Journey from Smyrna:
The extraordinary story of my refugee family
By Denise B. Mifsud
My father Alexander J. H. Cassar rarely spoke about his traumatic early childhood. He was born in the Aegean coastal city of Smyrna (now Izmir) a wonderfully cosmopolitan place with a majority Greek population as well as Armenians, Europeans, Levantines, Turks and Jews. Smyrna was famed among other things for its great harbour and bustling bazaars.
In 1919 after the First World War, in which Turkey hadfought on the ‘wrong’ side, the Allies decided to let the Greek army invade the city and occupy it – ostensibly to protect the population. It was a disastrous decision and led to what is known as The Catastrophe or Great Fire of Smyrna.
After the occupation the Greek army, not content with this plum city, had continued to push eastwards into Anatolia where there were large Greek populations in all the towns and villages. This sparked the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-22.
After a series of victories, the Greeks were routed by Turkish troops and forced back to Smyrna where the Turks set the city ablaze in revenge. The waterfront became a living hell as 350,000 Greek soldiers and desperate refugees driven from their villages amassed on the quayside.
My father Alexander Cassar escaped by sea on a British warship that was among the vessels stationed in the harbour watching as the horror unfolded.
As I grew older I became more and more curious to learn about what had happened during that terrible time 100 years ago when Smyrna was destroyed. This memoir is an attempt to piece together the threads of the lives of my family that were so brutally disrupted and then slowly rebuilt.
ONE – Exodus
‘The 1813 Plague of Malta had catastrophic consequences’
My story begins in the late 19th century with the emigration of my great grandparents from Malta. By the time of their departure, Malta’s economy had been in decline for decades due largely to the 1813 Plague of Malta which had catastrophic consequences which lasted long after the pandemic had been contained. The epidemic is believed to have started in Ottoman Turkey before spreading to Egypt and arriving in Malta – then a British protectorate – on infected ships from Alexandria. The ships were quarantined but stolen goods, which began to circulate in the islands, brought the disease onshore.
Before the plague Malta was thriving thanks to the presence of the British navy during the Napoleonic wars and the relocation of British factories from Sicily and Naples to the islands of Gozo and Malta.
The main industry in 1813 was cotton. During the plague, which lasted a year and killed 5 per cent of the population of the two islands, quarantine restrictions stopped the production and export of cotton in its tracks as looms were close down and people were banned from gathering and moving between the villages, towns and ports.
Some ports imposed quarantines on Maltese ships until 1826 while other factors such as the growing popularity of Egyptian and Indian cotton, which could be produced far more cheaply, contributed to the economic decline.
As the economy started to spiral towards bankruptcy, people began emigrating from the archipelago at ever increasing rates. By the 1840s some 20,000 Maltese – about 15 per cent of the population – had left. My ancestors were among those who joined the exodus.
Most emigrants left for the North African coast, heading to Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Egypt and in particular to the cities of Algiers, Constantine, Sousse and Tripoli. Significant numbers also went to the Levant (or eastern Mediterranean) to port cities such as Beirut, Smyrna (now Izmir) and Constantinople (Istanbul). Sizeable Maltese communities became established in these places. Just a few hundred emigrated to the Greek islands.
One branch of my family, the Cassars and Cilia La Cortez, who had British passports, went to live in Smyrna on the Aegean coast. The other branch, my future in-laws the Mifsuds, emigrated to Tunisia. They too had British passports as Malta was under British rule. At that time Tunisia was a French protectorate with a large European population including many British people.
TWO – Smyrna
“A wonderfully cosmopolitan city where East and West mingled in a spectacular manner”
Smyrna, the coastal city to which the Cassars and Cilia La Cortez families came, was a wonderfully cosmopolitan and mostly prosperous place. It boasted an ancient and impeccable pedigree, having been founded by the Greeks, taken over by the Romans, and rebuilt by Alexander the Great before becoming part of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century.
Giles Milton has left a compelling picture of Smyrna at the beginning of the 20th century in his book Paradise Los: Smyrna 1922. In it he describes the bustling streets packed with people of all nationalities, the busy harbour, the magnificent seafront hotels, brasseries and cafes in one of which a Frenchman Louis de Launay recalled seeing a crowd dressed with: “Green turbans, Armenian hats, red fezzes, embroidered American hats and the gleaming brass of the hookah pipes.”
