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Fantastic Greeks and where to find them

John Vithoulkas explores what defines a modern Greek: Name? Blood? Or heart?

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Photo: Greek Diaspora of Kazakhstan

08 March 2017

The night sky of ancient Greece must have been a true wonder to behold. People of other lands looked up and saw single stars. Ancient Greeks looked up and saw constellations constructed by the gods themselves, revealing their stories as they danced across the sky. Orion was brightest, a hunter forever chased by his nemesis Scorpius. Cassiopeia the Ethiopean Queen sat still, eternally suspended upside down as punishment for her vanity. The lyre hovered dimly, a tribute to Orpheus the musician, a man who entered the realm of the dead to bring his love Eurydice back to the living. And there was Virgo, the goddess of justice who chose to ascend to the heavens when man forgot his ideals.

But as the Greeks gazed upward surely the constellations gazed down, for on the earth walked the likes of Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Sappho, Pericles, Alcibiades, Themistocles, Hippocrates, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Each of these Έλληνες was extraordinary, a once-in-a-generation genius. Remarkably, they all lived in a 184-year period known as the Hellenic era, the years between the first democracy of Athens (507BC) and the death of Alexander the Great (323BC). Together they thought, created, invented and drove civilisation to heights unimagined.

Two thousand three hundred years later I found myself gazing at the southern hemisphere constellations. The ancient Greeks never saw these constellations, yet their presence, their logic, their thoughts and their questioning is everywhere in the lands below. Medical students recite the Hippocratic Oath, the justice system is built on principles from Plato's Republic, government supports arts and culture as Pericles modeled, and schools teach Medea in their study of the human condition. The ancient Greeks have transcended history and geography. They will always be found here in Australia. Their place is assured.

The modern Greek also made the journey to Australia. The earliest recorded migrants came in the 1850s, lured by the gold rush, and they have continued to come since; some years more, some years less, but always they have come. In Australia they have prospered and their sons and daughters have excelled. In the footsteps of Hippocrates, Vasso Apostolopoulos has developed the world's first breast and ovarian cancer vaccine. Her research has also been instrumental in the development of a vaccine against multiple sclerosis.

In the footsteps of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, John Tasioulas, a student of Northcote High School, was the 1989 Rhodes Scholar. He achieved a Doctorate of Philosophy from Oxford University on his thesis on moral relativism and is the Professor of Politics, Philosophy and Law at Kings College, London.

In the footsteps of Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus, George Miller has written and directed movies such as Mad Max and Happy Feet. He has won an Academy Award and been nominated for five others. In the footsteps of Aristophanes, Christos Tsiolkas, a student of Blackburn High, has won The Age Book of the Year Award for Dead Europe and the Commonwealth Writers Prize for The Slap. Four of his eight books have been adapted for television. In the footsteps of Sappho, Dean Kalimniou has published six poetry collections. Awarded the Government of Victoria award, he is recognised as the most significant poet of the Greek diaspora. And in the footsteps of Pericles, Alcibiades and Themistocles, Nick Xenophon stands as a statesman of old, respected for his ability to bring morals and fairness to the political system. The children of migrants have been fantastic and can be found in every field.
This is not to lessen the contribution of the migrants. They did not have the opportunity to excel as their children did, constrained by their limited access to education and lack of language. Yet they focused on building a life for their families from nothing. They sacrificed themselves for their children, working the hours they could to provide shelter, physical and emotional. These migrants will not be remembered by name in the history books. Awards will not distinguish them. But knowledge of what they have achieved is with their children and grandchildren. Each and every one will be remembered as a fantastic Greek of the Antipodes.

The wealth of Greek contribution in Australia is a tribute to the qualities of the Greeks. In every field. In every corner. In every way we have helped this nation be better. Will our contribution continue in the future? The descendants of the migrants will be found here and will be fantastic. But will they continue to be Greek?

Part of the answer is up to us. We will need to decide on how we define Greek; on who a Greek will be. Name? Blood? Or heart? A name can show a link to ancestral lands. However as Shakespeare said, 'A rose by any other name would smell as sweet'. Georgios Averof is acknowledged as one of the greatest Greeks. George Soros is not. A name will not find the Greek. A bloodline can also trace Greek heritage, but would this mean children of mixed marriages become lesser Greeks? Half, quarter, eighth and 16th Greeks? The law of fractions would continually divide us. A bloodline will not find a Greek. Or will it be heart? A Greek heart is a heart that fills with pride in being identified as belonging to the Hellenes, to a people ravaged by war, poverty and corruption, but a people with καλοσύνη, υπερηφάνεια and φιλία. Α people who have stood on the side of right every time it has been asked of them. Could a modern Greek be found where a heart beats Greek? This may be the only definition that allows Greeks to continue to be found here in future.

