Maroulio Sotiriou still remembers the black-and-white photograph she sent from her village in Greece to her husband-to-be, Dionysis, in Tasmania. “I was wearing a short-sleeved top,” says 84-year-old Maroulio. “I went to Neapoli, near Kalamata, to have it taken. I wanted him to think I was cosmopolitan. He didn’t like it and asked me to send another one. He said to my family: ‘Where is the good girl you are sending me?’”
It was September 1961 and arranged marriage had long been an accepted part of Greek village life, but World War II and the Greek Civil War had left the country in ruins. One in 10 people had died, unemployment was high and money was scarce. Nearly half a million Greeks – close to one in five – had fled overseas to find work. Young Greek women, many of whom had not finished primary school, were left to run family farms or find factory work. Only those whose families could afford dowries were able to make suitable marriages.
In response, village matchmakers turned to arranging marriages overseas. Australia was the most popular destination for Greek immigrants, with almost 175,000 Greeks, mostly men, arriving between 1946 and ’74. Eager to marry women from their own country, young Greek men wrote home to family and friends, requesting an introduction. As the Greek saying went: “Better a shoe from your own parts, even if it has been cobbled …” Photos and letters were exchanged and couples were betrothed without dowries, and without having laid eyes on each other.
Maroulio and her husband-to-be Dionysis were from different villages in the Peloponnese, on the southern coast of Greece. A torn sepia photo of Maroulio’s village, Mesochori, shows a cluster of tiny square whitewashed homes, perched on the rugged cliffside. A small wiry woman with a quick sense of humour, Maroulio remembers being excited by the prospect of escaping to a better life. A photo from 1960 shows her in a long black dress, working in a warehouse in Neapoli, weaving dried figs together with string. It was thankless work and poorly paid, and Maroulio describes her life in Greece as a “misery”. When an uncle living in Australia arranged the marriage with Dionysis, Maroulio quickly said yes.
“I had relatives in Australia and I was very much looking forward to seeing them again. As for my fiancé, whatever he was like, I had to endure it. I would not think of leaving him,” she says. “If I separated, neither my mother nor my brothers would stand by me … Your family wouldn’t want you and would brand you a whore.”
Promised brides arrived in Australia from Greece on ocean liners, dubbed “bride ships”. In 1958 The Age reported “the largest crowd in memory” at Station Pier, Port Melbourne, as thousands of Greek men awaited the Castel Felice. The newspaper photograph shows grown men clambering through the portholes, desperate to see their promised brides.
Greek-Australian academic Dr Panayota Nazou has researched Australia’s promised brides for 12 years. She estimates that, in the 1950s, ’60s and even into the ’70s, as many as 12,000 Greek promised brides came to Australia, some as young as 16. Their virginity – or their “honour” – was considered their most important possession.
It’s a bright autumn day when The Weekly meets Panayota and three promised brides. Inside Panayota’s red brick home, two elderly Greek women – Maroulio Sotiriou and Fani Minas – gather around a kitchen table heavy with home-baked treats. They are dressed up for the occasion – gold jewellery, lipstick and fine clothes. Fani’s husband, Vassilis, and one of their three married daughters, Helen, are here, and Maroulio’s husband, Dionysis, now 94, is here too.
Maroulio, resplendent in a purple party dress, is sharing her stories to hoots of laughter. She remembers Dionysus being shy when they first met. By then, it was September 1962 and he had come to meet her ship, the Patris, which had docked at night in Sydney Harbour. She was struck by the beauty of the city, and the scaffolding in place ready for construction of the Sydney Opera House. Dionysus had bought flowers for her, but left them at home, and Maroulio worried it might be a bad sign.
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