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A new view of exile



The matters of migration and exile haunt me continually. I’ve always had great sympathy for post-war displaced persons, and how people manage to survive detention in today’s Australia is simply beyond me. In my case six months’ holiday became a lifetime when my Greek husband, desperate to return to his home village, unexpectedly secured a job nearby.

Main image: People walking between Australia and Greece (Chris Johnston illustration)

I had it easy: no leaky boats, people smugglers, pirates, internment, court cases, piece work in factories or dire poverty for me; I also had certain civil rights, as well as being entitled to work and to reside permanently in Greece.

But even though I tried to count my blessings and to avoid my besetting sin of self-pity, migration was hard. And decades later I still think it was hard. Sometimes I wonder how I survived it. Migration, after all, is a premature kind of death: a rehearsal. You cross a border, the passport is stamped, and you eventually learn there is no turning back. Your old life has gone, and your essential self is sliced in two, divided into before and after.

In fact as a migrant you cross more than one border. I was 35 when I migrated: half the Biblically allotted span and all that. An immature, heedless woman, I gave little thought to culture shock. Still less did I consider misogyny and the subtleties of village society, with its complex web of in-groups and out-groups, with its reliance on and enjoyment of gossip. I had not bargained for my children rejecting me simply because I was foreign, a fact they learned with all due speed, and I had been over-confident about the state of my Greek. Nor had I realised that I was crossing the border dividing youth from maturity, but I soon learned that being in Greece was making me grow up. At last. And fast.

I had to adjust to an entirely new way of being, which, paradoxically, was really very old: nothing much had changed in rural Greek villages for hundreds of years. I also had to learn about a different past, and realise that Greece resembles places such as Scotland and Ireland, where to endure is all. 

I crossed all sorts of other borders as well: the city-country divide, class barriers, and those involving religion and education. My inherited pioneer mentality of inventing each day did not sit easily with the peasant one of repeating a centuries-old pattern. Then there was the yawning chasm between orality and literacy. My mother-in-law, the completely traditional woman whose house I shared for sixteen months, could sign her name, and that was it; she also knew about patterns so instinctively that every day had complete certainty and a detailed programme. But her mind, despite or because of its lack of book-learning, was a veritable treasure-trove of geneaology and folklore, and so I learned a great deal in most unexpected ways.


'I used to speculate: what would it be like if I went back? But I don’t do that any more, for Australia has changed, and so have I.'


I also learned that one’s view of migration and exile changes over time. Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro left Japan when he was a child, and did not return for 30 years. He says that his idea of Japan before his return was based on memories, speculation and imagination. Even though I have not been away from Australia for nearly as long, I certainly understand what he means.

I’m clinging on to my memories for as long as I can, and my imagination summons up the landscape easily: those huge skies and never-ending wheat fields, the rivers and the sea, the threatening bush. So far. I used to speculate: what would it be like if I went back? But I don’t do that any more, for Australia has changed, and so have I. The person, the self that migrated all those years ago is not the same one.

Paul Scott wrote that the migrant is always knocking at the window of their past, and in a sense that is so, for time plays its usual tricks, and takes over from memories of home and family, from familiarity. On my irregular returns, Australia often seems quite strange: it has evolved, and in the process, has left me behind. I suppose I’m still an exile, but now that condition consists of separation from the past, that land of long ago.



Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Main image: People walking between Australia and Greece (Chris Johnston illustration)

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Greece, Australia, migration, exile, Kazuo Ishiguro, Paul Scott, memory, family



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Existing comments

Oh, Gillian, you had it hard, migrating from middle-class educated Melbourne to a village in Greece. I did the opposite, coming voluntarily to Melbourne from Larissa, Greece for a better life. I did get the education here and opportunities beyond my dreams. Being an involuntary migrant is so cruel. Yet, we all learn from our circumstances and I am sure you have also learned from yours and become a wiser person. Your writing attests to that.

Helen Nickas | 18 May 2021  

Migration has always interested me. I came to Australia a refugee and have visited my place of birth (Kenya) multiple times. I never had the luxury of becoming an "expatriate", but I grew up and acquired what is viewed back home as the coveted Western passport. However, the current government's barring of Australian citizens trapped in India has made me rethink that 'luxury'. It took a global pandemic to show what I had always felt deep down, that some of us are only conditional Australians.

Najma | 18 May 2021  

Exile is a state, a displacement, a seclusion. These are difficult concepts even with your strengths which are considerable, Gillian. It was a big learning curve for you though. You are a vital part of your new landscape and, while you won't ever forget your beginnings, you can relish what you now possess: a fortunate life.

