submitted by James Victor Prineas on 01.10.2020
Interviewed by Joshua Kepreotis (JK)
JK: We will start with your name and where you were born.
Brettos Kipriotis: Yes, I was born, I didn’t spring from the ground.
(Reader, a quick taste of Brettos’ infectious humour.)
Brettos: There exists an old saying in Greece, ‘Where did that person spring from? How did they get here? Who do they belong to?’ If the person was unknown to the locals, and came to a village for the first time, the elders would ask around. The generations before mine have a lot of beautiful sayings, colloquialisms, specific to Kythira. I’ve enjoyed writing their stories down and learning from them. I wanted to capture the Greek language as they spoke it in the old days.
JK: Then you are a writer yourself.
Brettos: Yes, amongst the best. Call me Mark Twain. Or Bernard Shaw if you want.
JK: Bernard Shaw or Brettos Kipriotis?
Brettos: It’s the same. I’m better, but either will do. We were colleagues, may we remember him. Okay, what do you want to know?
JK: Where were you born?
Brettos: I was born in Kythira, in the small village of Kypriotianika. When I was born, there was about 40-45 people living in the village. Now there is 7. At that time, 1949, many people had not left Kythira yet. Kythira was, and is, not a wealthy place, it may even be considered poor. It had a large population. Each family had a lot of children and it was difficult for their parents to feed and raise them. That way, the best option when the children grew a bit older was for them to leave and go to other countries.
In my small village, Kypriotianika, lived my Pappou Brettos. I was 2 years old when my Yiayia died and so knew her little. He passed when I was 7. I would walk from Kypriotianika through Aloizianika, where my mother was born, to go to school by foot every day. It was a terrible road with large rocks and deep valleys. I went in the morning and when I finished school, I walked back to Aloizianika. Many days it was cold and raining. My Pappou and Yiayia on my mother’s side were living in Aloizianika, so when the weather was bad, I stayed with them.
At first, we lived in Kypriotianika with my mother and father until he went overseas. After he left, my mother and I went to live with her parents in Aloizianika. My father left Kythira for Australia when I was 3 years old. I was born in 1949 and he left in 52’. I saw him again after 18 years.
JK: Why did he go?
Brettos: He went for work. There was not much for him in Kythira. He had been to Australia before he was married and had left work unfinished. He only came back from Australia to bring his parents home. They were visiting their children, all 7 of them had left Kythira for Australia. When the Second World War broke out, they weren’t allowed to return. To return home, as elderly people, they needed to be escorted by a child. My father was the only child who could as he wasn’t married.
He returned to Kythira and met my mother. They fell in love and married. However, he had to complete his work in Australia. The years passed there. My mother didn’t want to take me to live in Australia, she wanted me to finish school in Greece. That way, one year here, another there, and 18 passed. I met him properly when I was in university. That’s when he came home.
That didn’t just happen in my family. It happened often for those families with many children and they were sent to either Australia, America, Smyrna. Smyrna was a large city with a lot of Kytherians in those days. It was a multinational place. There were Greeks, Germans, French, Armenians, Turkish people, and they lived all together. In 1903 they found information that stated there were 25, 000 Kytherians in Smyrna. They went there and worked hard. My two Pappous had been to Smyrna. Most of them came back to Greece during the catastrophe of 1922.
I was raised at first in Kypriotianika. There was one school in the middle of Friligianika, Kastristranika and Aloizianika. I went in the morning by foot. In the later years we also had afternoon classes. I went 8am and returned 1pm, then went back in the afternoon, because there were a lot of kids and not so many teachers. I waited at the school and they would give us some food to eat. They were hard years.
JK: You went by yourself?
Brettos: From Kypriotianika I was alone. When I grew older there were 3 kids in the village. We didn’t have a café, nor shop. We had to go to a bigger village with the donkey. From when I went to high school, at about 12 years of age, I stayed more in Aloizianika. My Pappou Brettos died. My father was in Australia, and so we moved there.
JK: What did he do in Australia?
Brettos: He worked for a newspaper in advertising. My father went to school for only 3 years and learnt to speak English on his own. He worked with a relative of his, Nicholas Aroney, who created the Aroney Foundation. They were close and I have a photo where he worked with them. And his siblings helped him as well. All but one, Vasiliki, left before him. She married Jim Marselos from Fratsia, and they went to Australia married. The rest married in Australia.
