By Joshua Kepreotis.
John left at night to walk all the way through the darkness and find a way to the fishing port town of Agia Pelagia by morning, when the boat was to arrive. He said an inglorious goodbye at the house to whoever in his family was there to see him off. His siblings had already left to work in the fields, and hadn’t acknowledged his leaving. He remembered it vividly, the emptiness in departing.
‘My heart was in Kýthira, but my head told me otherwise.’
He was a teenager and the year was 1938. His beloved sister had been married off to a man 25 years her senior, and John was pulled out of school to work the land to help pay for her dowry. His future on the Greek island was as a farmer, but he wanted more; the freedom to decide his own fate. His father had an eldest son and a youngest one, so John was free to leave. His mother felt his absence. She let a part of herself go, and was never to see him again.
‘I loved my mother very much. I forget what she looked like.’
He travelled across the island; up hills, through bush and over rocks, awake in the cold, as the first of his family to leave it. The pride, the shame, the excitement, the burden.
‘I had second thoughts about leaving. I was scared. The first night on the water I cried, secretly, and wept so for a few more nights after.’
He told me the story of leaving Greece for Australia more than any other one he liked to repeat. Maria, his wife, called out from their kitchen and corrected him. She was peeling a fresh batch of potatoes, preparing a recipe of old, the aromas taking them back to their homeland; fresh oregano and basil from their backyard, coated in olive oil, homemade sauce for the meat and pasta, with creamy béchamel on top to hold it together. All done with handheld measurements. And then big ripe figs for dessert.
‘Όχι, Γιάννη! No, John! You’re forgetting an important part.’
They spoke their own language, a mixture of two.
‘You went to Collarenebri before you bought the dry ice business in Narrabri, με τούς Πελοποννήσιοι, with the Peloponnesians.’
‘Ναί, Yes, we sold ice cream out of a car,’ he said to me with pride.
‘But there were Kytherians already there with lower prices, so your Pappou had to sell and go to the city. Isn’t that the truth?’
‘Yes, Maria μου.’
Μου in Greek means ‘my’. It’s an affectionate term you tag on to the end of a name. My person. My people.
In these triangular conversations, John would respond to Yiayia while looking at me and smiling with his characteristic grin and glint in his eyes. This story always stood out because of his hurt, which was undying. Happier memories blended into each other, but the image of him as a teenager standing alone in his suit, his life packed into a case, unsure of the journey ahead, leaving everything he had known behind, and soon to enter a world foreign to him—not one he had seen on a television screen, but a city of buildings, business, cars and chaos—was seared into the migrant’s consciousness.
He left Greece when he was 19, made it to 93, and never forgot the details of the experience he had leaving home.
‘They were hard years. My early ζωή, life, in Australia was like walking from Kapsali, in the south, to Agia Pelagia in the north, and back, on my knees.’
Kythera, the island where he was born, is known for its difficult terrain, with thorny bushes lining the path he took to collect produce for his family; traversing a rocky landscape and descending dangerous cliffs. He was tasked to scrape salt off rocks near the sea, and cart it back for his mother to cook. He claimed it was the hardest job he ever did in life.
‘As hard as it was then, there were times εδώ in Αυστραλία, here in Australia, when I thought to myself I had to go back to Greece to survive.’
He decided against returning, and was glad he did, but those decisions weren’t without guilt. The dichotomy of migration is that one is caught somewhere in between the home they leave and the place they try to integrate into; feeling neither welcomed in the new country, nor embraced by the one they left. It’s a middle-ground of sorts. No man’s land. Limbo.
‘After spending 28 days on a cargo ship, I arrived in Sydney where I knew no one. I met some Έλληνες, Greeks, at the port, and they hung a sign around my neck like I was cattle, and put me on a train. I couldn’t speak English, but I was told it wasn’t good to speak Greek in front of anyone.’
‘So, I didn’t speak.’
Someone waited for him at a stop and took him to a shop where he was to clean dishes and scrub the walls and floors, live in a small room above, and sleep on a thin mattress squashed into the corner after an 18-hour work day. It was the price he had to pay for being newly-arrived, he said. Young, fresh and malleable.
