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Australia Day: The lucky country
by Nikos Laios
2016-01-26 09:40:54
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Tuesday the 26th of January marks the celebration of Australia Day, Australia's national holiday celebrating the founding of the British colony of New South Wales in Sydney on the 26th of January 1788. I write this as I sit on the balcony of my apartment which is situated on Sydney harbour, just a ten minute stroll to the northern side of the harbour bridge, and I wonder and reflect on the journey that has made this beautiful and historic city my home. I am in the fortunate position of being a citizen of two nations, both Greece and Australia.

aust02_400For many years, I have looked longingly back to Greece and Europe with a wish to return to my European homeland, yet in the last few years I have settled back happy in the knowledge that Sydney harbour is my home now. For sheer beauty, I place Sydney up there nearly with Santorini and Mykonos; where every morning that I go for my morning jog around the luscious, lyrical northern foreshore of Sydney Harbour, I revel in the scenery. Where I run from my home down to Lavender Bay which cradles a flock of sailboats with their metal masts clanging in the light summer breeze, with the shore lined with Eucalyptus trees, blue gums, crimson bottle brushes and geraniums. An aromatic bouquet of flora that wafts in the air lifting me up through my nostrils. As I run past Luna Park and across the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It’s whilst on the bridge that I pause there under the sun peering over the bridge eastwards to the opera house, and farm cove where Governor Arthur Phillip originally established the farm for the fledgling colony, before he found more sizeable and suitable fertile farmland further inland at Parramatta that could sustain the colony for its future.

I am always enchanted by the history of a place and love to get to know a city intimately, to allow the essence and memory of a city to commune and seep into my pores with its stories and imagery. Where Sydney is well suited to a peripatetic existential journey, well suited to being explored through jogging. Running over the bridge towards the other side, running with jasmine scented air in my hair. Whirring past tree lined boulevards painted in green, past the oak and chestnut trees. The Botanical Gardens splashed in red, past lunchtime crowds thronging in city squares; past colourful clowns and performing buskers in parks. The old men playing chess in the park, with beautiful ponytail girls lying under trees. The ferries playfully dancing on the blue white flecked waves under the Sydney Harbour Bridge. At peace with the world, serenity flooding me, as I rest on the steps of the opera House.

Sydney has destroyed much of its colonial history, yet it has kept some of it intact as well and in Sydney the most important preserved architecture dates back to the original colony. Where this is located in an area called 'The Rocks', which is located at the southern foot of the bridge. An area with original thick rock hewn stone walled colonial buildings dating from the late eighteenth, early nineteenth centuries, roughhewn sandy coloured stone walls that have soaked up the lived experiences and shades of generations upon generations. Located in this area is a section called the 'Nurses Walk' in a cobblestone laneway which was first settled in 1788, and which is at present filled with cafes, crystal shops and pubs in two hundred year old plus original colonial stone buildings.

The Nurses Walk includes many cafes, my favourite cafe being 'The Vintage Cafe' run by my Portuguese friend Ruis, where I spend time on the weekends there enjoying a coffee or a glass of red wine. The awning above the cafe gently flapping in the breeze like the sails of some ship. The breeze gently caressing the luminescent green leaves of a nearby tree, mouth-watering flavours of scattered cafes wafting and intermingling with the trees. As the seductive sounds of Brazilian bossa nova pulsated from the warm heart of the Vintage Cafe. Journeying through time like the explorers of old; Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, Captain Cook or Arthur Phillip navigating the world. Spices mingling with the music that Ruis's musician Jose was playing, strumming his guitar and singing in Brazilian Jobim's 'Girl from Ipanema’, as the nearby coiffed perfumed girls writhed in delicious ecstasy as they downed their shots. These experiences and images washing over me as I sit in my favourite cafe in old Sydney town, where I'm then brought back from my revelry to the sights and aromas around me.

The aroma of sandalwood and eucalyptus burning from the chimney of a nearby restaurant gently smudging the sky. The clouds above gently floating by in procession like a caravan of floats in a passing parade, or like a shaman leading a mystical tribal dance. As the lovers walk by holding hands, and the school children wait for the afternoon bus. This is the city that I live in, a lyrical city that lulls the soul into a sweet enchantment, yet I haven't always felt this way. Where in my teen years here due to the racism I experienced, I resented Australia Day in a way, resented the sadness that in brought me and my family through this racism we experienced, and on those days paid more homage to the image of Australia Day as an 'invasion day' imbued with negative feelings in support of the native aboriginals, but more so out of spite than out of a genuine solidarity with them.

aust01_400Yet as the years passed, and as I travelled to and fro between Greece and Australia, I saw Australia grow in the intervening years, mature and making amends for the immaturity of its early racist years and achieving redemption. Where I can now state that Australia has become an egalitarian society where everyone regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs or social status are all treated as equals. This has accordingly made me grow very fond of Australia and any slight or injury that I might have experienced earlier has been truly forgiven by me now. As a Greek I feel for the displacement of the original inhabitants of Australia, but frankly, this happened before we arrived here and I have learned that one cannot dwell in the past or change it, one must live in the present fully engaged as a citizen to enable positive change for the betterment of everyone.

