Saturday, January 25, 2014


I have been fascinated by bees ever since the time that I had, as an infant, I shrank in fear at the appearance of Mr Doobee making an appearance on Romper Room accompanied by an ear-splitting racket, as well as having the misfortune of treading one and being stung on the sole of the foot. My tears of pain were coupled with amazement when I learned that a bee invariably dies when releasing its sting - paying the ultimate price for spite or aggression. Yet it was growing up among family with agrarian roots who displayed an inordinate respect and decided lack of fear vis a vis the honey bee in particular, that my love of the bee became further cemented. Customs such as informing the household bees of the death of a member of the family may seem quaint, but they also serve to highlight the closeness of the relationship between mankind and their purveyors of honey.  
We have two natural hives in our backyard, both on the same tree, wherein the geometrical artistry of the bees can be appreciated to the full, for these being native, rather than aggressive, Africanised bees, they seem not at all concerned at the proximity of mere humans, even ones mesmerised by the smell of their so easily accessible larder. One approaches with reverence and awe, and withdraws quickly and discreetly, bearing back golden goodness. The manner of the withdrawal is vital, for bees can, to use the scientific term, "smell fear." According to one uncle, who recently returned to the motherland and was charged with his aged mother with the weighty task of tending to the family hive, so powerful were the bees' olfactory capacity to sense his fear, that they swarmed after him, causing him to take refuge in a shed and project fly-spray at them. When his mother was able to appreciate the extent of the massacre, she broke down and wept, piteously.
Napoleon, rumoured to have been of Greek descent adopted the bee as a personal emblem and Nikolaos Glykys, the famous Greek printer of Venice who set up his printshop during the seventeenth century and singlehandedly set about ensuring that some type of Greek scholarship survived the Ottoman conquest, through the production and dissemination of high quality Greek ecclesiastical and ancient texts, also adopted the bee as his emblem but the Greek appreciation of the bee seems to date to primordial times.
The word Melitta, or Melissa, seems to derive from the semitic "Mylitta," who was the love goddess of the Babylonians and the Arabians. Cementing this Middle Eastern connection with the bee as deity is a fragment of Orphic poetry, where Melitta is referred to as the hive of Venus:
"Let us celebrate the hive of Venus, who rose from the sea: that hive of many names: the mighty fountain, from whence all kings are descended; from whence all the winged and immortal Loves were again produced."'
When not acting as a hive, Melissa acted as a protectress. In the guise of a mountain nymph, she was, according to one variant of the story, charged with hiding the infant Zeus from the baby-eating mania of his father Cronus. She was responsible for introducing safe drinking practices to the god, feeding him goat's milk from Amalthea, the bounteous goat and plenty of honey, so much so in fact that the king of the gods developed a permanent taste for it, even after deserting his cave for the luxuries of Mount Olympus. Sadly for Melissa, Cronus apparently became aware of her double dealing and by way of punishment, transformed her into an earthworm. Zeus on the other hand, in his infinite mercy, changed her into a well proportioned bee, the idea of changing her back into her original form having eluded him completely.
Melissa, in her previous nymph-form was, according to the antiquarian Mnaseas, responsible for the preparation of honey as a drink, in the form of mead.  According to Mnaseas, Melissa first found a honeycomb, tasted it, then mixed it with water as a beverage. She taught her companions to make the drink and eat the food, and it is for this reason that the bee was named for her, and she was made its guardian. The purpose of this myth apparently was to rationalise the gradual civilization of mankind. Apparently, it was only under the guidance of the good nymph Melissa that men turned away from eating each other, or babies, in the case of the Grandfather of the gods, to eating only the humble but sweet fruit of the bee's regurgitations.
In years to come, honey would become a constant ingredient in libations and rituals to the dead. The ancient Greek philosopher Porphyry stated that honey was a symbol of death, and for that reason it was usual to offer libations of honey to the divinities of the underworld.  The Greek historian Plutarch wrote, "Mead was used as a libation before the cultivation of the vine, and even now those.who do not drink wine have a honey drink."
Bees were also used as a symbol of rebirth, in ancient Greek mystery rites. Thus, Porphyry, wrote that the priestesses who served the goddess Demeter, where known as Melissae. These Melissae commemorated a previous elderly priestess of same name, who was initiated into the mysteries of the goddess by none other than the goddess herself. When Melissa's neighbours tried to force her to reveal the secrets given to her during her initiation, she refused to open her mouth. As a result, her neighbours tore her to pieces. Disgusted at the loss of a diligent employee, the goddess Demeter , sent a plague upon them, causing very angry avenging bees to be born from Melissa's corpse.  but Demeter sent a plague upon them, causing bees to be born from Melissa's dead body. From Porphyry's writings, scholars have also learned that Melissa was the name of the moon goddess Artemis and the goddess who took suffering away from mothers giving birth. Souls were symbolized by bees and it was Melissa who drew souls down to be born. As Porphyry stated: "All souls, however, proceeding into generation, are not simply called bees, but those who will live justly, and who, after having preformed such things as are acceptable to the gods, will again return to their kindred stars. For this insect loves to return to the place from whence it first came, and is eminently just and sober.therefore we must admit that honeycombs and bees are appropriate and common symbols of the aquatic nymphs, and of souls that are married as it were to the humid and fluctuating nature of generation."
Caches of  votive metal bees have been found in Greece, at shrines, proving that our desire to leave "tamata" to the gods in exchange for, or anticipation of services rendered, pre-dates Christianity. The fact that here in Melbourne, hundreds of Greek-Australians lovingly maintain hives in their backyards, underscores the age old relationship we enjoy with the bee. Not a few times have I been invited to a nocturnal barbeque, only to be issued with a caution to keep one's voice down and switch of the lights so as to not disturb the bees. In breaking news, it is worthwhile mentioning that we also have our own Macedonian bee. Representatives of various Macedonian hives have commented that they feel fortunate that members of the Former Yugoslav Hive of the same region have not yet been made aware of this, for once they do, they fear that they will claim all the honey from the said hive, as well as the invention of the hexagon. Even as we speak, apian scientists are hard at work proving that whereas Former Yugoslav Hive bees have danced Slavonic dances since the 7th century, the Macedonian bee dances in Hellenic geometric forms, generally around Melissa cake stores. Receive then Apis Mellifera Macedonica, a worthy counterpart of Apis Mellifera Cecropia, the southern Greek bee, in the sure knowledge of the transmigration of the soul, in the shape of a bee, otherwise known in the vulgar parlance, as buzzing off.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 25 January 2014

