“G’day,” a portly middle aged man sporting a grey, Fu Manchu-like goatee and wearing an eighties Bundaberg Rum t-shirt, approached me at the Epirus Cultural Stall during the Lonsdale Street Greek Festival, last week. “Can I ask a question?”
“Sure,” I replied, gearing up for, what, in the fifteenth year of running the stall, is a well-rehearsed mini exposition on the embroiderers of Ioannina, the silversmiths of Syrrako and other small pieces of Epirus-related trivia that we dole out to interested passersby as they view our collection of 19th century Epirotic jewelry and costumes.
“How come there are no worry beads in your tent?” he asked. Before I could think of a reply, he provided the answer himself: “Because there are “No Worries” in Australia.” I burst out laughing, invited him into the tent in order to initiate him into the mysteries of home-brewed tsipouro, a concoction which turned him purple and caused him to splutter: “Strewth.
No wonder you guys are so highly sprung. That’s bloody rocket fuel. Goodonya Aussie.”
He went on to tell me how he often likes to stop off on the side of Geelong Road and have a picnic because it is something he remembers Greek immigrants do in the western suburbs in the seventies and early eighties.
Soon after, Peter Ford, well known within the Cretan community for his tireless promotion of the commemoration of the Battle of Crete turned up, as he does every year, his ubiquitous camera around his neck. He proceeded to take detailed pictures of the exhibits and myself, “for insurance purposes only,” he smiled. A half an hour later, he returned, bearing an envelope with the developed photographs. He then proceeded to do the same for all of the cultural stalls in the Festival, loaded as he was, with Epirotic rocket fuel.
A person who identified themselves as being of Wurundjeri descent stood gazing at a traditional embroidered Sarakatsanic apron in our display.
“I’m fascinated by this,” she smiled.
“The patterns remind me of some of our own art. The motifs are very similar.”
I explained to her that if you knew how to decode the symbols you could glean as much personal information about the wearer of the apron as you can today from a Facebook profile. Pointing to the symbols, I showed her how one can deduce that the wearer was married but a widow, with two children. I then related the legends about the transhumant Sarakatsanoi during their peregrinations around the Balkans and the songs that make up their identity.
“Just like our own song-lines,” she gasped. When she finally bid us goodbye, there were tears in her eyes.
“To tell you the truth,” she confided, “I’ve struggled to understand the place of migrant communities in Australia. I’ve always seen them as groups jumping off the back of the English invasion. If I hadn’t come here I would never have dreamed that we have so much in common. At the end of the day, we are native peoples. That’s right, we are natives, we are one,” she affirmed and grasped my hand tightly. My eyes grew moist.
“Can you tell me where these things come from?” a squat man asked, his open pink shirt revealing a forest of chest hair.
“These are from Epirus,” I responded, explaining that the items, common to Muslims, Jews and Christians alike belonged to a region straddling the Greco-Albanian border. As it turned out, he was from Shkodër, in Northern Albania. When I concluded my narrative, he commented: “These are exactly the same things that form part of our own traditional culture. I was expecting you to tell me that they were solely Greek. But here you are telling me that we share these items. I would never have expected to hear this from a Greek.”
“Why?” I asked, pointing to a painting of the Aslan Pasha Mosque in Ioannina, executed by our artist in residence, Jason Roberts and hanging on the wall of our stall.
“How can we deny the presence and cultural contribution of the Albanian people to our region when our major city, Ioannina is defined by the mosques they built?”
“Tell me,” the man grinned, “switching to broken Greek, “if the people of Himara are truly Greek like they claim, why do they mourn their dead in Albanian?”
“For the same reason that you are speaking to me in Greek,” I responded. We stood arm in arm and proceeded to accompany him on the violin as he sang a traditional Albanian funeral dirge. When we parted, he enveloped me in an asphyxiating bear hug and pecked me vigorously on the cheek.
“We are one people,” he declared. “One people.”
Funnily enough, this is also what many visitors to the stall whose origins lie in the Indian subcontinent told me. They found similarities between the exhibits and their own traditions of metalworking and embroidery, and attributed this to the arrival of Alexander the Great in the Punjab. When I told them of Roma, the itinerant craftsmen that migrated from India to the Balkans centuries ago and still speak Romani, the only Indo-Aryan language outside the Indian subcontinent, they were astounded. They were even more astounded to learn that they still exist in large groups within Greece and that some of them are our most accomplished traditional Epirotic musicians.
