Monday, August 28, 2006


"I woke up with this marble head in my hands;it exhausts my elbows and I don’t know where to put it down. It was falling into the dream as I was coming out of the dream so our life became one and it will be very difficultfor it to disunite again." Seferis.

Nobel Prize winning poet George Seferis, like many other modern Greek writers before and after him, was preoccupied with the idea, and burden, of the so-called "Hellenic Ideal," the belief that the modern Greeks are the direct successors to, inheritors and guardians of, Greek classical tradition. The modern nation’s claim to be heir to the Athenian ancients posed vexing problems, which Seferis portrayed as akin to the weight of the disembodied head of a classical statue, the burden of which he found unbearable, but which he nevertheless could not let go. He wrote also of the insupportable heft of the dead past, a past which threatened to drag him down: “These stones sinking into time, how far will they drag me with them?… /I see the trees breathing the black serenity of the dead/and then the smiles, so static, of the statues.” Even at the moment of its birth, as the state, to use Seferis’ metaphor, “woke up” Greece and the Greek people found themselves already saturated with, even deadened by, the dream of the past and the weight of their own ancient history. Thus, the life of modern Greece is lived, particularly at the level of national discourse, as a palimpsest of imagined past and actual present, and it is, indeed, “very difficult” to untangle and “disunite” the one from the other.
The problem of the construction of a modern Greek identity seems to have at its root the multiplicity of traditions that have been drawn upon in order to create it and even the concept of tradition itself. Traditio or in Greek paradosis means that which is handed down or handed over. In most cases this takes the form of information brought from the past into the present. Unless it is repeated or passed on, such information, whether in the form of custom, or narrative, is doomed to disappear. As Greek civilisation became literary at a very early stage, a great deal of information that might otherwise have been lost and in many cases was lost from popular consciousness is still with us, and thanks largely to the western neo-classical movement which resuscitated it, forms the important part of our tradition that Seferis so agonized over.
Seferis’ problem is immediately apparent. While it is obvious that traditions can be and have been constructed over the years to suit various needs, how does one cope with and accommodate information that while suitably venerable, has escaped the chain of continuity? Can such information be termed tradition if its only precedent is an activity taking place thousands of years ago as well as literary records attesting to this? If so, is such tradition less authentic than one that has survived in an unbroken and continuous chain for the same period of time? This then in a nutshell, is the dialectic facing those who would champion the ascendancy of either the ancient or Christian aspects of our identity and tradition over each other. While it is possible to resuscitate and assimilate certain long forgotten aspects of our ancestors’ usages to our current situation, our narrative, for better or for worse, has forged ahead since the discarding of such traditions that hitherto have not survived in the popular consciousness and their consequent, often arbitrary resuscitation has often fitted in ill with contemporary sensitivities. Thus their adoption requires either a difficult syncretism or the replacement of ‘younger’ but better entrenched traditions with one that are ‘superior’ by virtue of their antiquity.
Interestingly enough, in the case of modern Greece, the acceptance of many resuscitations was a consequence of their external imposition. This in itself constitutes a novelty. Up until the late Byzantine era, Greek scholars studied such ancient texts as had survived, utilizing information within them that was useful to their ends but on the whole, viewing them and the world they belonged to as something superceded though not totally without value. No one would argue that despite the fact they were forcibly abolished approximately a thousand years before, the Olympic Games, revived in their modern form by De Coubertin, administered by an international body and bearing little resemblance to their prototype, form part of the Modern Greek tradition today. Parliamentary democracy, a western form of government arising under unique circumstances and with only a passing resemblance to ancient Athenian democracy is another case in point, though its adoption is benign. It appears to a large degree then that exterior sanction has been required for the adoption of past tradition without reference to the chain of continuity. That is, we adopt as tradition that which will in our estimation, increase our appeal to the outside world and boost our self-esteem. This can be illustrated by the unique situation of the relationship between church and State in Greece. Hitherto two separate entities, the Bavarian Protestant bureaucrats that took over the new country after the assassination of Kapodistrias subordinated the Church to the control of the State - a completely alien tradition for Orthodox Christians. Now, as western democracies seek to augment their pluralistic identity, such a state of affairs is considered archaic and the calls for separation of the two entities founder mostly upon devotion to a tradition that really wasn’t really tradition after all.
