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George Vardas

Proceedings of the Second International Kytheraismos Symposium: The new spirit of the Kytherian Diaspora

Conference Proceedings of the Second International Kytheraismos Symposium

Some years ago the well-known Kytherian academic and publisher, Elias Marsellos, had a dream: how to unite people of Kytherian descent and philo-Kytherians spread around the globe. Elias came up with the idea of the Institute of Kytheraismos through which we would be able to connect the real world of Kythera (both the present and the past) with the allegorical fantastic world of the Kythera in our dreams.

In 2004 an inaugural conference was held in Kythera to map out the future of Kytheraismos. On 15 September 2006 the Second International Symposium of Kytheraismos was held in the magnificent Hellenic Club of Canberra as Elias’ dream took one giant step towards its realisation.

It was just on an hour before the scheduled arrival of the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, and already a crowd was milling. Registrants were being given identification badges with their name and town or towns of origin. It was almost like a badge of distinction to wear throughout the conference.

Prime Minister Howard then entered the room and in the view of television cameras acknowledged the valuable contribution of Greek Australians. The opening was reported in the mainstream press and on the nightly TV news programs. Afterwards, the Prime Minister mingled with the delegates for morning coffee.

Over 30 papers were presented to the conference in nine separate plenary sessions. The speakers covered a diversity of topics and themes. Each added his or her own particular perspective to the idea of being Greek-Kytherian. At times the audience laughed and at other times cried with speakers as we were taken on a roller coaster of emotions. Although speakers in the main kept to their allotted 15 minutes, the information and discourse exchanged in the course of two and half days of the conference were exceptional.

Following the official opening of the symposium by Prime Minister Howard, Elias Marsellos officially welcomed the delegates and friends to the conference and declared that the theme of the conference was to be the new spirit of the Kytherian diaspora. Elias emphasised that Kytheraismos is an idea, a way of thinking, about what people think of Kythera. He was confident that the Institute of Kytheraismos with its bi annual conferences will serve as a prototype or model for other Greek expatriate organisations around the world.

Chris Lourandos, the president of the Kytherian Brotherhood of Canberra, gave an entertaining speech about his experiences in Canberra and the battle to create the Hellenic Club, including the early anti-Greek feelings of the local anglo-saxon bureaucrats in his attempts to persuade the government to allocate land to the Greek community for the proposed development. Chris’ vision is now the magnificent Hellenic Club in Woden.

Paul Mathers (formerly Mavromattes) shared his passion of tracing historical documents and researching into Australian-Kytherian history by presenting “The Early Years”, a nostalgic trip in which he shared with the audience photographs of some of the early clerical figures in his family (such as Father Fokas, the first Greek Orthodox Priest at Aghia Triada). Paul discussed the activities of the Greek Women’s League in 1914 and also produced a copy of a fascinating notice advertising the Grand Kytherian Annual Ball at the Empress Ballroom in the old Mark Foys Building on 26 April 1938 in aid of the Kytherian Benevolent Society of Australia. Paul Mathers drew considerable laughs when he recounted that as a student his Greek heritage had not escaped his then school teachers, one of whom had difficulty in remembering his Greek surname but had no difficulty in referring to Paul as a “degenerate member of a once great race”.

Professor George Kanarakis, the eminent professor of Greek literature, discussed the tapestry of Kytherian literary creation and the influence of Kytherian writers in Australian-Greek literature. Professor Kanerakis has spent 30 years in Australia researching the Hellenic literary influence in this country and described the poetry of some of the early Kytherian settlers as a fascinating phenomenon. Later in the symposium, Professor Kanerakis was so moved by one speaker that from the chair he declared: “I arrived at this conference a Pireoti (a reference to his birthplace of Piraeus) but I am leaving as a Kytherian!”.

The eminent Australian-Greek medical pioneer, Dr Archie Kalokerinos, enthralled the audience with his “from the heart” narration of how he first encountered the terrible plight of young aboriginal children in the NSW outback who at that time experienced the highest mortality rates in the world (to Australia’s eternal shame). Drawing on the values and beliefs instilled in him by his Kytherian parents – and mightily proud of his Kytherian heritage and upbringing - Dr Kalokerinos told how he persevered in the face of resistance from many of his peers and from the medical establishment until his theories took hold and the aboriginal infant mortality rate was drastically cut.

Peter Prineas, the author of “Katsehamos and the Great Idea”, gave an entertaining account of how he came to write a book about his late grandfather, Peter Feros, and the historic Roxy Theatre in Bingara in country NSW.

