submitted by Joshua Kepreotis on 31.01.2015
My name is Maria Vardas. I was Maria (Μαριγη) Poteres, but my surname changed to Vardas when I married John. I was born in Kato Hora, Milopotamo on the island of Kythera on 5th April 1928, in the family home. The midwife would come to the house and help out in the process, which was how everyone was born back then. Everyone called me Μαριγη or Μαριω and as the youngest of a big family, I remember often copping punishment (ετρωγα σκαμπιλια) from all my brothers and sisters because I was younger than them and they took advantage of that. We were very close as kids. My dad was in Athens and had a good business so he always sent us nice things and we ate well whereas others didn’t. We had a good life and I can’t complain about my early life back home.
My mother’s name was Theano and father’s was Theodore. He had a shop in Athens and worked so hard that unfortunately he developed a heart condition. Subsequently, he died many years later from a heart attack. To give you an example of how fragile his condition was, the doctor had said to him, that ‘if he was to see his house catch on fire, then he would have to turn the other way and leave so that he would not to worry’. He needed to do this if he wanted to live. However he worked so hard in the family restaurant in Athens and that meant that he was always worrying.
I remember when he would come home to Kythera and in particular this one time in 1939 when I was eleven years old. I went to school and before we went in, I saw my father outside in a taxi. He gave me a letter to give to the teacher and feeling important, I expected that he would let me leave early with my father. The teacher, however, was a hard man and responded quite sternly ordering me to stay inside.
My father came back to Kythera every summer and each summer my mother became pregnant. All the children were one year apart except for the last two because he stayed in Athens an extra year. My mother was strict in the sense that she had to look after eight kids alone and never wanted us to upset our father. She would kick us under the table and give us looks. My father hit me only once. He was a great man, and my mother was of a peaceful nature; she never wanted to cause problems. My father’s parents both had a ‘παρατσουκλι’; my grandfather was a priest and his was ‘σπανιολος’ and my grandmother’s was ‘ενγγλεσoι’. One from Spain and one from England; that was the joke back then.
My mother was from Githion (southern tip of the Peloponnese) and my father from Milopotamo. My mother was previously married to a man from Avlemona. However he died from the flu that hit much of the island at that time. Being widowed at a young age was difficult for her as she had two children to look after; the first being a daughter and the second being a son. Sadly her son stepped on some form of metal that caused his death from tetanus. The daughter married and moved to Crete. All this happened before I was born...I met her only once in my lifetime...a year before she passed away).
My mother was a seamstress and she went to Milopotamo for work where she met my father. They at first called her a ‘foreigner’ but everyone changed their opinion because she was so nice to them all and very capable in cooking etc. She was very generous and gave what she could to everyone. She was a very kind person and so naturally the people of the village put aside the fact that she was a ‘foreigner’ and accepted her as a local. My father was quite handsome and my mother was beautiful; they were lovely people; both inside and out.
I came from a family of eight brothers and sisters; four boys and four girls; Kalomira, Nikola, Stavroula, Othona, Vasili, Manoli, Irini and Maria (me). There are now only three of us left and we live in different countries (Australia, America and Greece) but we have remained very close. I suspect that my father would have had a very difficult time in Athens running the business alone. So when the boys got older he took them and also the eldest daughter, to help him. I believe what he did was wrong because if he had taken us all to Athens we would have been able to learn fundamental life skills that would have helped us in the long run. However, having said that, he did spoil us by sending so much back to Kythera to make our lives easier. He used to send chocolates, apples, halva etc. He could have saved the cost of sending the goods to the island if he had us all there. Without all the trips back and forth, he would have saved money and we could have helped him in the restaurant. He worked too hard. He could have allowed us to be taught a trade or continue some sort of schooling. Instead, we were left in Kythera to work the fields. I guess he did what he thought was best at the time for the family.
