submitted by Joshua Kepreotis on 31.01.2015
My name is Georgios Haros tou Nikolao, Vlastos is my family’s Parapitheto/parastoukili. The term Vlastos refers to the spring time when the flowers blossom they are called Vlastadia. We have no idea how that relates to us. We have the parapitheto because Haros means death in Greek and so I guess we needed to have a new nickname. I was born 13 June 1934 in Livadi, Kythera.
Viola and I live in a house in Livadi now when we go back to visit; a new house. It’s our holiday house and a second home for us. I started building it in the 60’s and finished it in the 90’s. I fixed the downstairs house first and we stayed there while the second floor was getting built. It was like that till the 90’s, as it was just scaffolding up top. Every year I would go back and do more work until I finally finished it in ‘96. I was however born in Vlastianika, which was, and still is, a very small village. Back then there were just three houses. It is where my brother, Panaioti and his wife, Marika, still live today and I was born inside that house. There were two doctors; Fatseas who was from Ayios Elias and Leftheris from Livadi who I believe was the one who helped assist in the birth.
My memories of early life in Kythera included playing games that we made by ourselves; because back in those days we didn’t have money or shops to buy toys. We would play hide and seek, chasing games and throwing rocks to pass our time. They were active games outside, which is very different to these days. We would gather down at the ‘stigoura’ in Kato Livadi, outside the big church in the platea where the new school has been built. 30-40 kids would meet down there and play all the games we liked every afternoon, but our parents would need us to work the land a lot so we would often hide from them. I was joined by my big brother there and our parents would discipline us.
In the days of the war we didn’t have shoes, we used to walk all over the mountains barefoot through the agathia. Meat in those days was very rare, so much so that hunting games were very exciting for us because it used to feed us as well. There was a type of bird that would fly over in September that we all liked to hunt. To this day that still brings a smile to my face thinking of us down at the ‘Stigoura’. I also need to add that my mother was indeed a great cook.
I have noticed that the demographic of the island has changed dramatically. Back in the days of the war (30’s-40’s) people left the large cities to go to the islands for various reasons. There was a lack of food in the cities and Kythera provided them with sustenance. So it had a large population of around 10,000 locals, which is considerably more than once was. However after the war finished and people realised that life in Kythera was not so easy, many of them left. Whoever could get out would leave. Some went to Australia, others to America. Athens and Germany where other destinations of choice (this was when the war was over and Germany needed people to rebuild in the 50’s. After the war, a lot of Greeks went to help and work in Germany. It fixed their economy but the Greek one suffered).
Now, the youth of Kythera are not all Kytherian children. Back in my day we used to play in the streets all together, now it is different. A whole generation of people left and it wasn’t like one man leaving, which meant that he was gone from the island for good. It meant that the wife he was to marry and the three children he was to have, taking me for example, would have lived there otherwise and Kythera would be the same as always. Nowadays the Albanian workers have chosen to stay and live on the island and the Albanakia make up half the student population. Otherwise the
schools would be empty. They say now that Kythera has a population of 3000 local Kytherians who live on the island for the majority of the year. Their average age is 60 and above.
I never met my grandparents on my father’s side because they had passed away before I was born. I was however very close to my grandparents on my mother’s side and I remember them very well. See back in those days, food was scarce and it was what we needed the most. When I used to go help them work, the payment was food so I was always there. We loved going to Megali Mouri because that was where my Pappou had his best land. There he made wheat for bread, crushed olives for oil etc. it was a rich and fertile land there. We helped with the animals and brought water to the house. And we were always well fed from our Yiayia after that. They were wonderful people. My Pappou was a very tall and strong man and quite strict. Yiayia was very soft and a nice lady. Those days if they didn’t work the land and animals then the family would not be fed, very different to what we are used to now with supermarkets. For example back then the stari we used was made from the round “aloni” at the end of the Katouni Bridge. We would have the donkey go around and around crushing the wheat. Then there was a whole other process of throwing it to the right wind etc. These days it’s all bought from the fourno, no one works the land like that anymore. Society now has forgotten about the land.
