Barber Angelo Lazerou reflects on what it was like to migrate to Australia at the age of ten. He speaks with UOW student reporter Aden Day about his journey.
There are a lot of dangers at sea, but it is the sounds that stick with you the most. The mournful wail of the steam whistle, waves crashing on the bow and plates shattering as the ship tilts at terrifying angles. A ship at sea is like a living, metal beast, breathing fire and steam through gigantic boilers below deck, while weary travellers’ breathe in the salt air above.
You might even find yourself walking the plank at the end of a pirate’s sword, while a giant squid circles the waves below. This was the imagination of 10-year-old Angelo Lazerou during his long journey to a new life, his parents having made the hard decision to migrate to Australia.
Angelo always loved exploring. When he wasn’t at school, or helping his mother run the house, he was out discovering new things with his friends. He felt a strong connection to Greece. At the time, Angelo couldn’t understand why his family was leaving. Standing on the top deck of the ship he watched his homeland disappear over the horizon and was sad. Sure, it was an adventure, but he was leaving his whole life behind. He would have to start all over again.
Angelo recalls that during the trip many on board suffered inertia from the ships constant rocking.
“I remember there was an old lady who came with us and every day she was seasick,” he says. “Poor woman, I thought she was going to die.”
That was the hardest part Angelo says, not knowing whether you were going to live, or die. “After we got hit by a big wave they called us out to test the life jackets, you never heard so many people crying and screaming. We were only kids.”
Angelo was born in northern Macedonia in 1948. Poverty was a reality for most families and looking back Angelo describes life as being “very backward”. His home was like a maternity ward. There were seven children, of which almost all were born in the house. There was no power, at night he would eat dinner under the light of a kerosene lamp. All clothing was handmade by their mother. In comparison Australia seemed ‘like a holiday’.
Even though poverty was a major concern, it was not the sole reason his parents were forced to leave their homeland. “Dad signed papers against communism in 1945 after the war ended and essentially that gave him two choices – go to prison or be shot,” Angelo says. “Then one day he was taken away, but he and a mate rolled down a hill and managed to escape. They hid for some time. The year I was born was the year it all ended.”
Ten years later Angelo’s parents decided to migrate.
It was a chance of a new beginning, but despite the hardships Angelo had loved the simple life they had lived in Greece. “We were probably a little better off than most because my uncle bought some land and built us a house before he was shot in the civil war. You had to work (the land) though, it was all hands on the old scythe, belt the wheat, grow corn. We even had an old circle that the animals used to walk around. It was very, very old fashioned.”
It is easy to imagine how foreign Australia must have felt to Angelo. The sleepy little town of Cowra in rural NSW would be forever changed when his family finally settled there. Angelo still lives in the same town today, it’s where he met his wife Bev, built his family, home and business. Everyone knows Angelo and Angelo knows everyone. But in the beginning fitting in was hard. “Well, you imagine coming to a country, not knowing a word of English,” he says. Making friends was particularly challenging.
“I had to go to school when I was (almost) 11. You get there and what do you do? Everybody just looks at you, like you’re different and in those days people used to be very critical. They called you ‘wog’ and ‘dago’, but it only made us stronger.” Coming from a large family, Angelo was never alone and relied on his siblings to back him up.
“We were close in those days, we had to be,” he says. “Everything changes when you come to another country, but then everyone gets married and starts living their own lives. We used to have a lot of fun back then, at Christmas we’d be dancing and carrying on, it was magic.”
Angelo felt like an ant under the headmaster’s boot. At first, he was put in an ‘OA’ class, where ‘the dunces’ were sent, which made things difficult. Changing to Imperial after learning the Metric system in Greece was particularly challenging. Thankfully Angelo already had a strong drive from working the fields and it didn’t take him long to catch up.
“You had to pick it up quick. By the time I was 12 I could speak english, just as good as anybody else,” he says. “When you’re young enough you can drop everything and just learn it. Eventually I ended up teaching this Swiss kid who couldn’t understand english and he ended up being dux of the bloody year!”
Cowra was a busy railroad town in those days. Like most young boys he would watch the old steam trains rattle by and fantasise about becoming an engine driver. To Angelo steam engines had a personality and he would imagine himself off on some great adventure like Casey Jones. As a child he would see himself at the controls, his hand on the whistle, as the engine snorted and bucked like a bronco, similar to the pirate adventures he had imagined on board the ship.
“It was a calling and it was a good paying job in those days,” he says. “At one stage in my life I wanted to be a builder or even a solicitor, but there’s just no way in the world I could do that. I just couldn’t defend a guilty person. Whereas building and train driving, you don’t have to do any of that, you just do your job”. These future careers would turn out to be little more than dreams.
A the exact age of 14 years and 10 months Angelo’s father found him work. “I’ve got you a job”, his father had said. “You’re going to be a barber, you’ll never run out of work.” It wasn’t as exiting as being a train driver or builder, but it was the start of a career nonetheless.
After completing his apprenticeship, Angelo put his career on hold when he was shipped off to Vietnam in 1969. “It was a funny war, because all you did was try and find (the enemy). If you were lucky enough you didn’t run in to them and if you were unlucky you’d run into some too many. I lost three mates there, you take an oath not to talk about war.”
Once he returned to Australia, Angelo started a family with his wife Bev. Together they have four children. He then built his own business, that he still runs today at the age of 70. His barber shop is an extension of Angelo’s personality and interests. You can barely make out the paint on the walls through his eclectic collection of footy cards, Tazo’s and posters of old movie stars. His hands are a blur and the banter he makes is just as quick as his clippers.
Cowra is where Angelo has built his life, but his home is still Greece. He has revisited the town he grew up in multiple times since leaving and doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon. “My calling is back where I was born, it’s a big draw card and there’s so much I still haven’t seen,” he says. “It’s changed a lot since I was there, but I still feel a strong connection, it’s home.”
“I didn’t want to come to Australia. I’m more-or-less part of what you’d call a stolen generation. I was very, very happy as a kid. We had a lot of fun. That’s the part I really miss in my life, because that part was really beautiful. Innocence is bliss, and those days were innocence and bliss.”