Saturday, September 16, 2017

WRITING GREEKS ON OLD SHOES

“Next time you decide to come to my island, I will cut your legs off…” “I wouldn’t spit on her if she was on fire! Σκύλα!» … «H μαλάκω…» These are some of the comments unloaded upon social media by some, judging from the tone of their abuse, rather piqued neohellenes. Reading them, one would plausibly form the opinion that they are directed at some disreputable character, one whose nefarious deeds and purposes have rightfully warranted receiving disapprobation in the most strident of tones.
Except that the recipient of this abuse just happens to be Helen Zahos, the Gold Coast nurse who, moved by the plight of the masses displaced by the various conflicts in the Middle East, travelled to Greece in order to provide those arriving there with assistance. Helen Zahos, a 2016 recipient of the Hellenic Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s prestigious Community Service Award and a nominee for the 2017 International Hellenic Women's Award, also travelled to the Middle East, notably to Iraq, in order to gauge the situation on the ground and gain a full appreciation of the trials and travails associated with war and its ancillary demographic dislocation.
As a people, we generally tend to laud and applaud those who not only accomplish great things, but also are seen to accomplish great things, especially if they are appreciated by others, for this reinforces our own myths about the nature of the “Hellenic Character.” What we often perceive when we look in the mirror, is thus our image, distorted by the lens and conditioned by the prism of self-created stereotype, with a good dose of wishful thinking thrown in. The Greek is thus inventive and ingenious like Odysseus. The Greek is courageous and invincible like Alexander. The Greek is generous, welcoming and compassionate like the Homeric Heroes. And if Facebook is to be believed, the Greek is as gorgeous as Jennifer Aniston and as proud to be Greek as Tom Hanks…
Entire social media pages have sprouted of late, whose sole purpose seems to be to extol the superior attributes of the modern Greek, without criticism or analysis, the emphasis being on instilling “Greek Pride” or a feeling of “One Greece,” as a panacea to all the evils that bedevil or are seen to beleaguer the Greek people. In a bizarre adaption of “The Secret,” all that the postulant to Hellenic greatness has to do, is to believe that Greece and the Greeks are better than everyone else in order to ensure that this is so.
To gain full use out of such pages, it is incumbent upon the postulant to establish their Hellenic credentials not only by mindlessly praising everything that is Greek but also by emphatically denigrating everything that is not. Furthermore, there is no room for any of the banter or persiflage that usually accompanies social media posts here. Instead, a rite of antiphons of heated and uncompromising invective must be performed, akin to the Orwellian “Two Minute Hate,” as practised in “1984,” directed to all of those who, in the guiding minds of the Administrators, are unhellenic or display disturbing unhellenic tendencies. This is because, as everyone knows, Hellenism is under threat. Its enemies, who would destroy it, are omnipresent and they are legion. Of course, the reason for their malevolence, lies in their inability to accept that our superiority is a proprietary right belonging to us alone. Consequently, the extinguishment of our existence is considered a condition precedent for a re-distribution of brilliance. Sundry Uber-hellenic social media page administrators are thus tasked with the high and noble pursuit of safeguarding the race from harm and miscegenation.
Recently on one of the aforementioned pages, the unsuspecting populace at large was subjected to a meme, posted by the Administrator, which read as follows: “Makedonia is Hellas. So Fuck of Slavs!!” Graced by more likes than could be counted, (for it is by these mandated signs of approbation that one affirms their Hellenism), the meme was also accompanied by the following explanatory caption: “I am sick of their lies. I am sick of their propaganda! I am sick of their pseudo and fictitious history! I am sick to death of these maniac brain washed goat herders who are countryless! You are Slavic whether you like it or not, there's no choice........MAKEDONIA IS GREEK AND ALWAYS WILL BE! LEAVE HELLAS ALONE!”
This time around, I intruded upon the mandated two minute hate, commenting: “This is racist and ignorant, even for your standards. I remind you that using the terms “Slavs” refers to the largest Indo-European ethno-linguistic group in Europe, comprised of some 360 million people, including Russians, Ukrainians, Belarussians, Poles, Sorbs, Czechs, Slovakians, Slovenians, Serbs, Montenegrins, Bosnians, Croatians, Rusyns, Lemkos, Bulgarians and of course the Skopjans. And it is with the Skopjians that we have an issue, not anyone else. In fact, Serbs have historically been our allies and we constantly look to Russia for help. So when you whinge about being sick of the falsification of history, learn some facts because it is the clumsy and unintelligent way in which you blunder around trying to articulate an argument that loses us the battle time and time again - a mode of behaviour which, eerily resembles the tactics of the people you so deride.”
The result of my heretical intrusion? Instant excommunication, accompanied by group vitriol from a multitude possessed of surprisingly scant spelling skills but a great deal of herd mentality when it comes to those who question the wisdom (and syntax) of their Administor’s words.
Helen Zahos, on the other hand, being of a considerate and tactful disposition, did not intrude upon anyone’s two minute hate. Her only crime, was to have her philanthropy written about by the Greek City Times. An uber-hellenic administrator of a typical “I’m more Hellene than you,” social media page saw fit, unsolicited, to post the article on their page with the comment, translated from Greek: “Ok, Helen…so you’ve assisted the illegal immigrants. What did you do for the Greeks? Tell us, we are listening. The Greeks, our brothers who have gone hungry for years now. The kids who beg on the streets. Have you gone there in the past six years to help them? We held our family first and then everyone else. This is not philotimo. It’s unfair!” The post concludes grandiloquently: «Γτ τους Έλληνες τους έγραψες στα παλιά σου τα παπούτσια, άχρηστη!»
What followed was the barrage of the aforementioned abuse from sundry uber-Hellenes, including such examples of verbal excrement as these: “Sorry, but I’m not praising this imbecile,…where the Hell was she when our Homeless Greeks passed the worst winter on the streets…” and “Helping your own people doesn’t get you on the news…helping the current fashionable minority does.”
For Helen Zahos, who has courted no publicity and has merely sought to follow her own humanitarian and philanthropic convictions, inadvertent exposure to this base bile has been a harrowing experience especially considering her tireless work in improving the health of those in her ancestral homeland. It is common knowledge that she has devoted a good deal of time both in her village and the local hospital in Katerini, to improving health outcomes. She has assisted the local rescue volunteer group to obtain a defibrillator and facilitated first aid courses in her village. She has also devoted a couple of weeks during one of her holidays at the peak of the financial crisis, to volunteer at a clinic for pensioners and the underprivileged, who could not afford medication or medical treatment.
Unquestionably, Helen Zahos’ work speaks for itself. She has not the need to justify herself or refer to the sterling work she has done for Greeks within Greece in order to legitimize her choice to make an awe-inspiring and selfless contribution to the lives of refugees. There is no need to emphasise, in these dark times of xenophobia and discrimination, the importance of basic human acts to cement our common bond. It is significant however, to point out that none of her keyboard-warrior detractors, ensconced slovenly before their screens, therefrom to dispense bile and slander upon people of initiative and moral integrity, seem to be able to advance even a tenth of Helen Zahos’ curriculum vitae as a means of establishing a basis for which to express themselves in such a vile manner about her choices. Yet this is symptomatic of another of the uber-Hellene’s attributes: Prone to volubly declaring their love for all things Hellenic and abrogating to themselves the right to determine other’s life choices for them, they are markedly absent from community and other cultural or charitable endeavours. Needless to say, none of the detractors in question, appear to have sacrificed any of their time, in order to travel to their beloved homeland in order to assist the people for whom such love they proclaim.
It is trite to mention that in times of crisis, the true measure of a person or nation’s character is revealed. In our own crisis-ridden times, it is the raw polarities of the Hellene that are exposed. At one pole, the nuanced, compassionate, life-affirming, cosmopolitan, inclusive and positive outlook of Helen Zahos, actively assisting Greeks and non-Greeks alike and, literally poles apart, the frigid, seething paranoia of the passively-aggressive incompetent, the bigoted, the hateful and the negative. We ignore either pole at our peril for both subsist within our dialectic. It is only by examining those undesirable accretions to our “character” such that it is, identifying them and divesting ourselves of their pernicious effects that we can aspire to any form of the greatness the smug and the unexamined believe they are already possessed of, online or otherwise. Recording their puerile writings on our old shoes, as the Greek expression literally goes, is perhaps, the most fitting fate for them.
DEAN KALIMNIOU
 
