When first learning of the prospect of our National Day March being held at Lakeside Stadium, I was sceptical. After all, a stadium cannot in any way compare to the iconic Shrine of Remembrance, which lent a severe poignancy to our march for so many decades. Given that the trustees of the Shrine are determined not to allow our community access to the public building ever again for our own national purposes, my first thought was that it would be expedient to hold the march through Swanston Street, terminating in Federation Square.
By marching through the heart of the city, where the first Greek Australians settled and conducted their businesses, we send the message to the mainstream that we are an intrinsic part of the fabric of Australian society. Since Swanston Street is a high pedestrian traffic area, we are thus guaranteed maximum visibility and an even invite the participation of the rest of the members of the broader community. By concluding the march in Federation Square, we have an ample stage in which to make speeches in an unrushed fashion and can mingle and congregate without being shooed off, owing to time restraints. The prospect of riparian entertainments along the riverbank, with re-enactments, performances, theatre and music also beckons and could be explored, creating a much different event that the one we have been used to for so many years.
In contrast, I was originally troubled by the choice of Lakeside Stadium as venue. The incongruity of conducting a National Day celebration that focuses upon our identity as Greeks in a stadium which houses a soccer team that was forced to deracinate by removing from its title the word “Hellas,” the very term central to the meaning of our march, continued to vex me. Further, would not the holding of one of the most important events on our community calendar, (one that for many participants of the third and fourth generations is one of the few times they can espouse their identity and associate publicly as Greeks in the company of their compatriots), away from the broader public sphere serve in effect to ghettoise our community, creating a disturbing precedent whereby while the dominant class waxes lyrical about its commitment to multiculturalism but in effect can only deal with manifestations of cultural and ethnic identity by compartmentalising these and hermetically sealing them from the rest of the populace? Are we by acquiescing to this seclusion, acting as organs of the dominant class in engaging in such self-censoring and self-segregation?
Further, I mused? What form would a march at the dehellenised headquarters of the team formerly known as South Melbourne Hellas take? Would our children be expected to march past and salute our community fuhrers while drones fly overhead, taking photographs in order to enhance their prestige in the print and social media? What would the execution of such a bizarre pageant mean to generations of Greek-Australian schoolchildren?
Since ruminating over these considerations, I have had cause to change my mind completely, to the point where I am convinced that Lakeside Stadium is an eminently suitable venue in which to host our march. There are a number of reasons for this:
Firstly, while the Shrine provided an imposing backdrop to our endeavours, it must be admitted that in no longer worked for us as a venue. Every year, the trustees would impose increasing restrictions upon the duration of our event, the content and number of speeches. They purported to control what we wore, what we said, the symbols or flags we displayed, how we expressed our identity, and the nature of our ceremonials. Consequently, in its final years the march was a broken, oppressive farce. Shooed away by organisers terrified of remaining on the grounds after the expiration of the allotted time, fewer and fewer spectators would make the trek down to cheer the participants, the majority of which, if they were not flag-bearers, would be whisked away to the left, collected by the parents and taken away even prior to the conclusion of the event leaving few remaining to witness the solemn lighting of the flame, an Australian ceremony that has nothing to do with the event commemorated.
One thing that I noticed over the years is that even though our march took place in the public arena and was an annual fixture, only insignificant members of the public at large would attend as spectators. At most, they would take a photo or two as they jogged or walked past. It is for this reason that there is absolutely no point in considering the integration of our march within the broader social context when determining upon our venue. Had we chosen to celebrate a day significant to our identity as Greek-Australians, such as the foundation date of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne, or the date of the arrival of the first Greek upon these shores, then such an event, being a date relevant to Australia would justifiably require broader participation and attention.
The 25th of March is not such a day. It is the day that commemorates our people’s rising against oppression and the re-genesis of our nation. We do not celebrate it in connection with Australia but rather as Greeks. We celebrate it not as token ethnics to bolster the dominant class’s claim of a benign administration over the façade of multiculturalism but for ourselves only. It has everything to do with us, and we should celebrate it in a way that suits us, not in a way that we imagine, would placate a disinterested broader public and our political overlords.
At the Shrine, or in any other public space, it is the dominant class that will prescribe to us how we will commemorate the 25th of March, a complete antithesis to the meaning of the event. In contrast, our community has the complete freedom to determine the nature of its celebration without outside interference at Lakeside Stadium, in new and novel ways that will enhance the experience for all participants and make the occasion a memorable, identity-building one for them. While this year, the change in venue may be confronting, it is hoped that in years to come, the entire community will come together in consultations to refine the nature of the celebrations so that they are truly representative of our identity as Greeks abroad.
Finally, for those lamenting the loss of prestige occasioned by our eviction from the Shrine, it should be noted that there is historical precedent for the use of stadia for events of this nature. When my father was growing up in Melbourne in the fifties, the community marched around a swimming pool. The annual cutting of the Epirotic pita, a Panhelladic event that takes place at the Peace and Friendship Stadium in Athens every year, is the peak cultural event of the Epirotic calendar, attracting tens of thousands of spectators, and is hybrid event composed of speech, song, dance and marching. There is no reason why we cannot make our event just as successful at Lakeside Stadium and showcase the talents of the younger member of our community. This is especially so given that even with the word “Hellas” removed, Lakeside Stadium is a place of great significance for our community given that it is the home of one of our most historically important community institutions, one that we all be justifiably proud of. Most importantly of all, we will all be able to see, and stay as long as we wish. We will be made welcome. On our terms and without the fear of having the event taken away from us for being disobedient or non-compliant.
My daughters have longed to participate in the march since the outbreak of COVID. My son, who has never experienced the march is particularly excited that this year, he will don the foustanella and be afforded the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of his ancestors, who he knows fought for the privilege of him being able to speak their tongue and call himself a Greek today. And I look forward to donning my own considerably weight doulama and conveying them to Lakeside, where as their doting grandparents, uncles and aunts watch, they will participate in an event that goes to the heart of what it is to be a Greek and learn that they are part of something infinitely greater.
It is for this reason that we ought to support the work of the Organising Committee, applaud South Melbourne Hellas’ provision of their facility and participate in this year’s march in increased numbers. After all, the march is not about place. It is about community and as long as that community’s heart beats white and blue, no one can take it away from us.