The first of the overseas contingent of speakers was Professor George Leontsinis, Professor of Modern Greek History and of Teaching of History at the University of Athens, and arguably the most influential and important academic ever to come out of Kythera. Professor Leontsinis circulated beforehand his paper entitled “Kytherian Associations and Foundations in Greece and Abroad” and in his address to the conference called on the various associations to come together to promote common interests.

In the afternoon session, Kytherian icon, Professor Manuel Aroney, gave a typically entertaining speech about the Kytherian Australian inter-relationship and how, as a young academic, he persuaded his superiors to allow him to pursue higher studies in Greece which at the time was probably still regarded as a third world country. Manuel Aroney has since gone on to achieve the highest honours from the Greek Government but at the same time has never forgotten his humble Kytherian background. His continuing role as a trustee of the Nicholas Aroney Foundation and the laudable philanthropic and charitable activities of Manuel and his fellow trustees has changed the Australian-Kytherian landscape forever.

That evening a splendid reception was held at the Greek Embassy in Canberra by the newly-appointed Ambassador of the Hellenic Republic, Mr George Zois and his charming wife, Christina Zois. More than 200 conference delegates mingled in the beautiful Italianate-style mansion that houses the embassy and had a chance to discuss and reflect on the day’s events in between sampling some truly exquisite food. It was a great way to end the first day of the symposium.

The crowds swelled on Saturday morning for the start of what was to be the longest day when more than 20 papers presented. The first speaker was the academic, Dr Vassiliki Chryssanthopoulou, Visiting Fellow from the Hellenic Folklore Research Centre, Academy of Athens, who spoke on the topic “Gender, Migration and Identity: Focus on Kytherian Women”. Dr Chryssanthopoulou had previously come to Australia in 2004 and had interviewed a number of women in Sydney and Canberra as well as on Kythera and Piraeus. Women have contributed to the Kytherian identity and motherhood within the various Kytherian communities is taken seriously.

The theme on women was also pursued by Dr Nicholas Glytsos, Researcher Emeritus of Economics of the Centre of Planning and Economic Research in Athens and a first time visitor to our shores, who presented a most interesting paper on an aspect of Kytherian womanhood that tends to be overlooked, namely, the women who stayed behind as their husbands, sons or brothers travelled to Australia searching for fortune. Dr Glytsos’ theme was that male emigration to Australia would not have been possible if women could not replace the role and activities of the departing man. Kytherian women were the “invisible backbone” of the migration process.

At this point, immediate past president George Vardas took to the podium to present his paper entitled “Australian Aphrodite: The role of women in the Kytherian Brotherhood”. His presentation derived in part from research carried out by an eminent American sociologist, Professor Vassilikie Demos (herself of Kytherian descent) who had visited Australia almost 20 years ago and had conducted extensive interviews of Kytherian women in Sydney and Brisbane and who had been kind enough to email several papers that she had written on the subject. George had also completed a questionnaire with twelve members of the Kytherian Ladies Auxiliary dealing with various issues of Kytherian identity and the women’s self-perceptions. The talk also covered the history of the Kytherian Ladies Auxiliary and the more recent successes of the Kytherian Young Mothers Group and Mums n’ Bubs as George Vardas traced the pivotal role that women have played in the Australian Kytherian diaspora in reproducing Greek ethnicity.

The history and notable achievements of the Triffileio Foundation were described by Dr George Argyropoulos who praised the first class old people’s home at Potamos in Kythera and acknowledged the invaluable assistance given by George Hatziplis, the well-known philo-Kytherian benefactor.

After the morning break, the only current resident of Kythera to attend the symposium, and former Eparhos of the island, Emmanuel Kasimatis, addressed the conference on the theme of investment in Kythera and the various opportunities that await investors. He also discussed in brief some of the contentious environmental issues that beset development on the island as a reminder that any future development should be sensitive to both the ecology and the historical amenity of the island.

One of the few delegates from Brisbane, the gregarious Dr Nick Cominos, addressed the conference on the disappointing downturn in interest within the Kytherian community of Brisbane and put out a challenge that we should embrace the later Australian-Kytherian generations in order to keep the spirit of Kytheraismos going.

One of the most enthralling and informative presentations then followed with our American friends, Vikki Vrettos Fraioli and Terry Chlentzos Keramaris, discussing how the Kythera family website had brought them together in the Kytherian Brotherhood of California (an association only 70 members). Through an interesting powerpoint presentation both Vikki and Terry demonstrated how easy it is to compile a family tree and how to film an aged relative recounting his or her life story, identifying people in old photographs and so on. Vikki has created a most interesting website, called Kythera Connections, at www.homepage.mac.com/vikvf/KytheraConnections/Menu180.html on which most of the material which they presented at the symposium can be found.

