[Lecture delivered on 4 March 2014 at the Greek Orthodox Community of NSW's Greek Festival]
Where do you start with Hellenic culture? Continue reading
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A disclaimer or rather a plea from the writer. No article can succinctly detail the Greek history of the Black Sea, for it is such a lengthy period. Virtually the entire ocean was covered by Greek colonies or Byzantine hierarchy.
I will merely provide you with a few personal anecdotes. The Black Sea first welcomed Greek settlers approximately 2800 years ago, naming it ‘Pontus Exine,’ meaning inhospitable sea. Each country that straddles the shore has been impacted by the Greek colonies, past and present. Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey are the modern masters though by no means the only beneficiaries of the Greek presence here. I can assure you that many more people have found a home here. Scythians, Assyrians, Persians, Tartars, Romans to name a few. Continue reading
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I remember sitting in St Mark’s Square, Venice, admiring what was in front me. Such a romantic city, this was the place to be. There was a gala, lots of colour, people enjoying themselves and the horses… The famous horses of St Mark’s Square are now located in the main Basilica, though until recent years the original horses were on display in the square and widely attributed as Venetian by passing tourists.
The Greek Horses of Triumph
The horses which symbolise triumph, were in fact stolen from Constantinople in 1204 by the Venetian military who had been on their way to a Crusade. Instead of pursuing the Crusade, they used their ‘stopover’ to loot this great city which had opened its doors as friends. The horses are viewed as an example of Venetian power, who at that time were probably the pre eminent maritime power.
The four bronze horses are said to have been the work of a 4th Century Greek sculptor and had adorned the Hippodrome of Constantinople, a symbol of Greek Byzantine strength. It is no coincidence that once the horses were stolen, Greek Byzantine power began declining. The Venetians found themselves in control of the capital for over 50 years until retaken by Greek forces. For the Byzantine Empire this act of treachery and the coinciding loss of the horses began their long road to ruin, which eventually came through defeat to the Ottomans in 1453.
Now back to Venice and the horses. The holder of these magnificent statues represented world influence. It’s no coincidence that their power came to end when Napoleon took them in 1797. Unlike most items that have been stolen from Greece, the statues were returned when Napoleon was defeated in 1815. Is there a pattern that when these horses are taken away, the power who loses the horses is the one that has been defeated?
I always wondered about the Greek-Venetian connection. The horses were simply one piece of a larger puzzle. For we all know the Venetian Empire controlled many Greek cities and islands, often joining forces with the local Greek population to take on the Ottomans. A famous example is the 24 years the Cretans and Venetians held out the superior Turkish forces until 1669. This was an incredible fight of bravery that neither side was willing to surrender. I should point out that a number of small Venetian outposts were allowed independence until 1715.
Crete is an example of the influence of Venice on Greece. The Venetians built higher buildings, small or no balconies and the streets were paved with arches. Fortresses can be found across Crete. They also introduced different colour schemes to a home setting. Across the Peloponnese and probably 100 islands (including Cyprus) and cities you will come across the Venetian architectural influence. I have had the pleasure of visiting as mamy of these as my budget has permitted.
With this context in mind, many people will be unaware of the Greek influence in Venice. As I strolled around Venice, you could feel the history and the splendour of Venice, however, if you blinked you would miss the Greek connection. In fact I was in Venice on holiday, not to write and it was by chance that I stumbled upon a Greek church. I remember how excited the Italian woman became when I explained I could speak Greek. I think she was trying to tell me she was of Greco origin when the smell of latte and gelato took me away to another piazza. Italian is a difficult language for me to converse in.
Venice was either founded in 421 AD as tradition tells us or in the 600s, when the small communes banded together as one community under a leader called the Doge. Most of Italy during the 500’s – 600′s was under Byzantine Greek control with the south being notable for the use of Greek as the lingua franca.
An early and important Doge, was Orso Ipato, a Greek who was born in Heraclea in Calabria. The Doge had to report to the Byzantine Emperor, however, Venice was in essence an independent state whose foreign relations and some taxes were controlled by Constantinople. In 810, the Holy Roman Empire made an unsuccessful attempt to capture Venice, resulting in a Treaty that recognised Byzantine authority.
End of Byzantine control
However, despite the Treaty that was signed in 811 AD, it is probable that this is the date Byzantine control of Venice was essentially at an end. For the Byzantine Greek military had more to contend with Bulgarians, Slavs, Arabs and Avars who were entering the Empire. Venice could be let go as a distant territory. Unfortunately, this was one decision that would ultimately prove disastrous when you consider the disgraceful act of looting Constantinople in 1204 and the rise of Venice as a rival power.
In 1082 Emperor Alexios Comnenos signed a Treaty with Venice which guaranteed them extensive trade and commerce in Byzantium in return for their military support against the Normans. The new found trade opportunities allowed Venice to grow into the great power they became within a century.
