Monday, June 28, 2010


“Real women don’t have flushes, they have power surges.” Sandra Cabot
Weeks after intervening to save the flagging fortunes of the Australian Labor Party by assuming its leadership from a shocked and visibly crushed Kevin Rudd, and media and populace alike are still marveling not only at the augustness of the new captain at the helm of our nation, but also, the apparently ruthless way in which she came to be elevated to the heights of power. Further, as the media has highlighted, these are historic and exciting times, for it is the first time that a woman has assumed the prime ministership of Australia. It is also slightly embarrassing for the various self-appointed Greek-Australian lobby groups, who just a day or two before, rejoiced in their triumphant photo opportunity with the then Prime Minister Rudd and his firm promise that the Federal Government’s stance on the “Makedoniko,” shall remain unchanged. Given the close relationship that Gillard ally and kingmaker, Bill Shorten is said to enjoy with the Fyromian-Australian community, it is clear that these peak representative bodies who represent our interests and positions without us even knowing about it, will have to toddle off back to Canberra, to seek similar assurances from the new Prime Minister, whose stance on such weighty matters, is as yet unknown.
Nonetheless, most leaders of Greek-Australian community organizations would be forgiven for thinking that the latest machinations of the Australian Labor Party are in fact not shocking or novel, but rather, lifted directly from the text book of Greek community politics. In fact, the manner and style of this latest coup, seems to eerily echo the 2008 transition of power in the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then we can all be proud of the fact that our people continue to make lasting contributions to this country, in particular, to its political culture. Unlike most of our community leaders however, our most exalted prime minister most likely than not, is committed not just to the acquisition and retention of the pinnacle of power, but also, the application of a broad vision for Australian society. After all, there is only so much perching upon the pinnacle of power, admiring the view below, before chafing sets in.
Just how the gender switch will transform the face of Australian politics remains unknown. Julia Gillard is but one in a long line of female leaders of parliamentary democracies, all of whom have left surprising and conflicting legacies. While each is historically significant in her own right, it would be difficult, or rather futile to ascribe a lasting uniform change or approach to leadership or politics in such diverse leaders as the revolutionary Corazon Aquino, the conservative Margaret Thatcher, the equally belligerent Golda Meir, the fascinating but fundamentally flawed Benazir Bhutto and Indira Gandhi, the ineffectual and allegedly corrupt Tansu Ciller, and the glamorous and fascinating Cristina Fernandez, president of Argentina, based solely on their shared gender, as it would to seek common patterns in style of rule between John Howard, Barak Obama and Dora Bakoyianni, based on a premise of a commonality of genitalia. Our new Prime Minister will make history not because she is a woman but because she will, or strive to be, hard-working and inspiring and will cause the mining barons to quake and crumble under her steely gaze.
It cannot be disputed that our new Prime Minister’s appointment will serve as an inspiration for aspiring politically conscious Australian women everywhere. Yet for the historically conscious Greek-Australian woman, Julia Gillard, though impressive and awesome, is but a parvenu when compared to a 3,000 year old tradition of strong and fearsome Greek female leaders.
Artemisia, the ruler of Caria and compatriot of Herodotus, was the only female commander of Xerxes in the Persian Wars. It was she who counselled the Persian king to coordinate a joint land-sea offensive. She wanted the Persian army to march to the Isthmus of Corinth and attack the Greek coalition that was fortifying there, while moving the fleet to attack the Greek triremes. In this, Artemisia hoped that the Greek ships would scatter to their city-states, leaving them vulnerable to an intact Persian fleet. Xerxes refused this plan, instead moving to attack the assembled Greek fleet at Salamis. Artemisia thus ended up participating in the Battle of Salamis as a Persian ally commanding five ships and actually rammed an allied ship in order to escape the pursuing Greeks. For some reason, this apparently earned the admiration of Xerxes. Her namesake, Artemisia II, was responsible for building the Mausoleum, one of the seven wonders of the world.
