submitted by Joshua Kepreotis on 31.01.2015
My full name is John George Vardas and I was born on the 18th of June 1918. However, for many years I was under the impression that my actual birthday was in fact on the 18th of March because of a mix up with my birth certificate upon arriving in Australia. When I came to Australia, I didn’t know the language and I didn’t understand a lot of things. Naturally, when they asked me at the office of migration I just simply responded with that date because I was unsure at the time. And to this day I still say that date, although we are not certain, as it is something I have become accustomed to throughout the majority of my life. These days they are much stricter with the paperwork and therefore it was necessary to find out my real birthdate for legal reasons.
I was born in Livadi (Katouni), Kythera, inside the family house, as was customary back in those days, usually with a midwife coming to the house and assisting with the birth. All my brothers and sisters were born in the same fashion. What I can remember of my early childhood is that my family were not very well off and that we were often poorly dressed. The old people of that generation had a bad habit of having more kids than they could usually provide for because they were intent on having big families. My family consisted of six children and my wife’s family had eight. Now looking back, I feel that this was perhaps wrong, due to the fact that they could not provide for that many kids to live comfortable lives, especially on an island like Kythera. I felt it was a sensible decision for Maria and I to just have the two kids. Right now I am the only one left in my family, “Although I don’t know for how long,” he says with a cheeky grin.
My father’s name was George Manouel Vardas and his father’s name, my grandfather, was Emanouel. So as you can see the tradition back then was to keep your father’s name as your middle name and your birth name was usually your grandfather’s name. My father also came from a family of seven and my mother, whose name was Kyriakoula, was from a family of five, which is why I have so many relatives around the world. I continued the tradition by naming my kids George and Koula, which also helps us in tracing the family tree; a great tradition that originated in Greece that I managed to keep for my family. And the middle name was used to differentiate those cousin and relatives who happened to have the same name. I met my grandparents for a brief time and what I could faintly remember of them was that they would always give me some money when I visited. Keeping in mind we were very poor and they didn’t have much for themselves let alone to give me, this was a clear indication of their generosity. I remember wearing the hand-me-downs from my older brothers, meaning I did not really get to own many new clothes for myself. I believe we lived in tough times.
My father was born in Katouni, which is a small cluster of houses over the old Venetian bridge in Livadi, in the same house that I lived in as a child. And my mother was born in Skoulianika, essentially meaning that they were neighbours. He was a very tall man and my mother was quite short, which is why my other siblings and I were all around the same medium height. He worked very hard and they knew how to make many children. They didn’t really have nicknames. One name I heard towards the end just before I left was Kounaines. I am unsure of the meaning but I believe it has some connection to birds, although it does not really make that much sense to me. My family was made up of five boys and a single girl. Six in total. Although two died early on, this was not completely unusual back in those days. Manolis-died fourteen years of age and the youngest, Nikos died young as well. Maria, Panaioti, Andonis, myself, Manolis and then Nikos made up the Vardas family tree.
As a child I can remember being a poor, but more importantly, happy family. We worked hard in the field to keep the animals well fed and I can recall gathering and cleaning the animals that we owned in our Horafia regularly. We would play with the kids of the same age in the village, games such as hide and seek. It was a hard life growing up on an island of Greece in a small village that was far behind the times, technologically speaking, compared to the mainland. I was the youngest and I missed out on going to high school. My father would have liked to have given me that opportunity but unfortunately they could not afford it. We relied on the animals and the fields to survive and so he needed me there.
I was fourteen when my sister got married. She married a good guy, he was American, but he was much older than her at fifty-five years of age. It has always been my belief that she was not ready for that commitment. The story is that there was a great kid before who came to ask my father for her hand in marriage. My siblings and I believe she was indeed in love with him, however he came to the house with a friend who convinced him to ask for a large dowry of 100 000 drachmas. My father asked for time to consider the proposal and overnight decided against it. He rationalised it to us like this; “It’s like asking me to reach up high, if I do I will fall hard, because I would be placing too much money in the benefit of one child and to the neglect of my other children.” I can still remember quite vividly the disappointment we felt as a family. My father wanted to treat all his children equally and offer them equal opportunity in life. I however, felt that we went about it the wrong way by sending the suitor a message rather than visiting him personally. If my father had gone to him then I believe the man would have not asked for it in the end and decided to marry her for love. My sister was heartbroken and then she ended up marrying the older man. They needed money as a dowry so I remained a land worker and had to finish at 5th class. My two older brothers were lucky, but lazy and didn’t stay focused. I wish I had their opportunities that they wasted. I was left to be the child who had the most minimal amount of education and therefore had to establish myself without acquiring any real skill that would have got me a job.