First published in NKEE on Saturday 16 September 2017

Saturday, September 02, 2017

GREEKS CONTRA GREEKS


“When we arrived here, the Greeks who had come here before the war thought that we were the scum of the earth. They laughed at our accents and considered our way of acting and doing things backward. My parents were working on a farm for their cousins. They wouldn’t let us stay with them in the house because we were “filthy Greeks.” I was a baby at the time and my cradle was a wooden milk crate, in one of the sheds.” Greek-Australian who arrived in Australia in 1951.

“When we got here, the young Greeks who had arrived in the fifties looked down at us. They called us wogs and made fun of our clothes and the way we spoke. We thought they were strange. What kind of Greeks were these? They ate differently and spoke differently and they did not have the same sense of obligation towards each other that we had. They were barely Greeks at all.” Greek-Australian who arrived in Australia in 1963.

“The Greeks of Greece are lazy, selfish, ungrateful and untrustworthy. All they do is demand things. They have destroyed Greece and now they are going to destroy Australia.” Elderly Greek-Australian resident of Oakleigh, who arrived here in 1966.

Μπουρτζόβλαχοι trapped in the traditions of their κωλοχωριά in the 1950s. Harbouring a vast hatred towards all Greeks, their idea of being Greek is confined to souvlakia, loukoumades and the tsamiko. If the migration and repatriation of true Greeks continues, they will become an endangered species. They have a chance to learn from the young Greeks and divest themselves of their vlach tendencies. Let them do it to save their children who they have made them in their own sorry image. They blindly hate Greeks without having an understanding of the prevailing conditions in the country.” Newly arrived Greek-Australian, on the already established Greek-Australian migrant community.

 The recent publication of researcher Nikos Golfinopoulos’ report on newly arrived Greek migrants in Melbourne, based on research he conducted in this city in 2014 contains findings that should come as no surprise. According to him, newly arrived Greeks report that they are exploited by the Greek-Australian businesses they work in. Furthermore, the same newly arrived Greek report that on the whole, there exists within the Greek community in Melbourne a deeply seated prejudice against new arrivals, who are widely considered to be subversive, lazy, ungrateful and untrustworthy. Of course, Nikos Golfinopoulos’ findings would benefit from a comparative study of those prejudices in order to ascertain the reason for their existence. Interviewing Greek-Australian business owners who have experienced difficulties with newly arrived migrants they have employed, consulting with elderly couples who provided rooms in their homes to newly arrived boarders only to see them trashed and of course, recording the various disparaging comments made by newly arrived migrants about the cultural level of the already established Greek community, in which the quality of its Hellenism is called into question, would assist in a holistic appreciation of this historical phenomenon.

 While it is important to point out that while prejudices do exist, the vast majority of older and newer migrants care for and enjoy each other’s esteem. However, a proper understanding of the acculturating friction, such that it is, between the older and newer Greek migrants of Australia must be placed in its historic context for there is precedent for such friction in our past. A cursory examination of that past suggests that successive waves of Greek migrants have always been looked down upon by those of previous migration generations. Hugh Gilchrist and other historians have written extensively on how the Greek restauranteurs of the early 1900s would often employ illegal Greek immigrants from their homeland, pay them a pittance and house them in parlous conditions, threatening to expose their illegal status if met with resistance. Compounding their plight was the knowledge that in the prevailing labour market, their ability to obtain a job elsewhere, based on race as it was, was next to impossible. Furthermore, earlier migrants tended to assist only those new migrants who came from their specific place of origin, for whom a sense of obligation was felt that did not extend to migrants from other parts of Greece. As those earlier migrants became more integrated within Australian society, anecdotal evidence suggests they also began to view the successive waves of migrants of the thirties and fifties disparagingly. They, in turn, viewed the older generations snobbery, and propensity to attend debutante balls, with contempt. The more politically aware among them, also viewed their predecessors injunctions to be subservient and accept their inferior place within Australian society without agitating for change, also with contempt, which is why multiculturalism exists today.

 In 1957, the inexplicably forgotten but incredibly important polyglot author Yiannis Lillis published an article entitled Self-Defence or Self-Abnegation? in the London journal «Κρίκος.» In it, Lillis, who arrived in Australia from Albania in 1948, made unique and thought-provoking observations about the differences in the pre-war and post-war Greek migrants, linking these to class conflict, globalisation and the latest political currents of thought, which are refreshingly relevant to our own times:

“The new migrants, without being superior to the old ones in general, display the attributes of modernisation, the consequence of the last social fermentation, the rise of the masses in almost all of Europe. Superficial gold-plating, with a mimetic thirst for cosmopolitanism. The majority has no greater intellectual depth than that provided by a knowledge of the latest world events [an understanding of the broader world as a result of the World War], and sporadic class conflicts.
The new migrants are from the same homeland. They are the offspring, siblings, distant relatives of our predecessors. But in terms of values, spiritually, they have little affinity. The former are the children of the 1900’s era of strict morality, the sons of complete adherence tradition that derives directly from the patriarchal principles of renascent Greece.