What happens when tradition develops in a vacuum? Devoid of its precedents and root causes does it have any meaning at all? Alexandrian poet Cavafy was entranced by this concept, best expressed in his poem Poseidonians, where he states: "The Poseidonians forgot the Greek language/ after so many centuries of mingling/ with Tyrrhenians, Latins, and other foreigners./ The only thing surviving from their ancestors/ was a Greek festival, with beautiful rites,/ with lyres and flutes, contests and wreaths./ And it was their habit toward the festival's end/ to tell each other about their ancient customs/ and once again to speak Greek names/ that only few of them still recognized./ And so their festival always had a melancholy ending…"
The aforemetioned parallels our situation here in Australia. Until recently cut off to all intents and purposes from the evolving traditions of our mother culture to the extent where our parents’ clothes and manner of speech are the object of derision among inhabitants of the most remote and backward Greek village, our adherence has been to those traditions passed down to us in the strictest of senses, by our parents. Many of those traditions were relevant to a specific time and especially place. A great number of such social and rural traditions are of as questionable relevance to our new urban, Anglo-Celtic reality as they are to the new urban Anglo-Celtic-influenced reality of the place our parents left behind and as a result, many have been discarded. As a result, parental status as custodians of received tradition is slight, the generation gap, better desribed as a chasm.
In the face of this demise of ‘tradition’ in general, we have three choices. We can reject it outright, though few have done so. We can study it and do our best to define that which we share and which is worth preserving, despite the quixotic character of such a task. Otherwise, we could, and to a large extent do, as the Poseidonians did before us. That is, to blindly and unquestioningly retain antiquated customs that are no longer relevant to us and which we do not understand in the hope that these will facilitate our retaining an identity which is important, since these have been passed on to us, but which are in a size and style that no longer fit us, until they are lost altogether. It is the rejection of such a ‘one size fits all’ approach to tradition that is causing increasing numbers of our community to seek solace in reconstructing or resuscitating their own subjective ‘traditions’ out of information derived from books and a deep seated feeling of the inadequacy of the form in which some traditions have been transplanted to our adopted country. In many respects this represents the centrality of tradition in any form, to our conception of identity and is thus, unbeknownst to iconoclastic reformers, a traditional apprach to dealing with the Greek tradition in itself.
While any such innovations as may be made may seem novel and strange to contemporaries, if such resuscitated ‘traditions’ are passed down future generations, there is no reason why they will not be deemed to be personal, family or upon entering wider adherence, ethnic traditions. The prevalence of a good many invented or resuscitated ‘traditions’ that do not find their counterpart or are not resuscitated in parallel with our cultural motherland will eventually cause us to question our identity yet again and that will be when the petrified migraine so aptly portrayed by Seferis will really set in…
We are not alone in attempting to re-invent oursleves. Here in Melbourne, a small grouping of members of the Assyrian community have set up a temple where they worship Ishtar, Ashur and other ancient Assyrian gods, in the belief that Christianity, the major cultural point of reference for the rest of their compatriots, is the cause for their nation's current ignominy. Yet let us heed a caveat: While the richness of our history provides ample pickings for those who would rejoice in the achievements and deeds of our people, subjective contrivance and artificiality are not the answer to our perceived ills. It is incumbent upon all those who would abrogate for themselves the right to arbitrarily construct an identity for themselves to do so upon deep study of the cultural precedents they seek to replace and with the following in mind: that while we do indeed live in the era of indivisualism and deconstruction, we also, to all intents and purposes, form part of a community that has some common points of reference. Let us ensure then, that others are able to recognise the statues we place upon our pedestals, lest one day we remain, like in Seferis’ waking nightmare, nursing the decapitated head of our own presumption in our hands.