Before he returned to Greece with my Pappou and Yiayia, he enlisted to join the army and fight in the Second World War. He fought for 6 years. He wanted to go.
JK: Why did he want to fight for another country?
Brettos: He told me he felt it was his duty to help free the world. He did not like what the Nazis represented. The mentality of oppression and xenophobia, so he felt compelled to enlist. He went to many places and participated in the biggest battles of the war – El Alamein, Bruck, Borneo, Sumatra, Palestine. He received many medals. My father was a hero.
We spoke through letters. There were no telephones in those years. He would send a letter every 2-3 months. He wrote about how much he loved us and how he longed to see us. He wanted us to travel to Australia. However, I had started school and needed to finish. And my mother could not leave my two Pappous and Yiayia here in Kythira.
JK: So, you were 20 when you saw him?
Brettos: Yes. It was a wonderful surprise and a lot to process. After so many years of not knowing my own father. Can you imagine what it would be like to not see your father for 18 years? But it happened for many families, as I said. Children left Kythira and never saw their parents again. Seeing him was amazing. I was so happy when I saw him at the airport. And for him too, who had not seen his child and wife after so many years. He had sent us photos of him and his siblings, so I knew his face. But it was another joy to meet in person. My parents then stayed in Kythira for good, living in Aloizianika because Kypriotianika had no electricity. Whereas Aloizianika did, and it had shops close by.
JK: How was life in Kythira during the war?
Brettos: It was better in Kythira than on the mainland. We didn’t have many German soldiers. The majority were Italians. They were somewhat better to us. We have a likeness with Italians. Ούνα φάτσα ούνα ράτσα, as the saying goes. The German soldiers were stern, however they were only here for a short while. Life here was okay. We had small amounts of food to eat. Others had nothing. On the island we were fortunate to have land. We had wheat, fruit and vegetables from the gardens. We had animals – sheep and chickens. The harder years were spent in the larger cities like Athens, Piraeus, Thessaloniki. Many Kytherians who were living there came to Kythira so they could eat. We passed it okay, poor, but we lived through it.
JK: When did you finish school in Kythira?
Brettos: 1968. I left Kythira for university in Piraeus when I was 18. I went with the boat and stayed in the centre of Piraeus in a home of a friend of mine – Panayiotis Samios from Potamos. It was an old house and many stayed inside. It had a large courtyard. It took me 5 minutes to walk to my university. I studied Economics for 5 years. It was hard, however I worked and read a lot. I went well there. I found a job before I finished my degree in a boating company for tourists. They organised cruises and I was an assistant to an accountant. Afterwards, a Kytherian man from another company learnt of the work I had done and contacted me about a new job. He had a high position there and they wanted young people. He offered me much more money, double even. I had no idea what to do with that money – I didn’t know how to count it! It was a large American pharmaceutical company called Bristol Myers.
JK: How old were you?
Brettos: 25 years of age.
JK: Living in Piraeus in the same house?
Brettos: Yes, I changed houses when I married Elvira.
JK: How did you meet Elvira?
Brettos: Well, there was a big Kytherian community in Piraeus and a club where the Kytherians who had left Kythira gathered. We wanted somewhere to hang out, to dance and sing. It was a warm and welcoming place for Kytherians. We loved being at the club. We went away together, sometimes far. On one of those trips there was a girl who came from Karvounades, Poppy. She worked at the Metaxa Cancer Hospital of Piraeus in Athens with Elvira. She bought her friend, Elvira Poulianou, ancestry from Ikaria, and that’s where we met.
JK: Where did you go for the trip?
Brettos: We went to Halkida. She saw me playing guitar and singing. Then we got to talking and made plans to see each other again, and in 1968 we got married.
JK: When did you first come to Kythira together?
Brettos: Elvira had been before we got married, with Poppy. When my parents first met her, my father nodded his head and turned to my mother and said, ‘Katerina, we met our daughter-in-law.’ He understood. He knew how I felt. They made a great impression on each other. Elvira had it all, humour, kindness, love.
