“I stopped when we reached the port and I saw the big ship. I took five or six steps back, as though I wanted to run away. My father pushed me inside and the door closed. The ship started its engines and set off for Sydney.”
It was 52 years ago when Eleni M. left her village in the mountains of Epirus, northern Greece, as a “bride” headed to Australia. She was barely 18 years old, but times were tough and her father had made up his mind to marry her off overseas so she could have a better life – even if she didn’t know the man who would be waiting for her at the end of her voyage except from a photograph.
“I wasn’t worried about getting married, but about leaving. A man from our parts who had immigrated to Sydney a few years earlier wanted me as a bride. My father knew his family, so I agreed to go,” she told Kathimerini on condition of anonymity, describing an experience that changed her life forever.
“We reached the port just minutes before the ship’s departure and I was the last to board. I had a small suitcase, which was nearly empty. Everyone else was on the deck, waving goodbye to their families. I didn’t know what to do. I felt lost, empty. ‘Where am I going?’ I asked myself. But it was too late.”
The journey on the Patris ocean liner took just under a month, but time seemed interminable during the voyage. Eleni made friends with a family that invited her to their table for meals. She spent the rest of the time in her cabin, absorbed in thought. “I thought about everything. What I would find over there and the people I left behind: my mother, my grandmother whom I loved so much and mostly my little sister. But what tormented me most was whether I was doing the right thing,” she said.
Just like Eleni, thousands of Greek women were sent off in the 1950s and 60s as so-called brides to America and Australia, consigned to the idea of a marriage to men they hardly knew, if they knew them at all. Eleni saw it as an opportunity. Even though she did well in school, there was no chance of her getting the education she needed to become a teacher as she wanted to. Australia, she thought, would give her a chance at an entirely new life. Niki, her younger sister by two years, had tried to dissuade her, but Eleni was determined. “She used to say that since Father wanted her gone, she would go. I cried for months and it was 13 years before I saw her again,” Niki told Kathimerini.
The Patris reached Sydney on June 24, 1966. Eleni disembarked, met the man she was to marry and set off with him on a journey into the unknown. “It was weird and it took me a while to get used to him because he was basically a stranger I had just met,” she said. “It was really hard at first. Finances were tight and I didn’t speak the language so I couldn’t go out and look for work. I was determined, though. I spent all day listening to the radio and reading books, and I gradually started to communicate.”
Eleni had two children within the first four years and later got a job at the airport. Her husband worked in construction. “My children grew up without the warmth of relatives. I felt the distance acutely at first, I missed my family and regretted leaving, but with time I got used to it. We became friends with other Greeks who had emigrated to Australia. I met a lot of Greek women who had come over as brides, with nothing but a photograph of their husbands. Every one of their stories was different,” said Eleni.
Eleni returned to Greece for the first time 13 years later, in 1979, along with her new family. She spent three months visiting her parents and sister. “We were all together, with our children, after so many years. It was too late to have regrets, but I felt that void inside me from being away from my family all those years. Even now I have this sense of loneliness, an emptiness that is so hard to fill, despite the joy my new family has give me.”
Eleni has since visited Greece several times to see her parents and sister. Now adults, her children also spend almost every summer in the country. She is proud of the fact that she was able to create such a wonderful family, but is all too aware that not all the brides were so lucky.