Life Stories: Paleohorites in Australia

Migrant Profile: Ioannis Achilaras

Ioannis Achilaras (Achele) (1909- 1997)


    Metaxia Pandeleli (1913- 1987)  

 narrated to Vasilios Vasilas

by Peter and George Achele

 Both our father, Ioannis’, and mother, Metaxia’s families owned grocery stores in Paleohori.

 For our father, being in large family - of seven children - it was always going to be for the children - irrespective of the owning a small family business. That generation of young Greeks grew up in the aftermath of the Asia Minor Catastrophe, when Greece’s priority was to settle and provide for the one-and-a-half million refugees. Ioannis’ brother, Nikolaos, actually fought in the Asia Minor Campaign, so the scars of war and defeat had impacted the family on a personal level. Consequently, the difficult economic situation spurred the current of migration which took away our father’s siblings in the immediate years after the Catastrophe; Efstathios migrated to Australia in 1926 and he was followed by Apostolos ( 1927) and Irini (1936) and Ioannis(1936).

 Ioannis often talked about how difficult it was to find work during the Thirties. Like some Paleohorites, he went as far as Agion Oros with his father and brothers to make charcoal. With three siblings in Australia, the chances of following their migratory path were most likely. Prior to leaving Greece, he became engaged to our mother, Metaxia, with the plan to follow her fiancé and get married in Australia. When he arrived in Sydney, his first job was working in his brother, Efstathios’ Café in Tamworth, The White Rose Café. He later recalled (what seemed) the endless seven-day-a-week routine of hard work in such country town cafes.

 The outbreak of World War II placed a wedge of uncertainty and separation between our parents, as they lost all contact between them. For the following years apart, they lived starkly contrasted lives; while Ioannis continued to work hard in various country cafes under Pacific area war time conditions, Metaxia experienced the harsh realities of the German Occupation. Ioannis remembered rationing all sorts of foods deprived from home residents to be sent to the Australian troops.

 For Metaxia, however, the Occupation was a matter of survival. Before the War, her older brother, Emmanouil, had already migrated to France (and experiencing Occupation in France), and being the eldest daughter, most of the responsibilities fell on her. Having a grocery store, they were easy targets when the Germans came and took away such things as vital as olive oil. Fortunately, the family had a horse and our grandfather, Panagiotis, often sent our mother village-to-village for produce. She recalled many-a-time how dangerous it was to avoid German patrols and her horse often getting her out of trouble, once actually being shot at by a German patrol boat while returning along the shore line with a horse load of wheat from then distant Polychnito.

Above: Metaxia in Cairo during her transit stop (1948).

 In 1945, Ioannis had saved up enough money and, with his high hopes, bought his own business, The Roxy Café in George St, Sydney (next to Dymocks Bookshop). Over the next few years, he changed a few businesses: a café in Park St, Sydney (between Pitt and Castlereigh Sts), and the Silver Bell cake shop in George St, Sydney (next to Wynyard metro station) and in the early 1950’s he owned Scotty’s Cafe in Pitt St, Circular Quay.

 After such a long engagement, Ioannis and Metaxia were finally reunited in 1947, when she migrated to Australia and married. Her migration was an easier experience, as she traveled with Panagiotis Markou - her chaperone - and Zaharo Achilara - who would marry Ioannis Gialouris. When our parents married, they were part of the double wedding, as Panagiotis and Mersina Crisafis were married on the same day. In the immediate post-War years many Paleohorites began migrating to Australia; as Sydney was their destination, and our parents- living in Sydney - our house/shop was one of the contact points upon their arrival. The most important point of contact, however, for Paleohorites was Nikolaos Markou’s kafeneio in Redfern. While Ioannis worked in Sydney, most Paleohorites were scattered across country New South Wales (working in cafes); our family only came into contact with Paleohorites when they were passing through Sydney. World of mouth was usually the way Paleohorites found where people were across New South Wales.  

Above: Portraits of Ioannis and Metaxia.

 As the building block where Scotty’s Café was being demolished, our parents – with their two young sons, Giorgos and Panagiotis, were forced to leave Sydney (1954). After a short stay in Tamworth, our family settled in Gosford. Our café business (the Orion cafe) was one of the four Greek cafes there. Experiencing the café experience was endless hard work and long hours. All shop assistants behind the counters - such as the kitchenhands - were Greek, except the waitresses who were Australian.

 As children, we remember Ioannis taking either one of us, or both, to Sydney by steam train for business or get supplies for the café. He would take us to the Athenian Restaurant for lunch and the Hellenic Club to meet fellow countrymen, for migrants like our father, it felt like a piece of Greece in the middle of Sydney.

 After the War, my father’s brothers, Panagiotis and Apostolos had returned to Greece; his sister, Irene, had married Vasilios Michalis and they were living in Bogun Gate, New South Wales.  Much later Efstathios also returned back to Mytilini with his family. Our parents always reminded us we would inevitably return to Greece. Unlike most Greek migrants who witnessed their dream of returning to their homeland gradually extinguish before their eyes, our parents made the big decision to sell up and return to Greece (1965). After almost thirty years, our father really missed his homeland. He had obviously believed that there were enough savings to return, have a new start and carry on there. Although we settled in Athens - where our family did not have so many relatives and co-villagers, it still felt like a homecoming for them - they had   returned to their homeland. Our father successfully transformed himself from a café-owner in Australia to a builder (of apartment blocks) in Athens.