Travelling a century further in time, we come across the formidable Eryxo, queen of Cyrenaica in Libya, who not only took on the might of the pharaoh himself, but was also, if Plutarch is to be believed, a most noble, modest and courteous woman who whiled away the hours by seducing and assassinating potential usurpers.
Julia Gillard would be wise to take a leaf out of the book of Queen Gorgo of Sparta, wife of Leonidas, who was able to remain cool in a crisis and keep the martial state together in the face of imminent defeat by the Persians. Plutarch quotes Queen Gorgo as follows: "When asked by a woman from Attica, "Why are you Spartan women the only ones who can rule men?', she said: 'Because we are also the only ones who give birth to men.'" The vast amount of Greek queens that ruled or influenced the development of the Hellenistic kingdoms, including the murderous but shrewdly calculating Epirote princess Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great, and culminating in the tragic, flawed but fascinating Cleopatra also includes the endearing Hypsicratea Queen of Pontus, who ruled a confederacy of states with King Mithridates. She loved her husband so much that she donned a male disguise, learned warrior skills, being noted to have fought with axe, lance, sword, and bow and arrow (vital skills for a modern day politician) and followed him into exile.
These amazing women cement a pedigree that brings us to the most remarkable Greek woman ruler of them all, the Empress Theodora, wife of Justinian. During her reign over the Empire, she presided over and inspired the reconquest of Italy, Spain and North Africa, the codification of Byzantine law, the erection of numerous imposing edifices, if Procopius is to be believed, discovered the secret of silk production and fanned the flames of ecclesiastical controversy.
Irene Sarantapihaina, ruled the vast, multi-ethnic Byzantine Empire ably for five years, attempting to heal the schism caused by the iconoclast dispute, and other Empresses such as Theodora of Paphlagonia, religious disputes that caused civil strife were finally resolved. Theophano, wife of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II, apart from being criticized for her decadence, which manifested in her bathing once a day and introducing luxurious garments and jewelry into Germany, is credited with introducing the fork to Western Europe, chronographers mentioning the astonishment she caused when she "used a golden double prong to bring food to her mouth" instead of using her hands as was the norm. It was under her tutelage that her son, Otto III assumed the trappings of Byzantine power and tried to resuscitate the Roman Empire in the West.
During the Greek Revolution, the presence of female captains and leaders, such as Bouboulina, Manto Mavrogenous and of course the inexorable Despo of Souli who fought alongside her menfolk with her daughters-in law continues our venerable tradition of formidable women leaders, a tradition that offers much in the way of examples for our own PM.
Charlotte Bunch, the human rights activist, once opined that “We need women leaders. But we need them to have a vision for something.” Julia Gillard will have plenty on her plate in the coming months and her vision may be obscured by the need to cement her leadership and successfully fight an election. During these heady times then, lessons of fortitude, skullduggery, strategy and triumph abound in the experiences of the amazing female leaders of our past. Robin Morgan may have considered that “Women are not inherently passive or peaceful. We’re not inherently anything but human,” but our PM can be reassured of her ultimate triumph, through the words of the great Groucho Marxist himself: “Only one man in a thousand is a leader of men -- the other 999 follow women.” And if all else fails, try suppressing iconoclasm. It worked for us.


First published in NKEE on 28 June 2010

Monday, June 21, 2010


«Τι τα θέλεις τα λεφτά,
Nα τα κάψεις, τι τα θες,
Χέρια αλλάζουν τακτικά ,
Mήπως τα ΄χες κι από χτες,
Γλέντα τη ζωή,
Όλοι δυο μέτρα παίρνουν γη,
Τα λεφτά είναι δανεικά,
Xέρια αλλάζουν τακτικά.»