First published in NKEE on 28 August 2006

Monday, August 21, 2006


In Ismail Kadare's novel, "The General of the Dead Army," a proud but nameless Italian general arrives by airplane, in Albania in the mid-1960s with the mission of retrieving the buried bones of Italian soldiers killed during World War II. The general, accompanied by a military priest and the weighty expectations of the dead soldiers' families, embarks on the grisly quest with a listing of the missing soldiers, official maps, and anecdotal evidence from surviving infantrymen to help locate his "dead army."
The general and the priest, with an Albanian work crew in their command make their way around the countryside, exhuming Italian remains. The general's anxiety grows in tandem with the body count; he is haunted not simply by the macabre nature of the work and the animosity he senses from the Albanians around him, but most profoundly by the guilt he assumes for the soldiers' deaths. Thus begins his unraveling, marked by nightmares featuring corpses and hallucinations that amalgamate reality and fear. In one particularly tender, demented scene, the general maps ingenious new strategies for famous battles past, for himself and his army of dead men.
Seasoned by years in command, however, the general maintains a facsimile of lucidity and remains honorable to his task. After more than 12 months of searching, and with the majority of bodies accounted for - minus that of the highly sought after Colonel Z - the general and priest prepare for their final descent from the treacherous Albanian mountains, to the capital. Before reaching Tirane, however, they encounter a wedding festival, which the general insists on attending despite the priest's protest. The stop is the general's undoing, as he's confronted by a bitter crone with the bones of the infamous Colonel Z, who hanged her husband, raped her daughter, and terrorized countless other Albanians as leader of the notorious Blue Battalion. The general's brief reprise of happiness is toppled, and in a fit of rage and realization, he kicks the Colonel's bagged bones into a rushing creek, hence wrecking his hope of receiving a hero's return.
Like the General, who begins to see beyond the skin of the living, beyond to their bones beneath, the discerning reader can see the skeletons of archetypes that give form to "The General:"
"As soon as I see someone - anyone at all - I automatically begin stripping off his hair, then his cheeks, then his eyes, as though they were something unnecessary, something that is merely preventing me from penetrating to his essence; and I envisage his head as nothing but a skull and teeth- the only details that endure."
This perspicacity ensues the general's fall, complete in nearly every sense - psychologically, emotionally, ethically - except, ironically, mortally and, ultimately, morally. That the stage for this plummet is a wedding celebration - a typically triumphant occasion - is no coincidence. The juxtaposition of the merry fest, eerily set in the seasonably stark season of winter, against the general's hexed union with his long-sought prize, at the hand's of a "witch", no less, throws into the relief the velocity and depth of his descent, and the tragic nature of human traditions like warfare. In fact, cycles repeat relentlessly throughout The General. Here time is incessantly predictable: swings in the general's mood; his forays between city life and the remote, frigid "underground"; bodies roused from rest then bagged, boxed and buried again; and, mostly enduringly, Albania's own embattled biography.
The seasons, too, are regimentally obedient, with the chilly, wet months of fall and winter conspicuously consuming all but three paragraphs of the general's 252-page, year-long stay Like the weather, the Albanian countryside is ominous, to the general's eyes, with its "menacing mountains" and their "jagged," "hostile" peaks. Collectively, these elements give the general a sense of isolation, as does his cultural ignorance. Unlike the priest, he doesn't speak Albanian and makes no effort to. He characterizes the language as "harsh" and "a fatal tongue," and views the Albanians - from their physical form, to their manners, to their rituals -with deep disdain. Early on he states that he "hates" them, and wishes to avenge his soldiers' deaths, and throughout he outwardly resents the curious stares of the peasants who witness the exhumations. Not surprisingly, when the Albanians' voices are allowed into the narrative, they emerge as warm, passionate, lively people, further belying the general's narrow view of his hosts. However even their stories - tracing the fate of the prostitute, the deserter, and the partisan sniper - echo the ubiquitous howl of death.