Greek migrants in Venice
When Constantinople was defeated in 1453, and in the lead up to that disastrous event, many Greek speakers migrated to Italy including Venice for protection against the Ottomans. It is estimated that 5,000 made their way to Venice (this figure can not be verified), and were a key ingredient to what became known as the Renaissance. All the great Greek writers of the period who brought their own work as well as the classics helped usher in the Renaissance.
By 1500 there was a Greek library, a printshop (probably the first in the world) was created to reproduce Greek texts, ‘tavernas’ and the teaching of the Greek language. Cardinal Bessarion, a Greek Catholic born in Trebizond, donated his entire collection of Greek manuscripts to Venice. This resulted in one of the largest Greek libraries in the world.
The man who invented the modern printshop in Venice, Aldus Manutius, was deeply immersed in Greek culture, created the Nea Acadamia for Greek and Italian intellectuals focussing on the classics.
By 1580, there were over 15,000 Greek people in Venice out of a population of 110,000. This made Venice one of the biggest Greek ‘cities’ in the world. In 1539 an official Greek church was built and whilst I am not entirely sure, this is probably the Church I had stumbled upon in Venice in what is the Castello area. Old, beautiful, serene and Greek!
Around 1498 the Greek community was an officially recognised ‘scuola.’ My Italian is a little rusty therefore I am not able to understand when the official recognition of a community or scuola ended, though I would guess after the end of the Republic just before 1800.
They always say about Greek and Italian relations, una fatsa, una ratsa, which means one face, one race. This has traditionally referred to the Greek people in Calabria, Apulia, Sicilia and Sardinia, not Venice. However, one has to spend some time in Venice and various parts of Greece to understand we have a similar historia, with an influence that goes both ways. I’m glad that such a historical city as Venice has a Greek connection…now if they could just return those horses, per favore.
They say New York is the City of Dreams. I say London is the theatre where it all happens. With over 2000 years of history London is a city where every nationality under the sun is represented; and where you can be and achieve whatever you want. For me it was about discovering some more about myself.
London has always had a history of welcoming Greeks. From the Roman times to Byzantine times, Greeks occasionally ventured to the city on the Thames. One of the most prominent Greeks to have visited was Byzantine Emperor Manuel Palaiologos in 1400 when he was trying to rally support for his battles against the Ottoman Empire. During his visit it is probable that he would have heard only the sounds of old English. These days, it is much different as there is probably no language that isn’t spoken here, including Greek.
Have you ever walked down a High Street in London? If you do, I suggest you stop for a few moments. Listen to the passersby talk to each other or on their phones. Count how many languages or even English dialects you will hear. On my favourite Street, Moscow Road (in Bayswater), I can count at least 20 in a few minutes. One thing though that I will hear again and again on Moscow Road is Greek.
Greater London on any given day has 17 million people. That includes all 32 Boroughs, visitors, those that hide from the Census which is taken every 9 years and EU passport holders such as myself. I was always told to look up when you are in London. If you do, you will see the architectural triumph, a feast of architectural history. I was also told to listen out for the Greeks, but I will get to them in a second.
I lived in London for 4 and half years . My editor and best friend asked me to write a story about the Hellenic history I found there. In all honesty, I would need an eternity to write about the Greek aspect of London. In fact there will be a prequel to this article for I was immersed in the local Greek culture and have many, many yarns to tell.
Until I arrived in London, I never had much of an affinity with the UK. I am a supporter of a Republic. I want Australia to have its own head of state and campaigned for that years ago. When I went to London, people born there, British and Cypriots, really went out of their way to look after me. Their thoughtfulness and generosity was appreciated. I would have been lost without them. I remember I met a nice, charming Greek woman in Athens, who had never been to London. Things were going well until she kept pestering me about how much she dislikes Britain. I explained that it was the people of that country that had looked after me. Unable to get her to tone down her prejudice, I made the choice of ending my association with her. I never forget those who made a positive impact on me in London.
Before I tell you some of my Hellenic London yarns, I want you to know that on the days that I wasn’t being a Greek, I was an Australian there. Between 2008 – 2012, it felt good to be referred to as the ‘Aussie.’ Friends would introduce me to their networks with the following, ‘guys I would like you to meet my mate, he is an Aussie…don’t hold that against him!’
Growing up in beautiful Australia, before it was cool to have a friend from Italy, Yugoslavia, Spain or Greece, it was tough being an ethnic kid. There was always a form of prejudice against people who were ‘wog,’ as we were called back then. The irony of it was, I was a kid who played with the Anglos, was good at Rugby League and cricket and hated soccer (football) or anything that was ‘wog.’ I stopped playing bouzouki at the age of 10, dropped out of Greek dancing, avoided most of my fellow Greeks at a school full of them and generally spoke with an Australian accent rather than the distinctive suburban ethnic accent that you might hear at the local Greek coffee shop.
