As the first – and every subsequent – wave of Greek migrants reached Australian shores, associations and brotherhoods were formed; foundation stones of Greek communities laid around Australia.
It was their same background; the country where they were born that tied them close.
In a reverse phenomenon and many years later, in circumstances different to those of forced migration, a group of ‘Aussies’ united in Thessaloniki.
Their connection – their Greek background and Australian upbringing.
For Greek Australian Anastasia Skliros, returning to Greece was a destiny she couldn’t avoid.
Her father, who migrated to Australia from Lefkada, took her pregnant mother back to Preveza on a ship – for the sole purpose of giving birth to their first born on Greek soil.
Anastasia now says her father’s recipe seems to have worked – it’s not by chance that she has been living in Greece for over 20 years now.
“My family was very Greek orientated in Australia. My father promoted Greekness in our family, we went to Greek school, Greek gatherings – he didn’t allow us to think that we were Australians. I was always drawn to Greece, as a child. Even though we were so far away from Greece, the Greek element
was a strong part of growing up in Australia,” Anastasia tells Neos Kosmos.
“After growing up in Mornington, and finishing my degrees, it was a common thing to go travelling around Greece. On the island of Paros, I met another tourist – a Greek from Thessaloniki, later on my husband.”
Twenty years on, Anastasia’s home is Thessaloniki, where she lives with her husband and two children.
It was several years ago that she felt the urge to finally bring to fruition that reverse phenomenon idea she though about so many times – to bring together all (Greek) Australians in Thessaloniki and Northern Greece.
The group Aussies in Thess was founded in 2011, and after just three years of existence, it now counts over 1,000 members.
“I was feeling the connection with people with common background and experiences similar to mine. I remembered how in Australia our parents used to get together with brotherhoods – so I thought, why not do that here? I had two Greek Australian friends; there must be so many more I thought…
“We just click; we know how we relate to each other. We do differ to Greeks from Greece, we are Greek Australians. We connect because we have this bi-cultural thing going, and we know what it feels like to grow up as Greeks abroad,” she explains.
“I regard the group as my baby. I have met so many great people with whom I share a similar background and whole cosmotheoria – simply because we have the same growing pains and background. We are just Greek Aussies together, when we meet we speak English.”
The group gathers a few times a month, and is a very active one. Charitable events, tavern nights with families, walks for autism – are just a few of the events the group takes part in.
In Anastasia’s words, this is what makes their friendship real.
“This is the whole meaning of the group to me. It’s like group therapy in a way. For what we’ve left behind, what we have here, desires to return or to stay here. We nurture it, as if it was our baby.”
Despite the optimism and love for Greece that keeps Anastasia and other group members there, she tells that due to the recession and over 35 per cent unemployment in Greece, many group members have already moved back to Australia, having spent as much as 20 or 30 years in Greece – a lot of them at an advanced age and as blue collar workers.
Those who leave, Anastasia says, are doing so as they have no other choice left in Greece.
“It’s very difficult to get up and leave and start life from zero at that age. The only reason I would return is for the future of my kids, to give them a better future.”
Other members of the group have their own stand on the issue, Anastasia recognises.
“They want to stay in Greece, but they are afraid whether they will be able to. We don’t know what the situation is going to be like, if we will be able to handle it. We have a bit of a sense of insecurity here – something that is missing from life in Australia – where, from the day you are born, you feel secure and supported.”
For another member of the Aussies in Thess group, Konstantinos Kallianides, it was after he finished grade five that his parents decided to return to Greece – in 1983. They returned to their village of Rizari, in the municipality of Edessa.
Since then, Konstantinos hasn’t been back. He is keen to visit, but has no plans of moving to Australia permanently.
“I really loved it. My parents still love and talk about Australia – it gave them a chance in life. They left their country because jobs didn’t exist, life was hard. They found a better life there. But they wanted to come back and try their luck in their homeland. At that age, they didn’t ask me,” Kon says with a laugh.
