Saturday, March 29, 2014


“Souvenirs are perishable, fortunately, memories are not.” Susan Spano
A decade ago, when I last visited the palaeontological museum of my ancestral village of Mytilinioi in Samos, I did so with the intention of viewing the stuffed carcass of the leopard immortalised in Alki Zei’s childrens classic “To Kaplani tis Vitrinas,” published in English as “Wildcat under Glass.” I also wanted to see the skull of the Samotherium, a short-necked, horned giraffe, first found in Mytilinioi and which  is portrayed almost intact on an ancient Greek vase as a monster that Heracles is fighting.
Having marveled at these and the singular fact that Mytilinioi seems to be a fossil graveyard, I was somewhat disconcerted to find, proudly exhibited, at some distance away, standing stiff and erect, a stuffed fur kangaroo, of the type that can be readily purchased at Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market or sundry souvenir stores about town. At the kangaroo’s feet and to scale, sat a koala, also stuffed.
“Why are these here?” I asked the guide, perplexed.
“They were gifted to the museum by an expatriate from Sydney. We didn’t know what to do with them, so we left them here,” came the curt response.
                The perspicacious traveler granted access to the inner sanctum of Modern Greek homes, especially those of the elderly, will soon come to realize that there is a disproportionate amount of Australiana displayed therein. Casting to one side the nostalgia of expatriates who, especially in villages, exhibit a remarkable tendency to display the Victorian number plates of cars they used to drive in the eighties upon the façade of their homes, even the homes of those never resident in Australia are not safe from the incursion of Australian touristic paraphernalia.
                Pride of place above the stove in my grandmother’s Athenian kitchen, for example, is afforded to a brass wall clock in the shape of the map of Australia. From the rail of the oven door, there invariably hands an Australiana tea-towel, in one of four designs: a platypus, a koala, a kangaroo, or a wombat. On top of the kitchen cupboards, there sits, among century old saucepans, a nonchalant pewter kangaroo. Given that the discolouration  of the wall behind the clock is of a square, rather than a map of Australia shape, and the remarkable state of preservation of the said tea towels and the commendable absence of dust visited upon the pewter marsupial as compared to its cooking companions, one cannot shrug of the sneaking suspicion that said items are stored carefully away, to be retrieved and displayed only when one of her Australian relations comes to stay. I have put this to my grandmother and she flatly denies it, though the absence of any wall dish bearing photographs of the Sydney Harbour Bridge or of a pair of benign but disinterested rainbow lorikeets in any other room of her house save the kitchen, condemns her soundly. On another trip to the homeland, one of my aunts displayed a good deal less tact and a surprising amount of honesty when she begged me to request of our relatives that we desist from sending her Australiana, for as fascinating as the flora and fauna of the mysterious continent were, she could not understand why they should be afforded an organic place in her modern Greek living room.
                The flow of souvenirs is mutual, with Greek souvenirs arriving upon Australian shores as immigrants made their first trip back to the homeland. My grandparents’ sitting room was adorned with two gaudy coloured plates featuring a particularly leggy evzone in an impossibly short foustanella blowing a trumpet in front of the Parthenon. As a child, I would gaze at these plates for hours, imagining that instead of school-bells, Greek students would be ushered to class by skirt-clad manly teachers with parabolically turned mustaches. When my grandparents went to Greece for the second and last time, I already knew what they would bring back by way of a gift, for such things formed the stuff of social convention: a plate bearing a mythological scene – in this case a soldier bandaging another soldier’s leg during the Trojan War, a male and female doll clad in traditional costume (which is still in its original packaging), an alabaster statue of the goddess Athena and for me, though this broke precedent, a plastic Cretan lyra that played Pentozalis when wound up and a plastic tsarouchi key-ring, replete with woolen pompom, also still in mint condition. With these accoutrements in tow, I felt that I could finally achieve my full Hellenic potential and I would fondle them for hours, imagining how lucky the Greeks of Greece were to have immediate and everyday access to a plethora of such treasures, and only speculating on the use they made thereof.