We now call them refugees.
‘But I got through it.’
He would add a positive light to the recounting of his experience, as if burdening his audience with negativity would be too heavy for them to bear. That he was forever grateful to his new country, connected to his old one, and proud of overcoming the hardships. But trauma leaves damaged roots that grow inward.
‘They would get me to do all the jobs they didn’t want to do. They would kick the mattress to wake me if they thought I was being lazy. They called me ‘dog’, a lot.’
Outside of the shop he was referred to as a ‘Dago’.
‘I moved on to be a waiter. I wanted to interact with customers to learn English. I remember once a few co-workers heated a plate I was to serve without telling me, and I burnt my hands.’
He held them up and showed me his palms. I saw the creases as rings of an old oak tree, weary with age.
‘I can still hear them laughing. My boss there told me that the worker has to follow the boss like the bull’s balls follow the bull.’
He would nod diligently.
‘I wrote letters back στην Ελλάδα, to Greece, and sent my parents some of the λεφτά, money, that I was saving. It didn’t grow on trees in Australia, as my family thought.’
The geographical distance to Greece didn’t sever the ties he felt to his family, although it pained him to learn that his mother never saw the money he sent. She died alone in a stable next to the family home, years after his father passed. It was a way of quarantining her tuberculosis. John never forgave them.
‘I wasn’t there to be with her.’
We forget what they leave behind.
‘Having children was the best experience of my life.’
When Maria was in labour with their first child, John was so anxious about the process, that the hospital staff told him to wait outside the delivery room. He was a nuisance. However, he couldn’t cope not being with his wife, so he found a way back in; leaving the hospital building and climbing up through the room’s window.
‘When the nurse found me, I got in trouble. She told me I had upset her, the mother and our unborn child. And then Maria gave birth, and I can’t describe the joy when I saw our family grow.’
Maria laughed from behind his chair and waved her hand, accentuating how much more of a distraction he was in the delivery room than help. In their small house in Kingsgrove, they took me back in time. Playing off each other, and placing a path that led to me.
‘I raised my family in Australia to be Έλληνες, Greek, and Australian at the same time. I wanted them to learn English, better than I could. They went to Καθολικά σχολεία, Catholic schools, but we also attended Greek Orthodox Church. They had Greek lessons which they hated, Greek dancing, Greek friends, and we ate Greek φαγητο, food.’
It was important for him that he didn’t lose grasp of his culture, and that all the feelings of betrayal he had harboured after moving away from Greece could be suppressed if he passed on the values from his homeland to his children. Forced to assimilate, the migrant holds close to what is feared will be lost.
‘We didn’t have many relatives here, so we turned friends into family.’
That explains why generations later, everyone is either an aunty, uncle or cousin.
‘People already here didn’t like that we had come. They were angry that we were taking the jobs that belonged to them.’
To feel that entitled.
‘I wanted to tell them that somebody was here before they were.’
John protected his family in his new country by recreating elements of his old one, passing on the values he was taught, teaching his children its history, sharing stories of his youth, and details about his parents and family. Outside the house they had to try to look like they were Australian.
‘Australia is very multicultural now. It’s a more accepting country.’
‘I’m glad my grandchildren don’t experience the racism I did.’
They don’t. But others do.
‘…For those who’ve come across the sea,
We’ve boundless plains to share…’
No one knows the second verse.
Each year, from as far back as I can remember, we celebrated Pappou’s birthday on two different dates. One in March and the other in June, which meant that keeping track of his age was difficult. He wasn’t afforded the luxury of a birth certificate.
‘I didn’t have any papers.’
He would say that the local priest was a known drunk, and so after the baptism of babies in the village, he would randomly select dates of the month he thought suited the child. It wasn’t exact, but it was their style. Something foreign to what we are used to in Australia in this new century. He also claimed to be a year older than what we thought he was. The day after his 90th birthday, for example, he would tell us he was closing in on 91, and therefore that was considered his age. It was hard to argue against his reasoning. We came from different worlds.
‘That’s how my mother celebrated our birthdays.’
He paused, remembering her.