 The latter is the fruit of our age of speed, the generation that emerged from the smoke and the ruins with the incontinent thirst of life created by deprivation and the sense of ash. It emerges forcefully, breaking the rusty shackles of the past and the legacy of the terrible war and a horrific occupation. Thus, the horizons of this generation have become broadened unimaginably, regardless as to whether or not it is still opaque, and not yet accompanied by any real spiritual or intellectual insight. There world view is built upon a foundation of Greek tradition that is more flexible and more modern than that of the previous generations. Will this second stream of migrants encounter the same ethical difficulties in orientation as the first one? Does it have a better capacity to ground itself?”

Lillis’ astute questions can be answered not only by the collective experience of the post war generation, the community which it created in its image and the manner of its inevitable unravelling but also in the way in which it sees itself in connection to the new wave of Greek migrants that either enters its ranks or stands outside them. A resort to history and an analysis such as that postulated by Lillis can also possibly permit the current new wave of Greek migrants to predict and plot its own fate vis a vis any further wave of Greek migrants that might arrive in the future.

 Any ill treatment of newly arrived migrants by established older migrants (again they ae a minority) has much to do with their own vexed relationship with Greece: One the one hand, they love Greece and have an idealised view of it based on their childhood and an internalised understanding of what Greece should look like to mainstream Australia, which in their opinion new migrants do not represent, and on the other hand, they constantly need reassurance that they made the right decision in coming here. The newly arrived migrant, coming from crisis ridden Greece, provides that reassurance. Then, one must consider the simple proposition that exploitation, greed and the fact that some Greeks by nature, harbour xenophobic tendencies towards other Greeks, the treatment of Asia Minor refugees by many mainland Greeks in 1922 being a case in point, forms a part of our identity. In this regard, Nikos Golfinopoulos also points to similar phenomena within the Italian-Australian and other ethnic communities.

 On the same token, the phenomenon of some newly arrived Greeks considering the established Greeks as quaint, backward, greedy and of questionable authenticity, is also nothing new and, when viewed within the context of historical precedent is to be expected, something that any researcher must take pains to comprehend.  

 Unfortunately, because we appear not to have established firm traditions of our own in this land as a community, despite our hundred year sojourn herein, we have no consciousness of a collective history. As a result, we are unaware of those incidences of our Australian past that would assist us to understand or interpret the social tendencies of our community beyond the living memory of our parents. As an ahistorical community, one that is not able to articulate a native Greek-Australian perspective without a constant cultural cringe of reference back to a homeland who in culture and ethos has markedly diverged from our collective own, we thus lack an obvious framework from which to understand our evolution or rather, revolution, for it is through the comparison of our early pre-war social history with our current reality that the Sisyphean nature of our communal existence becomes apparent. The repercussions assume dimensions far greater and more important than any perceived friction between both blinkered sets of migratory generations, suggesting that lived experience and geography is more determinative of identity than we care to admit.
 
DEAN KALIMNIOU
 
First published in NKEE on Saturday 2 September 2017

Saturday, August 26, 2017

BREAKING THE SEAL

Recent debate over whether Parliament should legislate to ensure mandatory reporting for crimes such as child abuse revealed to priests during confession has centered around the two main Christian sects in this country: the Catholic and Anglican Church. Nonetheless, the perspective of the Orthodox Church, the second largest Christian denomination in the world and arguably the most venerable, has of yet, not achieved any prominence in the public discourse.

 The debate has its origins in the revelations of terrible abuses transpiring primarily within the Catholic Church, the implication being that 1. abusers, mainly priests, could obtain ‘forgiveness’ by confessing their crimes, 2. They could do so with impunity, knowing that their confessor could not reveal their confession to anyone, 3. As a result, having been ‘absolved’ of their crimes spiritually, they feel free to commit the same crime again, knowing they will once more receive ‘absolution.’
 
Such a view of confession, where one merely needs to confess their sins in order to obtain absolution of them, a type of “automatic forgiveness” is alien to the thinking of the Orthodox Church, whose main perspective is that of God’s love for Humanity and in which forgiveness is a process that has to be worked through. In the rite of confession, emphasis is therefore placed upon the need for the penitent to make a full and frank accounting of their transgressions. It is then incumbent upon the confessor-priest to work with the penitent to make them understand why the acts they have confessed to are wrong, and ensure that the penitent truly repents those actions and if necessary, work with the penitent to ensure those actions are not repeated again. In those cases, the priest calls upon God to confer absolution stating: “May God Who pardoned David through Nathan the Prophet when he confessed his sins, Peter who wept bitterly for his denial, the Harlot weeping at His feet, the Publican and the Prodigal; May our same Merciful God forgive you all things, through me a sinner, both in this world and in the world to come, and set you uncondemned before His terrible Judgment Seat.”

Central to the rite of confession is its secrecy. Only the priest can be a witness of the confession before God. The reason for this is that in the Orthodox tradition, it is held that one cannot expect a sincere and complete confession if the penitent has doubts regarding the practice of confidentiality. Consequently, betrayal of the secrecy of confession will lead to canonical punishment of the priest. Thus, the Byzantine Nomocanon states, in Canon 120:
"A spiritual father, if he reveals to anyone a sin of one who had confessed receives a penance: he shall be suspended [from serving] for three years, being able to receive Communion only once a month, and must do 100 prostrations every day."

In like manner, Saint John Climacus views confession as an inviolable communication between man and God: "At no time do we find God revealing the sins which have been confessed to Him, lest by making these public knowledge, He should impede those who would confess and so make them incurably sick."

Saint Nicodemus the Hagiorite also exhorts the Spiritual Father to keep confessions confidential, stating:
"Nothing else remains after confession, Spiritual Father, except to keep the sins you hear a secret, and to never reveal them, either by word, or by letter, or by a bodily gesture, or by any other sign, even if you are in danger of death, for that which the wise Sirach says applies to you: "Have you heard a word? Let it die with you" meaning, if you heard a secret word, let the word also die along with you, and do not tell it to either a friend of yours or an enemy of yours, for as long as you live.”
The emphasis here is on providing a confidential environment wherein a transgressor can be healed and rehabilitated spiritually, a process that can be compromised if their crimes are made public knowledge and subject to the judgment of the populace at large, especially when they don’t have a stake in the trangressor’s rehabilitation.

Yet what if, for argument’s sake, a person confesses to their priest, that they are abusing children? Can an Orthodox priest break the seal of confession in order to report them to the authorities, thus protecting the children in question from further harm? Some Orthodox priests in Australia, noting how few of their parishioners participate in the rite of confession, feel that this eventuality is so remote as to render the question purely academic, yet are concerned at the implications of any legislation, causing conflict with the canons of the Church.

