“Ποτέ δεν είχα ονειρευτεί να πάο σε άλλο χωριό, και μετα ταξιδεψα στην άλλη άκρη του κόσμου”
“My life in Stipsi, Mytilene, was typical of village life. As the oldest of 4 children, I was put to work at the age of 10 years old, tending the fields, and working on my parents’ fruit farms which was the family’s source of income. I completed primary school, but was not able to go to high school. I knew I didn’t want to stay in the village. I wanted to go to a city, or go overseas. There were no jobs in the village, no restaurants or cafes.
I was 18 years old when I met my husband Frank. He was from a neighbouring village and had been living in Australia with his older sister for 6 years when he came to visit his family. My neighbours initiated the proxy- they told me “if you like him, you can get married and go to Australia.” I liked him, and I said yes. My father spoke to his father, and we all had coffee together. I wasn’t able to spend any time getting to know Frank, it was always with other people around. After 2 weeks, we had our engagement, and another 2 weeks after that we had our wedding. A month later I discovered I was pregnant. Everything was happening so fast.
I had never even dreamed of going to another village, and then I travelled to the other side of the world. I was scared, I didn’t know what to expect, or who I would find, or if I would like it there.
We arrived in Sydney in February 1981. It was pouring rain for a whole week. Stipsi is dry, with a rocky terrain, and here the grass was a metre tall. I was 3 months pregnant and we moved in with my sister-in-law. My morning sickness was so bad I spent the next 6 months eating mainly watermelon, cheese and bread.
Although I was 18 years old I looked much younger because I was petite, and whenever I ventured out in public, people would just stare at me strangely- they must’ve thought I was a pregnant 14-year-old. They would whisper things to each other but I had no idea what they were saying because I didn’t speak any English.
It took me 5 years to have a phone conversation with my parents. I wanted to, but every time I would dial their number, I would start shaking and couldn’t follow through with it, it was really hard. So I wrote letters instead.
Giving birth to your first baby and having no one, not your parents, or friends to visit you felt so lonely. My husband could not get time off work to be with me when I was giving birth. They took my baby boy away as soon as he was born. I had no idea where they took him or if he was ok. I didn’t even get a chance to hold him, and did not understand anything the doctors were saying. I stayed in the hospital room watching other mothers get a stream of visitors bearing bouquets of flowers until my husband arrived in the evening and found out they had taken our baby to be placed in an incubator and he was fine!
Things were very difficult in the beginning. I felt lost. Looking back now, I had no idea how I coped. I have a lot of inner strength, and was like a tomboy growing up, so that’s probably what helped me get through the hard times.
I always believed ‘there is nothing I can’t do.’ So I decided we would buy a takeaway store. We operated that shop working 6am to 6pm every day for 25 years. I slowly started learning English by watching television and communicating with customers in the shop. I even learnt to drive at the age of 30 years old. I never ever gave up.
I wasn’t planning on having another child after our 2 boys, but I would notice a customer that regularly came into our shop with her little girl, and I longed for a little girl of my own. So we decided to try for another, and we had a daughter. A week after she was born I was back at the shop with the baby in the pram.
One of the things I loved about Australia was the lack of gossip and intrusion that comes with village life. I loved the anonymity. In the village there is no privacy- there is always someone to ask ‘What are you doing? Where are you going? Why did go you go there? Who did you go with?” Everyone knows everyone else’s business.
We did have a dream to move back to Greece, but when I went back after 10 years to visit my family, absolutely nothing had changed. I made up my mind then and there- Australia was where our future would be. I had to put my family first and foremost, and not think of wanting to be near my mum. Why would I put my kids back into the village life I had wanted to escape from? They could get a good education in Australia. They would have prospects. We could always go to Greece for a holiday.
It’s funny- although I was born and raised in Greece, I never left my village. So I would learn about the different places and experiences of Greece from Australians who would come into the shop and tell me all about their trip. Even the times we would go to visit my parents and in-laws, we never left the village. Finally, last year, my husband and I went on a proper Greek holiday and got see and experience Greece for ourselves, and had a wonderful time.
Ξενιτευτηκα, πονεσα…αλλα δοξα το Θεο, ολα εγιναν καλα. I worked really hard, 12 hour days at the shop, raising 3 kids, and running a household, but thank God, everything worked out just fine.”
* Irene Bourgoujis, Sydney Australia