Saturday, April 09, 2016


Mάνα μου τα μάνα μου τα κλεφτόπουλα, are the words I hear in my mind, whenever I recall my Greek school days, enunciated by a voice loud, and clear as a bell, each syllable punctuated by a rhythmic clap, executed high above the head. Upon the conclusion of this song, my brain immediately races to the next one, traversing an entire playlist of Greek poems, carols and songs that exists in my memory as a photograph of pages of a scrap-book in which these were once lovingly pasted.
The interpreter of the verses is the same person who provided the pages upon which the lyrics were printed: Κούλα Λιώλιου, co-founder of the Greek Academy of Melbourne, arguably the most significant institution in the history of Greek language education in Australia. Any excuse was sufficient for her to break out into song as she taught us, her eyes gleaming and her face beaming with delight. So earnest was her signing that she made us all believe we were little mountain klephts, bringing the song to life. It is to this remarkable person that I owe, in no small part, my adulation of Greek letters.
At the commencement of the Greek school year, each of us would receive from Kyria Lioliou, apart from a performance of the relevant poems and songs both secular and religious relevant to that time, a paper icon, which we were to paste in an exercise book and write the Lord's Prayer beneath it. In my year, a good deal of wrangling and swapping would take place as we all tried to secure the Byzantine style icons, considering the odd Romanesque type that found its way into the pile as inferior. This book was our ημερολόγιο, or diary, where we were to record our thoughts, musings or write the odd story, to be reviewed by Kyria Lioliou herself, because unlike most teachers who felt themselves tasked merely with delivering a lesson, she was primarily concerned with how we felt, not only about our work but also, the world around us. I soon discovered that I could evade the weighty and onerous task of filling an entire page by writing in verse. Kyria Lioliou seemed not to mind my flouting of the rules, save that my diary would be returned to me all the more heavily annotated and corrected, as the years progressed. In her comments and critiques, she encouraged me to persist in writing poetry in Greek. Some decades and six published collections later, her injunction, given while she clasped my hand and looked fervently into my eyes, still rings in my ears: "We Greeks take poetry very seriously. It is life itself."
Possessed of disarmingly penetrating eyes and a broad, ecumenical embrace, Kyria Lioliou was a beacon of love to which all children (and teenagers, despite themselves), gravitated. She offered that love unconditionally to all and she was to be invariably found, during recess or lunch-time, hugging, playing with her students or comforting them. Her acts of generosity and compassion are ever enduring. When I was ten, my grandfather reached the terminal phase of his illness. I had never experienced death before and I was overwhelmed with fear and immense pain. Somehow, it seemed perfectly naturally for me to confide my sadness to Kyria Lioliou, one day at lunch-time, bursting into tears as I did so. Nestled in her embrace, I cannot remember exactly the words she said to me, something linking the birth of my sister the year before, with the natural cycle of mortal man and the importance of memory but it made absolute sense and gave me the strength to endure what was, the most shattering experience of my childhood. She also attended the funeral. I have loved her like a son ever since.
The sharing of pain for Kyria Lioliou seemed to come as a corollary with building a consciousness. At her school, a strict adherence to the old Greek curriculum meant that we were exposed not only to the rudiments of the Greek language but also to its greatest exponents. In the study of the works of Alexandros Papadiamantis, Grigoris Xenopoulos and Fotis Kontoglou, we were invited to discover the disparate but coherent shards of a particularly Greek outlook upon life. Keenly perceiving my love of the absurd and fascination with the concept of the margin, Kyria Lioliou expertly steered me in the direction of Miltos Sakhtouris and Cavafy. Unlike "English school," which appeared stultifyingly parochial and anglocentric, Kyria Lioliou determined that we should be exposed to world literature. It was through her lessons on passages from Maxim Gorky, Anton Chekhov and Oscar Wilde that I first discovered that not only did I have a soul, but that I was responsible for addressing pain and misfortune in the souls around me. These then were the seminal gospels from which she taught, that underwrote her own behaviour, imperceptibly inculcating in us, an ideology of social responsibility.
As we grew, so too did the subtlety of her guidance. At high school level, she actively encouraged our interest in modern Greek history, making suggestions, pointing us to sources and having us devour our textbooks in search of arguments with which to defend our interpretations. Never prescribing or dismissing our half-baked adolescent romantic utterances, she cajoled, insinuated and invited. Taking me aside one day, she slipped into my hand, a cassette tape containing Maria Farantouris' rendition of Yiannis Ritsos' "Lianotragouda," a major turning point in my life, as Ritsos' verses have formed a constant touchstone to which I return continuously. Soon after, she beckoned me into the school library, in a corner of which resided a dust covered set of 1962 encyclopaediae. "Take them," she insisted. "They will come in handy." Grossly outdated in so far as statistics go, these tomes have been a valuable resource of Greek ethnography, folklore and references to obscure Greek personages and events. They are a bottomless well of information into which I did my bucket of inquiry endlessly. As I gaze upon the library stamp bearing the legend: Βιβλιοθήκη Ελληνικής Ακαδημίας Μελβούρνης, I am assailed by insurmountable pangs of nostalgia, though Kyria Lioliou, in setting out a moral and intellectual compass for all of our lives, is always with me.
A few weeks ago, I was sent a copy of a Christmas card I wrote to Kyria Lioliou, at the conclusion of my last year of Greek school. In that card, I wrote about my regret in no longer being her student. Her response, delivered personally, was neither soppy nor sentimental. "I want all of you to go out into the world," she smiled, in a manner reminiscent of Maxim Gorky's 'My Childhood,' "and make me proud." Wherever, we are, and whatever we may do, we, her students, recall her with immense affection and awe. A gifted educator and gargantuan humanitarian, she receives, in her retirement, little formal community recognition for her invaluable work in instilling in successive generations of Greek-Australian children, newly arrived, or locally-born, an immense love of Greece and competency in the Greek language. Yet perhaps this is commensurate with her self-effacing personality, for her achievement is exemplified in the love her students still bear for her and their own endeavours to pass on undiminished, the flame she lit in them, so many years ago.
And not a day goes by in which I do not raise my hands over my head, clap rhythmically and sing to my daughter in sonorous tones: Mάνα μου τα μάνα μου τα κλεφτόπουλα....
First published in NKEE on Saturday 9 April 2016