Saturday, April 27, 2019


It was a hint of petal that stopped her mid-shuffle. Relinquishing control of her lime-green vinyl shopping trolley, filled with the remains of flowers, she hobbled purposefully up the path. The sign was unmistakeable - a sole camelia, almost translucent, fringed by a cool frond of fern, interwoven skilfully between the rusting ironwork of the security door, and the frayed, flaccid wire mesh, sagging behind it.
"What's that mum?" called her daughter, as she lugged a shopping bag containing a bottle of oil towards the door step.
Ήταν εδώ," she whispered, clasping at the tightness in her chest as if to rip it open and release it. "Ήρθε."
"Who?" the daughter asked, disinterestedly, stretching out a hand to pluck the flower from its position.
"Μην το πιάνεις!" came the cry. "Άσ' το αυτού, άσ' το αυτού, λέω!" the pressure of her furrowing brows closing her eyes, as she spoke.
Flowers were always the calling cards of old, presumably down the centuries, even. Etiquette demanded that one could not conceivably hope to cross the threshold of another's home, empty-handed, "με τα χέρια ταράζοντας," as they used to say. And when, as was often the case in those times, one had nothing substantial to offer, a jar of preserved plums, a selection of fruit from the garden, a bag of tomatoes in various hues of yellow - was it not a dimly remembered teacher back in the village who had told her that the ancient Greek word for red covered a range of shades, from yellow, all the way to mauve, or was it he, that other one, who had told her this, commenting on the violet swelling of her lips, as he bruised them again and again with the rapacity of his moustache? The teacher was found murdered in the village square, his crimson blood weeping down his shirt. The only blood of the other's she ever saw however, was her own.
A bouquet of cucumbers. A profusion of persimmons. Anything to ward off the disaster of losing face, so precious to those who have next to nothing and are in perennial danger of being disposed of even that, altogether.
Flowers had their own etiquette. They signified absence and loss, which is why her mother had so hated them. Furthermore, to provide flowers as a visitation offering signified the absence of a capacity to grow foodstuffs. Providing flowers in a pot saved some face, for the opportunity was there for such flowers to take root in the new environment and thrive, much as they had done in this Manichean land, both rich and barren. As such it was a true gift.
Cut flowers, on the other hand, ranked as barely acceptable in the hierarchy of permissible gifts, excusable in the elderly and infirm but otherwise, only to be offered upon a face to face encounter in the most dire of circumstances. Instead, as harbingers of the shame of inadequacy, such flowers were to be left surreptitiously upon doors to mark a passing, when the recipient was not at home, signifying their absence and an opportunity lost. 
She remembered two types of flower markers. The most common, those visitors who would merely decapitate a sprig of verdant growth or some inconsequential flower from the garden of their absent hosts and weave it in or around, their door frame. Over the years, a pattern would emerge and it would be possible to discern the identity of the absent visitor both by their habit of choosing particular flowers from the hosts' yard and their manner of interlacing them through the door.
The other, was the usual preserve of the garden proud, those who obtained their ascendancy by disdaining to pillage the gardens of their hosts, instead, venturing forth with perfect and often rare specimens from their own gardens. As each of them had an encyclopaedic knowledge of each other's gardens, deducing the identity of the absent visitor by means of his flora was but a task of moments.