My father’s name was Nikolaos Panaioti Haros (Vlastos) and my mother’s name was Maria Vardas. My father left early on in Kythera because he was very good at school but his father did not have the money to further his education. So my father left and went to Smyrni in the 20’s for work. After Smyrni, he went to America and worked for 22 years. That was where he made his money. He then came back to Greece and bought the new house where my brother lives now in Kythera. He bought some land but left a lot of money in shares and in the bank, planning to live well off the interest. However around the time of the Great Depression, and around the start of WWII, the money lost its value and became worthless. It worried him greatly. So we went from people well off buying clothes and shoes to losing it all. He then had to resort to selling produce at Hora; eggs, cheese etc. to scrape together some money for us to survive. If my father had not lost his money there would have been no reason for me to leave and come to Australia. I would have lived there permanently had our life’s circumstances not had changed so dramatically. Life in Greece for everyone became very difficult. City life in Athena was even more difficult, they would have starved. We at least survived off the land.
My mother was born in Katouni, Livadi. My Yiayia died in that family house from TB. And they kept her alone in the house because you could catch it quite easily. My Yiayia was such a beautiful lady. I remember because food was scarce, Yiayia had a deal with us kids that whenever she cooked food she would put up a sheet so we could see it from Vlastianika and we could go to Katouni to get food. I named by youngest child after her because she fed me so much and loved us so much; I have so much to thank of her. She was a truly beautiful lady who was so giving. There is a story that when the gypsies would come around asking for food my Pappou would tell them to leave and then my Yiayia would pretend to do the same so he wouldn’t find out but secretly she was feeding them, she had such a big heart.
The locals were very self-sufficient back then. When I would get back from school I was told from my parents to go and work. I would tend to the garden, get water from the well and also look after the animals. And in those days there was no saying no. The animals were kept up on the mountain behind Vlastianika. See people all over the island would divide the land with rock walls to keep the animals in so they wouldn’t get mixed up with your neighbours’ animals.
My brother’s name is Panayiotis. He still lives in Vlastianika in our patriko spiti. My parents organised with my uncle John Vardas for one of us boys to come out to Australia and mu uncle was to be our guarantor. My bother declined and I jumped at the chance to leave the island. He always wanted to stay on the island; he didn’t want to come to a foreign land. We had a small family compared to others in those days when they would have many children. See, my father was in America for a long time and he married in his late 40’s to a woman who was much younger, which is why they didn’t have many kids. My father didn’t ask for a prika. Prika in those days of hard times was a great burden on the wife’s family. He was a good man for not wanting that at all. Her family did not have a prika to give anyway. One man had come in for my mother but he asked for a great big prika to which my Pappou thought about it overnight and said no because he would have no money for the rest of the children.
Life during the war to me was not bad. The difficult years during the war affected my parents more than it affected me. They were the ones who had to toil for the money and food to help their kids survive. For us kids it was all about playing, we did not think about stuff too much. We made do with school and work, but didn’t consider the war. Slingshot was another game we enjoyed greatly (my memory returns when it pleases). During the war we saw the Germans and Italians up close. And after the war when they left, the Civil War began and we saw the communists. My father was a translator for the Germans because he spoke English. The Italians came in the 40’s and they left when the German’s came. The Italian boys weren’t much of fighters and not bad people so they left. They needed the help of the German’s to get them out of Greece. It was a different story when the German’s came. I remember the German planes flying over Kythera to go to the battle of Crete. They were flying so low over Kythera that we could see them from our houses. There were hundreds of them. We had built trenches and whenever we heard the planes we would jump down into them to stay safe and out of sight. There were also English warships down at Kapsali and when German planes went overhead the boats would shoot at them. I even remember seeing a war plane being shot down and falling into the ocean. I remember the Germans had made a base at Tragyila, which you get to by a dirt road on the right before you enter Hora and leading out to the peninsula.
As Kids we would go to the school at Hora. After we finished from school we would go to the base and play with their left over weapons and ammunition. We walked to school barefoot so you could imagine how dangerous it was there. How we did not kill ourselves there is beyond me. I am very happy that I lived through the war. First of all, I appreciate even the smallest piece of bread, considering that we often went without food, because when everything is made for you then you do not appreciate anything. We were all equal and we all had nothing and the struggle was for bread. But everything was friendly and everyone was nice to one another. Now the struggle is for the most amount of money and it makes the people bad because they are out to beat one another. The friendly environment which we had in the fields and in the villages is long gone. It was compulsory to talk to everyone and greet the whole neighbourhood.