Their presentation was tinged with a note of sadness as it transpired that their uncle, Pete Chlenztos, a 97 year old former pole vaulter who had competed fro Greece at the 1932 Olympic Games, had passed away only two days earlier.

The final talk of the morning session was given by the well-liked Kytherian historian and genealogist, Peter Makarthis, from Inverell. Actually, Peter was born Peter McCarthy (of good Irish stock) but after marrying into a Kytherian family he might as well be called Peter Makarthis. Peter traced the early history of the Greeks in Inverell and the early influence of Kytherian settlers in the area. Peter is currently working on a book whose publication is eagerly awaited.

After a well-deserved lunch, the conference delegates – still numbering well over 150 – heard an impassioned story by Ruby Brown about her father, the inimitable George Feros, who was quite a character in Byron Bay and whose persistence in raising funds for aged care has led to the establishment of the highly successful Feros Care Ltd. The ability of a Kytherian from humble origins to achieve what he or she sets out to do remains an impressive and indelible characteristic of the island’s descendants.

The Kytherian pioneers of the early cafes in Nowra, on the beautiful South Coast of NSW, were the subject of a paper delivered by Robyn Florance, a member of the Shoalhaven Historical Society and the author of a magnificent publication, “A Touch of Greece in Junction Street: Greek Café Owners of Nowra”. Just as she did when the book was launched recently south of Nowra, Robyn told of her interest in researching the many Greek cafes in Nowra, most of which were operated by Kytherians with surnames such as Mavromattes, Aroney, Kepreotis, Castrisos and others. Although there are no Greek cafes left, the Australian-Kytherian legacy lives on.

The notable Kytherian engineer and academic, Professor Basil Leftheris, prepared an interesting paper which surveyed the history of Kythera and the interplay of biological and environmental factors that go to make up the Kytherian psyche, both on the island and in the Kytherian diaspora. Professor Leftheris entertained the delegates with a powerpoint presentation featuring some stunning shots of the local flora of the island coupled with photos of some of the historically significant buildings from both the Venetian and British occupation of the island, including the incomparable thirteen arch stone bridge at Katouni. Professor Leftheris concluded his presentation by applauding Kytheraismos as the “archive of Kytherian life, the continuity between the old and the new” and challenging us to use the strength of our common roots to do something extraordinary for future generations.

Lawyer and local government councillor John Comino, himself a direct descendant of one of the first Kytherian pioneers to Australia, presented his paper on Kytherian Australians as European citizens and explained the bureaucratic intricacies of taking Greek dual citizenship as well as avoiding (for Kytherian males under the age of 45 years) the risks of military service. John Comino was also one of the driving forces on the Sydney organising committee for the Kytheraismos symposium.

The last session was devoted to the all important Kytherian youth and delegates had an opportunity to hear from some exuberant young Kytherians. Mary Londy of Brisbane was forthright in her call for greater participation in Kytherian Greek activities, drawing on her experiences with the Kytherian Youth of Brisbane. Mary suggested that the internet and the widely-used MSN-type chat rooms could be utilised to create a virtual Kytherian chat room to which young Kytherians all over the world could connect.

Sophia and Patricia Cassimatis spoke eloquently of their first experience in Greece in the winter of 2005/2006 when they attended an intensive Greek language course at the University of Athens. So enriched were they by that experience that Sophia and Patricia persuaded their parents to return to Greece with them in July 2006 and to visit for the first time the island of Kythera. There is huge potential for cultural and educational exchanges between Australia and Greece for the benefit of our youth.

Garifalia Castrisios, a fourth year medical student from Tasmania, recounted her incredible work experiences and sojourn in Kythera where she spent 10 weeks at the hospital at Potamos. Garifalia was exposed to a variety of working conditions and medical training which it is unlikely she would have encountered in a mainstream Australian hospital. At the same time, Garifalia was enthralled by the island’s charms and yearns to return again.

Alex Poulos, a young lawyers and property developer from Queensland, gave an insightful presentation on some of the issues confronting Kytherian youth and came up with a most interesting and promising proposal: the establishment of a youth hostel in Kythera. Suggesting that there are many old and disused buildings on the island which could be modified and converted for hostel accommodation, Alex argued that such a hostel could be the catalyst for organising meaningful tours of Kythera by our youth so that they can better appreciate their cultural and historical heritage.

Penelope Samios spoke about the Kytherian youth in Sydney and the ground-breaking work of the Kytherian Association in promoting Greek folk dancing.