"I hate cut flowers," her mother would snap every time she would pick them from the front door. "They are dead and thus belong to the dead. That is why they leave them when our backs are turned. To remind us that when they don't see us, we are dead to them." Throw them in the bin. No, not out onto the street. The people will see." 
It was that Saturday, the Saturday before Easter that the camelia first appeared upon their door, a frond of a fern wrapped lovingly around it. Though she had trudged back from the service of the First Resurrection in a daze with her mother, the bloom was immediately discernible among the multitude of pensive carnations, red and white, studding their front door. It had been Good Friday the night before, and their neighbours had knocked on their door, expecting to find her within, for she had told her mother she would remain to commence preparations for the Easter feast. It was the flowers from the funerary bier of Christ, that they had left in their wake.
"A camelia? Who has a camelia? I know no-one. Strange." Her mother looked directly into her eyes.
She turned various shades of funereal porphyry and rushed inside to the kitchen, feeling the blooming of the life that had taken root within her, the words she had sobbed as he clutched her to him the night before, behind the station, still ringing in her ears: "It is easier for the camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for this situation to be resolved without you asking for my hand, and quickly." He had pushed her away, smoothing his sideburns as he chortled: "Then I will call you my camelia." And she fainted.
The pain had a shape. It was petal-shaped. A flower of granite composed of the palm and fingers of her mother's hand, thudding against her, crushing her with its impact and painting her skin various livid tones of red and yellow. A petal bedecked funeral bier of hope crucified.
"Λέγε μωρή σκύλα. Ποιος σού τό κανε αυτό; Λέγε ποιος σε γκάστρωσε. Απόψε θα γίνει η κηδεία σου." And yet, on that night, the Resurrection was imminent.
There were no flowers after that, though she was dead to the world. No visitations, merely silence, entombed in stone. On the balcony of her one bedroom flat, her daughter would ask why they did not have a few flower pots and she would invariably answer: "I hate flowers. Flowers are for the dead." Yet in the agonising hours just before dawn, she would hear the roots of that camelia seeking out the places where her wounds had been and when she would finally awaken to the sound of the neighbourhood rooster crowing three times, her eyes would glisten with the dew of petals, as she would deny them all.
Walking across streets that had turned their backs upon her, she would avoid the acrid incense emanating from the cracks in the mouldering edifices with the weed-strewn gardens. "Σαν ο διάβολος το θυμίαμα," the dandelions growing in the guttering would sneer at her before sinking to the ground on a leaden breeze. “Why do you place yourself among the living, when you are dead? You are not here,” the cross-bars of the sagging street lamps would flicker, accusingly. It was there that she saw him. Greying, his cream suit sagging from his frame, his yellowing moustache framing a smile of anticipation as he stretched to affix a camelia to a slashed fly wire screen door. 
She shrieked and the world went to seed.
"You know it's a stupid custom anyway," her daughter remarked as she put away the cleaning clothes she had used to wash and polish the granite of her grandmother's grave, and that of another, unmarked. Can't you at least call or text? Instead, you have to mangle the entire rainforest in order to proclaim your passage. It's horticultural narcissism."
The wind picked up, sending the branches of the camelia bush in the pot outside scratching against the window. "Τουλάχιστον κάποιος θα βρεθεί να μας αφήσει ένα λουλούδι,"she pronounced after a long while. "Εσείς τι θα κάνετε;"