“I probably would go back, but at the point of my life as it’s turning now, I’m not thinking about it. I have a wife, children, two jobs – as a firefighter and a farmer. My children have been brought up in Greece, there is no way for me to go back permanently.”
But, similar to Anastasia, Kon says he is losing some of his friends who are moving back in the time of the Greek crisis.
“For some of them it has worked out, coming back to Australia, for others not…
“I guess it depends on what you are looking for in life. Either way you must work very hard. I don’t believe that everything is given to you openhanded in Australia, you have to work and earn.
“Here, I have two jobs, as my wife doesn’t work. The truth is we get paid less and less every year,” Kon explains.
An active member of the group, Kon often makes his way to Thessaloniki to join Aussies in Thess gatherings.
“Anastasia found me, she is remarkable. She keeps us together, and everyone else in the group is like that. We have the same background; we have been to the same places. It’s a great family type of group. I met remarkable people, it’s a perfect bond.”
Similar to Kon, Vicky Matzouranis’ return to Greece was not a choice of her own.
Born in Greece, her parents migrated to Australia when she was just two years old. It was lack of work and poverty that, like many other Greeks, drove them to immigration.
But, as Vicky says, they were dreaming of return since the day they left Greece.
“Myself, as a child brought up in such a beautiful and developed country, which offered me the very best in education and not only that, I was not too enthusiastic about returning to Greece.
“I kept the thought of returning to Australia in the back of my head. My first impression was ‘Where have I come? This is third world!’ Greece was just booming again … and boom it did! Beautifully!”
Today, there are many more reasons that attract and keep Vicky in Greece.
“The culture for one; the laid back lifestyle. The fact that summer is never dull … always somewhere to go and something to see. We work early and arrive home early after our eight-hour shift and still have the day ahead of us to enjoy. We sleep late and socialise a lot and can meet up with friends whenever we want.
“There are many differences between Greece and Australia … climatically and scenic-wise. Life-wise. Night spots and coffee places close in the early hours of the morning any time of the week. Summer is summer and winter is winter.”
Having set up a life for herself in Greece, Vicky is not thinking of returning.
“I am very happy here. I returned to Australia on holiday in 2010 – I don’t think I could live anywhere other than Thessaloniki!”
The founder of the group Aussies in Thess, Anastasia Skliros says her family is still financially comfortable in the Greece of today. What she misses from her other home, Australia, is the security factor.
“I miss the government that takes care of its citizens. My first preference would be to bring my kids up in Australia. We moved back in 2005, but as my husband couldn’t assimilate in Australia, we returned after three months. These are the things that worry us.
“I have a lot of memories from Australia. I regard it as my home, the first home. And that’s how most of the people in the group feel.
“We adore Greece, but Australia is my first home. Life in Greece is beautiful, it’s a magical place. But you have to be care-free to be able to appreciate this magic; you can’t be burdened with everyday struggles.
“After living here for 20 years I think it has made me a better person, I learned to deal with a lot of things I took for granted in Australia, and that has made me stronger. I believe that Greece has a very positive future if it’s promoted properly, and that has to do with the government.”
Another Aussie in Thess, Vicky Matzouranis doesn’t think about return either.
And about the situation in Greece that pushes many of those like her back to Australia, Vicky says they are its guinea pigs.
“Big political games are being played on our backs. Why aren’t we reacting? The time hasn’t come. Greeks have played a significant role in the state this country has been brought to … so they should all just start paying now. The way they vote here, so passionately; friends in high places, sustaining them there – it’s all paid its price and this is the thank you we are getting from those friends in high places.
“The economic situation isn’t a very optimistic one. We are being taxed unfairly left right and centre; our salaries and wages have dwindled very low, below half, speaking for myself, an English teacher by profession in the private sector.
“And yet, these people called Greeks, with their wages and salaries slaughtered by unfair taxing, expenses up to our necks, still find time to have a coffee outdoors, a tsipouraki-ouzo, mingle with friends and smile. This is why I love this country.
“I will always call Australia my home away from home!”
For more information about the group, visit their Facebook page Aussies in Thess.