A week of being Greek


My friend Yianni is convinced that I am labouring under the delusion that I am possessed of a sense of humour. Accordingly, he claims that he has been valiantly attempting to disabuse me of my misapprehension for years, to no avail.

Take for instance this, in my opinion, inspired attempt at levity:

– I don’t always joke about stillborn Greek gods… but when I do, it’s all about dead Pan delivery.

– You have to stop trying to make jokes, Yianni observed crisply with his dentitic Athenian accent. You aren’t funny.

– Well, I think that I’m as hilarious as St Hilary of Poitiers, if you’ll pardon the pun, I responded.

– What pun? Yianni asked, mystified.

– There wasn’t one? I’m sorry.

Yianni’s complaints notwithstanding, I like to think that my attempts at hilarity are slightly less lame then those of archetypal comedian Aristophanes and I cite ancient authority to defend my contention. In his “Comparison of Aristophanes and Menander”, the ancient writer Plutarch whines about Aristophanes’ puns (παρωνυμίας), which according to him are employed too often (πολλάκις), inopportunely (οὐκ εὐκαίρως) and feebly, (ψυχρῶς). He lists a few of the worst:

  • ὅτι τοὺς ταμίας ἐβάπτισεν, οὐχὶ ταμίας ἀλλὰ Λαμίας… because he doused the rich men, no not the rich men, but the witch-men.
  • γάστριζε καὶ τοῖς ἐντέροις καὶ τοῖς κόλοις stuff him one in his guts and belly.
  • ὑπὸ γέλωτος εἰς Γέλαν ἀφίξομαι I’ll go to Laughton conveyed by laughter.
  • ἄγρια γὰρ ἡμᾶς, ὦ γυναῖκες, δρᾶ κακά, ἅτ᾽ ἐν ἀγροίσοι τοῖς λαχάνοις αὐτὸς τραφείς Raw are the evils he does to us, women himself raised among raw vegetables.

Justifiably, Plutarch, who was possessed of a delicate constitution and took himself rather seriously, characterises Aristophanes’ word play as φλυαρία ναυτιώδης, that is nauseating nonsense. I despise Plutarch.

READ MORE: Venom in Verse: Aristophanes in Modern Greece

The Epitaphios

The week before the return of the lockdown, after a long hiatus, caused by the first lockdown, Yianni and I caught up in a café frequented by Greeks, one of whom, a mature gent sporting a gold medallion necklace, has the unnerving propensity to listen in on one’s conversation and then interject loudly «Σφάξ’ τους όλους!»
The following exchange took place:

– So did you end up going to the Epitaphios?

– Of course I did, Yianni replied. I wouldn’t miss the νυφοπάζαρο for anything. The Good Friday Fashion Parade… he answers.

– Not these days. I mused. Surely that is a custom that died in the nineties? I’m finding most ladies dress for warmth and comfort these days and no longer make use of such conventions for the purposes of finding prospective partners.

– Exactly, Yianni affirmed. It is the demise of the Balkan Baroque sartorial that I find the most stimulating and which I lament.

Although Yianni supports Greece’s main opposition SYRIZA (Radical Left Coalition) party and claims that he is an atheist, he has pronounced opinions about the aesthetics of the Orthodox liturgy as it is practiced, or rather deconstructed in this country. I first met him in our parish church, where we recite the Lord’s Prayer first in Greek then in English.

As the altar boys began to intone: “Our Father”, an elderly man was heard to say:

– Our Father, our Godfather. Humph!

– Τι έχετε; the person who I later learned, was Yianni, standing next to him, asked.

– Τι τα θέλουν τα εγγλέζικα; the old man responded. Ο Θεός δεν καταλαβαίνει εγγλέζικα.

Yianni reprises the story, re-enacting the old man’s sweeping hand gestures of derision. As he does so, he sends my almond latte flying across the table and seeping onto my lap. I rise, in pursuit of napkins and a salve to sooth my scalding.

READ MORE: Vale Kostas Voutsas, a legendary man of Greek comedy passes away, funeral to be held on Friday

Coolly, he observes:

– You have a funny walk. Disjointed and jagged. Like you’ve been pulled apart and put back together wrong.

In “Thesmophoriazousae” the master Aristophanes has his character Agathon saying:
σκέψαι δ᾽ὅτι/ Ἴβυκος ἐκεῖνος κἀνακρέων ὁ Τήιος/ κἀλκαῖος, οἵπερ ἁρμονίαν έχύμισαν,/ ἐμιτροφόρουν τε καὶ διεκλῶντ᾽ Ἰωνικῶς.

“That famous Ibycus and Anacreon of Teos/ and Alcaeus, who gave their harmony taste,/ wore headbands and ponced (broke themselves in two) around in Ionian style.”