I stayed in constant contact with my brother, sending photos etc. I left in ‘49 and I went back after thirteen years in ‘62 in which we had grown up. I hadn’t seen him much when I was younger because he always worked away from home, but now of late since I have been going every year we are extremely close brothers. Our house was not anything special inside, it was not one of the better houses there. All the houses were anapotha, however ours was the most anapotha of all of them. My brother still lives in that house, it is very Spartan. They made bread, collected sika, staphili for the wine, and honey from the bee hives; we didn’t have electricity too, so we had a fireplace to keep warm in winter and firewood to cook for the fourno. We made salsa by crushing tomatoes and fava by splitting peas. It was all self-produced. If we didn’t have all that we may have starved. But see, there was something back then that isn’t so evident today, agapi. If your neighbour was starving you would feed them, so I doubt we would ever have starved on the island. We would also make baskets and I would go with my uncle Adoni to sell them at Potamo and make a little money; and horta from the horafia we would sell too. To get the water I would have to take the bucket to the well close by. The concrete they had to make the wells with, my father would go with my uncles and steal it from the Germans from Kapsali. They were scared for their lives but it was necessary and they would bring the concrete back with the donkeys.
Easter and Christmas were days spent with family making nice food like Fava, Katarithi or for some relative to invite us to a wedding or christening to eat nice. We would also kill animals to eat goat etc. to eat well. We went to church very often. Our church was in Livadi O’ Yeletetou.
My closest friends from Kythera were Jack Cassimatis. We went to school together and came home together and did a lot of crazy things as kids, together. He still is a very close friend of mine till today. And Andrikos from Kato Livadi who owns the house on the corner before you turn to get to the platea was also a very close friend in the early days.
I went to school early on to Livadi but we had a problem with the teacher who we didn’t feel was teaching us well enough. People complained and so quite a few of us moved schools, the only ones who stayed were his relatives. We went to the one in Hora which would take us about an hour to get to by foot. And of course we played games along the way. There was an old school over the bridge at Fatsathika that you can see from Katouni, which my Pappou used to attend. He would walk down from Katouni and go under the bridge. He would not do this in winter however because a stream would form. It now looks decrepit but it is a beautiful British-styled building. I went to high school for only 2-3 classes and then I left to go to Australia.
Leaving Kythera was hard and the hardest part was saying goodbye to my parents. My father truly believed if he hadn’t lost his money then I would not have left, so he was very upset. I left from Kapsali and the other family members would stop where the small bridge is where you enter Kapsali. My father came with me to the boat till Piraeus. It was called “Laros” and it took endless hours. It took roughly the same amount of time to get from Kythera to Piraeus as it now takes to get from Australia to Athens. When I got to Piraeus, we stayed there a few days and we went to a shop with a fellow Kytherian who owned a small market selling fish etc. and he shouted me the first beer I ever had in my life. From Piraeus I came with the plane to Australia. It was a tiny plane. I went with the Malanos family. I had the choice to come by boat with my friend O’ Yiakomi, Jack Cassimaty, however he was as crazy as was I and they said if we were on it together we would sink the boat. So my father sent me with the Malanos’. Mrs Malanos spoke French and so it worked out well because we had to go to Egypt. They told us to go stay in a hotel while they refuelled and prepared for the long journey to Australia. My father had taught me some English and so I asked the man for a toilet and he showed me the whole in the ground. Needless to say it was an eye opener. The fleas got to us as well. It took 6 days on and off the plane. We stopped in Cairo, Sri Lanka and somewhere else (I don’t remember the name) before we got to Sydney.
I do remember getting to Sydney where my uncle John Vardas was waiting for me. The first thing we did was go to a shop and he bought me a milkshake. I landed in Mascot and Uncle John was waiting for me. He took me to his shop in Mosman, the Miami Milk Bar. It had a room close by, in which we both slept in the same room together. He gave me work in the shop and he helped me a lot. He made me a waiter at the front so I could learn the language. The customers would tell me their orders and I had no idea what it meant but I would go back to the kitchen and tell the chef, who was Yiannis Conomos at the time, what they said. Yiannis worked with my uncle at Binnaway and so he came down to help out. We served bacon and eggs, spaghetti on toast, asparagus on toast, bake beans on toast, toasted sandwiches, three decker toasted sandwiches Uncle John used to make sometimes. Slowly, slowly, with the help of my uncle I learnt the language. I stayed there for three years and afterwards he bought a house in Dee Why. He was like a father to me. He made sure I didn’t drink or smoke or anything of that nature. Once he found I had bought cigars with my friend Yiakomi and I hid them in the house, Uncle John found them and disciplined me. He was my mum’s brother and he treated me like a son. When I left he tried to keep me, but I was so intent on leaving because I couldn’t stay in one place and the restaurant life didn’t appeal to me at all.