My first family home was in fact my last in Kythera because that was where I left from. We had one big bed in the room where we all stayed; which we affectionately referred to as the ‘κρεβατακι’. I can only recall good memories from my life on the island because we were all together as well as being very close siblings. I am lucky enough to have stayed in touch with all of them over the years; of course many have now passed away. I was always closer to Stavroula because she brought me out and then she brought out Manoli and Kalomira. Also, Stavroula and I lived close together here in Sydney, only about a five minute drive between our houses so our families and kids grew up together.
When I left, all I can remember is that there was a lot of crying and screaming. My uncle cried and said to me that I would see everyone else at some point of my life but that he would die before I got to see him again. Saying goodbye was an extremely difficult thing for me to do. One month later I got the call that he had died when I was in Athens on my way to Sydney. I had a big decision to make, whether to go back to Kythera for the funeral and perhaps never make that journey to Australia, or to continue my trip. I didn’t want to lose the opportunity and all the money people paid to get me there and I knew my uncle would have not wanted me to miss out on this opportunity. He also had spent many years in Australia so he understood the importance of this trip. There were no phones in Kythera so we sent letters to each other, which was our main form of communication with our family.
My mother passed away in 64’ in Kythera and at the time I was working in the milk bar with my husband John. When I found out, I only had a moment to cry, out in the back room, and then I had to continue serving. It was lunchtime and the shop was full of customers. I would duck under the counter so that they would not see me crying.
We brought my father out to Australia after my mother’s death and he lived here until he died eight years later. We all shared the duty of looking after him, taking it in turns to have him stay with us. As there were four of us here, we alternated every three months. I can remember that we all loved his company; he was definitely no burden for anyone and that system worked well in ensuring everyone played their part equally. Upon his death he was buried in Yarrawonga, Victoria and after many years, the family was given permission to fly his body back to Greece. Both my parents are buried in the cemetery at Milopotamo, the one near the watermills and it pains me that my physical ailments mean that I cannot go back and visit again.
Growing up in Milopotamo, I can recall all the youth from the area getting together and walking to Ayios Haralambos, the church where my father would be a ψαλτη every Sunday when he was back in Kythera. We would then walk to the school to hang out with our friends. I can remember a funny story when I was young. My sister and I would talk in church and our father would say that if he saw us again he would come down from the ψαλτης position and grab us by the ears to which we responded that “by the time you come down we will be long gone.” We used to have as much fun as we could while we were not working in the fields. We loved dancing at special events and even jobs such as washing the clothes in the kamari at Milopotamo, could be fun. It was work done by the girls of the family, not the sons, but for some reason we really enjoyed it as long as we had company to complete the task.
I returned for the first time in 73’and because it was winter, there was no one there in Mιlopotamo. It was a massive shock for me as I found my village resembling a ghost town, a sentiment shared by my daughter when we first arrived there. There were tumbleweeds rolling down the deserted streets. It was very eerie. I cried when I visited my house, thinking back to all those memories of all of us living there. It was sad knowing that some had died and the rest had moved to Athens or overseas. I couldn’t wait to go to Livadi, John’s χωριο and where we were staying; ironic as I expected it to be very hard to live somewhere else in Kythera, on my first trip back. However in Livadi, the majority of the locals had stayed, which was in stark contrast to the few who remained in Milopotamo during the winter season. Most had left to make a living on the mainland. This helped me and my kids enjoy the island once again and encouraged them to fall in love with it. I am very lucky that John has a place in Livadi. Recently, through photos and video, I have noticed massive changes to the island such as the building of new and bigger houses and businesses and old buildings like the Castro being repaired. It is a different Kythera to what I can remember.
I was seven years old when I started school in Mylopotamo; there was no preschool in those days that I can remember and I finished 5th class at the age of twleve, which meant that I wasn’t there for long. I remember coming first in mathematics in 3rd class and won a watch, it would have been only ten drachmas but to us at the time it was a massive honour and achievement. My parents eventually took me out and my teacher sent a letter to my mother to request that I remain at school. Unfortunately, I suffered from anaemia and because I was sick they had to take me out. All the girls had limited education. None of us went beyond primary school, whereas the boys did reach high school. My brother Othona was extremely bright and when he was pulled out of school, the teacher pleaded with my parents to allow him to return, but he never did.