Pam | 18 May 2021  

I agree Gillian that there are similarities between Scotland, Ireland and Greece . I always thought that it set mmed from the legacy of occupation and suppression that they shared. ‘Thole ‘ is the Scottish word which has a more nuanced meaning than endure, it implies putting up with something that will pass. One tholes pain. Ignorance and suspicion are fertile soil for division and hatred. I was very lucky in that i did not feel the pain of exile as we spent time in both countries and I certainly learnt a lot about the cultures. I have recently been sorting out and sharing old photographs ( I even denied one was me since i did not recognise the clothes or the place). We have all aged and changed and i think we recognise that. But i am not sure that human nature has changed much.

Maggie | 19 May 2021  

Ithaca gave you the marvellous journey. You took a very brave leap of faith. Bravo...

Stathis T | 19 May 2021  

My migration was from Australia to India and then back again. Both were migrations. Gillian, you write so well of this experience. You name it for me. Thank you

Anne Benjamin | 19 May 2021  

This takes me back to 1985, Gillian when I was teaching adult immigrant community classes and had a remarkable woman probably 20 years my senior - from Greece in the 1950s - who was finally released from her life of factory work surrounded by other Greek or non-English languages and wanting to pursue both literacy in English and greater fluency in her spoken English. I had not long before come across your WW essay from the previous year, 1984 and suggested to Angela T. that she might like to use it - both as a kind of other-side-of-the-coin similar-but-different version of her own life - and to work on a translation of it into Greek, which she did. I remember her enjoyment of that exercise - and in fact we remained in intermittent correspondence through my time on Port Stephens and even to the edges of my life in Japan. A remarkable person - one of the heroes of the immigrant process. Just now a kinship connection from the Caribbean St Vincent Grenadines island of Union - then Trinidad - finally to the US has forwarded to me parts of his memoir to edit/proof-read. A few years back his grand-children told him that he and their grandma spoke "funny" that sometimes they didn't understand him and he realised they had no idea of their roots! So he began to write. Making meaning for the present and future out of the past! This essay Gillian is quite, quite moving.

Jim KABLE | 19 May 2021  

Dear Gillian - it is the children and grandchildren who tighten the knots of belonging. And you have built on what Coleridge called 'the hooks-and-eyes of memory’. But do still slip away when you can.

June Factor | 19 May 2021  

Gillian -- Your article about migration and its affect on you made me weep; I had no idea it had been so painful and I greatly admire your courage. I suppose you could never feel yourself Greek while at the same time feel that the Australia you knew no longer exists. A lonely place to be.

Meriel Wilmot-Wright | 19 May 2021  

‘On my irregular returns, Australia often seems quite strange: it has evolved, and in the process, has left me behind’. My parents immigrated to Australia with their children in 1959. My father in particular never stopped longing for the land of his birth. Australia never felt like home to him. Several families we knew felt the same way, and returned home as soon as they could, only to find their home no longer existed. Wales was still there, or Yorkshire or Glasgow; but the past and the people were gone for ever. The homesick emigrants came back to Australia for ever. My father didn’t try to go home. Once his twin died there, Dad knew ‘the past is another country’ to which we can’t return. Thank you, Gillian, for this beautiful and truthful reflection.

Joan Seymour | 19 May 2021  

It's funny, Gillian, you became the reverse of the 'New Australian' of yore by reverse migration to Hellas. Unlike some English public school men and women, you did not go there weighted down with Classical Learning, which, I think, is a very good thing. Paddy Leigh Fermor sometimes went overboard as a Philhellene. Greece is not the Greece of Classical Athens, nor is it the Holy Constantinople of yore, though they still live on, sometimes seeming to take over the present. Much of life in the West, especially prior to the Industrial Revolution, was shaped by village or small town life. It was the world of Thomas Hardy. 'Dinger' Bell, the renowned Senior English Master at Melbourne Grammar School, refused to teach Hardy because he thought him too negative for the boys. I think Dinger was wrong. It appears some of my ancestors were Church of England clerics, some in Hardy's West Country. I hope they tried to do something to alleviate the horrible conditions of the rural poor, chronicled so well in 'Tess' and other Hardy novels. You, I think, have brought some Australian enlightenment into a Greece that can sometimes be stultifying. Good on you! Keep it up.

Edward Fido | 20 May 2021  

Thanks Gillian for this reflection on just how hard it can be to experience immigration. I think too many of us living a comfortable Australian life just don't give much thought.

