I find when people say, “It’s All Greek To Me” amusing.
As someone who comes from a Greek background and speaking the language (albeit a butchered version of it) growing up in Melbourne, there were times in my life when I was embarrassed by my Greekness.
With a name of Helen, a long surname with 12 letters, my only saving grace were the colour of my eyes (not brown) and the colour of my skin (fair with freckles). My brother, on the other hand, was blonde and blue-eyed so we must have been freaks of nature compared to our peers but these anomalies were welcome. Of course, my parents would proudly boast our looks were because we had Cretan blood (for the record, people of Crete are a proud and independent people that come from years of brutal oppression and struggles against occupying forces such as the Venetians, Turks and Nazis).
Contrary to many of my peers when I was growing up, my father took us out of Greek School. He had become disillusioned with the education system in this country that focussed on the same curriculum as my usual day-to-day primary and secondary education. He thought it was nonsense to repeat the subjects such as Geography and Mathematics in Greek School at the expense of not teaching what was more important such as Ethics, Philosophy, Ancient and Modern Greek History.
In his eyes, the Greek School System had failed in its quality of teaching young minds of Greek Australians to be proud of their heritage and lamented the integration of the Greek Church into education.
Of course, I could have told him that the corporal punishment, the whippings with cane sticks and bits of garden hose across the palms of my hands may have been a better excuse.
But no, they were character building.
And so with that, my brother and I were plucked out of the Greek School system at Grade 4 primary school (with dread I might add because it meant that my father was going to teach me everything). In its place were long hours at the kitchen table learning to read, translate and discuss long texts of difficult Greek words and sentences. We would break down words and consider their etymology. We had to read philosophical texts and expected to discuss and debate them. I would much rather have been caned across my palms than having to bear the brunt of my father’s glare when I cracked a joke about a word sounding funny. However, as I’ve gotten older I’m glad that my parents did take us out of school. In hindsight, this helped both my brother and I to have a more broad perspective. Despite not attending Greek School to matriculation, I feel that my Greek is superior to my peers simply because my father inspired a love of Greek history, culture, ethics and philosophy.
As we grew older, my brother kept his interest in the Greek language and he is far more proficient than I am although his tastes are more eclectic focussed on the origin of the Greek language. If I ever needed anything to be explained, I’d go to him to get the lowdown of the origin of the word and how it has changed over time; and then to my dad to get the entire history behind it usually linked to how some philosopher used it. Only afterwards, would I Google the answer to see what was missed.
As I became older, my Greekness was put aside so I could focus on more pressing matters such as finding work and getting on with life. I had my moments of doubt when I would hand over my CV with my extra long surname and wonder if my heritage hindered me from finding work because I wasn’t Anglo. Similarly, imagine my angst when I introduced them to my soon-to-be tall, blonde and blue-eyed Australian boyfriend (with an ear ring) who later became my husband!
Television programs such as the cringe-worthy Acropolis Now and the character of Effie (“Beauty, it’s a curse, and I’ve got it”) Stephanidis didn’t help matters either as they portrayed Greek Australians as self-absorbed empty-headed fools where their love of themselves was slightly less than the love of their families and their cousins. It couldn’t have been further from the truth because, in my experience, my peers were actually intelligent, educated and in their hearts, kind and generous.
When I decided to join the Royal Australian Navy as an Officer, I dreaded to tell my parents but to my surprise, they wholeheartedly agreed. Serving one’s country was esteemed an honour and it was only fitting that I undertake it. At the time, there were only about five serving people who came from a Greek background and it was amusing that three of them were related to me. My many years in the Navy was one of the best periods of my life and my Greekness was never an issue. In fact, it helped me get on assignments that involved escorting Hellenic Defence Force dignitaries at official events and acting as an interpreter. The only difficulty were people pronouncing my surname but even then, Australians have a knack for shortening names so I became “P to Z” and that solved the problem.
Through my life, I have always had an interest in the Greek language and my culture and I have participated in events that showcase and promote Greek culture and history (as long as they aren’t linked to the church). Too often the church is linked to Greek events here in Australia and I think it’s because of the generation of my parents and those before them where it played a central role in their lives (well, not my parents but others). However, I see this wane over the generations now and replaced by other initiatives such as Greek exhibitions, displays, public discussions and debates which are far more exciting.
