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Oral History

History > Oral History > Constantine Peter Gavrilis

History > Oral History

submitted by Joshua Kepreotis on 31.01.2015

Constantine Peter Gavrilis

I was born in Logothetianika in 1929 and came out to Australia in 1947. I was born in the family home with a midwife, which was the normal way for Kytherian children to be born in those days and there were a lot of causalities as a result. Medicine has improved significantly since that time.

My life in Kythera is made up of specific memories. I can remember the smell of the animals, a smell that has stayed with me most of my life. Every time I come across that same smell my mind immediately goes back to Kythera. All my early memories of Kythera were terrific. The animals, the normal life of the peasants sleeping with the animals and everything about that lifestyle was lovely. I only have good memories of the island. I was fortunate enough to meet my grandparents. One of my grandfathers worked for the French delegation in Ethiopia in which he would come to Greece and Kythera for his holidays every year. He was a very gentle and interesting man. His mother was a normal Kytherian lady. We had two generations that would go together and collect lollies and sika. We had lovely memories of being brought up in a peasant type of life. We migrated to Athens in the mid 1930’s in which we, as a family, spent 10 years before migrating to Australia. Athens is where I received the majority of my education. We had a shop there in Athens, my father was a shopkeeper, we also had a house of our own in Ambelokopi and I had a normal middle class upbringing in Athens.

My parents’ names were Panayotis and Payon. Both were born in Kythera. My father was one of four brothers who all went to America after WWI. My father came back and started a business in Athens, whereas the other three stayed and died in America. My father became an Australian citizen in 1918, just as the war finished. He spent some time as a teenager in Australia and I therefore had a brother in Australia who was already established. He brought me out in 1947. I have three brothers, two are now deceased, and one that still survives. Our family’s paratsoukli was known as fotoyiannas, after my father, because I assumed he liked to burn things. My mother was very much a Kytherian local who found it very difficult to adopt the lifestyle of the Athenian and I think she was unhappy about being away from Kythera, missing its simplicity. Suddenly, she was thrown into the change of Athens, and I do not think she really recovered from that till her death.

During the War life was very difficult. We had a shop in downtown Athens near Omonia and we were unlucky enough to see the beginning of the starvation and death of people in the streets. That was an experience I did not enjoy and do not like to think about. It was a very traumatic experience for me and has affected my life. Those images are still quite vivid in my mind even till today.

The patriko spiti in Logothetianika was quite good compared to the standards of the day. Because my father worked in America and lived in Australia we had some luxuries of the turn of the century, like baths etc. but nothing too elaborate and flash. We moved to Athens from Kythera when I was about seven which was sociologically a traumatic move for a young boy. When the steamer arrived in Piraeus and I saw the delivery trucks and the hustle at the port I could not cope with the distinct change from Kythera. It was quite a trauma.

In Athens we had most of the middle class luxuries. My father’s shop sold hats, as well as being a shoe-shine pallor and the agent for “Kiwi Brute” shoe polish. He was a business man; very ergatikos, and I have learnt a lot from him. I took the values that he taught me and built on them for contemporary Australia.

One of my regrets in life was that my father wanted to come back to Australia and I never got to put that together. The priorities were not as urgent to do that but now I regret it. I wish I gave him the opportunity to come back here and have a look. He lived the rest of his life in Athens and later died there. He also went back to America after Australia. A lot of Kytherians went to America and had quite a good income there.

My decision to migrate to Australia coincided with my disappointment in Greek politics during and after WWI. We as youths, participated in the resistance and when, politically, we were not the flavour of the then regime, it was time to bail out and come to Australia. I chose Australia because my brother James already had a job here and he was fairly well versed. He was in the Australian army for four years and was very much an Australian-Greek.

I came out on the Osirius. We got stuck in Port Said in 1947, for about three months waiting for a boat and eventually we got a passage on the Osirius. I remember being in Athens one day institutionalised for my participation in the resistance and then on a boat the very next day. We stopped off in Haifa for a few days during our journey to Australia and I really remember vividly the trauma that the survivors of the Holocaust were facing. I became aware of the sociological trauma of what these people went through and how they were looking for a new life. And that played a major part in my life, making me realise how lucky one can be and how unlucky another is. We then went to Fremantle, Melbourne, and then up to Sydney. My first impression of Sydney was that I loved it immediately. The Australian way of life for a teenager suited me to the ground. I made Aussie friends, Aussie girlfriends, enjoyed dancing and everything else you could wish for as a teenager was provided. I assimilated quite quickly and never had any hesitation. That word ‘assimilation’ is a word we kept alive because to me assimilation was by far more suitable socially, as opposed to these days where we have every fraction of the community separated. There was much more togetherness and acceptance back in those days.

Initially, I went to Goulbourn, where I worked for 18 months and then I went to Kempsey to help my brother out as he had brought a Greek café called the Venus. We owned that café for thirty years, in which I worked for four years. It was one of the old style typical Greek country cafés. They were a very important part of the community back then. I felt absolutely no animosity from the local population and was assimilated from day one. I then got an apprenticeship in the jewellery trade in Sydney and I built from there. I started my own business which was not all too difficult. Australia was on the growing cycle of business. We made everything locally such as boots, handbags, nails, socks etc. so whatever you did you were welcome to participate in that growth. I have absolutely no regrets in my involvement in the manufacturing business. What we do here now at Astor Base Metals is that we are a major supplier of decorative parts to the automotive and appliance industries.

We developed that from the jewellery trade. We used to do decorative parts for the ladies and then we eventually changed over to what we see now as nameplates and badges etc.

We employed nearly 200 people at one stage and now we employ 130 people and so you could say we are successful in producing a commodity which is unique. My wife helped me at the early stages and then my son Peter joined the company and participated for 30 years successfully except he now has a very sick wife to which he has gone back to the country to help her recover.