Delegates retired at the end of this most entertaining day to get ready for a splendid Dinner Dance organised by the Kytherian Brotherhood of Canberra at the Hellenic Club. There was considerable kefi as delegates and guests danced the night away and rejoiced in the coming together of Kytherians from all over Australia, Greece and the United States. The sight of the children lying prostrate on the stage watching the large screen replay of John Howard’s opening speech was also intriguing: were they enthralled or bemused?

On the final morning of the symposium, Angelo Notaras, gave an informative overview of various projects currently under way. Angelo spoke with typical enthusiasm about the ongoing progress of the Kythera family website; the translation into English of the first book published in Greek in Australia (“I Zoi En Afstralia”); the translation of the magnificent work by Emmanuel Calligeros on Kytherian surnames and the current project for the preservation, restoration and eventual exhibition of some 2,200 glass photographic slides of the famous Kytherian photographer, Panagiotis Fatseas.

Angelo Notaras was followed by the Sydney webmaster of the Kythera family website, George Poulos, who reinforced the need for Kytherians to gather important family records and oral histories and post them to the website. As Vikki Fraioli and Terry Chlentzos clearly demonstrated, it is quite simple to document the recollections and knowledge of our older generations so as to preserve that knowledge for the benefit of future generations. As George pointed out, every time an old person dies a library literally burns down.

One of the most illuminating and interesting presentations was given by Peter Vanges, historian and a former president of the Kytherian Association of Australia. Peter posed the question: Who was the first Kytherian in Australia? Was it Athanasios Kominos who arrived in Australia in 1873 and who many believed to be the first Kytherian? Or was there another Kytherian who came earlier? Peter Vanges enthralled the delegates as to his detective work in searching through official records, visiting graves and talking to descendants in concluding that the first Kytherian was in fact Emmanuel Kritharis who arrived in this country in 1854. Peter’s paper is published at www.kythera-family.net/index.php?nav=3-10&did=10422.

The final talk before morning coffee was an audio-visual powerpoint presentation given by Emanuel Comino (aka “o Marmaras”). Emanuel was the first Kytherian to mobilise and campaign for the return of the Parthenon sculptures taken by Lord Elgin and currently housed in the British Museum in London.

After morning coffee, the final plenary session got under way. The President of the Kytherian Brotherhood of Australia, Victor Kepreotis, gave a heartfelt and at times teary-eyed account of his love of Kythera and all that being a Greek-Kytherian in Australia means.

The symposium delegates then heard a pleasant tale, beautifully related by Mary Matis of Canberra, of the American Kytherian connection. Mary described how she grew up in Kythera before going to the heavily industrialised and strife-torn city of Cleveland in the United States at the tender age of 9 years to live with her aunt and uncle. A decade on, after meeting her future husband during a holiday on Kythera, Mary moved to Australia where she has lived in Canberra ever since.

Poppy Stellios spoke of the historical and community events in the NSW country town of Dubbo and the Kytherian influence in establishing a Greek Orthodox church in the town.

The sometimes controversial issue of development on the island was the subject of an interesting talk given by Eva-Marie Prineas, an architect who has recently returned after getting married on Kythera. Eva-Marie described her long term program for restoring and renovating an old house on the island and ensuring that the renovation was sympathetic to the architectural heritage of the building in accordance with the principles of the ICOMOS Burra Charter.

The last presenter was the Queensland Kytherian stalwart, John Carras, who had on the first day presented Prime Minister Howard with a cap bearing the Australian flag and the expression “I love Kythera”. John drew on his own experience with retirement home planning in Queensland to call for the establishment of a retirement home on the island.

At the conclusion of the symposium, Chris Lourandos produced a tape recorder and played to a silent audience a traditional folksong concerning metanastes, called ochto horiates (“the eight peasants”), by the late Vicky Moscholiou. There was hardly a dry eye as the pain of the xenitia and the distance from our Greek-Kytherian roots told on many of the delegates. It was a very poignant and moving moment.

The mood and achievements of the symposium were probably best captured in Professor Kanarakis’ recital of these memorable words from the immortal Greek poet, C.P. Cavafy:

“To have come this far is no small achievement:
what you have done is a glorious thing.
Even this first step
is a long way above the ordinary world.”

Under the tutelage of Elias Marsellos the Institute of Kytheraismos has indeed come a long way and it is hoped that the momentum gained by the Second International Symposium of Kytheraismos in Canberra will not be lost but will serve to bolster and enhance the new spirit of the Kytherian diaspora ahead of the next symposium in Kythera in September 2008.

George Vardas
September 2006

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