My father, John Kannis, was 21 years old when he arrived in Perth, Western Australia, in 1946, with his five older siblings and his parents, as refugees who’d been displaced by the war and forced to flee Kastellorizo. They left for Australia by ship from Port Said in Egypt to join relatives who’d emigrated there after WWI, and were welcomed by an already prospering Kastellorizian community in Perth. Soon afterwards, my father opened his tailor shop, alongside other members of his family who were greengrocers, fishmongers, and cake makers.
The family brought along a rich cultural heritage of recipes for traditional Kastellorizian sweets such as halva tis nifis (the bride’s halva), katoumari, strava, and sweet preserves, all of which are Anatolian-influenced. They brought their music and dance, too, including a wedding sousta, or couple’s dance, known as Manahara, which means “Mother’s happiness.”
My mother was born in Perth, but her mother, like my father, was born in Kastellorizo. Mother took so much pleasure and pride in preparing feasts for my father’s name-day, but that was just one of many such celebrations, as we had 30 first cousins on my father’s side.
Our Easter celebrations would commence, as they do in Greece, at the beginning of Lent. As children, it was always exciting to get our new clothes for Easter Saturday, and we loved attending midnight mass and having magiritsa, the special Easter soup, after the service. On Easter Sunday, the men of the family would visit each household and say “Christos anesti” (“Christ has risen”) to all the women, who would have tables prepared with dyed red eggs, kouroulakia (butter cookies) and kourambiedes (almond cookies) to receive their guests. After church in the evening, we’d celebrate the end of fasting with lamb. For my three siblings and I, our lives were centered around these family gatherings and Greek orthodox traditions.
There was no thought of socializing outside the group; our life revolved around our relatives and the larger Kastellorizian community. Our extended family was so large that there were plenty of friends for us among our relatives. As the youngest, I was lucky enough to see all my cousins get married according to the traditions of Kastellorizo. My father, who loved singing and sang in the church, was one of the main singers for the wedding songs, too.
At home, I spoke Greek with my father, my grandmother and my aunts and uncles. My siblings and I went to a special Greek school once a week and we also attended Sunday school. Nowadays, younger people don’t speak as much Greek. The sense of identity and community is still present, although it’s less conservative in nature, and many Kastellorizians have married non-Greeks, adding variety to our future generations.
My first time on the island
My father loved Perth, and part of this love came from the fact that it was very similar to Kastellorizo: the climate, the proximity of the sea and even the landscape of the shoreline. He’d take me out at dawn on weekends to fish for octopus and to harvest sea urchins, and he’d sing me Greek songs, like Gialo Gialo, in the car.
In 1973, I was 12 and my father was 48. He’d just sold his business and, feeling exhausted, decided to take a vacation and go back to Kastellorizo. I was thrilled that he chose to take me with him. It was his first time back since the war and, sadly, the last time he’d ever see his homeland.
We took the boat from Rhodes, arriving in the middle of the night. The waters of the harbor were calm, and the town was quiet. As he disembarked, my father made the sign of the cross and kissed the ground. Later, he took me to the spot where his family home once stood in the Pera Meria area. We sat on an old kaiki and he took my photo. This vacation was life-changing; coming here as a descendant of the island was very emotional and a pivotal experience. I fell in love with the place and from that moment onward dreamt of renovating a house and living here where my ancestors had lived for centuries.
The dream that came true
Throughout my years in the hospitality industry in Australia, Kastellorizo was in my blood and soul. It was my muse for how I styled everything, culminating in my gift shop/kafeneion Boucla, in Perth.
The word boucla is what Kastellorizians call a round gold or silver brooch worn to fasten items of clothing. I chose this word because, as a circular form, it represented the full circle I was taking retracing my father’s steps and creating a business on the same street where he’d opened his first shop. I painted the walls in rich shades of ochre and red, hung tapestries, found traditional Greek furniture, and put up photos of my parents and the island. My Kastellorizian customers would tell me they felt they were in Greece. I had managed, it seemed, to create a cozy atmosphere, and people really loved being there.
My father died one year after we visited Kastellorizo, and my only brother passed away two years later. We spent years in mourning. I feel blessed that I had this heritage to hold on to, and the supportive network of my family. With my father’s death, my love for Kastellorizo grew.
I came back to the island with my mother in 1981; it was her first visit. I returned again with my husband and my son John in 1989 and then, in 1990, my daughter Evana was conceived on Kastellorizo. I really wanted to buy a house here but, as it turned out, we didn’t get back to the island for another 15 years. When we finally did, our son and daughter, by then 18 and 15 years old respectively, fell in love with the place as I had. We bought a plot of land and, in 2007, we built a house. From 2008 onwards, I came back every year and then, in July of 2018, my husband and I started our newest adventure and moved to Kastellorizo.
The greatest beauty of the island lies in its the landscape. It’s strange, but this rugged beauty is similar to that of Australia. I feel blessed to have two homelands, Kastellorizo and Australia, two places which, at the end of the day, are not as far from each other as you might think.
Life on the island
In the autumn, winter and spring, my husband and I often start our days with a morning hike up to Avlonia, where we explore old farms and what’s left of their orchards, and look for the ancient patitiria, or stomping pits, where they used to make wine and olive oil. It’s so lush and green up there, and in the spring the wildflowers are abundant.
As a passionate gardener, discovering the beauty of the environment and the plethora of flora and fauna is such a pleasure. I love learning what grows here and how these herbs and plants were used in ancient times. The soil here is incredibly fertile and rich in minerals; the mountainside is home to oregano, thyme, sage, mint and chamomile. There are fig trees, pink peppercorn trees, olive trees, carob trees, wild pear trees, almond trees and pomegranate trees. Wild garlic grows here, as do shallots and caper bushes. Edible wild greens grow profusely in the winter, as do chickpeas. Together with the island’s goats and sheep and, of course, the abundant fish in the sea, there’s nearly everything you need.
The island is home to many exotic flowers, including irises, white and maroon-colored lilies, crocuses, pink lisianthus, cyclamens, asphodels and different varieties of daisies. The bush with the brilliant yellow flower called Stouvi is coveted for its wood, a useful fire starter. Nasturtium flowers and leaves add color and flavor to our salads. We have begun preserving olives, capers, figs and bitter orange, and my daughter has even made syrup and flour from the ancient carob fruit.
Living here, island-bound as we are, does come with some challenges, such as having to figure out where to order things that you can’t buy here. My husband is a devoted bread maker and has sourced a biodynamic-grown ancient grain from Crete. Imagine how wonderful it would be to grow all our own fruits and vegetables, to make cheese and yogurt from goats’ and sheep’s milk like they do on other islands? My husband would love nothing more than to make wine from the native ancient grape varieties. Who knows, perhaps one day we can do all this on Kastellorizo.