Therefore it was very important for John and I to send our kids all the way through a good school. We wanted our kids to have the education that we never had. Throughout my early years, I didn’t really have just one best friend, although I was close to Χρυσουλα Στρατιγος, the teacher’s daughter; it was more that I was one of a big group of girls who did a lot of things together. We would amuse ourselves by playing games with homemade toys. My mother would cut some material from clothes to make dolls for us to play with. We also played games with small rocks like marbles, jacks and hopscotch. At school we played tug-o-war. One time the teacher played so we acted as if he was pulling us and then we let it go and he fell over.
I have quite vivid memories of our teacher; ‘Μπακαλιαρο’ was what we called him because he was tall, thin and reminded us of the fish by that name. One time during νηστεια he didn’t let us leave. When we left, my friend and I teased him out loud. He heard us and called us out and we got into trouble the next day.
We also used to dance a lot as a family, especially my brother Manoli and I. I remember one particular time when it was the festival of Ayios Haralambos and everyone had gathered together to celebrate. During the day Manoli and I rode our donkeys to Limniona (mine was called Rouli and was slightly mentally unbalanced), where we collected salt by scraping it off the rocks. We then would refill the pot holes in the rocks with sea water so that when the sun evaporated it, more salt would accumulate, by the next week. As it was very hot during the day and we would tire easily, so we hid our swimmers underneath our work clothes, so that when we got there we could go swimming secretly. My swimmers were simply an old dress with a safety pin which I pinned the front to the back between my legs to make it similar to culottes. Later we had to go to a wedding where we had to dance. By then my feet were killing me and we were both exhausted!
My parents had a fulltime job in looking after all those kids, especially my mother who didn’t work after she started having children. As my father was generally in Athens working hard for us, he was not home to help her all the time. He was very εργατικος. During the war it got even harder for them both, particularly at the beginning. We were very hungry. However, then our father opened the watermill where he made flour and we were able to make loukoumathes or makaronia. So we had milk, cheese and most things. That was good for us. At that time, my parents would live and work in the mill. So after our chores of looking after the animals, we would pass by there and our mother would have prepared food for us. She never neglected our needs.
The climate in Kythera was fairly predictable. Only one time can I remember a lot of snow falling, or anything out of the ordinary. However, when I was seven years old, I also experienced a very traumatic event, where I witnessed lightning hitting the building/house next door and it catching fire.
I was at home when I saw it. Luckily no one was living there at that time. It went through the chimney and hit a big tub of vinegar. I went into shock and could not speak for three days. I am still afraid of lighting till this very day. Had that occurred here in Australia we would have had some sort of psychological help. However back in those days, on an island like Kythera, help like that was not available.
We had a lot of animals to deal with. All my siblings used to help out a lot. I would go with my sister Irini through the mountains of Kato Hora up to Ayia Sofia to find the animals and there was no road to get there. We went by foot and had to work our way through the agathia. Once, my uncle made me some sandals made with a wooden base and tin straps. It was not the ideal footwear and I returned home with bloodied feet.
During the war, when we were hungry, I would go with a friend of mine, Maria Stratigos, to gather fresh peas. We would also boil milk and put fig leaves into it to make ricotta. Easter was particularly exciting for us. We would wait for Easter to go to church and we loved the food for all the celebrations. As a family we fasted for the whole fifty days, even milk. We would gather around with the entire family for these events. Church and religion was a very important part of our lives and for me it still is.
We frequented Ayios Haralambos every Sunday and every Saturday night we would go and light a candle at the church across the valley named Ayia Orfani. I remember my parents impressing upon us the importance of faith (θρησκεια) and I have tried, with the help of my husband, to pass on those similar values to my children. Easter usually consisted of good food; the making of koulouria would smell beautifully throughout the house. My father would give us money as our presents. We would all sit outside in Kato Hora and the entire village would celebrate the importance of Jesus Christ.
