I knew we had docked in Melbourne because the people around me rushed to the windows of the ship to look at our new home. My friend, Gorgios was taller than me, his head poked above the other passengers. He turned calling, ‘Ela, ela’, with a reassuring smile and signalled for me to join him, but I couldn’t stand. My legs wouldn’t work.
Was it seasickness from 28 days of travel? Or nerves? Or something more sinister? There was no lift in my thighs. I couldn’t feel my calves. My feet wouldn’t respond. I held the handles of my seat and tried to raise myself—I couldn’t.
‘Theodore, you have to see it, come.’ Gorgios said when he returned—he was coping much better at moving countries than I was.
People gathered their belongings and filed towards the door. My chest felt heavy, my breathing was laboured and I was struggling for air. The announcements were in English and were becoming more frequent. I didn’t understand the words, but I understood it was time to leave.
‘What’s happened to you?’ Gorgios laughed, looking from me to the window, confirming we had finally made it to Australia—the land promised.
I couldn’t tell Gorgios why I was staying in my seat; about how nervous I was. That at 17 I was unprepared for the new life that my family had sacrificed so much to give me. What would he think of me? Weak? Ungrateful? A failure waiting to happen? Probably. I had no place to share how unworthy of this opportunity I was, and how ill-equipped.
On the boat, we slept in cramped rooms and ate infrequently.
Perhaps that was it.
Coming from an island, I was used to the sea. I swam with my siblings and fished around the coast with my father. But being out in the vast expanse of the dark ocean, alone, was different.
Most of the trip I cried in secret, more than at any other point in my life in Kythera. I had a childhood of tending to my father’s land and animals, helping my mother collect vegetables to cook, chasing my siblings around the fields. I was only a villager. I wasn’t meant to be here. I was afraid that leaving the boat meant leaving a part of myself forever and my family for good.
It felt like ages that I remained in my seat while others left. Then, Gorgios yanked me to my feet, slapped my shoulders and propped me up. My legs were wobbly, I was clammy inside my suit and I still felt that weight on my chest. Had Gorgios not done that for me, I may have made the return trip. I imagined him walking me through my life in Australia that way. He was older and it felt like he had done this trip before.
In that moment between standing and disembarking, I became a boy again. Waiting for my mother to wake me, to hug and kiss me, to tell me that I’m loved. For my father to take me to the olive fields and teach me how to provide. For Yiayia to show me how to cook or for Pappou to read to me from the bible. For my older siblings to play games with me. I wanted to stop time, to be 17 on the island again.
Somewhere hidden safe in the warm corners of my heart that young boy still exists. A lifetime will separate us, but he is there. The one who loved his family and his country. However much of him I said goodbye to, I keep him alive by telling my grandchildren this story.
I was wearing the suit my mother had taken me to Potamos to buy. It was summer in Australia and the passengers on the boat were sandwiched in the passageway that led outside. In the huddle, I was caught between other languages and losing Gorgios in the push. Surrounded by new lives and fresh hope, I was losing my connection to Greece. People from Egypt and the Middle East, to the locals we looked and sounded alike. We were alike.
The family in front were much older than I was and had young children. The mother had a scarf wrapped around her head holding her hair, much like the one my mother wore to church. The father wore a suit, like my father. The children stayed close to their parents’ legs, like I did when I was young. While looking at this family I remember thinking that I wanted them to take me.
Down the walkway, the first thing I noticed about Melbourne was the large buildings lined up in blocks, one taller than the next. It was a city of a future I did not recognise. Family members were embracing after years apart, while other passengers were waiting in anticipation to find loved ones. Not wanting to stand out, I followed the people near me through the many custom officials, employment people and photographers.
My back seared in the harsh Australian sun, and I was sweating within my jacket and pants. My palms were wet inside my pockets. In Athens, they inspected my hands for evidence of hard work before agreeing to send me abroad. The roughness of them meant I was likely to be of service to Australia. On the pier, I rubbed them together as if I was scraping sandpaper and remembered why I left Kythera.
Although I practiced, I was anxious about ruining the first impression on my new home. I don’t think I ever let go of that insecurity. In one pocket I held my new wallet, the one my father gave me before I left, and a photograph of my family in the other. It was for them, I told myself, that I had to make it work.
Our luggage was haphazardly arranged in groups by bag agents. I watched people rummage through them searching for their belongings, grasping at the only possessions they owned in this new life. I copied their sense of urgency and reached out for a suitcase that looked like mine. I was pushed back and the bag wrestled from me. An elderly man shouted words I couldn’t understand then backed away holding it close to his chest. I realised we were competing for the same place: a chance to serve at the main table.
