Home Full bios Anastasia (Tassoula) Despotaki – Full biography

Anastasia (Tassoula) Despotaki – Full biography

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Tasoula’s story is a poignant account of a difficult childhood marked by poverty, war, and hardship

Tasoula was born in 1941 in the small mountainous village of Kakopetros, in Western Crete. Official records show her birth date in 1942 but this was war times and often records were not kept accurately.  Her father’s war injuries meant he could not support fully his family, and she and her siblings were unable to finish school as they had to go out to fieldwork as day labourers. She was 22 years old when she came to NZ in 1963. She joined her sister who had migrated a year before. Her husband, who comes from the same village, came later as part of a marriage arrangement. Initially she worked as hospital cleaner.

Tasoula and her siblings were raised in a village where children were expected to work from a young age, helping their parents with various tasks such as farming and animal care. They had no time for play or leisure, and their life was devoid of the typical joys of childhood, such as toys or games.

The family lived in a small house with their grandparents and an unmarried aunt. The house was cramped and unhygienic, with animals living inside. Despite their best efforts to keep it clean, the conditions were far from ideal.

The narrator’s father was a war survivor who had been shot multiple times by the Germans and had lost two brothers in the war. The family was left destitute after the Germans burned their possessions. The mother had to resort to using her own clothes as diapers for her babies.

Tasoula was acutely aware of their poverty, comparing their situation to that of their peers who had new clothes and could afford small luxuries like ice cream. She eventually decided to leave the country to work and send money back home to help their family.

Despite the hardships, Tasoula remembers her childhood vividly and with a sense of resilience. She recalls her mother’s struggles to provide for the family and her own efforts to help, such as stealing pears from a rich neighbour’s garden to feed her siblings. She mentioned several times that she had to “nick” things and the shame she felt, including tricking her little sister to give her food to her, painting a vivid picture of a life marked by deprivation, but also resilience and survival.

Tasoula describes the obedience to their father, her struggles with hunger, and her strained relationship with her father. She also shares a story about a dress she wanted to buy but her father refused to let her have because the money should go to the dowry of the eldest sister. This interview highlights Tasoula’s longing for a better life and her close relationship with their mother. Overall, it portrays a challenging and difficult upbringing in a rural village.

She recalls a time when she and her sister were picking olives in bad weather and a passing by stranger suggested they go overseas who showed an advertisement mentioning an immigration scheme to Australia, America, and New Zealand, she decided to go. She obtained the necessary papers and faced opposition from their father, but eventually convinced him to let her go.

After moving to New Zealand, she learned about relationships and sexuality, as it was not discussed or taught before marriage. She grew up in a conservative environment where topics like sex and menstruation were not openly discussed. She had her first period at school at the age of 11 and had to figure out how to manage it on her own. She and her sister were the first to leave their village, which was a difficult decision for their mother.

She moved to Athens first, where she attended a DEME training school that taught her basic housekeeping skills. She lived with her uncle during this time, promising to pay him back once she started working in New Zealand. She faced challenges like not having money to buy basic necessities, leading her to steal razors from a shop.

On her last day in the village, her relatives suggested she marry a man named Thodoris, who also wanted to move to New Zealand. She didn’t agree to the proposal, but Thodoris gave her a ring before she left, effectively announcing their engagement.

Her journey to New Zealand took eight days, with stops in various countries. Once in New Zealand, she and the other girls she travelled with were split up and sent to different cities, which was a distressing experience for them. She finally arrived in Auckland, uncertain of what the future holds.

Tasoula gives personal account of the group of girls who arrived together in Auckland. They were greeted by a Greek lady whom they referred to as their mother. They were emotional and received care from her. Unfortunately, she passed away shortly after their arrival. The group was then separated and placed in different hospitals. It took them a month to reunite, and they were overjoyed when they finally found each other. They were unfamiliar with New Zealand and had no knowledge of the country or its location. They were uncertain about their future and employment prospects. Some of the girls were initially afraid to leave their rooms, but eventually, they were assigned tasks such as sweeping the floor, doing laundry, and making beds, despite not understanding the language. Their initial experiences in New Zealand were challenging.

Tasoula’s narrative is one of a woman’s journey from ignorance about sexual matters to understanding, set against the backdrop of her arranged marriage and immigration. Tasoula and her friends were initially unaware of male anatomy and the process of conception. The first of them to get pregnant, Alexia Pentaraki, didn’t understand how pregnancy occurred until a doctor informed her.

If any of these women married someone from their home country, they had to cover all expenses. So, when Tasoula got engaged to Thodoris, she had to work hard to pay for her fiancé’s immigration. They were committed to remain single for however long it would take and marry in their new country. Tasoula’s fiancé arrived a year and a half later, and they got married soon after, as it was required by immigration.

Their wedding, in 1964, organized by good willing New Zealanders, was a chaotic event, with three women marrying together and sharing the wedding dress, the groom oversleeping and the newly married couples having to clean up the reception hall. The wedding night was uncomfortable and confusing for her, as she had no prior knowledge or experience of sex. She initially thought something was wrong with her husband. It took a week for them to consummate their marriage.

She gradually learned about sexual satisfaction and the importance of mutual satisfaction in a relationship. It took her about two years to fully understand these aspects. Tasoula reflects on the importance of sexual education and open conversations about these topics.

Tasoula recounts the tragic story of her sister who had also migrated to NZ but died suddenly from a fast-acting form of leukemia. The family struggled to understand her illness and to afford her funeral, eventually burying her without clothes due to their lack of funds.

She also describes the hardships they faced as immigrants, working multiple jobs and caring for their children without the help of babysitters or day-care. Despite these challenges, their children grew up to be successful professionals.

Tasoula also talks about their return trips to Greece, noting the significant changes and improvements in the country. She express a longing for the lifestyle in Greece, but is not willing to leave behind her children and grandchildren in New Zealand.

Tasoula and her husband decided to return to Crete  with their thre daughters after several years in NZ. This did not work out when Theo became seriously ill and had to return to NZ to seek treatment. They decided then to stay.

She describes the cultural differences she experienced, particularly in gender roles and expectations. In Greece, she was expected to be submissive and not question her husband’s actions, while in New Zealand, her husband, Theo, helped with household chores, which was initially frowned upon by her mother-in-law.

She also talks about the hardships they faced in Greece, such as the lack of basic amenities like proper bathing facilities, and how they only changed their underwear once a week. Despite the better living conditions in New Zealand, she misses the close-knit family relationships in Greece.

She also recounts her mother’s illness and her desire to make her happy by giving her eggs, which she craved but were bad for her health due to her diabetes. She expresses her longing for her siblings in Greece and her wish for her brother to visit her in New Zealand.

Tasoula also mentions sending parcels back to her family in Greece, including fabrics for her sisters to make dresses and cotton sheets that her mother loved.

She describes a close-knit family where her daughters are married and have their own houses, but they all still spend a lot of time together. The speaker cooks for their daughters and grandchildren regularly, and they all eat together. She expresses her love for their family and their willingness to do anything for them. She also mention her close relationship with their Kiwi son-in-law and how he embraces their Greek customs. She also mentions one of her daughters who is living in Greece with her Maori husband and her hope for her to return.

Tasoula talks about their involvement in the Greek community and their support.