Greeks have an ambivalent attitude to money. Greek mythology is replete with cautionary tales about the ignominious end of the rich. King Midas, the original possessor of the Midas touch, found to his detriment, the consequences of oversupply of gold, upon his involuntarily turning everything, even his daughter, into the said precious substance. Croesus, the Bill Gates of ancient Greece, is said to have had an interview with Solon of Athens, in which Croesus maintains that his enormous wealth makes him the happiest man in the world. He is disappointed by Solon's response: that three have been happier than Croesus, Tellos who died fighting for his country, and Kleobis and Biton, brothers who died peacefully in their sleep when their mother prayed for their perfect happiness, after they had demonstrated filial piety, by drawing her to a festival in an oxcart themselves. Croesus' hubristic happiness was reversed by the tragic deaths of his accidentally-murdered son, his wife's suicide at the fall of Sardis and his capture by Cyrus, who tried to burn him alive. Thus the "happiness" of Croesus is presented as a moralistic exemplum of the fickleness of Tyche.
Consequently, Greeks generally saw the rich as potentially hubristic, extravagant, profiteering and soft - probably dishonest if nouveaux riche and lucky rather than worthy if of longer standing - but this notwithstanding, also as prudent, potentially generous and magnanimous benefactors. This attitude has survived among our people to the present day. In the context of the organised community in Australia, the amount of times our own Croesoi have been defamed, while at the same time, supplicated by their own defamers for donations and sponsorship, is remarkable.
The inconsistency in our attitude towards wealth seems to derive from two opposing philosophical viewpoints of venerable provenance. The Cynics prized poverty and refused possessions, just like the early Christians, while some exponents of the Stoics associated joy with the use of wealth. Mainstream Stoicism counted wealth among the 'useful indifferents' and Aristotelian tradition saw at least a comfortable independence as essential to the virtuous life. The Ancient Greeks knew that wealth could arouse the green eyed monster in people. It is for this reason that sumptuary laws were enacted in the ancient poleis. Officials such as the gynaikonomoi attempted to restrict extravagant display, especially at funerals of festivals. After all, extravagant display of wealth would cause one to arouse the prevalent expectation that the wealthy would at least use some of their wealth for the public benefit. In Athens, through the institution of the trierarchy, this almost became an enforceable obligation, though in other cities, the 'voluntariness' and 'goodwill' of such benefactions - through contributions to corn-buying, or building funds, educational or religious foundations, the freeing of slaves or ransoming of captives, was emphasized. In short: For you to have money and I not to have any, you must have done something shifty, for you are no better than me in intelligence or worth. Given that it is obvious that you have obtained your wealth through nefarious means, you must give me some, or burn it.
Greece in Melbourne as a colony, in keeping with many of the ancient Greek colonies, has the pursuit of wealth as one of its foundation myths. Post-war Greece was a ravaged and desolate place, bereft of opportunity. For this reason, intrepid settlers abandoned its shores in search of new Canaan, where the rivers flow with milk and honey and fortunes can be made. They worked hard, sacrificing their leisure time and enjoyment of life to the pursuit of the double shift. Acquiring an average of 2.3 houses, they are assertive and proud of the fact that this wealth was acquired "for the sake of the children." In an interesting twist on the old attitude, they are still mindful of the old attitude to wealth. A successful pensioner, having cleverly transferred his property before the application of five-year Centerlink threshold, will state: "I am just a pensioner. My son, however, is really successful and rich."
Those who do not subscribe to the founding value of our colony, either through incapacity or choice, are considered an aberration that has no place in our society. Local artists and intellectuals are nice people, but also «χαραμοψώμηδες,» unless it is revealed that they have been secretly amassing property - upon which revelation it is surmised that they must have married into that money, an act that inspires admiration as well as deprecation. Conversely, it does not pay to subscribe to the founding value to openly, for our Cynicism must be seen to mask our Stoicism. At a meeting of a community organization some years ago, where second-generation volunteers were sought to revitalize the group, a young attendee asked: "Who is going to pay me for my time?" to the horror of the first-generation attendees. As was explained to me, the horror lay not in the question itself, for why would one forego a financial reward, but rather, the blatant display of desire, uncamouflaged by the subtlety of the elders.
