submitted by George Poulos on 16.11.2004
Antonius Notaras, was one of the fascinating characters interviewed by Suzanne Falkiner for her 1985 book, Australians Today. (Publisher, George Allen and Unwin). Also reproduced in the Sydney Morning Heralds'
Good Weekend Magazine in the same year.
I still feel Greek after 50 years as an Australian
Before I came to Sydney, one of the men came back to the island (Kythera) from Australia, and everyone was listening to him telling stories. I heard him say that all the children in Australia had horses to go to school with. I was about 10 years old then, and I thought: I'd like to go to Australia and have a horse to ride to school. I couldn't wait to go. I was really looking forward to it.
When I did come, three years later when I was 13, my father sent me to school in Fort Street, less than a kilometre from where he was working. On the first day I looked around and I couldn't see a horse in the place. So I thought, what's this bloke been telling me? There were 2,000 children coming to school in Fort Street in those days, and I didn't see a single horse!
Afterwards when I went to Grafton, I realised what he had been talking about. He had been in a little town called Boggabri, and naturally all the farmers' children had horses, and they would tie them up outside the school all day to go home on afterwards. But they hadn't explained it to me properly on Kythera.
I'll tell you how the Kytherians came to Australia. When Anthony Comino started his fish shop on Oxford Street in the early days after the gold rushes he couldn't get any labour, so hew wrote to his relations in Kythera and offered them jobs. By 1902 there were 60 Kytherians on one boat coming out, on another there were 40. Among those 40 was my father.
By that time Comino could not give them all work. He could only employ four or five, but he still looked after them. He used to feed them, give them somewhere to stay, until they found a job.
Gradually some went to the country towns and some to the markets or washed dishes in hotels. From there they branched out and started to bring out their own relatives.
My father started work cleaning fish at the markets for an Austrian called Nicholas who had a fish shop in George Street opposite the old fire station near the quay. He was a good worker, and so Nicholas gave him a job in the shop, where he stayed for seven years. He brought my brother out in 1905 and I came out in 1908. There was a relation of mine coming to Australia, so my mother sent me with him. There were 12 people in our party, all men.
In those days the passage cost £11 half fare. You didn't need a visa or a passport. On our arrival in Fremantle the customs authority boarded the steamer and questioned all the different nationalities about why they were coming to Australia, and if they carried any firearms. When our turn arrived it happened that the inspector was a Greek who spoke several languages, so we didn't have any trouble.
My father only worked a few hundred yards away from where the boat docked in Sydney, as it turned out. Some of the Greeks who had come to pick up their relations said they would take me to him. He didn't know I was coming out so I gave him a bit of a surprise.
My father stood by me like a mother and a father. My father replaced my mother. He sent me to school in Fort Street for a year, but it didn't do me much good because I couldn't understand enough to learn.
On my arrival, when I saw where my father was working among the fish and the oysters, I shook my head. I said to myself, "Well Tony, if you want to succeed in Australia, you're going to have to work hard". I made my mind then up
then to do that.
In 1909 my father decided that the only way he could see to support his family was to get a shop where we could all work together, so he took a trip around the country towns and found a fruit shop in Grafton. Then, when I was 16, my father thought he'd open up another shop in South Grafton and put me in it - a fish shop, restaurant, lollies, fruit, and I made a success of it. I always did what he told me, and I worked hard for the benefit of the family. I've never worked for anyone else in my life.
When my father came to Australia my mother had a hard time. She had to look after the farms on Kythera, and six children, until they were old enough to help her. But my father never forget his obligations to his wife and family, and he always sent money to her.
In 1913 my father went back to Greece and he left me and my brother the two shops. Then the war broke out, and he was marooned over there, he couldn't come back. So we battled on by ourselves.
We had done well in Grafton. The three of us had worked together, we had one bank account and he was the boss. He couldn't speak good English and he couldn't read and write, but we'd look after any business transactions. But that was too our benefit, because although we were young we were learning. Every morning I used to get the newspaper and translate it to him, with a dictionary alongside. By doing that, I was teaching myself too.
Some time after he left we bought a shop in Ulmarra and I moved there. My other brother had come out by that time. It was difficult at first. The war was on by 1914 and there was all sorts of rumours that Greece was going to side with Germany. There were threats that if Greece did that, they were going to drive me out of the town. And me trying to build up a runsown business!
The Australian population then was mostly from Britain, and they were too far away from the rest of the world to know anything about other Europeans, so they looked on other Europeans as inferior to themselves. They would not go to the trouble of learning your name, even though you were doing business with them every day. They would refer to southern Europeans as "dagoes". I used to detest that word.
