The life and times of Dimitrios Andonaras

The year was 1920 

Dimitrios Andonaras, 15 years old, stood alone on the deck as the boat slipped quietly out of Mytiline harbour. More child than man; he was on a mission. A journey that would take him far away from his family to windblown islands at the end of the Earth. Gulls cried out overhead and Lesvos, the Aegean island that had always been his home, floated quietly out of view. 

I wonder what thoughts assailed him. What fears terrorised him? Did his youthful dreams give him courage on that long-ago day? 

For 15 summers the ‘Island of the Poets’ had held him and formed him. Grilled sardines under the warmth of the Mediterranean sun. Boyhood adventures running through oak and chestnut forests, clinging for aeons, to craggy rocks and peaks. Warm summer seas, a life surrounded by an abundance of olive trees rustling with onshore breezes and the familiar call of the fishing boats. 

But not too far beneath the surface; the island was poor. Very poor.

One thing is for sure – he was not alone. Uncle Stelios Mastrogeorgiou (his Mum’s brother) accompanied him alongside millions of other men heading to the New World to make their fortunes.
From what I can deduce there are there are many reasons for the unprecedented exodus

1. Economic Crisis
“December 1893 was the previous nadir of Greek finance. Prime Minister Trikoupis rose in parliament and uttered the words: “Regretfully, we are bankrupt.” In a dash for modernisation and growth, Greece had woefully over-borrowed. Repayments might have proved troublesome even if the economy had been buoyant, but state revenues stuttered, and overseas earnings sagged alarmingly. Currants made up nearly three-quarters of the country’s exports, and the collapse in demand for them, and so prices, was devastating. By mid-1893, more than half of the Greek budget was being used to service existing loans. It couldn’t last, and it didn’t. The country had to cede control over its finances to a commission of officials from Britain, France, Germany and elsewhere.”
Davis Randall. The Independent

As ‘woefully’ familiar as that particular situation sounds, in the 21st century, it is hard to imagine ourselves as ‘the immigrants’. We watch in horror as children die in stormy seas, as refugees swarm – the other way – into Lesvos camps that burst at the seams. But in 1893 the economic crisis caused a chain reaction that led to mass migration – and it was Europeans who were the immigrants. And what a migration it was! 1846 to 1940 saw the outward movement of 55 million Europeans

This map of Greece shows the main areas from which early Greek immigrants came to New Zealand

2. Years of Oppression
I’m sure Papou would have said ‘the Turks’ had played their part. Lesvos, with a backdrop of economic meltdown, was also just emerging from the yoke of occupation. Turkish domination had – with brief interruptions – lasted 400 years; from 1462 to 1912.

Tears of Chios by Eugene Delacroix

“Despite the Turkish slavery, the inhabitants of Lesvos cultivated their faith and hope for freedom. The monasteries and churches were turned into intellectual and revolutionary centers and secret schools were founded. The marks of the Turkish rule remain vivid till today in Lesvos, as there are many mosques there. In 1824, the islanders revolted against their oppressors but the revolution was drowned in blood. On the 8th of November 1912, the island of Lesvos was liberated by the admiral Koundouriotis and his fleet. The Treaty of Lausanne, signed in 1923, stated the union of the island with the rest of Greece.”

3. Politics
Encouraged by the Greek Government, who eyed remittances with delight, by 1914 almost a sixth of the population of Greece, mainly men, had emigrated. Most went to America but many also made their way to Australia and New Zealand. 
“First arrivals (to New Zealand) in the 19th century were men, mostly bound for the goldfields. Many returned to Greece, but some stayed on. Between 1890 and 1914 more established themselves as fishermen, street hawkers, confectioners and restaurateurs in Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin. Those who were successful encouraged relatives and friends to join them. So chain migration began, from poverty-stricken Ithaca, Cephalonia, Acarnania and Lesbos to Wellington. By 1936 there were 82 Greek-born people living in Wellington.”