                Few households in the eighties were without such souvenirs and those that were, were considered bare and somehow, ethnically suspect. My grandparents gifts fit seamlessly with the paraphernalia amassed, during their honeymoon and proudly displayed thereafter, by my parents,. On the living room wall, not one but three wall-plates displayed mythological scenes, grouped around a brass etched plate bearing the double headed eagle of Byzantium. Then there were the small brass souvenir urns, one resting on a coaster displaying the map of Samos, next to the clay coffee cups also bearing the logo ‘Samos,’ the alabaster statues of the goddess Artemis, Hera and Athena and the black amphora bearing a picture of Oedipus and the Sphinx. It was during one particularly desperate attempt to distract me in my obstinacy for long enough to shove some food in my mouth, that my mother, pointing to the amphora, told me the story of the Riddle of the Sphinx, embarking me upon a love-affair with Greek mythology I have enjoyed my entire life. Hanging from the wall of the kitchen was the komboloi with the impossibly fat beads, rendering it unfit for use and a thick, orange tassel. Over the kitchen door there rested and still do so perch, two metal peacocks, lovingly crafted in Ioannina.
                So ingrained are these items in our collective identity, that when my parents renovated in the late nineties and decided that their sense of identity was secure enough to allow itself to be overridden by their sense of style, that they could not bring themselves to discard them. Instead, they were lovingly packed away and when I married, I took most of them with me, hanging the same komboloi in an inobtrusive part of the kitchen, proudly displaying the familial clay Samian coffee cups, copper briki, brass mortar and pestle, with pride of place over the stove being granted to that same Oedipal amphora, looking decidedly worse for wear.
                We look kindly upon the kitsch of yesteryear for it fulfilled a longing in the hearts of our parents for a world they had lost and which they valiantly sort to reconstruct. It was from this peace-meal mosaic of memory, hope and loss that we constructed our own composite sense of identity, dislocated from its place of origin and informed only by plastic surrogates imported once or twice in one’s lifetime. Now, in an era where one can pop down to Lonsdale Street or Oakleigh and purchase the Greek souvenirs of their choice at whim, not even this longing is left to us. If we truly are to preserve a sense of the history of our identity in Australia, then a local museum of Greek souvenirs, examining their change in style and subject matter over the decades with special attention given to the shift in subject matter and the appearance of the Sun of Vergina in the early nineties and inexplicably, the preponderance of satyrs bearing erect phalluses, in affiliation with the Mytilinioi paleontological museum, must be established.

First published in NKEE on

Saturday, March 22, 2014


The origin of this week’s diatribe, is the exasperation of a friend at the particularly crackpot, even by FYROMian standards allegation of a historian, that Greek archaeologists had deliberately planted Greek artefacts in the bordering Former Yugoslav Republic, in order to lay claim to the region. “This is ridiculous,” the aforementioned friend cried. “it is as if the Greeks took a time machine, loaded it with artefacts and went back in time and planted the stuff.” My response was simple. Such a time machine does exist. And Greek history has indeed been altered by time travelers.
In the eighth episode of the fourth season of the Doctor Who spin-off series “Torchwood,” Greece declares bankruptcy. Given that this episode was screened in 2011, it is obvious some type of temporal interference took place in order to ensure Greece’s solvency and it is to the Gallifreyan time-lord who operated under the name and style of “The Doctor,” that owe such intervention. We know, from the 2006, episode “Fear Her,” where the Doctor claimed to have visited the very first Olympic Games and watched naked men throwing a discus before a giant crowd, that Greece has been a constant place of return for him, and not only as a spectator.
Intervention in the affairs of Greece seems to be customary for the Doctor, for throughout the half century of its history, the television series Doctor Who has seen the Doctor return to Ancient Greece again and again, his activities altering the course of history – only, according to Gallifreyan ethics, when and where the events the Doctor wishes to influence, are not fixed points in space or time.
The Trojan War for example, was definitely not such an event, for when the first incarnation of the Doctor landed upon the plains of the bronze age city of Troy, in the 1965 episode entitled “the Myth Makers,” he was mistaken by Achilles for Zeus. It is the Doctor who suggests to Odysseus that Troy be taken by means of the Trojan Horse and it is thus to him that we owe the Iliad and the Odyssey, for an estimation of the course of Greek civilization without Homer’s epics ideologically underpinning it would be inconceivable. The Doctor also reveals to us that the Elysian Fields, as the place of abode for the righteous departed exists, when his Trojan companion, removed from Troy and compelled to follow him around the universe, dies and is placed there.