There was plenty of prejudice then. I'll give you an example. Andronicus and Comino, two friends of mine, both had sons. Well conducted boys, good references from their teacher, both had the Leaving Certificate. They applied for jobs, but as soon as employers saw the foreign name, Comino, they said, "No, sorry, we haven't got a place for you." The other one, same thing. These were Australian-born boys, not Greek-born. They spoke like Australians. So someone said to them, "Look why don't you change your names? You Andronicus, call yourself Andrews. You Comino, call yourself Cummings." When they applied next time, they got jobs straight away.
My children had more brains than me. Mitchell, who's now a doctor in England, went to school in Grafton, and there would be the odd kid who would call him "dago", or something like that. He'd come home and tell me.
"Oh," I'd say to him, "Why don't you answer him 'Look, every time you walk about I can hear the chains rattling round your feet!"
Mitchell said to me, "I couldn't do that, Dad."
"Why not?" I said.
"Well, there are 35 kids in the class. There'd be two bad ones, and all the rest are all right, they're friends of mine. If I say that, I insult them too."
That year he was made captain of the class. He and his brother Angelo were good scholars.
There are two kinds of discrimination in Australia. One is from jealousy, and one is because you are a foreigner. One, if you are getting on better than them. The other is from ignorance. I found it hard, but I found ways to overcome it.
The children were the best medium. I tried lots of ways to make friends, to get through to people. I knew I had to get customers to the store. The children would come into the shop with their mothers and I would make a fuss of them, give them ice-creams or lollies. One of the women said to me, "You know, Tony, I can't go past your shop when I have my children with me."
I remember one day a little girl came in with her mother, and I offered her an ice-cream. When I gave it to her she said, "Thank you Mr Dago."
I kept on smiling and kept talking as if I hadn't heard. The poor mother, her face went all colours!
As the years went by, things changed. We had a good name in Grafton. One of the school houses is called Notaras House. I was president of the benevolent home for old people. I managed to get the finance to build a wing for women.
My children are different from me. They've been brought up in Australia, they can mix better. When I first came out to Australia, things were more difficult. I would go to a dance, and sometimes I'd ask a girl to dance and she wouldn't get up with me. She thought I was inferior. That made me even more determined to prove myself as good as them. And I did prove it. I have a good home and a good family. None of them drink or smoke, they are all thrifty, and none of them will ever be a burden to the state.
I didn't marry an Australian because the ones I wanted to marry wouldn't marry me, and the ones that would marry me I didn't want to marry. There were not many Greek women out here then, so I went home to Greece and I married a girl from one of the best families on the island. Her father was the smartest man on Kythera. He'd gone to America, done well, gone back to Greece and brought up a family. He had a brick factory, a flour mill, a general store and three olive oil factories. A self-made man, 10 children, five daughters. Two were married, and two were too young to marry.
You asked me if I remembered Kythera. I remembered Kythera very well. I was 35 in 1930 when I went back. My father died just after, but he lived long enough to know we had done well in Australia. A couple of days after he died my mother took me to all our pieces of land on the island and told me, "This is ours, and that's ours. And that's ours over there."
I said, "I know, I remember."
She said, "Yes, but I might die soon too, and then nobody will know about it."
But I knew. I remembered everything. I told her, "Under that bush over there is a flat stone where I used to trap birds when I was a little boy. It's probably still there."
I went over to have a look, and I was right. As it turned out, she lived to be 92.
My marriage was a sort of accident, really. I stayed on the island for two and a half years after my father died. I wanted to make my mother and my sister comfortable before I left again. I fixed the house up as best I could. My mother was always telling me, "Tony, you should get married while you are here."
One day my mother and I went to the shopping area where my future father-in law had a shop. We were buying some flour from him, and the father said to my mother, "Why don't you get him married while he's out here?"
My mother told him, "Oh he's very hard to please. I can't get him a girl he likes."
When we were going home, just as we passed the house, my future wife threw open the shutters and looked down at the road. I looked up, and turned to my mother and said, "Tell me that after a few years!"
We had five children, my wife and I. There were two girls and three boys. Two of the boys stayed here. They are in the manufacturing business and export worldwide. The other is a surgeon in Harley Street in London. One daughter is a pharmacist, and the other a businesswoman. I have 14 grandchildren, and I am proud of everyone of them.
We've had all sorts of ventures: banana plantations, picture shows, a fish shop, a fruit shop, a battery factory - I've done all kinds of work, had all kinds of businesses, but they've all been a success, every one of them.
I don't miss Greece. I didn't miss Greece then. It's a funny thing, I can make myself contented anywhere. I don't complain. If the car breaks down, I walk home. I still feel Greek, even though I have been a naturalised Australian for more than half a century. Everything I have is here, and I think of the welfare of this country.
But I'm still a Greek, and I couldn't deny my nationality.
You see, I can be a good Australian and a good Greek at the same time.
Teacher, journalist, poet and author, Sydney NSW Australia
‘Andrew’ Anargyros Vretos Fatseas
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