Interestingly, by my late teens and 20’s I was president of one of the biggest Greek student (university) clubs in the world, ran Greek theatre, organised Greek dancing at university, edited a Greek magazine and did a lot of fundraising for Greek Studies. Therefore I was never really seen as an Aussie in Sydney. I was the Greek guy who wasn’t a wog. In London, I enjoyed every single minute being called an Aussie. I once managed a police project across all of London, all 32 Boroughs. About 2000 people knew me as the Aussie. Occasionally I would tell them I had a Greek heritage and they would scratch their heads. “Probably explains your dark, handsome features,’ they would say!
My period in London actually helped me gain a greater appreciation of my own Greek identity and it had a lot to do with the people I socialised with. ‘Vasilaki, pou eisai, pame gia poto…..’ This call from any number of my Greek born friends was a regular experience. At 5 pm on any given day, Lazaros, Giannis, Andonis, Dimitris, Tryfonas and the list goes on, would get in touch for a drink. There were times I would say no. They never understood an oxi and I would be greeted with, ‘what kind of Greek are you, an Aussie?’ if I didn’t catch up for a drink!
During my last 2 years in London, we had a Greek coffee club. I would meet my Greek friends for lunch near my work and on just about every other week, I had a guest from another country (usually Greece or Australia) to join in. I would sit there with the Greek crowd and listen to them speak really quickly about the state of Greek affairs. Then they would turn to me and ask me in Greek for my opinion. I would look at them, blankly, and would say, ‘yes I agree completely’ as I hadn’t understood anything they had said. They would all burst out laughing and start speaking in English for my benefit. I think I understood the word Malaka was said a few times.
Greek Speakers in London
Around 280,000 people in London are Greek speakers and perhaps double that in the UK. This includes a majority of Cypriots. The UK is the only country in the world where Cypriot Greeks outnumber ‘mainland’ Greeks. When I was living in Sydney, I never realised there was much of a difference between Cypriot Greeks and the Greek Republic. In London, I could see the ‘division’ between the ‘two.’ The Cypriots have done well there, making money and getting ahead in London society. The Greeks in general come to the UK and go back, the Cypriots overwhelmingly stay. I could also see a big difference in the dialect between the 2 ‘countries.’ I use inverted commas for the following reason. Cyprus is just another beautiful Greek island with its own dialect. Their Hellenic heritage is just as pure at that of Athens.
That leads me to the many local Greek speakers who made an impact on my life. Whether it was the entertaining Panikos, the reliable John, Irene (one of my close friends, originally a Canadian), Charles, Leni, Maria and Gina, James, Panos the singer and the list goes on. I will single out Christalla. Like just about of any of my local, mainly Cypriot friends, I was treated like a cousin.
Christalla lived near me. I met her parents and sister and brother, and they all made me feel like a local. Whether I ate at their home (hence eradicating my homesickness) or just being there for me whenever I needed advice. I would go along to their Greek parties, cancer fundraisers, coffee days, Greek dinners and be introduced to other Greek speakers. Christalla and her boyfriend Alan, a champion guy who always made me laugh, were good near neighbours to have. I have even forgiven Christalla for getting me banned from our local coffee shop, Domali’s. You see, I had just been dumped by my girlfriend and she asked the very pretty waitress if she was interested in me…suffice to say the waitress never spoke to me again!
Speaking of neighbours, I had several in my area who were Greek and I would catch up with for a coffee and Greek/Cyprus political comment. When I wasn’t doing that, I was being entertained, cooked for, guided and befriended by Stella and Jon. I admit that Jon was my ‘bromance’ guy and a Phil Hellene. Every other day he would make me train and he in turn would keep my mind ticking with his banter and chats. Stella, to tell you how small the world is, was someone I knew from my university days in Sydney. She didn’t like me much then. One day she appeared on my facebook, and I added her. I asked the question, ‘are you in London?’ Her reply, ‘yes I am, I live in Crystal Palace.’ Turns out she and Jon lived 100 metres from me. O kosmos einai mikros, small world. Many a night I would relax at their place and steal some of their food, it was nice to have these people on my door step. In fact, Crystal Palace was full of amazing people, British, Greek or otherwise. People like Darren, Sam, Jack, Heath, Jake, Thomas the Greek, Rob, Caroline, Atif, the list goes on. People I will never forget.
I arrived in London on April 15, 2008 to stay with a friend of mine in an area called Gipsy Hill. When Akif took me there, I immediately thought to myself, ‘this is not Harrods!’ In due course the area not only grew on me, it became an important part of my life. Anyway, back to that day in 2008. It was about 14 degrees which was freezing in my mind and I went for a walk in the area, which is actually called Crystal Palace. I came across an impressive cathedral. Its design and stone made it tower above all other the buildings. I read the inscription on the Church and it was in Greek! Must have been a tribute to the Greeks I thought. I went into the Church and I could see the Byzantine style frescos and icons and I realised it was a Greek Church, Saints Constantine and Eleni. Until the day that I departed from London, I would usually start every Sunday with a visit to the Church.
