Our cheeks were still wet from the tears of emotion we shed when the ‘Evzones’ of the Greek Presidential Guard visited Australia, and tears started rolling down again, as the Greek language was heard in the House of Representatives: “Θα ήθελα να σας καλωσορίσω εδώ σήμερα. Η Ελληνική διασπορά είναι πόλη σημαντική εδώ στην Αυστραλία (I would like to warmly welcome you here today. The Greek Diaspora is very important here in Australia)”, Ms Julia Banks, Liberal MP for Chisolm said, greeting the Greek Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Terens Quick, the Greek Ambassador, Ekaterini Xagorari and the other members of the delegation.
The media release, issued by Ms Banks, assures us that this was the first time foreign dignitaries have been welcomed in the Greek language to the House of Representatives during Question Time, and there is no reason to doubt that. The media release also uses the word ‘πόλη’ (city), instead of ‘πολύ'(very), but such mistakes don’t matter. Ms Banks never claimed to speak perfect Greek. In fact, it was her broken Greek, with the Australian accent, that made her awkward attempt even more emotional, even more moving. Responding to this, the Greek Foreign Minister brought his right hand over his heart, in a gesture of respect and recognition. Proud times.
It was a perfectly orchestrated and choreographed performance, one that included the mandatory photo-op with Australia’s social-media-savvy Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, who tweeted meeting Mr Quick and “discussing close people to people links & diaspora community’s strong contribution to Australia”, adding her beloved emojis: the Australian and Greek flag together. A short time later, she moved on to post the flag of Morocco, as her busy schedule involved a meeting with the country’s Ambassador. Her brief part of the show was over. The Greek Deputy FM was free to continue his visit, meet with Greek-Australian MPs and exchange the same words of acknowledgement of the importance of the Diaspora as either a great contributor to the Australian community, or a source of pride for the Motherland or both.
All this is true of course, but this is not the point. The point is that, in the context of an official visit, these are words that, the more they are repeated, the more devoid they become of meaning.
This is nobody’s fault. The protocol of official visits is a playbook for this kind of symbolic, graceful but meaningless words and gestures, leaving room for shameless sentimentality, for Evzones shedding tears of national pride for the Diaspora, the sacred ark of Hellenism, in front of people dancing traditional dances.
It’s in this context that people become symbols, regardless of whether it’s Terens Quick and Julia Banks or Yiannis Kotsiras and Paola, or a soldier from the Presidential Guard, they become ambassadors of the awkward relationship between the Motherland and the Diaspora, one burdened with all the challenges and failings of a long-distance love affair.
This does not, of course, reflect the reality of the people of the respective communities. Greek-Australians, as individuals, have very different experiences; they learn Greek, they speak with their heavy Aussie accent, they sing, they listen to Greek songs, they Skype with their friends and relatives, they visit, they do business; it’s a living, real relationship.
But when this relationship gets to be represented in an official level, it does so in an awkward, perplexed way; people clad in traditional costumes, dancing and singing centuries-old songs, in a gesture of acknowledgement and gratitude. And forgiveness.
Whenever there is an official visit, there is a big question hanging in the air: “what do they want from us”? When it comes to Greece and the Greek-Australian community, this is a question flavoured with the bitter sentiment of empty promises and betrayal, of decades of rhetoric. Especially now, that Greece is a failed country, dealing with bankruptcy and default, suspicion prevails. “What do they want from us”?
In order to avoid the question, we resort to singing, to dancing, to cooking, to greeting in broken Greek, to putting our right hands over our hearts, to shedding a tear for the diaspora.
Could it be otherwise? A couple of years ago, Greens Senator Scott Ludlam made a motion calling for Australia to come to the aid of Greece, supporting its campaign for debt relief within the international organisations both countries are part of. It fell on the ground. Australia didn’t act on it; Greece didn’t act on it. The motion became another expression of well-meaning, but meaningless rhetoric, an act of courtesy, a symbolic gesture.
Meantime, Greece lost momentum – and credibility. Now it’s all business as usual. The country recently welcomed the arrival of St. Helen’s relics, devout church-goers flocking to pay their respects. Let’s hope that we don’t have this kind of ‘official’ visits in the future here.