Here in Kythira we also had humour. When Elvira first came to Aloizianika, the villagers played a prank and greeted us by throwing rice at us. They also sang wedding songs, and Elvira was shy and hid. We laughed a lot. We kept dating and the wedding happened in the centre of Athens at a church named, Agios Pavlos. That’s where Elvira was living with her family. Before we married, we moved to a place nearer to the hospital where she worked.
JK: What work did Elvira do?
Brettos: She was a doctor of Cytology. Her work involved cancer research, Pap tests, among other things. She was so good at her job they made her head of the department, at a young age. She had earned the very quick ascent. She was sent around the world to represent Greece at conferences, where she presented material regarding Greece. She went to France, Spain, England, Turkey. She went with a group of doctors and would be the main speaker. She spoke on the work Greece was doing in that field and to tell other doctors what they have found. Elvira had a great name at her hospital, everyone respected and loved her.
Something I am proud of, considering she was not from Kythira, was how much she helped Kytherians. I am happy about that.
JK: What did she do?
Brettos: As soon as anyone heard that she was working at the hospital they ran there. And she welcomed them. She had an open-door policy for Kytherians at the hospital. She would go to work in the morning and find 2-3 Kytherians in her office already, without having made an appointment. She helped them a lot, and not only in her office, with other doctors as well. If there was someone there for their feet, or for their heart, they asked for her. She made sure they were seen to properly and had the right tests immediately. Therefore, the Kytherians loved her. She would invite them over to our home for dinner to take their history so they would be ready the next day at the hospital.
Because her name carried weight at the hospital, she organised a group of doctors, who speed in all areas – heart, lungs, gynaecology – to go to Kythira with a large hospital van, and offer free tests to the local population. She brought them things they otherwise couldn’t access. No one had done that before. She did it for 3-4 years. There was a hospital in Kythira, but it was small and had few doctors. The sick would have to go to Athens and that was hard for them.
Do you know how many women she saved? Having detected a problem early and gave them hope to recover. They then learnt how to take Pap Tests in the hospital in Kythira, however they hadn’t yet the capabilities to read the results and sent it to Elvira in Athens. She immediately went through them and sent the results back. Many times, she stayed back after hours to get through the work. She sometimes took me along for company and to assist. She would call me and say tonight we are spending it at the hospital, and I would join her 9pm at night to check on the Kytherians. She sent it ready with courier to Kythira. If it was someone else, it could have taken 1-2 months. My wife did a lot for Kythira. Και όλοι πίνανε νερό στο όνομα της (they drank water from her name).
Do you want to turn on the light, so I can see what I am saying?
JK: That’s a powerful story about Elvira. Did you have children at the time?
Brettos: Not yet. We had a child whom we lost. It was a miscarriage. However, with the glory of God, we were able to eventually have the two tyrants – Katerina in 1983 and then two years later Alexis. We lived in Piraeus and I was working at Bristol Myers. After Bristol Myers, I got a great opportunity to work for the government. In the Department of Treasury. It was good in those days. They were asking for people who had a lot of experience working with large companies. It was a pay rise and I worked very well there. I managed to do a large job that we then showed to the Minister of Finance, and it became law. I still have the signature of the minister. I believe my work in the big companies meant I learnt a great deal. I knew things that others who worked in the ministry didn’t know.
The work I did was concerned with factories in Greece that produced products, like Dior or Lacoste, and whether they got permission to do so. The Greek company needed to give money to gain the right. They sent me requests and it was my job to determine whether it was in Greece's interest to send money abroad to fix it here, or was it better to bring it from abroad? I worked for about twenty-five years in that role.
JK: And Elvira?
Brettos: She stayed at Metaxa. She went to Paris to receive further training in cancer research at the Institut Curie. I went as well once and it was beautiful. I walked the entire city. I was alone because Elvira was working. I sent my mother once as well. She had never been outside of Greece. It was her first time on a plane. She met Elvira there and Elvira took her to the top of the Eiffel Tower. She got so scared up there she didn’t want to get down. But she loved being there with Elvira.
JK: How did you feel the first time you left Kythira for Piraeus?
Brettos: I was excited to go. My uncle, my mother’s brother, was in Piraeus and lived close to the port. In summer, when I didn’t have school, my mother sent me to stay with him for 10 days. I was young. My mouth stayed open when I stepped off the boat. The smells, the shops, it had everything. Sweets I hadn’t seen before. My uncle took me everywhere. It seemed so nice. He worked with the large ships, filling them with water. A Kytherian owned the company. He took me inside the cruise ships to see them. I had no idea where I was. It was overwhelming, my Lord. Everyone knew my uncle and would give me things. It was the first time in my life I saw bananas.
