Monday, June 14, 2010


“Do you know how many people left their bones in that ravine for the sake of this country?” My friend’s uncle shifted uncomfortably from his position on his balcony, overlooking the Pindus ranges and reached for his packet of cigarettes. “So many people gave up everything, right here. It was as if they had dedicated their entire life to Greece and were working up to that final culmination. You don’t see such sacrifices nowadays. But then again, no one loves Greece now. Especially the young.” Sighing, he drew deeply upon his cigarette, sending the smoke, as if in offering, across the balcony and down to the ravine.
“That’s not exactly true,” I ventured to interject. “In Australia there are many people, even young people born in that country who love Greece so much that they devote almost all their spare time in reveling in their identity. They explore traditions through dance, music, clubs and history. Hellenism seems to be more of a life ideology than anything else. And yet, after all that effort, when they come to Greece, they are considered to be xenoi.”
The uncle’s left eye widened a little and the knuckles of his knotted hand whitened as he gripped his chair. “But you are xenoi,” he replied. “You don’t live here. You have absolutely no idea what its like. You live over there, where the roads are wide and everyone has a job. When you come here, you don’t know how to act, or how to fit in and you expect that a red carpet will be waiting for you at the airport.”
“That’s because, even when we don’t speak the language properly, many of us still consider Greece home. For us, arriving here is a homecoming. After all, this is the land our parents and grandparents continue to talk and dream about” I responded, gesticulating in agitation.
“But Greece is not your home,” he argued, raising his voice. “You don’ t pay tax here. You don’t go into the army. You don’t have to insinuate yourself into so many circles in order to find a position for your son, or lay awake at night thinking how you are going to raise enough money for your daughter’s frontistirio. When your children finish school, they get jobs, get married and move into their own homes. You don’t have to have a stupid bitch living with your thirty-year old son downstairs because they have no jobs and no money and no chance of ever getting a house of their own. Instead, you come here, you enjoy the weather, you see a few villages and maybe go to the beach and all of a sudden you think this is your home. Then you pack your suitcase and leave. This is not your home.”
I remained silent for a while, the frustrated uncle’s cry of anguish having cut close to the bone. Finally I ventured: “But we love Greece.” “ No you don’t,” he sighed. “You people hate Greece. When you come here, you all complain about the system, how nothing works and how everything works better in Australia. What you love is an idea, something you learned about in books – which anyone around the world could read, a fairytale. But this place, with all its faults is who we are. And you people left this place when the going was tough and for better or worse, set up your life somewhere else. That’s fine, but don’t delude yourself. You don’t live here and you have no intention of doing so. So of course you are xenoi.”
I don’t appreciate being called a “xeno” in what I consider to be my homeland. Especially after I have taken immense pains to act like a native (scowling, laconic and able to give directions to other lisping Aussie “xenous” with a raised eyebrow that signifies my incredulity at their not being able to find their way around.) Further, I don’t believe that the prevalence of forty-something Greek-Australian women prowling around Yiannena asking questions like: (To a baker) Does this tyropita have tyri in it? or (to a taxi driver:) If I put my suitcase in your boot, will you steal it? should condemn me. And yet, on the times I venture out into the village square in summer, to meet the flocks of my Greek-Australian sygxorianoi who have rendered Ascot Vale a ghost town and have flown north for the winter, my Hellenically attuned ear will pick up the dulcet tones of a native muttering under his breath: “G…mo tin Australia sas g…mo.”
Apostolos Zoupaniotis of the Greek news echoes such a migration in his recent exhortation that “we must go to the country of our forefathers where beauty and peace, the sun and the sea reign; To be close to one of the richest civilizations and cultures in human history.” It is clear that he has never visited the village. My sygxorianoi are anything but beautiful or peaceful and their migration coincides with a flurry of building activity and visits to local councils, government ministries and lawyers in order to organize or sort out their inheritances, or build homes for their offspring that they will seldom if ever use because… they are xenoi. They don’t fit in and are resentful and shy of people with whom they have nothing in common and yet are told they must fit in with simply because they have common origins. They appreciate the countryside, the sights and the clubs but are mystified and often intimidated by the people.
