Souvlaki sizzled on Lonsdale Street on Saturday, Paschalis concocted his mastiha cocktails and the dancers donned their carnival gear for some tomfoolery around the streets… There was laughter and joy at the 32nd Lonsdale Street Greek Festival, and the only ones that appeared somewhat miffed were the drivers caught in traffic jams as the city ground to a standstill.
But far from the madding crowd, on the first floor of the Greek Centre, the President of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria, Bill Papastergiadis, sat alone. He called up pollies one by one, confirming that they’d be there soon to address the roaring crowd that had gathered around the main Delphi Bank stage.
It was a crowd that had come to expect funding announcements amid the festivities, and Mr Papastergiadis did not want 2019 to be the exception. So he shamelessly urged the pollies to dig deep and come to the festival with gifts, grants and government contributions to help the Greek community achieve its goals – from better language learning facilities to improved elderly care with any form of funding that could benefit Greeks in their lives from crib to the coffin.
“No, the Prime Minister isn’t coming Bill, but never mind, we have you, the next prime minister of Australia, right?” Mr Papastergiadis said.
“Come on over and address the crowd – they really want you to be here. And I think you should give them something to be happy about. How about an announcement for more funding for Greek language at a tertiary level? Yes, they’d love that.”
Interestingly enough, just an hour later Mr Shorten addressed an enthusiastic crowd, pledging (a) to call for the return of the Parthenon Marbles from the British government; (b) to look into more funding for the Greek language; and (c) to take care of Greek pensioners in Australia.
The crowds cheered, blissfully unaware of the behind-the-scenes lobbying that goes on for every idea to become a pledge, and for every pledge to become reality.
Earlier it was Lord Mayor of Melbourne Sally Capp, a former Liberal, that stood beside Mr Papastergiadis on the main stage. In her efforts to woo the Greek audience (and, quite possibly, their votes), she spoke of her love for feta cheese, Greek music, history, and of course, there was a hint at the possibility of funding that could go a long way to help Greeks preserve their heritage.
“Bill is a wonderful President of the Greek Community because he’s always asking us for more… More money, more opportunities,” Lord Mayor Capp said. “Of course, if it was completely up to me, I’d give you anything.”
She couldn’t promise him all that he wanted for the Greek community, but she did have the power to give the Greeks of Melbourne some space and shut down a strip of the city for the largest street party and longest-running Greek festival that brings together some of Australia’s most talented performers, dancers, chefs, cooks and competitors for a weekend of Greek-flavoured entertainment.
“To close the streets at this scale is a massive effort,” Lord Mayor Capp told Neos Kosmos. “We don’t close the streets like this for anybody. It is a big cost, but it is worth it. It includes the police, it includes agencies, it includes all the private sector that are impacted. A lot of thought goes into it. At this scale, the Greek festival is so welcome as it is an important reflection of how this community is.”
“We don’t close the streets like this for anybody” – Lord Mayor Sally Capp
Mr Papastergiadis knows that the festival is indeed a “reflection” of the Greek community. “The festival is vital, It is our face in Australia. This event is the first sign that some of our prime ministers, opposition leaders and premiers see of us. When they see a unified face, they are inspired to participate in our conversation,” he told Neos Kosmos.
“Historically, there have been large grants made at this festival.This year, I don’t know if we’re going to get some announcements because both Liberal and Labor are still working on making some announcements in the near future. But I think we’re talking about some significant investments in education.”
Those who think that the festival is one big street party haven’t even begun to scratch what lies beyond the surface. By celebrating Greekness, the festival works to preserve it.
The copious amounts of loukoumades and Greek retsina are just drawcards to encourage people to engage at a political level. But even if they don’t engage, their participation at the event will help those who do.
Mr Papastergiadis believes that the sheer energy and numbers of the pulsating Lonsdale Street Greek Festival crowd might encourage some improvements for Greeks – there’s strengths in numbers. And the numbers were high this year with more stallholders, more crowds, more space – and hopefully – more political goodies for those seeking to preserve Hellenic language, heritage and rights in Australia.