Kythira wasn’t a rich population. Whatever one house had the other did too. We didn’t have rich people. Few had an income. If one house had beans, so did the other. Wheat, chickens. We didn’t eat meat all the time, we kept it for special occasions, however many had their own. Most didn’t starve. With such few things, though, we were happy and thankful. When we have a lot, as humans, we aren’t as appreciative – I believe. How many times we had caramels and if they dropped on the floor, in the dirt, we would dust it off and eat it. Our roads were not cement or asphalt. It was all dirt and rocks, and we played on our knees and hands, blood on both.
JK: Did you work in the fields?
Brettos: I helped a lot. I remember many times, when returning from my high school in Hora with the bus, it would leave me on the main road. Not in my village. I went home by foot. When it was the season for collecting olives, I wouldn’t go home but straight to the fields from the bus to help my parents. That’s where I ate. I would leave my bag with my books against a tree and not return home until it got dark. That was when I could read and do my homework. I was tired and we had no electricity in our home.
I had a little room with a small table and oil lamps. I read what I could see. It was my only option. They were hard years, but nice. People had warmth in their hearts. I remember many nights we ate early because later all our neighbours gathered to share the news of the day. To tell stories around the fireplace in winter, lighting coal and creating a nice fire. Many times, the elderly told frightening ghost stories. And they said them with such zest, I would think they were real and would come and get me. When I went to bed, I couldn’t sleep.
They were beautiful years, one person close to the other. Everyone knew the difficulties of the next person and shared it with them. Their pain. We were a part of each other’s joys and sorrows. We had warmth in our hearts.
JK: You had friends in the village?
Brettos: From Aloizianika, as there were no people my age in Kypriotianika. I found friends here to play with, but many had left to go overseas. I made friends from other villages as well. We went and played guitar and violin. I loved guitar right away and led to a lifelong passion. My mother had a great mind. I remember before I ever went to school, she sat with me at night, just the two of us, in front of the fireplace, and taught me things. Whenever people who smoked threw away their paper package, she collected them and taught me the letters and words that were written on them. She got me to write out the letters with a pencil, ‘π, α, ρ.’ She taught me a lot before school and so when I got there I already knew how to read, to count, to tell the time on a clock.
And she had the most wonderful singing voice. She sang so nice. She sang the songs of the time, of Kythira, and other songs they sang in Athens. How did they learn the songs from mainland? Well, when their relatives came from Athens to Kythira during the summer, they sat around and sang. That’s how the locals learnt. Because they didn’t have radios here in Kythira. She taught me from young to sing and I developed a passion for it from then. I remember when there was a name day for a saint, we had dances and when I was 4-5 years of age, they put me in front to sing. I had a lot of confidence at a young age.
When I was a little older and almost finished primary school, my mother learnt someone from Karvounades wanted to sell his guitar to buy a new one. She immediately went and bought it for me. We didn’t have a teacher here or anything. The man who sold it came once and taught me how to tune it. I taught myself to play, practising morning and night with her. That’s how I started with music.
JK: And never stopped.
Brettos: When I went to study economics at the University of Piraeus, we had 250 students that year. I passed as number 23. For the first 30 students they gave us a scholarship of 12, 000 drachmas. Huge money for me. For the top 10 students they gave them a stipend for all their years of study. The first thing I did with the money was buy a new guitar and a nice suit – because I never had one of those. I gave the rest to my uncle Nikolas, my mother’s brother, to give me little at a time. I had a brain in those days.
I enjoyed my time as a student. The school was close to my place. We gathered as friends, went on trips, attended concerts of 5000 people. I am happy about my time in university. Here in Kythira it was hard, not just for my family but for many of the families. In the years between 1950-1960 a lot of young people left to go to Australia and America. Some boats took 5-6 young people from one village and everyone cried. And many of those who left never got to return, or their parents died here in Kythira before they got to come back and see them again. I remember those tough times. What could we do?