So I left and went to Wellington near Dubbo to be a chef. I there met the Condoleon family, who were quite well off from Hora. There I learnt a lot of things also. Cooking was one of them. We never wasted bread, we made it fresh again by dipping it in water and it softened and then we put it back into the fourno to become new. One Saturday they taught me how to gamble on the horses. He put five lyras on a horse and that was the beginning of a problem I had for a year. I have done it all and all of it I have stopped. Whenever we would finish work we would go play poker and other gambling games. Every Saturday was on the horses. In those days gambling was hidden and illegal, there were no TAB’s, and it was only allowed on the horses. Whatever money I made it went to horses and if I won then it went to two-up school, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. We used to play with dice not the pennies like today. Thankfully, I was sending money to my father every month. But all the rest of my money was lost to gambling. That was my story in Wellington. I stayed for one year. I liked that village and the people were even better. However I thought that if I stayed any longer I will never make anything of myself because whatever money I made, I threw away.
So I travelled down to Sydney and I found work in Sutherland for Kosta Kourolomi, however again I wasn’t that happy. I heard that in North Queensland one could get a lot of money from sugarcane cutting and I thought that was the work for me. I was in Sutherland for a year before doing a lot of reading on cane cutting before I decided to go up there to Cairns. I found Greeks in Cairns called Jim Botsollos and Sofios, who were good people. They told me that the work was not for me. I had to go to the Cane Growers Association to get a permit. The lady at the front desk immediately doubted that I could do it. Cane cutting is extremely difficult and the men are usually weathered from all the work and the sun. Their hands are very worn. The days were boiling hot and the nights were freezing. I was also the cook there for the guys. I came from a milk bar to this job and I wasn’t trained in the process, it was very difficult. I did it for 2-3 months and decided that I could not continue.
I went back to the Greek friends I had met up there and told them that it had not gone well at all. They put me in contact with a friend of theirs that worked at the sugar mills and so I decided to take up that work. It wasn’t as hard as the Cane Cutting. All the work of the sugar mill was functioned by steam. We worked three shifts a week for 24 hours, however it was seasonal work. We then decided to go and make more money in wood-cutting, where I also bought a bike for small trips, my friend Peter doff van Beek, a Dutchman from Melbourne, already had one. We cut the wood with all saws, not the chain saws as it would be today. It was very hard work. Up there we had to deal with countless insects. Working and living there made me much stronger in life and also appreciate things more. I used to see brown snakes and deadly animals like that. I was up there for three years for the season. I then went from Cairns to Sheperton Victoria on my motorbike. It was about 2000 plus miles and I went to begin fruit picking. That is how the seasonal work worked.
As we left I came across bad roads and had a motorbike accident which I was lucky to survive from. I fell another two times and the last one I remember vividly. There was a semi-trailer in front of me and I was close to him. I tried to overtake to which I ended up under the truck. It was all part of the adventure I suppose. I then came down to NSW and bought a shop with Jack Cassimatis at Heathcote. We bought it from Kosta Kourmouli and a Mr Kepreotis. We had a great time there. We would go to the market together, go on deliveries and we made good money. I stayed there for 1 and a half years. I picked up a milk run and sold my share in the shop to Jack. In those days you would deliver cold milk in bottles on the doorsteps. People had put in orders and each average was 2 and a half pints. The run went through Heathcote and Waterfall and made me very good money. I stayed in a log cabin which was a very simple living space and I lived with a German and 2-3 Yugoslavi. I sold off a section of the run and loaned out the rest for a year because I wanted to go back to Greece. My Uncle John convinced me to take a ring and find a wife in Kythera. I would have been about 28 years old. 1962 I went with the Patris which took about 28 days. I had a relatively fun time there with the entertainment, but it became a bit monotonous towards the end. It had parties, dances, bingo, bars and whatever else you needed.