It was hard to accommodate all of us in the family home, but luckily enough it was a relatively big property and so all of us kids shared the bottom floor of a smallish two story place. Keeping in mind however, that we all slept in the one room, it was not a luxurious setting by any stretch of the imagination. After realising that leaving Kythera, and my family behind, the only way forward for me was through migration. I came to the understanding that this was the only real option however it meant that I would carry a burden of guilt with me for many years. My father sacrificed a lot for us and I remember him giving me money to make the journey out to Australia. I always tried to send money back to them but it was extremely difficult. I came in the 1930’s and was struggling to pay my own way. The wages were very small and during the war they were much worse. When I finally gathered together some money between the two jobs I was doing, I would send it back to my family in Greece. My father was bed-ridden and died when he was seventy-six. So at that time I was sending it back to my brothers instead and it still plagues my mind that my father didn’t see any of that money.
I was born in Livadi and therefore spent most of my time in that village whilst in Kythera. I can only really remember going on trips with my father to Mylopotamos, taking our wheat to the mills and turning it into flour. We had mills in Livadi but the ones in Mylopotamos were much faster and so my father insisted on us going there. See, they were watermills which differed from the windmills that existed in Livadi; and were therefore more productive. I also remember travelling long distances by donkey with my father to Melidoni to collect salt for the family. It was the hardest job I have ever done. Apart from those small working trips around the island, Livadi was where I spent most of my time and so naturally it was my favourite place in Kythera. I had a couple of aunts that I know never really left the Horio. Taking the kids and Grandchildren to Diakofti, for example, was on par with a trip to Athens. This was how life was like in a small village on an even smaller island. It was very different to mainland Athens, and also completely contrasting to my later life in Sydney.
Katouni was a very close village as it was a smaller part of Livadi. I once heard a story that related to the founding of Katouni coming from an earthquake many years ago. Because we were a village within a village, naturally we were very close with the neighbours and we were related to most. We all knew each others business, which I guess was one downside. My parents gave me the land next to the family house with an old house on that my mother lived and later died in. I renovated the house with the help of my son-in-law, Victor which is now shared equally by my children and their respective families. So in terms of Kythera, Livadi and Katouni specifically, are the two places that I know best and love unconditionally. And encouragingly, I haven’t noticed too many changes over time except for the odd house that has been built up around us. Of course our house has also been renovated. My son-in-law fixed the place up very nicely; it probably would have fallen down if it wasn’t for him. It was dilapidated and if it had fallen we would have lost it. I owe a lot to his hard-working tireless nature.
I first went to school at the local Livadi School when I was seven years old and finished about 13-14 years of age in 5th class. It was more important for my father to have me look after the olives and the animals, which meant that I couldn’t really continue, which was a great shame for me. As a group of classmates, we were pretty close because we were also neighbours and often related in some way. A couple of us fellow Livaditithes would sit together and play sporting games and we formed something similar to a soccer team. The late Kosma Tzannes was one of my closer friends and we would sit together throughout school. I have a couple of great memories from my early childhood with Kosma. They are great people the Tzannes’, but they tended to be quite messy with schoolwork, which was certainly true of Kosma and also his younger brother Dino (Konstantinos); who were, and remain, great friends of mine, I respect them a lot. So his book would always be dirty and I remember one time when the teacher was coming around to check on the books, and mine was clean, I would show mine and then pass it on to Kosma. When the teacher came to examine mine, Kosma sometimes still had it so I would have to make up an excuse on the spot. I made up the poor excuse that mine was eaten by the cow, the teacher gave me a hit and said “what, did the cow want to learn mathematics?” Even till this day that story makes me laugh uncontrollably. We had some great times together. School was a very positive experience for me which is a major reason behind me wanting to stay on and regretting that I was not able to. Instead, I had come to terms with the fact that helping my parents as labourers, working the land and looking after the animals, was a more realistic goal for myself at that time.