Saturday, January 18, 2014


In the vernacular, a kopanos is held to be a person possessed of sufficient mental and physical density as to render themselves able to be pummelled in frustration, hence the verb «κοπανάω wherein the hapless kopanos is a mere passive recipient of a perpetrator’s violent largesse.

The fact that Kopanos also denotes a settlement in Naousa, Macedonia may or may not be a running commentary on the relative intellectual gifts of its inhabitants, yet if the advertisement accompanying this diatribe is to be considered, which is the brainchild of the peach growers of Kopanos, some things are better left unsaid.

The advertisement, which coins the word “peachy,” attempts to sell canned peaches to, among others, Australian buyers. How peachy this campaign is proving to be is difficult to gauge, especially given that so far, I have only been able to locate the advertisement in full page format in the pages of NEOS KOSMOS, giving rise to a justifiable belief that the Kopanoi are labouring under the misapprehension that only the Greeks of Australia constitute a target market for the purchase of canned peaches. This of course is despite the fact that, if one accedes to the Kopanoi’s exhortations as featured in their advertisement to visit their website , one is able to ascertain that their campaign forms part of a programme referred to and known as “Information, Provision and Promotion Measures for Agricultural Products in Third Countries (Turkey, Australia). We learn that said programme was initiated in 2011 and will be completed in three years. We also further learn that this campaign is funded by Greece and the European Union.

The reason why one feels the need to visit the website is simple. From a cursory glance at the full page advertisement, one cannot easily understand what the Kopanoi wish us to do, or indeed, what they are advertising. By plying us with dietary information extolling the health benefits of canned peaches, in dubious English, (“cool, juicy and full of favour, peach offers a large amount of vitamins and low calories”) do they wish us to eat more canned peaches, or in particular, ones produced by them? Or, given that there is a dearth of information as to where the consumer can locate Greek canned peaches should they be moved by the desire to do so, either in the advertisement or on the accompanying website, is this advertisement more geared towards possible wholesalers of Hellenic peaches?

