Crisis? What crisis? This is the caption posted by a Facebook ‘friend,’ below a photograph of a stereotypical Aegean beach. All the accoutrements of a ‘perfect’ holiday are present: the impossibly blue waters, the sun-bleached pebbles, the pastel multi-coloured beach umbrellas, the oiled skin of the southerners in various gradations of burn, a half-finished frappe fermenting within arm’s reach, all revealed within the context of an implacably omnipresent but unobtrusive light. Truly, there is not a hint of dissonance to suggest anything but serenity. This, to the western world and much of the Australia Greek world that has adopted its orientalist perspective, this is what Greece must be, our crisis-free, idyllic, reconstructed playground.
Yet on the island of Kos, where the photo was taken, not 100 metres away from the beach, thousands of refugees, fleeing the murderous Middle Eastern conflicts, are congregated. They are hungry, penniless and hopeless, and their presence disturbs British holidaymakers who have been reported to have made comments such as: “Who in their right mind would now go to these beautiful islands where you now have to walk round amid these freeloaders.” Some also bemoan the presence of “penniless migrants [who] sit outside their restaurant and watch them eat”.
Sadly, such sentiments are also reflected by some Australian Greeks. One recently- returned-from-the-motherland couple described to me the fury they felt when they sat down to enjoy their midday souvlaki at a restaurant. As they reached for their meal, it was snatched away from them by a young refugee, who appeared as if out of nowhere and promptly proceeded to stuff the souvlakia in his mouth. To their horror and eternal indignation, instead of chasing the presumptuous refugee away or taking punitive action, the waiter took the child by the hand and led him into the kitchen, promising him enough food to satisfy his hunger. “I felt violated,” the Australian Greek woman told me, her clipped vowels distorting in shrill arpeggios as she nervously clutched her eBay imitation Gucci handbag. “They are so unprofessional. We deliberately chose not to go to the xorio, because we didn’t want to be pestered by ‘rellos’ asking for money and giving us sob stories … but we never expected to have issues like this on the beach. They took no action at all.”
“This would never have happened in Santorini,” her lisping, Ralph Lauren polo-topped, eyebrow-plucked mortgage-broking husband cut in. “These people have lost the true essence of Greece. You watch. It just isn’t Greece anymore.”
Apparently, Greece, for a proportion of the bourgeoisiefied Australian Greeks of this ilk, consists of a tortuously twisting red line that includes the Cyclades and a few other popular Aegean islands, Corfu and Chalkidki if they have heard of it, along with the coastline of the Peloponnese. The rest of the republic is a bleak no-mans land where lapsed, money-hungry, crafty and deceitful proto-Hellenes reside, with the Acropolis, Plaka, the Athens Archaeological Museum, Delphi and Olympia forming Greek enclaves, suitable for visitation therein. When they do venture into the grey zone, it is for the purposes of free accommodation in the ancestral village, an experience which is never spoken of to anyone again. In this era, where one has not really corporeally manifested themselves in a particular place unless there is a Facebook post to prove it, Helladic holidays become stage-managed affairs, their success to be judged by the amount of ‘likes’ to be gained via an appreciation of the stereotypical photograph of the holidayer in a bikini, undergoing a languid ritual Hellenic baptism in the waters of the Aegean. Such experiences are much diminished by the unprofessionals and the needy.
For as the indignant couple informed me, they are the hope and salvation of Greece. After all, they had the luxury of choosing between hundreds of potential destinations, some of which they had discovered on a Kon-Tiki tour a decade ago, but had instead, deliberately chosen Greece, for in this way, they could save the Greek economy by ‘investing’ in it. It was highly insulting and deeply distasteful to them that in so investing, they should be expected to be exposed to the broader social and grittier financial problems of the country that exist beyond the acceptable face of Greece. Not that they don’t sympathise, and let’s not get them wrong, they are far from heartless, donating every year to the Children’s Hospital Good Friday Appeal and to collectors at traffic lights, but for the deity’s sake, do they really have to worry about the Greeks too, let alone donate? They are supposed to be on holidays and everyone knows that collections for Greek causes are always misappropriated.. And after all, they finally admit, having been psychologically prodded and poked for the better part of an hour, the Helladites deserve their problems, both the financial, as they are profligate and lazy, as well as the social, for Greece never took border security as seriously as the Howard government and now Greece is no longer Greece, for it is infested with xenoi, the Greeks being too lazy to ‘turn back the boats’. For them, Greece is the land of excellence, philosophy and logic and modern Greece lacks all of these. In parting, the mortgage-broker suggests to me that I research ‘customer service’ in ancient Greece and trace how standards have fallen, probably as a result of the Christian influence, which is not only unhellenic, but also, anti-capitalist. Look at what Jesus did to the money-lenders in the temple.
In marked juxtaposition with these deck-chair ‘patriots’, who in their concern for Greece’s greater good appear to have adopted the orientalist prejudices of their host-cultures wholesale, come the large number of Australian Greeks who thoroughly enjoy the physical beauty of their motherland but are able to place it in context, and not in isolation from, the people who reside in it, in all their fascinating, maddening, endearing and frustrating complexity. An aunt who assists in a parish soup kitchen in Piraeus reveals that a significant proportion of contributions donated for its upkeep originate from Australia. Similarly, a noteworthy proportion of second generation Greek Australians not only take the trouble between swims to walk the ground and understand the effects of the current crisis upon their compatriots, but are also providing financial assistance to family and friends. Perhaps their example can permit the more self-assured among us to gain a broader sense of perspective.
The final word in this respect can only be offered by my finance-broking interlocutor, who is not only possessed of a social conscience, but also, a fine vocabulary to boot: “Greeks earn their living from rich tourists like us, not an endless stream of illegal asylum seekers, or indeed, other broken-down Greeks. Very few want to go on vacation and be confronted with the detritus of broken societies. Our goodwill depends upon our insulation.” Steady on old boy.
* Dean Kalymniou is a Melbourne solicitor and freelance writer.