Tuesday, April 06, 2010


Χριστός Ανέστη! My absolutely favourite part of the Antipodes Festival was when the venerable 79-year old, foustanella-clad Giorgos Konstantinidis, sporting a mustache so immaculately pointed that it could open up oysters, reached up to clasp the hand of the lofty stilt-walking Zeus bestriding the street like a Colossus and engaged him in a tsamiko, to the amusement and delight of passersby.
My second favourite part of the Fest was listening to one of the selfless and extremely indefatigable volunteers who had just assisted in co-ordinating the Zorba until you drop competition, claim ecstatically that one of the contestants, a particularly distinguished, ruddy gentleman sporting a beard and a clipped English accent, was actually Richard Branson. This was because he bore a remarkable resemblance to the said gentleman and everyone was calling him by the name of his doppelganger. Said volunteer now denies emphatically being duped but the number of people who are now offering testimony as to her enthusiasm at meeting the august tycoon casts the denial into doubt.
My third favourite part of the Fest was getting to, for the umpteenth year and on behalf of the Cultural League of Epirus, help to set up what we believe to be a passable reconstruction of a traditional Epirotan home, complete with traditional textiles, cooking implements, and the piece de resistance, a fully working and functional, αργαλειό, or loom. Most importantly, in the company of the aforementioned theio Giorgo, who performed some righteous dance moves with his klitsa, we donned traditional Epirotan costume, and assuming correct pose and character, graciously condescended to be accosted by passersby for photographs. We are after all, Supervlachs.
If anything, the Antipodes Festival was notable for this year for the demographic shift in the number and nature of attendees and participants Long gone are the days of the milling, crushing throng that would ensure that it would take at least an hour to push, squeeze and disapparate one's way past one's compatriots in order to walk up and down Lonsdale Street. Instead, the basin of Hellenic fervour feeding the tributaries of participation seems to be drying up, possibly through extensive irrigation and diversion elsewhere, or through exhaustion. Attendance by city-dwelling southern Asians, Indians and Middle Easterners, primarily students, was noteworthy, especially during daylight, when they appeared at some stages to be almost half the people present. To have such members of the community approach us, finger our costumes, lift our αγγειά, peruse our στρωσίδια, poke at the array of antique weaponry and prod the carding combs and wool spinning implements, all the while asking questions, telling us what they knew of Greek history and even haltingly trying out what few Greek expressions they knew on us. Questions ranged from the Macedonian, about which paradoxically most of our Asian guests were well informed, to the Greek financial crisis and even the Greek Civil War. A very polite man approached the stall a few times, looked me up and down resplendent in my full Vlach regalia and stated: "I am Albanian." He reached into his shirt and pulled out a gold pendant depicting the Albanian double-headed Eagle, as if to prove the veracity of his claim. "Your costumes are exactly the same as ours," he continued. "Did you know that Albanians fought in the Greek war of Independence? It is not something that Greeks like to admit." I responded that I was well aware of the contribution made by Albanian speaking people to the Independence effort and that it was something widely acknowledged by Greek historians. His eyes opened wide in shock. "Really?" he asked, clasping my hand. "Thank you, thank you for knowing." Another man, sporting sidelocks and a prayer-shawl, approached our stall and explained in perfect Greek that he was brought up as Greek Orthodox and converted to Judaism upon learning that his ancestors were Sephardic Jews in Limnos. He was treated to a diatribe from me about the Jews of Yiannina. A Maltese lady, viewing one of our posters, was particularly interested to know the story behind the bridge at Arta. She was treated to an impromptu performance of the demotic folksong, along with translation by the ladies manning the stall.
We saw few identifiably 'Anglo' Australians pass us by. Some gave us appreciative smiles, though one gentleman thought it clever to come up to us, point to the Greek flag and say: "That's the Turkish flag isn't it?" Upon being appraised of its correct identity, he continued: "You're all a bunch of Turks anyway." Everyone else must have been at the Flower and Garden Show.
By far the most varied responses to our stall were from our compatriots. Some, particularly older members of the community viewed the whole elaborate set up as a journey back in time and would sigh with nostalgia, especially upon seeing the loom, which conjured up memories of long gone mothers and grandmothers. Other middle aged compatriots viewed the stall and the sight of us Supervlachs with derision, making inane comments about villagers and sheep, while their children rushed past, fearful of imbibing anything that may be digested as traditional culture. Yet regardless, it is not everyday that one can walk or dance fearlessly in a dress in a central Melbourne street and the feeling is quite liberating. Getting to do so, while sipping the umpteenth shot of tsipouro with visiting Greek MP's who are rather fond of the bottle, is an added bonus.
When we tired, we dressed the younger and in a few cases non-Greek members of our League in the foustanella, gave them few replica period guns and set them loose among the crowd, in order to re-create some of that 1821 spirit. The Maniot Youth Association also tried to do the same, via a dramatization, on stage, of the declaration of Independence. I had the honour of narrating that show, which was notable for two things: firstly, that it featured a brilliant live performance of Greek demotic songs by the talented Jelica Bjelovic, who is visiting from Serbia, and secondly the number of non-Greek members of the audience who sought further information about the Greek War of Independence afterwards, given that the dramatization was in Greek. If anything, it goes to show that the Antipodes Festival does successfully fulfill two major objectives: the coming together of the Greek Community of Melbourne in a celebration of who we are and also, sharing our diverse culture and history with our fellow citizens. Far from being a "ghetto" function, it is truly an all-embracing event that renders us major stakeholders in the broader multicultural mosaic of Australian society.
On the Sunday afternoon, Supervlach finally made a debut appearance on the stage in the company of George Kapiniaris, when I was asked, out of the blue, to help judge the Zorba till you drop competition referred to earlier, in my traditional costume. Attempting to match the wit of the versatile Kapiniaris would always be a futile endeavour and yet I did manage to slip in a few cheesy questions about whether the Zorba comes from the island of Zorbos and whether Zorbolene cream could be used for the after-effects of Zorba-chafing. Furthermore, I did get to assert that the Vlach costume is the national dress of the inhabitants of Bendigo, ask the competitors to do the Bus Stop, bust some Zorba moves of my own and be escorted through the crowd afterwards by security in order to avoid the invective of a particularly enraged stage-mum, who was unimpressed by her daughter's disqualification from the competition.
Somewhere in the midst of all this, I managed to meet the most placid and righteous George Xylouris, take in some righteous music by Apodimi Compania, the traditional musicians from Rhodes and Kastoria, be enthralled by the gyrations of Anthe Sidiropoulos' belly dancing troupe, admire both the effort and technical proficiency of our local dance groups and work out the exact proportions of the great Stratos Dionysios' voice that comprise those of his sons Angelos and Stelios. Not bad for one weekend's work.
Shared laughter and enthusiasm is more than anything, the glue that binds us together as a community. There was a palpable communal feeling at this year's Festival and a tremendous sense of goodwill and that is owed to the participants, the volunteers, the organizers and in an exceedingly large part to its effervescent and enlightened co-directors, the breath-takingly inspired Tammy Iliou, and the silky smooth Leonidas Vlahakis, a supervlach, if there ever was one.
Next year, I'm hoping to institute an Antipodean Bird-Man Rally, for Greek association presidents, with contestants to launch themselves from the third floor of the GOCMV building. The principle is that they will be so buoyed by the wax wings of ego and the hot air emanating from Greek community micro-politics, that they will glide effortlessly through the skies of Melbourne, as celestial ambassadors of Hellenism. Let us just hope they do not fly to close to the sun...


First published in NKEE on 6 April 2010