In this at least, the website is revealing. Standing behind the Kopanoi is the Hellenic Canned Fruit Industry Network, whose stated aim is to “improve its members role in vaster international markets.” Underlying this imperialistic move for peachy lebensraum and fruity ostpolitik, we are further told that said company wishes to “increase its market share by all means, mainly in the countries of Eastern Europe, which due to political and social changes can be seen as promising markets, as well as in third (sic) countries, such as Turkey and Australia.”

Ina sense therefore, we are treated not so much to a culinary seduction whereby we will be caressed and cajoled into preferring Greek canned peaches above all others, but rather, a declaration of war, via which Macedonian peaches will commence their slow but steady march over Eastern Europe to third countries, whatever that means, and from there, conquer the world. Such a declaration makes sense, when one considers that it was Alexander the Great himself, who introduced the peach into Greece after his invasion of Persia and indeed, the reverse eastern reconquest of the peach may be a historic inevitability of the type that is impossible to forestall. Indeed a marketing campaign showing a Macedonian peach impaled upon the sarissa of a Macedonian soldier crushing all before him underfoot, accompanied by a caption that reads: “Peaches: Resistance is Futile,” would be more in keeping with the tone of the website in question.

For it is a sad fact that yet another campaign for the promotion of Greek products has gone horribly wrong, especially in so far as Australia is concerned. After all, it is questionable how the Kopanoi feel that they will be able to make inroads into our country when they refer to it as a “third country,” in a manner that implies that it constitutes a foreign planet that needs to be colonised. Instead of bombarding us with nutritional information as to the health benefits of the peach, information that they would have known, had they conducted even a minute amount of research, we already have in Australia, the Kopanoi fail to realise that we have, especially in Victoria, a local canned fruit industry of our own. In this respect, they should be exploring ways to compete with an already domestic market rather than pretend that one does not exist. One way of doing so of course, is to capitalise upon a Macedonian tradition of peach cultivation that exceeds two millennia.

 If the Kopanoi extended their research further, instead of squandering Greek and European Union funding on inept and quite frankly, embarrassing, ineffectual and incomprehensible advertisements, they would come to understand that the canned fruit industry in our state is in trouble and temper their approach accordingly, creating a campaign that would tease and entice the consumer, rather than boldly trumpet an amateurish business plan that would ensure that no serious business partner would go near them, let alone market or purvey, what are in fact, very nice peaches indeed.

The good Kopanoi at the Hellenic Canned Fruit Industry Network have also failed to comprehend one extremely important fact in relation to Australia: Ours is a food culture. Food is celebrated and explored in the media, in the form of cooking and game shows, in restaurants and in the domestic sphere to an unprecedented level. The way to the Aussie’s heart, both male and female is these days, well and truly by way of our stomachs, and all the Kopanoi have to do is already draw on popular traditions that esteem the peach, in conjunction, famously with cream, whipped or otherwise, according to one’s predilections, as an article of seduction, romance and decadence, in order to market the fruit of their labours effectively. Drawing the two strands, those of tradition and of sensuality together, a campaign that features the lusciousness of the peach with time honoured Greek know-how, in which the Australian public is told that when it comes to lasciviousness and fruit, Greeks do it better, couple with raunchy cookbooks entitled: “Greek-style: The devouring of the Peach,” would work wonders for the Macedonian fruit industry. Mentioning as an aside that Alexander and his soldiers were possessed of posteriors as firm as Greek peaches might also go some way in furthering the cause of the said stone fruit.

It is perhaps, meet to conclude this exposition into the marketing techniques of the Macedonian phalanx by noting that on the peachy website, the irrepressible Kopanoi have seen fit to conduct a poll on the information provided, in which they ask pertinently: “Are you satisfied with the information about the DAIRY products presented in the webpage?” It goes without saying that one hundred percent of all those responding, wholeheartedly and somewhat breathlessly affirmed their satisfaction.

To the Kopanoi of the Hellenic Canned Fruit Industry Network, therefore, this observation on the relativity of the peach by the master, Pablo Picasso: “One does a whole painting for one peach and people think just the opposite - that particular peach is but a detail.” Until next time, stay juicy.


