Greek-born Australian politician Maria Vamvakinou MP is well-known for her efforts in promoting multiculturalism and battling for the underdog. A high school teacher by profession, she became the first Greek-born woman to be elected to parliament and has been a member of the Australian House of Representatives since November 2001.
Neos Kosmos caught up with her to find out what life looked like for her during COVID-19.
What have you been reading?
I am a member of the Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade Committee, the Human Rights Sub-committee, the Trades sub-committee, the Foreign Affairs and Overseas Aid sub-committee and the Joint Standing Committee on Migration, during this period we have been conducting public hearings, via teleconference and video-conference into the various Inquiries we had begun prior to COVID-19. I have been reading loads of submissions and briefs that we have received ahead of public hearing from witnesses on the Inquiry into Trade with the Pacific, Inquiry into Regional Migration and our Inquiry into whether Australia should examine the use of targeted sanctions to address human rights issues, during this particular Inquiry we received, via teleconference evidence from international guests, including human rights lawyer Ms Amal Clooney.
As a break from what is very interesting but at times intense reading I decided to re-read Zorba the Greek, in the Greek language. I felt that I really needed to refresh my Greek language skills but more importantly, given the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic was having, for some reason, I thought of Alexis Zorbas and envisaged him dancing by the sea to the exuberant and liberating “syrtaki” and I decided I wanted to join in, and to be in that frame of mind.
What music are you listening to?
I also asked my husband to compile for me a playlist of all my favourite Greek music and I play it when I am driving around. On our drive up the Hume Highway to Canberra for the parliamentary session we played hours and hours of the most beautiful Greek music, great for the mind and great for the soul.
What have you been watching?
My job is such that I am always” logged on” to some medium of news and current affairs….during this period however I have seem more of my sitting room and have seen more of my TV, so I keep an eye on what is going on via the TV in addition to the i-pad and the i-phone.
Having this extra time at home has given me more time to watch movies on TV. I love movies, but my tastes differ with those of my family and the odd disagreements became more common now, as “mum was home”. My daughter signed me up to Netflix in order to give me a greater choice and to keep the peace.
What are you cooking?
I have always cooked when I can but being at home has allowed me the time to cook meals that require more preparation and to also cook from recipes. I have enjoyed preparing family meals, most of which are Greek cuisine. I succeeded in making Moussaka, a dish that I have always been intimidated by! My son’s partner is Japanese so we have been teaching and exchanging recipes.
My husband likes baking so we team tagged during Easter, something we have not been able to do in very long time. It can get a bit competitive at times.
How have you been staying fit?
I bought an exercise bike before COVID-19 struck, I have never been keen on exercise programs but my physiotherapist convinced me it was necessary and as it turns out, it has proven to be a good investment.
What is keeping you sane at the moment?
My job has kept me sane. During this period we have moved to our new office in Broadmeadows, it’s a beautiful office and I am very pleased to be back in the Broadmeadows area. We have been dealing with constituents by phone and email and recently we opened our office to the public. We have been very busy and I also have been very busy with teleconferences, videoconferences and Zoom meetings. No time to be bored. My real joy however has been looking after my cat Misha. She is a rescue kitten and she and I spend a lot of time together, I have become a helicopter pet owner!
What is work like for you now?
Work is beginning to return to normal. I am back in parliament this week. It’s certainly different with all the social distancing requirements that have been put in place. I would normally fly up, but like many other colleagues we have driven to Canberra instead. I stayed over the weekend and enjoyed being a tourist for a change! Normally, I am always on the first flight home. Work for me continues to be busy, we have managed to adjust our electorate office work to meet the requirements of social distancing and being back in Canberra completes the other part of my job as a Member of Parliament.
What’s something positive you’ve witnessed or experienced since COVID-19 entered our lives?
The most positive thing I have witnessed is that in times of crisis people do band together. I am heartened by the way communities and organisation have come together to help those who were unable to receive government assistance. I speak especially about the Greek Community organisations and the Greek Churches who stepped up to help those who need especially with food.
What have you learned about yourself during COVID-19?
My job has been a case of being on the go and on the run constantly! My family have had to share me with my job! I love my job and value the opportunities it has given me. COVID-19 has applied the brakes to a certain extent and in doing so I have enjoyed spending time at home, especially in my back yard! I have also enjoyed time for myself, time to think about being 61 years of age and opening up old trunks filled with “stuff” which I have never thrown away; recalling childhood memories, especially living in the 70s was sentimental and fun.
It was also an opportunity to share it all with my daughter, as she researches and writes about her parental and cultural inheritance.
And as clichéd as it might sound, it was indeed a good time to reflect on not putting off for tomorrow what we can do today; time to be grateful for what we have and not take things for granted. And time to fully realise that my children are adults and that Michalis and I are one step away from being empty nesters!
What’s your advice for others to cope with the crisis?
My advice to others is to stay in touch with family and friends and generally keep well. Our aim should be to continue to practice that which we have learnt from the COVID-19 Pandemic, because you never know when the next calamity will strike.
READ MORE: My Life in Lockdown: Father George Frangos
Where’s the first place you’d like to visit in Greece once travel is allowed?
If I were to visit Greece, it would be Plaka that I would want to head to first of all!