Events like Easter and Christmas were not that different from every other Sunday or Saint’s celebration because we didn’t have the money to do so. It was mainly about going to church and praying. I do remember at Easter we would paint eggs as a tradition and do skoudri with the other students in school. So that I would win the prized egg, I would often make two eggs; one normal and the other would be a rock. And I would switch them while the other person was not looking and always won. It was a little trick of mine that I got away with more often than not. During these festivities, and all Sundays, my family would go to our local church of Livadi, Ayia Irini. My wife and I have sent money back to the church committee over the years, to help maintain and restore it. It has a very special place in my heart till this day. We would go there every Sunday. When we were not at church I can only really remember rounding up the animals in a small enclosure in the morning and in the night I would have to go and retrieve them again; that was often my ritual on Easter. Therefore a mixture of Church and work was how I remember celebrating the special events of the year.
I migrated from Greece to Australia when I was nineteen. It was 1938. When I finished school at 14 in year five I knew there was no posterity for me there. I knew if I stayed I would have just looked after the animals etc. there was no future for me on the island. My heart was there however my head told me otherwise. I was heartbroken saying goodbye to my parents because I knew that I would probably not see them again. But deep down inside I knew that my future lay elsewhere. I left at twelve at night. My brother walked me to the school at Livadi and then had to leave me to go hunting. I felt rejected. They were bitter because they believed I was going to Australia to have a holiday and that money would inevitably grow on trees. I left on the 18th of February 1938 on a Sunday night from Kapsali. I had second thoughts about leaving that night, I was very scared. That night on the water I cried a lot for leaving my family. My parents worked so hard for us and to know in my heart that I was to never see me again was crippling. The boat was Italian, named Esquilino and the journey took all of twenty-eight days. It stopped along the way first at Abyssinia and then in Egypt, as it was a multi-functional cargo/passenger ship. The journey was OK. I met a lot of people along the way. I learnt quite a bit during it as I was a naive 19-year-old island boy. I remember this one Italian waiter wanting a tip for the service he gave me. Something I was certainly not used to in Kythera, I really had no idea what was awaiting me. They were playing card games and that was the first time I was exposed to gambling-type games. I remember thinking what a waste of money and I thank God that he steered me clear of those bad Praxis (habits).
When we finally arrived in Sydney as the last stop of the journey, there were 5-6 Livaditithes; people I knew in Taylor Square, Sydney, where they had a shop. They kept me for two days and then sent me to a job in West Wyalong. They were very nice people but I didn’t recognize that till afterwards. I was convinced by a very bad man to change to a “better job” and then realised how good the first people were. I only stayed a couple of months and then returned back to my friends where they put me up at night. I can remember those first couple of nights in their room because I was eaten alive by ticks and so decided that was no way to live and went to stay in a hotel. They found me another job in West Midland in a fish shop, but I soon realised there that I wouldn’t be able to learn the language; and it did not offer me any room for improvement. I then found a job in Collareneebri where I was working for very hard and disciplined people. We organised a strike but the Kytherian I met returned half way and so I was left without a job. I passed by Walgate and then went down to Werris Creek and Moree and Boomi where I met a cousin of the boss in Collarenebri.
I found two fellow Greeks of Peloponnesian decent and together we bought into a dry ice business. We took it to Narrabri and it was quite successful down there, where I sold ice cream out of a car. The problem was there was already an established shop there owned by Kytherians who got jealous. They dropped their prices lower than I could afford to go and therefore lessened my business. By night I was still washing dishes for that man. I then realised there was no future in the country towns and so I went down to Sydney where these Greeks befriended me and offered me a place to stay for twenty drachmas a night. It was just a bed and nothing else. They promised to find me a job but after a month, or so, it didn’t happen and I realised they were just using me for my rent, so I left.