Father George Morelli, an Orthodox priest in America who has written widely on the subject of confession recognizes the difficult position mandatory reporting places on priests. He states: “The priest must act out of love and the purity and clarity of his heart, for both the victim or potential victim and the abuser. If the abuser comes to the priest, the priest must attempt to convince the abuser to accept the fact that they have as serious problem and must seek the help that is needed. This may involve emergency hospitalization or perhaps incarceration.”Regardless of this, the common consensus is that the contents of a confession cannot be revealed. In this circumstance, Orthodox priests, are still under a duty to protect victims from harm in any way they can and this gives rise to complexities and ambiguities in the manner in which the inviolability of confession is balanced with the duty to protect others from such harm.

Some priests try to skirt the issue by discerning what the transgressor is about to confess and informing the alleged abuser that they cannot hear their confession at that time. The ensuing discussion would therefore not be a confession and thus not under the seal.

Father George Morelli comments: “If someone slipped by my "intuitive anticipation" and disclosed abuse in Holy Confession, I would withhold absolution and tell the person they are "without absolution" until they report the abuse to the authorities. As a follow up, since the Seal of Confession still holds, I would try and contact the abused and, without violating the confession, do all I can do to protect and guide him to safety.”

This of course gives rise to further difficulties of nuance. How much and what information provided to the abused and/or their parents is substantive enough to protect them from harm and yet still does not constitute a violation of the seal of confession? Is it enough to intimate a belief that they are in danger of being abused, without revealing the identity of the abuser? If through the provision of vague information, the person who the priest contacts is able to logically deduce the identity of the abuser, is this a violation of the seal of confession? These questions are all moot at Canon Law. Furthermore, what if all the priest’s efforts are ineffective at protecting the victim from harm? Additionally, what happens in a person confesses to a crime of abuse and then returns to confess of a repeat of the crime, again and again?

Ultimately, Father George Morelli views a priest’s close relationship with his parishioners as paramount in being able to discern problems of this nature, prior to confession:
“If abuse is anticipated, it is actually easier for a priest-licensed mental health practitioner to treat because the disclosure rules can be cited up front before a "session" or a communication begins. I want to be perfectly clear however, that once Holy Confession has begun, no law…can contravene the Seal -even to the imprisonment or death of the priest.”

Some Orthodox priests, concerned that strict adherence to the Canons fails to protect the vulnerable, have argued around the issue by stating that the imposition of a penance is an intrinsic part of the rite of Confession. Consequently, if an abuser confesses his abuse, the priest imposes upon him as penance, the obligation to go to the authorities and turn himself in. If he does not do so, then the rite of Confession has not been fully performed and therefore the Seal does not hold, allowing the priest to report him to the authorities. From a canonical point of view, though motivated by the best intentions, this approach is problematic, because it scholastically pre-supposes that the penitent’s completion of the act of penance completes the rite. Instead, in the Orthodox tradition the completion of penance, though of intrinsic importance to the healing of the sinner, is left up to his own conscience and does not invalidate the rite which gave rise to it.

An articulation of the Orthodox perspective on confession and the difficulties Orthodox priests face in reconciling any mandatory reporting laws with Church Canons is of vital importance if legislators are to assess the effectiveness of the implementation of such laws across the board and will assist in the drafting of laws that will not only respect millennia old religious rites but also will, in collaboration with the churches that hold to the seal of confession, develop sound strategies for the protection of victims of child abuse. In this public process, the voice of the Orthodox and other churches, must be heard and seriously considered.

"Acquire the spirit of peace in the heart and a thousand souls will be saved around you," wrote St. Seraphim of Sarov. A Church that through the rite of confession, aspires to bring peace to the abuser and abused, allowing both, through love and in the case of the perpetrator, self-examination, to be healed, offers such a process of reconciliation and rehabilitation that is often beyond the punitive organs of the state. Nonetheless, in addressing the important issue of mandatory reporting, such a perspective must be reconciled with the importance of protecting the most vulnerable members of our society, from harm.

