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Exiles

It was while driving to one of the outer suburbs in order to visit a client, marvelling at the extraordinary spread of the urban conglomeration that is our city, narrowly dodging a kangaroo that bounded across the road, and admiring all the MacMansions dotting the horizon, gleaming white like teeth in the cranium of a dead man, registering surprise at the one proudly flying a PAOK flag from its balcony, that I recalled the verses of Constantine Cavafy’s poem, “Exiles.”

“It goes on being Alexandria still.

Just walk a bit along the straight road that ends

at the Hippodrome

and you will see palaces and monuments

that will amaze you.”

I have similar feelings while walking down Lonsdale Street, which is never the Lonsdale Street of today, but the one in which Antipodes restaurant, where I would sit for hours over a bowl of avgolemono soup discussing Greek current events with friends and passersby, is open for business, a mushroom cloud of tobacco smoke is billowing from inside Medallion Café, smiling students are cascading down the stairs of the RMIT Greek Centre, elderly members of the community are shuffling towards Hermes Travel Agent, in faux protest at the fact that they are being somehow forced to book flights for a six month stay in the motherland, and the same customers, clutching their bank-books tightly and looking around nervously are walking into Laiki Bank in order to ascertain how much interest their bank balance has earned them since yesterday.In those days, it took a good half hour to walk from the Russell Street end to Swanston Street, on account of all the people one would meet along the way. Now, the walk is markedly brief in duration, and yet:

“Whatever war-damage it has suffered,

However much smaller it has become,

it is still a wonderful city.”

I am able to point to the exact spot where I stood twenty years ago, when spontaneously everyone rushed to Lonsdale Street in order to celebrate Greece’s victory in the European Cup. The next day, I took my books and my files with me and spent the day working from Medallion, intermittently glancing up at the television screen in order to observe the interminable long triumphal procession of the bus conveying the victorious Greek team from the airport to the centre of Athens, stopping only to answer the questions of other dozing denizens such as: “What are you reading?” and “How do you see the future of the Greek community.”

“And them, what with excursions and books

And various kinds of study, time does go by..”

These at least have not faded with time. Open social media, or consult the print media and one will find a plethora of announcements and advertisements for plays, lectures, wreath laying ceremonies, and other cultural events. Their quantity seems to have increased with time, even as the number of attendees decreases. One attends and greets the same people as last time. The elderly among them shrug their shoulders: “Eh, we came to pass the time. Δεν βαριέσαι, it gives us something to do. I haven’t seen so and so for a long time. Do you think he is ok? Strange that he is not here. He always used to come.” The interstitial time loop we appear to be trapped in is set at one minute before the end. We attend and augment our knowledge and out studies time and time again, believing always that this time, may be the last.

“In the evening we meet on the sea front,

the five of us (all, naturally under fictitious names)

and some other Greek of the few still left in the city.”

One can only carry with them throughout their life a sense of ennui about the fact that they use their baptismal name and the proper Greek version of their surname as a pseudonym, while an Anglicised bastardisation of both is registered as an “official” name. Nonetheless, we sit, my friends and I, of diverse interests and walks of life, united only in the metamorphosis of our names and our propensity to converse with each in Greek in Port Melbourne, ruminating over inherited memories of ships arriving at these shores, spilling our collected ancestors on the quayside. The eldest among us remind us of a time when Greeks abounded in the area. Their traces are still there, behind walls and closed doors, at the pharmacies and the supermarkets, if you look closely, if only cared to look.

“Sometimes we discuss church affairs

(the people here seem to lean towards Rome

and sometimes literature.

The other day we read some lines by Nonnos:

what imagery, what diction, what rhythm

And harmony!”

Among us is what can only be described as an Orthodox fundamentalist. According to him, we are all papists because apparently the Patriarch and all who serve him are in thrall to Rome, which as we all know is a harbinger of the Antichrist and a sign of the End Times. Another of our brethren, though Orthodox, has had his children received into another denomination so as to ensure their continued enrolment in their local high school, which matters not, since its all the same and the differences between the rival franchises all revolve around money anyway. We shy away from discussing the key players of the day, because it is urgent that the Monophysite controversy be resolved in our lifetime.