Stelios Andonaras

4. Fate
“In traditional Greek culture, a bride often has a dowry. This dowry consists mostly of linens made by the bride and the women of her family. Typical items include towels, sheets, table linens, and other necessities. Often, the father of the bride includes a furnished home for the

Poor Papou Stelios! He now faced the double-whammy of impending dowries and houses for his daughters (Irene, Persephone and Panagiotitsa). And, if that was not bad enough, the Government presented him with a bill. For the ‘kindness’ of being drafted, Emmanuel, Papou’s older brother, compulsory payment was due! I’m guessing Greco Turkish war 1919–1922. Stelios was forced to make a loan for the sum of $40 which left him in debt to Uncle George Moutzouris (who eventually drowned in Turkey while looking for his son Emmanuel who was away fighting in the Greco-Tukish war).

Around the same time Dimitrios’ Mum, Maria, received a letter from her brother, George Mastrogeorgiou. Poupou’s destiny was sealed inside those pages.
Theo George had parted for Wellington, New Zealand, a few years earlier and fate therefore played the final card in the game of his life. Dimitrios had to take his brother, Emmanuel’s place on the slow boat to New Zealand. Theo George was to sponsor his trip in return for hard work in his mid-city Sunshine Milk Bar. He arrived ‘in the British Dominion’ of New Zealand on the s.s. Moana on the 21st Of September. And, true to expectation, Dimitrios worked from morning to night in the bustling cafe. From 7am until 11pm he cleared tables, washed dishes and scrubbed the well-trodden floors; earning enough money to support his entire family back home in Plomari.

Dimirios and Emmanuel Andonaras

Theo George, now having someone trustworthy to run his cafe, decided in 1924 it was time to get married. He set off for Port Said in Egypt where he met his lovely bride, Hariklia Hatzipavlou. Emmanuel survived the war and arrived the same year with sister, Irene and Emmanuel Moutzouris. ( Son of poor George. Maria – his daughter – told me: “Dad came back from the war after intervention, in a dream, from the Virgin Mary. She appeared to him in a Greek Orthodox Church in Turkey where he, nearly dead from starvation, had taken refuge. She told him to ‘keep going’. He then found a miracle in the form of some abandoned cheese made it home to Plomari” *abridged version.).

Love and Marriage
Irene Andonaras married a gentleman named Antonis Tzanis (Anthony Janis). Papou’s other sister Persephone arrived in 1930 with Despina Soteros and siblings, John and Eleftheria Hatzipavlou – who married brother Emmanuel Andonaras. Persephone also got married in New Zealand to Panagiotis (Peter) Papageorge. Emmanuel Moutzouris, eventually married Papou’s other sister, Panagiotitsa (Thea Titsa) whom he met while on holiday in Greece in 1934. This was a love match that was to impact Papou’s life greatly. But we will pick up that story later on.
The Mastrogeorgeous continued to open their home and their large Greek hearts at Number 7 Edge Hill, Wellington to new arrivals from Lesvos. And many said they could not have lasted in the strange windy city without them. 

The Early Years
Did young Dimitrios imagine he would stay and make a life in those windblown isles at the end of the Earth? Did he imagine his whole family would join him? Or had he pictured he would make enough money and go home? Perhaps now I will never know; but settle he did. By the late 1920’s Dimitrios had left the ‘Sunshine’ to buy his own restaurant, The Empire, and later, The Renown, with Nick Yiannoutsos (from Kastos). He was ‘naturalised’ (interesting terminology) in 1927.


“More than 500,000 Greeks — 90 percent men — emigrated to the United States between 1880 and 1920, creating a demographic nightmare for their future as a community due to the lack of women. As a result, the era of the picture bride was born and thousands of young Greek women were sent to America, many only after having seen their prospective husbands in a photograph that was sent to the village from faraway America by a friend or relative attempting to make the connection, or from a marriage agency set up in the immigrant communities abroad.”

When Thousands of Greek Women Arrived as Picture Brides

By Gregory Pappas

In 1934 Dimitrios received a letter announcing his friend Emmanuel Moutzouris was to marry his sister, Titsa (as mentioned previously). This was closely followed by a letter saying the engagement was off! Dimitrios decided this wasn’t right and he had to do his duty. He headed straight for Plomari, which I don’t imagine was a short trip. It turned out the problem was not with the couple – but the Mothers and some communal ovens used in those days to cook Sunday dinners. Eventually somehow the problem was resolved because Dimitrios eventually met Demetra, a friend of his sisters, at their wedding.

