Tuesday, March 15, 2011


The first time I learned about Apokries was from a Greek school reader. Apparently, way back in the mystical motherland of ancient gods and foustanella-clad heroes with hooked noses and huge moustaches, just before Great Lent, various carnivals would take place. Looking at my grandmother’s collection of dusty, faded and creased black and white photographs, I would find pictures of youthful looking great aunts and uncles dressed in an array of fine costumes, for as my grandmother explained, this is what is done during this time.
Such an activity as a carnival in my mind, could only be equated with the annual Moomba celebration in Melbourne and getting around a proper Hellenic setting for a bird-man rally proved a Herculean task. (Though given that our very own Icarus invented the bird-man rally, perhaps we should look at reviving this as a sport. Contestants could be borne upon the hot air emanating from endless Greek community speech making and debating). Brotherhood masquerade dances held before Lent could not reproduce the street atmosphere of such carnivals as that of Patra, try as they might, that is until now.
Regardless of the splutterings of the militant grey wing of the Bring Back Stalin fan club, intent upon perpetuating a discord between the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and the Archdiocese which is no longer relevant and which does not exist, moving the Antipodes Festival this year to coincide with the Apokries was a masterstroke of ingenuity. Not only did this translate to greater publicity and less opposition from other festivals transpiring at the same time as the old date, but participants were provided with an opportunity to finally celebrate en masse, a venerable tradition that provides ample opportunities for fun.
Or so it would seem. Waking up at 6 in the morning to make one’s way down to Lonsdale Street, bleary eyed and semi conscious in order to set up the Panepirotic Federation’s Cultural stall may not appear fun at first. Indeed, arriving in the said street, only to find one’s president hard at work presdigitating drills, screws and other tools of trade in order to construct a frame from which to plausibly recreate a traditional Epirotic home, replete with such paraphernalia as the argalios, or wooden loom on which we had a traditionally clad exponent providing demonstrations of weaving, (- don’t try putting one together unless you are a) good at Lego, or b) excel in 900 piece puzzles – I fail dismally on both counts) and also the yataghan of the last Ottoman pasha of Ioannina, can also plausibly make one to appear less than mirthful. Nonetheless. We girded our loins and did battle, assisted by our veneral mascot, the foustanella wearing octogenarian Giorgos Konstantinidis, who is apt to break out into frenetic tsamiko moves without notice and who has a remarkable propensity for seducing (or rather coercing) Asian partakers of the festival into the intricacies of Epirotic dance.
Wearing a foustanella and acquiring the skills of basic carpentry is no mean feat, especially when mine, which hails from the mountainous region of Tzoumerka is made of wool and wears a tonne, as do the silver kiousteki across the chest and asimosougia which hangs from one’s belt (the nineteenth century Epirotic equivalent of bling). Nonetheless, assuming my alter ego as Supervlach over the two days of the festival, I was heartened by the appearance of other foustanella clad individuals who donned their distinct attire, having seen me in mine last year, and having found that they could improve upon my vision. One of these in particular was brave enough to enter into the Zorba till you drop competition and was able to hold his own, until his tsarouchia failed him. We are now in the process of forming a foustanella-wearers club, which will be out vehicle for lobbying for the free and fair wearing of the said garment for all. The working title of our group is “Men in Skirts,” reinforcing Aether-treader’s argument in Saturday’s Neos Kosmos that moving the festival to coincide with the carnival permits everyone, and not only the Diatribist, to wear a skirt in the heart of Melbourne and like it. This is multiculturalism at its very cross-dressing at its best and kudos must be ascribed to other members of the community who came dressed in diverse party costumes, lending a truly festive, carnival atmosphere to the weekend.
Cross-dressing was at the heart of the carnival atmosphere which was all pervading this year. The indefatigable youth of the Pan-Macedonian Association, the Cretan Federation, Pontiaki Estia, the GOCMV dance group, the Panepirotic Federation and many others did what must be done at carnival time – they turned the natural order of things upside down through the re-enactment of age old customs with a lewd theme, including staging mock-weddings where the brides are men and the grooms women, proudly carrying around batons in the shape of an elongated phallus, singing songs with bawdy lyrics, running through the crowd masked with bells on, coercing people into sticking feathers into potatoes- a Pontian Lenten custom, delighting everyone in the novelty of what we should have been celebrating all these years. All this took place at the Marble Centre Plateia, a dedicated area for cultural associations. The creation of such dedicated zones was inspirational as it permitted the performance of Apokriatika customs and live musical entertainment, unhindered by other pursuits. What it did result in was the co-operation of all the various Associations to the extent where dancers where assisting and performing in each other’s acts. The goodwill generated as a result of this merging and mingling is incalculable.
Children too, played a central role in this year’s festival. At their dedicated stage, community stalwarts such as Dina Gerolymou and Anthe Sidiropoulos told stories, sang songs and engaged kids in the more delightful and fun aspects of Greek culture. The multi-talented Joseph Tsombanopoulos, replete with his goat headed gaida and yours truly accompanying him on the violin, along with a papier-mache camel of dubious reputation and provenance led a procession of masked and face-painted children through the street and up to the central stage. When they entered the stage, they were deified by an adoring crowd, as they should be. Chances are, given a warm reception and plenty of activities centred around their interests, that they will want to come again and again.
A novel idea was the dedication of a separate area for the glorification of the Greek cuisine – not only through the successful Greek coffee-making competition but also through the presence of masterchefs, and exhibitions of traditional regional foods from Greece, such as Epirotic pita and Cretan kaltsounia. This is definitely an area that begs expanding, or perhaps, its own spin off festival, involving all regions of Greece.
A successful multicultural Greek-Australian carnival serves two main purposes: firstly to unite and entertain the Greek community – a task in which the Festival organisers acquitted themselves well given the mass participation of people, the diversity of entertainment, and the palpable sense of festivity and party in the air, but secondly to make all that is deemed ours, accessible to the wider community.
It is here that this Festival was particularly successful. Because the Apokries is a little known fixture on the Greek calendar, visitors were granted a deeper and alternative vision of a vibrant Greek culture without the stereotype of souvlaki and sterile Ancient Greek allusions. Furthermore, this year, as never before, they were able to fully participate in the activities, for fun speaks all languages. I was heartened by the throngs passing by the Epirotic stall and enthused by the many questions asked, mostly by students and visiting tourists – for this renders our Festival, a major tourist attraction. Being propositioned for photos in one’s skirt by sundry Saudian Arabian girls is not intrinsically a bad thing and I found that there was much common ground in the traditions of both our cultures.
Last weekend, we Zorba’d till we dropped, sang, ate, joked and revelled as never before. We did so in a good natured way, unblighted by any of infighting, politicking that has plagued our endeavours historically. This year’s festival is proof of what can be achieved when we work together as one and constitutes a roadmap for future, improved endeavours. We take leave of you now, gentle reader, showering glory and acclamation upon our carnival king and queen, Leonidas Vlahakis and Tammy Iliou, the festival directors, for their brilliant work and in the home of many more years of proud foustanella wearing. Party on!


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 12 March 2011