Language Learning

Cultural rubble, modern Greek studies and lotophagy: a memoir

By November 16, 2020 No Comments

I met Sanaz, now an ACT Government Solicitor, on my first day of Law School, at the University of Melbourne. She was a new arrival to Australia. Having fled Iran with her Armenian and Persian parents, she had migrated to this country after a sojourn in India. Fluent in Armenian, Persian, Hindi and English, she expressed the desire to learn even more languages. In the weeks that followed, having become entranced by the tribal nature of the Greeks of Melbourne University and already favourably predisposed towards that tribe by her parents’ memory of a happy holiday in Greece in the pre-Revolution days, she resolved to study Modern Greek.

It was a study which she pursued with dedication and passion. Lunchtimes (which consisted of sundry groups of Greeks sitting in the quadrangle in loose formation around the legendary NUGAS president Sasha Pete, regally draped with the Greek flag so you could not miss him), would be taken up with her persistent questions about abstruse points of etymology, points on pronunciation and detailed analysis of the most famous Modern Greek poets. As Greek-Australians, with the assistance of some of the most amazing lecturers, our study of Modern Greek at University changed our lives forever, extrapolating all we had learned in Greek school, exploding stereotypes and exhausting pre-conceptions. In this process, Sanaz, who already inhabited a number of cultural worlds simultaneously and was particularly adept at critiquing nationalistic discourses was not just a fellow traveller, but a companion and a guide, causing us, through her observations and comparisons with Persian literature, to view not only the corpus of Greek literature but also concepts of Greek identity with fresh eyes.

READ MORE: GCM calls for action to save La Trobe Uni’s Greek Studies program

Sanaz’s response when, as cultural co-ordinator of the Melbourne University Hellenic Students’ Association, I achieved what I thought at the time would be a triumph: Arranging for the renowned British historian of Modern Greece, Richard Clogg to give a lecture to our members, is indelibly etched in my memory. Only six students turned up, the rest unwilling to tear themselves away from their noonday cafeteriological pursuits. When Richard Clogg pointedly asked me whether we were expecting anyone else, Sanaz observed drily: “Probably not. After all we are all cloggs in the machines of our own historical paradigms.” Richard Clogg coughed in sympathy.

Somewhere I have some postcards Sanaz sent me when she went to study in Greece for a summer. I kept them because I marvelled at the way in which she had become functionally literate in Greek in just three years. That trip almost never happened. Although her place was covered by a scholarship, her airfare was not and she informed her lecturer, the great Anna Chatzinikolaou, that it was not possible for her to accept the scholarship. Anna Chatzinikolaou would have none of it. Ignoring Sanaz’s protests, she purchased the aeroplane ticket for her, re-assuring her that she could re-pay her whenever she was able. Upon her return from Greece, Sanaz was reciting Homer, by heart and giving me her notes on the Byzantine ruins of Mystra, written in Greek, to edit.

Soon after, we graduated. Sanaz moved to Canberra and I ensconced myself in the arcane and somewhat mystifying ways of legal practice. We caught up a few years later, when she made a special trip to Melbourne for a specific purpose: To find Anna Chatznikolaou and to repay her kindness and generosity. «Μεγάλη ψυχή η Άννα,» she commented, while flipping through her heavily annotated copy of my first poetry collection. «Θα την ευγνωμονώ ως το γιαγκίνι». I looked up and laughed. That was one of my own idiomatic expressions, adopted from my great-grandmother. It was also, the most fitting of ways to express the eschatological element of her gratitude.

READ MORE: La Trobe University’s Greek language programme under threat

It was her concern at how we Melburnians were faring during lockdown that occasioned our last conversation, after a long hiatus. In passing, Sanaz mentioned how her nine year old son, a Perso-armenian Australian, was enjoying studying Greek at the local school.

“We were holidaying in Greece, and my son was amazed when he heard me speaking Greek. “Are you Greek, mum?” he asked. When we returned to Australia, he was completely enamoured with Greece and the Greek language. I thought that it would be good for him to study a language that has a community of speakers behind it so he can understand the full depth and nuance of the culture that underpins it. Even though I teach him Persian, there are no Persian speakers outside the family that he can interact with. But he has now made the Greek community up here his own. By the way, did I ever lend you my copy of Ritsos’ Καπνισμένο Τσουκάλι? I’ve been looking for it for years. And have you kept in contact with Carl – Makarios?”

