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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Australiana #12: Hugh Jackman, the Greeks and Football

A true Greek God: Hugh Jackman in Les Miserables

Hugh Jackman is my favourite Australian. The X Men and Les Miserables actor-singer is also part-Greek. I like Greeks. They're warm people. I think nature has a lot to do with climate. The warmer the climate, the friendlier and happier the people seem to be. So when I read about Paniyiri, Brisbane's Greek festival, I wanted to experience their warmth again.

We trudged to Musgrave Park in south Brisbane hoping to add to the numbers in the audience. We didn't have to. It seemed like half the population of Australia had turned up for the event. (Okay, it is an exaggeration, but we're talking of a country larger than India with a population smaller than Mumbai. Huge gatherings of people are scarce. There were around 25000 people.)

Zorba dancers at Paniyiri

After buying our tickets for AUD 10 each, we found ourselves among people of all sizes clutching to foods and drinks. We moved closer to the stage. There were people sitting at tables, not unlike the ones you find at the Durga Puja pandals in India. There were half-empty wine glasses (which you will NEVER find at an Indian puja) and plates of souvalakis, haloumis, wraps, honey puffs, etc, that they had bought from the 100-odd stalls that lined the ground. There was humour, belly dancing, plate-smashing contests, zorba and lots of fun.

Greeks first arrived in Australia in 1829. Seven sailors convicted of piracy by a British naval court and were sentenced to transportation to New South Wales. Though eventually  they were pardoned, two out of those seven Greeks settled in Australia on the Monaro Plains in southern New South Wales. The first known free Greek migrant to Australia was Katerina Georgia Plessos (1809–1907), who arrived in Sydney with her husband Major James Crummer in 1835. They married in 1827 on the island of Kalamos where Crummer, the island's commandant met the young refugee from the Greek independence wars. They lived in Sydney, Newcastle and Port Macquarie where she is buried. They had 11 children.

After the Second World War, Australia embarked on a grand adventure to expand its population. But there was a problem. The primarily 'British' citizens were xenophobic. Their fears about the Chinese digging out more Australian gold than they could had resulted in the 'White Australia' policy in the early 1900s. However, the pressing need for labour for developing the country resulted in the government encouraging non-English-speaking immigrants from war-torn states of Eastern Europe to migrate to Australia. The Greek government encouraged post-war migration as a way of solving poverty and unemployment problems, with the most favoured destination being West Germany although large numbers also went to Australia and Canada. In the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, Greeks were among one of the main European races picked by the Australian government's "populate or perish" immigration scheme.

South Melbourne Hellas football club

Thousands of Greeks migrated to Australia with just one purpose - to gain a better life and future for themselves and their families. The main destinations where these "Hellenes" immigrated were to cities such as Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide. They not only established their own restaurants, but also their own Hellenic Community Clubs and Greek-Australian Soccer clubs. Greeks along with Italians, Croatians, Maltese, Serbians, Jews, Hungarians and Czechs formed some of the greatest and most successful Association football clubs in Australia: South Melbourne Hellas (South Melbourne FC) founded in 1959, Pan-Hellenic (Sydney Olympic FC) founded in 1957 and West Adelaide Hellas (West Adelaide SC) founded in 1962.

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