submitted by Woman's Day on 12.12.2005
...rides home after a day's work in the fields, carrying a bundle of kindling twigs.
One of 22 photographs in a 1976 Woman's Day article
From this tiny Greek island came 100,000 'new' Aussies'.
Woman's Day. August 2, 1976. pp. 20-25.
People of Kythera longed for opportunity so they came to Australia, bringing ways and traditions that were new and interesting to us. They worked hard and grew to love their new country but home-sickness sends some back to visit; some to stay.
Here's a look at the island today.
By JAN LIPMAN
Photos: GEORGE LIPMAN
There is a saying among Greek-born Australians which goes: “There are as many homesick Australians in Kythera as there are homesick Greeks in Australia. And if you ever visit Kythera, you'll know what they mean. Kythera is the 40-kilometre long Greek island which has provided Australia with the almost unbelievable number of 100,000 new citizens.
During a fve-day visit there in spring, we fell under its spell.
Not all of the 100,000 new Australians were born on Kythera, of course. Some are first, second, or even third-generation Aussies.
"You know what they call this? An Australian colony," one man told us, while his friend added: "I don't know which is my home anymore. You live here for a year, and you get homesick for there. You live there for a year and you get homesick for Kythera.”
An Olympic Airways Islander aircraft took us to Kythera where we were met by a welcoming committee of the three Calligeros, who wer to be our companions for the next five days. There was George Calligeros, President of the whole island, and Mayor of the capital town, Hora, George Calligeros, secretary of the high school, and owner of the villa at Capsali Beach, where we were to stay and Peter Calligeros, who has lived in Sydney for more than 20 years, and was in Kythera for a holiday.
Unlike many parts of Greece, Kythera has has abundant water.
"It is the wealth of the island," is a favourite phrase, and down through history they have valued their good fortune enough to build churches and chapels around the many springs and streams.
Almost anything grows there, and domestic animals flourish. Nothing is wasted. Even the wild broome is used as a natural fibre, and in the old days it was woven into a kind of coarse linen.
Barley and wheat grown there are ground to make the flour for some of the best bread in Greece.
The island is entirely self-supporting. Small local factories produce the olive oil which is essential to Greek cookery, and unsalted butter.
But to successful Greek-Australians who return there, there is a certain sadness about Kythera. Once there were more than 20,000 inhabitants, now there are less than 3000.
Tony Fardoulys, of Moorebank, NSW, and Jim Feros of Kogarah, NSW, were two of the many naturaliscd Australians visiting Kythera. Tony explained their sense of loss. "We grew up here together," he said, "and you should have seen it then. It was like a garden".
“And the fruit trees. I tell you. Figs as big as pears, and the peaches! They were everywhere.”
Well, they are still all there, gone wild. When the fruit is in season, it is yours for the asking.
Still there, too, are the stone houses abandoned. Slowly crumbling away, they line village streets and beautiful beachfronts. Windows are boarded up, wild grasses and flowers sprout from eaves and walls.
Thirty years ago, these houses were in good repair, painted wedding-cake white every Easter by their families.
Streets of laughter
“The streets were full of voices and kids’ laughter,” remembers Peter Calligeros. “Now the people who live here are old.”
Hundreds of Australian families still own property there, but they are unable to make use of it. Although self-supporting, Kythera has no exports.
To re-develop tracts of farming land, and begin export, would require something more than family enterprise. Without a work-force of young, active people there is no incentive for either government or private enterprise to invest in it.
Typical of these families are the Conomos, of Orange, NSW. Mr George Conomos and his wife, the late Mrs Stella Conomos, came to Australia more than a generation ago.
Now he and his two daughters, Regina and Gloria, are spending an extended holiday in Hora.
Mr Conomos is currently building a new house in his home village. Kalamos, not far from Hora, even though Australia will still be their permanent home.
“This is our third trip back,” Gloria told us. “We’ve made so many trips that we feel it’s about time we built a house here.”
Regina, who speaks English with a broad Australian accent, married a local boy.
Now they have bouncing six-months-old twin daughters, Stamatina and Eviania.
Well-to-do Greek-Australians return to Kythera for holidays. Others, not so wealthy, make the longed-for trip when they retire.
