Written in 2004 on Sunday the 2nd of May, four months into my year-long trip overseas.
I had to find myself a Greek consulate in Brazil to ask a question about my passport. Not thinking Greece had much to do with Brazil, I was very surprised to discover after a quick squizz on the internet that there are seven Greek consulate offices throughout Brazil. Seven! I found only one Greek restaurant in all of Rio de Janeiro, yet there are seven Greek consulates throughout Brazil! I didn’t think I was going to find even one office for the country of 11 million retsina drinkers, but I suppose all the Greeks in the foreign affairs office-department-thing want to be posted to places like Brazil instead of places like war-torn Angola, where Greece also has a consulate. Setting up more offices in Brazil makes for a greater chance of having some South American fun, and Greeks in the foreign affairs department I’m sure could make up many good and even official-sounding reasons for having such an overstated presence in the country.
So anyway, I headed off to the consulate in the more residential Cariocan suburb of Flamengo to get my question answered. Once there, Stelios, the dude at the front desk, told me that Spiros, the passport man, would be able to see me in about half an hour and answer any of my questions. As there was a good half hour to kill, me and Stelios chewed the fat marinated with a divine mix of lemon, garlic and oregano. Interestingly enough, it turns out Stelios has been living in Rio for the past twenty years after having given England and the USA a go but not finding them up to scratch. For whatever reason, Rio worked for him and he found himself a Brazilian wife with whom he has raised four children.
Wanting to amuse myself, and knowing Greeks to be a patriotic lot even though most of them don’t live in Greece anymore, I baited him by asking if his wife can cook like his mother, if his family can dance a tsifteteli and if they can speak Greek. I knew what the answers would be, so it came as no surprise to hear that he made sure his wife could cook a decent pastitsio before deciding to marry her, that his family dance the tsifteteli better than anyone in Greece and that his children speak excellent Greek.
But even though I had begun with my own stereotypically patriotic vision of Greek expatriots, it shocked me to discover that he had sent his poor eldest son to serve in the Greek army. Every Greek male has to serve in the army for eighteen months, all of which can be avoided simply by living in another country. His son, who would be a Greek citizen because of his father’s Greek nationality despite his having been born and raised in Brazil, could stay in Greece for as much as six months each year before having to join the army. Most of us Greek citizens born or raised in other countries take advantage of this and avoid military service whilst still enjoying the country every now and again. Stelios, however, sent his son to Greece specifically to serve in the army, because, according to Stelios, that was his son’s duty as a Greek man.
Thinking this was exceptionally odd, even for the most patriotic of Greeks who are usually even prouder of their disrespect for authority and rules, I became very afraid of the kind of person I was speaking to when I did some mental arithmetic. Twenty years ago, when Stelios first landed in Rio, Brazil was being run by a military government that had been in power since 1964. Furthermore, when he left Greece, about twenty-five years ago, Greece had only just become democratic again after having been ruled by a weird-arse military junta that wanted to return Greece back to its ancient glory days. So that meant he left Greece after it was only just starting to emerge from a period of military rule, found the relatively democratic and free countries of England and the USA not to his liking, only to end up settling in Brazil, a country still being run by a military government that liked to repress, kill and torture every once in a while. I took a mental note of this man’s love of the military and decided when telling him the story of my family, not to mention that part of the reason my father came to Australia was so that he could avoid doing his obligatory military service. I also failed to mention that my grandfather was a communist guerrila, and instead babbled on about my mother’s island, Kephallonia, for as long as I could.
Soon enough though, the thirty-minute wait was over and I was directed to Spiros’s office, where a single question that took twenty seconds to answer turned into a thirty minute social chat that served to explain why I had to wait that long to see him in the first place. Within this thirty minutes, Spiros smoked three cigarettes, offering me one each time he opened his packet, and fielded two lengthy personal calls. It was a quintessentially Greek performance, and possibly because we shared an understanding of the undeniable logic of our own culture, our conversation was exceptionally friendly and hit a high note when we landed on the subject of the respective pros and cons of capoeira and thai kick-boxing.
Yes, Spiros, the passport dude at the office of the consulate general in Rio de Janeiro, was a huge fan of thai kick-boxing, and just like any wog cruising down the slow lane on Chapel Street on any Friday night of the year, he wanted to get fit by kicking people’s heads in. I told him that he should start capoeira seeing as he is in Brazil, but he was under the false impression that it would not adequately strengthen what he claimed were his ever-atrophying legs.
