Gillian Bouras
An Australian
Living in Greece

August 2014

My emigration from Greece to Australia has been the defining act of my life, and I know I’ve made that statement umpteen times before. Why do you allow it to be defining?  asks my eldest son, and of course he has a point. He had yet to turn eight when the holiday that got out of hand started, and so can’t really share my point of view. He has his own: naturally.

I have now been in Greece for 34 years, and next year, if I’m still above ground, I will have been here for half my life. That was Dimitri’s situation when he was 24: in 1996 he had spent twelve years in Australia and twelve in Greece, to which place he returned in order to get his compulsory national service out of the way. But he returned to Australia in 2002, and has lived there ever since. To accusatory Greeks, who cannot understand why anybody would want to live outside the patritha, he simply says that life in Australia suits him better.

Over this great span of time, I have visited Australia far more often than I anticipated, but Dimitri stayed away for twelve years, (something about that number!) and did not see his elder brother in all that time. (His younger brother visited him in 2010.) Such is the price that the tyranny of distance exerts. (I have never really understood the yearnings of British expats here, as London is only four hours away from Athens, and fares have always been a fraction of the cost of a Qantas ticket.)

But last month Dimitri came back! With his wife, Greek-Australian Mary, who was born in Melbourne, and grew up in the very Greek suburb of Northcote, but whose roots are in a village in the central Peloponnese. (This makes me the joker in the pack, the one who upsets a neat symmetry, with the injection of my mongrel Anglo-Celt blood. But I don’t lose sleep over the matter.)

What Milan Kundera refers to as the Great Return is a thread that runs through both literature and history. In his novel Ignorance, Kundera refers to Odysseus, the legendary hero who was away from his home on Ithaca for twenty years. The Trojan War took up his time for ten years, and then he wandered for another ten. But there were distractions, of course, the main one being the seven years he spent with the nymph Calypso, daughter of Atlas, as her hostage and lover. Living in an island paradise, Odysseus was, Kundera says, experiencing la dolce vita with Calypso, but still he yearned for home. He reached Ithaca eventually, and Kundera refers to ‘the rapture of the Great Return.’ But eventually Odysseus realises with amazement that the centre of his life is outside Ithaca, and in Tennyson’s famous poem Ulysses, the hero becomes restless again:  Come, my friends,

‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world…for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars until I die.

Kundera also wrote that ‘the life we’ve left behind us has a bad habit of stepping out of the shadows, of bringing complaints against us, of taking us to court.’ In this novel Kundera was concerned with those émigrés who had fled Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring of 1968, and now face the dilemma of returning or staying in the lands they have chosen: it is now 1988, and the year of the so-called Velvet Revolution. Interestingly enough, Dimitri and Mary, after leaving Greece, went on to visit Prague, and confessed themselves dazzled by the beauty of the city..

When I emigrated, I was not a refugee, my life was not in danger, and I had the legal right to be in Greece. But I still found the experience traumatic for all sorts of reasons, not least of which was that haunting memory of the old life, an existence I had left behind me. Once you migrate, your life is cut in two and your heart is forever divided. Of course there are compensations, and a kind of satisfaction at the thought that you have used part of yourself that many people never get to use. You have sat for a test; perhaps the result (pass or fail?) is not up to you to decide.

I knew I would be interested in Dimitri’s reaction to being back in Greece, and perhaps even a little apprehensive: would he be bowled over by nostalgia and that holiday feeling, by a vision of la dolce vita, like his father before him? But no. He had a very good time, and so did Mary. He enjoyed catching up with his school friends, but became only slightly tearful when entering his childhood home, which has, predictably, changed a good deal since he left it.

As I write, Dimitri and Mary are in Paris. We will meet again on Crete towards the end of the month. From there they will go to Santorini for a few days. Then they will return to Australia. They will go home.


Gillian Bouras


Eureka Street

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Gillian Bouras 2018