I decided to go back to Narrabri, where I stayed three and a half years working very hard with not a single day off. The boss once said to me “why you sitting down don’t you know the worker has to follow the boss like the bull’s balls follow the bull.” I took my money because he paid me that day and left. I went to Dee Why and bought a shop in Mosman for 5-6 years and got married there to my wife of fifty-eight years Maria Vardas, formally Poteres of Mylopotamos. I had an apartment then but I needed a house for my new family. We took six months off for a honeymoon and then found a shop in Kingsgrove which I owned for nineteen years. I swapped my Dee Why apartment with this house in Kingsgrove. It was actually a direct swap, which was possible in those days. We had two beautiful children George and Kathy in these years. We eventually opened up a milk bar in Kingsgrove and worked in it till we decided to retire. We would sell sandwiches and smallgoods, even cigarettes, and it brings me great pride that my whole family, although they worked in easy access to it, never picked up smoking as a habit.
I was still getting used to this new country and what made it harder was I did not feel welcome at all. For example, when I was a waiter I remember these two guys put the plate that I had to serve in the oven to heat it up so I would burn myself and I then heard them laugh in the background. They did their best to help me feel like a real foreigner, I wasn’t allowed to speak Greek, and they would say “Speak English please.” And I was often called a “dago”. I can also remember once in my first stint in Sydney I was looking for a shop and found a chemist that could be rebuilt into what I wanted. So I told a kalamitissa friend who I had met about it and two days later he went behind my back and bought it. This quote is applicable to my life, “The friend of your friend you should never tell your secrets, because your friend will tell his friend.”
Having children was certainly the best experience in my life to date. The first born is always something different and a real changing point in someone’s life. And for my daughter the funny story is that I had barely taken Maria in and she had already had her, Maria calls from the kitchen as she slaves over a fresh batch of potatoes, “I nearly had her in the taxi on the way to the hospital,” which John responds with a characteristic giggle. The doctor said congratulations Mr Vardas and I asked what for, because I truly did not expect it to be that quick. For the first born I was so anxious they told me to wait outside. I struggled to cope out there so I managed to climb through the window to get back in with Maria. The nurse pulled me aside and said “You are a naughty man Mr Vardas. You are making everyone unhappy; the mother, the baby, even me.” I could not describe the joy I felt when I saw them.
In terms of difficulties and tragedies, family deaths have been hard to deal with. The fact that I never saw my parents again is difficult and that my mother died in our family home alone is something I will never forget. It plays on my mind from time to time that I wasn’t back in Kythera to look after her. Also illnesses have made life harder, but I just thank God everyday for what he has blessed me with and the extended family he has allowed to flourish as a result of the sacrifices we went through early on.
I am happy that I managed to maintain my Greek traditions in a foreign country and yet be able to adapt enough to the point that my children and grandchildren have assimilated without any problem. The place was very different to what you know of it today. Now Australia is very multicultural in which case it would have been easier. Back then it was much harder. I am glad it is more accepting now, however I wish I had the same warm introductory.
I have always impressed upon my grandchildren that the transition from Kythera to Australia was as difficult as walking from Kapsali to Agia Pelayia, and back, on my knees. That’s how hard it was. Other people came over with relatives, whereas I had no one. All I had were people who would take advantage of me. There were definitely times when I thought to myself that I had to go back to survive, like when my father once offered me to return. And that was the moment in my life where my future could have changed dramatically. However I decided against it and in the end I am glad I had.
I am very happy for what I have accomplished, that is how I would sum up my life. For someone who didn’t know the language, who never went to high school, didn’t know any trade, I believe it was a miracle that I am here today with my family and a miracle in what they have created for themselves. I am 93-years-old and my conscious is still clear. And for my children and grandchildren being so successful academically, something I never had. I love them dearly. There is a saying back in Greece; the child of your child is two times your child. That sums up my relationship with them.
My life was difficult but I am happy and thankful for all that I was able to accomplish, as a person from a little island in Greece making the transition to a foreign country to make a better life for myself and my family.
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This oral history was taken in 2011 by Joshua Kepreotis and final edit in 2014.
Teacher, journalist, poet and author, Sydney NSW Australia
‘Andrew’ Anargyros Vretos Fatseas
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