Dimitrios Andonaras and Nick Yannoutsos

Another two years would pass before Papou’s mind decided, once and for all, upon marriage. And, with no suitable women in New Zealand his heart kept returning to Demetra. Nick Yiannoutsos’, bestie and business partner, was also quite taken with a picture of Metaxia Kalafatelis, Papou’s cousin.

Demetra Fergadoitis stood on the deck of a ship. It is hard to imagine what thoughts ran through her mind as her home, the Aegean island of Lesvos, floated slowly out of view. 
She was accompanied on the boat-to-the-end-of-the-earth, via Port Said, by Metaxia . It was a long and dangerous journey for unmarried women. They must have been terrified.

When she was young, Demetra had been sent to Athens to learn dressmaking, a useful skill for ladies of the day. And, I imagine, in those days quite some adventure. But however much of an adventure that might have been. Or however far her wildest dreams might have carried her – life was about to take a dramatic twist the day Dimitri Andonaras finally came home. The year was 1935. She had just been six when Dimitrios had left 18 years before. 

Yiayia was beautiful. A mini-movie star with petite chiselled features and a size two shoe. She was delicate, lovely. Of course I’m biased, but there surely cannot have been a more gorgeous women in all of Greekdom – inside and out.  Papou chose well. As big and gregarious as he was, she was delicate and gentle. He approached Demetra’s parents to ask  for her hand in marriage. 

Athena and Ioannis Fergadotis

Her family, parents Ionnis the Grocer and Athena Fergadiotis, four sisters, Zinovia, Zaharo, Persa, Maria and brother, Dimitri lived nearby the Andonaras family home in Plomari. I imagine they were there to wave her goodbye.

On the other side of the world Dimitrios patiently waited with Nick. Their brides-to-be slowly sailed towards a double Wellington wedding with their glory boxes via Port Said, Colombo and Australia. 

Double wedding!

For the Greek Community the wedding was the highlight of the year and everyone was invited. The Reception was held at the Pan Hellenic Hall on the corner of Marion and Ghuznee Streets where, in keeping with tradition, Demetra’s bridesmaids danced around her wedding dress to the tune of “Orea pou eivai n niffi mas”. The night was filled with the sound of happy Greeks dancing.

Family Life: The Early Years in Wellington

Stelios was born in 1938 closely followed by Athena in 1939. Soon after, news came from Greece that Dimitrios’ father (Stelios Snr) had passed away suddenly. So he arranged for Maria his Mitera, to emigrate to NZ and live in their family home in Glamis Avenue.

Maria Andonaris at home in New Zealand

During the war years Papou and Nick worked long hours feeding New Zealanders and American soldiers. The cultural palate had not yet developed beyond the exotic dish of ‘steak, eggs ‘n chips’. In the background Papou was raising funds throughout New Zealand, for distribution by the Red Cross in Greece. The Greek Government later offered him a citation for his assistance.

Papou at The Renown Milk Bar

During those same years Demetra and Maria worked hard at home feeding their own first generation New Zealanders. They were excellent cooks. But kitchen-life didn’t pass completely without drama. My Father remembers pastitsio, dolmades, moussaka and Sunday roast timed perfectly for midday. Poupou laid down a no-garlic rule because of the lingering smell. However when Metaxia (who had become a neighbour) was baking the her garlic infused Sunday Roast Dimitrios was seen breaking into a sprint with saliva drooling down his cheeks to number 9 for a meze and ouzo! 

Dimitra, Metaxia and the first generation Kiwis: Danny, Stelios and Athena

Preserving ‘salsa’ was an annual summer event that usually passed without hitch. One year however, instead of using preserving jars, Dimitra and Maria decided to make use of some large beer bottles. All was well until it was time for the first big sauce reveal. Everyone hungrily awaited into their meal as Yiayia took the lid off the tomato salsa. With a whoosh and a bang tomato plastered the entire kitchen. My Father says: “We all stood there shocked and stunned in disbelief. The tomato, possibly with the help of some remnants of beer, had fermented sneakily in the bottle and did not need any persuasion to be relieved of its container.”


In mid-20th century New Zealand “Andonaras” was a terribly foreign sounding name. And in 1943, announcing himself equal by legal deed poll, Dimitrios Andonaras became, Jim Andis. Surrendering his name. His heart, however, remained proudly often complexly, Greek. 