“So Indians are Greek and Greeks are Indian,” one man laughed. “We are the same.”
Many of my Chinese visitors told me that the exhibits reminded them of the clothes worn in the region of Xinjiang, in Western China. I spoke to them of the vanished kingdom of Dayuan (Great Ionia) a Greek state on the border with China, founded by Greco-Bactrians fleeing the conquest of their own kingdom and a tributary of the Chinese Empire. However, it was when they heard us play songs from the Pogoni region that they truly became astonished.
“This is exactly like our music,” they gasped. “It makes sense,” I replied, in Chinese. “Both our musical traditions are based on the pentatonic scale. That is why they sound so similar.”
“Do you know,” one elderly gentleman remarked, “out of all the nations in the world, we respect the Greeks the most. Do you want to know why? Because you have the same values as us, the same long history and the insight that comes with it. We feel very close to you. We are one people.”
A friend brought his breathtakingly tall girlfriend to the stall. By way of prologue, even before telling me her name, almost by way of excuse, he pronunced: “She identifies as Aromanian.”
The lovely young lady proceeded to explain that her Vlach-speaking ancestors came from Ioannina and Grammos and migrated to the country currently ruled from the city of Skopje one hundred years ago. Vlach is her native language and she is fluent in it. “Brilliant,” I responded. “My grandfather was a Vlach and our president, the man in the corner playing the clarinet, is also a Vlach. Go and converse with him.” Although the august president of the Panepirotic Federation of Australia rejoices in his Vlachness, his proficiency in the language is diminishing. I derived perverse pleasure out watching him struggle to find the correct words to complete his sentences because to me, it seemed the inverse of what usually happens in Greek-Australia, where the younger generations often flounder in their attempts to find the requisite vocabulary with which to converse with their elders. Now the shoe, or rather the tsaroukhi, was on the other foot.
“I love this Vlach costume,” the young lady fondled the conical headdress on the mannequin was had on display, lovingly.
“My grandmother had one exactly like it. I had heard of the Vlachs of Greece but never really met any or appreciated just how similar we all are. We are one people.”
And with that, she draped her arm lovingly around her boyfriend’s shoulders and sauntered off towards the main stage.
I wish she could have been at our tent when we had the unique privilege of jamming with visiting musicians from Northern Epirus, Robert Selfo and Kita Caraoshi. When Kita, a Vlach from Elbasan began to sing in the Vlach language, almost simultaneously, a large crowd gathered.
«Τι είναι αυτά;» some of the older ladies asked.
«Αυτά είναι αρχαία ελληνικά,» I informed them, semi-maliciously, chuckling in morbid glee as they walked off, commenting knowledgably to each other: “This is the language of Socrates.”
Whether the words are in Greek, Vlach or Albanian, the music is the same and one who derives from its tradition, knows how to perform it.
“It grounds you,” a Pontian dance instructor suggested, when I tried to explain it to him.
“No,” I elaborated. “It undergrounds you. It connects you with all those people under the earth who have been and gone before you, with the bare bones of the earth that are yet to be revealed. You are their larynx and they speak through you.
As we played, and sang, in Vlach and Greek, we nodded to each other in unspoken understanding. At that exact moment, when pitch, rhythm and the polyphony melded into the primeval perfect expression of who we are, we were one.
Packing up at the conclusion of the Festival, a curly haired beaming lady asked me: “Can you translate some of what you were singing?”
I summarised the story of Osman Tako, central character of the Siamantaka song, a bandit, whose final request prior to being executed was to dance a most manly dance.
“Oh my,” she exclaimed. “We have a poem that is almost exactly the same.”
We conversed further and she was confounded by my revelation that prized poet Rumi also wrote poems in Greek. “We have so much common history, so many similarities,” she marveled. “We are…”
“Yes, I know,” I completed her sentence and limped off into the night, feet swollen from being encased in tsaroukhia. “We are one people, and it takes a Lonsdale Street Greek Festival to show that to its fullest extent.”