Our compatriots in Greece are generally caught in a similar conflict. On the one hand, songs like the one below, indicate that for Greeks money is nothing. After all, do they not us money-hungry expatriates that we are too greedy, whereas they live for the moment?
«Θα τα κάψω/ τα ρημάδια τα λεφτά μου/ για να δω αν την καρδιά μου/ ή το χρήμα αγαπάς.»
Funnily enough, instances where Helladic Greeks go ahead with their threat are inordinately rare. And at any rate, could not the hapless girl put to this degrading test argue that she lifted the fire extinguisher from the wall to extinguish the conflagration NOT in order to save the money but rather to stop the fire from spreading and endangering her beloved sugar-daddy's health? It is in order to inhibit the prevalence of such risky undertakings that the Australian mint has replaced paper notes with polymer counterparts.
Despite their currency-burning propensities, in the same breath that Helladic Greeks wax lyrical about enjoying life and devoting themselves to the γλέντι, they also lament the rising cost of living, coupled with their falling wage, inability to find work and general hard times. This apparent inconsistency can be explained as follows: Greeks generally would not care a fig about money and burn it all at the bouzoukia, if they actually had decent jobs that paid them money. After all, how can you burn your money unless you have it in the first place? Perhaps they could all be reassured by George Papandreou's electoral campaign assertion that: «Λεφτά υπάρχουν.» This would explain why, despite the fact that Helladic Greeks are Cynics who live for the moment and care not a jot about money, their conversations tend to centre around three things of late: Who has money, how they acquired it and how they can use this information to get some of their own.
Akis Tzohatzopoulos, former PASOK stalwart and long time government minister may have the answers. He has most recently been expelled from the party he has served so long, while the public prosecutor investigates allegations that he transferred property into his wife's name in order to circumvent tax and parliamentary disclosure of property legislation. Former transport minister Tasos Mantelis will, according to a recent court ruling, face bribery charges over allegations that he accepted 100,000 euro from Siemens as a bribe, an amount which he insists was an election donation.
The persecution of these august individuals by the State should raise our ire. Instead of blatantly flaunting their unhellenic desire to acquire wealth by exploiting opportunities arising out of their position at the helm of the country, (and after all, it is not a coincidence that the word κομπίνα is actually a loan-word, no Greek word apparently existing to best express this concept), at least these gentlemen have had the sensitivity to attempt to elaborately coat their Stoicism, in a sugar pill of Cynicism, so that it does not show. It is for this reason that the lyrics of Georgia Dimou's song «Δεν πα να 'χεις λεφτά,» are so offensive: «Μπορεί να έχεις κόκα, μπορεί να έχεις λεφτά... δεν έχεις καρδιά, δεν έχεις ψυχή, άρα δεν ένιωσες ποτέ, τη γαμ...μένη τη ζώη.»
How hideous these sentiments are. For it is due to the hoarding of such individuals and the stripping of their secret caches during times of crisis that Greece will be saved from its imminent penury - proof of the prescience of George Papandreou, in knowing where the money was, months in advance.
Ultimately, coinage is a Lydian invention and though the Lydians assimilated within the Greek world, their brainchild has never sat easy with us, rendering us unable to know, when to retain or whether to part with this. To this, most complex of dilemmas, we would posit that only the great goddess Anna Vissi herself, offers any plausible solution:
«Όλα τα λεφτά, μωρό μου, όλα τα λεφτά, για τα δυο σου μάτια, που μου πήραν τα μυαλά.»
Δώστα όλα μεγάλε!!!