DEAN KALIMNIOU
First published in NKEE on Saturday 26 August 2017

Saturday, August 19, 2017

TRAMSPOTTING

My most favoured pastime, during the years I took the tram into university, was playing ‘Spot the Greek.’ This was a game of my own invention, whose sole aim was to identify which of my fellow passengers was Greek. Spiky haired, sideburns Greek, who would rush into the tram sporting a harried, perpetually persecuted visage, was an easy guess, simply because after ten minutes, he would invariably receive a telephone call from a woman with a high pitched voice. Her end of the conversation was garbled, but his responses, delivered at the top of his voice, resonated throughout the carriage:
“Yes, mum.”
“Alright mum.”
“Mum, alright, είπα.”
“I will mum.”
“Mum, I’ve got my μπλούζα.”
“I’m not going to κρυώσει.”
“Seriously mum.”
Upon the conclusion of this discourse, he would roll his eyes, reach into his backpack, remove from within it what appeared to be an impossibly long, lovingly hand-knitted jumper and proceed to wear it, all the while exclaiming “Mothers!” as he tried, unsuccessfully, to tuck its various folds above his pant-line.
I applied the sobriquet “Greek ferret” to Spiky haired, sideburns Greek, because his bizarre daily conversations with his mother (“no mum, I’m not going to χύσει the φασολάδα,” “no mum, I’ve got the κουτάλι in my τσέπη, wrapped”) – which I am convinced was actually code for a high-level international arms deal) elicited barely concealed smirks from other passengers that I had marked tentatively as Greek but was unsure, until their mirth betrayed them.
The Greek ferret was thus the reason for me being able to ascertain the Hellenic provenance of Bouffant hair man, whose uncanny resemblance to Robert De Niro threw me off for a few months. Bouffant hair man has been a constant presence in my life, though I have never exchanged words with him. I have witnessed him, as a single man: studiously attend to the grooming of the vegetation of his ample nostrils, on days when the tram seemed barely able to drag itself into the city and then as an attached man, being chased by the clearly excited object of his affection on to the tram, and observed his profile as he exchanged long, lingering glances with her waiting at the stop, as the tram slowly but dramatically, pulled away, film-noir style, causing all the ladies in the carriage to sigh. I see him around my local area still, his hair as bouffant and luxurious as it ever was that many decades ago, whereas mine has paled and wasted away, with usually a child or two in tow. I offer him the smile that only veterans who have traversed the weary road of life in tandem can give one another but I am met with a look of chilled steel indifference. I am convinced he thinks I am weird. I am also convinced his ancestors derive from Peloponnesus.
Though the Greek ferret was good, he was not an infallible method for catching all Greeks. Take Greek Amazon woman, for instance. Impossibly tall and svelte, impeccably dressed in non-ethnic specific clothes and possessed of hair so long, black and lustrous that it rendered the verses of the Song of Songs: “Your hair is like flock of goats bounding down Mount Gilead” completely redundant, her ethnic provenance remained an enigma for many months. It was her eyes, which were of a speckled grey hue that caused confusion. Though there is, as I considered at the time, historic precedent for grey-eyed Greeks, after all, my grandmother was one, as was the goddess Athena, these were the serene, self-confident, at complete ease and peace with the world eyes of a confident beautiful woman, and they betrayed none of the inner turmoil of the stereotypical Greek. As a result, I remained irresolute in my judgment until I determined that something about her mouth was slightly over-proportioned, this causing me to adjudicate in favour of a Greek derivation.
In this case my judgment was tested in the final court of appeal for ‘Spot the Greek’ – Good Friday in my local Orthodox church, when invariably all my hard cases could be identified out the front, holding candles and looking for their relatives. Sure enough, there she was, Grey-eyed GreekAmazon woman, to the left of the Epitaphios, immaculately dressed in dolorous shades, gazing serenely at the crowd milling around her, her eyebrows creasing not once into a frown as her personage was buffeted by the frantic peregrinations of the shorter parishioners.
Our eyes met and her slightly over-proportioned mouth widened into a beaming smile. Walking towards me she asked with manifest delight:
“Hey are you Greek?”
“Evidently.”
“Ha! You’re the guy from the tram yeah?”
“I am he.”
“I’ve been wondering whether you are Greek or not for months now.”
“Seriously?”
“Yeah, I play this game where I look at everyone on the tram and try to guess whether they are Greek or not.”
“No way, so do I! I’ve been wondering whether you are Greek for months as well. I am pleased that I got it right.”
“Well actually, I’m Italian. I’m married to a Greek.”
“Bugger.”
“For what? The fact I’m Italian, or the fact I’m married to a Greek?”……
We forged a tacit agreement then and there that we would continue to play our game, having devised an intricate point scoring arrangement. Some of our targets were dead easy. Consider the hirsute (a decade before the invention of the hipster) Ελληνάρες, who in the company of a girl self-identifying as Παρθένα, (pronounced Par-theyna) and wearing probably the last “Greeks do it better” t-shirt before they became extinct, strode onto the tram on our evening commute, singing: «Ο αετός πεθαίνει στον αέρα,» their arms outstretched as they executed faux zeimbekiko moves. I wanted to take them by the hand and point them in the general direction of Oakleigh, for they seemed lost, but this was against the rules of the game. Instead, I looked on, as Partheyna attached herself to the powerful forearm of hirsute Greek No 1.
“Oh my Gowd Γιάννη,” she gurgled, exaggerating every single syllable in staccato fashion, “your μπράτσα are huuuge ρε.”
“It’s not the size of the μπράτσο, it’s how you κουνήσει it Partheyna,” hirsute Greek No 2, riposted.
“Oh my Gowd that’s like so funny,” Partheyna guffawed. “But that’s π…τσο, not μπράτσο isn’t it?”
An orgy of mutual groping, thinly disguised as friendly wrestling ensued.
Some cases were not so obvious. Take chatty Aussie tram lady for example. Possessed of mousy blonde hair, blue eyes and freckles, she would be constantly on the phone, throughout the duration of her tram ride, punctuating her discourse with Australian diminutives and expressions of affection such as “darl” and “girlie.” Something about her fell within my radar however, and for a few weeks I scanned her speech of evidence of an unaspirated t, or a voiceless alveolar retracted sibilant s, for sure signs of a suppressed Greekness. Having identified none of these, I resigned myself to scoring zero points, when, totally unexpectedly, I chanced upon her at a function organized by the brotherhood whence I derive my paternal ancestry.
“Oh, no way!” she chortled.
“I could say the same thing about you,” I responded.
“I’ve been wondering whether you’re Greek for ages, and here you are. And not only are you Greek but also from the same place as I,” she laughed.
“What can I say, we come in all shapes and sizes. If I hadn’t seen you here, I would never have guessed you were a Greek though.”
“Yeah, I had a hard time picking you out too. You don’t really look the type. But I figured it out in the end.”
“So what gave me away?” I had to ask.
“Two things. Firstly, every time you sit down, you let out a long sigh like this: «ουυυυφ». Then when you get up to leave, you make another sound «ωωωωωωχ». That was my first clue. But the second clue was the real giveaway.”
“Do tell…”
“Well do you remember, it would have been last year, when you were busted by the inspector for not validating your ticket? As he walked away, you whispered under your breath: «Τη φάρα σου…» It was almost inaudible, but I was sitting behind you. And that’s how I knew.”
I rode a tram into town for the first time in many years a few weeks ago. Lost in a reverie of games once played, I barely noticed someone tugging on my arm.
«Συγγνώμη, Έλληνας είστε; Μήπως ξέρετε σε ποια στάσάση να κατέβω για το νοσοκομείο;» a young woman asked. Based on the clothes she was wearing, and of course the fact she was speaking in Greek without prefacing each word by “um” which is a unique Greek Australian identifier, I formed the impression she was a recent arrival to these shores.
«Πώς με καταλάβατε;» I asked, enthralled at how quickly my game had manifestly been adopted among the newly arrived migrant classes. In that split second, my thoughts turned to international play-offs, syndicates and global trophies.
«Μα από τον Νέο Κόσμο που κρατάτε στα χέρια σας. Δεν ήθελε και πολύ σκέψη,» came the simple reply.
Game, Set, Match.

DEAN KALIMNIOU
kalymnios@hotmail.com
First published in NKEE on 19 August 2017

Saturday, August 12, 2017

SPLASH!