I waited for the rest of the luggage to be claimed and found mine in the few remaining. I held the leather handle. It felt heavy. I wrapped my hand around it, remembering the warm touch of my mother’s hand as she held mine at the bridge before I left. She was holding on to remind me that my leaving wasn’t her letting me go, nor was I doing that to her. She cried and so did I. Then I left with my father as she stayed behind.
I turned around, seeing the long white ocean liner I had come on: the Patris. The ship meant more to me in that moment than any new home I was sent to. Its name, Homeland, represented what I had left and soon its departure would symbolise a parting, forever. I had no choice, now, survive. I watched a fellow passenger stay behind and cradle the ship’s façade in an embrace. His cheek against the cold, his lips moving, whispering a message to be delivered back to his family—a paper in a bottle that would drown and wash up on shore a world away from where we were. It was foolish, but I looked up and mimed my own.
I was pushed along and a loud, authoritative voice barked orders in English. ‘Move it, sir. Hurry along. We don’t have all day for you.’
I hadn’t understood what was said but sensed by his force that I was to get out of the way. He was built like a cupboard, his complexion much lighter than mine, his hair was a colour I hadn’t seen and his eyes were blue like water. He was a stark reminder that I was now living in a country that would not speak to me as if I belonged (nor did I look as though I did) but rather as a nuisance.
In the short time since I’d arrived, I’d noted the regimented style of the local authority. Instructions were delivered as orders. Efficiency was privileged. Everything operated at a pace I struggled to follow in comparison to Kythera, Athens and Port Said. I’d later come to respect it as a part of the Australian culture. A part I would never feel comfortable operating in, as if my vision would always be blurred, my mind ache, my words slow.
The noise of delivery trucks honking horns and speeding off was disorientating. I searched for a familiar face of a fellow Hellene. I looked for a warm smile and darker features than the officers processing us ‘aliens’, and to catch the knowing rhythm of the Greek language.
It felt to me in that chaotic process as it would for most of my life in Australia: that I was one step behind everyone else and two away from who I had been. I had a fixed smile that betrayed how overwhelmed I was feeling. It wasn’t pointed in any direction, rather it honoured my father and the family I left behind. A beautiful portrait of the newly arrived, for we could be nothing else.
I caught sight of Gorgios. Tall, wonderful, confident Gorgios. He would do better than me here, I knew. He was lined up alongside a grey building and I raced to his side. I wanted to hold his hand as we waited together to get through customs. The process took a few hours and I was grateful of that.
When I got to the front, they ticked my name on a sheet. It had been my Greek name written in English letters, which was the first of many times I would see it that way. The sign they hung around my neck was an English word. Later I discovered it was the name of the place in Victoria I was to travel to: Bonegilla. In Bonegilla I was trained in a designated camp for immigrants. I then went to the country town Benalla where there was a café owned by established Greeks. I worked at the café and lived above it for two years. Life in Australia never got easier.
In the twenty years it took me to save money to return to visit Kythera, I started my own family. I met my wife and had three children. I owned a business, moved houses, made some friends and lost family back home. I learnt of my father’s death days after it happened while working in our milk bar. I hid my tears, as I did on the boat, and continued serving customers as was my role.
As for my family back home, there were times when I felt like I had lost them again and again. On other occasions, it was like I never had them at all.
I tell my grandchildren this story more than any other, in the language that will always be new to me, because I want them to know me. The parts of me I gave up: the young self who left all he knew and loved to become this person. I don’t need my grandchildren to be thankful, I just want to be understood.
They try to speak to me in broken Greek, we make do in a language mixed between the two. They know they are Greek, I am proud of that, but I want them to know they came from this: from a migrant leaving his home. I want them to know the loss I felt in doing so, the guilt I harboured for abandoning my parents and siblings, the burden I owned to provide for them.
I did it so the family I have wouldn’t have to. Ferried to shore with a sea of others like me. Herded into a train like the cattle I looked after in the village. Moved through the country like a commodity. People speaking for me, not to me. We left in search of a better life, and in doing so, lost a lot.
I’m not sure how much of it they understand. They blend into the aesthetic of this foreign place better than I ever could’ve imagined. That makes me happy. I sacrificed much for it. My hope for them, I realise near the end of my life, is that the choices I made mean they won’t ever have to say goodbye—that they won’t have to leave parts of themselves behind.