submitted by Alfred Vincent on 23.08.2006
An Interview with Nicholas Laurantus.
By Takis Constantopedos & Alfred Vincent, published in the periodical To Yofiri, no. 3-4, Sydney 1978, pp. 15-17.
The original inteview was conducted in both Greek and English, and written up in the two languages. In the words of the interviewers this was done to capture the authentic essence of Laurantus' character. Here, the Greek text has here been translated into English.
Laurantus is described as one of the oldest Greek immigarnts then living in Sydney. From the time of his arrival Lourantus maintained his Greek traditions. In later life his beneficence was directed to schools, and to the establishment of the Chair of Modern Greek at Sydney University.
Question: Mr Laurantus, when did you come to Australia, and at what age?
Mr Laurantus: I came in 1908, aged 19.
Question: Can you tell us about the journey, and your first impressions of Australia?
Mr Laurantus: My first impression when first sighting Fremantle, Western Australia was very different to the impressions we had in the ports of Europe, Egypt, and Colombo, which were all "madhouses". Here were found reason and order; very different from there.
Question: Did you find work hard to find?
Mr Laurantus: No...then they did not employ us in the factories - then they did not have (many) factories, and they did not take foreigners.
Question: And so what work did you do?
Mr Laurantus: I found work in a country town, 200 miles away. [He is referring here to Grenfell in NSW.]
Question: What work did you do there?
Mr Laurantus: I worked in a fruitshop.
Question: Where there other Greeks there?
Mr Laurantus: Only the boss and another young man - two in all, with one boss. In those days there was an "unwritten law" that only one of each type of enterprise should be set up in the towns. This convention remained until after WW1.
Question: Were they Kytherians too? [The Interviewers explain that Mr Laurantus was from Kythera].
Mr Laurantus: All were from Kythera.
Question: Did you stay for a long time in that town?
Mr Laurantus: About 3-4 years. In the meantime, I had purchased the shop.
Question: Really, that quickly. How did you manage to do that?
Mr Laurantus: Within 15 months exactly. I saved 50 pounds. I had brought some money with me. I saved some, and my brother in America also had 50 pounds. My boss wanted to return to Greece, where he had left his family, so he wanted to sell. So we bought it. I worked for 15 months in Australia - and I've been paddling my own canoe ever since.
Question: And after 5 years you sold the shop?
Mr Laurantus: Yes we sold it, and we bought a hotel in Young — a nice big town, where all the cherries of Australia grow. That’s where I bought my hotel. Then after that I bought another and another and another —not all together but separately. I spent about seven or eight years there and finally I went onto farms.
Question: What kind of farming did you do?
Mr Laurantus: Well, I had a very small farm because I didn’t have the money to buy a big one . . . and I had bad times
— I nearly went broke. Then after that I managed to save enough money to buy a picture theatre in a country town and I started making money then, and then I went on and on and on . . . Then strangely enough I went onto the land again and I’m still on the land.
Question: So that’s the story of your life. I’d like to ask you another question now about the Greek community. Were there many Greeks in Sydney then?
Mr Laurantus: There were about 150 Greeks in Sydney at that time, maybe a few less. And only three Greek women - all married. We didn't have any Greek girls, and we married Australians. We nearly all got married to Australian girls. So did I. There was no alternative. We weren’t going to go back to Greece — to go back to Europe was expensive and took months. So we just married here and settled down. We didn’t worry about
Question: What kind of work did the Greeks in Australia do?
Mr Laurantus: Cafes, fruit, refreshments, confectionaries and meals.
Question: Did you have any problems with the language?
Mr Laurantus: I found no difficulty with the English language. Really, it came naturally to me.
Question: Do you feel that other people had more difficulty?
Mr Laurantus: Some have been here for thirty or forty years and still can’t talk, because they can’t help it. Age plays a big part in this thing: the younger you are, the better you are. From mid-age on it is impossible to learn a language.
Question: Do you think that the community then was different in any way?
Mr Laurantus: Strange... we were looked upon as being a bit different, and we naturally felt isolated from the rest of the community. But I’ve never had any complaints. 1 liked Australia from the very first week I was here. I knew I was in a good country and I wanted to stay here.
Question: Did you never wish to go home?
Mr Laurantus: No, never.
Question: Not even right at the start?
Mr Laurantus: Well...
Question: You must have felt homesick, surely?
Mr Laurantus: Well, I went back three times, oh yes, but not to stay. I wanted to see my parents and my people — where I was born and bred — but not to stay. I didn’t have any such intention. I stayed for six months each time I went back.
Question: Did you join any kind of club or organisation in Australia?
Mr Laurantus: Oh yes. I’ve played my part. I’ve been in football clubs and I’ve been in swimming clubs and everything. I’ve played my part in every town I went to.
Question: What about Greek organisations?
Mr Laurantus: No. There were no Greek organisations up there in my time — none there now. We were living in an Australian atmosphere.
Question: But there was already in fact a Greek church in Sydney, wasn’t there?
Mr Laurantus: Oh yes, but that was hundreds of miles away. I knew there was a church in Sydney and when I had the christening of my daughter I came down here to have it.
Question: I believe you travelled quite long distances to meet Greek friends?
Mr Laurantus: : Oh yes, I used to go to Young and Cowra on a push bike every week really.
Question: How far was that?
Mr Laurantus: I’d leave on Wednesday afternoon and come back on Thursday mornlng. Twenty or thirty miles was nothing to me in those days — I was in my early twenties and I could do anything.
[Later Mr Laurantus read to us a small piece from an interview he had given to a Sydney Greek newspaper.]
"Australia, this free country, offers us everything that Greece, the land of our birth, offered us: churches, schools, societies and brotherhoods of every kind, events,newspapers, parties, national anniversaries; and with this freedom, Australia is disarming us and slowly causing us to lose our sense of (Greek) identity. In a way that the Turks could not do by suppression, the Anglo is achieving in a benevolent way".
Question: What exactly do you mean by that Mr Laurauntus?
Mr Laurantus: That we are doomed. We’ve no choice. We’ve got to be absorbed. It’s happened in America.
Question: How long do you think that will take?
Mr Laurantus: Oh, several generations. You can’t change all the migrants — they’ll remain Greek till they die — and also the first generation after that. But then after that. they’ll be absorbed. The English. language is all-conquering. Also the Anglosaxon culture is irresistable. The children don’t want to be Greek, Italian or Spanish or whatever; they want to be like the other children. They can’t resist the English language and they can’t resist the English culture.
Question: Do you think the situation will be very different when Greek is properly established in the schools?
Mr Laurantus: We are doing our best.
(In fact through his generous gift and his ceaseless concern Mr Laurantus made a most important contribution towards the preservation and recognition of Greek language and culture in Australia.)
Teacher, journalist, poet and author, Sydney NSW Australia
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