submitted by Odyssey Magazine on 05.04.2005
Odyssey Magazine, Vol. 7 No. 6 (July/August2000)
Kythira has been dubbed "Kangaroo island" because of the large number of Greek-Australian women who have made their lives there. Anna Patty meets some of them and asks whether they really have found paradise.
It's a world where a woman's place is in the home-or out in the fields. A world where serving one's husband and being a good housewife are a means of survival. And where ever-watchful mothers-in-law worship their sons like gods and judge their daughters-in-law according to their domestic prowess and fertility. But many of those cultural expectations are being challenged by a growing number of Australian women now marrying and living on the Greek island of Kythira. Anna Patty spoke to some of them.
It was supposed to be a six-week vacation. But eight years later, Sia Poulos calls Kythira home. Having lived a stressful life in Melbourne, where she worked for a Federal Liberal politician, Poulos planned a holiday to the rocky, windswept island in 1992 and fell in love-with the island. She decided to stay after realizing she could teach English and start up her own business, producing tourist publications, including her own summertime newspaper.
"I love the lifestyle here and became too busy to think about going back to Australia," says Poulos, whose father was born on the island. "On Kythira I had time to think and dream again. I've never heard the wind like I'd heard it in Kythira. The fog is gray. I could walk along a pristine beach with no one there. There's no crime. We sleep with the door open in summer. I live near a waterfall and an old Venetian fortress. There are old pirate hideouts and fantastic ruins. There's a sense of history all around you here."
Kythira, which lies off the southern tip of the Peloponnese, is covered with olive trees and tiny whitewashed churches whose bells can often be heard pealing in the distance. Ancient Venetian fortresses are set above spectacular views of an ocean flat as glass. Ghost towns like the abandoned medieval capital of Paliohora, populated by wild mountain goats, are the only crumbling reminders of invasions by Turkish pirates who pillaged the island for centuries. The seemingly impenetrable main town is perched high above steep cliffs that drop into a huge gorge running into the sea. The smell of wild herbs and ripe figs diffuse through the air along a terraced hillside in the town of Karavas, where rows of houses slowly collapse under the weight of neglect since their owners virtually fled to Australia for a better life during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.
Overpowering the sense of emptiness in those villages is a vibrant celebration of life's simple pleasures in seaside village tavernas where bottles of retsina are shared and fresh loaves of wood-fired bread are broken and dipped into creamy white yogurt-and-cucumber dips into the early hours of the morning. "After 8 p.m. here everyone is out having coffee, sweets, or a drink," Poulos says. "It's very social. Greece offers a wonderful lifestyle."
Diss & Dishes
Sia Poulos is one of only 3,000 permanent residents on Kythira, otherwise known as "Kangaroo Island" or "Little Australia" because there are more than 50,000 people of Kythirean descent now living in "Big Kythira," aka Australia. The island's population swells to about 10,000 during July and August when many of the Australian Kythireans visit. It's during those idyllic summers, when the island is at its most seductive, that many girls who've grown up in Australia find romance there. At least a dozen of them have decided to stay and marry Greek men.
But unlike most of the Australian girls on Kythira, Poulos decided to live on the island long before she met her husband, Dimitri Kyriakopoulos, more than three years ago. Although many Greek husbands insist on their wives staying at home, Kyriakopoulos supports Poulos's working life. "I don't do all the cooking. He helps with that," she says. "He respects that I'm independent and supports me in everything I do. I never thought I'd marry a Greek guy from Greece."
When she first arrived, Poulos was the target of the type of malicious gossip frequently leveled at young female outsiders. Fictional stories abound about "foreign" girls being loose, running brothels, and drug running. "A lot of the people don't have much to do other than gossip," she says. "The only thing you can do is to stand up to them or just ignore it and let it go over your head."
Former Sydney resident Paula Cassimatis agrees. Shortly after she moved to Kythira to marry her husband, Manoli, the woman next door began peering into her window at least once a day. As the new Australian girl on Kythira, it was inevitable that Paula would stir the curiosity of locals-so much so that she was careful not to raise her voice at her husband lest her neighbor would hear and spread the word that the marriage was in trouble. Simply driving to another village on her own could inspire suspicion and questions about who she was seeing and what she was doing.
"Here, there's nothing you can do without people seeing you and knowing all your business that they're bound to tell somebody about," she says. "If I'm seen by myself out of the town I live in on the other side of the island, people will talk about it."
It's been nine years since Cassimatis left the Sydney suburb of Vaucluse at the age of 25 to live in Kythira, after meeting Manoli during a summer holiday. Having attended prestigious Sydney girls' school Kambala before studying microbiology at the University of NSW, Paula assumed she could transfer her skills to the island. But it would have meant sitting university exams all over again in Greek and her command of the language wasn't up to the task. "I was very disappointed, but then I found I could teach English," she says. "I'm pretty happy with that-but I did enjoy microbiology. What can you do-you have to make some sacrifices.