South London Greek Society
Then one day Maria, Panayiotis and Gina thought they would set up a Church youth group. After some initial hesitation I decided to be their Australian Ambassador and to give them some guidance and support. Maria created the South London Greek Society and it was a great way to meet those interested in Greece and Cyprus or were part of the Greek Orthodox faith.
We each brought ideas to the group. Some wanted coffee afternoons, others trips to Orthodox sanctuaries, dinners and for me it was Greek dancing. I located a Greek teacher from Greece, Kostas and his wife Anastasia and we soon held Greek dancing lessons at the Church hall. There was a catch. I had said earlier that I had dropped out of Greek dancing as a kid. This was a chance at redemption for me. Unfortunately, the class times were held either when I wasn’t available or it clashed with other things in my life at the time. When I did attend, I would be called upon to give a history lesson on some of the regions where the songs had originated from.
The Greek group was fantastic. I met approximately 50 people of Greek heritage, mainly from Cyprus. Soon I was invited to birthday parties, dinners and of course we held our own events and Kostas would even convince me to play basketball at Crystal Palace with other Greeks.
I can’t go past the dinners at Yia Mas Greek Restaurant in Putney. The food was always exquisite and whilst Maria and Gina’s parents own it, it became our little meeting point for key events. Did I mention I gained a few kilos there…
One of the most pleasing aspects of London was helping fellow Hellenes that came through. I estimate I helped about 20 with providing contacts, editing resumes and passing them on, introducing people and being there to provide initial support. This was usually to the Greeks who came from Greece. I also took the time to make an effort to know Greek Australians who came into town. There was always someone who knew someone who would get in touch. And it made sense too, for when I came to London, there was a small group of Greek Australians that met every few months for the wog lunch.
The tradition of the lunch dates back to 2003 and the idea was to meet at real English Gastropubs. I was invited by a friend of mine Matina, the organiser, for an Easter gathering in 2008 at Bayswater. There I met Marissa, Maggie, Basil, Georgina, George and a few others. It was just like being in Sydney except it was cold and we had a feast at Aphrodite’s. I was anti-London food at the time which meant I didn’t really appreciate what we ate. I couldn’t understand why they were all salivating at the food. I had to return a few more times to see how good it was. Greek food in London is usually a letdown. Of the 40 that I visited, I would say a few were not as good as they could have been. The ones I mentioned in this article are brilliant and there are many others that you will have to discover, just like I did.
When Matina left London in 2009, I took over the coordination of the wog lunch with a friend of mine Vivian. It was always a joy to hang out with the gang, whether it was our dj friend Johnny Kaz or Michael who would always tell it like it was, these gatherings were great. The common link was either Greece, a mutual mate John C who brought most of us together when he was in London or a love of good company. I will never forget the time Marissa organised a wog outing to the Australian day club, the Church. There were about 10 Greek girls and me, the chaperone!
We always had a rule for our ethnic lunches. They had to be a Greek Australian or closely connected to us. One of the few exceptions I made was for Alex, Maria and Desi. I met them in 2009 and had an instant rapport with them. Alex is of a Greek British heritage, whilst the girls are half Cretan and Cyprus. They once gave a tour of the Greek suburbs. Perhaps, the next time I write I will give you an insight about that tour and Greek suburbia!
Another anecdote from the small world category was Anastasia, who I employed as a specialist contractor on a project of mine in Australia in 2005. We lost contact for a while and then, just by chance I had to send an e-mail to a girl called Anastasia about a Greek event in London in 2009. She asked me to call her, which I did. The response to my hello Anastasia was…‘Billy, do you still play that loud Greek music in the office haha!’
There are many Greek speaking areas in London, perhaps not as pronounced as what you will find in Melbourne, Sydney, New York, Chicago. One of my favourites was Bayswater. This is a great area, with its many white buildings designed around Roman and Edwardian style of architecture. It is on the edge of Hyde Park, full of tourists, bars, cafes especially the Arabic ones with the argyle and its where my favourite is, BYZANTIUM.
A number of my friends live in the area. Basil who was like a brother to me, Mary, Christina and Evi. I visited Bayswater more than any other place outside of Crystal Palace. If I was ever in need of a boost, I could meet friends from all over London here and have a frappe. There were times when I would be here from morning until the night and if it was too late, I was forced to sleep on a friends’ couch!
If you are ever in London, come over to Bayswater. My friend from Sydney, Chris, once came and stayed in London for a while and he made it his goal to get to Aghia Sofia as often as he could. I can’t blame him. The impressively designed Byzantine style (the Justinian Constantinople period) Church is like a beacon for the Greek community. I spent my final London Easter here, starting at a friends’ place, where as always I invited a few extras, before we attended the service at the Church, followed by a visit to Byzantium cafe and then Greek Farmers’ Market with whoever remained. At about 4 am I think it was just Basil, Marianna, Silvia, Irene and Christina having a Greek treat.