Becoming Jim


With the benefit of being raised in a more egalitarian time it is a difficult decision to comprehend. I can only conclude it speaks volumes about how proud he was to be a new-New Zealander. It also speaks volumes about how difficult it is to be an immigrant and about the impact of that on personal identity. I believe the trauma of that loss, alongside a mixed bag of pride and inferiority, is handed unconsciously to children and children’s children, for years to come.
And so Dimitrios Andonaras became Jim Andis and the family name became Andis… To me it’s a bit of an abridged whitewashed, wishy-washy name that sounds a little Scandinavian. But to him a name to be proud of that represented all that he had accomplished for his extended family and immediate family.

Extended family picnic in Wellington


The language barrier formed a psychological wall to wider social acceptance. By the year my Yiayia arrived – 1935 – New Zealand had 1.5million people. Although immigration had begun to add shades and colours to society, it was still very much a British colony. New immigrants were eyed with a certain suspicion and frustration. Much as they are today, ironically often by children of these same immigrants.

Sunday best

In the Greek community they were among friends. They had cultural and family connections and the more isolated they felt, the more they bonded and hunkered down. Dimitra and the housebound women of the Greek community had little or no opportunity to speak English. And, from what I understand, as ‘housewives’ their husbands – in a kind of – ‘Whatever would they need English for?’ collective consciousness of the day, saw no reason for them to learn it. They conversed in Greek within the confines of the home. I can only imagine how isolating and imprisoning that was. It apparently took many years before Yiayia had the confidence to speak English. An oversight that meant by the time my sister Marie and I came along… we never had the privilege of having a proper conversation with her. 

Andis Family

A first generation son my Father wanted nothing more than to be like the other kids. He says: “The local Kiwi boys were bemused when they heard my Father rolling out in loud baritone voice over the garden fences: ‘Stelio! Stelio Dinner is ready.’ Who is Staniol? They wondered out loud. I felt ashamed. Only Greek was spoken at home. My sister, Athena and I went to our first day of school not speaking a word of English. Somehow my Father had, with the best of intentions, and with as much love as his big Greek heart could hold, unconsciously led us to feel the same isolation and sense of exclusion that he had felt.” My Father eventually changed his name to Stan.

Yiayia (Dimitra) with her sisters: Zinovia Varvayanis, Zaharo Almiros, Persa Bekrellis, Maria Koukaras and their Mum (Athena Fergadiotis) on a trip home

So, with what I assume were similar good intentions, many years later, my Father declined to teach my sister Marie and I Greek. I remember being so envious of my cousins, John, Dimitri and Maria, who could who could communicate properly with and really know, Yiayia. For us communication with her was like nutmeg sitting on a delicious sweet bowl of her famous risogalo. A hint of flavour but not the full dish. At Greek picnics we were the outsiders. Not by how welcome we were made – but how we felt. With dark hair and eyes, I certainly looked the part, but I wasn’t a member of the tribe. Greek-ness wafted over me like frankincense at the Orthodox church for an exotic moment and was gone. 

Greek Taxi

Much like riding a donkey life is not very often smooth or uncomplicated. 

Cousins! John, Dimitri + Maria Christopher. Marie and Debbie Andis

The Greek community: Mid-20th century life in Wellington

During the war food rations became a part of every-day life. And Nick – on the quiet – had secured a steady supply of black market eggs from the country town of Levin. The air-raid shelter Jim had constructed to protect his family from the potential Japanese invasion proved to be a perfect storeroom. Stealthily, in the dead of night, the eggs were stowed away. Unfortunately word got out to the boys in the ‘hood’. It was a booty too tempting to ignore and the shelter saw its only combat, destroying the valuable goods, the evidence and playtime for a good long while.

My Father remembers music blasting from 78rpm records on Poupou’s high powered valve radiogram and dancing to the ‘Kalamatiano’. He says: “The radio was Dad’s second companion. He constructed a special aerial so that on Sundays he could tune into the Short Wave transmission Church Service from Greece. He also got to know some amateur radio buffs who would regularly call on Sunday morning.” 