First published in NKEE on Monday 21 June 2010

Monday, June 14, 2010


“Do you know how many people left their bones in that ravine for the sake of this country?” My friend’s uncle shifted uncomfortably from his position on his balcony, overlooking the Pindus ranges and reached for his packet of cigarettes. “So many people gave up everything, right here. It was as if they had dedicated their entire life to Greece and were working up to that final culmination. You don’t see such sacrifices nowadays. But then again, no one loves Greece now. Especially the young.” Sighing, he drew deeply upon his cigarette, sending the smoke, as if in offering, across the balcony and down to the ravine.
“That’s not exactly true,” I ventured to interject. “In Australia there are many people, even young people born in that country who love Greece so much that they devote almost all their spare time in reveling in their identity. They explore traditions through dance, music, clubs and history. Hellenism seems to be more of a life ideology than anything else. And yet, after all that effort, when they come to Greece, they are considered to be xenoi.”
The uncle’s left eye widened a little and the knuckles of his knotted hand whitened as he gripped his chair. “But you are xenoi,” he replied. “You don’t live here. You have absolutely no idea what its like. You live over there, where the roads are wide and everyone has a job. When you come here, you don’t know how to act, or how to fit in and you expect that a red carpet will be waiting for you at the airport.”
“That’s because, even when we don’t speak the language properly, many of us still consider Greece home. For us, arriving here is a homecoming. After all, this is the land our parents and grandparents continue to talk and dream about” I responded, gesticulating in agitation.
“But Greece is not your home,” he argued, raising his voice. “You don’ t pay tax here. You don’t go into the army. You don’t have to insinuate yourself into so many circles in order to find a position for your son, or lay awake at night thinking how you are going to raise enough money for your daughter’s frontistirio. When your children finish school, they get jobs, get married and move into their own homes. You don’t have to have a stupid bitch living with your thirty-year old son downstairs because they have no jobs and no money and no chance of ever getting a house of their own. Instead, you come here, you enjoy the weather, you see a few villages and maybe go to the beach and all of a sudden you think this is your home. Then you pack your suitcase and leave. This is not your home.”
I remained silent for a while, the frustrated uncle’s cry of anguish having cut close to the bone. Finally I ventured: “But we love Greece.” “ No you don’t,” he sighed. “You people hate Greece. When you come here, you all complain about the system, how nothing works and how everything works better in Australia. What you love is an idea, something you learned about in books – which anyone around the world could read, a fairytale. But this place, with all its faults is who we are. And you people left this place when the going was tough and for better or worse, set up your life somewhere else. That’s fine, but don’t delude yourself. You don’t live here and you have no intention of doing so. So of course you are xenoi.”
I don’t appreciate being called a “xeno” in what I consider to be my homeland. Especially after I have taken immense pains to act like a native (scowling, laconic and able to give directions to other lisping Aussie “xenous” with a raised eyebrow that signifies my incredulity at their not being able to find their way around.) Further, I don’t believe that the prevalence of forty-something Greek-Australian women prowling around Yiannena asking questions like: (To a baker) Does this tyropita have tyri in it? or (to a taxi driver:) If I put my suitcase in your boot, will you steal it? should condemn me. And yet, on the times I venture out into the village square in summer, to meet the flocks of my Greek-Australian sygxorianoi who have rendered Ascot Vale a ghost town and have flown north for the winter, my Hellenically attuned ear will pick up the dulcet tones of a native muttering under his breath: “G…mo tin Australia sas g…mo.”
Apostolos Zoupaniotis of the Greek news echoes such a migration in his recent exhortation that “we must go to the country of our forefathers where beauty and peace, the sun and the sea reign; To be close to one of the richest civilizations and cultures in human history.” It is clear that he has never visited the village. My sygxorianoi are anything but beautiful or peaceful and their migration coincides with a flurry of building activity and visits to local councils, government ministries and lawyers in order to organize or sort out their inheritances, or build homes for their offspring that they will seldom if ever use because… they are xenoi. They don’t fit in and are resentful and shy of people with whom they have nothing in common and yet are told they must fit in with simply because they have common origins. They appreciate the countryside, the sights and the clubs but are mystified and often intimidated by the people.