Bayswater, will always bring a smile to my face. Whether it’s the old men in the cafe who stay inside playing tavli for 24 hours, the Athenian Grocer, the number of Greek eateries (including in Notting Hill) or a bar where Greeks tend to congregate, you will never get bored. And here you will find the 4 types of Greeks that exist in London. Those from Greece, those from Cyprus, British Greeks and Hellenes such as myself born in other countries.
This is just the start of what I can reveal about Hellenic London. This article has been essentially a collection of what I have in the short term memory. There are an infinite amount of stories and I will have to update you next time on other aspects of Hellenic London. From the exhibitions, to the heart of the Cypriot neighbourhoods, Greek wine, festivals, Greek music, frappe and the mad dash to get to Greece every few weeks.
As I sit by the Sydney ocean and reflect on London, I think about the Hellenic awakening in me. London may be cold and dark but it can make a person warm and Greek on the inside. If it was good enough for a Byzantine Greek king, it was good enough for me.
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Sitting by the water in Sydney, a place that is summed up with one word, Spectacular, I cast my mind back to where it was in the world that I felt more comfortable, more at ease and immersed in the local culture as I am in Sydney at times. No, it’s not my wonderful London and Crystal Palace. No it isn’t the splendor of Spain or the Ukraine where I had been somewhat of a celebrity. I thought maybe Mytilene (my incredible ancestral home) by the harbour, second only to Sydney Harbour. It’s actually the city of Athens, my city.
Whenever I return to Athens, and in the last 5 years I went over 20 times, I feel like a new man, like a king, like a poet, like a writer, like…me.
It can be hard to explain. This city which has been continuously inhabited for 7000 years, the home of theatre, the home of politics, the home of philosophy, the home of art, the home of expression, the home of Pericles.
On my very first day in Athens, I have a ‘routina.’ I sit in a park and there are only few of them. It is usually hot. I sit there in the sun with either my cola light or frappe, my phone, my Greek newspaper and my thoughts. I immerse myself in the geitonea (neighbourhood). I listen to the people talking excitedly about politics, I survey the gypsies who look at my tan and wonder if I am one of their kind. Mostly, I feel incredibly happy to return. After making a series of phone calls to see who is about I have one last look around.
Athens, you see, is not very aesthetically pleasing. On the surface, it breaks my heart to see the city which was once adorned with columns and marbles, Byzantine stones and churches (medieval times) is now…a puzzlement. In the 1960’s or thereabout, Karamanlis the Greek Prime Minister, like many before and since, had a ‘vision.’ That vision was to wreck the beauty of Athens. To be fair, Athens was experiencing a population boom as the other regions of Greece struggled post war and post famine, and of course the city welcomed Greek refugees from Constantinople.
The Government in their wisdom would replace the majestic Neo Classical buildings (many can still be found around Ermou and the city kentro, wonderful modern Greek buildings) that adorned Athens since independence from the Ottoman Empire. People would trade in their homes for 3 apartments in a very ‘average’ designed building. They are everywhere in modern Athens and I personally find them to be offensive. The one positive is, it has allowed the growth of ‘apartment owners’ in Athens, and with the current economic crisis, it can only help.
In this context I stand at the corner of any given street. If you scratch the surface, you will find another Athens. The buildings may no longer be Neoclassical, but each street will tell me a story. I look around and I know what I find. I feel the history on any given street, more than most. It’s because I never lived here. My grandparents never visited, they were refugees, they would have had no knowledge of this city. My parents rarely visit Athens and they never grew up with this city. Yet here I am.
I find a sense of wonderment when I see the old Trolley transport or orange street lighting glowing, the frequency and noise of the motorbikes and coffee shops full of people or the souvlatsidiko cooking my favourite food. The smell wafts across my nostrils.
A Sense of Modern History
On any given street I can feel it. The sense of history in modern times is there. You can not believe how many times Athens has been at war. From the Ottomans, Italians, the disgraceful Nazis, the Civil War. Athens, my one true love, has also experienced the turbulence of famine in the 1950’s, the military Junta in the 1970’s and the ‘welcoming’ of refugees from the catastrophe of the 1920’s in Turkey and in the decades that followed. On any given street, you can feel the spirit of these people. If you are lucky to find a Rebetathiko or Skiladiko, you will hear the sad sounds of the refugees and of a poverty stricken Greece, sounds that were on the radio long before Sakis Rouvas told us to ‘Shake It.’
Athens may not have had a Masterplan. It did however end up being a masterpiece. For no city in the world can overcome adversity they way she does. Beaten by Sparta, she rose again. Beaten by Thebes, she rose again. Beaten by Philip II, she rose again. Beaten by the Romans, she rose again. She will always have a spirit that can never be beaten. When I say masterpiece, she genuinely is. Athens has a myriad of ‘cultural’ institutions to whet the appetite, and I mean bars, cafes, tavernas, eateries. They are Athens’ version of a community centre. Just about every street will of course lead you to one of these. Every street will fill your desire to be happy. It doesn’t matter if you are in any of my old spots of Keramikos or Pangrati or the villa lined Kifissia or Glyfida,.I can tell you, good people, characters in the stage play that is Athens, will await you at every turn.
