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The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 10 September 2016
22 THE WEEKEND NEOS KOSMOS | SATURDAY 10 SEPTEMBER 2016 DIGITAL.NEOSKOSMOS.COM Greek identity and the half-blood prince JOHN VITHOULKAS Memories of childhood are like old photos, single disjointed flashes of time; an impossibly-white Christmas in Athens, a παππού calling you over to give you a Σοκοφρέτα hidden in his shirt pocket, a γιαγιά asking you to go outside and pick oranges and you coming back with lemons. I see a snapshot of a long table under the canopy of an enormous fig tree. Under this tree loved ones are gathered over food and drink, their faces in different stages of laughter, happiness and contentment. Times were poor but they had everything. Another of my favourite memories is a fragment, a simple picture of concrete under me feet and giants standing tall around me. My father informs me it was Leoforos Alexandras soccer stadium. The story goes that as he lifted me up and I saw the Panathinaikos players I began a chant of "To PASOK einai edo, enomeno dinato". Some memories are deceptive in their simplicity. I remember being in a class and looking down at my hands only to be disappointed that I had five fingers. The other boys wore the same expression. We quickly put two hands together, hid four fingers and told the girls we were the chosen ones; we would be king! The context must have been a history lesson covering the end of the Byzantine Empire and the fall of Constantinople. That particular lesson ends with the prophecy of St Joachim of Ithaca that Constantinople would fall to Greece again under the leadership of a six-fingered king. In my childhood this seemed a story of hope, that the glorious Greek empire was sure to return, when the right person came along ... Over time I came to realise this story was an expression of a dark element of our Greek identity; our desire to find a saviour to rescue us. Let us call this element deifying (to raise to the status of a god). This troubled me, as many modern theories of success revolve around a psychology of directly impacting your environment. I wondered if this was a one-off craving, a historical attachment to the capital of the glorious Byzantine empire. Unfortunately, when I sifted through my memory I saw too many examples of deifying. I faintly remember a powerful Andreas Papandreou standing on a balcony with thousands of green flags waving in front of him. Two decades later I see an image of Kostas Karamanlis walking out to a sea of blue flags. A decade after this I watched live as Alex- ποτέ δε λογαριάσαμε μπήκαμε μες στα όλα και περάσαμε. Κι έχουμε στο κατάρτι μας βιγλάτορα παντοτινό τον Ήλιο τον Ηλιάτορα! is Tsipras stepped onto a stage in Omonia in front of adoring green, red and yellow flags. What I remember about all three instances is the raw emotion of the people. Euphoria. All three seemed to arrive ἀπὸ μηχανῆ θεός (Deus ex machina) ready to take us by the hand and show us the road. They were raised on a pedestal. They were expected to improve our reality. They were saviours in our mind and we expected them to deliver. Did they deliver? As I did not fol- low their political progress closely (variously being too busy with transformers, ρεμπέτικα, and renovations; I leave you to guess which was when), I thought I would research these three princes to see how history recorded their time. Andreas Papandreou came to power in 1981 with his Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) and the slogan 'αλλαγή' (change). Personally he displayed intelligence (PhD in economics from Harvard University) and courage (a volunteer in the US Navy in World War II). His achievements in power included the introduction of a national health system, parental leave, indexed pensions, and the creation of ASEP. His reign ended in 1990 following a US$200 million embezzlement scandal. Kostas Karamanlis led New Democracy to power in 2004 with an all-time record number of votes. A graduate of the University of Athens Law School, he is on record as saying that Greece was run by 'five pimps' and that he would clear corruption in public life. Economic policy centred on tax cuts, investment incentives and market dereg- ulation. His government ended after multiple scandals, including the 2008 Βατοπαίδι controversy, where ministers were accused of spending over €100 million in taxpayer money for personal land deals, and a €300 million scandal where state pension funds purchased bonds at inflated prices (by the son of New Democracy's finance boss). Alexis Tsipras and SYRIZA came to power in 2015 as the new hope of the Greek people. I watched Tsipras give his first powerful speech as prime minister where he promised to fight against the humanitarian crisis in Greece. A graduate of the National Technical University of Athens (civil engineer) his policies included the restructuring of the Greek debt, the abolishment of privatisation policies, and the ending of extreme austerity policies. SYRIZA is now serving a second term but its freshness is less Mintie and more Violet Crumble. The party is best remembered for the referendum on austerity measures where the people's OXI became a 'Ναι παρακαλώ' (και συγγνώμη για την παρεξήγηση). The pain of disappointment and failure is greater when expectations are highest. All three arrived as princes. All we had to do was follow. And we did. And here we are. Maybe our disheartenment is the fault of the politicians. They promised much and delivered little. Maybe we are at fault for not expecting professional politicians to say what they need to from opposition in the pursuit of election victory. Or maybe the dark element is at fault for our disappointment. Maybe we want to believe in princes. We want to be comforted, to tell each other that someone else will make things right, that we can sit back and wait. That a six-fingered king (two hands of six fingers actually, which makes him twice the man I thought when I was young) will appear and take back Constantinople for us. Unfortunately (as yet) no prince has turned out to be true. So where does that leave our Greek identity? Odysseas Elytis (a pen name de- rived from a composite of Ellas, elpida, eleftheria and Eleni) was a Greek poet who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Of his work, the academy declared that it represents the traditions of the Greek people. In 1971 he wrote a poem called The Sovereign Sun. I invite you to read and re-read the words so that you can develop your own interpretation. The Sovereign Sun We've sailed for years on end, and still we've kept afloat we've changed a thousand skippers on this balmy boat we never paid the slightest heed to cataclysms but plunged headlong in everything with optimism and high up on our lookout mast we keep for sentry one timeless our Sun our Sovereign Sun. Ο Ήλιος ο Ηλιάτορας "Χρόνους μας ταξιδεύει δε βουλιάξαμε χίλιους καπεταναίους τους αλλάξαμε Κατακλυσμούς Many a tear shall be shed by English teachers of my past, yet I shall accept their sacrifice and attempt my own interpretation. I believe the poem begins by saying that Greece has survived despite its many troubles in history. That we have changed countless leaders and endured many catastrophes, but that we retain our enthusiasm (for living, for creating, for growing). And that the one who really helps us is the sun. The sun is free and does not lie to us. But the sun is only a guide that we need to interpret. So in saying that the sun is our guide, it is saying that we survive by believing in ourselves and using our faculties. The dark element of deifying is present in our identity. It has meant that we have spent decades waiting for the new prince to come to power so that things will be better. And when the current prince cannot meet our standards we are bitterly disappointed and look for a new prince. But Greece has no prince. We should not look for hope beyond hope because it will only lead to disappointment. As Elytis wrote, the sun is there for us, and we should only believe in ourselves and our abilities. Is it in our power to change an element of our identity that we do not want? Maybe it is about competing elements. Once we recognise them we can promote the ones we want. Elytis saw us as a people who have survived for centuries because of our courage, our intelligence and our senses. Maybe if we can block our deifying we can see another element of our identity - an element that has allowed us to do what we need to survive as a people. The survival element conflicts with the deifying element, so it is up to us to suppress deifying and promote the survival element. We can meet the challenges that we are faced with when we stop waiting for someone else to do so on our behalf. Our future is in our hands. We make our decisions and decide our path. It is up to us. The question is, what do we want to achieve with our free will? What do we want to work hard for? What do we value and what is worthy of our time? We may not have a prince. But we don't need one. We are Έλληνες. Questions over to you, dear readers. What do we want to achieve as Έλληνες in Μελβούρνη?
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