Every year, a familiar figure approaches me at the Antipodes Festival. This is Carlos, who corrects me every time I address him as such, for ever since he converted to Orthodoxy during our University years, he has assumed the name Makarios. Of South American descent and possessed of an encyclopaedic knowledge of Patristics, Makarios was Sanaz’s classmate. He greets me in fluent Greek and we speak of old times, mostly of ridiculous things I once said, mercifully forgotten. I ask him how he knew the Festival was on and he pulls out a copy of Neos Kosmos. «Το διάβασα εδώ,» he informs me.

The projected closure of the Modern Greek Studies Department at Latrobe University, the last tertiary institution to offer study of the language in Victoria, places experiences like these, where chance encounters and selfless teachers inspire life-long love affairs with the Greek language and create philhellenes, in peril. For Modern Greek studies were not introduced to the five tertiary institutions in which they were being taught up until the late nineties solely to cater to the linguistic needs of the Greek community or their concerns for self-perpetuation. Instead, their introduction was a multicultural imperative, given that Greek was, and for the moment still is, an important language within polyglot Australia, one whose evolution and relevance to the social fabric deserves academic study and furthermore, must be shared among all.

This aspect has been largely ignored by both our community and the dominant social group because of the cultural apartheid enforced by Australian multiculturalism. Granted, the state accepts and even funds community languages, but these are considered the preserve of the communities themselves, of lesser status and prestige than the “major” languages of study, these being historically, the languages of World Powers, especially European ones, or of other aspirant states, willing to pay for the privilege. Because no resources have been expended and no meaningful activity has been taken to capture the interest of the mainstream in community languages and ancillary cultures such as that of Modern Greek, when the community itself no longer considers tertiary study in its own language important, the mainstream is quick to jettison it, at opportune moments. It does not help that for most of the community, studying Greek at secondary level has been seen primarily as a way of boosting one’s tertiary entrance rank. Once in a tertiary institution, it is thus considered useless and has not ever been adequately supported.

READ MORE: NUGAS teams up with La Trobe to promote tertiary study of Greek language and culture

Sanaz, Makarios, and many others who I have had the honour of meeting over the years did not just learn a language when they decided to study Modern Greek at tertiary level. Nor did they just embrace a community that vivified an entire linguistic tradition. Instead, they entered into a complex discourse of identity that transcends borders and ethnicity, one whose narratives are constantly evolving and being questioned within the Australian context. Theirs was thus simultaneously a quintessentially and uniquely Australian and Greek experience.

It is trite to point the finger at the Greek community for its lapse into smug bourgeois indolence and its criminal negligence of the Modern Greek tertiary programs in Victoria. It is tiresome to point, out Cassandra-like, that the demise of those programs is a barometer as to the future progression of our people as a linguistic entity in this State. As usual, we remember Greek language programs only when these are in peril. The more active among us engage in activism and the signing of petitions and the more well connected among us may even have high level meetings with even higher level stakeholders which for political reasons may even earn us a temporary retrieve. Of course few of us are willing to actually fund these endeavours.

In the lull that follows the storm of our ethnosoteric activism however, when we rest assured that despite the fact that there is no feeder mechanism within our community school system to encourage secondary students to enrol in Modern Greek at a tertiary level and indeed there are no community institutions that can commission or support proper academic research on topics pertinent to the Greek discourse in Australia and beyond, ότι σώσαμε τη Γλώσσα, as if our language is permanently on Death Row, eking out a shadowy existence until the unknown date of its execution, we forget that Modern Greek Studies at a tertiary level were never just about the language. Always, they were and are about the scientific study of the ever evolving nature of one of the most fascinating and stereotype-defying peoples ever to populate out planet. With the closure of the last Modern Greek program, how can we ever hope to record or study, let alone to share, the language as it has developed here, our unique customs, our own historically significant local literature and the history of our sojourn? We exist, a rootless people, in an eroding topsoil of our own lotophagy.

READ MORE: Dardalis Archives revive the Greek migrant story at La Trobe University

The first time Sanaz and I viewed Christine O ‘Loughlin’s arresting sculpture “Cultural Rubble” on campus, she asked: “What do you see?” “Fallen Olympians,” I responded. “How about you?” “Your future,” she mused, cryptically and as it turns out, prophetically. It turns out that I do indeed have Sanaz’s copy of Καπνισμένο Τσουκάλι, which so enthused us during our university years. Flicking through it, I notice she has underlined in thick red pen the following verse: «Ξέρουμε πως ο ίσκιος μας θα μείνει πάνου στα χωράφια». And further down, circled and covered in exclamation marks of acclaim, as if eerily anticipating the present: «Ευλογημένη ας είναι η πίκρα μας / Ευλογημένη η αδελφοσύνη μας / Ευλογημένος ο κόσμος που γεννιέται». And it is to the latter that we owe, the building blocks of study and not the detritus and rubble of a failed past.

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