It is perhaps ironic justice that, Kadare's use of archetypal elements give "The General a universality, a particularly unique quality for a work by an artist living in a recluse nation. By enabling both "us" and "them" to recognize and understand the nuances of the general and his journey, Kadare's use of archetypes cleverly undermines the novel's ostensible claim at an inherently opposed "we" and "they."
Recently, the very hypothesis of Ismail Kadare's General was re-enacted, this time by the grieving relatives of Greek soldiers who fell in Albania during World War II. Unlike German and Italian soldiers, with whom Albania was allied during that war, Greek soldiers represent an enemy and occupying force that attempted to re-annex Northern Epirus and denude Albania of its southern provinces. As a result, the corpses of Greek soldiers have been left to decompose, being turned over by the occasional plow and exhumed to prove that even beyond the decomposition of the flesh and the passing of time, hatreds may still remain, hatreds as tragically Greek as Kadare's own masterpiece, given that Creon-like, up until now, the authorities, despite signing an agreement with Greece, have refused these soldiers, a proper burial.
One of the Albanian workers hired to assist in the exhumation was caught robbing the remains and as a result, was fired. Technically, it is illegal in Albania to perform exhumations without a license and the disgraced grave robber reported to the authorities that he was engaged to desecrate Albanian graves. As the exhumation was accompanied by an Orthodox priest who sang the trisagion, various Albanian members of Parliament, enmeshed in the throes of nationalist hysteria, accused the Orthodox Archbishop of Albania of grave desecration, spying for Greece, being a traitor and called for his removal from the country. The hapless priest, has now been jailed.
The bare bones of paranoia lie just under the surface of the topsoil in Albania and can be stripped down to their essence by anyone, let alone a general. The president of Albania, Alfred Moisiu, whose father was an officer in the oppressive Zog regime and then the totalitarian regime of Enver Hoxha and fought in the battle for Elbasan where Italian troops halted the advance of the Greek army towards central Albania, is absolutely opposed to the proper burial of the Greek soldiers. Circles close to him report that the construction of proper cemeteries to house the remains of the fallen and long forgotten soldiers is considered to be as tantamount to extending the Greek borders up until that spot and it will be a long time before the jagged, hostile and unforgiving terrain that has seen so much misery over the course of the twentieth century, will give up our dead to us. "Us" and "them" is as a reality of today's Albania as it is in the fiction of Kadare.
This sad situation of affairs, which has seen Albanian paranoia seek a scapegoat in the Orthodox Church that has done so much to ensure the cohesiveness of Albanian society as a multi-faith one and has furthered the process of reconciliation in such a damaged and fragmented community is a fitting postscript to Kadare's piece. In keeping with the general outlook of his compatriots, for all his efforts to make isolationist and xenophobic Albania more accessible to the western world, his world-view, as set out in "The General of the Dead Army," is one where isolation is externally imposed, rather than stemming from an internal, barren solitude. Thus, in an inversion of the clichéd symbolism of the Albanians nationalistically employed to the effect that they purport to be "son's of the eagles", he states: "Like a proud and solitary bird, you will fly over those silent and tragic mountains in order to wrest our poor young men from their jagged, rocky grip." The postcript however, written by his compatriots, belies that assertion. There are some dead who threaten to rise up from their slumber in accusation. Though it would be safer to entomb them and bury their righteous anger under tones of marble, Kadare's compatriots are too terrified to go near them. In the final chapter, no general is required to seek out his army and bury it. It is the dead, who will find their general and demand the dignified respite they so richly deserve even as their descendants languish in prison, stating, as Sophocles' Antigone did two thousand years ago: "I intend to give my brother burial. I’ll be glad to die in the attempt, - if it’s a crime, then it’s a crime that God commands.”
It is unknown what weregild for perceived wrongs will have to be paid before the members of the Albanian parliament overcome their fear of ghosts and the guilt of the brutality of their own Colonels Z. If it is the prelate of the Albanian Orthodox Church, the leaders of Albania, all of which have done much to oppress the minorities of that country and whose economic mismanagement and corruption are of a scale to make a South American dictator blush ought to remember the words of John Donne, as the dead come knocking at their door, searching for an Antigone to bury them: "No man is an island, entire of itself...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

First published in NKEE on 21 August 2006

Monday, August 14, 2006


"If her Fruit, Whom none may comprehend, on Whose account she was called a heaven, submitted of His own will to burial as a mortal, how should she, who gave Him birth without knowing a man refuse it?"
