Paleohorites and Australlia

Migrant Profile: Panagiotis Chrisafis

Migrant Profile: Mersina Mavragani  

Panagiotis Chrisafis (1910- 1983)

Mersina Mavragani (1929-    )
Based on an interview of Mersina Chrisafis
By Vasilios Vasilas
Both our parents were olive farmers; his father, Grigorios, did make soap in the village. During the off-season, they would travel for seasonal work; Panagiotis, like many Paleohorites, had said he went as far as Agion Oros for wood burning and charcoal. He did begin an apprenticeship as a tailor, but he did not like it.  
Although the work opportunities may have been limited in our village, it was the looming outbreak of another War that prompted Panagiotis to decide to migrate. Migrating to Australia was meant to be a two-three year sojourn until the simmering tension across Europe calmed.
Panagiotis migrated to Australia with another three Paleohorites- Eftstratios Karambasis, Panagiotis Halakas and Malamas Kontopos. His first job was working in Panagiotis Sotirhos’ fruit shop in William St, Darlinghurst (Sydney). In his later years, Panagiotis used to recall how difficult the early years were, as Sotirhos had explained the limitations in his own finances and could only afford to pay him £ 1 a week. After a couple of years, Panagiotis found himself working for Bill Brides (from Peloponnesus) in his fish café in Parkes; he could not forget endless hours of peeling potatoes.
All the hard work finally paid off when Panagiotis had saved enough money to go into partnership with his close friend, Tzanos “Jack” Karabetsos; they bought two businesses (next-door to each other)- the Victory Café and Fruit Shop in Peak Hill. The irony in Panagiotis migration abroad- to avoid the outbreak of a European war- was the outbreak of the Pacific war- and subsequently, Australia’s significant role in it. Panagiotis and Tzanos suddenly found themselves in a difficult situation, as they had spent a substantial amount of money renovating the café and fruit shop. They believed that the pressures to sustain the war effort would run parallel to pressures of their bank loans. However, if one of them volunteered in the Australian army, the banks would ease the pressure to repay the loans (until the war ended).
Subsequently, Panagiotis volunteered in the Australian army, and for the next three-and-a-half years was a cook. Unlike many of the Greek migrants who were part of the Land Corps, he was part of the Army, and there were no other Greeks in his unit. At one time, he did cross paths with co-villager, Efstathios “Stan” Michalis. Panagiotis had countless army stories that he recalled later, whether it was when his peers had tried to convince him to cook a “snake”- which was really an eel- to how tiresome he got making meat pies and tea. His distaste for pies and tea was so great that it would take many, many years before he tried tea again. Every Christmas he would get one week’s leave and he would return to Peak Hill and work in his shops. In early 1945, his unit was going to be sent to Kurrundra (just out of Cairns, Queensland) for training- for their anticipated stationing in Asia- but fortunately the war ended.
Above: A double wedding. Mersina and Pangiotis (bridal couple on the left) and Ioannis and Metaxia Achilaras (bridal couple on the right) with family and friends.
It was one day when I was sitting in our neighbourhood with one of my sisters, Hionia, that Panagiotis’ sister, Maria, asked to see me about a matter. Surprisingly, it was about a suitor was interested in marriage- in Greek, proxenio- and my initial reaction was to burst out laughing, “I am only sixteen. I have two older sisters; why not ask them.”
“But he wants you,” she continued.
Curious, I asked who this suitor was, and she replied her brother, Panagiotis, in Australia. Although being so young, a combination of people’s insistence and the socio-cultural importance of the proxenio brought about my parent’s decision for me migrate to Australia and marry. (Throughout this anecdote, Mersina is laughing about it all.)    
For most Greek migrants the journey to Australia was made by ship; I was an exception as I traveled here by airplane. And it was a very small plane (in comparison to the jumbo jets we have today); there were only a dozen or so passengers flying- and none of them could speak English. Being a small plane there were several stopovers to refuel; I will never forget after one stopover (in either India or Pakistan) when after takeoff we were horrified to see outside our windows fuel spraying out of the plane! Our first stops in Australia were Darwin and Charlesville, before going onto Sydney, where Panagiotis was waiting for me. It took us fourteen days to get here. The next leg of what seemed an endless journey was to Peak Hill, where Panagiotis owned his business.