As a teenager I remember working a lot, ploughing the fields, gardening, picking and then crushing olives. It was all very hard work for any young person and so then I left for Australia in search of a better life. In terms of what we wore at the time it was generally hand-me-downs for me as I was the youngest. Only the shoes I couldn’t wear because I had the biggest foot out of all my sisters. We also were dressed in σπαλετα by my aunt on special occasions.
I started working my first proper job in 53’ when we opened the milk bar in Kingsgrove, Sydney. However, I worked from a young age in Kythera; working the land and looking after the animals, collecting olives, etc although we would make the best of it by singing and enjoying ourselves whilst working hard.
The transition to life in Australia, was not easy at first because it was so different and a there was a lot of hard work needed to establish ourselves. Not knowing the language at the beginning made it even harder so I told my husband John that I wanted to learn and to put me at the front of the shop so I could learn quicker. All my dealings beforehand were with Greeks so I hadn’t really picked up the language at all. Although it was difficult, I knew I had to struggle a bit at first to learn the Australian way of life but it became easier in the long run.
I didn’t really have any grand career aspirations. I genuinely just wanted to leave Kythera and the hard life we had there. Shortly before I left, I went to tend to the sheep, when I discovered that one had given birth to a number of lambs, which were killed by crows. I was extremely upset and my mother said to me “φυγαι και ριξαι πετρα πισω σου”... in other words, leave and don’t look back. I am appreciative that I had the opportunity to leave and that my parents were selfless in wanting a better life for me. However retrospectively, I can now see how beautiful the island really is. Had I stayed, my opinion would have been very different, and therefore my children and grandchildren may not have had such an affiliation with the place.
John and I married on the 1st of November 53’. John came to my sister’s deli in Auburn with a friend. I was looking after my niece in the back of the shop. My sister came running to the back and she told me to fix myself up, because a potential husband was downstairs. I responded “he should see me how I am if he wants to marry me.” The rest is history.
We owned a house in Dee Why, close to the water. I can remember playing the old records that John owned and I would listen to them all day. This is where I first learnt to cook. John, however, made it easy for me, as he never once complained about my cooking. John bought a business in Kingsgrove and we came here from Dee Why after we did an exchange for our house up north with a house down here. At the time we got the better deal because Dee Why wasn’t the area it is now. We needed a home that was close to our business, so at the time it was the perfect trade for us.
We knew from the outset that we wanted kids, primarily two. We did initially want more but we couldn’t as we had the shop to look after whilst schooling our children, George and Kathy. It would have been too hard to have a larger family. It was already difficult to have both the shop and look after the kids because we had no other help. Looking back at how hard our parents had it with so many children we decided that was not how we intended on spending our lives. We did however keep the same morals and beliefs that we were taught as kids and passed those onto our children. I held on to the same values from back home, which was very important to John and I as we felt it necessary for our children to maintain that disciplined Greek heritage that we grew up on. I liked helping the kids with school homework such as spelling when they studied for tests as it would help me learn more of the language and I’d try to read as much as I could. Plus working and serving at the milk bar was a great help.
I decided to leave Kythera from an early age. I chose to migrate to Australia over America because I did not know anyone there at the time. My sister had told me before leaving that when she eventually decided to leave, she would take me with her. So she sent the papers and I filled them out straight away because I wanted to leave as soon as possible. I knew nothing about Australia. When I first came I stayed with my sister in Darlinghurst. I cried the very first day I arrived as it was so different to all that I had known, and on top of that I did not know the language; plus I was the youngest and I longed for Milopotamo and the comforts of home. But I thought to myself that no matter how hard it seemed, I had to persevere because I could not go back, and eventually life did get much better.
