After three days in Venice, my son declared that he wants to live there when he grows up.
In Zakynthos, the Carnivale occupies the most important event of the social calendar and many Zakynthians share physical characteristics with their imperial relatives. It was rather like my experience in Ireland, where I saw a whole lot of people who could have been cousins and brothers to Irish Australian friends in Melbourne.
The mode of transport to get around the place – boats – intrigued and excited him. With his newly acquired camera, he snapped the construction workers going up the canal with their wheelbarrows, tiles and other tools of the trade, the greengrocer selling his fruit from the boat moored near our hotel and the band of musicians carrying all their instruments on board their vessel.
When I explained that Venice was founded by people escaping Germanic ‘barbarian’ invaders from the North and built on lagoons which are joined by bridges, he responded that must be only part of the story.
“They just wanted to make this really beautiful city which is unique,” he said, snapping a picture of the Rialto bridge. But Venice’s uniqueness, like the unique characteristics of all cultures is borne from necessity.
Arriving in Greece and pronouncing his love of Venice, all our relatives thought it was perfectly understandable.
“Of course. He found his roots,” they shrugged as if his love of Venice is unquestionably in his DNA.
Although my son is Italian on his father’s side, they’re not talking about that.
They’re talking about our side because we are from Zakynthos and as part of the Venetian empire for three centuries, we are colonial Venetians.
“Although the island is now thoroughly Greek, the Venetian rule had the greatest influence in the cultural heritage of Zakynthos, as it encouraged the growth of fine arts, agriculture and trade.
I discovered how strong this colonial heritage was when I first visited Venice some years ago and hung around the markets listening to the locals talk.
They spoke Italian with the same accent- that sing song lilt – that defines the way Zakynthians speak Greek.
Zakynthos has a Piazza San Marco – albeit on a smaller scale than the real McCoy and before the 1953 earthquake that destroyed all the old buildings, the island’s architecture was similar to its imperial home.
In Zakynthos, the Carnivale occupies the most important event of the social calendar and many Zakynthians share physical characteristics with their imperial relatives.
It was rather like my experience in Ireland, where I saw a whole lot of people who could have been cousins and brothers to Irish Australian friends in Melbourne.
Still, no matter how ‘familiar’ Venice seemed to me, I consider it a long stretch to presume that my son’s new found enthusiasm for the place is due to his Zakynthian roots.
After all, I was born in Australia, he was born in Australia and his Greek and Italian are getting worse the older he gets.
How on earth can Venice be his ‘roots’?
Many years ago, my friend Chris Healy told me once that my thinking about this is distinctly Australian.
That as a country Australia was about ‘looking forward’ because the philosophy of the people who came in the early years – especially the convicts – was about building a future and not looking back to an unsavoury past.
Chris’s words have more meaning for me now as I consider the great difficulty White Australia has had in dealing with its dark secrets about the shameful treatment of the indigenous people.
Even today, we hear so many people dismiss the significance of history when discussing the plight of indigenous Australians.
“But that’s all the in the past,” they say, not wishing to go back there. “They should focus on getting their act together now.” It’s apparent that Greeks see the world somewhat differently. Their sense of identity stretches back a long way.
History is picked over, analysed, glorified or looked at critically, depending on the day or what mood your taxi driver is in. Some of us observe with some justification that since Greece doesn’t have much going for it in contemporary times, it’s only natural that we focus on a magnificent past that delivered so much to Western civilisation.
Everyone here is at pains to point out to my son that he should be proud ‘first for your Greek heritage and second for your Italian heritage’.
They give examples of the cowardly Venetians who ‘ran away’ from the Turks, thus aiding in the fall of Constantinople and the fact that the Romans didn’t have anything original to offer the world since the Greeks had done it all.
So, despite their acceptance of his affiliation to Venice which is, in their view, perfectly understandable, they want him to have a grounded, well informed view of that identity.
Nor do they discount his Australianness, especially as they listen wide eyed to his account of playing Aussie Rules. It’s not ‘either one or the other’ from their point of view, but rather a perception that history on a macro and micro scale has a huge role to play in who we are and rather than denying or eradicating the past, accepting that it may be in the crevices of ourselves.
And occasionally it surfaces where we least expect it and catches us by surprise.
With his tall stature, fair skin, sandy brown hair and very Italian name, my son was amused that everyone in Venice spoke to him in Italian. But when he saw a bakery with a big sign that bore his surname, he snapped away with his camera, insisted on buying our bread from there everyday, he felt right at home.