In the episodes The Keys of Marinus (1964) and Robot (1974) he claims to have met the first cousins Alexander the Great and King Pyrrhus of Epirus, implying that their conquests were as a result of his intervention. It is at this precise moment that some Fyromian historians allege that a plant of Greek archaeological artefacts took place.According to the novel The Slitheen Excursion, the tenth incarnation of the Doctor and his companion June visited Greece in 1500 BC, where they stopped the flatulent Slitheen, whome the ancient Greeks believed to be gods, from exploiting the local humans and destroying the Parthenon, eaving that job for the Venetians and Lord Elgin.
As if it were not enough for the good Doctor to be responsible for the fall of Troy, three Doctor Who episodes appear to suggest that he is also responsible for the ultimate destruction of the fabled city of Atlantis, as a result of an epic battled between his Nemesis, the Master, in which Kronos, the Titan is unleashed, in “The Time Monster.” Returning to the scientific conception of time as “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey” stuff, in the 1967 episode: “The Underwater Menace,” the Doctor is responsible for destroying Atlantis a second time, when thwarting its survivors’ efforts to raise the city from the sea.
Interestingly enough, the Doctor, during his peregrinations around the universe has also had much to do with Greek mythological monsters. In the aforementioned “The Time Monster,” the Doctor meets the Minotaur and oversees its destruction. Yet the next year, in “The Mind Robber,” the Doctor meets Rapunzel, she of the long flowing locks and in the process of navigating a labyrinth in her tower, encounters both the Minotaur and Medusa, whom he dispatches by declaring they do not exist. Nonetheless, the Minotaur returns in the 1979 episode “The Horns of Nimon,” in a retelling of the myth, set on the planet Skonnos. The Minotaur will return a fourth time, in the 2011 episode, the God Complex, as a creature inhabiting a labyrinthine hotel and feeding of the fears of trapped patrons. Medusa, on the other hand, will only return in the spin off series The Sarah Jane Adventures, where, in “The Eye of the Gorgon,” an alien Medusa with the power to turn people to stone is discovered disguised as a nun.
Further Greek myths are transposed to various parts of the universe, suggesting an alternative place of origin for the ancient Greek myths. The 1978 episode Underworld, is a version of Jason and the Argonauts, featuring the characters Jackson and Herrick, Orfe and Tala, thinly disguised versions of Jason, Heracles, Orpheus and Talaus. The connection is highlighted at the end of the episode, with the Doctor likening Jackson and his journey to Jason and his quest for the Golden Fleece.
The connection with Greek mythology is further cemented in the episode “Greeks Bearing Gifts,” of the spin-off series Torchwood, where the lesbian alien ‘Mary’ likens herself to the Greek hero, Philoctetes, on Lemnos for ten years. In the “Curse of the Black Spot,” the Doctor battles with the mythological Sirens, where else, on a pirate ship.
The Doctor’s intervention in Greece also involves some luminaries that would otherwise have been lost in the mists of obscurity. In the 1982 episode “Four to Doomsday,” Bigon, originally a Greek philosopher. is abducted by Monarch on his fourth visit to Earth and converted into androids. Retaining his Greek attributes, though Bigon was promised he would rule over Europe once the planet had been conquered, he rejects this offer, believing democracy to be the best form of government. Nonetheless, Monarch retained him to provide an element of doubt in his perfect society, believing that Bigon was an intellectual galvaniser. Said Bigon helped the fifth reincarnation of the Doctor to defeat Monarch and oust the androids from Earth.