Original Greek Orthodox Church

The Greek Orthodox Church was a rock in the small Greek community. My Father says: “Dad enjoyed chanting (Spaltis) during the service and his deep voice harmonised, in true Byzantine fashion, with the higher voice of his brother Emmanuel Andis.”

At the Pan Hellenic Association aka, “The Club”, men swapped yarns over the inevitable rounds of cards, mezethes, ouzo and coffee in true ‘Kafenion’ style. My Father says: “After a while Dad became President and took his responsibilities very seriously. When the time came to purchase suitable new premises. After he died it was revealed that he actually mortgaged our family home in order to raise sufficient funds. He didn’t even tell his wife – my mum,”

Greek dances were held regularly. This was where, after several whiskies and dancing into the wee small hours, Jim excelled in raising funds with raffle tickets. Inevitably, he was always a winner because it turned out he purchased most of the books. He then proceeded to put the prize up for “auction” which he would, in turn, purchase the prize after furious bargaining. 

Saturday mornings were dedicated to following my father, Stelios play Soccer and Cricket. He says: “Standing on the side lines, he was the sole supporter. His consistent baritone, a back drop to every game. During one cricket season he was asked by the school to assist as Umpire. Dad had no knowledge of the rules whatsoever – but decided to take up the challenge ‘for the sake of the school’, took umpire position behind the stumps. The bowler immediately came running in and appealed thunderously – “howzat?” It was a leg-before-wicket appeal. Poor Dad – the ball was about 2 metres outside the stumps and clearly not out- but without any knowledge of the rules – the batsman was given out. A minor squabble occurred when the opposition captain complained. Dad was never asked again!”

Saturday night was card-night at home in the lounge at Glamis Avenue. When things really got serious, the game went on for most of the night, leaving only the stony poker faces of the players visible through the pluming cloud of cigarette smoke.

Assimilation Part 2
It was on one such smoky Saturday card night that my Father’s, one and only big act of rebellion was announced. He was to marry Mum. Another recent immigrant – but a “POM”! As my English Mother tells it, there was a LOT of cowardly-custard cowering in the kitchen on the day of the big introduction “What’s he going to say?!” “How will he react?!” Oblivious, Papou was deeply entrenched in his game. Aunty Athena, my Father and Yiayia conjured plans and strategies over a bowl of steaming tripe. Thinking it was a British dish, Yiayia had cooked it to help my mother feel at home. Fortunately not only was that the last time anyone had to eat tripe (Mum preferred Greek) but she soon put everyone out of their misery. Having enough of the: ‘how’s he going to react’ club, and (not coming from an immigrant family and having no comprehension of what was behind all the drama) she wadded through the cigarette smoke and up to the card game. Sitting herself down down next to Papou, she introduced herself. He loved her right away and, much to everyone’s surprise, nothing was ever said about her lack of Greek DNA.

Blended New Zealand family

Life, when you don’t know the rules, can be much like Cricket. Sometimes you get it right- sometimes you don’t… but the important thing is to mix it all up with love and try. 

Looking back over the years, I feel so blessed to have been exposed to Papou’s huge Greek personality and massive heart. Grateful for the large handfuls of Pinky Bar chocolates, chippies, and orange Fanta. For the olives, anchiovies, soutzoukos, halvah, feta cheese, and meat on a spit. To the books he gave me filling my imagination with stories of The Odessy – Golden Fleece, Cyclops and sunshine on Greek Islands. To Greek picnics, drunken trifle and outings with our cousins to the Trade Fair (the only time I remember actually being allowed to go on rides), thrilling 007 movies and Smorgasbord.
And, of course, to my dear Yiayia! It chokes me up remembering her trying really hard to read to me ‘The Little Red Caboose’ as Saint George slayed a Greek Dragon on her alter.

The smell of frankincense, the flavours of Greek food and a vibrant culture of dancing, mythology, flavours and music that my Kiwi mates didn’t have. I admit, as a second generation New Zealander there is also a sense of loss. A feeling that something, along with a language, was missed out. 
Something deep in my bones I have never stopped longing for.

15 years old and standing on the deck of that boat, as his beloved island floated out of view, Dimitrios Andonaras could not begin to imagine all that would become.
And the seas – both metaphoric and real – that he crossed would, in many ways, continue to be crossed by his descendants for generations to come…

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