Telling the stories of Post-war Cretan Female Migrants in New Zealand

An oral history and digital storytelling project

Telling the stories of Post-war Cretan Migrant Women in Aotearoa New Zealand

An oral history and digital storytelling project

Spiridoula Vlondaki (Halkiadaki) / Full biography

A miraculous survival as an infant during the war, the desire for a

better quality of life leading to migration and the family pressures to return to Crete.

Spiridoula was born during the war in Limni, Kissamos, Crete. Her father was a farmer and her mother took care of household chores.  She describes the challenges her family faced, including giving birth in a corner of the house and surviving with limited resources. They eventually moved to a deserted village called Sirikiari, where they lived in old houses and cultivated chestnuts. Despite the hardships, Spiridoula’s family managed to have animals for food and sustenance.

Spiridoula talks about the difficult times during the war when their village was burnt down by the Germans because the villagers refused to work for them. She recounts the experiences during a time of hiding from the Germans and mentions how her family had left before the Germans arrived. Her mother couldn’t produce milk for breastfeeding, so their grandfather suggested getting rid of the crying baby to avoid detection. However, her uncle would chew food and feed it to her. Eventually, their father brought a goat, and she breastfed from it. The goat would come inside at night to feed her. Spiridoula emphasizes that they have never eaten meat during those years. When the goat died, the father buried it like a human because it had raised his daughter.

The interview also touches on the difficult circumstances of her upbringing, the rebuilding of their burnt house, and the lack of basic amenities like electricity and running water. Spiridoula remembers her desire to leave and mentions researching the possibility of going to Canada, but their parents were opposed to the idea.

Spiridoula mentions that she attended a primary school in her village, which was initially just one room in a house donated by her father. The classes were also held in the village church. Around 60-70 children attended this school. Various teachers, including high school graduates, would come to teach them. Spiridoula completed 12 years of schooling, with different teachers coming and going. Despite facing difficulties, her parents were determined to send them to school.

She also took care of her younger siblings and did household chores. Playtime was limited, and she didn’t have many toys. Her father was hospitable and had many social connections. He worked with animals while their mother worked in the fields. Bedtime for the children was early, and the adults would stay up later, engaging in conversations and storytelling. People would visit each other’s homes regularly, sharing whatever they had to offer. Work would start at sunrise and end at sunset. After work, people would meet with friends and enjoy each other’s company. Spiridoula’s memories reflect on the simplicity and communal nature of life back then compared to the present, where people tend to overthink and worry about various aspects of life. She also reminisces about a time when everyone was equal.

Spiridoula recalls feeling jealous when visiting houses with nice furniture and a pleasant atmosphere, as their own house had been destroyed and they couldn’t afford such luxuries. She expresses her desire for a nice house and furniture, and mentions recently acquiring their own house after renting for some time.

The interview touches on the topic of menstruation and how it was not openly discussed between parents and children, leading to embarrassment for Spiridoula. She mentions that children would share information they heard from their parents, but they didn’t have detailed knowledge about men and women. Her father, being a social person, taught them how to behave in society and introduced them to social interactions. Her mother, on the other hand, was occupied with farm work and didn’t discuss women-related topics.

Spiridoula explains that her father wanted her to pursue higher education, but she was determined to become a dressmaker. She recalls her fascination with sewing and dressmaking, inspired by her mother’s fittings. She learned the craft in six months from a distant relative who had returned from America. She shares her experiences of making dresses for her mother and other relatives, and receiving praise for her skills. However, due to familial circumstances, she temporarily stopped sewing and focused on household chores. She mentions her grandfather’s financial stability and how he bought her a sewing machine. Despite this, she desired to leave her hometown and explore opportunities abroad. She mentions reaching out to relatives in Germany, Canada, and New Zealand, but her parents were reluctant to give their consent due to her young age.

Spiridoula explains that she wanted a better quality of life and was envious of what they saw in other places and mentions being offered a matchmaking opportunity to go to New Zealand but declined initially. Eventually, her uncle helped with the paperwork, and they left for Athens to meet some ladies who were learning English. Her mother was initially against the idea but eventually allowed her to go. She stayed in Athens for a short time before traveling to New Zealand, where she was impressed by the houses and decided not to return. Spiridoula also mentions attending a training school in Athens briefly and meeting other girls from their village who were also going abroad.

