Gillian Bouras
An Australian
Writer
Living in Greece

May 2016

Slightly late, but then as I write it is Orthodox Easter, and also May Day.

Excuses, excuses.

I have been to Athens again recently. One of my friends says I’m always bustling hither and yon, and I remember phoning an editor during a long ago visit to Melbourne. ‘Where are you?’ she asked. ‘I’m in a tram,’ I replied. ‘You’re always going somewhere,’ she remarked. On that occasion I was merely heading into the city, but I suppose she had a point. I also suppose my junketings and ‘going somewhere’ is a defence mechanism, and a distraction. ‘When in doubt buy a ticket,’ says a similarly inclined friend.

Once upon a time I fell into conversation with a rather lugubrious man in a London supermarket. In Hampstead. We were in the queue at the checkout, and he’d dropped something. I retrieved the item, he said his thanks, and then felt compelled to inform me that it was possible to walk from Hampstead to Oxford Street in an hour, and that he did this regularly.

‘Um, with any particular aim in mind?’ I asked. ‘Competing with yourself? Trying to improve your time? Something like that?’

‘Sheer nonsense, the whole notion,’ he announced trenchantly.

And added, peering over his spectacles, ‘We are going nowhere; we are already here.’

Hampstead’s answer to Samuel Beckett, I thought at the time. He was not my kinda guy, I decided, for reasons that may or may not be obvious.

While in Athens I was spirited away somewhere in quite another sense, when a friend suggested we view the film Russian Ark. Neither of us knew much about it; well, I knew nothing at all. It turned out to be an intriguing and idiosyncratic recreation of Russian culture, featuring literary and historical figures and incidents. An enigmatic figure wanders through the Winter Palace/Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, and various vignettes are presented, but not necessarily in chronological order. The whole work is simply sumptuous: the music, the costumes, the paintings, the artifacts. The final and long-lasting scene recreates the last Imperial Ball, which was held in predictable splendour in 1913.

Film over, friend and I rushed off to our respective iPads in order to plug the gap in our education. We discovered that the film was made in 2002, and is the work of the eminent director Alexandr Sokurov, whose time in the museum was limited to only about four hours. He rehearsed endlessly, and so was able to achieve the amazing feat of filming in one continuous take of 96 minutes, a first in cinematography. Just imagine: the slightest thing could have gone wrong and they would have had to start again. It’s a good thing that fate sometimes favours the muses.

Fans of the quirky American comedy The Big Bang Theory may recall the programme eccentric Sheldon created for his own amusement…and nobody else’s. It is called Fun with Flags, and of course the joke is that the programme is not remotely funny, while Sheldon, taking himself as seriously as ever, is hilarious. Every so often, nations decide to have their own Fun with Flags. Remember the competition to find a new design for the Australian flag? There was even talk of a Boxing Kangaroo flag: I ask you! Predictably, the whole business fizzled out. And now the New Zealand venture has fizzled out via referendum: the general public did not take to the rather attractive design of a silver leaf. People just don’t like change, or at least most people don’t.

The Greek flag has evolved over time into the familiar blue and white stripes with the prominent white cross, the nation’s symbol. I can’t imagine the flag will ever change, as the stripes represent Greece’s centuries-old rallying cry: Freedom or Death! Then there is the flag that bears the double-headed eagle of Byzantium; both ensigns are well in evidence on Feast Days and at Easter time, along with ribbons of bunting outside every church.

The Australian flag was of course flown at the Anzac Day ceremony at the Phaleron Military Cemetery in Athens, which is attended by crowds every year. And then the flag of St George would have been everywhere in England on April 23. This year the day had even greater significance than usual, it being 400 years since the death of Shakespeare. As can be imagined, the British papers have not been slow to educate the public: Shakespeare contributed more than 2000 words to the English language, and the average Anglophone is not necessarily aware of how many Shakespearean expressions he or she uses in the space of a day: we take phrases like cold comfort, dead as a doornail, good riddance, and the game is up for granted. Then there’s the quotation I myself have pinched from Julius Caesar: It was all Greek to me.

It’s been a busy month, April, and to cap it all the Queen turned 90!

Gillian Bouras

 

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