And at every turn you will also find a periptero. It’s a kiosk that is small, manned by a single person and in some respects is bigger than a supermarket as it has what you really need…. Tsigara, newspapers, souveneirs and anything else you want. They also act as defacto information booths. I always get lost and ask the periptero owner for directions. Or if I want to know the state of politics, I just ask at the periptero.
The periptero will also tell you what I always knew. Athens by night, there is no comparison. This is a city that tries not to sleep. I had a girlfriend from Athens. She would work at 8 am, yet at 6 am we would still be at the bouzoukia! No city has what Athens has. Clubs and bars everywhere for everyone. Most tourists have no idea. When you learn about the hidden gems in at least a dozen parts of the city, you will be amazed. Pool parties, mountain bars, dj’s by the water, Greek singers playing every night, from midnight to the early hours.
Another Side to Athens
Athens by night can never cease to amaze me. I WILL NOT TELL YOU WHERE TO GO. You will have to discover them as I did. With locals who care not what the economic situation is at 2 am in the morning. Athens by night is where the beautiful creatures play. Sometimes, I sit at a bar with a music friend and wonder what I am doing there, it’s impossible to compete with ‘models’ and the like. Then I remember I am a guest of someone important rather than being modelesque myself.
Let me hasten to add something else that will surprise you. Athens has some of the best beaches you can imagine for a large city, which along with Pireaus, has 5 million people. Once you get close to Vouliagmeni, the coast all the way up to Sounio and the Temple of Poseidon, is amazing. Forget the islands, there are a number of sandy spots to unwind, windsurf, tan up and have your frappe.
If you ever get bored of Athens, and I doubt you will, try one of the neighbouring islands. There are five or six in the Soranikos Gulf and also Tzea, which are worth a visit. Each island is small and can be reached within an hour or two from Pireaus for a day trip or a weekender. I have been to all of these islands and I recommend Hydra for its artistic heritage, Agistri for its quiet and laid back style, Poros as the magic of the region and Spetses to reach out to your romantic side.
I can rave about Athens for hours. I won’t tell you about the ancient sites or the Byzantine churches to visit. I’m not a tourist travel writer. I won’t tell you to visit Likavitos for a concert or to sit by the church and survey Athens. I won’t tell you why cobble-stoned Plaka is one of the best and most picturesque city centres in the world and nor will it be me who will tell you that Sounio has a spectacular sun set from either of the tavernas by the water. I might tell you it has great public transport links, from the Metro, Trams, Trolley, frequent busses, taxis everywhere and if you are seen as a nice person, you will get a lift from a stranger.
A Change of Heart
I will tell you this. I hated Athens until 2004. I hated the fact it looked ‘ugly.’ It took a trip to the Olympic Games with Leonie and about 10 others to make me realise what this city can do, day or night. I have a picture from a night at a bar in 2004. There are about a dozen of us. Each of us had had a great time in Athens and listening to everyone recount stories made me proud. This city has something for everyone.
I will finish on this note. Athens is the city I truly belong in. Something about a crisis has put an end to that dream. I have met some amazing people there and my only 2 long term girlfriends live there. My cousins who are more like brothers (whom I adore very much) and the friends that remain there. I use the word ‘remain’ as many have gone from Athens. Next year when I visit it will be sad that they will not be there, after many, many years and good times together. I dedicate this article to them and I reflect on my city. Athens, just scratch the surface and you will find it.
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Surrounded by a group of Greek speaking friends, the hair on the back of my neck suddenly stood up as my friends rose as one and sang their hearts out to the Greek National Anthem. As the lads sang, se gnorzo ap thn opsi….. everyone in this packed London pub turned to watch us. It was the closing act of the wonderful London Games and I soon joined in with my friends. It was just days before I was due to leave London, suddenly a tear formed and dropped on my cheek. My Greece, my Ellada, which was the catalyst for this moment, these great Games. And I was sharing a moment in history with my Greek friends (and one Pakistani – British mate). I was proud of my heritage and my time in London, and standing there singing, badly in true karaoke style, was a moment in time that will never be forgotten.
A Pub full of Greek speakers
All the trouble that Greece has endured in recent times can always be swept aside by the panache of a special occasion. In that pub that night, Lazaridis, Dimitris, Alex, Charlie and Atif reminded me of what the Games can mean to many different people. I was fortunate enough to have worked and lived through the most successful Games in history, Sydney 2000. I experienced the surreal party atmosphere of the Athens Games with perhaps the greatest Opening Ceremony in history balanced by the biggest let down with the Kenderi-Thalou drug scandal; and lately I attended the exceptionally organised and brilliantly supported London 2012.