The lament upon their return to Australia is a well worn one: The Greeks of Greece are rude and volatile, losing their tempers and swearing at each other at the slightest of pretexts. They are lazy and only interested in you if they have something to gain from you. They talk at you, displaying no regard for elucidating your own opinion and think they know everything, though their horizons are limited. None of them have jobs and subsist through the coerced extraction of funds from their parents. In short, they are nothing like us and certainly nothing like our parents. What is all this rubbish about rioting and destroying public property? They are degenerate. If Greece is to be saved, they opine, we expatriates would have to return en masse and show them how to sort things out. This conviction, oft expressed, is eerily reminiscent of that expressed by King George II to his English royal cousin just after the Second World War, to wit: that the only way to sort out Greece was to make it a British colony. We seem to have inherited a similar attitude.
In a recent letter to Neos Kosmos, Marios Kotkas mirrors this view by stating that “Greece’s greatest asset is its expats and if we don’t come home then we will be lost forever in time and all our hard work will go to the hands of the Xeni.” I agree that eventually the Greek community here will be lost. No Greek colony outside the motherland of Greece and Asia Minor has survived in a “Greek” form for more than a few centuries, save a few scattered Pontic villages in the Ukraine or the odd Italianised village in Magna Grecia. Who remembers that Marseilles, Nice, Valencia or Barcelona were Greek colonies? Assimilation is inevitable, though it should not take place without a fight. As for Greece’s greatest asset being its expats, that remains to be seen. While expats in the past provided valuable currency and fed their families back home, a cursory audit of 3xy talkback reveals that expats’ demands of Greece outweigh what they are prepared to contribute. Further, their children, born in Australia and educated under a totally different system, are not expats. Year after year, I come across children of these expats who ‘returned’ to Greece in their youth. While their parents remained behind in Greece, having successfully resettled, despite having spent their formative years in Greece, these children return to Australia, in search of educational or vocational opportunities. So where exactly is home?
I don’t know what our “hard work” consists of that we are so loathe to let the “xeni” enjoy. My understanding of the Greek migration myth is that we came to a country that granted most of us formal citizenship a lot quicker than it takes modern day Greece to register ethnic Greeks from countries like Albania and Russia as citizens. This country did not just tolerate us, it developed policies to embrace us and permit our culture to flourish. These days, the Greek community petitions the Australian government to include Greek as one of the languages of the National Curriculum. These people, our co-citizens, who would grant us these rights, or in the form of tax, pay for them, are not xenoi. They are just as much our people, as those in Greece who embrace us, or for their own reasons revile us, or simply ignore us.
Marios Kotkas’ letter is poignant because it encapsulates the dream of every expatriate Greek since the time of Homer: that of the Nostos, or homecoming. Yet if Homer teaches us anything, it is that reconciliation of place of origin with place of sojourn is not an easy or happy one. Odysseus had to go on a killing and cleansing spree, not being able to come to terms with the changed condition of his homeland. After a while, the wanderlust got the better of him and he left once more. This inner turmoil, the clash of cultures and the epic battle of determining and retaining one’s sense of self, without being seduced by the sirens of assimilation (even when they are particularly gorgeous) forms the very core of our Antipodean identity.
Marios is invariably right, when he says that “if you truly wish to remain Greek, you must be immersed in it.” In a hot bath on a cold winter’s day, I immerse myself in the water and dream of the cold winter I spent in Constantinople. I yearn to return to those things I learned to identify with, before I even knew what they were, knowing that yearning, is a lot more bittersweet and yet fulfilling, than bitter, fearful returns to realities that cannot be constructed.