First published in NKEE on Saturday 27 April 2019

Saturday, April 20, 2019


“Valar Morghulis,” quoth Jaqen H'ghar, in the Song of Ice and Fire series. “All men must die.” Not being conversant in High Valyrian, our community was completely unprepared for the death of our own High Septon, Archbishop Stylianos. I will always remember however, how he responded, years ago when, conversing about ‘Game of Thrones,’ I explained the High Valyrian counter-phrase “Valar Dohaeris” – “All men must serve.” He was profoundly moved.
In the aftermath of Archbishop Stylianos' recent death, the focus of certain sections of the community has fallen with almost obsessive fervour upon the succession. Will one of our own local bishops be elevated to the Archbishop’s throne? Will any of them be moved to another diocese? Will any be promoted? Will a hierarch be appointed from outside Australia, with all that implies for his ability to appreciate the complex demographic and cultural make-up of the Australian church? Is the Ecumenical Patriarch going to follow up on his recent public ponderings as to whether it would be beneficial for Australia to have the Archdiocese divided into separate Metropolises as recently took place in America? What implications will that have for a Church around whose primate, power increasingly became centralised? What will happen to the much discussed Church Property Trust? Will certain ‘exiled’ former hierarchs of Australia make a triumphant return in the aftermath of such a division? These questions and many more are taxing the members of a Church that, in the wake of its longest serving primate’s death, is in transition, insecure and fearful about the future.
With all the whispering, rumour-mongering, manoeuvring, plotting and lobbying that is currently taking place within certain quarters Constantinople, Greece, Australia and beyond, one thing is sadly being overlooked: the fact that there exist out there in the parishes of Australia, a multitude of young, committed, talented and resourceful Australian-born priests, connected intimately to their local communities and parishes, possessed of a deep understanding of the social problems of their region and, silently undertaking vital work in keeping our local micro-communities, the ones that are generally not served by secular community organisations, alive. They are the lifeblood of the Church, the vivifying force that it cannot do without.
 In some regions, such as Queensland, these dedicated priests travel immense distances in order to keep isolated and historically significant Greek communities connected to our broader discourse as Orthodox Greek-Australians and in many cases, are the sole factor in ensuing that those communities retain a sense of their Greek identity. It is the combination of age-old ritual, moral teaching and social fellowship that mitigate against total assimilation into the mainstream narrative.
Some of our young priests minister to the forgotten and silent members of our community who are languishing in prison. Given both their daily conditions and the stigma attached to their situation by their own community, these priests offer prisoners more than just comfort. They constitute a powerful link with the outside world, bearing as they do, a message from One that cannot be constrained by prison walls. Other priests offer chaplaincy and counselling to law enforcement officers, a service that is appreciated greatly by our State authorities. Others still can be found regularly by the bedsides of those experiencing a great deal of pain, or facing the most difficult and fearful moments of their lives, in hospitals, nursing homes, or among the housebound. It takes a good deal of sensitivity, moral conviction and kindness to provide meaningful comfort to those who cannot make sense of their suffering or who are called upon to face their terminal decline.
The young priests of our Archdiocese run soup kitchens, or organise food aid, such as the recent “Feed 500” initiative at the  Saint Panteleimon Dandenong parish, and the “Our Daily Bread” endeavour to assist the homeless in the  Presentation of Our Lord parish in Coburg. Many concern themselves with raising money and securing goods for needy families, assisting parishioners with their Centrelink forms and providing welfare services that often transcend the bounds of the Orthodox faithful and instead, extend to all members of Australian society.
Significantly, the parish priests of the Greek Orthodox Church in Australia deal with drug addiction, gambling addiction and family violence, often unsupported by professional development resources. Within a post-modern society in constant flux, they are often called upon to advise those suffering from gender dysphoria or conflicts in sexual identity. They mediate in family tensions brought about by mixed marriages. In many cases they prove instrumental in healing rifts in relationships. Their key position of proximity to the daily lives of Greek-Australians results in them acting as social barometers and they are  among the first to anticipate or identify shifts in values, mores or demography within our community, long before our secular community organisations are able to do so. One of those, which they are still negotiating, is the transition to expressing Hellenism and Orthodoxy in languages other than Greek. In this, they truly are pioneers. Nonetheless, they largely remain unconsulted and unengaged by those stakeholders who purport to plan for our future as an ethnic sub-group.
In most of our municipalities, these devoted Greek-Australian priests are often the only point of contact for Hellenism with otherwise disengaged Greek-Australians who display no interest in participating in community organisations, even if that contact with Hellenism is limited to a visit to church on Holy Saturday or for a wedding, or baptism. Most importantly, the young priests of our Archdiocese are primarily , the first point of contact of our community with broader Australian society and it is these priests who engage with the predominant cultural and social narratives as Greek Orthodox Australians, and with the mainstream discourse on a close and almost daily level, more so than most secular community organisations, articulating the Orthodox world-view in an increasingly fragmented dialectic.
This is not because there is some insidious or deep, dark nefarious plot on behalf of the church to subvert and control the Greek-Australian ontological identity and its manifestations but rather, because these priests are there, on the ground, among the grassroots , relevant to the daily lives of Greek-Australians in the suburbs where most of their lives are lived, in a way that no other entity can be and yet, in our academic and public discourse, not only their valuable services but also their unique insights in being so close to the diverse and multi-faceted people of Greek-Australia, are  overlooked. To do so is a perilous undertaking, for our parish priests know something that our regional brotherhoods do not: that it is no longer tenable for future generations of Australians of Greek origin to define themselves by their grandparents’ birthplace in Greece and its counterpart brotherhood organisation in Australia. Instead, a Greek-Australian Orthodox identity will be formed by sharing one’s life with other Greek-Australians in the areas in which one lives, juxtaposed against and reconciled with other cultures that also form part of their identity.
It is the fostering and appreciation of the talent and ethos of these invaluable and outstanding members of our Church and Community, the examination of ways that resources can be harnessed in order to support them in their vital role as the veritable glue that holds our suburban communities together, thus ensuring their continued existence, that should be at the foremost of consideration, when planning for the future of the Greek Orthodox Church in Australia. It is to be hoped that the voices of those contributing to the vitality and pertinence of the Church in this country are taken into account when the decision as to who will occupy the hierarchal throne will be taken, lest we remain unprepared for the Winter that is Coming…