In between I to attended Paralympics in 2000 and 2004. Whilst this article isn’t focusing on these Games, let me tell you, that there are no more inspirational people on the planet than these phenomenal athletes. I count as one of my friends the Paraylmpic champion swimmer and inspiration to many people, Denise Beckwith. I haven’t seen her since the 2004 Games, much to my regret. Let me tell you, that a few minutes with Denise and you are truly blessed. The champion qualities and charisma of this woman are incredible. I hope now that I have returned to Sydney I will catch up with her again.
In 776 BC a group of athletes representing the ancient Greek city –states and kingdoms came together to enjoy a period of peace, friendship and sporting rivalry. Whether you were from Mytilene, Macedonia, Sicily or Cyprus, it didn’t matter as you were always welcome at the Games if you were part of the Greek speaking world, which were also a time to honour the Gods. Remember, no victory was complete unless it had been ‘ordained’ by a higher being. Perhaps our modern equivalent are the Oscars where winners ‘like to thank God,’ ironic when most of them probably haven’t been to church for a while.
What the ancient Greeks created at Olympia was extraordinary. There are stories of Hercules attending, Alexander the Great winning his race as everyone was too scared to beat him, nude wrestling and plenty of local wine flowing. The ancient Hellenic world was fragmented. No such concept as a unified Greece existed and wars were never ending. Yet the ancient Games were a great way to bring about peace and stability, if only for a few months. Athletes attended as friends, not as enemies, though when the Games ended the hostilities resumed.
The mythology that relates to the Games dictates that Hercules created the concept of a rectangular stadium and was present at the first event, deciding to call the gathering ‘Olympic,’ a name that has remained in place. The Games were an institution throughout antiquity, being held every 4 years during summer. It can be argued that the recent summer Games in London were in fact ‘winter’ given the poor weather and rain!
In 426 AD the medieval Byzantine Greek Emperor Theodosius II brought an end to the Games by ordering the destruction of ancient rituals.
I have a picture from 2004 with a group of about 10 of us sitting in a bar at the end of a great day of competition. For Maroulis, ‘it was about the spirit of being there as a volunteer, to give something back to my country as a volunteer.’ For my best friend George, ‘it was an experience like no other. I live in Japan and it was a surreal moment to be there.’ I will always remember 2004 for the wedding of his sister Angela to Spiro in Greece, and George tagged along on the ‘honeymoon’ to Athens to watch a few events. Leonie, Annette and myself laughed a long time about this as we travelled though Greece together.
My picture also featured Kostas, Nick, another Angela, Gregory, Theo and Matina. All of them had a unique Olympic experience. With Theo for example, one minute we were in Ios at a day club and the next we are at the Marousi Olympic stadium. And whilst it may not have equalled the Sydney Olympic Stadium or London, what it held there were the dreams of athletes and people alike. You could feel the tremendous atmosphere, the spirit of being in Athens. This is the birthplace of the modern Games (but not the ancient Olympiad). People cried when we pulled off the Opening Ceremony. I laughed when I noticed the lone builder walk out and hammer in one final bolt in the middle of the stadium. A reminder that Greece only just managed to pull off the Games. The typical male aristocracy (organising committee) played tavli I suspect as the Games’ organisation became a laughing stock. Sydney began whispering that they would host it again. Thankfully Gianna Angelopoulos- Daskalaki was allowed to return by the ‘geniuses’ who exiled her in the first place. She and her team stunned me and the world by staging a rather spectacular Games.
Like I did at Sydney, I went to 4 events. I went as an Australian, as I did in Sydney. I was proud of Thorpey and all of our representatives. ‘GOLD, GOLD, GOLD, GOLD to Australia….. the kangaroodes have done it again.’ I was proud to be there. But just as proud to see all the Greek flags flying off buildings, taxis, cars, cafes, everywhere. It was as patriotic as it was in Sydney. However, this outward display of national pride was strangely lacking in London. Athens no longer looked tired, she looked like a formidable sea of blue and white. This was the time I changed my opinion of Athens and fell in love with her. I use to think it was an ugly city. The Games and the incredible vibe changed my opinion. Every night we would sit in Plaka surrounded by thousands of people, singing, chanting, celebrating, loving. I was in love with this city and the Olympic Games.
As we all sat in the 1896 marble stadium to watch the marathon runners finish in front of us and with the Games at an end, I was with good friends, my girlfriend, my kombaro, my cousin. I felt that tear welling up. Being a macho man, and those days with abs no less, I couldn’t let it roll out. Instead we had a massive night, in true Greek fashion, to celebrate and with plenty of cola light and souvlakia. We watched the sun rise over the Acropolis as a whole city stayed out (as per usual) to enjoy a perfect night in summer.