Thankfully, they went well overseas. The Kytherian diaspora worked hard, progressed, and sent money back to Greece to their families. How we waited for the postman from Hora, Zorbas’ father. He came with a motorbike and a whistle. He whistled when he was at the cemetery in Kypriotianika and we heard and ran to the church. We huddled together and waited to see what letters he had in his bag and for whom. To learn of the news from our loved ones. Ιστορίες ανθρώπου. Our souls and hearts spoke. There may have been people who did bad things – this exists everywhere – but very few. We were together. Everyone helped each other. In the fields. In the hard times. We were a large family.
That way as young children we learnt about life. About how children were born, how we get sick, how we die. Do you know how many times we went and saw the person who had passed at their home? My mother would take me because I had to become accustomed to life, and death. My mother had a good soul and she went and looked after the elderly of the village, some who lived alone. Uncles and aunties. She went at night to check on them. She would often find some who had died. And before they buried them, we gathered the night before at the house to pay our respects. We stayed all night. We called it, ‘τα ξενύχτα’ – all night. In the middle on a table they had placed the deceased, for all to see. We sat around and told stories. The amazing thing is they didn’t cry, they told jokes. Especially when it was an older person, not a young tragedy.
JK: Δεν υπαρχή γάμος χωρίς κλάματα, και θάνατος χωρείς γέλια. There is no wedding without tears, nor funeral without laughter.
Brettos: Exactly. There is an Ancient Greek saying that when a person dies, they need to leave happy and content. They must feel their people close, celebrating them with laughter. That was what we did. We told jokes, laughed, played games into the night, drank cognac and ate fruit. While the deceased person was in the middle. It was so much fun I imagine the dead person was close to rising. They’d say, ‘you’re having so much fun here, where am I going?’ Later they’d understand and say, ‘no, I can’t stay’, and lay back down.
I experienced a lot of deaths like that. And later I did the same with my son who lived here for a time. He helped me carry the deceased with sheets from one room to the other. It’s not a bad thing, I think it is a good thing for children to know all about life. That is the truth of life and death, and it is important to know it.
As children in the village we helped the elderly with whatever they needed. If they couldn’t get water on their own, we would go to the well and bring it. If they wanted something from the grocery store, the youth went. When it was time to take Holy Communion for Easter, or Christmas, we went to all the elderly people of the surrounding villages to ask for forgiveness for whatever we had done to wrong them. Human times. Reverence. I remember them well. As a village, we gathered to get the church ready for a celebration. Three days to sweep, mop, to put oil where they placed the candles. Then we made food. We put the orchestra together. From the morning everyone was at the church, relatives and friends as one, and we would feed them there so they wouldn’t have to go back to their villages to eat. After the service, in the afternoon, we went from house to house, and then at night we had a dance. It was perfect. Υπέροχα.
JK: Is that why you have such a love for Kythira?
Brettos: Yes, of course. We had a great life. Today, when we get together, we still say what a beautiful time we experienced.
JK: You have lived in Kythira, Piraeus, and Athens, where is home for you?
Brettos: Here, Kythira. I love it the most, however Piraeus has given me a great life as well. It raised me well. I studied there, I made a really good family, I love it a lot. They do say that where a person is born, they love it that much more. It is the truth. But I had a great life in Piraeus with my family.
JK: When were your children born? Katerina first?
Brettos: Katerina in 1985 and Alexandros in 1987.
JK: How did you feel when Katerina was born?
Brettos: Άστα άστα. Leave it. When she was born, in a large hospital of Athens, Hygeia, we went all together. I wasn’t allowed to enter the birth room and so I went and climbed the door and I heard the babies all crying. When they opened the door, they showed me Katerina and we looked at each other. Her eyes opened and when she saw me she cried. She understood I was her dad and that’s why she cried. I peed my pants with such happiness. We were waiting for it, the first child.