St John of Damascus.
Every time we enter the feast preparatory to the celebration of the Dormition of the Theotokos on 15 August, I cannot but help noticing at how reminiscent the traditional iconography of this event is of traditional representations of the Nativity and the preceding quote, by perhaps one of the greatest theologians of all time offers ample explanation of why this is the case. In the Dormition icon, the Most Holy Theotokos is seen lying on her bed, much as in the Nativity icon surrounded by angels, saints, friends, neighbors, and apostles arriving on a cloud, rather than shepherds and magi. This represents one of the more miraculous events surrounding the central miracle itself: The Theotokos prepared for her death, having been advised of this by the Archangel Gabriel who appeared before her, handed her a palm leaf, a symbol of victory, symbolizing, according to St Germanos her overcoming of corruption, while stating: “Thy Son and our God, with the Angels, Archangels, Cherubim and Seraphim and all the heavenly Spirits and the souls of the righteous shall receive thee, His Mother, into the heavenly Kingdom that thou mayest live and reign with Him forever.”
Looking closer at the Holy Bier, we see Saint John the Evangelist, who bends his head near to the Theotokos, calling to mind the parallel biblical passage of John 13: 23-25 where the beloved disciple places his head on Jesus at the Last Supper. The bier itself, lined with a brilliant vermillion mat upon which the Theotokos lies is also reminiscent of the Nativity icon. In both icons, we see a parallel motif of life coming into a world of death. Candles burning brightly in front of the bier represent light in a world of darkness, proclaiming the theme of “life” and “light.” Christ will give the Theotokos, who sleeps in death, new life which is metaphorically described as “light.” Thus, “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.” (John 1:4)
The Theotokos prayed while reclining upon her bier and all of a sudden a thunderclap was heard. Almost immediately, all the apostles that were scattered to the ends of the world, except Thomas, were gathered together on clouds and brought to Jerusalem. This, along with all other events associated with the Dormition are expounded in the hymns sung at this time. The Matin Hymn, written by St Cosmas of Damascus relates: “Carried to Sion as it were upon a swift cloud, the company of the Apostles assembled from the ends of the earth to minister to thee oh Virgin.” As his brother, St John of Damascus mentions in his hymn, also sung at this time, this gathering together of her Son’s apostles was an event of profound theological significance: “It was right that the eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word should see the Dormition of His Mother according to the flesh, even the final mystery concerning her: hence, they might be witness not only to the Ascension of the Saviour but also to the translation of her who gave Him birth. Assembled from all parts by divine power, they came to Sion, and sped on her way to heaven the Virgin, who is higher than the cherubim.”
Around the entire icon there is a glow of gold and reds, representing the burst of the new kingdom and the surge of life. It is a scene representing both earthly and heavenly members of creation, coming to see the fulfillment of Christ’s word.
The resemblance of this Dormition icon to the Nativity icon is furthered by its background composition. Here, the Nativity background of lofty mountains, representing contact between God and humanity is replaced by a mountainous mandorla, a small one outlining a glow of divinity around Christ connected to the flow of the Spirit indicated by a bright ray and a large mandorla filled with the singing heavenly hosts angels. The larger mandorla encompasses the realm of heaven and the small mandorla the aura of Christ, bearing the soul of his Mother in a depiction reminiscent of the Theotokos’ presentation at the temple as a baby and of Christ in swaddling clothes, in the Nativity icon. This records the moment when the Theotokos turned and said to the Apostles: “Cast incense and pray, because Christ is at hand, sitting on the throne of the cherubim.” Holy Tradition records that the roof of the room opened and Christ descended from Heaven at the head of a host of angels and called her to him. After worshipping him, proclaiming: “Blessed is Thy name, O Lord of Glory and my God, Who was pleased to choose Thy humble handmaiden for the service of thy mystery,” the Theotokos gave up her soul.