I inform Yianni that my life’s sole ambition is to learn how to ponce Ionian style. Yianni responds nonchalantly that he is not surprised. There is silence as we listen to two teenagers possessed of a social conscience discuss the Black Lives Matter movement and comment:

– You know, like the guy who ended apartheid in South Africa. Whatsisname…?

– Morgan Freeman?

– Yeah, him.

Yianni sighs and turns to me. “No lives matter.”

“What are you talking about?” I shudder.

“Όλοι στο μαύρο χώμα θα μπούμε,” he shrugs as I ponder whether this is his attempt at humour noir.

A few days later, I present a lecture at the Greek Centre on the Genocide. Yianni declines to attend because in his youth he rubbed shoulders with some eminent Pontian historians and their knowledge appears to have rubbed off onto him.

At the conclusion of the lecture, a lady comes up to me in a state of great agitation. “My son is third generation,” she lisps, as flecks of spittle launch from her clenched teeth and land upon my chin with uncanny precision. “He does not identify as Greek, he does not like Greek music, or the Greek language or Greek culture, or Greek traditions and doesn’t enjoy hanging around Greeks. Why is the Greek Community doing nothing to cater for these youth? The Greek Community is doing nothing for people who aren’t interested in ‘Greek things’. You need to do something for them.”

I allowed her words to sink in for a few brief minutes, feeling the weight of her expectations press down upon my shoulders, before suggesting:

“So, do you think we should form a Greek organisation for third generation Greeks who do not like Greek music, or the Greek language or Greek culture, or Greek traditions and don’t enjoy hanging around Greeks?”

Almost immediately came the answer: “Yes.”

An elderly man taps me politely on the shoulder while I attempt to disengage myself. He wants to give me his email address so that I can send him a copy of my lecture notes. He pronounces each letter slowly, giving it its Greek alphabetical name and then adopts the modern Greek usage of calling the @ ampersand, «παπάκι». I inform him that the earliest yet discovered reference to the @ symbol is a religious one, featured in a 1345 Bulgarian translation of a Greek chronicle. Held today in the Vatican Apostolic Library, it features the @ symbol in place of the A in the word Amen. The man tells me that religion is the root of all evil and abruptly turns away.

Relaying the conversation to Yianni over the phone the next day, he merely snorts and calls him a Κασαλβοπορνομαχλοπρωκτεπεμβάτης. I recognise this as one of the many compound insults devised by Konstantinos of Rhodes to mock his enemy, the scholar Leon Choirosphaktes, signifying one who mounts the anuses of whores, prostitutes and lewd women.

The real reason why I have telephoned him is because I am excited about my idea for a Greek-Australian dystopian sci-fi epic, which came to me while cleaning the toilet. It is entitled “Mansions of the Gods.”

The year is 2501. All of Melbourne except Oakleigh and Northcote is underwater after an epic cataclysm. A form of Gringlish has been adopted as the official language of both these hostile enclaves, ruled by the Oakleigh Traders Association and the Northcote Cake Bakers, respectively. The Oakleigh Traders worship the 34 gods of Lonsdale Street according to ancient rite, led by the Grand Vanilla whereas the Northcote Bakers enforce strict adherence to the strictures of St Orthodox Thornbury, palaeomartyr. Both claim to possess the mythical “Heart of Hellenism” (Καρδιά του Ελληνισμού). When a fabled lost island called Templestowe emerges from the waves, Bruce McYanni is sent to investigate. What emerges from among the render threatens to rip the two communities asunder…

Yianni makes no comment save to say that he has been listening to retro Greek Heavy metal Band Necromantia all day because his biorhythms have become misaligned. I riposte that during Pericles’ time the musicologist Damon conducted research into the effect which different keys and rhythm have on behaviour and decision making. According to Robert Wallace it was Pericles’ interest in using this research for controlling the people that led to Damon’s ostracism. He tells me where to go and terminates the call.

This is unfortunate because a short while later, I became a participant in the following conversation while trying to renew my policy with my professional insurer and I was dying to share it with him:

– Can you spell me your name please?

– Kalimniou.

– That’s a good Greek name isn’t it?

– I can confirm that it is a Greek name. How good it is, is entirely a matter for speculation. What do your files say?

– Ummm

– If it is a GOOD Greek name, does that mean I get a discount on my premium?

– I’ll be in touch…

Only just yesterday, I was driving over the MacRobertson Bridge, over the Yarra, when I received a call from Yianni. Disdaining to answer while engaged in operating a motor vehicle, I merely reflected upon the cultural phenomenon of the γεφυρισμός, an ancient Athenian term for the pastime of youth to stand by a bridge and hurl insults to initiates proceeding to Eleusis as part of the Eleusinian mysteries. Those taking part in the procession were not allowed to respond and I had mental images of observing Yianni traverse the bridge’s span while being excoriated. Now that, in my considered opinion, is funny.

 



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