Greece Is the Word

The Olympic flame burns eternal for Anastasia Safioleas and her family.

The sun shines brightly as I pull into the driveway of my childhood home. It casts a warm glow on this slice of post-war suburbia, with its nature strips and pruned rose bushes and narrow garden paths and tidy rows of rubbish bins. Our house is a red clinker, small and a bit charmless but built to last. They’re everywhere in Melbourne’s inner north, home to the families of Greek migrants just like my parents. It’s Mum and Dad’s pride and joy.

The Corinthian columns they installed as soon as we moved in four decades ago are now crumbling – a close approximation of the ancient ruins back home. Everything else though is immaculate, including the freshly mown front lawn. The grass has been manicured right down to the soil, and dry dirt patches peer through the short blades thanks to my father’s uneven handiwork. He likes his lawns like the stubble on his chin, trim and slightly patchy.

Dad’s nudging 80 and shouldn’t be pushing around a lawnmower. I tell myself I’ve got to hire someone to do it for him. Not that he’ll accept the help. It’s one step closer to admitting he’s getting old. “I’d rather die than go to a nursing home,” he’ll often announce in my direction. This is a man who has spent his life in countless factories doing the arduous and often dangerous work no-one else would.

I let myself in and it hits me – the ghostly music of Greek composer Manos Hatzidakis. The notes rise and fall in a way I can recite in my sleep. It’s coming from the TV in the back room – and it’s loud. I already know I’m going to find my parents on the couch with my youngest son watching the Opening Ceremony of the Athens Olympic Games from 2004. The ethereal music of Hatzidakis is the soundtrack to much of it.

It’s my parents’ favourite DVD. They’ve watched the Opening Ceremony so many times I’m amazed the disc still works. My two boys have also watched it countless times. It’s part of the arrangement – if Papou and Yiayia look after you, it means watching the Opening Ceremony at least once.

The Olympics are a big deal in our family. Greece is the birthplace of the ancient Games after all, so every four years pride is at an all-time high. The competition itself is compulsory viewing, the athletics and swimming the favourites. But it’s the Opening Ceremony that captivates my parents. As soon as the torch bearer appears with the Olympic flame, they begin to weep. Months earlier they’ve sat glued to the TV watching the flame-lighting ceremony at the Temple of Hera in Ancient Olympia, the high priestesses in their robes receiving the flame amid the temple’s ruins before passing it on to the host city.

The appearance of the Greek flag, hoisted in honour of the ancient Games at the beginning of every Opening Ceremony, is what really tips my parents over. This is how they reconnect with home, with the family they left behind, with their identity in a country that occasionally reminds them that they don’t belong. Pangs of homesickness, despite almost 60 years in Australia, wash over them.

Just before the 1980 Moscow Games, my parents returned to Greece for the first time. I met my father’s family, including my grandparents, six uncles and aunts, and countless cousins. I swam in the warm water of the Mediterranean and sat on white pebble beaches eating sun ripened figs. I rode lots of donkeys. I was taken to Ancient Olympia, the birthplace of the Games, to explore the original Olympic stadium and the temples of Hera and Zeus. Yellowing photos show me scaling columns while skylarking in the temples. Good sense now prevails: tourists are no longer allowed to use the ancient site as their personal playground. It was the trip of a lifetime.

Today there’s a story my dad loves to tell his grandsons. How as a 13-year-old he left his village built from stone on one of the southern tips of the Peloponnese to move in with his older sister in far-away Athens. He would often take the bus to the nearby town of Marathon to explore and hunt in the valley that was once the site of the Battle of Marathon. He tells them he would imagine the messenger Philippides taking off on foot and running full pelt across the valley and all the way to Athens without stopping so he could tell them that the Athenian army had defeated the mighty Persians. As soon as he reached the Athenian assembly and delivered the good news, he collapsed and died. The distance from Marathon to Athens is 42km, the standard running distance for marathons. The distance from Athens to Melbourne is 15,000km.

It’s now time for another Olympic Games. My parents are ready. They’re older now, perhaps a little more sentimental, but the box of tissues has been purchased and the couch pushed closer to the TV. We can’t wait.

Anastasia Safioleas is a Contributing Editor at The Big Issue.