When we do read literature, we argue to what extent literary works written by Greeks in English can be considered “Greek.” We engage in disputation as to whether it is the cultural constructs imposed by the dominant ethnic group in our country that inform the manner in which the narratives of ethnic minorities such as our own are created or whether they are an authentic expression of the communities from which they have arisen. Nonnos, a native of Panopolis absorbs us as he did Cavafy, not only because like us, he was born in a region that marks the southernmost extremity of Hellenism in his day, but also because he wrote what is possibly the last great epic of late antiquity, the Dionysiaca, consisting of 48 books at 20,426 lines in Homeric Greek and thus looms large as a powerful terminal point, or at least as a Metabole, which coincidentally is the title of his poetic paraphrasing of the Gospel of Saint John, into an entirely different age.

“So the days go by, and our stay here

is not unpleasant because, naturally,

it is not going to last forever.

We’ve had good news: either something

is afoot in Smyrna, or in April

our friends are sure to move from Epirus.

So one way or another, our plans are

definitely working out,

And we’ll easily overthrow Basil.”

Scholars tend to agree that Cavafy set his poem in an Alexandria that had ceased to be dominated by the Greeks, was Arab-ruled and in which Greek cultural influence, was waning. It is a topos of decadence and of decline. The exact historical period still invites argument, with some contending that it is set early in the reign of Basil I of the Macedonian dynasty, a few years after he murdered the Emperor Michael, around the time of the Photian schism, hence the reference to Rome, around twenty years after the Arab conquest of Egypt. This Alexandria then, would still have retained its Greek cultural characteristics, even as they would begin to erode under the city’s new rulers, and the exiles’ admission that life is not too bad would make sense since they were able to live a similar lifestyle as that to which they were used to at “home,” can thus be paralleled by newly arrived members of our own community whose exile from the motherland is softened by the commonalities in the elements of life style within our portion of the Diaspora.

Other scholars contend that the poem in fact is set in the 1330’s during the reign of Basil of the Empire of Trebizond, the mentions of Smyrna and Epirus referencing the time after the Latin sack of Constantinople in 1204 which resulted in the emergence of three rival versions of Byzantium, the Empires of Trebizond and Nicaea, as well as the Despotate of Epirus. Basil purged high ranking nobles from his court, hence the possible need for exile.

Viewed from this perspective, the exile seems gratuitous and far-fetched. The exiles could have easily escaped to a closer successor kingdom, to Georgia, or to the West. Instead, they have deliberately chosen to settle in one of the furthest and at that time, culturally most foreign to them, regions of their world. One cannot help thinking that this is a self-imposed exile, that its rigours and sadnesses actually bring pleasure and that there is a masochistic element to Cavafy’s sarcasm of all of those who maintain that they are compelled to live on the margins but would never tear themselves away from them, when the right opportunity arises. Nostalgia, the pain of desiring a return is the opposite of what seems to be happening here. Rather, this is Nostophilia, when the desire for return, with all of its exquisite contradicitions, brings pleasure.

My own grandmother’s intention was to remain in Australia for five years, work hard and then return to her village. She never did, even though her entire mental world continued to revolve around that village until the day she died. One of our brethren, not able to endure the prospect of dehellenisation, resolved to abjure his comfortable lifestyle, return to his parents’ village, enlist in the army and then carve a life out for himself among his own people. He lasted a month. As for me, who in my youth contrived time and time again to seek out opportunities to relocate to Greece, a country my father does not remember, only to pull back at the last minute, I eke out my existence, entrench my realities in a language that is ceasing to be spoken, ensconce myself in the sweet pleasures of the books and poems of my exile and bide my time awaiting the overthrow or the overcoming of all our fears, anxieties and neuroses.

For as Cavay reveals in his last line:

“And when we do, at last our turn will come.”

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