Our second birth, Alexis, was an escapade. We were living in Athens and it was Sunday. We were getting ready to go to lunch. We dressed Katerina who was two, Elvira was dressed, and as we went to leave she started feeling pain. It was 20 days before her due date. We called her doctor and he was away outside of Greece. He said for us to go to the hospital. I panicked, what to do? The baby was on the way, we weren’t prepared for it, Katerina was a child and had peed herself. I knew I had to do something quick. I called our koumbara to come to the home and look after Katerina, because Elvira was going to give birth. I called the ambulance and told them to come quickly. She was in so much pain I thought she would give birth there in our apartment. I got her up slowly, she put a robe on, and we went down and the police took us to meet the hospital car, not to the hospital itself. We got into the ambulance and they put the sirens on, but the hospital where we had planned to go was far. We weren’t going to make it. I was in the back with Elvira, she was lying down, and in front the driver was with an aide. Elvira was screaming that she was about to give birth and they told me to grab a sheet to catch the kid if I see it come out. Po po po! I was so afraid. I was calling out to them that we wouldn’t make it to the hospital, I was seeing something coming out. They turned on the spot and we went to another hospital. As soon as we went in through the front door, not upstairs where they give birth, in a small room to the side, she gave birth immediately. It was crazy! And where she gave birth, there was a doctor who said, ‘Elvira, is that you?’ He recognised her from their time at university together.
I knew the birth was close because I could see Alexis coming out, ready with the sheet to catch him. Alexis was in a rush. I was holding Elvira’s hand and telling her to be patient, what else could I say? I said to myself if this kid comes out what am I going to do? It might slip out of my hands. I was very scared.
JK: What a story! That’s how you have two children.
Brettos: Perfect ones. Elvira and I had hard jobs and so we got help with the kids at home. We had helpers from all over the world; Philippines, Russia. They both went to school close by. We came to Kythira many times as a family. Alexis stayed and lived with his grandmother Katerina for 6 months one time. He even went to the school here. He learnt the local way and spoke Kytherian dialect.
JK: Was your father alive then?
Brettos: No, he didn’t get to meet either grandchild. He died in 1981 from a heart problem. I am incredibly happy with many things in my life, and another thing is that both my parents died in my arms. I was hugging them when they passed. We flew him out to the hospital in Athens, Ippokrateio, and they said it didn’t look good for him. I told my mother to go to our home and rest, to change and have a shower, and I would stay. His condition worsened and he couldn’t breathe well. He was such a hero my father, strong from the war. He said to me in his last moments that dying is hard.
The same happened with my mother. For that I am very thankful. I got to be next to them. My mother had a stroke and went quickly. She didn’t feel pain. She was living in the next-door apartment to ours. Elvira went in the morning to check on her before going to work and saw she wasn’t well. She knew it was serious and called me to come back. Within three days she passed. From the night before, though, we had been together in our house and were singing and dancing. She had been singing with her grandchildren. As if nothing was wrong with her. A very nice way to go. Happy. Two days before that, her and I had been walking in Piraeus and she was pointing out which Kytherian lived in that apartment block, and which worked where.
It was how it was supposed to be. We brought them both home and buried them in Kythira.
JK: Beautiful, you are very appreciative of your life. How was it being a parent?
Brettos: Considering I had no experience, I took to it very quickly. I loved being a father from the first minute. I wasn’t afraid at all. To grab them, to wash them. Elvira was the same. As parents we were immediate. It was great. We did it together, and both worked as well. We were close with our children. We played games with them, went on family holidays. They remember it that way as well, how nice their youth was. We went around all of Greece by car. I went around Greece and the Balkans with work to check on the factories that were being funded. Wherever I went, I brought them back presents and they couldn’t wait to open my suitcase and get them.
When they got older, we were right there with them. We cared about their schooling and attended as much as we could. We would ask the teachers how they were doing. The two of us. And when one couldn’t attend because of work, the other was always there. But we liked going together and for our children to see us that way.
JK: Did you go overseas with the family?
Brettos: Yes, we went to Australia as a family. The kids also went to France with their mother. Most of my cousins were in Australia. I had such a nice surprise when we got there. They had organised a party for me at the Castellorizian Club and I was not expecting it. I believe it was over 100 people. They had the lights off and I was thinking we were going to dinner – I was wondering why they ate in the dark in Australia. When they opened them, we were in the middle and I saw my relatives around us. It was a special moment for me.
There were many relatives I had never met before. I had so few cousins in Greece. The most comfortable relationships I had were with your father, Victor Kepreotis, and Nick Prineas. They had visited Greece and we had got to know each other. We stayed with both families on our Australian trip. I met the others and it was wonderful. Uncles who hadn’t died yet. Jim, Vasiliki, Doreen – your grandmother.
