seems to be our main domain. It is, by chance geography, the logical conclusion of our 2004 soccer jubilation and the sacred sanctuary wherein we may exhibit our peculiar ethnic pathogens to those of foreign infestation, at least until the bypass which has seen the rise of the pernicious Federation Square as the state-sanctioned pen in which ethnic cattle can be put on display.
Who knows whether proper function can ever return to a broken heart? We view the electrocardiogram anxiously as it bleeps intermittedly and then flatlines and breathe a sigh of relief as Melina Kanakaredes switches it off, for good. Thus then, is Providence. Let the credits roll.
First published in NKEE on 28 March 2006