Michael Tsolakis

Roaring Nineties is a series of stories from our elders collected throughout 2018. This collection of stories features the memories of yesteryear; accounts of war, racism, technological triumph, assimilation, and social change. These storytellers have lived long lives, and plan to live many more. Experience makes us wise and we should take time to listen.

Michael Tsolakis is 97. He shares the story of coming from Greece to Australia in 1938, and the outpouring love from his mother and community that got him there. We thank Michael for sharing his story, as well as his daughter, Marilyn Tsolakis, for her support.

Michael’s story was transformed into a script for The Blue Room Theatre and was performed in two sold-out shows during their Winter Nights program in 2018.

This story was recorded when Michael was 96 in February of 2018.

Michael Tsolakis sitting by a book shelf

My name is Michael Tsolakis, I was born in 1921. I arrived on an Italian boat, La Viminale, on the 8th of February 1938. It was exactly 80 years ago this month.

On the island that I was living on with my parents and the rest of the family, they only had primary schools. At that time my mother had an uncle and aunty in Athens where there’s plenty of high schools and he asked my mother if I’d like to go there and study at high school level. So I did, but they were very old and I actually—I only stayed there three years, I did three classes of high schooling.

I had two brothers who were—well I wasn’t born when they died. My father came with his eldest son who died in Port Pirie, what was the name of the sickness? The Spanish flu. He died there a 17-18-year-old boy and [my father] was disgusted. He got on the boat and went back to Greece. He had another son who was six years old who died of the plague. He died too. When we grew up we used to go and see him at the cemetery, you know.

So I was growing up in a family that was full of sadness.

My sister was already in Kalgoorlie in Boulder, so they decided to send me to Australia—my father started crying—the whole family was sad, but I did come.

After the death of two sons, Michael’s mother decided to give him the best chance at life. Michael was sent off to Australia.

My sister, one of my sisters, there was a—what’s the name—an arranged marriage of my sister. My parents and the family decided to send me to Australia. The whole family was sad, but I did come. They were sad because their two sons had died. There was another four girls in the family—two boys and four girls, the girls survived. They are now in Karrakatta!

We asked him to reflect on his journey to Australia and his experiences living on new land.

Paul, my brother-in-law was Paul. He was a tailor, he said Michael you might as well take an apprenticeship in tailoring. So I decided that I stay with him and he told me, “Before you start you’ got to pay a shilling”—money was very expensive then. You know how much I got? 12 and 6 a week, that it was good money then. Anyway, I stayed with him. At one stage it was a bit quiet, I will bring you the dark side of my talk. Paul, he asked me if he can, if they can put me onto another tailor that has plenty of work because it was quiet and he couldn’t afford this 12 and 6 a week. So we did that. I went to the workers’ hall for a meeting and I told the fella—who I wouldn’t say his name, because he’s got family and I don’t want to say it—but I told him, “I am looking for a job for two to three weeks until it picks up” and this was his answer, he said, “I don’t know whether I’d be able to give you a job, but even if we did I wouldn’t give it to you because you are not an Australian.” Now this is the things in my life that I don’t like, because I love Australia, I love Australians and it is hard for me to express these things.

Michael loves Australia. But he has experienced some hard times. We asked Michael to reflect on some of the difficulties in adjusting to Australian life.

So, it was the Boulder Square, it was a hotel, a commercial bank, and next to the commercial bank was my brother-in-law’s tailor shop. We saw a lot of people coming out of the pub and they were hitting someone. I said, “Paul what is going on?” and he said, “They hate the foreigners.” He was a foreigner, he might have been Italian, a Slav, I don’t know. But then again I don’t know if he did anything wrong in the pub, What they did to him was disgusting, but then again I didn’t know the other side. To be fair.

Photo courtesy of Marilyn Tsolakis.

Michael’s daughter, Marilyn, explained that he was in Kalgoorlie in 1938, four years after the riots. There was still a lot of conflict.

Yeah it was only two or three weeks after the riots in Kalgoorlie, I came after that.

My mother wanted to protect me. So, she went around to some ladies that had silver—they had quite a bit of silver in different things. Bit by bit, bit by bit—and the jeweller made this cross. And my mother gave a bit of cotton wool to dip it in the oil that to wipe on the real cross in Jerusalem. My mother collected the silver to make a cross in memory and to help me—to bless me with the cross so that I can survive. Longer than the others. It’s for protection.

Michael took the cross with him everywhere. He even brought it with him in the army.

When I was in the army, I took it with me. I was only in Australia a few months and they called me in the army. Now even today I don’t even know why they called me up, because I wasn’t an Australian, but I think the Greek government might have had something to do with it. I took it in my kit bag—which was my pillow. Actually we are very lucky to have had America on our side, but even today. The British, they sent two boats the next day they came to Australia—they went to take Japan and they both sunk.

We asked Michael to tell us about how he met his wife.

Now, there is a Greek church around the corner here. I think that was up, but there was a hall next door, and they used to run dances. So if we had leave, we used to go there and dance with the Greek kids. I don’t know if you know the dance that you go around changing partners. We used to change, and it was a lot of fun. I saw this girl, my wife. I asked another chap that I knew there, “Who is that girl?” and he says to me, “Don’t you know her? You went to school with her brother.” And one day I popped the question, and that was it.

My mother, my sisters, they were all happy. There was a song in Greek about green eyes and she had green eyes and so that was an attraction. She was a beautiful looking woman.

We got married in 1948. It was 70 years in July. She is a beautiful mother and a beautiful wife. The more I see her, the older she gets, I love her more.

Michael shared his tips on a long and happy life.

I think for a long life—on the Island, every chance we did good exercise, we did do gymnastics, we had water for swimming every day. I’ll tell you honestly, we didn’t have enough money to buy too much meat. We ate a lot of legumes. A lot of legumes—they reckon that legumes are just as good in your diet, if not better, than meat. It did me good for the rest of my life. When I got out of the army, I didn’t want to live with my sister or whatever relative. I wanted to build my own home. I married young, at 27. But I can never thank Australia enough for what they gave us. They opened up their arms and brought us in. Some people were ignorant and they always had a go at us—but there’s a hell of a lot of good people.

Copyright © 2018 Michael Tsolakis

This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by the Storyteller. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.

This story was collected in February 2018. Photos courtesy of Marilyn Tsolakis.

© 2019 Centre for Stories / Site by Super Minimal