That was my second time in Australia, and I received my passport, a citizen of Australia. Due to my father. We went to Canberra and with the help of Nikos Stamatakos, the person in the office there discovered that I could become one. I came back to Greece and organised the papers, and sent them straight away. The Ambassador of Australia in Greece invited me to come in and he gave it to me in a formal ceremony.
The trips to Australia were amazing. We went to Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Gosford, Newcastle. The first time it was only Elvira and me. We went because Elvira had a symposium, where doctors from around the world gathered. She spoke in Melbourne. She went first, 10 days before me, and we met in Sydney. The other time we took the kids and they loved it. They saw their cousins, played with them, and built lifelong friendships.
JK: I remember it well. And the time with the tire and the van. You tell the story.
Brettos: Ah, yes, we were driving from Sydney to Melbourne. 12-hour drive with a van. The two families were inside the vehicle, 9 people all up, and we lost the back right tire. It passed us and we never found it. I think it’s still travelling north towards Indonesia.
JK: I remember Aunty Elvira’s voice from the back seat calling out, ‘calm, children, calm.’ I can still hear it. We were in the middle seats and you and dad up front.
Brettos: Ήρεμα, yes, and your father somehow stayed in control of the sliding van. I could see sparks in the side mirror. We were lucky to be saved. We could have ended up on the other side of the road where trucks were driving the opposite way. We sat on the side of the road for hours and you kids were playing on a cut tree trunk and spiders came out of it.
JK: Thousands. Welcome to Australia. Family in Greece and others in Australia, and yet you managed to be so close.
Brettos: Very close. I am lucky and love them very much. With your father I feel like he is my brother. Whether they were in Australia or America, Greece was their home. It was inside them. I believe the Greeks who live abroad, the diaspora, in Australia and America, love Greece more than those who live here do.
Brettos: Well, I think they have pain inside.
JK: They have lost something.
Brettos: They left relatives in Greece. Their country stayed behind.
JK: And a piece of them too. I saw it with my grandparents.
Brettos: Those abroad love it more. Many Greeks don’t love Greece in that way.
JK: Interesting. What values do you live by and want to share with the reader?
Brettos: I believe people must be decent to each other and kind, and always polite. To be able to hear one another, not to be egotistical and think my way is the only way. To not think that because a person spoke to you bad one day, that is them always. Perhaps they are going through a hard time. Maybe something has happened in their family. Maybe they are sick. Try to have patience. To know how to appreciate people who have good values, spirit, and soul. To hurt when others hurt. The pain of the person next to you is also yours, if you can. That’s what I believe.
You should love the place you were born and which raised you. That is important for me as well. And when you are in a job, do it well. Don’t only think about the money you are getting. You will cause tension with the people you work with. We are one family. If something bad is happening in the world, or in your area, it will come to you too. I used to tell my children in the morning before school, ‘be neither a master nor a slave.’ Ούτε σκλάβος, ούτε αφεντικός. It’s a good saying.
JK: I like it. I wanted to ask about the Kytherian Association of Piraeus-Athens, where you have been president for a long time, yes?
Brettos: Yes, 20 years. I went to the club when I was young and had just left Kythira for Piraeus. All people my age wanted to go there for company and friendship. Those in the committee became close and we had a great time together. Eventually, they made me president after many years.
We work with whatever concerns Kythira and the people who live in Piraeus and Athens from Kythira. Wherever we can help the island and its diaspora. To hold events that embody the culture and the history of our island. We bring Kytherian academics out to hold space and hear them. To bring our children close, teach them to dance, to learn the Kytherian songs from the dances. So that they have Kytherian friendships. We might not be in our land, but we can be together outside of it. To hold close to our ancestry and roots, and to have love for Kythira.
JK: I know that you sing Kytherian songs very well. I remember nights in your Piraeus home, listening to you sing and play guitar. All your friends around the living room. I’ve learnt that you were on an album.
Brettos: The Mitata Association of Kythira, Η ΜΥΡΤΙΑ, decided to record the traditional songs of Kythira on a disc. They invited a famous singer/songwriter, Nikos Oikonomides to perform the songs, as well as others and I happened to sing a few. The song, Στην Παλιοπολι εκανα ζεγαρι, had an interesting genesis. Singing is a passion of mine, and another hobby is collecting old songs and old stories. I took with me a small tape recorder and I would enjoy interviewing old people about their lives or have them sing. I have recordings of stories and songs from many people who have since passed. And in the Greek nursing homes in Australia I met many Kytherians. There was a man who taught me that song. He passed that song on, otherwise it would have been lost.