‘I think she would have liked to come here.’
John got word of her death weeks after it happened. No phone call. A letter. Words to tell him of his loss, but nothing in his new life would change.
‘I’ll never forgive myself for not being there.’
During the Depression, when there was little of anything on the island, his mother would gather whatever produce she could in her home and cook it for the other children in the village, knowing how tough many had it. Their house was in a raised section of the village, so when she put up washed white sheets on the line, it was known as a signal to all to come and eat what she had made.
‘From her, I learnt to give my παιδιά, kids, the life I didn’t have.’
The most important thing for John was educating his children.
‘I was pulled out of school to work the land when I was in third class.’
As if the right to education didn’t belong to him. Their family was too poor.
‘I once overheard my father say, “Γιάννηs, John, wasn’t very smart anyway”.’
Together, Maria and John worked their milk bar every day of the week to send their children to school. It was their ambition to provide a better start in life for the next generation that kept them going, fighting against the inequality, the hardships and the endless working days. It affected their health and they both suffered, silently.
‘My son was bullied. My daughter also. He was spat on and hit. The teachers didn’t listen to us when we told them.’
They were different.
‘He was always the top of the class, my son, but would be sent outside for answering too many questions, or was told to keep quiet. It wasn’t easy for us. In the neighbourhood, we would have our fruit stolen off trees. In our shop, people would sometimes trash the shelves and tell us to go back home. We hid our tears under the counter.’
And when he first arrived in Australia, it wasn’t the established Australians who were most cruel to him.
‘The Έλληνες, Greeks, I worked for sometimes treated me worse. They wanted me to experience the hardships they faced when they came.’
There is a saying for how one migrant treats the next: They closed the door behind them.
From the age of 40, Maria suffered from rheumatoid arthritis—an autoimmune disorder where the body mistakenly attacks itself. It was debilitating, chronic pain crippling her, damaging her heart, her hands and mobility; but it could never dampen her high spirits. John was her primary carer up until his death; often cooking, cleaning, thinking for her, worrying about her; not adhering to the gender stereotypes of the migrant family.
Before John passed, he spoke about dying in a candid and philosophical way, making the transition easier for those who loved him. That he had outlived his purpose and over-stayed his welcome in this life, that his time had come to move on and be part of the next phase.
‘Ο ήλιος βασιλεύε.’ The sun is setting.
He spoke about wanting to be invited to walk through heaven’s door, welcomed and accepted. To see his mother and father, and wait for his wife.
‘I want to be on the right side of God,’ he would say.
He considered his life a complete one. He left home and journeyed into the unknown on a boat, entered a country where he knew no one, couldn’t communicate verbally, and wasn’t welcomed. He stayed long enough to build a life for his family, to love them equally, to give them everything he could and watch them grow, so that a descendent is here documenting his journey.
I, his grandchild, never had a door to bash through. Nothing was locked out. Because of my grandparents and what they endured, opportunities denied to them weren’t denied to me. But they are being denied to people like them, now, from different countries, different religions, different complexions, to those who wear clothes different from yours, who speak languages you don’t understand like Γιάννηs, John, did, and share his same desire. A life for their family.
‘For you, my child.’
He considered it a miracle, reflecting on the last year of his life as if he knew his time had come to its close, that a person from a small island could make the transition to a foreign country, to better his life and that of his family’s. Today, families seek solace from war, from death and from a life of fear. They want a chance at the life John built, the chance at doing something similar. They may choose to wear headscarves or not, pray to someone who others don’t, have beards or braids or be bald. They may look, sound or feel different. But they all want what we have: what John gave. They want love and life. They aren’t ‘others’. They are John, and John’s friends and cousins and extended family. They are your grandparents or parents. They are you, me and both. They are humans.
‘We are all God’s children,’ he would say.
I knew John. I listened to his story, heard his teachings and loved the person he was. I admired the values he lived by. To love all people. To be kind. To give. To share. I speak for John now, and know he would want the door he pushed through to remain open. To grant shelter to the endangered. To grant life to children and adults seeking safety. He travelled the world for that right. He lived a life for it.
Artwork by Kathryn Lamont.