The Luxury of a Greek Refuge: Luxembourg Hellenes

The hair on the back of my neck stood up as the packed congregation of the Greek Church sang the National Anthem. It was October 28, and the Church was filled by patriots, the local community, members of NATO and a lone tourist from Australia.
They sang from the heart, as loud as their voices could carry them. Continue reading

Jerusalem: Hellenic Perspective of an Incredible City

One of the most incredible cities in history, from its establishment by King David in Biblical times to the present day. It is one of the most sought after cities in the world, having been ruled by Assyrians, Persians, Romans, Crusaders, Arabs, Ottomans, British, Jordanians, Jews…. And of course the Greeks. This is not an exhaustive list.
Jerusalem has been taken on at least 44 occasions. Continue reading

The Many Faces of Hellenic Identity

[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

Hellenic Ocean: Surreal Memories from the Black Sea

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

Opportunity & Adventure: The Greek Presence in Africa

Timing can be everything. I was just about to book my trip to see my adventurous Greek friend Will, a guy who had lived in 4 countries, including his latest residence in Libya. I was in for a rude surprise. Continue reading

Una Fatsa, Una Ratsa…Venice and the Greek Horses of Power

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?

In Crete
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.

Greek influence
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.

A Greek tale about a Hellene in London

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.

Aussie Billy
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!

Greek Parea
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.

Greek Church
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…

Ethnic lunch
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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