Mytilenians in Australia

Andrew Mais (Mayson)

Smyrne, 1919-
Both our father and mother’s families lived comfortably in their respective villages in Asia Minor. Our paternal grandfather, Pavlos Mais, was a dried fruit manufacturer and exporter in Sparti (Pisidias, Asia Minor) while our maternal grandfather, Damianos “Asimakis” Baloglou, owned a general store in Ahmedli. Although our father, Savvas, was educated in Sparti, it is likely that he moved from Sparti early (in his adulthood) and he became part of the Baloglou family network once he married our mother, Anastasia. Savvas worked as an accountant in Smyrne, while Anastasia looked after her young children: Stavros, Evangelia, Pavlos and myself. They still retained their family home in Ahmedli, where as a family, we enjoyed the annual summer holidays there.
In the Burning of Smyrne, our family- like so many other thousands of people- desperately fled towards the city’s port, clutching at the slim hope that they could somehow escape the oncoming Turkish forces. We were very lucky to escape; while we were leaving our home, the Turks had already set it alight. For so many years, my parents and brothers recounted a humorous anecdote about my momentary fixation with an abandoned elegant glove on the dirt ground. While we were running to the promenade, I was told to hold onto my mother’s apron. My eye caught sight of this single glove and I wanted to grab it off the ground. As soon as relaxed the grip off her apron, she abruptly turned to me; after realising I was stalling the rush, she scolded me, “What do you think you are doing? We are trying to escape!”
Another family anecdote that was later recalled was: as we were all running, our mother asked our father, “Did you bring it?” to which he replied, “Yes”. It was only when we arrived at the promenade- and she repeated her question- that my father realised there was misunderstanding between them, and she meant their savings (that they had hidden in our home). Unfortunately, he left these savings behind. However, my parents still had enough money to pay for their safe passage to Greece; a fellow with a row boat took them to one of the French ships in the harbour.
Our maternal uncle, Demosthenes, was not so lucky; he was not quick enough to make it to the port and was caught. Like his brother, Isaiah, the Turks marched thousands of the menfolk into the Smyrni hinterland. Demosthenes was never seen again. Isaiah had only one arm; after convincing the Turks that it was not a war wound, they let him go.
Ships carrying refugees ( such as our family) dropped them off at nearby islands- Chios, Lesvos and Lemnos. We were dropped off at Mytilene; for the next twelve years, it was home. I suppose we were “fortunate” to escape Smyrne because we were resettled earlier than the refugees of the subsequent Exchange of Populations between Greece and Turkey. The Greek Government provided a small amount- as compensation- to the refugees; we were resettled in the refugee neighbourhood of Agia Kyriaki, Mytilene. We shared a house with another refugee family. Our maternal uncle, Isaiah, who had studied agriculture at the American College (Smyrne), and his family were resettled on the western coast of the island, Sigri, where he became a tobacco farmer. Our family managed to stabilise its financial needs when our father became the book-keeper/ accountant for Mousalas olive press factory.
Above: The Mais Family. Stavros had already migrated to Australis.
Although these years were extremely difficult for the refugees in their struggle to re-establish themselves, for a child like me, these were wonderful years. I was too young to understand the implications and responsibilities of such difficult situations and it was the adults who had to find the means to overcome their families’ adversities such as poverty and unemployment. Children quickly adapt to these situations, as they do not know any better. My parents and my eldest brother, Stavros, could lament over what our family lost in Asia Minor and worry about our future prospects; however, as the youngest child, I could not remember our family life there and just accepted what we had in Mytilene. Most of the children in our neighbourhood or the primary school we attended (opposite Agios Georgios Church) were also of a refugee background. Socially, our childhood innocence made no distinction we were refugees; we were children who laughed and played like others.
In our neighbourhood, my best friend was a Greek-Russian boy, Narkis, whose father was an art teacher at our primary school. We would often go to Narkis’ house to draw, where I would admire his art works. At the time, our art classes mostly concentrated on copying badly-drawn pictures from textbooks. In Narkis’ house, however, this was my first experience at being awe-strikingly appreciative of real art. It is during this time, I became a keen drawer. From our house’s window, we had a view of the harbour; I would enjoy drawing passing caiques which would momentarily hide behind the Kastro (obstructing our view) before reappearing again. On the road to our school was a dairy shop whose owner was also a keen artist. On my way to and from school, I would always make a stop to appreciate his work. Such experiences obviously left an impression on my young mind, as it stimulated my love for art.
At home, we always spoke Greek; however, if our parents did not want us to listen to what they were talking about, they would speak Turkish (laughs). They often reminisced about their homeland; one of the fondest memories was the train ride back to Ahmedli for the summer holidays. One of the most memorable aspects Asia Minor culture was its cuisine. Whenever our mother cooked her smyrneika dishes and her cooking’s aromas swelled throughout the neighbourhood, women would come and tap on the kitchen window, and ask her for a sample. Greek food is often heavy but she cooked in such a way that the foods were much lighter- without losing any of its tastiness.