An Australian pension goes about three times as far in Greece.
One such man is Mr Jim Cominos, 78. We met him one Sunday afternoon in the taverna (restaurant) in Livadi village. He’d ridden over for the day from his own village, Guleanica.
"My car is a donkey," he announced. "When I lived in Australia, I had a car, just like everyone else. But I traded it in for a donkey!
"Petrol is too expensive here in Greece two dollars a gallon and, if a donkey is a bit slow, it doesn’t matter to me. I’ve got plenty of time, and not far to go".
Mr Cominos lives with his daughter and her three children.
But he still has two sons and five grandchildren living in Albury, NSW, who often beg him to come back here.
“Sometimes I think I might go back. I love Australia, too. But then, I think it is too late now.”
Like many Greeks who have taken full Australian citizenship, he feels torn.
A better future
Back in Athens, someone tried to explain their feelings from a different point of view. He was Mr G. Koidakis, an official of Olympic Airways, who spent two years here as regional manager for Australasia. and now holds a similar position in Greece.
“Migration is always a good thing,” he said. “Everybody who migrates seeks a better future. And it is to the credit of the Greek migrant in Australia that he did succeed”.
“They have made money, certainly. But they are among the cleanest-living, most hard-working communities living in Australia.
“I have a love for these Greeks and I understand how they feel on leaving the country of their birth.”
Among Kythea’s best-known identities is Mrs Georgia Veneri, 88, who lives at the Monastery of Saint Mirtidion. Mrs Veneri lived for 10 years in Brisbane, and lost her two Sons in Australia. One was killed in World War II, and one in a fatal accident.
A pilgrimage to Saint Mirtidion is a must for every ex-Kytherian, so Mrs Veneri’s otherwise lonely existence there is relieved by visitors.
The monastery is the only sign of life on a lonely stretch of coastline. It is surrounded by motel-type units which house pilgrims during the church’s three major festivals.
Kytherians have always been intensely religious. Most families have built their own - chapels dedicated to patron saints.
Climbing mountainsides to get to them, we sometimes cursed the zeal which inspired the families to build their chapels in such inaccessible places.
Everyone wanted us to drop in for coffee.
Caffe ellenica (the thick, sweetened kind in tiny cups) was never served without a sweet or two, and usually a glass of homemade liqueur.
Kytherian women pride themselves on the sweets and cookies they make from the almonds which grow wild there, and the honey which they believe is the best in Greece.
There are tiny preserved figs, diples or thiples (deep-fried wafers drizzled with honey and sprinkled with sesame seeds), amigdolata (almonds, semolina and sugar in tiny pear-shapes with clove stems), or tsipoura (almond and honey cookies rolled in a crisp coating of powdered sugar).
Some relate to special festivities; diples used to be made when young girls gathered at someone’s home before a betrothal or marriage.
Many housewives on Kythera still cling proudly to the old traditions, and there is no way a Kytherian woman would paint her house instead of whitewashing it.
We were transported back a century in time when we visited the home of Mr and Mrs John Prineas, in the village of Mitata.
Katina Prineas was out working in the fields, but her house was wide open and her nephew, Jim Feros, showed us around.
“I was born in this room,” he said, ushering us into a small room with a vaulted roof, now kept as a guest bedroom.
Round the walls were family portraits. There was Jim’s father (now almost 80 and living with his wife in Earlwood, NSW) as a younger man in his Australian Army uniform; a picture of him at Hillston, NSW, in 1922; at the opening of the corner shop he built back in Mitata in 1934, as a reliable living for the wife and family he left behind.
Dad on the move
Mr Feros first came to Australia in the early '20's, returned to Kythera in 1927 to marry, and start work on the shop, went back to Australia in 1930, and in 1937 returned to Kythera.
I was nearly seven years of age when I met my father for the first time,” recalled Jim. “He stopped with us for 20 months, until August 1938, then he went back again. But in 1947 - by then I had two sisters - we all went to Australia, My uncle used. to run the business after we left.”
His friend Tony chipped in: “That’s the way they did it in those days. The men came home to father the children.”
Outside in the courtyard again we were dazzled by the sunlight reflecting off whitewashed walls, paving stones and a well, from which Jim drew cold, sweet water.