The lament upon their return to Australia is a well worn one: The Greeks of Greece are rude and volatile, losing their tempers and swearing at each other at the slightest of pretexts. They are lazy and only interested in you if they have something to gain from you. They talk at you, displaying no regard for elucidating your own opinion and think they know everything, though their horizons are limited. None of them have jobs and subsist through the coerced extraction of funds from their parents. In short, they are nothing like us and certainly nothing like our parents. What is all this rubbish about rioting and destroying public property? They are degenerate. If Greece is to be saved, they opine, we expatriates would have to return en masse and show them how to sort things out. This conviction, oft expressed, is eerily reminiscent of that expressed by King George II to his English royal cousin just after the Second World War, to wit: that the only way to sort out Greece was to make it a British colony. We seem to have inherited a similar attitude.
In a recent letter to Neos Kosmos, Marios Kotkas mirrors this view by stating that “Greece’s greatest asset is its expats and if we don’t come home then we will be lost forever in time and all our hard work will go to the hands of the Xeni.” I agree that eventually the Greek community here will be lost. No Greek colony outside the motherland of Greece and Asia Minor has survived in a “Greek” form for more than a few centuries, save a few scattered Pontic villages in the Ukraine or the odd Italianised village in Magna Grecia. Who remembers that Marseilles, Nice, Valencia or Barcelona were Greek colonies? Assimilation is inevitable, though it should not take place without a fight. As for Greece’s greatest asset being its expats, that remains to be seen. While expats in the past provided valuable currency and fed their families back home, a cursory audit of 3xy talkback reveals that expats’ demands of Greece outweigh what they are prepared to contribute. Further, their children, born in Australia and educated under a totally different system, are not expats. Year after year, I come across children of these expats who ‘returned’ to Greece in their youth. While their parents remained behind in Greece, having successfully resettled, despite having spent their formative years in Greece, these children return to Australia, in search of educational or vocational opportunities. So where exactly is home?
I don’t know what our “hard work” consists of that we are so loathe to let the “xeni” enjoy. My understanding of the Greek migration myth is that we came to a country that granted most of us formal citizenship a lot quicker than it takes modern day Greece to register ethnic Greeks from countries like Albania and Russia as citizens. This country did not just tolerate us, it developed policies to embrace us and permit our culture to flourish. These days, the Greek community petitions the Australian government to include Greek as one of the languages of the National Curriculum. These people, our co-citizens, who would grant us these rights, or in the form of tax, pay for them, are not xenoi. They are just as much our people, as those in Greece who embrace us, or for their own reasons revile us, or simply ignore us.
Marios Kotkas’ letter is poignant because it encapsulates the dream of every expatriate Greek since the time of Homer: that of the Nostos, or homecoming. Yet if Homer teaches us anything, it is that reconciliation of place of origin with place of sojourn is not an easy or happy one. Odysseus had to go on a killing and cleansing spree, not being able to come to terms with the changed condition of his homeland. After a while, the wanderlust got the better of him and he left once more. This inner turmoil, the clash of cultures and the epic battle of determining and retaining one’s sense of self, without being seduced by the sirens of assimilation (even when they are particularly gorgeous) forms the very core of our Antipodean identity.
Marios is invariably right, when he says that “if you truly wish to remain Greek, you must be immersed in it.” In a hot bath on a cold winter’s day, I immerse myself in the water and dream of the cold winter I spent in Constantinople. I yearn to return to those things I learned to identify with, before I even knew what they were, knowing that yearning, is a lot more bittersweet and yet fulfilling, than bitter, fearful returns to realities that cannot be constructed.

First published in NKEE on Monday 14 June 2010