I met my wife in Kempsey. She was an Australian-born Greek. I think she helped me more towards the Australian way of life because as a teenager she was captain of her school and a very intelligent lady. I still greatly miss her.

Politically, I could not go back to Greece for 20 years. Being a member of the resistance during the war, we were earmarked as rebels or ‘unacceptable’ according to the authorities and therefore I was blacklisted. I went back after 20 years and I went straight to Kythera; and have been going back every couple of years since then. I have a great affinity to Kythera and now have no animosity towards the country and the current government. The resistance was a big part of my life. It somewhat handicapped my schooling for a bit because I was a rebel of the high school that I went to. And then I was up on the mountain for two years and as a teenager I was discharged at the age of 17 which was very difficult. However the resistance didn’t do me any harm as it helped me develop a lot. I became streetwise, which was an attribute that helped me greatly in moving countries. But I eventually became disillusioned with Greek politics and was only too pleased to leave all that behind. It was upsetting to leave my family but I needed to have a break and experience a brand new lifestyle.

During the early stages of the war our high school used to provide a guard of honour for the epitaphio and I would take part in that ceremony. I had an affinity with the Greek religion. And so I would get very upset that members of the resistance would write graffiti on little churches in the bush and steal bibles to roll cigarettes, as there was no paper back then during the war. I had a respect for the tradition of the religion and so I was opposed to these acts of contempt.

I have a number of hobbies that keeps me happy and entertained. I have enjoyed shooting (firearm collecting), hunting, fishing (I have become a very keen fisherman at south west rocks, that is my little secret spot). These are a few of my main hobbies.

I became the first Kytherian President of the new Social club. So my affinity to Kythera and Kytherians is very strong. I believed the Brotherhood was in disarray, they needed new blood and direction. So I recruited a number of the young fellows who are still there now doing a fine job. I got them in as teenagers from University and encouraged them to participate. It helped make that transition smoother. We needed to have a proper business established and move on the old boys who were holding it back. These people were not sociologically compatible with the Australian public. I was the president in the 80’s in the years where we just bought the Kythera House building in Chippendale, Sydney. We borrowed the money from the benefactor, Mr Nickolas Lourantos. I became a life member of the Kytherian

Brotherhood, which I treasure greatly. The Brotherhood was a challenge for me because I could see that the previous committee were going nowhere and that we needed new direction. It was difficult to run both organisations, my business as well, as it was a great load of work. I would sometimes pinch personnel from my work to do work at the club because we had just bought a new building and it needed a lot of repairs. That building helped forge a greater future for the Brotherhood.

In terms of deciding to make a family, I think one goes with the other. Once you decided to link your life with a baby-producing person the next thing is to have babies and therefore with my wife we had a daughter Payona (Jenny-Anne) who is a school teacher and a son, Peter, who helped establish this company. I think the traditional lifestyle of Kythera helped me develop the rest of my character; which I then replicated the same values and implemented them into the raising of my own family. Sociologically there was a big gap of understanding between the two cultures. My goal was to ignore the gap and allow myself to grow up in a society to where I don’t want anything but I don’t give anything. I eventually found out that the Aussies accepted me as I was and I accepted them with their cultural values. We are not exactly Anglo Saxons but it is vitally important to understand the society you live in. The modern day migrant has a different attitude; they are rebellious and anti- social, whereas back in my day it was a different process. We came here to become an Australian and participate in the society harmoniously.

I have workers here that have been with me for 30-50 years. There is a common loyalty because I believe we have provided them with a place to work where you feel safe, you are not going to be sacked for some minor indiscretion. This business strategy that I took from my father and adapted to Australia has thankfully worked well for me.

I still keep in contact with old friends from Kythera. We are also involved in restoring the Ayios Minas bell tower in Logothetianika. The connection is blood, it is in you and you cannot help that. You either have it or you don’t. The love has to be in your thoughts, your culture, your blood, that you want to participate somewhere to where your wisdom and ability to think emanated from, like the average local. It’s about a certain amount of belonging.

My main highlights in life were to come to Australia, start my own business, become a member of Masonry and other institutions that I have joined including the Returned Soldiers League that I am a member of for my war efforts. They are just some of the highlights of what I, as a citizen, have done for this country. I believe this is why we are here. What you are doing sociologically. And you have to find out the reasons why you are doing these things. To me doing local work in Kythera, particularly Logothetianika, to help them progress, gives me great pride. For example, I bought the land next to the cemetery to expand it as it had become too overcrowded. Another example is there was an old house that belonged to the Christiano family on the corner where the trucks couldn’t get around as they headed to Ayios Minas for the restoration, so I bought it to make that process happen.

My most difficult moments of my life included the time I spent in jail for being a member of the resistance during the war. I did not think they were correct to jail me for this. It was a very traumatic experience for me and I never accepted that denial. I believe it was an immature way of dealing with the situation. We were all students and we participated (showed a form of demonstration) without really being involved in the political side of affairs, so why they reacted like that is still hard to understand. Our unit was called Lord Byron and it was all students of intellectual thought showing our opposition to the war in an orderly fashion. The stigma that was attached to us was also very difficult to accept, particularly as a Greek-born citizen. That was also the reason why I adopted Australia easier. An average migrant has many reasons why they go to another country. My reasoning process was eliminated because I said to myself that I had nowhere else to go. It was inevitable.

I would sum up my life as an interesting one with many challenges that were met honourably and that is the way I look at my neighbourhood, my local friends. If a person is a nice person to be with, I make sure that I make myself available. I have never been one to only specialise in Greek friendships.

I’ll be remembered by someone saying Con started this business, but that is not important for me. I have not done any of this as an ego trip.

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