For some members of the family, Mytilene was merely a transit point. After the resettlement of the refugees on Lesvos, the island could not sustain the increase in its population. Employment prospects on the island were limited. Migration was regarded as an alternative of hope.  Although chances of migration were slim, when an opportunity arose, it was quickly taken. Uncle Ioannis (Baloglou) was the first to migrate to Australia (1924) and, after a couple of years, he sponsored his family- wife, Katerina and daughter, Evangelia (1926). Our auntie, Katerina, married a Mytilinean, Ioannis Georgellis, and they migrated to the United States. However, migration directly affected our family when uncle Ioannis (Baloglou) also sponsored our eldest brother, Stavros, to Australia. Stavros’ migration came at an emotional cost to our mother, who found it difficult to “lose” her son. I remember how difficult it was for her when he married Mary Tahmidzis (1934); she could not even be present at her son’s wedding….
Summer school holidays were a highlight in Lesvos. No matter how poor we may have been, we still visited uncle Isaiah at Sigri where we would be reunited with many of our relatives and friends. Uncle Isaiah had a built his family home very close to the shore and we practically lived in the water all day. Pavlos used to make little boats for the children and we would all go to the beginning of the bay where would allow the sea breeze sail them homebound (in the bay). We would then run along the shore admiring which boat was winning. At other times, we would collect spinifex and tie it up with thin rope to create fishing nets. We would leave it in the water overnight and anxiously bring it up next morning and find our catch of the day. Sigri has many wonderful memories for me.
Mousalas was also affected by the Great Depression. Despite so many workers losing their jobs, our father’s services were retained but we only worked a couple of days per week. We may not have been starving, but we were struggling. Our father had saved enough money to buy a lot of land in Athens, our parents decided to move to Athens. It was very sad to leave Mytilene; I was in fourth year of high school and losing all my friends was difficult for me. Our father believed Athens would give more job prospects. We rented a place while our home was being built. However, our father experienced difficulties finding work; for a short time, he even resorted to street-selling to provide for his family.
Our family’s difficult situation prompted me to write to my brother, Stavros, explaining to him of my strong desire in studying art and asked him what were my prospects in fulfilling my dream (in Australia). His reply created a favourable image of Australia as a country “where anything can happen.” Our mother was saddened that she was losing another child to migration; however, our difficult experiences in Athens and my dream of becoming an artist culminated in my decision to migrate (1936).
By the time I arrived in Sydney, Stavros had moved on from his partnership with our uncle Ioannis and had his own business- a café in Chalmers St, Sydney. I found the initial migrant experience quite bewildering; not only was the English language was quite alienating, I found the local people indifferent and unwelcoming. While I came to Australia with the notion of chasing my dream (as an artist), I found instead long hours and hard work in a café. Although I thought this dream was now unreachable, I continued to draw in my limited spare time. An old professor came into the café one day and was so impressed with one of my drawings, he invited me to Julian Ashton’s Art School ( near the Harbour Bridge). Professor Gibbons gave me a tour of the School. I felt awestruck by this opportunity but deep down I knew the chances of me enrolling here were non-existent. 
Adjusting to my adopted country was initially disillusioning; my uncle Ioannis’ friend, Theodore- who had bought his business in William St- really looked after me during this time. While I was walking through Hyde Park, I remember finding six-pence and feeling I had won the lottery. It was enough to be the best meat pies I had ever tasted and there was even enough to buy some fish and chips. After a year, a café owner in Yass- who was from Akrata- was looking for a Manager and I found myself working there for three months. I suppose my ideas of what a manager’s responsibilities and work were very different to the owner’s, and our association just did not work out. From Yass, I moved to Canberra where I worked in a café owned by the Notaras family. Despite working long hours- from 10am until 12 midnight (and over)- they treated me very well. Down the road was a Greek shoemaker; I decided to learn his trade and used to go there every morning before work. After three months, I learnt the trade and subsequently worked for him.
Becoming naturalised and Australia’s involvement in the Second World War meant national service. After a short stint in the Army- in the boot-making department- I took up the Commonwealth Repatriation Scheme in Technical Studies which offered art. It took me three years (part-time) complete the certificate- specialising in sculpture- and continued studying for another two years at Sydney Technical College. All this time I was walking for the Paissis company delivering goods to cafes across Sydney. It was while I was studying, an artist, Justin O’Brien, who was teaching art at Cranbrook High School, informed me that there was opening in his school’s art department and persuaded me to apply for it. I taught at Cranbrook High for the next thirty five years, while I able to pursue my own art career.