Unanswered questions remain as to where Doctor Who was during the Asia Minor catastrophe and indeed in 1453 when Constantinople fell. While the revelation of the Doctor’s involvement in the Battle of Navarino, a glimpse of his Tardis around Souli, as he emerges, clad in foustanella, or the resistance’s blowing up of the bridge at Gorgopotamos would by now leave us all unsurprised, the future unmasking by the Doctor of Eleni Menegaki as an Auton bent on World Domination or of the hideously imitative Stavento as the brain-washing vanguard of the Dalek invasion are all events that we would most likely have to brace ourselves for. And in the days to come, when the Doctor has exposed the current inhabitants of the Parliament of Greece, as flatulent Slitheen and exiled them to their home planet of Raxacoricofallapatorius, we will all breathe a sigh of relief and gird our loins, for the next galactic onslaught.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 22 March 2014

Saturday, March 15, 2014


I have always been attracted to the theory that government, in all of its manifestations, is a form of social oppression. It is for this reason that I find the Makhnovshchina, that is, the largest, best organized and almost successful Ukrainian anarchist movement led by Nestor Makhno during the Russian revolution to be enthralling. During the breakup of the Russian Empire, while Reds fought Whites and numerous other warlords, a new movement emerged, that of the “Greens” or anarchists, in the southern Ukraine. Unlike the Bolsheviks who believed in strong central control, Nestor Makhno sought to abolish capitalism and the state by organizing themselves into village assemblies, communes and free councils. The land and factories were expropriated and put under nominal peasant and worker control by means of self-governing committees, while town mayors and many officials were drawn directly from the ranks of Makhno's military and political leadership. Ultimately, Makhno’s experiment would founder under the pressures of fighting the remnants of the Tsarist army, and then that of the Bolsheviks who, while previously allies, were determined to be the sole repository of power in the lands of the former Russian Empire.
Nestor Makhno’s government and the five principles underpinning it, are well known, these being: rejection of all political parties, rejection of all forms of dictatorships (including the dictatorship of the proletariat, viewed by Makhnovists and many anarchists of the day as a term synonymous with the dictatorship of the Bolshevik communist party), negation of any concept of a central state, rejection of a so-called "transitional period" necessitating a temporary dictatorship of the proletariat, and self-management of all workers through free local workers' councils. What is not as widely known, is that Makhno’s anarchist movement captured the imagination of the large Greek community of the Ukraine and that in fact, as early as the 1920’s it was claimed within the USSR that the Ukrainian anarchist movement was actually a Greek one.
Such a claim may not be as far fetched as first appears. Greeks had been living along the north coast of the Black Sea from at least the 5th Century BC. At the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917, there were around 180,000 of these Greeks, mostly speaking a Pontic dialiect, in the region. The Greek community’s involvement in armed conflict in the region is said to stem from the withdrawal of the Austrian and German armies from the Ukraine in 1918. At that time, the anti-communist White forces of General Denikin attempted to enforce conscription upon the politically neutral local Greek population of the Marioupolis area and met with armed resistance from them. These Greeks also resisted Denikin’s attempts to requisition food and were appalled by the rape of local Greek women and the brutality of the White forces. Consequently, they felt compelled to organize self defence units in the spring of 1919. It was natural that these locally organized groups should be attracted to Nestor Makhno’s ideas of self-run, autonomous communities.
Much of what we know of the Greek invoIment in the Ukrainian anarchist movement comes from Isaac Teper, a Makhnovist militant and editor of the Voice of the Makhnovists publication in Kharkhov. Captured by the Bolsheviks and recruited to the Cheka or secret police, he thereafter spying on the Makhnovists. In 1924 at Kharkhov he wrote a booklet on the Makhnovist movement, in which he claimed that the Makhnovist movement originated among the Black Sea Greeks. In support of this claim, he provided evidence suggesting that twenty per cent of the Makhnovist forces were Greek. He further commented that the Greek anarchist units were noted for their strong self-discipline, organisation and durability. One Greek anarchist commander mentioned, a certain Papadopoulos was celebrated in a Makhnovist song and was renowned among the Pontic Greeks for decades. Other prominent Greek anarchists include the Mavroudis brothers from the Greek village of Kermenchik, who are mentioned by an ex-Makhnovist known as Belash in his testimony to the Cheka. According to Belash, after the collapse of the Makhnovist movement, one brother joined the Communist Party and worked in the Volnovaskyi area. His younger brother remained an anarchist and was disgusted by Lenin’s New Economic Policy which he felt made the rich peasants richer and the poor peasants poorer. Prior to disappearing, he was also involved in the Makhnovist, anarchist cultural-educational section, popularizing the setting up of anarchist communes.