Stephen Hicks | 20 May 2021  

Thanks for your profound reflections Gillian, which in a way is also a commentary on growing up and getting older and entering a world of no return. You Heraclitus also made it clear in his epigram on the river of flux when he once famously said that we can’t step into the same river twice.

John Whitehead | 20 May 2021  

Gillian, What an interesting story you have related.My wife of 37 years came out to Australia 9 months after we were married in her Parish Church in the Northern Philippines, after finishing her term as a faculty head at a Catholic College. She is lucky now as she is in constant phone contact with family 'back home'. That was not always so for most of her time here.I know she missed home terribly in the early years, although she soon made friends with other Filipinos here. We have been fortunate as we have , prior to the Pandemic, been able to return on average every two years for a holiday and to catch up with family. I learnt how it feels to be a stranger in another country when I went to England to teach while our youngest daughter completed a 'gap year' . The staff (with three notable exceptions) at the high school I taught at treated myself and three other teachers from Commonwealth countries as through we were from another planet.We were 'colonials' and treated by the staff and leadership team shamefully . In the end I decided to return home, having secured a teaching position first. One Friday afternoon at lunchtime, I walked into the Head Teacher's Office and told him,I quote; "I am going home, so I will not be in on Monday, find someone else to do my job . (pause) I don't know how you lot ran an Empire, in my humble opinion you could not run a chook raffle!" While he recovered from the shock, I made a hasty exit from his Office. With thirty years teaching experience under my belt, I was being paid first year out rates . Believe it or not, there was an ongoing dispute between the school and the County as to who was supposed to pay me! I was living on savings until it was sorted out. I have visited my ancestral home in Ireland. The sense of loss when departing Ireland is raw and very real, when I consider my great great grandfather was transported, never to see his homeland again. This was a very valuable experience for me, one I will never forget. I can readily understand the huge issues facing migrants and in particular refugees, not to forget those trapped overseas, thanks to idiotic Federal Government bungles

Gavin O'Brien | 20 May 2021  

‘Paul Scott wrote that the migrant is always knocking at the window of their past….’ Paul Scott should speak for himself. The old country never felt like home. The new country was home even before it was first experienced on an airport tarmac. The Promised Land, the Great Southland of the Holy Spirit, same place, different hemispheres. The old country still exists, attached to some tectonic plate, and that’s almost all it is, an attachment to some tectonic plate. Some gratitude is owed it, of course, as it cooperated as a conduit of grace from God, and any labourer is worthy of his hire, but, for the most part, it is more an attachment to a tectonic plate than a fleeting thought.

roy chen yee | 21 May 2021  

Dear Gillian, Your account rings so true. My mother, having been separated from her Belgian family from 1938 until we went back in 1952, soon found that places change and you may not fit in. Although she missed her elders and contemporaries, it was in the end her children who anchored her to her new homeland. And, like you, she found much to admire in it.

Juliet | 21 May 2021  

Gavin O'Brien is pretty much close to the centre of the target, as usual. I ofen wonder what took my five times grandfather from Shropshire to service in the Honorable East India Company's Army about the time the First Fleet sailed through the Heads. He was, obviously, not a convict, but all the officers and men of the HEICo were considederd 'dubious' and suspected of leaving the UK just one step head of the Law. Was Joseph Fido doing that? I will never know. In the days of the Raj there was a huge European community in India. A very large part were in the Army, just in case 1857 happened again. That was also the time of the great Irish Famine. Indians looked forward in 1918 to Independence because of their heroic WW 1 War Service. It never happened. When we came to Australia in 1956 it was solidly 'British' but 20 years behind the UK. That's why the likes of Barry Humphries and Germaine Greer went to the UK. I think you were that sort of emigrating Australian, Gillian. We have a huge diaspora and they are doing very well.

Edward Fido | 22 May 2021  

In lock down I am reading a AFW all over again and I am on that journey with you every word of the way. This time no handy tissue box is required as I am thoroughly enjoying the read about Greece and the village and the old Australia of Melbourne that you encountered when you made a return visit there. Canberra is now rapidly transforming every day with new high rise apartment blocks and office towers and knockdown rebuilds of older houses and whole new suburbs popping up in the paddocks, much to some older Canberrans' dismay. Our former house in Athens is now a block of apartments. My childhood home in Canberra is now heritage listed. Who would have thought? Change is evolving all the time whether it is slow or sudden impact such as you experienced.
Warmest Regards,

Suzanne Hecker | 28 August 2021  

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