JK: Would you like to sing a Kytherian song now?
Brettos: Yes, okay.
Ας χαμηλώναν τα βουνά
να ΄βλεπα το Τσιρίγο,
Τα ανιψάκια μου που τα θωρώ για λίγο, (χάχα στο αριθμώ του τραγουδιού)
Καβομαλιά τα οροί σου λίγο χαμηλώσετε
Να βλεπα το Τσιρίγο μας και πάλι ψιλώσετε
Στη άκρη του Κάβο Μάλια, πιο πάνω από τη Κρήτη
Και στο Τσιρίγο το όμορφο γεννήθηκα Αφροδίτη
Και στο Τσιρίγο το όμορφο γεννήθηκα Αφροδίτη.
JK: Beautiful, what an honour. Thank you.
Brettos: When I was very tired from my work, many times I would get home and play a little bit of guitar and sing. I listened to music to calm myself.
JK: And your son Alexis also plays?
Brettos: He does, but more hard rock. A bit different. He has made a band and he sings. He is better musically than I am. I don’t know how to read music well, and he does. I just had talent for it. Alexis knows how to read it, to write songs, to be part of a band. He is very good, much better than me.
I believe music is a great hobby for anyone. In ancient times, 300-500 years before Christ, to become a member of government in Greece, and to rule, you had to know how to dance and sing. The ancients would say that the right person would know how to do both. They would have harmony. Their soul and spirit went well with the song and dance, and it meant, to them, they will rule well. That is why in Ancient Greece the songs carried such importance. The theatre which had song and dance was central. They knew. When you have harmony in your body, you have harmony in your mind. I am happy that I know music and I like playing. And thankfully, Alexis is great. Katerina also plays piano and knows how to sing.
JK: We are getting to the end of the interview. I wanted to ask about the hard times in your life.
Brettos: There have been hard moments in my life. One of them was when I was born, I had difficulty with my leg. That has been an issue I have forever had to deal with. It has stopped me from doing some things, to walk further, to play football. I was a talented goalkeeper. It was hard with work as well. But with that difficulty, I didn’t let it get me down. It happens in life, and many people have worse to deal with.
Every difficult moment in your life will pass. The rest of my hard times were normal. When my parents died. Now I have many worries with my wife’s health. However, when you see what happens to others, much worse, all around the world, or to younger people, you tell yourself you have had a good life. My greatest joy was having my two children. They are great children, I couldn’t ask for better. And now I have a grandson, Vasilis. He is the best of all. And I have a beautiful son-in-law and daughter-in-law. I’m incredibly happy. I don’t need anything better. If you put all my life together good and bad, I would say good. I could say to you 75/100 good.
JK: And now as a grandfather?
Brettos: When he smiles at me it is all the world. He gives me life, that is the truth. I am happy.
JK: Great. It’s been a pleasure. Any last words?
Brettos: I am happy that we are here together in Kythira, and that I have you close to us in Greece. We will talk from close all winter. I love you very much, and that you and my children love each other. All in all, I am a very happy person for the life I have lived.
submitted by Stuart Fleming on 03.10.2020
What a lovely interview. Many blessings Brettos and family
submitted by Vikki Vrettos Fraioli on 03.10.2020
Wonderful interview! Thank you Josh for documenting our history of the island.
submitted by Harry Mitchell on 23.12.2020
Now, that was a joy to read. Thank you Vrettos and Josh. It captured the heart and soul of Kytherian life, the joys and the sorrows.
submitted by Janet McKenna on 28.03.2022
My name is Janet Samios McKenna. My grandfather John Samios came to Australia as an 11 year old around the time of 1908/9.
Since you spent some time in Aloizianika, do you know of the sister's Stamatia and Eugenia. They died before 1979. These are my great aunts. I do not know their father or mother's names. One source says the father's name is Panagiotis and another says 'Yanos (John) was a tailor'. Just wondering if you know the house or family. The sisters lived across the lane from Katerina Samios, if that helps any.
So you know anyone who lives in Aloizianka now who might be old enough to help me. Thank you for any information. Janet
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