First published in NKEE on Monday 14 June 2010

Tuesday, June 08, 2010


I have an idea for a movie. The plot involves a couple of wacky Greek-Australian boys, who, having petitioned the British government to no avail, travel to London with the sole aim of stealing the Parthenon Marbles. Through the use of ingenious kombines, the nature of which I haven’t quite worked out at the present, they manage to achieve the impossible and secrete the said marbles into Greece, only to have them languish in a customs shed in Piraeus.
When I stood before the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum a few weeks ago, I surreptitiously looked around for security cameras and a hollow feeling overwhelmed me. Why wasn’t I as bowled over as I should have been? Before me was the apogee of classical perfection and all I could do is secretly prefer the gaudy, overstated Hellenistic art of the room before. I found myself wishing that I could abscond with the frivolous statue of Mausolus instead and I felt keenly, the pangs of guilt for my innate bad taste.
Nonetheless, I launched into a lengthy lecture to my non-Greek companions as to the greatness of Greek civilization. Observe the austere and perfect expressions of the marble maidens of the erstwhile metopes compared to the monolithic crassness of the statues of Ramesses for example, or the violent portrayals of Mesopotamian kings hunting the lion to extinction. There is a reason, I opined, why the city of London is festooned with Grecian inspired architecture, and it has to do with inherent greatness.
Similarly, while visiting the city of Bath, which was a Roman spa town much favoured by the Hanoverian kings, who reconstructed the baths and most of the city in classically inspired Georgian architecture, I lapsed into swoons of ecstasy, noticing upon the façade of the baths, the Greek saying attributed to Thales the Milesian: ΑΡΙΣΤΟΝ ΜΕΝ ΥΔΩΡ, which translates as “Water is Best.”
Even in the holy city of Canterbury, as I watched my companions squirm, I managed to link its magnificent Cathedral back to its Greek archbishop Theodore. Further, I was fascinated to discover, in Westminster Abbey, Salisbury Cathedral, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Cathedral at Canterbury, a startling prevalence of rich and beautifully crafted Byzantine icons, before which candles were being lit. Though Cromwell and the Puritans would be turning in their graves, I was amazed to witness the revival of an ancient religious practice that had its roots in Orthodoxy, so many years later in the Anglican church.
Also, I managed to find a Greek restaurant, whose owner curtly informed me that he was not a Greek, having been born in England, though his parents were Cypriot. Apparently, this is a new ethnicity. His fish and chips were not up to standard and avoiding a decidedly seedy establishment opposite my hotel, bearing the appellation “Kleftiko,” (it had frosted windows and hardly any customers,) I sought refuge, upon return to London, in a most well appointed restaurant entitled: “The Real Greek,” in which all the waitresses were of Eastern European extraction and where the food was as really Greek as you could get.
My companions argue that the reason for my relative silence during our sojourn in Belgium, Holland, Germany and Switzerland was because I was suffering from the after-effects of patronizing “The Real Greek.” To my mind however, the reason was simply that apart from the odd Greek restaurant, snatches of conversation by Greek tourists (none of whom seemed particularly interested by our revelation as to our shared identity) and a mumbled comparison of the Dutch windmills to those of Mykonos, there was nothing noteworthy (read here Greek), to mention, though I did wonder how different the outcome of the Greek Civil War would have been, had the warring sides been able to construct mountain chairlifts like those of the Swiss.
It was when I stood in the square of San Marco in Venice that all my pent up Hellenism suddenly evacuated. After all, not only was Venice a loyal subject of the Byzantine Empire for many centuries but Saint Mark’s church, gleaming in the sun, was a copy of the now destroyed Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, the final resting place of the Emperors. Ignoring the Baroque façade, stepping into the church, a transportation back to days Byzantine ensued. The mosaics on the wall, and even the empty icon screen all attested to a shared heritage. To the left, in the treasury, I was able to review the collection of chalices, gospel covers and other priceless artifacts purloined from the Venetian sack of Constantinople and which were displayed, amidst protest by the Greek community, in Melbourne, a decade ago. Behind the altar, the Pala d’ Oro, the amazing gold and cloisonné altar-piece constructed from stolen pieces of Byzantine art and further within the church, the Quadriga, the amazing ancient Greek bronze horses that were constructed by Lysippos on the 4th century BC and were placed in the Hippodrome of Constantinople by the Emperor Theodosius. These too were purloined by the Venetians, who in turn had them purloined from them by Napoleon and then returned, and I hatched intricate plans to liberate these and return them… where exactly? To the empty space between the Hagia Sophia Museum and the Sultan Ahmet Mosque in Istanbul? Gritting my teeth, I was gratified into silence by the tour guide’s admission that the Doge’s Palace was inspired not so much by Moorish, but by Byzantine architecture.