Sydney 2000, Kenderis and my mate Dom
Standing across from the Olympic Village at what can only be described as the ‘astonishing achievement’ of Olympic Park, Dominic and I looked in awe at the athletes’ village. I was asked, ‘Billy, what do you think it’s like in there, what are they feeling?’ Little did I know that one year later I would become the Auburn Council representative of the village, helping to establish a Community Centre and to plan for the future of the village. If you ever visit Sydney, be sure to go to Newington as its now called. The village has every street named after an athlete. Stroll down Spyridon Louis or visit Dawn Fraser Avenue. It sits beside Haslams Creek and you can sense the history. The Games did a lot for Western Sydney and Newington is just one example. I worked at the Council which was the home of the Games as the community development dude. It was incredible to be there every day, it was a sense of wonderment to remain there after the Games too. The Community Centre I managed by the way, was the actual Media Centre for the Games.
Back to Dominic my mate who was living in London and still does. He took a special charter jet to make the Games. One night after work we hung out at Olympic Park with 400,000 thousand others. We were watching the 200 metres semi final replay on the massive screen. We noticed a Greek, Kostas Kenderis. He coasted to victory. We immediately suspect that this man would not do well in the final, as he was not exactly a household name. The final comes on. Kenderis by the 100 metres had established a lead. The crowd inside the stadium goes wild. Australians will always support an underdog. Then he gets to the finish, arms outstretched. HE WINS!!!!!!! Dom (who may be a Greek in disguise) and I jumped for joy and ran around the park. Hugging anyone we could. People thought we must have been lunatics. Why are 2 Aussies celebrating the Greek? What a moment in time. I met Kostas Kenderis on my island in 2002 and have a photo with him on a night out. In Lesbos he is still a hero. He was born there and the fastest ship on the island is known as the ‘Kenderis.’ We watched him train on the main road whenever he was on the island. No one can believe he did what he did in 2004 by missing the drugs test. Truly sad.
London, a spectacular you had to experience
Fast forward to London. I had planned to leave in 2011. Then I somehow stayed on for a girl, as you do. At the time I thought it was the best thing to do….. you never know what ‘might’ happen. In the end it didn’t last but I was grateful enough to go to a number of Olympic events instead with my old mate Dom. We had the time of our lives. I can only imagine how silly I would have been to have returned to Sydney without seeing the Games, and with Dom of all people. I hope he can join me in Rio 2016.
I can fondly recall spending a day with my buddy James around Olympic Park getting interviewed by international media. Initially they thought we were Jamaican (long Story). As it became known we hail from Australia, the Brasilians, then Italians, Westfield TV and Indian TV interviewed us. When an interviewer asked me to prove I was Greek, I promptly walked over to a girl dining and borrowed her plate to smash……
A real highlight of London was how well the host nation performed. Team GB. I copped a lot of stick from the Poms because they finally beat us at events. I hate that but I appreciate how good humoured they are. To see a country I adore and respect (GB) embrace the ideals of the Games is phenomenal. Due to the Games, a number of deprived Boroughs have had a make over. An emphasis has been made on youth and disadvantaged members of society. In Sydney, the greatest Games of all time, it was the environment and the transformation of an entire region. I’m not quite sure about Athens. Yes we received a brilliant infrastructure upgrade, but unlike Olympic Park in Sydney, I’m not sure how well the Olympic venues are being used. Olympic Park in Sydney by the way is the barometer of what a Games period can do for a city. It is a vibrant multi use area, 2 suburbs have essentially been created, its constantly busy, has vast amounts of park land, significant business usage and is very beautiful. Words can not do it justice.
Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Games, was spot on to recreate the ancient tradition. Being held every 4 years in different cities. It allows each host city to address issues that it may never have attended to. China showcased itself to the world, London once again demonstrated how well an entire population can support an historical event and it glorious artistic side. I expect Rio will highlight how far Latin America has come, as a powerhouse continent, not to mention the wonderful and exciting culture of Brasil that we across the world have come to adore. The modern Greeks wanted to keep the Games in Athens every 4 years. This would defeat the concept of true internationalism and the opportunity for the rest of the world to take in the architectural delight of a Barcelona or an Atlanta. Who can forget the hospitable way Seoul opened their hearts for athletes, most who had never been to Asia, or the excitement of going behind the Iron Curtin in Moscow in 1980?
I will provide you with one final little known fact. Athens held an interim, though unofficial, Games in 1906 and by all accounts was very successful with the Greeks finishing fourth at the Games. Australia competed at that event and placed 20th and like Greece has been to every modern Olympic Games.
If Hercules was still around today, perhaps he, like myself, would contemplate letting a tear roll down his cheek. For there is no better achievement than to bring people together to celebrate sport, culture, arts and architecture. Greece may be a lot of things, a financial basket case, a place for a tan perhaps, but it is the country which gave us the Games. Those Games have given joy to billions, and to me it made a macho man sensitive (geia thn Ellada mou).
Billy Cotsis, was born in Sydney with a Greek heritage and lived in London for 4.5 years.
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