First published in NKEE on Saturday 20 April 2019 

Saturday, April 13, 2019


Are we, as Greek-Australians, defined by the institutions that we create? Do we make them in our image so that they reflect us and our aspirations? If so, what can a study of the institutions we construct, tell us about ourselves? Conversely, do others seek to define us by imposing upon us, their own institutional framework, so that while we attempt to organise ourselves as ethno-cultural entities, we are in fact playing to custom-made stereotypes that serve the purposes of the dominant culture? And how do our institutions legitimise the ruling class’s own created institutions of sovereignty and control?
All these questions and many more are posed and in part answered by Dr Christos Fifis’ latest history: “The First Greek Community of Australia, a history of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria 1897-2018.” A study of the GOCMV can in no way be held to encompass the entire and extremely diverse historical experience of the Greeks of Melbourne. For one thing, traditionally male dominated Greek community organisations leave records that largely efface the experience of women and indeed, actively exclude them until recently, something that the author acknowledges in his analysis of the demographics of the early GOCMV. What it can do however, is serve as a vehicle in order to raise the central question that pervades the work: What does it mean to be a Greek in Australia? What aspects of Hellenism are relevant to our future? The study of the GOCMV, our oldest institution is therefore, a study in identity formation.
Through a thorough examination of primary sources, including excerpts of GOCMV minutes of meetings, contemporary newspaper articles and interviews, Christos Fifis presents a GOCMV that was founded at the same time as one of the modern Greek state’s lowest ebbs: the disastrous war with Turkey that resulted in the bankruptcy of Greece. It is thus somehow ironic that, with Greece currently facing a similar set of circumstances, the GOCMV is reinventing itself and is compelled to address those issues of identity formation that so preoccupy Christos Fifis in his book.
What emerges from Christos Fifis’ fascinating and meticulously researched study is a dialectic whereby the GOCMV can only be viewed and defined by reference to its “rivals,” first, the cultural and social organisation “Orfeas” and then, by the Orthodox Church, with both institutions attempting to assert their own articulation and definition of Hellenism within a “host country.” Thus, even though the author juxtaposes the ‘democratic’ nature of the governance processes of the GOCMV, (although he expertly interposes within his narrative an analysis of the class distinctions and power imbalances based on income, and length of settlement in Australia, within the early GOCMV, that subverts the myth of popular and equal access to the decision making process), with the hierarchical structure of the Church, as all these groups vied for dominance of the Greek discourse, he ultimately offers a perspective that casts all rivals as defining themselves, at least in their early years, as foreign entities within the broader Australian social context. Even further subverting the democratic context is the implication of the GOCMV organising itself as a legal entity in a form prescribed by the law of the Colony of Victoria, rather than a form of its own choosing, in contrast with the Church, which follows its own ancient canons.
Instead, Christos Fifis presents the second era of GOCMV- Orthodox Church conflict, where the GOCMV became involved in movements for broader social welfare, workers’ rights and multiculturalism, as one in transition into an acculturated, local entity, with a Hellenism grounded within the broader Australian context. This argument is augmented by the presentation of the constant politicking and seeking of favours from Greek politicians, the active involvement of the GOCMV against the Junta as suggestive of an organisation, at least for most of the period covered, espousing a middle position, one where it still considered itself as a Greek entity but also, an increasingly Australian one, especially for the purpose of funding.
On the other hand, the Church is portrayed as persisting in seeing itself as a malign foreign entity, one that still sees Australia as a “host country” rather than “home.” As the work is intended as a history of the GOCMV, save for materials made available to and by the GOCMV, there seems to have been no research into Church primary sources, nor is there room for much analysis on the theological and social parameters of the Greek Orthodox Church’s mission in Australia, work that must necessarily be undertaken by future historians if the history and legacy of the Church upon this continent is to be viewed in a balanced way, rather than as a mere counterfoil to another institution. The work undertaken by the Church to entrench Greek language learning in local tertiary institutions, requires further scrutiny in this context.