Saturday, January 04, 2014



"It was all for nothing , all my struggles, all my privations and I'm alone. I try to figure out the reason for this and each time, I am more and more at a loss."

Nikos Syrmos. Final Letter

My youthful recollection of pappou Niko is of an exceedingly tall old man, possessed of severe eyebrows perpetually pressed into a frown. The lines on his face were so deep that they appeared to have been incised with a scalpel. He never, ever smiled. Clad always in a suit and tie, his round eyes would penetrate your epidermis and bore deep inside you. "Go to him," my mother would say, noticing my apprehension. "He has no grandchildren of his own."

This was not entirely true. As pappou Niko fixed you with his gaze, you knew that instead of looking at you, he was in fact, confronting the image of the infant children he left back in Dervitsiani, when he fled Albania in order to avoid certain execution. Further than that, he was looking at the grandchildren that he had never seen but knew only from the few letters that managed to emerge relatively unscathed from the ravages of the Albanian censors. Here in Melbourne since the late forties,' he never remarried and lived alone, desperately despondent at not being separated from his family and despondently attempting to retain some type of connection with the life circumstances compelled him to leave behind. Yet in his solitude in far away Australia, he was constantly surrounded by his adopted family, the large migrant community of Northern Epirots, to whom he was more than just a beloved grandfatherly figure. As a spy, activist and staunch fighter for the freedom of the Greeks of Northern Epirus, he paid the ultimate price for his patriotism. For this, the quiet old suit-clad and towards the end of his tortured life, broken man, was revered.

Born in 1902 in the village of Dervitsiani, Nikos Syrmos had his foretaste of exile early, migrating to Argentina after the death of his parents. The experience of being an orphan, as he confided in his epistolary correspondence to his children later, caused him to value family more than anything else. Returning from Argentina and re-settling in his village, where he married his beloved Kostanto ("Nikova" as she was referred to in the village), his bravery, outspokenness and commitment to public works to improve the life of his fellow villages soon attracted the attention of Vasilis Sahinis, the leader of the Greek minority in Albania, who recruited him to his committee. As a result, Nikos Syrmos was at the forefront of Greek efforts to overturn the Albanian government's 1935 decision to close all Greek schools, in violation of the treaties that welded Northern Epirus to the Albanian state. His activism, in co-ordination with the Northern Epirot community and the Greek state was instrumental in having the World Court overturn the Albanian government's decision, compelling them to re-open the schools and guarantee the Greek minority some basic rights.

These triumphs would be short lived however, as Italy occupied Albania in 1939 and set about revoking all the rights of the Greek minority in Northern Epirus. In 1940, Nikos Syrmos would welcome the victorious Greek troops into Dervitsiani, only to see them retreat again in the wake of the German invasion a year later. It was at this time, when Albanian officials, collaborating with the Italians, began to actively persecute the Greeks of Northern Epirus, that the first Northern Epirot resistance groups appeared in the area of Delvino, led by two locals and former officers of the Greek army. Soon after, several resistance groups were formed by the local Greek population all over southern Albania. In June 1942 these groups were organized under one leadership and the Northern Epirus Liberation Front was formed. The leading spirit behind the creation of this organisation was Nikos Syrmos' friend and mentor, Vasilis Sahinis, thus placing Nikos in a unique position to follow events as they unfolded and also participate in the liberation movement.

Nikos' chance came when in December 1942, he took part in the Northern Epirote resistance organised attacks on Italian controlled frontier posts and gendarmerie stations, particularly in the regions of Zagoria, Pogoni, Delvino, and Agioi Saranda. When not fighting, Nikos, who offered his services to the cause for free, had to fend for his growing family of five children, a particularly difficult undertaking in impoverished, war-torn Albania. Nikos, along with his other fellow villagers, also had to bear the brunt of brutal counter-attacks and persecution by Italian forces, aided by the ultra-nationalist Balli Kombetar, specifically aimed to terrorise and demoralise villages with Greek sympathies. During this time, he participated in the operation that saw Northern Epirot forces secure the village of Politsiani and set up headquarters there. It was a result of this activity, and the fact that at the time, the Northern Epirus Liberation Front seemed to be the largest and most effective resistance group in Southern Albania, that the British decided to send a mission there. Nikos Syrmos was at the meeting and bore witness to this historic event.

