Mike Sweet, former Neos Kosmos Athens correspondent, reflects on coming home to Australia after living several years in Greece
It's odd being back. After spending three years living in Athens, I landed at Melbourne airport a few weeks ago excited but apprehensive. As a home, Greece was suddenly and irrevocably, in the past.
As that sinks in, I can't help but wonder what I'll miss and what I'll gain. My time in Athens coincided with difficult times for Greece. Though I lived in the northern suburbs, even in Kifisia, symptoms of the city's regular unrest could be felt. I had always wondered why the sleepy minor road with the local police station near our house was blocked off regularly.
Only towards the end of our stay did I realise that it was the real threat of drive-by shootings that was the reason for the road's closure at night. Downtown, will I miss walking on a winter's evening near Omonia Square, where once I turned a corner to find myself inadvertently beside a tide of chanting anarchist demonstrators, egging on the lines of menacing riot police accompanying them? Not an experience to have fondness for, but nonetheless unforgettable. It is the extremes of Greece that I'll miss.
The most moving insights into Greece I gained were unsurprisingly outside of Athens - in the Peloponnese, Mani, the Ionian islands, and elsewhere. My journeys within Greece gave me glimpses of just some of the regions which make up the Hellenic Republic. The place I visited most frequently was Crete.
Two events on that remarkable isle are etched in my mind; gathering Malotyra high in the Lefka Ori with Kostas Papadomanolisakis, a wizened elderly man who had spent his life in those majestic mountains, and a year later, when I travelled with the daughters of Reg Saunders to the village of Labini, to witness the extraordinary reunion of the Saunders clan with the Cretan children Areti and Yannis Zacharakis who had protected that young Aboriginal Anzac in 1941.
These and others were indelible, life-changing experiences. In the first few days in Melbourne I was taken aback by small things. Cars stop at pedestrian crossings to let me cross. Astonishing! I really never did come to terms with the majority of Athenian drivers and their regular, oppressive lack of responsibility. Too often in Athens, not just behind the wheel, it was only too clear that the idea of 'self' far outweighed any concept of 'community'.
So now I am back in the lucky country, but not so lucky in 2011. Nature has seen to that. I departed for Greece when a new Labour government was riding high. I watched the apology to the Stolen Generation on Greek TV, later witnessed the demise of Australian Ashes cricket hopes online, and cast my vote in the last Federal election in a polling booth in Athens.
As Greece buckled under the strains of endemic economic mismanagement and Europe panicked at the possible repercussions, it was strange to glimpse Australia from afar, appearing largely immune to the global financial crisis, untouched, as if it was another more prosperous world.
As a Brit who first came to the Greek islands as a backpacker in the 1980s and who became an Australia citizen in 2003, exploring the connections between cultures is something I do, hopefully, as an informed outsider. Growing up in Wales, with its strong separate identity from England, nurtured my interest in questions about identity and belonging.
It's certainly one of the reasons why the Greek Australian story has such a strong resonance for me. My time in Greece was rich in revelation. It gave me an insight into the culture and nature of contemporary Greece that cannot be found in books or newspapers, or gained easily by just a brief visit to the country. From now on my writing for Neos Kosmos will use that experience to explore and celebrate the Greek Australian experience from these shores.
My Parea is no longer to be found in Athens or Crete. It is here in Australia and I look forward to sharing these stories with you all. Ta leme!
Mike Sweet is based in Melbourne and will continue to write regularly for Neos Kosmos.
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