Arachamites, Tripolis, Greece
Piraeus, Athens, Greece on 22 August 1955
Station Pier, Melbourne on 23 September 1955
Bonegilla for 23 days
Farm in Garfield, Gippsland, Victoria.
Seasonal work at asparagus farm in Garfield.
SEC electricity factory and coal mines in Gippsland; Victorian State Rivers Water Supply Commission; café worker in Wodonga; fish shop worker, milk bar owner and operator in Albury.
I was born in 1936 in a small village called Arachamites out of Tripolis, Greece and I grew up there. Hills surrounded the village [and] plenty of fresh air and fresh water. I lived with my parents, two sisters and another brother. We were poor but a loving family, close, you know. We had a little farm with a small farmhouse on it. My parents grew a few vegies, wheat and some fruit trees. We had a few sheep and a couple of horses.
The [Second World] war started in Greece in 1940. At first the Italians tried to invade Greece. The Greeks fought them but then the Germans came along. The Germans were cruel; if someone killed one German, the German soldiers would kill ten Greeks in the same spot. Some Greeks were fanatics [and] would wait in hiding and kill ten Germans. German soldiers would pick up a hundred local people: men, women and children. Then they would take them to the countryside, make them dig a large grave and machine gun those people.
I believe that’s how the Greek civil war started after World War Two. It was the clash between the fanatics, who wanted Communism, and the general people. The ones that killed the Germans were like guerrillas. They used to come in the night time to our village and take whatever food we had and leave.
[At home] we heard them go downstairs, kick the door in and set fire to it. The guerrillas started to belt my father on the head with a gun. Then they belted him again. I remember that. My sisters, my brother and I were crying. “Please don’t hit our father”, we begged. One of them gave me kick, lifted me up like a football. I will never forget that. The next day the army came to the village and somebody told them that my father supported the guerrillas with food, so the army came and belted [him]. Terrible, I was about ten years old. They were bad years. I hope nobody sees things like that again.
During the Greek civil war, my parents had taken us to a nearby village because they thought it would be safer. The Communists surrounded the village and invaded. There was gunfire from all directions and you ran for your life, but one of my sisters, Efi, and my father did not make it. When it was safe to come out, both Efi and my father were missing. We were reunited with my father when we reached Tripolis, the closest major town. Efi was never found. My mother used to cry, “I lost my daughter”, over and over again.
Eventually I attended Tripolis High School for two years but it was very expensive. You need money to live in the city; my father was just a farmer. I went back to Arachamites and helped my parents on the farm.
I had an uncle in America who wanted me to go [there]. He sent me all the papers and I was waiting and waiting to go, but I didn’t hear a thing. One night I was in the little coffee shop and the owner, who was the secretary of the village community, said, “I’ve got some forms for anyone who wants to go to Australia”. I thought, “you give me that form”. My parents didn’t know a thing about it.
Very soon after, I received a letter requesting I go to Athens to get my passport. I had never been to Athens before. I remember I got off the bus, you know, country kid, and I didn’t even know where to cross the street! After I got my passport, I went back to the village. Everything was alright but I needed to have my parents’ consent to leave. My father had to go to police station to sign the paperwork. He didn’t want to. I begged [him]. I suppose he felt he might lose another child [but] finally he signed.
I left Greece from the port of Piraeus on 22 August 1955. I travelled aboard the Tasmania for 31 days. It was no good, I was seasick all the way. I was worried about leaving my parents, brother and sisters. I was thinking, “What am I doing?” I was a wreck. I saw nothing but sea and waves. We stopped in Aden, then Fremantle to Melbourne.
We arrived at Station Pier on 23 September 1955; I was 19 years old. When we got off the ship, we went straight by train to Bonegilla. It was night time, maybe about 11 o’clock, when we arrived. We had nothing to eat all day. A Greek man in the office was calling out in Greek, “Welcome to this country! Now you can go to the canteen to have some tea”. We went there, the canteen was full with food but it wasn’t food we used to have, it was very different. No, those years I didn’t like the food. I think I just had a couple of apples.
We were allocated a room. I went there, slept, and got up next morning. I didn’t know where I was. I just looked around all confused. I thought the sun was coming from the west!
I stayed at Bonegilla 23 days. During that time they called me into the employment office. First, they offered me work in Queensland to cut sugar cane, but I heard there is snakes. Secondly, they wanted me to go working in a timber mill factory in Victoria. I said no but the girl from the office said, “The government has brought you here to work. It’s alright to refuse one job and the second, but the third one you accept”. I didn’t pay any money to come over to Australia but I had signed a contract that required me to work for two years and then I could leave.