“What are you doing with that hose?” I asked. “It has just rained. There is no need to water anything.”
I should have known then that something was wrong. By way of response, my wife turned to look at me, eyebrows raised. At that moment, time dragged itself to a halt. As if caught within a hiccupping freeze frame, I observed her, in increasing horror, frame by terrible frame, turn inexorably towards me and point the garden hose in my direction.
For reasons that I confess I do not comprehend, I am not a fan of water at the best of times. Heraclitus may have opined that “water makes the soul go moist” believing that it is death to fire to become water, considering that souls are made out of fire - in common with the λόγος, which is why we are all here in the first place. I, on the other hand, having been assured by means of my triple immersion in water, of the immortality of my own soul regardless of prevailing weather conditions, merely do not enjoy the sensation of being wet, which is not only why I howled in indignation at my baptism, but also consider the wet trauma of that event to be my earliest memory, dripping down my consciousness ever since.
Seconds later, the torrent reached me, penetrating every weave in my clothes and discharging its wetness upon me. It was the middle of Winter and it was inordinately cold. In rage at my saturated violation, I strode forth, whipped the garden hose out of my laughing wife’s hands and proceeded to douse her vigorously. Yet she met my aqueous assault with continued laughter, once more assuming custody of the hose and subjecting me to saturation again.
“What’s wrong with you?” she asked suddenly, as she perceived my face turning a shade of porphyry that would have been considered lèse-majesté in polite Byzantine society: “Don’t you guys celebrate Nusardel? I thought you did.”
I responded with the growl of a deranged Greek water sprite that has been disturbed in its slumber by yet another Hollywood portrayal of Greek mythological characters as leather-clad Vikings. But then again, as Bob Marley opined, prior to his conversion to Ethiopian Orthodoxy: "Some people feel the rain, others just get wet."
Around about the month of July, the Assyrian people celebrate Nusardel, a water festival. During this time, it pleases them to walk around the neighbourhoods of their natural habitat, bearing buckets and splashing each other with water. In other urban areas, family picnics are organised so that the like-minded may congregate and drench each other to their hearts’ content. Religious sources ascribe the practice of Nusardel to an event in the life of the Apostle Thomas, who, it is said, passed through Urmiya, an important homeland of the Assyrian people in Iran, on his way to India. Such was the power of Christianity in that town that many came to be baptized by the Apostle, who performed the rite by splashing water on the crowd and spawning as a result, an exponential number of re-enactments.
Nusardel occurs on the seventh Sunday after Ascension, so that it falls, depending on when Easter falls, generally in midsummer in the Northern Hemisphere. Scholars tend to agree that it is a ritual that in pre-Christian times, must have been connected with the summer solstice, perhaps linked to the concept of the resurrection of plants and trees by the ancient Assyrian god of the underworld, Tammuz or Dumuzi, who sprinkles water on sown fields and gardens to hasten their growth. As such, the Assyrian kings of antiquity would traditionally sprinkle holy water on people and crops during the hot summer months as a blessing. 
Also around about the same time, the Armenian people celebrate Vardavar, a water festival, where they too go around splashing each other, celebrating the transfiguration of Jesus Christ. The festival is generally celebrated 14 weeks after Easter, so that it too, like its Armenian counterpart falls in the Northern Hemisphere’s midsummer.
The festival of Vardavar also dates back to pagan times. It is traditionally associated with the goddess Astghik, who was for the ancient Armenians, the goddess of water, beauty, love and fertility. The festivities associated with this religious observance of Astghik were named “Vartavar” because Armenians offered her roses as a celebration and in Armenian, “vart” means "rose" and var means "rise." While we, situated in the West consider a sunrise romantic, nothing can be more calculated to make one swoon that a rose-rise, coupled with a ritual drenching. In this, the Armenians truly can be said to be the architects of fecundity.
Armenian organized and collective splashing assumes means more technologically advanced than their Assyrian brethren. In California, where large expatriate communities of them thrive, it is not unknown for the more enterprising among them to hire fire trucks and turn their hoses upon a gleeful populace, in celebration of Vardavar. It is at times like these, that even though the theory is that Armenians are our closest linguistic relatives, that I am not counted among them.
Sadly, and as valiantly as I tried, I could not justify my paroxysm of fury, on the basis of being violated by precedents unknown. For as it turns out, our own people do not exist independently of water sprinkling proclivities. Thus, I was incensed to learn that traditionally in Kastellorizo, and on the Asia Minor coast of Lycia prior to 1922, in preparation for the feast of St Elias (20 July so largely contemporaneous with the Armenian and Assyrian water festivals), a protracted amount of reciprocal drenching would take place. For days before St Elias' feast, local children would roam the streets, dragging each other into the sea, or drenching each other with buckets while yelling: «Τ᾽άϊ Λιά!» Scholars speculate that the custom, known in modern Greek as «μπουγέλωμα,» enacted on Kastellorizo even now, is a remnant of a pagan rain-making ritual, considering that Saint Elias, at least in the popular consciousness, was widely held to have power over rain.
The knowledge that our aquatic customs are equally enshrined in hallowed antiquity, in my spouse’s casuistic argument, (for whom Nusardel is a reminder of better, kinder, more peaceful times before she was forced to leave her homeland) precludes me from exhibiting any symptoms of apoplexy. At the root of all these festivals are pagan rain-making or fertility rituals and it is amazing that they are celebrated, with differing justifications, at roughly the same time by the three native cultures of Anatolia. Nonetheless, as I towel off and attend to making myself a garlic tea, for my inadvertent participation in Nusardel and «του Άϊ λιος» has resulted in a rather severe case of the flu, I marvel at how tied to place and time many of our customs are, and how disjointed and strange they appear when removed from their original context and aped in the Antipodes. Just as we can never hope to truly appreciate the aesthetics of the resurrection of nature accompanying the resurrection of Christ, unless we spend a springtime Easter in Greece, or relish in the carnality of a Spring Mardi Gras, amidst the lushness of an awakening landscape, at a time when our own is darkening and becoming ever more frigid, the idea of drenching each other in the middle of Winter, when rain is plentiful, and water translates to pain, is inexplicable as it is untenable. And herein, lies the paradox, of our Antipodean existence.

DEAN KALIMNIOU
kalymnios@hotmail.com
First published in NKEE on Saturday 12 August 2017

Saturday, August 05, 2017

ETERNAL SUBVERSIVES

“So, if there was a war between Greece and Australia, who would you fight for?” my freckled classmate asked.
“No one,” I responded.
“Come on, you would have to fight for someone. Who would you fight for?” he pressed.
“No one. I am against war. I would refuse to fight on the grounds that I am a pacifist,” I qualified.
“Well,” my grade six teacher cut in, “who would you support?”
“What do you mean by support?” I asked.
“Well, who you barrack for?” my grade school teacher enquired.
“It depends,” I answered.
“On what?” my freckled classmate questioned.
“On who is right,” I rejoined.
“So you wouldn’t fight for Greece?” my teacher took over.
“No.”
“You wouldn’t support Greece?” he continued.
“Depends on the situation.”
“Say if Greece invaded Australia?”
“Is that even possible?” I asked.
“Well just say it happened. Would you support Greece.”
“No.”
“What if Australia invaded Greece. Would you support Australia?” my freckled friend continued the cross-examination.
“No, because then Australia would be an aggressor,” I replied.
“Garbage. You need to choose one. Who do you support. Greece or Australia?” my friend spat exasperatedly.
“Both.”
“You’re just a poustamalaka,” he retorted, walking away. It’s either one or the other. And we all know who you really support.”
My teacher stifled a snigger.
 