Further reinforcing Teper’s claims, Bolshevik and anarchist renegade Dybets, also stated that the Greek anarchist units were the most stable and reliable units of the Makhnovists and that Nestor Makhno had great respect for their courage and fighting ability, placing them in combat on the most dangerous fronts. Lev Yarkutsky, in his 1993 book on Marioupolis corroborates this, claiming that the Greeks in this region were the first to respond to the appeals of Makhno and that he could not find proof of their participation in the outrages and lootings characteristic of the Makhnovist poor peasants.

A key factor in the Greeks rallying to the anarchist movement was Nestor Makhno’s proclamations on the rights of different national minorities to their own language, costume, dress and culture whilst strongly denouncing nationalism and explicitly taking an internationalist position. This was in stark contrast to the repressive policies of the White Army and the Bolsheviks. In his memoirs, Makhno himself recalls that he planned a raid in the south-eastern region of Berntiansk-Marioupolus-Iouzovka in order to incite revolt. After a battle fought at Bolshoi Mikhailovka when the insurgents decided to make Makhno their leader, the Greek village of Komar was invaded and a unit of the Ukrainian National Guard driven out. Following this Makhno addressed the local population with revolutionary speeches. Many local Greeks immediately joined the Makhnovist forces with their own horses. Makhno then proceeded to Bogatyr, the village occupied by Urum Greeks who spoke a dialect of Turkish, and on to the villages of Veliky Yanisol and Maly Yanisol which were also Greek. According to Nestor Makhno’s own testimony, the Marioupolis Greeks were thus the first to respond to his call to arms.
Unsurprisingly, the capture of Marioupolis from French and Denikinist forces on 29 March 1919 was largely due in to the activities of the Greek ninth division led by Tachtamisev. A Greek Makhnovist regiment also fought alongside a Jewish one in a battle against the Whites in June 1919 and owing to the local Greeks’ commitment to the anarchist cause, the Marioupolis area was soon considered a safe haven for the Makhnovists. It was to the Greek village of Veliky Yanisol that the Makhnovist commander Lashkevich fled when he managed to escape from the Bolshevik encirclement of Gulyai Polye with the Makhnovist treasury of thousands of roubles. Here he was sheltered by a Greek grandfather. When he embezzled these funds, the local Greeks shot him in the main square of their village.
Predictably, the Greek anarchists suffered greatly at the hands of the Whites and the Bolsheviks for their attachment to the anarchist cause. A complicating factor was the arrival of Greek forces from Greece, sent by Venizelos to assist the Whites against the Bolsheviks. This allowed the Whites to portray the anarchists as not only traitors to Russia, but also to their Greek compatriots. In the aftermath of the White defeat, the Greeks also faced Bolshevik repression. In March 1920, a Bolshevik punitive detachment arrived in the area shooting 7 people in Komar, 10 in Bogatyr and 12 in Konstantinovka. Further reprisals followed over the next few years. Stalin in particular saw the entire Greek population of the Ukraine as politically suspect because of its attachment to the anarchist movement. The Greek community was accused of creating an insurgent counterrevolutionary organization that aimed at uniting part of the territory of the USSR to Greece. The number of arrests as so great that Yarutsky has compared the scale of the repression in he Greek villages with genocide.
It is fascinating to speculate how different the future of the world would have been and indeed how social economic theory would have developed, had Makhno prevailed against the enemies of the anarchist movement. Makhnovism, which builds upon and elaborates the ideas of Peter Kropotkin, and serves as the philosophical basis for anarchist communism, theoretically without the need for repression (though Makhno’s movement, given its emergence within the Russian Civil War was anything but peaceful) was embraced by the Greeks of the Ukraine as a movement that would permit all peoples to retain their own particular identity and emancipate them, allowing them to be responsible for taking the decisions key to their welfare and future. While a comparison of Greek Makhnovist activism with Greek participation in the current conflict in the Ukraine may be of interest, it is high time that the sacrifices of these idealistic and progressive Greeks of the diaspora are appreciated in their own right.
