In which our intrepid hero goes forth in search of culture… and comes home reeking of kitsch.

This afternoon, I popped down to Darling Harbour for the 2006 Sydney Greek Festival. My friends Leo and Connie have their own Greek dance school, and were to perform live on stage in front of thousands. It was a big day for them, and it did not turn out well.

But that’s their story, and perhaps I’ll get them to do a guest blognatorial on it sometime.

I didn’t actually get to meet with them, but I did manage to take a few photos of their act; when I’ve played with them enough, I’ll put them up here. Given the amount of glare today, probably only a few turned out anyway.

I’m not bitter about that, though I am bitter about the Festival. It was about as Greek as St Patrick’s Day is Irish. Scratch that—it was as Greek as St Patrick’s Day. I kept expecting Lucy Lawless to appear on stage.

My heaviest scorn must fall on the food. I used to live down the street from an awesome souvlaki shop, in a heavily Greek area of Sydney, and used to eat Greek food there and at various restaurants around the city. (I should also add that I love loukanika, and I’ve been hankering for it for over a week, drooling in anticipation of devouring this Cypriot delicacy.) I feel I know at least a little about Greek cuisine. For the record:

  • Two tubes of beef gristle in turkish bread does not a loukaniko pita make;
  • Tzatziki is not orange; and
  • Instant iced mocha with ice cubes is not the same thing as a frappé.

I’m not Greek, but I’m not stupid, either. Don’t friggin’ patronise me.

And as for those geriatric things who kept pushing in front of me in the food queue: the war is over, and you’re not going to starve. There’s plenty of food to go around, and given that you’ve wasted the first 80 years of your lives being obnoxious dweebs with a misplaced sense of nationalism, you can afford to waste another minute and a half staying in your allotted place in the queue and letting me get my food.

If you were diabetic, I’d let you jump ahead of me, but you’re not. If you do it again, I will exterminate you and your entire families, down the the merest toddler. Being old is no excuse for queue-jumping. Yes, I am pissed off—thanks for asking.

Ahem.

Leo often talks about his lack of love for what he calls "Aussie Greeks", and I think I finally get what he’s saying. I’ve spent a fair amount of my life around Greeks, and there are many things to admire in them as an ethnic group. But what I saw today only highlighted the shortcomings of a few in the Greek community.

Sadly, these few are often the most vocal. To paraphrase Leo: having no firsthand experience of Greek culture, these people have a distorted, 1950s-esque view of what it means to be Greek, and focus fanatically upon the most trite aspects of Greek culture. In my own words, it’s a bit like someone who hates Elvis’ music, but goes to the Elvis Revival Festival in Parkes every year anyway—to buy Elvis-themed dashboard toys. They’re missing the point.

I’m sure every immigrant ethnic group has people like these. I feel pity for them. They loudly proclaim their sense of community and identity, but those attributes are built on, at best, nostalgic falsehoods and, at worst, outright lies to keep their insecure little hearts warm at night.

I believe that it’s possible to be Greek and Australian. For that matter, it’s possible to be Muslim and Australian, or even Muslim, Lebanese and Australian. Add fractional identities ad nauseam if you like—the more you add, the harder it’ll be to express your membership in those groups, but it still can be done.

If you’re going to do this, make sure you can qualify for those groups in more than name alone. If you claim to be Greek, then act Greek. If claim to be Australian, then act Australian. They’re not mutually exclusive.

It seems, however, that Leo’s "Aussie Greeks" adopt superior airs over Australians of non-Greek background, and do the same to native-born Greeks as well. Often, their nationalism seems based in pride of ignorance. Again, this happens in any group, whether they be Greek, Lebanese, Chinese or Anglo-Saxon. But I experienced the Greek flavour today, which is why I’m writing about it specifically.

Today was not a celebration of the glories of Hellenic culture; it was a memorial to the "Aussie Greek". It was about the battle between insecurity and the need to fit into a different and sometimes hostile society. It was about having to make do, and shed old customs, or adapt them to new lands.

In the same way that the bagel is no longer entirely Jewish, nor the hot dog entirely German, what I saw today was no longer entirely Greek. It was about compromise, the watering down of a vibrant culture and the rationalisation that nothing had indeed changed.

Two snags on a flatbread may not be a loukaniko pita, but it’s an approximation. Maybe not too good an approximation, but there you go. When we travel abroad, we all must change. The least we can do is admit when it happens.

I still want my loukanika.

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