She mentions a dream she had about a pet bird before leaving her home in Crete. Spiridoula recalls the long journey to New Zealand and being happy about her decision to leave. She talks about her arrival in Wellington, staying with a girlfriend, exploring the city, and being amazed by the amenities like warm water from the tap. Upon arrival, she worked in a laundry facility, with washing machines, and later moved on to work in a hospital cafeteria. She remembers sending money back home to her mother and buying a gas cooker. She also mention her skill in sewing and making clothes for herself.

Spiridoula explains that that her parents urged her to come back home and her uncle had been writing letters expressing concern for her mother’s well-being. She also reveals that her father had been secretly corresponding with people in New Zealand to check on her well-being. However, Spiridoula was hesitant to return because she enjoyed her life abroad. She also mentions that there were other Greek women in the area, making communication easier for her.

She worked in a restaurant in Wellington to earn money and mentions a dishonest restaurant owner who exploited the female employees. Eventually, Spiridoula found a better job at a restaurant owned by Greeks who treated her like family. She worked day and night, even on weekends. She recounts a story of waiting for someone at a house on Will Street or Ellie Street, but eventually leaving. However, she encounters Greek-speaking people on her way back and they convince her to return home.

Upon her return to Greece, there was a delay in her flight due to hijacking concerns. Spiridoula’s parents were not present at the airport to welcome her, which upset her. Eventually, she reunites with her family and attends a grand celebration organized by her father in her honor. She also mentions how her husband was introduced to her through mutual acquaintances and they eventually got married in Crete. Her parents were overjoyed to have her back home, and she promised her younger brothers that she would take them abroad if they desired.

She initially did not want to get married to someone she didn’t know, but her father convinced her to do so. It turned out later that her husband had a criminal record but they got married in his village, and although she didn’t know him well, she found him sociable. They had a good time in New Zealand initially, but immigration authorities contacted her, questioning her choice of spouse. Despite her love for New Zealand, she acknowledges the difficulties she faces and hopes to return one day.

Spiridoula mentions that she regreted not fully immersing herself in the local customs, habits, and language while being close to other Greeks. She talks about her acquaintance, Adrianna Weston, who was another Cretan migrant woman, and how she was her maid of honour.  The interview also touches upon her husband’s employment history, and eventually opening a fish and chips shop. She talks about how some women found it easier to adapt to New Zealand because they learned the language and made connections with locals. Spiridoula expresses her disapproval of those who didn’t fulfil their obligations or maintain their cultural values while in New Zealand. She mentions that some individuals chose to leave Wellington and avoid the Greek community to keep their actions hidden from relatives.

Spiridoula’s husband did not want to buy a house and preferred to save money for future flexibility. She worked multiple jobs, including waitressing, making dresses, and taking care of children, to save money. They lent money to friends and relatives for house deposits but were frustrated when they sold the houses without returning the money promptly. Eventually, they bought a shop in Paramata, New Zealand, after realizing its potential for making money. They dropped their other jobs and focused on running the shop. They later sold the shop and moved to another location. Spirithoula shares her experience in running a fish and chips shop in New Zealand, about the location of the shop, and the busy days.

Eventually, they returned to Greece due to her father-in-law’s illness, but they struggled financially and couldn’t find a house despite the money they brought from New Zealand. Her husband was drafted into the army but was released due to his foreign background. They later returned to New Zealand and bought another fish and chips shop. The conversation also touches on Spirithoula’s observations of Greece upon her return and the subsequent sale of their old shop, their experiences with taxes and government policies. She mention a document sent to the embassy, promising tax-free returns for Greeks returning to Greece. However, they felt deceived as they were still taxed upon their return. She shares their experience of buying land outside the city plan and facing difficulties in building due to regulations and expresses frustration with the government’s false promises and the financial burdens they had to face.

Spiridoula talks about her daughter’s marriage, living conditions, education, healthcare, and experiences in New Zealand. She expresses regret about leaving New Zealand and highlights the differences in healthcare and bureaucracy between the two countries, including the difficulties faced in Greece due to bribery and corruption. Spiridoula expresses mixed feelings about being homesick and missing Crete. She talks about the advantages of living in New Zealand, such as financial stability and personal freedom. She shares anecdotes about their interactions with people in New Zealand and mention their friends and acquaintances in there and Australia.

She talks about her pension from New Zealand, the reduction of their Greek pension, the difficulties of living in Crete, and her frustrations with the government and living conditions and expresses her desire to return to New Zealand but acknowledges the expense. Spiridoula also mentions of her companionship with other women who have returned from abroad. The conversation ends with a discussion about the possibility of Spiridoula’s grandchildren obtaining citizenship in New Zealand since their parents were born there.