At the peak of the larger mandorla the six-winged angel known as the Cherubium predominates, much as angels predominate the Nativity icon. In iconography, angels are predominantly portrayed through the significant profusion of wings. These heavenly hosts represent the guardians of the Holy of Holies, so as to keep the Tree of Life protected until the end of time. This causes us to recall that of the trees in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve ate only of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The gift of true and everlasting life was retained by God, to be fully received only in the end of time, in accordance with the Book of Revelation. Here, in the icon, the Cherubium flutters at the top of the larger mandorla - symbolizing that Christ has brought new life and His Mother is the first to realize the new eschaton, the beginning of humanity's journey in the final days of the Kingdom to the Tree of Life. This is then is the supreme significance of Theotokos’ koimisis. As the Vespers stichera marvel, giving voice to the grief of the Apostles who turn to each other in their grief: “O marvelous wonder! The source of life is laid in the tomb, and the tomb itself becomes a ladder to heaven. Thy glory is full of majesty, shining with grace in divine brightness.” Thus, at the very center of the top of the icon, we find a time lapse glimpse at the Theotokos being carried into the open gates of Heaven itself by the heavenly hosts, an experience that has become accessible to us by the dignified koimisis of Theotokos and which believers are called upon to emulate.
Underlying her role as intercessor and protector of all humanity, the Υπέρμαχος Στρατηγός of Byzantium and, according to popular belief, the guardian of the Greek nation during such times of tribulation as the German occupation, even as she ascends to heaven, the Theotokos’ arms are wide and she bends toward the earth still caring for all those who are now the Mystical Body of Christ in the world. Thus believers comprehend her as the Platytera, one whose body held the God of the universe, wider than the heavens. She prays in early Christian style in the orans position, with arms extended. She is the one who will constantly draw all to her Son and eventually to the realm she now enters.
The Feast of the Dormition does not commemorate the Assumption, as in the Roman Catholic tradition, but rather, the koimisis of the Theotokos and the translation of her sacred body to heaven three days later, upon the arrival of the Apostle Thomas, from India. It was St Juvenal, Patriarch of Jerusalem, in the fifth century, who related to St Pulcheria, the earliest traditions concerning the translation of the Theotokos’ relics. At the end of the sixth century, Emperor Maurice established the Feast for 15 August and it has been so celebrated by the Eastern Christians ever since.
Unlike the Resurrection of Christ, the mysterious character of her death, burial and ascension were not the subject of apostolic teachings extant but were preserved in the oral tradition of the Church, giving rise to the Orthodox belief that inaccessible to the view of those outside the Church, the glory of the Theotokos’ Dormition can be contemplated only in the inner light of Tradition. The glorification of the Theotokos, Mother of all is a result of the voluntary condescension of the Son who was made incarnate by her and thus, became in his human nature, capable of dying. For believers therefore, the Mother of God is now established beyond the general Resurrection and the Last Judgment, having passed from death to life, from time to eternity, from terrestrial condition to celestial beatitude.
Δεκαπενταύγουστο (15 August) then, is a second mysterious and wondrous Pascha, since the Church celebrates before the end of time, the secret first-fruits of its eschatological consummation. This year, at least for my family, it is exceptionally special, since our own paragon of patience and kindness, our great-grandmother Panagio, is celebrating her one hundredth nameday. Χρόνια Πολλά to her then may be a superfluous wish but I daresay, not to all other eortazontes.