I went to Kythera straight away. I loved hunting so I went with my brother and some friends, and we took some guns. The guns back then you would fill the barrel with gunpowder by yourself. I must have filled it up way too much or bought highly explosive gunpowder and when I pressed the trigger, the base of the gun blew up and it took my thumb clean off. I remember that very well. Nikos Sklavos took me to the hospital, which was better back then than it is today, and we went back to find the rest of the gun and perhaps my thumb, which we found almost 30 metres away. I also bought a motorbike there which I also fell off. We were out together eating and drinking and when I went to take one of my friends home something happened with the bike mechanically and I fell wrecking part of my knee. I went to doctor Leftheri. He fixed me without anaesthetic.
My father was very sick at that time; he had bronchitis and didn’t leave the house. He also smoked a lot, very addicted. I was about to finish my holiday and my mother hinted that it would be nice for me to get married while I was there. However, I hadn’t noticed anyone except for a nurse that I met whilst in hospital. She helped nurse me back to health from my thumb accident. She had caught my eye a few times around the villages and in shops; however it was close to me leaving when my mother said that to me so it would have been hard. I knew her mother worked there as well so I hopped on a bus to go to Potamo hoping she would be in there. And we went to speak to them. I also went for a second time to see her. I saw her walking to Strapothi so I thought it would be good to go walk with her and get to know each other. Back in those days that was taboo, so I was with my sister-in-law, Marika. That way people wouldn’t talk. I saw her first in the shop tou bobou in Pano Livadi, the supermarket. That shop had everything in it, he had a phone when no one else had one in their houses, newspapers, it was also a café. It had everything. The first time I saw her she had her hair up and I remember saying that pretty girl would look much nicer with her hair down. I said to myself that she was the one. I was slightly embarrassed so I told my sister-in-law to go tell her that I liked her. We met at Ayio Mina after a paniyiri and shared out first kiss behind the church, secretly. The rest is history. A true fact of faith. Within the month we had gotten engaged and then married and then we got the tickets to go to Australia. Viola did not exactly want to come over but we wanted to get married that much that she luckily decided to come with me. In the end I won that battle.
I bought the garage in Woodford Crescent in Heathcote. I bought the block of land, put a garage in to do my milk run from 12 o’clock midnight. I left Viola to look after our son Niko, and with an Alsatian dog Pisti to protect them because I was always out from early. Another interesting thing about then is that I smoked a lot like my father. This one time I came down with this terrible cold and I felt so debilitated, so disappointed in myself, that only with the help of my wife did I quit. That was it, right then, I never smoked again. Viola was very diplomatic and smart. She kept a packet of cigarettes with her always. She knew that because I was addicted that when you do not have access to it you lose your mind and want it. However, if the option was there and you remained strong you could get over it. I also had a drinking habit and would go to the pub because I had time after my milk run. But I got over that as well with my family in mind. We then built a nice house there close to the National Park. I had trained to protect Viola that much that one time when I had a fight with the builder I sent the dog to do something. However, he turned on me because he thought he was protecting Viola. I decided to leave all this and go back to Greece because I again missed life back there. So Viola, my young son Nick and I went back.
With the Patris we again came back and stayed in Stouro’s spiti close to Lucky’s accommodation in Livadi. I started building the house that we live in now when we go back. We had our two girls Maria and Kathy. I managed the olive factory for the years we were there. We also looked after the garden and maintained all the horafia. The more the kids grew up and the Greek political system became worse, the more we thought about Australia again. And around 1965 when the Hounta took over, and the problems in Cyprus escalated, I knew that we had to leave. Either we would come back to Australia or go to Athens. I came back first and moved in with my Uncle John’s family. I was there for 2-3 months while I looked for a shop etc. I heard of a milk run in Kareela which I bought and we stayed in Rockdale. Later we bought the house I am in now. Viola worked in sewing as she was great with rapsimo, but we missed each other because she would work till 3-4 and I left at that time and when I got back everyone was asleep. 6 years passed and I realised this wasn’t forever. I wanted to get a shop again. That was where my heart was.