"In Sydney I was used to having the male help a little bit at home. My father was very good. But my husband does work long hours, so it's okay and I'm not really upset about it. I think he's come around a little bit; he's adjusted and I've adjusted, so I think we've found a good balance. Some mothers just don't let their sons do anything, which is terrible. I try and teach my son to pick up his plate after he's finished and to clean up his room. In my mother-in-law's day, if people asked you how many children you had, you'd only say how many sons you had. The daughter was like a different species. They mother the boys so much, it's unbelievable. And it's not just while they are young, it's when they are older: 'Oh don't move, I'll get your slippers for you. Sit there I'll get you a glass of water.' It's ridiculous. Maybe the attitude will change with all the Australian girls on the island now."
Stand by Your Man
According to Emeritus Professor of Anthropology Gillian Bottomley from Macquarie University in Sydney, traditional Greek women still find their identities within a domestic domain. Their public identities are established through their husbands and sons.
"You find the women in traditional Greek communities won't let men do anything (like the cooking or ironing)," she says. "It's a patriarchal society in which women see their role as serving men. They also derive a sense of importance and power from thinking these (domestic chores) are things they can do better than men. They derive a sense of importance from how well they cook and keep their house, and they judge other women by those standards. You'll find they often criticize other women by saying they can't do things properly. I remember women there once telling me I couldn't peel an apple properly."
Another academic who has researched the place of women in Greek society, Dr. Georgina Tsolidis of Monash University in Melbourne, says there are many benefits that come with living in a rural Greek community. Because the family network is so tight, for instance, all family members helped in child-rearing.
"There are checks and balances," Tsolidis says. "There is plenty of chauvinism in mainstream Australian society, too. People in small towns here gossip just like they do in the small villages in Greece. Conservatism in small towns is something you'll find wherever you go, whether it's Greece or Australia." Foreign women living in Athens were often with men who were educated and had traveled and seen how other communities live. "These couples usually know each other's worlds," she says. "Urban Greek culture is pretty similar to what it is here and women are quite powerful in their careers within an Athens setting. A lot of the women I know who are living there have two languages, run businesses, and have economic ascendancy."
As for why the rural ideal attracted many women to Greece: "We are brought up to want men who are traditionally masculine," Tsolidis asserts. "Maybe that side of these men appeals to these women, plus the idyllic island setting. But then you get caught up in the day-to-day and its not all that romantic."
Five years ago, Susie Magonezos (nee Baker) was questioning whether she had made the right decision leaving Australia to live in Kythira. Her red hair, freckles, and green eyes are an instant giveaway that she isn't one of the locals.
"You really have to work at fitting in here if you're a foreigner," she says. "To uproot yourself from the other side of the world is difficult. It's a risk, but you don't know till you try. I worked hard and was accepted. We lived with my in-laws for six years and as good as they are, it was difficult. It was a real struggle. I just wanted to pick up and go home in '95. I went over to Australia for three months.
"Things are good now that we have our own home. I've had problems adapting. I get homesick and nostalgic for Australia. Getting used to all the morals, standards, and values here, you have to be a strong person and a bit naive sometimes too, so that things just go over your head. If you have a good husband, you settle in easier. My family keeps me going. My husband Panayoti lived in Australia for five years and knows what it's like."
Magonezos is in her kitchen making traditional Greek biscuits called koulouria and speaking to her children in fluent Greek. Her two-year-old son Allan, who has snow-white curly hair and green eyes is playing with a tiny silver pot used for making Greek coffee. She now believes in local superstitions such as the so-called evil eye, which when given to someone, is said to make them ill or deliver some other curse.
Magonezos left Australia at the age of 26 to settle in Kythira with husband Panayotis after they ran a pizzeria in the Sydney suburb of Lugarno for five years. They returned to Kythira because Panayotis couldn't settle in Australia. They now rent rooms in the village of Aroniadika during the summer. During the winter months they tend their livestock and olives.
Although Magonezos, now 39, grew up in the NSW country town of Moree, before moving to Waverley in Sydney where she worked as a nurse, she now can't imagine returning to Australia, especially now that her sons, George, 13, Mario, 12, and Allan, 2, have grown up on Kythira. The only contact Susie had with a Greek family during her childhood was with the owners of a cafe in Moree where she bought milkshakes and cucumber-and-tomato sandwiches. "About 20 percent of the kids at my school were Aboriginal. I had an Aboriginal boyfriend at school," she says. "I grew up on a farm which made it easier for me to adapt to life on Kythira. It's a quiet life here, especially during the winter."
Not having worked for some time, Magonezos says she is anxious to start her own business. She says her husband had not wanted her to work as a nurse when she arrived in Kythira. "I would have had a problem with the language anyway," she says. "I haven't been working for a while. I'd like to do something more independent. I think it's important for a woman to work. It's important for your self esteem."