We set sail on the Cyrenia on 1st of March 1952 and landed in Australia on 1st of April the same year. The Cyrenia was very comfortable and the cabins were nice. I often considered it as my favourite holiday. There were twenty-eight fellow Kytherians on board, so as you can see we would have had a lot of fun. You could say it was the best month of my life, a very enjoyable journey because I was with people from Kythera whom I had grown up with. They gave us chocolates and plenty of food to eat. We danced so much. We stopped in Cairo and we got out where they were trying to sell us anything, rings etc; they wouldn’t leave us alone. That was slightly frightening to someone born and bred in Kythera. We stopped in Melbourne and a fellow villager took us by car to Sydney.
When I first arrived I noticed how completely different Australia was to anything I had ever seen before. Nevertheless, it was quite an easy transition, as I was with so many people who I knew. I was initially surrounded by only Greeks. It also helped that I felt part of the community immediately.
When John first came in 1938, he was victimised with name calling. However, slowly more and more Europeans began to migrate here. We had Greek friends to help us assimilate. I felt welcomed; no one told me to go home or anything else discriminatory. It was very different to the treatment of the boat people these days. They welcomed us back then probably because they knew we would be hard workers and we made an effort to learn the language and assimilate.
The absolute highlight of my life was when I gave birth to my son and daughter and now looking at all they have accomplished with their spouses, and what my grandchildren have done for themselves as well. In terms of difficulties I remember how hard it was when John first got sick with a hernia and had to go to hospital; I had two young kids and a shop to look after. Luckily George Haros, a nephew of my husband, had a milk run which finished in the mornings and he would come and help out. And another relative would also help.
All the deaths were tragic. The ones who died in Kythera were particularly hard and one brother died here when I was on holiday in Greece. But my husband’s death has affected me the most. He was and will always be my lifelong companion and to lose him after fifty-eight years of marriage has been extremely difficult. I thank god that I was blessed to have him around for that long.
Our house was quite different to mainstream Australian society. My cooking of Greek food like keftethes would make the next door neighbours call out “Maria something smells nice” and I would always make a plate for them. Other neighbours asked how I made pastitsio and would come over to learn how. Once, one said “Maria with all those things you put in one dish we could eat for a week.” They hardly had gardens whereas we would have everything grown from the backyard such as vlito etc.
Back in the day, the neighbours helped out a lot. For example, when my daughter Kathy got sick with chicken pox at the age of five and we had to look after the shop, my neighbour waited for the doctor to come and would come in to check on her from time to time. I would rush home whenever I could, to check on her myself. My neighbour would also hang my clothes up to dry and collect them while I was at the shop.
However, not all of the neighbours were nice. The ones on the other side treated us badly. In those days, we used to burn our rubbish. All decent people would never think of burning rubbish if the neighbours had washing hanging on the line. These people, however, often burnt their rubbish if my washing was out and occasionally, when we were burning rubbish, they would lean over the fence and use their water hose to put the fire out. They didn’t have washing out; the smoke was simply annoying them even though that was the only way to get rid of rubbish back then.
When my daughter recovered from chicken pox, on the very first day that she went back to school, we were robbed. I had returned from the bus stop having seen the kids off, to find that I couldn’t get through the front door. Little did I know that someone had broken in and was blocking the door so that I couldn’t open it. By the time I had reached the back door, he had escaped through a window. To this day, we suspect those people (who moved away many years ago) as they had a vicious dog that barked at any sound. Yet on this occasion, it didn’t bark once even though the burglar escaped through a window on the side of the house overlooking theirs. If that had happened now, he probably would have killed me...times have certainly changed!
Thank God, I have nice kids and great grandchildren and had my husband for so long. It was hard keeping contact with all my friends from Kythera as some, depending on who they married, went to Queensland. The only time we met was at the Kytherian Brotherhood picnics and dances where we would bump into old friends. I remember at the picnics we would have a great spread with so much food while the Aussie families who were sitting close by would have one sandwich each. The Brotherhood was a good thing for us as it enabled us to keep in touch. The kids also made many friends from it.
I think that I was very lucky and have been blessed with a wonderful family. I would like to be remembered for the person I was and I certainly don’t want anyone to cry when I die.
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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
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