Rendered breathless by the artful playground conflation of the Greek terms for homosexual and onanist into a beautiful Australian compound word, it took me a while to process my grade six social studies discussion. When finally each word was distilled, I was puzzled at both my classmates’ and teacher’s insistence that I ‘choose a side,’ albeit supposedly hypothetical, or indeed their assumption that my decision making processes, such as they were in grade six, were determined solely by my ethnic background. The inference was clear, by virtue of that background, I was at least potentially, a subversive element whose loyalty to Australia could be questioned.
 
In their seminal Greek language study, “From Foreigner to Citizen: Greek Migrants and Social Change in White Australia 1897-2000” University Philosophy Lecturer George Vassilacopoulos and Tina Nicolacopoulou postulate that despite the veneer of formal equality characterizing race relations in this country, there lurks within the substratum, a fundamental concept of the ‘perpetual foreigner.’ Whereas Australian law is founded upon respect for proprietary rights and the individual, when it comes to foreigners, these tend to be lumped together as a ‘group’ by those who obtain legitimisation of their rule and presence in this country by conferring upon such foreigners, citizenship and residency rights. Nonetheless, these foreigners are not automatically subsumed into the liberal democratic individualist paradigm. They remain a distinct ‘group,’ which is expected to provide appropriate declarations and exhibitions of loyalty to the ruling culture, or face the fear of being labelled suspect.

Vassilacopoulos and Nicolacopoulou point to various examples of such an attitude being applied to the early pre-Second World War Greek community. They point to Greek newspapers being closely monitored by ASIO, Greek-Australian citizens being compensated as foreign nationals in various race riots and Greeks being interned as politically suspect in camps prior to Greece’s entry into the First World War on the side of the Allies, regardless of their citizenship status. They especially point to the Lord Mayor of Melbourne’s speech at the opening of the first Greek Orthodox Church in Melbourne as exemplifying the official attitude towards ‘foreigners.’. The Lord Mayor in that instance praised the Greek community not for establishing itself under difficult circumstances or retaining their culture but for being among the most hard-working and law-abiding, proving that they are a trustworthy, loyal and obedient ‘group.’

Despite the advent of multiculturalism which attempted to alter the paradigm of Australian society as Anglo-Celtic ruled but tolerant of other foreign groups, to a mosaic or melting pot depending upon various interpretations, the archetypal model seems to have remained the same. Try as they might, ethnic communities have not ever been able to be accepted either in the popular consciousness or the ruling classes as ‘Australian,’ a term, that everywhere outside bureaucrat speak, refers to Anglo-Celts. (Even the native inhabitants of this country don’t seem to qualify as Australians in the public discourse. Increasingly, they are referred to as “First Peoples,” quite possibly so as not to be confused with ‘real Australians’…) Instead, they have been constantly called upon to prove their loyalist credentials at every turn. This phenomenon, Vassilacopoulos and Nicolacopoulou term as the plight of the ‘eternal subversives.’
 
The latest controversy over dual citizenship and/or the entitlement of Australian Federal members of Parliament to the citizenship of another country by virtue of their ethnic origin, something that is currently proscribed by the Constitution of Australia, is a case in point.  Section 44(i) states that “any person who is under any acknowledgement of allegiance, obedience or adherence to a foreign power, or is a subject or a citizen or entitled to the rights or privileges of a subject or a citizen of a foreign power” cannot enter Parliament. Second-generation Australians can be affected: many nations, such as Greece recognise as citizens not just their native-born who migrated to Australia, but potentially, those migrants’ children and grandchildren as well.
 
It is worth mentioning that ethnic community skepticism currently revolves around a belief that the political sphere and the media have only just discovered the relevant clause in the Constitution and have only just determined to enforce it. However, as early as 1992, Swiss-born John Delacretaz, a naturalized Australian since 1960 was ruled by the High Court as ineligible to stand for the Federal Seat of Wills and told he would have to renounce all connection to Switzerland if he wished to stand again. In response, he wrote a letter to the High Court renouncing his Australian citizenship. Similarly, Bill Kardamitsis, who ran for the same seat, was also found ineligible to run, by virtue of his Greek birth. Further, long serving Labor Federal Member of Parliament Andrew Theophanous’s eligibility to hold his seat was also placed under scrutiny, until it was discovered that he had emigrated to Australia while Cyprus was still a British colony and therefore his position was safe.
 
That section 44(i) has always been considered to be problematic can be evidenced by the fact that in the 1980s the Senate standing committee on legal and constitutional affairs recommended that the provision be abolished and replaced with a statutory requirement that candidates make a declaration about whether they held dual citizenship and what steps they had taken to renounce it. It was the committee’s belief that a candidate that did not want to undergo such a procedure should not be automatically barred from office, but rather, that ordinary voters should decide at the polls.  Nonetheless, any change to the Constitution, requires a referendum and apart from naming and shaming potential subversives, the public discourse does not seem to be overwhelmingly clamouring for such a referendum at this stage.
 
Considering that migrants and the children of migrants appear to be currently enshrined in the Constitution as eternal subversives, it is not surprising that ethnic members of Parliament are scurrying to prove their “Aussie” credentials. Responding to questions about her eligibility to enter Parliament by virtue of her Greek ethnic origin, Australian-born Julia Banks scrambled to assure her interlocutors that she is a “true blue” Australian. Nick Xenophon went further, claiming that he neither had Cypriot citizenship, nor never wanted it. It is to these sad lengths then, that the constitutionally enshrined concept of the migrant (or descendant of the migrant) as the eternal subversive, compels politicians to go. It is not enough to require them to choose, in a larger extrapolation of my own classroom experience, forcing them to renounce a citizenship most of them didn’t even know they had, on the grounds of legality. They must also be further compelled to make humiliating and ridiculous affirmations of loyalty, uncalled for from other politicians, for in these increasingly nebulous times, any foreign connotation or hint at a foreign tie, makes one automatically a potential subversive element. For someone like Julia Banks, who has in the past spoken about her ordeal of enduring racial slurs in the course of her previous employment, the experience must be harrowing indeed.
 
The irony of our predicament of course, is that while our Constitution bars entry to Federal Parliament, to people who have or are entitled to dual citizenship, our Head of State was born overseas, and is also the head of state of another fifteen countries, without this incongruity raising any eyebrow, constitutional or paranoid whatsoever. Yet what if there was ever a war between the UK and Australia? Which side would be chosen? Perhaps George Washington has the answer…. In the meantime, let us hasten to assure each other that we are dinky di, you beaut, as we, possessed of the Greek passports that allow us cue-free entry to summers in Mykonos, subvert the system from within…..until the inevitable Greco-Australian war that is.
 

DEAN KALIMNIOU
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 5 August 2017
 
 
 
 
 
 

Saturday, July 29, 2017

NOT QUITE READY FOR SCHOOL

“It’s quite simple,” the kindergarten teacher commented nonchalantly. “Your daughter should repeat kindergarten. She isn’t quite ready for school.”