That was when I decided to show him the very tiring cadeira position, a position where your thighs are level with your knees and it looks like you’re about to take a shit, just to prove how much capoeira works your legs. He was skeptical at first, but once he got into position and stayed there for a few seconds, he understood. We were two Greek men, looking like we were taking a dump in a small office of the consulate general in Rio de Janeiro, talking martial arts and pretending we were tough. Not surprisingly, we bonded over the experience.
He gave me his phone number once the meeting was deemed over and claimed that he would start watching TV in the cadeira position from then on. I walked out of there quite pleased with myself thinking I may have converted someone to the capoeira cause, but I later slapped myself for having completely forgotten to mention Australia and Greece’s very own Stan “the Man” Longinides, who once was and maybe still is the world kick-boxing title holder. I reckon Spiros would have been mightily impressed by a Greek-Australian holding a kick-boxing title, and I reckon another fifteen minutes would have been needed to adequately cover all the official matters that would have been brought up in our meeting if the feats of Stan had ever been mentioned.
But my exploration of spaces dedicated to the Greek in Rio de Janeiro didn’t stop there. A couple of weeks after my experience with the foreign affairs department, I danced the Zorba at the only Greek restaurant in all of Rio de Janeiro after I took some curious Brazilian friends to see how we hairy-chested people eat, dance and smash plates. Unfortunately, the food was exceptionally ordinary, there was no retsina available and the owner of the restaurant was a boring fuck, but the Brazilians didn’t know any better and they thought the food and ambience was wonderful.
Me and my Brazilian troupe decided to head down to the restaurant on a Friday night on the promise that there was to be some Greek dancing and plate smashing in the land of the samba. Even though I was not expecting anything at all decent, I was still shocked to find two belly dancers from the sizeable Lebanese community in Brazil being passed up as dancing in a traditionally Greek manner, and doing the shaking of their thing to Arabic music. Even Shakira was played for these Lebanese ladies masquerading as Greeks to shake their bellies to, and if the ladies weren’t so attractive, I would have demanded the head of the treasonous restaurant owner who was presenting to an unsuspecting Brazilian audience music and dance that was more Turkish than Greek. When real Greek music finally came on and the ladies started dancing shite, I could not withstand the affront to my cultural heritage any longer and stormed onto the middle of the dance floor to lead proceedings and showcase the flair of a Greek man in full flight. I danced a tzamiko and a kalamatiano to showcase for the people of Brazil the culture of Greece, and felt overwhelmingly relieved that the people were not going to be leaving the restaurant thinking some Arabic belly-wobbling was a traditional Greek way to give vent to our passions and desires on the dancefloor.
The plate smashing was also another sorry affair as only a single shitty plate was handed out to each customer in the restaurant that evening. Every person rolled their eyes in tight-arsed disappointment upon receiving their solitary plate, but when the opening didi-didi-ding of the Zorba announced itself from the stereo to end proceedings for the evening, I knew I could make the night memorable for the Brazilians wanting to experience the joy of being Greek.
The people parted as I made my way onto the dancefloor where I knew the time had come to do my duty as a Greek man. I asked the restaurant owner if he was to share the spotlight with me and the damn fine Lebanese ladies in the middle of the dancefloor, but the treacherous bastard refused. After the owner wouldn’t dance the Zorba, I was certain the guy must have been Turkish, maybe Albanian, or quite possibly one of those Yugoslavians who go around pretending they’re Macedonian. A man that does not dance a Zorba with his chest out, his head held high and with the kind of expression that lays bare the torment in his soul is most definitely not Greek, so it was up to me and only me to provide a performance that night that would get the audience understanding how a Greek man dances and how a Greek man lives. With the wailing bouzoukis reaching their climactic crescendo and Zorba’s dance going into overdrive, a room full of Brazilians smashed their plates in unison and caught a glimpse of the emotional epiphanies that electrify each expression of every Eleftherios, Erasmus or Elias the Greek world over. And with that, everyone in the room got an idea of what it means to be Greek, to experience the lows of life and then experience the sweetened joys of the heightened highs that result. And with that, everyone in the room knew they had seen a Greek man dance.
After having led the dancing with a fine round of applause from the crowd, after having brushed my hand over the prickles of my post five o’ clock shadow and after having left the restaurant with a fine Brazilian beauty on my arm, on that fine summer’s night I was certain that I was the most authentic Greek man in all of Rio de Janeiro. That evening, I gave more to my beloved Greece than any eighteen months of obligatory military service ever could, and with a tear in my eye, I vowed to all who cared to listen that I was gonna grow myself a moustache. Nothing came of the moustache and it was the very next day when I was back to my normal self after having been transformed into the über Greek, but for a few fleeting moments there, I was the poster boy for the Greek nation and I was proud.