First punlished in NKEE on Saturday 15 March 2014

Saturday, March 08, 2014


The 28th of February 1914, was 100 years ago. It is a date that falls within the last gasp of the ‘Belle Epoque’, which is as historically remote to us today, as was the Battle of Waterloo to the people of the time. More significantly, it was a time of hope for Balkan nationalities, where borders were fluid and irredentist aspirations were rife. Identities were being formed and destroyed and the technological advancements of the age infused all with a sense of excitement for the ‘modern era’ and the ‘new improved’human, who having harnessed nature, would tread upon a path leading to a golden age of rationality and modernity.
The 28thof February 1914 also marks the declaration of the autonomous state of Northern Epirus. This declaration came about because the Works Powers, not being able to work out exactly how to divide up the region between themselves, decided to award it to Albania, without regard for the wishes of its population, and with no safeguards as to its laws and customs. As Giorgos Christakis-Zografos, the president of Autonomous Northern Epirus stated: “Under these conditions and in the absence of a solution that would suffice to safeguard Epirus, a solution it would have been otherwise easy to discover, the Epirote populace is forced to declare to the Powers that it cannot submit to their decision. It will declare its independence and will struggle for its existence, its traditions and its right.” This plucky declaration was met with analogous enthusiasm by the Greek-speaking world. It was seen by the Greeks of Greece as yet another step towards the realization of the Megali Idea – ensuring that all lands once ruled by Greeks are incorporated into one entity. For the Northern Epirotes, as well as sharing this ideal, it guaranteed the prospects of the area crawling out of the Ottoman yoke and into the twenty first century. The ambitious social welfare program of the newly formed state, including free schooling and health care also looked forward to the era of the‘new’ human. The new state was to have freedom of expression in all languages, a gendarmerie and Greek speaking legal system as well as a progressive system of local governance.
Unfortunately for the aspirants for local independence, the advent of the First World War and the subsequent occupation of parts of Northern Epirus by French and Italian troops ensued the ephemeral quality of the autonomous state. The treaty of Florence in 1918 returned the region to Albania and thereafter, the Albanian authorities began a targeted program against Greek cultural and religious expression in the region, culminating in the landmark 1935 World Court case, where Albania was ordered to re-open the Greek language schools it had closed down.
During the communist era, Greeks were seen as suspect owing to their cultural affiliations and thousands were incarcerated in brutal work camps. Greeks also played an inadvertent role in prising Albania away from a dependence on the USSR, this taking place when Khrushchev suggested to Albanian leader Enver Hoxha that he should re-establish the Greek autonomous region in Northern Epirus.

Today, if one surveys the mouldering concrete bunkers strewn throughout Northern Epirus as well as the crumbling, faceless Eastern Bloc architecture of the government buildings and the rusted tank and tractor parts abandoned on the side of the road, it can be seen that the pipe-dream of 100 years ago has been shattered on the rock of totalitarianism, nationalism and despondency.
Few groups now advocate autonomy for this shattered region. For one, the ethnic composition has changed. Most Northern Epirots have abandoned their homes and fled south in droves, while others, because they found it expedient to do so career-wise or because they were forcibly dislocated during the Communist era to the north, have become assimilated. It is no longer correct to speak just of Northern Epirots in Northern Epirus, when they are diffused over the length and breadth of Albania. In 1914, the Northern Epirot city of Korytsa played a leading role in the struggle for autonomy. Today, the majority of its inhabitants, while Orthodox Christians, have Vlach or Albanian as their mother tongue. Of the Vlachs, a disquieting minority identifies with Romania. Even so, Korytsa is the only Albanian city that freely flies a Greek flag in its city centre. This is due to the stalwart efforts of the non-Greek speaking but patriotic Vlachs.
Traditional ways of life have also changed. The paranoid, totalitarian collectivized regime of Enver Hoxha which did not allow people to move from their villages or even speak to others without being spied on squeezed out initiative, the love of beauty and the progressiveness which Greeks of 1914 found so appealing in Northern Epirots. Now the prevailing mood is one of immense fatigue and residuary paranoia. Everyone is tired, including the Albanians of the region who are sick of being told they should be wary of a threat from the South, the illusion of which has kept them afraid for one hundred years and has never materialized. Northern Epirots are also tired, of being afraid, of being persecuted but also of being ignored by their compatriots for so many decades as they suffered in silence.