First published in NKEE on 14 August 2006

Monday, August 07, 2006

EPT (Each Pensioner's Television)

One of my most enduring childhood memories is of waking up early in the morning to the dulcet tones of Kostas Nikolopoulos, Evgenia Moraiti or Alexis Doudoulakis reading the morning news on the SBS Greek program. That program, digested along with my morning cereal and the odd grainy late night or Sunday afternoon movie on SBS, was my only exposure to an ancestral world that, if it were not for the testimony of my family, which testimony had more of the character of folklore and legend, may as well have existed on another planet. I listened hungrily to each syllable, noting the differences in intonation between the newsreaders and my relatives' vocabulary as well as memorizing words I had never heard before. Every news item, whether relating to politics, history or just public interest was carefully filed away into the recesses of my brain for future reference, to be placed in the blind mosaic I was constructing of a place I had never seen but was as vivid as the gaze of the icon hanging on my bedroom wall.
Sometimes, on Saturday nights, my uncle would hire videos from the innumerable Greek video shops that seemed to have sprung up from nowhere and were all the rage as many years ago as one could safely count without revealing their age. I would peruse them with the same intensity, making notes of how genteel Greece was invariably black and white and populated by balding persons such as Stavridis and Fotopoulos, who were impeccably polite and had a propensity for wearing high pants. I learned that in genteel Greece, Greeks did not say 'Allo,' when greeting each other, but instead, said "Χαιρέτε," after which the right hand was briskly extended towards the other party. This world was constantly invaded by Germans or Turks, though they were always beaten back by patriotic villagers or actors all wearing exactly the same form of foustanella. In this world, fat balding men with a few strands of curly hair would run continuously through streets abuzz with all the tell tale signs of a construction boom exclaiming: "Καλοί μου άνθρωποι." The poor were unfairly treated but they always receive their comeuppance and in this genteel world, lovers would be parted and then reunited, a lavish visit to the bouzoukia setting the happily ever after seal on a charmed life.
The Greece of colour in contrast, seemed to be poorly scripted and haphazard. It was comprised of anorexically thin waifs with long hair and big noses riding motorcycles to the sound of rock music, rebelling against traditional norms by such revolutionary activities as kissing in public and wearing blue jeans. Often, the plots of such movies would be expounded conspiratorially by classmates during recess at Greek schools. This invariably involved repeating expressions such as "ο Παπασούζας" and careering around the classroom, attempting to re-enact his many feats. We learned that "γύφτοι" were funny looking people who drove Datsuns with loudspeakers attached to them and who were always striving to save their homes from being demolished by the government. Ταμτάκος, was not a Japanese samurai, but rather, their chief representative.
When anyone received the slightest hint of a Greek movie being screened on SBS, the word would be passed around and all other arrangements would be cancelled so that this unprecedented event could be enjoyed to the full. One such movie, directed by Angelopoulos, had us glued to our screens watching a vessel vanish over the horizon for a half an hour. We were bored out of our pants but it was a Greek horizon and conclusions could be drawn from the way the light reflected against the water until the screen became enveloped in darkness and silence.
I was fifteen when I first visited Greece. I returned to Australia convinced that modern Greece was a kaleidoscope of black and white Greece as a distant background, much superficial careering around in blue jeans and motorcycles in the foreground to the tune of the advertising jingle for "Νέο Αλεύρι 100" (Δίνει πάντα λύσεις στο λεπτό) and a disconcertingly strong dose of Angelopoulos' void thrown in. Further trips would add new tiles to the broadening mosaic. A trip to Thessaloniki permitted me to add compound words that would confound even the most expert Scrabble player into the mix, hence: "Σοκολατομπισκότα Αλλατίνη Excess: Σεξ, με σοκολάτα." A restless night in Kypseli compelled me to add into the picture, the entire Roman alphabet along with the effeminate pronunciation of the word: "οκέυ."
When I returned to Australia, I was jaded. Not only were the programs that had inspired me and caused me to rave on and on, so old that they were forgotten and no longer formed a point of reference for my compatriots, they were quite frankly old hat. Local community radio was no longer gospel, just a quixotic pseudepigraphical attempt to recreate or preserve memories that were ever-diminishing with the same fervour that one would shout down the line in an STD call, in the vain hope that the louder one shouted, the further their voice would travel down the telephone lines and across the oceans.
