Monday, June 21, 2004


It can safely be said that the Sea forms an inextricable part of the Greek identity. Our earliest literature, in Homer deals with the epic sea-voyage of Odysseus, while other myths, such as Jason and the Argonauts also reveal the early Greeks fascination with ships and the sea. This is hardly surprising, given Greece's geographical position, which is such as to have the SBS World Guide refer to "the maritime republic of Greece." The sea of course also plays an intrinsic role as part of the founding myth of western civilization. It has long been held that the two naval battles of Salamis and Mycale 'saved' western (here read Greek and democratic) civilization from the barbarous, tyrannical Persian landlubbers. In modern times, the sea has assumed diverse significance for the Greeks. For some, such as my grandfather, looking across the straits of Mycale to the vanished homeland in Asia Minor had the sea assume the role of a barrier, sundering people from their roots forever. For others though, the sea was the final heart-wrenching solution to poverty, destruction and despondency. It was an eternal avenue of escape. It is no wonder then that Station Pier still evokes emotive responses among Melbournian Greek-Australians. The sea is also part of our own founding myth.
Dionysios Paraskevatos, like the famous author Andreas Karkavitsas knows the sea and loves it. The whispering allure of the briny, whether that be found in shells, paintings, the sea breeze whipping at his face or the memories of his time in the navy find him eternally enslaved to it. He is also a remarkable man, a true polymath, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things nautical, Hellenic and besides.
Two years ago, Dionysios Paraskevatos saw the unveiling to the public of the apogee of his love for the sea: an exhibition of miniature replica ships in the Victorian Parliament House. Painstakingly and lovingly constructed as close as possible to the original, Paraskevatos does not merely construct models. He lives history and the human condition in general. His construction of a model trireme for example, the revolutionary ancient Greek transporter and pirate vessel, had him trawling through the history books for clues as to seating, rowing customs, the social and industrial organization of Athenian shipyards, ways and methods of construction as well as the technical engineering details of buoyancy and related forces. His conclusions were remarkable. The institution of shipbuilding in Athens was one of the first examples of co-operative enterprise, organized labour relations and the welfare state. His construction of the Mississippi Queen, the river boat that trawled the vast river system of the southern United States and gave Mark Twain the valuable formative experiences that enabled him to obtain unique insights on society and become the classic writer and journalist the world pays respects to today, had him delve deep into the race relations and customs of the South. Of especial interest is Paraskevatos' replica of the Wasa, a Swedish galleon, so unwieldy, though it was the most expensive ship of its time, that it sank on its maiden voyage, which lasted only for a kilometre.
Paraskevatos is a remarkable man on a remarkable intellectual journey that few can rival. In his romantic surrender to the mystique of the sea, he communes directly with those Greek writers who shaped our corpus of literature such as Cavafy, Kazantzakis, Seferis and Ritsos (who he knew personally) but also with the rest of the oikoumene. For Paraskevatos' relationship with the sea is inimical to his existence and identity. For him, it is the sole facilitator of human civilization, the element which permitted mankind to communicate, share ideas and technologies, create nation states, literature and common identities. In short, the current skewed and flawed 'globalisation' doctrine of the post-Cold-War era is but a mutation of the slow and benevolent process of facilitating the free exchange of knowledge, the development of competition and the incentive for improvement and striving for excellence. Of special pride to him is that from the dawn of ship-building to the present, the Greek people have never forgotten their symbiosis with the sea. They have never tamed it but they have been 'brought-up' by it in a unique contract between a nation and nature.
On the same token, Paraskevatos acknowledges that the sea can also bring about despair. His animated face visibly changes as he describes the environmental degradation that shipbuilding has wreaked throughout the ages, the degrading conditions about western ships of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as the vast array of naval battles and unholy slave cargoes that blight the world's conscience forever. The sea is a double-edged sword then. Temperamental always and demanding of respect and the admission that mankind is impotent before it, (think of the Greek expression "η θάλασσα τα τρώει") it can also be diverted to more malevolent purposes. As symbiotic stewards of natures' bounty, our task is to revel in the opportunities that the sea provides us, protect it from harm and perpetuate the benevolent tradition of using it for the betterment of the world.
Paraskevatos' world view is a profound and serious one, gleaned from years of study and his replicas are both a testament to his passion and his slow, labourious but rewarding search among the annals of the ages for the single uniting feature that can grant the world an identity and explain the place of the Greeks within it. He is an intellectual fishing trawler whose journey is not undertaken lightly but when is so undertaken, brings light into the world.
Dionysios Paraskevatos' replicas are to be displayed in the coming months in the Melbourne Town Hall after efforts by the Cultural Division of SAE to hold yet another exhibition of this man's masterpieces. Watch this space. It is admirable that such an exhibition be held. Lord Mayor John So's attachment to Greeks and the Sea is well known, as is his assistance to rowing clubs in Thessaloniki. Miss this exhibition at your own peril and while perusing the ships ruminate a while over the following lines from Seferis: «τη θάλασσα, τη θάλασσα, ποιος θα την εξαντλήσει;»

first published in NKEE on 21 June 2004