As he related to his friends in Melbourne years later, the British Mission proposed that the Northern Epirus Liberation Front, the Albanian Communist Party and EAM, the Greek Communist resistance, should collaborate to form a stronger force against the Axis and Albanian collaborationists. This troubled the leadership of the Northern Epirots, who felt that EAM's internationalist convictions were being exploited by an Albanian Communist Party that was far from internationalist and instead, highly nationalistic. The Northern Epirot leadership felt that should their interests were inimicably opposed to those of the Albanian Communists and that should they prevail in post war Albania, then the rights of the Greeks in Northern Epirus would be compromised. In a quandary as to how to proceed, Vasilis Sahinis sent Nikos Syrmos on a mission into Greece in order to obtain advice about any proposed collaboration.

Nikos Syrmos related the story in the following manner: "Vasilis told me to slip over the border and go to Giannena to meet Bishop Spyridon Vlahos. I was to kiss his hand on his behalf and ask him about EAM. I set off right away. As soon as I reached the Bishop's office, he looked down at my shoes, which were in tatters - the sole full of holes. He ordered someone to bring me new shoes. After a while, a pair of used but serviceable army boots were brought in and I put them on, while the bishop looked at me. Finally, I asked him about EAM and whether he thought a collaboration with them was adviseable. He frowned, leant over and said: "Tell Vasilis that EAM equals communism and that he needs to tread very carefully." The very next day, in accordance with my orders, I set off for Dervizana, the headquarters of the republican guerillas of EDES. I was to gauge from their leader, Napoleon Zervas, who was reputed to be a nationalist and a patriot, whether they would be disposed to help us in our quest to keep the Albanians at bay."
to be continued....