Life is unbearably hard in Northern Epirus. Provision of basic services is intermittent and in winter, sometimes impossible. Those who remain behind eke out a living slowly and painfully, as if they were drops of water, eating away at the living rock. Meantime, the Albanian government is bent upon a course of denial when it comes to the Greek community of Cheimarra, a region comprised of seven villages sprawled upon one of the most captivating and investment-inviting coastlines of the world. The Albanian government refuses to accept that the inhabitants of that region are Greek, just as they refuse to return land illegally confiscated, to its lawful Greek inhabitants.
In Athens, in Melbourne and wherever there are Northern Epirots in the world, the century since the declaration of the autonomy Northern Epirus has been commemorated. Impassioned speeches have made, exalting the brave fighters who selflessly lost their lives and curses hurled at those who allowed this region to suffer so much, or as the ultranationalists say, ‘slip through our fingers.’These cliché speeches, orated by people who have absolutely no idea about the current situation and view history as a set of lines and maps on a page rather than the collective and needless sufferings of a wretched people, usually end with the vow that one day, autonomy will return. Conversely, those Greeks who inexplicably sympathise with the collapsed regime, deprecate those who remember Northern Epirus, identifying in the place of historic commemoration, intolerance and jingoism.
All this is may be fine and dandy, the event and the region being far removed from our daily lives. Yet one hundred years on, the grandiose promise of autonomy, the hypocritical assurance of Greek politicians who have divided the political leadership of the Nrothern Epirots and enmeshed them in internecine conflict, that they have their best interests at heart, and the deprecation of the last of the hardcore ideologues, who cannot accept that the regime that was to being about paradise actually proved inimical to the existence of the Greek people in Northern Epirus, is of little consequence to the Cheimarriot whose child is not allowed to consider itself Greek. Nor will it make a difference to the migrant from Dervitsiani, who returns home and builds himself a modern concrete monstrosity in the middle of his beautiful traditional village.
The romanticisation of nationalism and a lack of respect for human dignity led to the Kosovo debacle just over the border. It is well that all Greeks remember the historical day of the autonomy as an important event in our history, signifying what might have been. Let them also know however that to the Northern Epirot, whose very existence was denied by many Greek-Australians ten years ago, and whose suffering is still denied by just as many, cares not a fig for politics or autonomy. All he wants, is to live and die as he has always done, in silence but without suffering.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 8 March 2014

Saturday, March 01, 2014


As far as it is possible for me to know, my earliest memories of being among Greek people are inextricably interwoven with the alcoholic beverage known as Victoria Bitter, herein after referred to as VB. As such, I am able to conjure up vague, sepia tinted images of sitting on milk crates in sundry persons' garages, listening to LP's reproducing the latest sounds from the motherland, while aged grandfathers, grand uncles and other male relatives spoke longingly of the village, their right hands lovingly embracing the neck of a 750ml, brown "long neck" VB bottle. If the said occasion for the gathering was a nameday, the heavy smell of the VB would be intermingled with the acrid fumes of Marlboro cigarettes, chemically conjoined with the fat laden aromas emanating from a well tempered barbeque upon which chops were sizzling, my folk having been here since the fifties and as such, possessed of the belief that a souvla was a frivolous extravagance.
Long necks were ubiquitous in those days. One could locate them at the epicenter of the table at Greek dances, flanked by the impossibly incandescent pink tarama-substitute and the olives. By the end of the dance, a multitude of said bottles would be lined up around the perimeter of the table, with some vest clad, open shirted, pencil mustachioed revelers clumsily gazing into their necks, in pursuit of remnants. Their wives would turn away from them in exasperation, fiddling the long stem of a brandy glass or a tumbler with lemonade. VB was off limits to Greeks of the fairer sex, and the logic behind this does not lie in sexism, but rather in there being need for a designated person to pull the men off each other, when, in their VB induced fervor, their discussion of community or overseas politics, would lead to exhibitions of amateur pugilism.
My first taste of VB was at such an event at the tender age of five. One of my uncles felt it would be amusing to offer me a glass of the amber coloured beverage. The heady smell, which to me was possessed of the disconcerting familiarity of stale urine assailed my nostrils, almost causing me to wretch. Summoning all my resolve, I took a deep long sip and before I knew it, I had consumed the entire contents of the glass. Soon after, a warm, floating feeling made itself manifest and the room to gyrate around me gently like a merry go round. There is not much else I remember except waking up in my bedroom to the sounds of my parents cursing my uncle, who soon after, appeared in my room, bearing a five dollar note and seeking indulgence. This, I found most pleasing and possibly lucrative, until the proceeds of the crime were confiscated by my progenitors and returned to the offender.