Hanging under the eaves were maturing cheeses.
Kytherian style, the house was built of rough stone with 60 cm walls, plastered over then whitewashed inside and out. The kitchen was a long room, divided by a partition from the storeroom-cum-cellar. Copper pots and pans hung above the old fuel stove, and hand-made rag rugs were on the floor.
Wooden shelves in the pantry were laden with cane baskets of eggs, grey home-made soap, drying herbs, brass mortars and pestles, old flat irons.
On the stone floor stood earthenware jars holding olives, oil and pickles, wine casks, charcoal braziers for smoking meat and for barbecuing, and in a corner a well-like wine-press. To judge from the heady smell it was still very much in use.
Farmers, in the same way, still cling to their traditional methods. Why irrigate? Why buy machinery when you have a good, strong donkey? Dry-cropping (the practice of ploughing three times to let the soil absorb moisture) has always produced summer vegetables in a climate which has no rain between May and September. And small Kytherian cucumbers and tomatoes are infinitely more delicious than the giants we know.
World War II caused a big exodus from Kythera. Many families came to Australia, others went to the USA. Since then there has been a steady trickle of young people leaving the island.
Although there is a 250-pupil high school in Hora, a university education means moving to Athens.
Kytherians are mainly self employed or retired. Only 50 to 60 people on the island work for someone else.
The power station, or Public Lighting Company, operates on diesel engine. It provides jobs for about 20 employees. Others work as teachers, service station attendants and mechanics, police, or in the olive oil factory. The average wage of these people is only about $25 a week.
Among the “employees” is Mrs Poppy Mazaraki, the married daughter of Mayor Calligeros. Poppy is typical of the young people of Kythera. “We grew up in Kythera. went to school here, then went away to Athens,” she told us. “Now we are back here as teachers.”
Poppy took us to the village of Livadi to visit the Gianiotis family, and to taste mizithra cheese. Mizithra, a soft, ricotta-style cheese, is made from goats’ milk or sheep’s milk. Mrs Gianiotis served it drizzled with honey, and accompanied by caffe ellenica. Many Kytherian families live almost entirely on what they grow themselves. They make their own wines, too. The best Kytherian wine is rose, more palatable to outsiders than the usual Greek retsina.
Kytherian men have a healthy appreciation of their local wines and liqueurs and yet - as elsewhere in Greece - you never see a local man drunk.
“When we drink, we eat,” they say and indeed olives, cheese, perhaps a little salad with fresh oil dressing is always served with drinks.
Hora, about 300 metres above the fishing village of Capsali, is one of the prettiest townships in Greece. Mayor Calligeros insists that villagers each sweep up their piece of street each morning.
Everything from bell-towers to benches is freshly whitewashed (the women spring-clean for Easter and sometimes in between, slapping the wash with long-handled soft brooms).
Every window is shuttered, and every shutter is painted bright, light blue. Blue and white are Greece’s national colours.
What does the future hold for Kythera?
Tony Fardoulys, who is a real estate agent in Sydney, would like to see it become a resort.
Nick Athousis. who lived 20 years in Brisbane, is one of the few younger people who have moved back to Kythera for more than a holiday. His sons Charles, 12, Paul, 10 and George, 8, attend local schools and Nick is president of the high school committee.
“I want my children to become Greeks in a sense,” he told us. “But I want them to be Australians, too. “I brought them from Australia and they knew only English. Now, they know only Greek.
“I think English is the language of the present and of the future. And what I want is a teacher of English for the high school here. So I wrote to the Greek communities in Australia to ask for their support.”
A teaching post would have to be approved by the Greek Ministry of Education; but only a novice teacher would be given such a post and as a provincial high school is rated at the bottom end of the salary scale, the going salary would be only about 6000 to 7000 drachmae ($A 150) per month.
“I’d like to make the salary up to about $10,000 a year,” Nick continued. “1 want him to be able to live like a man".
"If we have Greeks in Australia who can endow churches and universities, surely the whole community there can raise a little for our school".
“You know, our only export is human beings. We want those human beings, when they leave Kythera, to be able to speak English.”
Teacher, journalist, poet and author, Sydney NSW Australia
‘Andrew’ Anargyros Vretos Fatseas
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