I met a man who told me about a smallgoods run and it interested me. It wasn’t getting much money at first so during the day I was working there and I worked at a cleaning business by night. I put all my money in that I had made, to this smallgoods place, but it wasn’t returning what I thought. So I said to myself that I needed to go out and sell. I put on a suit and bought a briefcase, which I filled with blank paper to look legitimate and I went and got business. In 2-3 years I more than tripled my money and got my wife to come over and work with me. After hard work and knowing how to sell we made it successful. I knew that I couldn’t lose my drive because in selling you could go around for weeks with nothing and it just needed one lucky break to happen. My big break was at the airport. One catering company had the whole place and I found myself in the right place at the right time. I said I wanted to meet the catering manager there. He was new, so I knew I had a chance to convince him to go with me. They needed frankfurts and sausages, he showed me the stock and it smelt so bad that I told him there was nothing continental about these and they were no good. He agreed and said ‘I need sixteen sausages to the kilo and twelve frankfurts and if you don’t cheat and they are good I will give it to you’. It was successful and that was the turning point of my business.
Another turning point was getting my son Niko to work with us. He was an economics student and worked in a bank. He would come back regularly with the smell of alcohol on his tongue because they would all go out to a club after work. I wasn’t happy with that. And so in ‘88 I convinced him to come to St George Smallgoods because I saw a future there and told him if he liked it after two years I would give him a share. He did a wonderful job. He went one day and brought two customers from the leading smallgoods distributor in Sydney. That guy got very angry and sent his press distributor saying that Tony Larocca has the shits with you and is going to put me out of business. I stayed calm and it made me work harder. After a few years we found out that Mr Larocca went broke. If he had come to me nicely and said let us not take each other’s business I would have acted differently, however considering how rude he was it became a big satisfaction for me to be spurred on. In the early 90’s I then said to my youngest daughter Kathy after she finished TAFE, the same thing I said to Niko. And from that moment on St George has not looked back. We struggled a lot at the beginning transferring our warehouse from one place to the next. I went from working at a warehouse in Hurstville and then built a big garage at the back of our house and put three cool rooms in it and worked from there. We then went to Penshurst and then finally have ended up at Gareema Circuit in Kingsgrove where we have now spread to across the road. And if business continues on like this then in a few years we will have to move to a bigger place again. However the early days were not easy at all, we sacrificed a lot to get where we are now.
I am very proud of this minor achievement, not a big achievement. However my greatest achievements are my children. I have some nice houses around also that I am proud to own. My holiday place in Umina is a family affair, we all love going there together. I have never been one for the big houses, I am proud of what we have around the world, my house here and houses in Kythera. With hard work and incentive we have travelled around the world and are extremely happy with our lives.
The highlights of my life include, well if I don’t say my wife first then tha vro to belama mou. Let me tell you a piece of advice and you have to keep it always in your mind, Ama then exeis mia voliki yineka dipla sou, diskola tha kanis headway. Luckily, I found the right one. If I didn’t have her support in everything, in life and in work, then I would have done not even half of these things. My children are a great satisfaction for me and grandchildren are also something quite special. It is hard to explain how important they are to you.
The hardest moment in my life was leaving for Australia the second time. It was the most difficult decision I ever had to make. I remember telling my Uncle Adoni that I felt like the man sentenced to death walking away from everyone; leaving my small kids hurt me the most. I was leaving behind everything I loved. I didn’t know how to organise myself in Australia before I could bring over a wife and three kids. I just had to fight through the problems. That was how I got through everything.
We did have some difficult times throughout. When I got sick with thromboceptisimia in ‘65 was a time I struggled to get through. People on drugs get that but I didn’t take drugs so they didn’t know where I got it from. I was lucky to survive. That was one stage before leukaemia the professors said. From that point on I have not been able to donate blood. That doctor Daniel told me that it could come back at any time. But thankfully with God’s help I didn’t get it again.
I sum up my life as a happy one. Happy with how it worked out. There was a man who told me once that people who haven’t lived through peripetes (hardships) are gourounia (pigs). The hard times I lived through with the cane cutting, wood I cut, snakes that nearly bit me, motor bike falls and other tough times, turn out to be good if you survive them with the help of God. I had the help of God.
Teacher, journalist, poet and author, Sydney NSW Australia
‘Andrew’ Anargyros Vretos Fatseas
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