At Napoleon Zervas headquaters, Nikos Syrmos was subjected to a lengthy interrogation. Zervas wanted to know the exact composition of the Northern Epirus Liberation Front troops, how they were funded, details as to its leader, Vasilis Sahinis and most importantly, their relationship with the Greek and Albanian communist forces. Nikos was able to answer these questions in detail , advising Zervas that there were at least 2000 armed men in the Front, who could provide logistical support to Zervas EDES troops if they were required. Zervas seemed eager to consider a proposal of collaboration until something untoward happened. As Nikos related:
“I told him that though we did not trust the Greek ELAS, because we considered that they were being hoodwinked by the Albanian communists, who were more nationalistic than the fascists, we would not assist him to fight against fellow Greeks. Our main aim was solely to liberate our country and protect our people. Under no circumstances would we spill the blood of our own people, communists or otherwise. At this, Zervas seemed crestfallen. He told me he would have to get in touch with the High Command in Cairo and obtain orders before he could pledge any assistance. I was given a pair of army boots and I made my way back to my village and set about obtaining recruits for the Front.
The second time I was sent to Zervas, he was not at his headquarters and I was told he was deliberating with EAM representatives. I did not have enough money to remain in Ioannina to wait for him and I returned home. A few weeks later, I was sent to Zervas again, as we were being subjected to extreme pressure by the Albanian communist forces and their propaganda machine. When I asked Zervas for a commitment he replied:
“Well, I don’t really have any need for any more soldiers. But if you want to spill blood, we can perhaps find a place for you and your men within our ranks.”
I told him that we were not interested in participating in his quarrel with the Greek communists. The only thing we wanted to do was to liberate Northern Epirus, something that he manifestly had absolutely no interest in.
“I do care about Northern Epirus,” came Zervas’ reply, but there is no other way than this.”
“You promised me other things, last time, “ I told him.
“I promised you nothing,” he spat.
Not being able to restrain myself any longer, I called him a liar and a traitor to his face. He turned purple and calming himself with difficulty, said softly. “I am not a liar. My hands are tied. The British have ruled out any sort of liberation campaign in Northern Epirus. But we need you to supply us with information as to the position  and number of Italian troops in Albania. I know you are a fervent patriot. Get us this information and then possibly in the future, we can do something about Northern Epirus.”
I left despondent and furious.”
Inevitably, Nikos and his fellow front members would see their most fervent hopes shattered. Having no support either from the still exiled Greek government or any of the resistance groups, the Frnt was pwerless to stop the well organised onslaught of the Albanan Communist party, which, with the help of its Greek counterpart, was telling the impressionable villagers of Northern Epirus that under their rule, land would be redistributed, wrings righted and their minority status would be respected. During the course of his life, Nkos Syrmos would relate the many occasions in which members of either the Greek ELAS or the Albanian Communist party would make contact with them in order to attempt to force them to join their ranks. In time, members of the Albanian merchant class, muslim clerics and landowners would also seek them out, in order to ask for protection, as it been made known that these groups were to be liquidated should the Albanian communist party come to power.
At this time, representatives of the Front, decided to join the communist party only in specific attacks against the Axis, provided that the latter will recognize the autonomy of the region in the post-war period. Although the Albanian communist leaders agreed and assurances of the British allied mission were given, they secretly marked Vasilis Sahinis for liquidation. Nikos Syrmos was present during all of the negotiations that took place between the resistance groups. At one particular meeting in the city of Argyrokastro, Nikos, who was a delegate for the Front, after being reassured by the Albanian communists that their collaboration was underwritten by the Greek ELAS, noticed that no delegate from that organisation was in attendance. He walked out of the meeting, which was supposed to launch the united front of all resistance groups in Albania, causing a mass walkout by all the other Greeks in attendance. From that moment onwards, Nikos Syrmos was a marked man.
In September 1943 Italy surrendered to the Allies and her place in Albania was taken by Nazi troops. The Northern Epirus Liberation Front was to take the initiative for a short period, fighting against combined armed groups of Germans and Albanian nationalists. The results were devastating, as the Albanian nationalists engaged in a flurry of looting and burning Greek villages, shooting the inhabitants by firing squads and hanging the village priests. Nikos Syrmos witnessed the massacre of Greeks in Leskoviki at the hands of Albanian fascist collaborator Safte Butka.  It was while the Greeks of Northern Epirus were being subjected to this vicious bout of ethnic cleansing that the Albanian communists, who occupied the city of Argyrokastro on 17 November 1943, tortured and killed the leader of the Northern Epirus Liberation Front, Vasilis Sahinis.
Nikos Syrmos lingered in the region, eventually crossing over to Greece for safety. As the Albanian communists consolidated their hold over the region, they condemned Nikos as a fascist and a collaborator who, if captured, would be executed. His wife was imprisoned in Albanian work camps for years, while their children were left to fend for themselves. Inconsolable, Nikos Syrmos migrated to Australia in 1949, in search of means to support his family as well as to raise awareness of his cause.
In Melbourne, he established himself at the centre of the small group of exiled members of the Northen Epirus Liberation Front. At the same time, he valiantly strove to remain a father, writing constantly to his children, giving them advice, exhorting them to look after each other and attempting to mediate family disputes. These letters were smuggled into the country through various means, and often written in a manner that would not permit the ever-wary censor to understand their contents.  Especially heart rendering is his letter to his children upon the death of their mother. In communist Albania, religion the practice of any form of religion was banned and so Nikos wrote to his children to reassure them that a proper church service was held for their mother and all the funeral customs adhered to.
Nikos Syrmos died in 1987, just a few years before the regime that exiled him from his homeland and performed untold acts of depravity upon his people collapsed. He died within a Melbournian Epirotic community that revered him, far from his family and the homeland he paid so dearly to defend. And his fate truly is to be an eternal exile, for all attempts to repatriate his remains to his homeland have so far been unsuccessful, a recent attempt last year by his son, proving fruitless for technical reasons. His nephew, Iraklis, was fated to be one of the Omonoia five, tried by the newly established “Democratic” Albanian government for setting up a political party for the Greek minority, reinforcing the family commitment to freedom for the Greek minority in the region.
Once every so often, I bring to mind the stern face of pappou Niko, exhorting me to learn Greek and never to forget the sufferings of those who have gone before us. I do so holding a well worn, creased piece of paper covered in spidery writing. Again and again I read the words penned at a time when Greeks were arriving in this country in order to begin a new life and to create a family. Pappou Niko, alone, his life frozen in limbo, unable to return to his loved ones and get remaining committed to their welfare, writes and his words take on a sobbing rhythm in my head: “I fought for my country, I placed myself in danger countless times. It was all for nothing. I discarded all pleasure from my live in order to support my family, trying to remain a good father. Who can understand this?. Yet my efforts here have been for nothing. All is lost.”
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 4 and 11 January 2014