A brief stay in the town of Assisi, the home of St Francis, had me enthralled by the frescoes of Giotto, who represents the middle point in the transition between Byzantine and Renaissance art and considering that the beautiful stone town reminded me of the neighbourhoods in the Castle of Giannena. Indeed, the Castle of Giannena cropped up several times during our travels. My attempt to compare Windsor Castle and Warwick Castle to the Castle of Giannena met with questioning looks and raised eyebrows. When I ventured to make a comparison of the Castle of Heidelburg, as featured in the movie classic “The Student and the Prince,” with its Giannenan counterpart, my life was placed in danger. By the time we got to Capri, in time to learn that the island once belonged to the Greeks and was sold to the Emperor Augustus, as it had no water, my companions had hardened their hearts and refused to share in my comparison of the playground of the rich and famous, to the island in the middle of the lake at Giannena.
Pompeii was not like Giannena. It was, as our guide told us, originally a Greek city that suffered the terrible tragedy of the volcanic eruption that preserved it for posterity. The sight of plaster casts of humans and animals curled up in their final agonies chilled us right up until the time we arrived in Naples, formerly Neapolis, an ancient Greek colony. We were told that southern Italy was a chaotic place where nothing worked and the writ of the Italian government did not run. To me, it appeared, both in the behavior of the people and the nature of the breathtaking landscape, almost indistinguishable from Greece, save for the fact that it was prettier and somewhat better ordered.
Despite laboring under a life-long enthrallment by Byzantium, I was not ever able to comprehend it until I visited Rome. Viewing the Arch of Constantine, the Colosseum, considered a place of Christian martyrdom, descending into the stiflingly close and dread catacombs in order to see the earliest known depictions of the apostles Peter and Paul and to read the Greek tomb inscriptions and entering the beautiful mosaic-adorned basilica of Santa Maria di Trastevere, one is amazed to locate the origins of the Byzantine aesthetic. After all, what was Byzantium but a Roman, Christian appreciation of the ancient Greek world?
It was hard to resist looking for signs and symbols of the Illuminati in the Vatican. However the breath-arresting collection of Greek and Roman copies of Greek sculpture in its museums attests to the Roman interpretation of Hellenism, a counterpart to the much later western interpretation of ancient Greece that gave rise to Neo-classicism. It was a thought that recurred within me as a walked down the atmospheric Borgo dei Greci, in Florence.
Whistling Charles Trenet’s classic “la Mer,” while strolling down the Boulevard d’ Anglais in Nice, I was pleased to find signs containing such words as “Nikaia” and “Amphipolis,” for Nice was an ancient Greek colony. On my way to Paris, I mused that a return of Nice to Greece along with its ensuing tourist dollars would extract that country from its economic quagmire if it wasn’t for the fact that we don’t have a museum big enough to put it in. In the Louvre, I adored the Venus of Milo and the sensuous curves of the Nike of Samothrace, all the while being surprised to learn that the endless museum also housed some friezes from the Parthenon, that do not seem to receive too much publicity.
Upon my return home, one of my uncles was puzzled as to why, having flown so far, I did not visit Greece. He was even more puzzled with my answer: “Why would I do that? Greece was everywhere I went.”

First published in NKEE on 6 June 2010