VB, I learned in my university days, was the drink of choice of the tradesman. In one of my summer jobs, servicing industrial scales, I was paired with a Greek-Australian gent whose family had been here since the thirties and whose knowledge of Greek was minimal. Before the days of the GPS, he knew the location of every single pub in Melbourne and his exact distance therefrom. At lunch, he would procure two 350ml VB bottles, lovingly secreted in an esky in his ute and compel me to accompany him in their consumption. "Get that into ya, old diamond," he would cajole. "Go, on, all the way down." His nostrils, the largest I have ever seen on a human nose, would flare continuously as he would down the beer in audible gulps. Then, wiping his lips on his sleeve which was covered in grease, he would invariably sigh and muse: "Yeah, beer's the only drink for the workin' man. Whisky makes ya silly and plonk'll rot ya boots." Then he would launch into a detailed and critical history of the development of drinking establishments in Melbourne, lamenting the loss of not a few waterholes, as faithless Melbournians sacrificed their passion on the altar of development and pseudo-sophistication. When I took my leave of him that summer, he made me promise that I would not drink any other alcoholic beverage until the end of my days. "If ya can't get VB, any other beer'll do," he proclaimed solemnly, grasping my hand. "But not light beer. Light beer's for poofs."
Such is the enduring allure of VB, that the memory of its taste lingers long in the memories of expatriot Greek Australians, subsisting on European beers in the homeland. I remember one overseas visitor, on a return visit to Australia after many years, staying at my parents' house, who, having the propensity to consume vast quantities of alcohol, made a voluble request for the provision of beer. My father, wishing to impress him, had already stocked the fridge with a surprisingly diverse array of European and Japanese beers. "What would you like?" he asked. "We have all the Greek beers here. Mythos, Fix... Heineken". The visitor's lips tightened as his eyes opened wide with horror. «Τι να τις κάνω αυτές τις μ...... μπύρες;» he finally exploded. «Φέρε μου μιαVB γ.....ω την [insert blasphemy here.]" Chastened and reluctant to deplete his own secret stash, my father hurried to do his bidding. I was then treated to a lecture by our connoisseur guest as to the relative merits of VB over all other beers in the world. When I timidly ventured to suggest that German beers were vastly superior since they were made without. preservatives and were discarded after seven days, I was ordered from table.
The long neck is seldom found at Greek functions these days. We are a wine and coffee culture now, and the mega beer-swillers of yore, simply are not with us any more. Yet just the other week, at a function for the liberation of Ioannina at one of the Epirot clubs in Melbourne, peopled largely by people whose youthful days belonged to yesteryear, I was privileged to witness the revival of an old and hallowed custom - the ritual handing out of VB's, albeit in the 350ml size. In keeping with aged observance, beers were handed out to each male on our table and the only woman on our table, who just happened to the Greek Consul-General in Melbourne, Ms Christina Simantiraki, was pointedly left out. As the males on the table lavishly dished up praise as to her state of preservation, I noticed that the diplomat's gaze was fixed upon the bottles of VB. As the tension grew across the table, imperceptible to anyone else, I reached over, twisted the top and watched her beam with excitement, as just a hint of froth emerged. "Is that VB?" she asked. "Yes it is," I confirmed. "It is our national drink and it is imperative that you try it." With the subtlety of a connoisseur and the panache of a veteran, she took forth the bottle and raised it to her lips. Sadly, she was absent at the annual liberation dinner dance, where long neck VB's took pride of place on each table. Yet in crossing the great cultural divide and indulging in the ritual of consuming the saccharification of starch, she is now at one with us. Happy was the Babylonian who wrote in the Epic of Gilgamesh on the consumption of beer: "Fill your belly. Day and night make merry." It is our fervent wish that in the aeons to come, archaeologists will find a similar elegy to VB, penned by one of our own community poets. For VB is the epitome of us. It is hard and it is well-earned.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 1 March 2014