“Really. On what basis do you make that assessment?” the shocked mother asked.

“Well she doesn’t relate to other kids and she doesn’t follow instructions…”

“She doesn’t speak English. How do you expect her to follow instructions if she doesn’t understand what you are saying?” the mother countered.

“That’s my point. She isn’t ready for school,” the teacher crowed triumphantly.

“What type of language support has my daughter been provided?” the mother continued, undaunted.

“Well, we are under-resourced…”

“Have you undertaken a skills analysis? Are you aware that she is literate in another two languages?”

“Yes but for the purposes of school next year… ” the teacher stuttered, flummoxed. “Anyway, I think that maybe the fact she speaks other languages is making her confused. Maybe you should just concentrate on English.”

“Are you aware of Dr Priscilla Clarke’s paper on “Supporting Children learning English as a Second Language in the Early Years?”” the mother persisted.

“I’m not…”

“In that paper, Dr Priscilla Clarke says the following: “Evidence shows that young children can learn more than one language with ease, as long as they are exposed to good language models and have plenty of exposure to both languages. Maintaining the first language does not interfere with the learning of English. Research suggests the opposite – that knowing one language can help the child understand how other languages work. The maintenance of the first or home language is particularly important for the child’s development of a positive self-concept and well-being.

Children who have the opportunity to maintain their first language can extend their cognitive development, while learning English as a second language. Their level of competence in the second language will be related to the level of competence they have achieved in their first language.” Are you aware of that?” the mother asked, handing the paper to the teacher.

“Yes but, for the purposes of school next year…,” the teacher interjected.

“Furthermore,” the mother interrupted, turning over the pages of the paper, “Dr Priscilla Clarke has this to say about knowledge of the English language as a pre-requisite to readiness for school:  “Some early childhood professionals and parents believe that children who have limited English may not be ready to start school. They feel that the children’s level of English will be insufficient to cope with the school environment. While it is an advantage for children to speak some English and be able to communicate their needs and wishes, some children do begin school without having been exposed to English, and schools have programs to support these new learners.

For children who have already attended in a children’s service, the ability to speak English is an important asset that they can use within the school environment. However, children’s readiness for school is shown in many ways. For example, children need to demonstrate an awareness of other children around them and be able to relate to others in a social context. Being able to take a risk and talk to a peer or adult even with only a few words in English is an indicator that a child is ‘socially’ ready for school. Other skills include self-confidence, positive social skills and an interest in learning. In the pre-school years early childhood professionals work with children to develop their social skills so that they are able to interact with others without much spoken English. It is important to remember that children’s comprehension of English always exceeds their ability to speak fluent English and that the ability to communicate is not measured by grammatical competence.”

“Oh,” the teacher gasped.

“Does my child demonstrate an awareness of other children around her and is she able to relate to others in a social context?” the mother enquired.

“I suppose so.”

“Does she take risks and talk to peers or adults even with only a few words in English?” the mother continued.

“Yes, she is speaking more and more English these past weeks,” the teacher admitted.

“Does my child display self-confidence, positive social skills and an interest in learning?” the mother rejoined.

“Yes,” the teacher responded.

“Then can you please tell me in what way you believe my child is not ready for school next year, given that it is July and we have another six months of pre-school to go?” the mother concluded.

Silence.

            The above conversation is, unbeknownst to many of us, currently being played out, albeit with small variations, in pre-schools all around Melbourne, with the only difference being that many Greek-Australian parents, who choose to bring up their children with Greek as their first language, are usually not aware of leading educator Dr Priscilla Clarke’s research and are generally unable to counter their children’s pre-school teachers assertions that their offspring should repeat kindergarten, or that teaching them Greek is harmful, as it retards  their acquisition of English.

            Instead, confused and highly concerned parents, who seem to remember that they did not have much trouble in mastering English when they first went to school, either accept the teacher’s usually baseless contention and either a) make their children unnecessarily repeat preschool or b) stop speaking to their children in Greek altogether. On the odd occasion, savvy parents will insist upon having their child’s readiness for school assessed by an external professional. Invariably, lack of English is not considered by them to be an impediment to their starting school, though other behavioural problems may be. As a result, parental confidence in their offspring’s preschool teacher and their ability to support English language learning is greatly diminished.

            In one glaring example, a mother was horrified to be informed by her son’s pre-school teacher that he was, in her opinion, dyslexic. When asked for evidence to support her contention, the teacher pointed to the child’s ‘distorted’ way of writing his name, even though his other classmates had not yet mastered the art of writing their own names. The mother glanced at the page and burst out laughing. The child had written his name perfectly, in the only language in which he was literate: Greek.

            The fact that as a community, we have gone from being New Australians, to well established has seen an erosion in resources, with regard to supporting English learning as a second language. Gone are the enlightened multicultural programmes of the eighties, the Greek language readers commissioned by the Victorian and South Australian State Governments to ease Greek speakers into English literacy. Three decades on, it is assumed that we have all become linguistically assimilated, with mother tongue Greek speaking children considered to be an aberration by teachers and parent-peers alike, an unjustifiable drain on classroom resources, taking away the focus from those who have the ‘right’ to language support: recent arrivals, for the current multicultural paradigm does not seem to allow for the retention of a first language other than English, beyond one generation. The complexity of the situation is of course compounded in cases, such as that of my own children, whose family context has brought about them being conversant in two languages other than English, prior to their learning that language.

            Although pre-school education is of vital importance as a pathway to further formal learning, our community is yet to articulate a unitary approach to it, or assess how it impacts upon Greek language learning, something that is surprising given the historic emphasis given to Greek language learning in the primary and secondary learning tiers. This is of concern not only because lack of training in supporting English as a second language (even though proper research exists to facilitate this) is resulting in educators providing faulty or incorrect advice to parents, making them feel bad about or undermining their language choices and ultimately contributing not only to monolingualism but also to a diminished preschool experience.

            Ultimately, it is incumbent upon us to defend and justify our choices in the face of ignorance, but only when we have come together to work out what exactly it is we want from our pre-school education system. When asked by my daughter’s prospective headmistress as to whether extreme patriotism was the main reason behind our choice in introducing her to her own ancestral languages prior to learning English, I responded as follows: “It is because growing up in Melbourne, I was only introduced to the works of world literature, Hans Christian Andersen, Miguel Cervantes, Maxim Gorky, Anton Chekhov and the like, in the Greek translations I was provided at Greek school. I never did encounter, or was taught, the great works of European literature in the English system. I do not want to deprive her of the same opportunity to enjoy a holistic education.”

            Smiling, the foreign educated headmistress gave me the thumbs up. “Good thinking,” she beamed.

 

DEAN KALIMNIOU
 
First published in NKEE on Saturday 29 July 2017