Our task then is to focus on the Greek heart. A Greek heart is not present at birth. It is not passed on through blood or name. A Greek heart is painted through brushstrokes of blue and white. Every action, every contact with Greek culture, Greek identity and Greek heritage is a brushstroke. We all hold the brush. Every time we tell a story, every time we use the language, every time we show a picture, we are making a heart beat Greek. As a community we will decide if Greeks are found in Australia in the future. Do we decide to pick up the brush and paint hearts blue and white?

There are many forces that already hold the brush. The Greek Orthodox Community of Oakleigh and Districts and the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria are central. They have organised bilingual schools and specialist language schools, festivals like Antipodes and the Oakleigh Glendi. They offer space to individuals to present lectures and nights. Schools like St Vasilios Greek School offer their local communities a school of language and of culture. Groups such as 'O Periklis' champion the arts; music, dance, theatre. And the humble Greek social club, organised by the Greek migrants and existing in every suburb and representing every area of Greece; it offers blue and white events with a flavour of heritage.

These organisations work in conjunction with families and friends. In the home we paint hearts Greek in so many ways. In the cooking of pastitsio; in the planting of tomatoes and cucumbers; in the eating of a horiatiki salad and the drinking of a Greek coffee after the meal. We paint hearts Greek when we wish family and friends a happy nameday; when we take Greek cakes to work and make Greek coffee for our workmates; when we prepare for Easter by buying a candle for a godchild; when we feast after the resurrection.

We pick up the brush when we spend our leisure time. When we go to the Greek café, watch the Greek dancing or attend the Greek ball. 'Being Greek is living Greek' says the Hellenism Victoria website. And access to Greek events is what offers us more chances to live Greek. In the first two months of 2017 the Kazzie Club ran a book launch of Melpomene and Adonis, the Kos Club began Δωδεκάνησα dancing lessons for children, the Pammessinian Society ran a Golf Day, 'O Periklis' ran emBEERies, and the Olympian Society offered Greek mythology storytime for children. All free or at cost events designed to allow Greeks to interact. All found on the Hellenism Victoria calendar, a site of clubs collaborating for the Greek heart. On the GOCMV calendar one can find a lecture series on diverse topics, movie festivals and eating festivals. As more events are created more people will have their hearts touched, and they will reconnect with their Greek again and again.

Events that connect past and present are also important. I was privileged to read the applications made to Hellenism Victoria's 2017 'Spirit of Hellenism Award', a competition allowing young people to research stories of Greek contribution and express them in the form they find best. All told a personal story. In all, the emotion beyond the words and pictures was palpable. Tales that were untold have been recorded and connections have been made.

Congratulations to all schools and students who participated. They offer us beautiful presentations but offer themselves a heart warmed by their research.
The 2011 census recorded nearly 500,000 Greeks living in Melbourne (378,270 people of Greek ancestry, 99,939 born in Greece). We have barely scratched the surface of living Greek and all ideas will have a place. Not everyone needs to do everything. But as a community we must continue to encourage the development of actions, projects and programs that offer opportunity for Greek interaction that develops pride and swells the Greek heart. We must grow with cultural events. Cavafy versus Elytis poetry nights, cooking lessons, Greek musician tribute nights, tavli championships. We are only constrained by our imagination. Facilities exist with every club and with every organisation. But buildings alone are empty, just a promise of what can be. It is people who fulfill promise, who promote culture, identity, and heritage. A Greek building must never turn people away. For it is the volunteers in the suburbs and the ideas of all those involved in Greek organisations, large or small that help us all pick up the brush and paint Greek.

We have Greek hearts. And when Greek hearts meet beauty can be made. Greeks all over Melbourne have the brush in their hand. Each brushstroke they paint makes hearts blue and white. It takes a village to raise a child, and our village is our community. And the modern Greek shall be fantastic. And they shall be found in the Antipodes forevermore.

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