Monday, March 28, 2005


A few weeks ago, returning from the Sunday night Glendi, I was visited by three ghosts. After dismissing them as my predecessor Scrooge did before me as but a manifestation of an undigestible portion of an Antipodean Souvlaki or Baklava, they introduced themselves as the ghosts of Antipodes past, present and future. I tried to take a photo of them to accompany this Diatribe but strangely enough, it did not come out. The ghost of Antipodes past, a jolly, keen eyed effusive phantom called Jorge waved his arms and suddenly visions of a Lonsdale Street crammed with multitudes of souvlaki chomping, elbow jostling revelers signing to the strains of a Giorgos Dalaras or Eleutheria Arvanitaki came into sharp focus. The ghost of Antipodes present was a most stylish, devilishly debonair and smoothly complexioned apparition called Anargyros, who with a sassy snap of his fingers brought forth a vision of a contented crowd of people walking comfortably down Lonsdale Street and taking in all the many local acts. The third ghost, that of Antipodes future, was dressed in black and a red question mark (a Greek one, thus ;) obscured its features. When asked its name and to supply a vision, it replied: "Get stuffed. Wait and see."
Generally speaking the Greeks of our community like to think big, when it comes to community events and especially the Glendi, as this provides us with a unique opportunity each year to dominate the city center and showcase our culture to the whole of Melbourne. Big numbers, big acts of Greece and big sales of product are but just a few of the large expectations we have all developed of the Glendi in recent years. It comes then as no surprise that visitors and participants to both the Glendi and the National Day Parade, see in the diminished number of participants, ill omens of an end. Admittedly, the crowd at the Glendi was smaller than immediately previous years and there were no big acts from Greece visiting to galvanise the crowd, causing disappointment. Yet in my mind, this year's Glendi was arguably the best that has ever organized by the Antipodes Festival. For its organisers have realised that we can no longer be solely culturally dependant upon Greece. While the 'big acts' from Greece are certainly enjoyable, it would be heinous to think that the large resource of local talent that exists here in Melbourne lacks legitimacy in the eyes of the wider Greek community. If we admitted this, we would then have to admit that though our cultural transplantation was successful, we have left our cultural fruit to wither and rot off our tree, expecting instead, imported fruit from the motherland and that by implication, we will not be for long within the orchard. By interspersing the length of Lonsdale Street with local acts, the Glendi this year sent a clear message to our community: We too are Greeks, we too have talent, come and see it, nurture it and support it. The rock stylings of George Iliopoulos, the talented dance groups that plied their stuff on stage and the many other diverse manifestations of our unique cultural experience in Melbourne were prominently displayed for all to enjoy and enjoy them the crowd did.
This year, Antipodes finally dispelled once and for all the threadbare myth that all we have to show for ourselves is the souvlaki and the Zorba. Instead it provided a valuable community service by being an incubator whereby local talent can not only be displayed but nurtured and developed before an understanding and appreciative, ready audience, thus ensuring that the seeds of our fruit will not only sprout, but grow tall, proud and tantalizingly original.
Of particular note was the most excellent cultural display of the Cultural League of Epirus. Now that is what festivals are all about. Despite objections by some of their 'well-meaning peers,' a group of Epirots re-enacted the interior of a traditional home. Offering sweetmeats and cakes to passersby and dressed in traditional costume, they danced in the streets, engaged with non-Greek passersbys, often convincing them to take a dance or to and had a real ball. The crowd around the Epirots' stand did not diminish over the two days, as a real party atmosphere prevailed, one which of late has been missing from our increasingly 'uptight' community. It was touching to see young children timidly approach the stand and touch or finger some of the traditional costumes and implements while grandparents explained their use to them and told them stories of their own childhood. This is the exposition of Greek culture at its very best. While tradition may be a thing of the past, it forms the basis of who we are and we would do well to remember this when we ask how best we can showcase our culture to the world.
From the third floor of the GOCMV building where community 'leaders' mill around each other and Steve Bracks, trade gossip and exhalt in the fact that they are literally a 'cut above' the rest of the Greek populace, while the Greek Consul general advises that he refuses to recognise or deal with local Greek organizations that talk about Northern Epirus, and exhausted GOCMV committee members pour yet another glass of wine for their guests, Lonsdale Street seems small, festival-goers, practically miniscule. I look out the window at the smaller than usual crowd secure in the knowledge that next year and as the Festival continues to mark the coming years that it is not quantity but quality that really counts and under the direction of the Antipodes committee, we have nothing to fear. Suddenly, the red question mark on the faceless ghost of Antipodes Future straightens, erects and becomes an exclamation mark. Next year, the crowd that appreciated local acts this year, will certainly be back, and more besides.
The same cannot be said about the National Day parade. For a parade that once commenced at Collins Street and was able to draw thousands of spectators, it has shrunk, through indifference and the refusal of young people to don on their native costume to a mere shadow of itself. The fact that many participating organizations engage in much internecine strife about who will march before whom also does not help. "Where are all the people," a non-Greek friend of mine asked me. "I thought you Greeks were patriotic, or so you say." Or so we say indeed. Gone is the joyous and proud atmosphere of yesteryear and gone too is the electrifying revolutionary atmosphere created at the march in 1992 by Chrysostomos of Cyprus. Today, we march because… well because we have to really, I mean it would be a shame to let it die out all of a sudden…and well, let us allow it to wither away slowly. Many organizations that five or ten years ago would proudly march with ten or twenty members dressed in national costume have now dwindled to five or less. Whereas previous parades were a kaleidescope of colour, showcasing the diversity of Greek tradition and costume, several organisations had barely enough personnel to man the field and in at least one situation, non-Greek participants dressed up in national costume and participated, simply because the Greeks youth of that organisation flatly refused to take part in what they consider to be a useless and highly embarrassing display of wogginess. This is a shame as the march provides ample opportunity for us to not only instil a sense of pride in our identity byut to affirm and legitimise our unashamedly Hellenic presence in this city.
The few hundred spectators that trailed the pathways of the shrine looked on listlessly as the motley crew of marchers straggled up towards the steps of the Shrine in no particular order. By the time his Grace Bishop Ezekiel had finished his memorial for the dead and the Greek Consul General advised the participants that they were all celebrating the 21st of March rather than the 25th of March, most of the sorry crowd of spectators had melted away. This is a shame as they would have missed out on Minister McGauran telling us how proud he was that "beside every Greek flag, there is an Australian flag, showing the influence that Greek people have had upon Australian society." Quite apart from the fact that one struggles to conceive how the constituent phrases of that sentence logically fit together, the message is clear: We will only tolerate your pretty little march as long as you know where your true loyalty must lie.
I don't believe I will ever be visited by the ghost of National Day Parade Future. For me the parade has always been a traumatic experience of seeing adults drag their unwilling kids to the city, dress them in 'weird' clothes and see those kids feeling humiliated and totally self-conscious, walking up to the shrine uttering 'never again.' Somewhere along the line, we have failed here. There is something horridly wrong in feeling so ashamed, especially given that the official rhetoric goes along the lines of all of us being so proud to be Greek. Or maybe that it is so only when it suits us. Who knows? Time will tell. In the meantime, let us once more supplicate the ghost of Jacob Marley: Spirit, take us away from this place. We can bear it no more.


First published in NKEE on 28 March 2005