At the time of the Eurozone crisis, my parents (who have been Australian Citizens for over 50 years) were living in Greece and I recall asking them if they had enough money to finish their holiday or if they were going to travel to another country. The images of long queues at bank ATMs hit home that the country was in dire trouble. We also had conflicting information about Greece from people saying that they deserved what they got because they got away with not paying taxes for years to others who pitied them as they were shafted by Brussels. When my parents came back from their extended holiday, they came back with first-hand experience and views of what they had seen and the dire situation of my extended family who had seen their pensions cut, their children who were highly educated but jobless. They pinned their frustrations squarely on the Greek politicians and the target was Varoufakis. Even now, my family in Greece want nothing to hear about him who they place their situation squarely on his shoulders.
So it’s no wonder that I have kept quiet about reading his books because then I’d have to explain myself to my parents and at the moment, it’s not a discussion I want to have. I know, however, that after discussion and debate, as always, there will be a mutual respect for the other view or a “agree to disagree” but at this point in time, it’s simply not important.
What reading the blog posts of Varoufakis has done for me in recent times is that he has intrigued me to the point where I want to read it in Greek. I believe reading it in his language will give it more gravitas, and indeed, is far more expressive than the English language could be.
Now I know what my Greek relatives would ask exasperated, “Yes, but why read his work when you have so many others to read?” That’s true. Simply, I believe this is just the start. As I’m reading his English blogs, it’s a simple click to the right to access his Greek blogs. To me, he simply reignited my interest in the Greek language. Surely that’s a good thing?
I’m embarrassed to admit that as I read his Greek blog, one slow and excruciating paragraph at a time, that my own Greek is so poor, so inadequate that I can’t do it justice.
Every second word is written down in my little black notebook and translated via Google, read and then re-read (I have no problems with reading – it’s the comprehension). During the day I go through my vocabulary list, memorise the words and conjugate the verbs. I wonder which words I can use in my everyday life and drop them into my conversations with parents but words like ‘reform’, ‘moderates’, ‘consensual’, ‘stability’ and ‘submission’ simply aren’t words of the everyday life of a Greek Australian (although with this government anything is possible).
Decided that my Greek needs to improve drastically. So I’ve started reading Varoufakis Greek blog posts trying to decipher them. I’m going to drop a few words in conversation & surprise my parents. It might help me understand Greek news too. pic.twitter.com/9TsxTicGyu
— Helen Blunden (@ActivateLearn) April 24, 2018
As I read his blog, I wonder what else I am missing out by not reading other works by Greek authors, playwrights, poets, philosophers – in Greek – and the lack of this richness in my life?
I recall a time when my brother quit his studies towards a Post Graduate International Relations degree due to a lengthy disagreement with a lecturer who argued, incorrectly, over how certain words (with Greek roots) were defined in his course. The lecturer argued that the word meant one thing, my brother who knew the etymology of the word and who read extensive Greek texts, argued another and as a result, this meant that he couldn’t reconcile the meaning anymore to something he knew to be correct. This put his studies into conflict because it impacted how he reasoned his arguments. It was similar to someone saying to you that the ‘sky’ should now be called ‘cat’ and a ‘cat’ to be called ‘truck’ or some such. As a result, he had to pull out of the course because his principles were at stake but he learned an important lesson….take charge of your own learning.
I don’t know why reading Adults in the Room made me recall all this and reflect on my own upbringing. What it has done is burgeoned the pride of being of Greek background – a Hellene. I may be part of the diaspora in this beautiful country of mine Australia (which I love and adore) but it’s something that is inside you – a little flicker of light – that burns resolutely. To know that I am part of a culture that gave ‘light’ (knowledge) to the world despite constant struggles, oppression and invasions – and the continuation of these through current years.
Now it’s my turn to respect it by giving it my time and attention. It’s the least I could do.
This blog post by Helen Blunden was written in Melbourne, Australia and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.