Sunday, November 30, 2014
The first thing that aged Greek clients ask me when they attend my office for the purposes of making their wills is whether their assets are protected when a concatenation of circumstances causes the surviving partner, usually the male, to become 'mixed up,' (μπλεγμένος), with a younger and the inference is, rapacious, new companion. For some reason, that companion is invariably cast as being of Asian extraction, more often than not hailing from the Philippines. My response, in these cases, is to turn to the said male, squat, with a bulbous nose, droopy eyelids and pendulous breasts and exclaim: "Look at him. Do you really think that anyone else apart from you would have the courage to take him on, even for a half share of your nineteen-eighties brick veneer home?" Nine times out of ten the anxious spouse chokes with laughter, the male wakes up and we move on to the next topic.
That topic concerns the identification of labyrinthine machinations of Byzantine complexity that would enable the aged couple to bequeath their assets to their offspring but only upon a multitude of prescriptive conditions as to what they can and cannot do with that property. It pains them to the extreme to learn that, except in certain circumstances, a bequest under a will is a gift where the bequeather has little or no say as to how that gift is utilised after their death.
Try as they might, my aged Greek clients find it difficult to understand that the law works in such a way as to prohibit them from managing the family property within the grave.
A similar attitude can be evidenced in the approach of some first generation members of our community to our community structures and its assets. Recent laudable debate as to the necessity of rationalising all of our dormant or unproductive assets in order to restructure our community for the purposes of placing it in the best position to withstand future challenges has been met with anguish but also imagination by members of the first generation. In a recent meeting to determine the sale of the Pansamian Brotherhood's building, as it no longer serves the needs of an ageing and most ancient community, having been extant since the early 1900s, a member remarked: "We didn't build this for the youth [all of whom are in their fifties and sixties]. We built it for ourselves. Let the next generations shift for themselves."
Most first generation community members do not follow this approach. Instead, they are concerned with the survival and best use of the assets their collective, superhuman, voluntary endeavours amassed over the most productive decades of their lives. They are apprehensive that these assets will not be appreciated (emotionally) and dissipated by latter generations who are disengaged, disinterested and no longer share their forebears need at least for the semblance of unity on the level of cultural origin. For this reason, they seek to lay down structures that they believe will stand the test of time. One of these recent attempts to lay down guiding principles for the future smooth running of the community would see us adopt a structure reminiscent of the Holy Roman Empire, whereby the current regional clubs and federations become electors within the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria, while a prytaneum (traditionally, in ancient Greece, a city's own central hearth and sacred fire representing the unity and vitality of the community, but here a collective of the best and brightest of the Greek community as a brains trust and so much more) could suggest or explore future directions and challenges, much as the Vatican dictated cultural and religious policy to the Holy Roman Empire in times medieval.
Such suggestions, and there are many more, though not without intrinsic flaws, are novel and absorbing. Yet what they all have in common is a complete disregard or non-comprehension of the current complex social position of the indigenous Greek generations, as well as an unwillingness to perceive how these generations relate, or rather don't relate, to the current existing structures. Furthermore, what unimaginably passes without comment is the fact that a first generation, in the swan song of their active, productive life, purport to set rules, boundaries and structures for a second generation that has a) grown up, b) permeated all spheres of Australian life, c) displays a fierce independence and often defines itself by its emancipation from what it perceives to be the outdated, oppressive or quaint mores of its progenitors. In short, the latter generations, if they appear at all in the calculations of the self-appointed architects of the perpetuity of the Greek community, make a cameo appearance as mere abstractions, something which is the height of folly when one considers that it is for their benefit that such rules are being crafted.
Moreover, the key questions that potentially marry the latter generations to the existing structures of the Greek community are not being asked. Firstly, why have these latter generations (with a few notable exceptions), deserted the current structures of the Greek community in droves? Secondly and most importantly, if the current structures of the community do not address the needs of these generations, or have alienated them, as is often argued, why have these generations, so capable and dynamic in all other respects, not formed their own, as their parents did and continue to do? Thirdly, if these latter generations are unwilling, incapable or require motivation to rejoin the Greek community, under what terms should this take place? The answers to these questions are a condition precedent for determining the future direction of the community. For the latter generations enjoy a diversity of opinion, outlook, values, language skill, exposure to Greek culture, economic and career status far exceeding that of their hitherto close-knit predecessors.
Rather than perpetuate the fractiousness of the past by parodying political process, whereupon the energies of the first generation were often expended upon tail-chasing intricate plots and schemes solely to gain and maintain illusory and ineffectual power, what we need to do as a community is to establish some key priorities, the accomplishment of which are intrinsic to our survival. One of these has already been achieved - the erection of the Cultural Centre, a remarkable feat, brought about largely by committed members of the second generation, in consultation and collaboration with the rest of the Greek community. Here then is a cloud with a silver lining - acting not in accordance with a calcifying constitution, to be interpreted and re-interpreted according to one's needs, but rather, acting in a fluid, flexible fashion, according to the needs of the time and most importantly engaging with and including all those persons who wish to contribute, regardless of their age, region of origin or political opinion.
Further than that, there are some serious issues to be addressed, such as the availability of Greek early learning and child care centres in the suburbs, for it is the early years that are crucial to the formation of the linguistic capabilities and cultural identification of our children. Then there is the formation of facilities that will enable young Greek families to get together in ever increasing outlying suburbs where no current structures exist and social isolation is the norm. Chances are, if people relate to each other as Greeks from a young age, they will want to continue to do so in later life. Laudably, the Greek Orthodox Church in Australia is currently conducting research into this very question. In addition, given the internecine strife that saw the first generation, having accomplished its erection of edifices, turn on each other, often inexplicably and through the creation of mini-parliaments, attempt to destroy that which they wished to achieve, often transforming their organisations from family-centred social clubs to war-zones, we need to return to the grass roots and re-construct a community that is friendly, easy to belong to and, let's face it, fun. The vibrant Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria has made great strides in this regard in recent years, yet the catch up work that is required is still enormous.
As in the case of my anxious clients, the first generation cannot and should not solely abrogate to itself the right to determine the structures that will guide the community through the generations, or the future of its assets. Instead, this is a process that requires intergenerational engagement and the participation of all sectors of our community, working in concert and in a spirit of compromise to provide for each other's needs. After all, the best way to ensure that your children will respect and utilise that which you will give, devise and bequeath to them in your will, is to talk to them, work with them and ensure you all share the same aspirations, not corral them within a set of rigid, incomprehensible structures that can only breed resentment and disengagement. And if they do not, they deserve the chance to determine things in their own way, long after we are gone.
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 30 November 2014