‘Are you Greek now?’ people ask me all too often.
To them it’s a fair question: after all, I’ve been living in a Peloponnesian village for nearly twenty-five years. But sometimes my OXI answer features exclamation marks in triplicate, especially on those occasions when I seem to hear my dead mother singing the lines she taught my three sons: Is he an Aussie? Is he? Was he? Is he an Aussie, is he, eh? I’ll never be Greek, and I’ll always be Australian, and I confess to being guilty of having a them/us mentality very frequently.
Apart from the obvious one of chronic homesickness, there are numerous reasons for this. Descended from British pioneering stock, I am used to inventing the day, and therefore continue to make a poor adjustment to peasant prescriptions like no knitting, no gardening, no eating olive oil today because tomorrow is the Feast Day of the Exaltation of the Honourable and Life-Giving Cross. Raised in the bosom of Nonconformity, with its emphasis on individual responsibility and conscience, I cannot regard ritual sacrifice and observance as either escape or insurance.
Other divisions involve levels of education, that slippery concept of class, and the fact that I lived in New World cities for nearly 30 years, not an antique Mediterranean village. And because of the great crack and fissure of British migration to Australia in the nineteenth century, I do not have the continuity of race memories and attachment to the land that Europeans have.
What I do have is cross-cultural sons. My eldest lives in Melbourne, and was naturally among the 20,000 blue and white painted people who crowded Lonsdale Street in June, when Greece won the Euro 2004 soccer competition. My second son is a Sergeant Major in the Greek Special Forces, and is stationed in Germany. There he speaks his strongly accented Australian English every day, but says good morning in six languages. My youngest son, aged 22, wears aboriginal flag T-shirts on a university campus in Kozani, Greek Macedonia.
This fortunate trio does not think in terms of them/us, but favours a subjective us/us view instead. They enjoy their pendulum swings between cultures. Me, I have to make do with bilingual dreams.
My very Aussie father used to be pretty liberal in his views, and welcomed both his Greek and Australian sons-in-law with open arms. But five years ago, when he was nearing 80, some conservative rot set in. He started to mourn a time when things seemed simple, when immigration was usually European and something he felt he could understand. ‘A whole way of life is passing away,’ he moaned.
‘But surely a more interesting one is replacing it?’ I suggested, forbearing to remind him of the vanishing of a culture much older than our own. ‘Why can’t you be proud that Australia has given so many people so many opportunities?’ He was neither impressed nor persuaded.
Since Dad and I had our cul de sac conversation five years ago, the world has darkened immeasurably, with desperate people and escalating terror becoming a huge part of the deepening shadow. The combination of cruel regimes, grinding poverty and lack of hope not unnaturally drives people either to take flight or to fight. From this distance, it now appears that the federal government, instead of providing work and a refuge for less fortunate people, merely gives large numbers of would-be immigrants the opportunity to have a concentration camp experience, while helping to exacerbate them/us tension, as it did by willing participation in the invasion of Iraq.
Some people (Are you Greek now?) consider that I lead a complicated life. Well, perhaps I do, but I am rarely bored. And the complications force me to work on them/us thinking, and also give me some hope of understanding people who are ‘different’ in whatever way: the ParaOlympics are on in Athens even as I write.
The more complicated life is, the more it should help us to understand the underlying simplicity of the fact that we are all human; and that unity, rather than division, should be our focus.
To download a copy of the draft Human Rights Act go here
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