Learning About Subsidies
Just up the road, another Australian-born woman is tending her market garden. "This is the job I hate most," says 30-year-old Maria Comino, while filling a huge motor-driven pump with water. The sky is still bright and the earth hot to touch at 6:30 p.m. when Maria, whose parents are Kythirean, and her partner Theo Samios water their vegetable patch.
Born in the NSW country town of Warialda and brought up in Brisbane, Comino met Samios on Kythira in 1994 when she was 25 years old. They spent almost a year together before she left-"never to return"-to work in New York for a year-and-a-half.
And then she began missing Kythira. "I wanted to come back to live here for a while," she says. Comino also works as an acupuncturist on the island, having trained in Australia and in China. She and Samios are involved in a government-funded agricultural project for which they have received $22,000 from the Greek government to grow organic tomatoes, zucchinis, watermelons, beans, capsicums, grapes, and olives. "We're the only ones on the island who grow corn-and we deliver," she says proudly.
The couple runs another garden in the nearby village of Potamos, which hosts a fruit-and-vegetable market every Sunday morning. "I had some goats as well, but never again," Comino says. "You think it's going to be easy and romantic, but raising goats changes your life. It's like having children. I miss them, but I don't regret giving them away. I'd like to visit them, but I'm too afraid, just in case they've been eaten." After watering the garden and cutting some zucchinis, the couple return to their traditional Greek home opposite a small church in which Comino's Kythirean-born parents were married. The house, which belongs to her mother's side of the family, is basic. A traditional basil plant, believed to bring good luck, is in the small courtyard where Comino sits on an old wicker chair. She is wearing a blue floral dress with her hair up and her dog Boobi at her feet. A modern mini-stereo unit plays in the background. "I was five years old when I made my first trip to Kythira," she says. "It's good to come here as a kid. I don't think I would be so close to the place otherwise.
"I forget a lot of my English. It's easier for me to express myself in Greek now. I miss speaking English though, because its hard to express my sense of humor in Greek.
"The longer you spend here the more you start to miss things like going to the movies, Japanese food, and shopping," she continues. "I don't miss Australia so much as I miss my family there. I miss driving more than half-an-hour to get somewhere. I miss beaches with waves. Even though there are no sharks here, you still think about them when you go into the water. But you'd have to be pretty unlucky to be eaten by a shark here."
She says it is almost impossible making friends with the local women on the island, apart from those who were born in Australia. "A lot of them are obsessed by cooking and cleaning and I'm not. They don't like me very much," Comino says. "I think they regard you as competition, being from Australia."
Comino says Greek men in general are difficult. But her husband is not chauvinistic. "I do things like the cooking. He always jokes that he wanted a girl that would make him sweets. I never make sweets and I cook because I like it. Theo is good. He doesn't hang out at the kafeneio with all the other men. We go everywhere together. I see a lot of Australian-Greek girls married to Greek guys here who are unhappy. I still don't know if it can work. I'm happy now, but I don't know if it will last."
In a Pickle
Elizabeth Stais endured a six-year, long-distance romance before deciding to leave her Sydney home in the suburb of Blakehurst and move to Kythira. It was during an eight-month holiday to the island in 1986 that she met Kosta Dapontes and, despite her better judgement, fell in love.
And so Dapontes came to Australia-six years later and only for a month. But it was enough time for them to realize that they should try making a life for themselves in Kythira. Despite having trained as a teacher in Sydney before running a health-food shop with her two sisters, Stais has made a relatively smooth adjustment to her new lifestyle.
"I like the rural way of life here," she says. "In the first year, I learned how to make cheese and do the milking. The following year, we took over my mother-in-law's sheep. We make olive oil in the winter-this year we made over a ton of it. I also pickle olives-mine are the best," she laughs.
Sitting alfresco drinking coffee in the seaside village of Kapsali, Stais looks content as she wipes her son Angelo's nose while explaining that day-to-day life, while enjoyable, isn't always romantic. Winters on the island were are cold and deathly quiet. There are animals to feed, olives to be picked and crushed for oil, cows and goats to be milked, and cheese to be made. Grapes to be picked and pressed for wine. There is no pediatrician or gynecologist on the island, which offers a very basic hospital service. It's a 50-minute flight to Athens or a day's trip on the ferry and bus to seek more specialized medical help. Telephones are unreliable, the internet is virtually unheard of, and there are always complaints about the poor education system on the island. But, probably the hardest thing to come to terms with was being so far away from family in Australia.
The spacious fields surrounding Stais's home in the village of Kalamos are enjoyed by daughter Katerina and son Angelo. "My kids are a lot wilder than my sister's kids in Sydney," Elizabeth says. "I think we've brought them up in the same way, but it's a different environment here." So how will Elizabeth bring up her son? "I don't know. He's a special kid," she says. "They bring up their boys differently to girls here. They serve them. I don't want that. But I don't know that it won't happen that way."
When Published: bi-monthly
Publisher: Odyssey Magazine
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