By the time that twenty four hour Greek radio was introduced to Melbourne, the novelty had worn off. Though I confess I spent a year religiously listening to it, I began to realize that worship requires distance and it is a great tax upon one's soul to worship something that has become familiar. I found myself actually switching off the 'Greek radio' and (heaven forbid) flicking through stations, attempting to listen to something decent. Whereas previously, I was prepared to listen to any rot, as long as it was Greek, I found myself deserting the increasingly poor standard twenty-four hour programs for my quaint, sparingly dosed childhood companion, SBS radio and a new found friend, 3ZZZ.
Similarly, the advent of Greek Television was only useful in so far as it immunized me (admittedly after five or so years) against watching the trash that masquerades itself as Greek televiewing and which oozes parodies of ill-fitting western values. Again, I found myself immersing myself in Channel 31 as an antidote. Interestingly enough, Greek old-age pensioners seem to have an inbuilt immunity to the barrage of such trash as that which is freeze dried in the Ant1 studios of Maroussi and reconstituted on Foxtel already and this has arguably been acquired by virtue of the fact that psychologically at least, they often inhabit the lengthening shadows of the black and white world of ye olde worlde Greek filmography. Younger pensioners and those approaching middle age being former denizens of such sinks of iniquity as Stavros Video and perverse viewers of Stathis Psaltis films, most notable by their gaudy, American tourist style clothing and string of investment properties are perhaps those most at risk.
It is for their sake then that the free to air broadcasting of EPT, the Greek equivalent of the ABC was so valuable. Here was the serious reporting, grave documentaries, homages to traditional customs and dance that no longer exist to restore our faith in national myths that have all but faded, outshone by thoughtless pandering to the Greek inferiority complex that sees viewers actively embrace inferior occidental models in order to boost their own flagging self esteem.
Sadly, this comfort of the aged and torture of the young will soon no longer be freely available. In yet another gesture calculated to prove its sensitivity towards the needs of migrant populations, the Greek government has decided in its infinite wisdom to restrict the viewing of EPT to paying subscribers. This means that pensioners who have already had to scrimp and save to buy a set top box and satellite dish, will also have to fork out subscription money. Consequently, there will now not be enough money available to them to provide their grandchildren with their weekly allowance. As a result, their grandchildren will no longer visit them and our poor pensioners will be left alone to enjoy and appreciate pay per view EPT programming without being interrupted by the monosyllabic grunts of their progeny.
If anything, making EPT pay per view will cause its viewers to appreciate it more and actually view it as religiously and uncritically as they view ANT1, simply because they will want their money's worth. This will teach us in the colonies to view our contact with unadulterated Helladism with due reverence, not the lackadaisical flicking of channels that we currently indulge in. And of course we should have no right to dictate programming to the Greek government despite the fact that we are being made to pay for such programs. The Truth is revealed whole, for those who have money to receive it.
Of late, the prophets of doom and gloom are attempting to point out that as a result of the Greek government's efforts to make us appreciate Greek televisual culture, 'mixed' couples will lose out. For, the argument goes, while the viewing of foreign language channels may be tolerated by non-Greek partners, it definitely will not be so tolerated if they have to pay for it. Underlying this argument is the premise not that non-Greeks are barbarians who cannot appreciate Greek culture per se but rather, that non-Greeks are barbarians who have not the nous to be able to purchase Greek culture for themselves.
As always, we have ourselves to blame. There is no reason, given our numbers and influence in this country, why we could not have over the years formulated more than a token presence on Channel 31 and a non-existent one on SBS. It says much about our failure to transplant our culture to this country that we are still disproportionately dependent upon culture injections from a far off motherland in order to retain our sense of identity. And what is the most insidious and disgusting element of the whole debacle is that the Greek government knows this and is determined, though hindered by public outcry, to extract every last penny out of the dying corpse that is the Greek community, before it draws its last breath and the maggots that feed upon its rotting flesh are scattered to the four assimilative winds.No small wonder then, that EPT's website reads: «EPT τελεία τζι αρ», τελεία being the operative word.


First published in NKEE on 7 August 2006