Indeed, as I view the current social, economic and geopolitical events that have gripped Europe, I cannot but help feel that here Australia can teach some lessons to Europe. At present Europe is suffering an economic malaise and depression with unemployment levels for youth in areas reaching up to 50% and adult unemployment up to 25%, living in destitute poverty without a hope for the future. Where waves of migrants are washing over the shores of Europe and the geopolitical tensions of the nearby Middle East and Africa are threatening to engulf and drag down Europe into chaos and strife; all these undercurrents tearing at the fabric of Europe. I have always - and still do deep down inside - harbour the dream of going back to Greece to live permanently one day with my people, for there is much of its civilisation that I miss. Then I look at Australia and how it has fared with its migrants and refugees, and this give me hope.

My family arrived in Australia at the invitation of Australia under an migration program aimed at bringing in skilled people who could build and contribute to the nation. Yet Australia in the 70's and 80's also experienced waves of refuges washing up on its northern shores in rickety boats from Vietnam and south East Asia. How Australia coped as compared to Europe is like comparing day and night. Where now in 2016, all these migrants and refugees have been completely integrated, and who are all equally and valuably contributing to their new country, mingling and mixing freely with each other.

There have been some minor setbacks on the way, but I can now see that

Australia is the most successful multicultural nation in the world without a doubt.

Everyone existing peacefully in a nation with strong democratic institutions, free speech and the rule of law. Then in the last few years, I have accordingly had to carefully reconsider my previous polemic position and reflect on where my present lies - and to be honest here - with Australia being such a distant continent surrounded by an ocean and cut off from the rest of the geopolitical troubles of the world, is indeed a welcoming warm safe haven. Where it has enjoyed twenty five years of continuous economic growth, a very low debt to GDP debt ratio currently of 34.3% as compared to the debt to GDP ratios for the Eurozone that hovers between 85% to 180%.

Where compared to my family and friends back in Europe, I can sleep soundly at night with the knowledge that I have secure employment in a nation with a low unemployment rate. I can feed myself with all the delectable food that I like, save, go on holidays and live a very comfortable life in peace and security. So these last few years have been an honest revelation, and where I have been feeling very thankful that I live here. Yet I know of many fellow Europeans here who even with all these advantages, look longingly back to Greece, Italy and other EU nations with the unrealistic utopian illusion that if they migrate back to their homelands, life will somehow be better.

Indeed I can personally attest in Greece that if one has wealth and economic security, life in Greece under those conditions is better than Australia. For there are many cultural, familial and spiritual advantages that it has over Australia - and yes - Sydney can be at times a little cold and soulless. However, the illusion in the return back to a utopian Europe founders against the reality that life there can only truly be enjoyed when there is long-term peace established. A long-term social, economic and political prosperity; yet at present, Europe is mired in a quicksand of many forces that are sucking it down. Do I harbour aspirations for a return one day? Off course I do, if the direction of Europe has turned around sufficiently. Yet in the meantime, I am very thankful that I now live in old Sydney town, on the lush and lyrical shores of its beautiful harbour; and come Australia Day, I will be on the harbour with everyone else. Reclining on a blanket under a spreading eucalyptus tree, with a glass of French red wine, eating Greek olives and cheese , breaking apart a loaf of Italian bread, nibbling on some succulent Australian lamb, as a beauty feeds me grapes. So indeed, I can now at last agree that Australia is indeed a lucky country, and a nation that can act as a beacon to Europe in how to express both its compassion and humanity.



With a digital creation from Nikos Laios

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Emanuel Paparella2016-01-26 10:55:05
Indeed Nikos, what becomes apparent from your moving tribute to two countries, two continents, and two cultures, of which you are obviously a proud citizen, is that the best perspective on a country invariably comes from those who have an outside perspective to compare to; it's a special perspective of those who are able to assimilate the best of two cultures without submitting to a coercive integration, able to walk the tightrope of bi-culturalism while avoiding the pitfall of rabid nationalism. Those are the invaluable people who can best describe the country they emigrated from and the country they arrived at and help those natural born “natives” imbued at times with close-minded xenophobia and prejudice to leave behind the cultural cocoon in which they may be living. They show them, those who were left behind as well as the natural born natives, how to walk that dangerous tightrope, how to emigrate on a journey of the imagination and in thus see their country for the first time.

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