The history of the relationship and conflict between Church and GOCMV, makes for traumatic reading, and yet it provides a perfect platform to address the modern GOCMV, which, during the Fountas and current eras, repaired its relationship with the Church, to the extent where currently both institutions co-exist in harmony. In posing questions of identity, Christos Fifis identities a key issue: Where to from here, for an organisation that has evolved in contrast to and in spite of a Church that is now a collaborator rather than a rival? This in itself allows the author to pose deeper questions about what form the Greek identity will take in the future.

Interviews with historical GOCMV and other community personages, conducted by the author over many years vivify long forgotten voices that shed light on these important questions. One interview with acclaimed poet Dimitris Tsaloumas mirrors the acculturative progression of the GOCMV, for in it, the poet reveals why he chose to shift from Greek to English, this being the search for greater acclaim and a larger audience. What is lost in the process of weaving oneself within the warp and the weft of the mainstream? Do the mirrored evolutions of Tsaloumas and the GOCMV hint at the redundancy of inherited language and traditions? What implications does this have for the future of the GOCMV and the organised community in general? If an interview with my own insufficiency in 2008, also quoted in the book is anything to go by, the future is bleak indeed. 

The rationale offered by Herodotus for the writing of his own history was the need to delve into past events in order to explain how the Persian Wars came about. Similarly, Thucydides felt the need to examine past events in order to rationalise the catastrophic effects of the Peloponnesian Wars that so divided the Greek world. Christos Fifis on the other hand, returns to the past in order to understand the future, one which fills him with misgivings.

As such, Christos Fifis’ history of the GOCMV is an inordinately valuable tool for the comprehension and further development of both our community and ethnic narrative. Somehow, although our presence in Victoria as an organised entity covers a century, the same period as Fifis’ book, the historical events that have led to the development of our community are not part of local lore. Our own consciousness of who we are seems to have only our place of origin and the individual experiences of our family as its yardstick and there is either widespread ignorance or amnesia as to the deeds of our forebears in this country, especially as relates to the pre-war period.

 In attempting to articulate an Australian based discourse, Christos Fifis provides us with the raw materials with which we can assemble a viable local identity as Greeks in Australia, freeing our dependence upon a place of origin whose social realities and understanding of our common past, as the key component of identity, increasingly diverges from our own. The answer therefore, to the central question posed by the author in his study, is ourselves. It is to our own life together, our shared experiences, both positive, negative, life-affirming and unsavoury that we need to turn, in order to determine which course Australian-based Hellenism will take as a discourse, in the future. The fact that the question is largely posed by first generation migrants with direct experience of both countries, speaks volumes in itself. In the case of Christos Fifis’ book, the question is asked in the Greek language, one that can no longer be read with ease by large sections of our community, who are called upon to examine the identity making process and will be affected by it in the future.

Eminently readable and profoundly considered in its exposition of the GOCMV’s progress, it cannot be doubted that Christos Fifis’ “The First Greek Community of Australia, a history of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria 1897-2018,” will prove the foundation stone for further studies on the place and influence of the Greek community and its constituent entities within the framework of the multifaceted social history of Victoria. Its projected English translation is eagerly anticipated.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 13 April 2019