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Lying in sight of the Dardanelles, Lemnos was a staging post for the ill-fated Gallipoli landings of 1915. About 30,000 Allied soldiers left the island in 200 warships; 4000 broken Diggers returned in the weeks that followed to convalesce and, too often, to die.
I meet another Greek-Australian at the airport. Stan Sarantis, Lemnos-born and Melbourne-based, returns each year with his wife, Tessi, to honour the Anzacs.
The next morning, after a spin around the attractive Castro-crowned harbour of Myrina, Stan takes me on a tour of the island’s principal sights.
Though modest and few, they include a Bronze Age settlement built around the foundations of a civic meeting place. ‘‘ Europe’s first parliament,’’ boasts Stan. I’ve only one must-see request: the cave of Philoctetes. A peerless archer in Homer’s Iliad , Philoctetes is abandoned by the Greek forces on Lemnos with a suppurating snake bite.
But as the Trojan war drags into its 10th year, a seer predicts it can be won only with Philoctetes’s sacred shafts, one of which will fell the much-loathed Paris.
Stan is a handsome man in his 60s with a head of hair as good as Bob Hawke’s and a great love of a cigarette. He laughs softly as I strip down and plunge from the rocks into a sea whose currents are fed by the snow-clad mountains of Thrace. It doesn’t so much chill the skin as numb it. The wounded archer’s sea cave turns out, predictably, to be gloomy and cold and not a lot of fun. So I restrict myself to a bit of theatrical bellowing after Philoctetes and am soon walking back to the car with wet clothes and shivery, salted skin.
Each year for the past decade, the people of Lemnos have marked their own Anzac Day with a ceremony held a month after the mass observance at Anzac Cove. Few gather on Greek soil to hear the eulogies. Only a band of Greek-Australians, such as Stan and Tessi, and the relatives of those Anzacs buried in two military cemeteries honour the memory.
That night the locals put on a splendid feast for the pilgrims. My lasting memory is of the roly-poly bishop, his grey hedge of beard reaching below the table, plucking the eyes from the fish and leaving the flesh for others. He spends much of the evening dipping battered zucchini into thick garlicky aioli. I’m left praying for his health.
A few weeks later I climb aboard a gulet in the Turkish port of Kas for the 20-minute crossing to the tiny Greek island of Kastellorizo, most easterly of the Dodecanese. Once again I find myself an observer with a front-row seat at the tragicomedy of exile and return.
A Perth woman with Kastellorizan roots is coming home. She plans to meet a relative at the port, in its day one of the Mediterranean’s finest. But that was before the Luftwaffe got to work, reducing it to a pile of ash.
Sent into exile by the devastation, many of the islanders came to Australia, made their small, and in some cases large, fortunes and began to keen for home. Today about half the restored pastel mansions on the bijou harbourfront are owned by Kazzies.
‘‘ I’ve never seen this relative,’’ explains the Perth woman as our gulet shudders to a stop, her face set tight with anticipation. ‘‘ He’s from the American side of the family. But he’s promised to take us to the villa where Dad was born, to hand over the keys.’’
At the dock there is a kerfuffle between this Kazzie and a heavy-set Customs official who points out that nobody can enter from Turkey at this edge-of-theGreek-world islet and hope to stay.
‘‘ But we were told at Rhodes . . .’’ is all I catch of her protest as I squeeze past on to the quay. Mending their nets in the shade of a passageway are two fishermen. Their creased faces are straight out of Zorba ; their accents straight out of Richmond.
I sit down to lunch at a harbourfront restaurant owned by an Australian woman and her Greek husband, whose mother rules the kitchen and much else besides. And as I take my first glass I notice the woman from the gulet dart by, unshackled from the Customs official. She carries a heavy set of keys and wears a girlish grin as she plunges into the heart of old Kastellorizo in search of her past.
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