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The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 22 October 2016
DIGITAL.NEOSKOSMOS.COM THE WEEKEND NEOS KOSMOS | SATURDAY 22 OCTOBER 2016 25 OPINION Greek identity and the Order of the Phoenix JOHN VITHOULKAS When I was young Google did not exist. Nor did the internet. And so my mind traversed its own space to find amusement. One of the games it liked to play was to guess the natural creator of things (not in a spiritual sense but in an ‘I make the royalties’ sense). Scrabble was the first item my eye came across. Here was a game so civil and gentlemanly it awarded points for using less common letters of the alphabet; those indefatigable British certainly knew how to have fun. Twister, on the other hand, was far more forward. Scandalous Brazilians had their signature all over it, as well as their left hand and right toe. Connect 4 was clearly German; sorry Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. And Trouble? Surely Fidel Castro was sitting back in a chair in Cuba laughing at how much bother his tiny island caused world superpowers. ‘I’ll give you trouble!’ or so the ad said. The king of games, however, was Monopoly, and Monopoly could be nothing but Greek. Who else would invent a game all about owning and developing property? I knew kind-hearted pensioners who walked to the Northcote Plaza with μπαστούνιa who owned multiple houses. Greeks not only played the game, they wrote the rules. It may be easy to joke about Greeks and their love of property, but in truth it is simply a sign of a people seeking security. The Greek migrants who came to this country deserve to have every one of their accomplishments celebrated. They were born into a devastated land. Their first steps were on an earth scarred by two world wars. They were raised without enough of anything. They were an unfortunate people, yet their decision to migrate demonstrates an admirable steel. More than 160,000 of them made that voyage after World War II. Identify one migrant from your family that sits among that number and consider them truly as a person. Let yourself feel the emotions they would have felt in leaving behind their reality (Fear? Excitement? Sadness?) and you understand their courage. That individual story you considered multiplied by 160,000 is the story of our people. In this new land they started by living a family to a room. They knocked on doors to find jobs and rapidly built lives for themselves. They bought houses, lots of houses. Houses to rent out. Houses to holiday in. Houses for their kids. And houses they turned into loving homes. They ensured their kids went to school and had opportunity to be better than themselves. They worked hard and they built their security. And in this history we see another element of the Greek identity; ανανέωση. The phoenix is a creature of Greek mythology. At the end of its life it would be consumed by fire and arise from the ashes anew. The Greeks who came here showed the same ability to recreate themselves. They were able to remember values from their former lives but to start new ones here. They put right foot after left, took every opportunity and put piece after piece on that monopoly board. Consider how many Greeks you know who have completely been able to change their lives as they have needed to. Aνανεώμαστε. an ear. Unfortunately, strange men wandered around their house waiting for his dad to emerge and days of hiding had to follow. The family returned to Greece sometime after this, unable to accept these conditions. The Greek social clubs stand as monuments to the Greek migrants’ ability to make a life for themselves as they wished it. With personal security achieved and a Greek social club to call home, these Greeks dinner A heathen friend told me that this may be a good thing. Our non-membership of social clubs showed that we no longer need safe houses − that we are now equal members of the Australian community who can walk into any shop. He mused that it was natural that these clubs should die a slow death as their membership base fades, cutting our ties to our parents towns and releasing us completely into Australian society. He added that the clubs have no purpose for us and we should let them go. Some people can let things go. But should we? Social clubs have a purpose far beyond what The Greek social clubs stand as monuments to the Greek migrants’ ability to make a life for themselves as they wished it. With personal security achieved and a Greek social club to call home, these Greeks dinner danced their way through the years. And their families grew. And their children grew. And their children became parents themselves. One value the Greek migrants did take into their new life was their need for friendship, and they did this by developing social clubs based on where they had come from. These clubs allowed them some familiarity in this new land. The social club was a place they went to find out news (a time existed before the internet?), observe traditions, play τάβλι, break plates and drink proper coffee. Importantly, it also allowed them to raise their voice and speak their tongue. The social club was a safe house; a place to go to avoid racism. Make no mistake, it was not easy being a new migrant. Despite being good people working to build this country, they suffered. In the social club they could relax. And did I mention they could break plates? Most Greeks don’t like to talk about negative experiences of that era. They shield their kids from bitterness. But prod hard enough and you hear stories. A cousin once recounted being called names as he walked home from school with his dad. He remembered his dad placing his provocateurs in a headlock, one head under each underarm. This was a first-class lesson to the provocateurs that Greek men from Kefallonia did not punish an eye for an eye, but a nose for danced their way through the years. And their families grew. And their children grew. And their children became parents themselves. But somewhere along the way a disconnect happened. The second generation Australian Greeks (and their descendants) did not join these social clubs en masse, or even in fractions. The social clubs continued but their membership base remained (largely) the Greek migrants. Now these memberships dwindle further and a question must be posed; why didn’t we Australian Greeks follow? I have asked the question widely and have heard many answers. Some say that as we Australian Greeks speak English and don’t face racism we can walk into any café, restaurant or bar of our choice, we don’t need a safe house. Others believe that we have evolved to expect higher quality décor, food and drinks than what a Greek social club provides. Still others argue that we now socialise more widely, not just with people from our towns, but with people from other towns; yes that’s right, there are towns beyond the Greek borders, they remind me. And the club halls remain with the few. they have been given credit for. When the first Greeks arrived here they had a strong identity. They had Greek values and traditions which kept them strong and made them successful. But their physical and emotional safety was in danger. The social clubs offered them a physical and emotional security that allowed them to enjoy themselves. For us Australian Greeks the situation is reversed. We are free to go out and enjoy ourselves any way we want to in any location we want to. We are not confined to safe houses. But our identity is in danger. The values and traditions of our forefathers seem more foreign and dated by the year. The tide moves us away from our traditional values. Pop culture and the desire to fit in are what is attractive. In his haunting poem Of the Jews (AD50), Cavafy wrote of this exact situation. Ianthes was a young Jew living in Alexandria. He recognised that he was noblest on the days he abandoned the beautiful Greek life and pledged that he wanted to remain a holy Jew. Yet in reality he could not resist the Greek life; hedonism, corruptible limbs and the art of Alexandria. In truth, he was a devoted son of his adopted city’s culture. Ianthes lost his identity in that poem due to his desire to fit in. Is that the state we should happily move towards? Greek social clubs are now more vital than they have ever been. They were created by Greeks as safe houses where they could speak their language and socialise (and did I mention break plates?) For us descendants of these Greek migrants, they must become safe houses of our identity. The social clubs must engage in activities to help us understand and protect our traditions and culture. They must become lighthouses of Greek spirit. It may seem difficult but it is not. Greek social clubs are member organisations. They were created by members and they are run for members. They are a tremendous gift to us, developed by the sacrifices of the first Greek migrants. Do we accept our inheritance? So over to you dear reader. Two questions for you. Firstly, why are you not a member of a social club? Secondly, what would you want your social club to offer you?
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