The third job was to cut asparagus in Gippsland in a little town called Garfield. I went there, it was seasonal work. When the season finished they transferred me further up to Yaloon. There was the SEC electricity factory and coal mines and I worked to change all the pipes for the mine because they were very scared of fires. I didn’t like that job much, the coal used to get into my lungs. Every night the white clothes I was wearing were black from the coal dust.
It was here I met a Greek fellow. He had only been in Australia a couple of years but spoke English well. I didn’t know hardly any words of English. I said to him, “How come you can talk English, I don’t know a word”. He said [he] bought some translation books from Melbourne, Greek to English dictionary.
I went with him down to Melbourne, to a Greek shop in Lonsdale Street. I bought this book. When I went back, at night time I stayed up and tried to put word with word together and sort of make sense of it. I had to translate from Greek to English and from English to Greek, and day by day, word by word, I got there. That little translation book helped me a lot to learn a few words. I use it even now.
I met a couple of other Greeks who used to work for the State Rivers Water Supply Commission. They were getting three times more pay than I was. So I went there and a man said there were no jobs but I stayed and I had my little translation book. I was reading, reading, and I went back to the office and said, “Please give me a job. I’ve got no money and I don’t know where to go. I want work”. “I told you before, no jobs available”, replied the man.
I was sitting outside the office – waiting, waiting, reading, reading – and I went back again and I told him, “Please give me job and God will pay you back”. He was talking to me but I couldn’t understand much. He said, “What sort of job do you want?” I said, “Anything. Pick and shovel, jackhammer or anything at all”. After that a group of about ten people came along, one was the leading hand. The boss told them to take me. So I went on the truck to the work site and they gave me a jackhammer.
The work was so hard but I wanted to make a good impression for my boss, so I keep going and going. I was so sore the next day! Soon after they gave me the job of dockman. I would ride on top of the big crane and release the concrete from the mixer. I was harnessed to the crane so I wouldn’t fall. This was a hard job, but I earned good money and sent this back to my parents – my sisters were getting married.
I was on my way to Mitta Mitta for another job as a dock man. I caught the train from Melbourne to Wangaratta and was then going to catch the bus to Mitta Mitta. As I was walking around I heard some Greeks in a café. They asked me if I was looking for a job. I said I have a job lined up in Mitta Mitta. They said, “No, we have a job for you in a café in Wodonga”. I was not interested.
I left the café, leaving my suitcase behind while I explored the town. I had carried that suitcase everywhere, bringing the light green, metal case with me across on the Tasmania from Greece. The suitcase was small – about 50 centimetres wide and 30 centimetres in height – but it was all I needed. It had leather straps inside attaching the lid and base and I had carved my name into the metal.
I found a lovely park and lay down to close my eyes for a bit. When I woke up I had missed the bus! I went back to the café and said, “Well I’ve had a think about the job and changed my mind”.
I worked in the Wodonga café for about three months and really enjoyed working there as the owner, Stan, was not much older than me. Next, I worked in a café down the road, still in Wodonga, but my new boss was moody. After that I worked in another friend’s shop in Albury, Harry’s Fish Shop. Finally, I opened my own business, Rex Milk Bar, in Olive Street, Albury and worked from that shop for 17 years.
My friend who owned Harry’s Fish Shop had found himself a wife in Melbourne. We both wanted wives and now he had found one. When I went down to Melbourne for my friend’s engagement party and Uncle Peter knew I was after a wife, he said, “That one, she is a lovely girl”, and he was right! Peter introduced me to Toula and her family, he was a matchmaker.
I was 27, I fell in love. I went up later that night and asked her for a dance, our romance started. Toula had hurt her finger and I felt it. I went over and sympathised, we felt very close. I went down to Melbourne a couple of weeks later and Toula’s father invited me over for dinner. Four weeks later Toula and I were married.
My friend and I had a double wedding in Melbourne in 1963 and then Toula and I moved back up to Albury. Then we started a family and had three children, James, Michael and Antonia. We had another baby but lost her after only four hours. Toula’s family followed us to Albury, first her sister and then her parents, so our children always had their grandparents around.
I used to work very long hours in the milk bar, often ’til 1am and starting very early. Sometimes I would not see the children I was working so hard. Rex Milk Bar was next to the Hoyts Theatre. We used to make lemonade and homemade soft drinks for the people who went to the cinema [and] sell a lot of ice-cream and chocolates too. After this I relocated my business to Swift Street operating for another 14 years.
When I came to Australia I left my parents, brother and sisters in Greece. I went back after 15 years to visit them. My family were very excited to see my young kids and meet my wife. They had never met Toula as they couldn’t afford to come to the wedding. So I left Greece alone but I returned with my wife and three kids.
Toula and I are retired now, living in Albury. James and Michael, our sons, are living in Melbourne. Our daughter Antonia runs a coffee shop, Coffee Mamma, in Olive Street, just like her dad did many years ago.