Billy Cotsis has travelled to more than 48 countries and 58 Greek islands, allowing him to bring together a collection of tales on Hellenism that exists outside of Greece. The stories are unique; they combine elements of history with a slant on Byzantine heritage and the lives of the subject Hellenes that he interviews. In an exclusive with NK, Billy tells us about his new book and his travels.
NK: Tell us about the book Billy.
BC: When you are blessed to have the heritage I have, you must do something with it. I was born in Sydney in 1977. My parents were born on the island of Lesbos next to the coast of Turkey, also known as Asia Minor. They in turn have heritage from Asia Minor.
I had no real urge to visit Turkey until my late aunty told me that my pappou was born in the village of Karagatsi in Aivali, which is just a boat ride away from Lesbos. That is probably where the moment, or the insanity, to uncover the extent of the Greek world began. I was 22 at the time and took a boat ride to Turkey. Despite the language barrier, I felt as though I belonged there. The people of Turkey made me feel welcome, making the pilgrimage to Karagatsi pleasant. Pappou Vasilis had made his way to Greece via Smyrna (Izmir) as a refugee. Smyrna is where my maternal giagia Cassandra has heritage. I took the opportunity to visit Smyrna too, a city that was lost to Greece in 1922 after the catastrophe of an unnecessary war. From this moment on, I knew that I would slowly find ways to bring Hellenic stories back to Australia.
NK: And how is that going?
BC: I have written around 60 stories over a 16-year period. Being a public servant nine-to-five means you only have a spare few minutes here and there to write. I have been lucky that media in Australia, especially Neos Kosmos, New York, Greece and London have been very supportive by printing my stories.
NK: What do you get out of these visits?
BC: The chance to tell a story. Many of these places are inhabited by people who are living, breathing statues; a connection to our ancient and Byzantine past.
The fact is many of us around the world would have no idea that Greek speakers held territory in Africa (Ceuta) until AD711, or that around the Sea of Azov (Ukraine) there are 100,000 Greek speakers. Many call themselves Roman! That is a connection to Byzantium.
Turning up in a country such as Syria before the war desperate to get to a village a thousand miles away, no one would hire a car to a foreigner and I was nearly beaten up in Lattakia for being … British as I spoke English. Anyway, you get to this village called Al Hammidayah near the Lebanese border. I was met by ferocious-looking Cretan Muslim men. One was a butcher with a long knife. My thoughts were “far out, I’m screwed …”. As soon as I spoke Greek there was a smile and warmth. By the end of my visit there I’m offered accommodation and a marriage proposal. These are just some of the amazing experiences I have had. They are experiences I want to write about.
Every country I have explored has some sort of Hellenic story to tell. My role is to ensure their history is not forgotten. The Hellenes who spread Hellenism from the Straits of Gibraltar to India deserve an audience. Their ancestors and their Greek culture must be preserved.
NK: How do you fund your work?
BC: I self-fund accommodation, sometimes a driver, car hire, flights, you name it. Disappointingly, few philanthropic agencies have come to support my initiatives. In recent times the Mytilenean Brotherhood helped fund a documentary on Lesbos and the Greek Orthodox Community of NSW have assisted with badly-needed sponsorship for the book.
I grew tired of the promises a number of organisations and individuals have made. Conversely, I fail to receive responses to 95 per cent of my letters or email requests to Greek organisations.
It’s disappointing because we, collectively, miss the opportunity to tell our community and the broader community about these Hellenes. These ancient living, breathing, statues need a bigger audience. As well as preserving history, we can help their economic development.
NK: Is there a favourite chapter in the book?
BC: They all stand out – ha ha. I would say Europe as it covers some important communities. The Greeks and Philiki Eteria of Odessa. This is where modern Greece, to an extent, had foundations. The communist Greeks in Hungary and what they went through due to the Civil War, the longevity of Hellenes in Romania and travelling through former Greek colonies in Spain and France; they are all part of a fond collection. I can’t go past what I experienced in Magna Graecia. Speaking to people whose dialect of Greek I could barely understand, they in turn could barely understand me. These people were in the heart of a remote mountain, over 2,700 years of Hellenic history.
NK: Any funny stories you would like to share?
BC: There are plenty that come to mind. I was in Beirut, being driven around by the Greek youth. We had just been out to a Lebanese restaurant and I lamented that I didn’t get the chance to dance Greek in Lebanon. They stopped the car, everyone stepped out … someone played Greek music and we danced in the middle of the road. It’s rude to say no to peculiar cultural habits in the Middle East, and a passerby joined in.
Another time in the Ukraine I was slightly annoyed that I had missed the chance to see the Greek museum as it was closed. A friend made a phone call – it was a Sunday. Within an hour we had driven to the Greek museum and the curator came to greet us on her day off … she was wearing the Greek costume of the local Hellenes. Her greeting was not “ti kanete”, it was in local Greek prose. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be granted a visit and a personal recital of Greek poetry.
NK: Any parting thoughts for readers?
BC: The Many Faces of Hellenic Culture is a collection of tales from my own experiences to magical locations from across the globe that even the history books have forgotten. What the people of these communities have achieved seems to defy logic: Hellenic culture surviving against a background of a dwindling diaspora and usually the absence of government assistance; the Hellenic language enduring despite native speakers being a rarity in these regions. These are just a couple of notable examples of this magic. Read the work I have produced and I’m sure you will discover more magical moments that these communities can provide.
NK: What’s next for you?
BC: I am working on book two, and then another book in 2017 which is not connected to Greek themes. This month we premiere a short film we did with Over the Hill Productions. It’s called Bromance: Zorba gets a Girlfriend. A documentary on Lesbos is due in April and then in June I will be in Ethiopia to research the Greek community there.