The famous traveller Gertrude Bell also described the bustling bazaars of Smyrna which she visited in 1900:”The bazaars are delightfully Oriental and of enormous size. Here and there you come out of the narrow covered streets into a square court surrounded by some old khan, the walls of it dating back to Genoese times and the deep verandahs housing a motley collection of Armenian Antiquity dealers, Turkish counting houses, store rooms, baths and heaven knows what. Bales of dried fruits were lying everywhere, ready for shipping, but all the business with the agriculturists of the interior, which makes the bazaars of Smyrna such a wonderful centre of trade, was over a month ago.”
This was of course the trade in figs and dates which were harvested in summer and were a Christmas specialty and the best in the world.
“In no city did East and West mingle physically in so spectacular a manner,” wrote the American consul George Horton. But later he was to witness scenes of horror that he would carry to his grave.
Smyrna had its rough side too. The Jewish areas were poor and tourists were regularly taken to enjoy the colourful poverty of the ‘picturesque’ Turkish quarter, for ironically it was the Turkish population of this Ottoman city who were the most dispossessed of all its inhabitants and in the minority.
The majority of Smyrna’s population were Greek. By 1920 they numbered nearly a third of a million (according to Milton) and they dominated the trade in figs and fruit for which the region was famous. The remainder of Smyrna’s inhabitants were a mixture of Muslims, Armenians, Jews, Americans and Europeans. At the top end of the social scale were a number of very wealthy foreign families, the ‘Levantines’. Though mostly of European descent, the Levantines had lived in Smyrna since the early 19th century and were fully integrated and they had a stake in every commercial activity that went on in the city.
Most of these Levantine families lived outside the centre, in suburbs such as Cordelio and Boudja or in Paradise, which was the American compound. There was also a Levantine community at Bournabat, some 6 miles from the city centre, where the families occupied a series of palatial mansions set in large gardens. Their lives revolved around dinners, tennis, hunting, club days, boating, opera, theatre, balls – with endless visits to other families filling any gaps in the diary.
Smyrna was governed by an enlightened Ottoman ruler, Rahmi Bey, a benign despot who managed to ensure that the vastly disparate communities within this complex city generally speaking lived and traded in peace and harmony.
This then was the world into which my father Alexander Joseph Hector Cassar was born in 1903. His father – my grandfather Polycarp Cassar – was a businessman selling and exporting Anatolian rugs.
The fashion for so called Turkey rugs was partly fuelled by Queen Victoria who bought many for her palaces and the industry grew so rapidly that by the early 20th century it was said to be the second largest employer in Turkey next to the railways. In Smyrna, the Oriental Carpet Manufactures (OCM) was set up by British merchants in 1907 and expanded rapidly to gain control of the trade.
Polycarp Cassar already had two children – Emmanuel and Baptistina (whom we shall meet again later in Tunisia ) – by a wife who had died in childbirth. His second wife, my Italian grandmother Victoria Foscolo, bore him three more children, my Dad Alexander, Irene and James. Their home was in the Levantine community of Bournabat. I do not know if their house was one of the ‘palatial mansions’ but they were well off and wanted for nothing.
My father use to address his parents using the polite form. He called his Dad ‘Maestro Poly’ and his Mum ‘Kyria Victoria’ – kiera being ‘lady’ in Greek.
Incidentally the name Polycarp is peculiar to the region and comes from a disciple of
SaintJohn the Baptist – St Polycarp- who was born circa 69AD in Smyrna.
Pictures taken in Smyrna show that my grandfather Polycarp Cassar was a tall man, over 6 foot, while my grandmother was a foot smaller than him. In a family photo they can be seen standing either side of my uncle James.
My mother Marie, who was seven years younger than Dad, was also from Smyrna. Her mother Catherine Mangir, was Armenian but I do not know the origins of her father, Joseph Marie Cilia La Cortez.
Tragedy had also struck this side of the family at childbirth and Joseph’s first wife died as a result of giving birth to a boy, Charles. Joseph’s period of mourning appears to have been short lived, for he soon proposed to his dead wife’s sister, my grandmother Catherine, and they were married. They went on to have six children: Yvonne, Alfred, Louise, Fanny, Marie (my mother) and Renee.
Joseph was a well paid official in charge of the main Cassaba train station at Smyrna. This would have been an important and lucrative job at the time for stations were very busy and station masters looked after all the business that went through them, and many tips were no doubt involved in doing so.
The couple lived in a big house in Cordelio, to the north of Smyrna with some 10,000 residents, half of them Greek, a quarter Armenian and the remainder Europeans and Turkish.
The Cilia La Cortez family also enjoyed a good standard of living, with a large house and servants. All the children had a nanny and, when they were old enough, they were packed off to boarding school one by one.
The fact that my mother and her three sisters were boarders is of particular importance in my story, and I will come back to this in the next chapter.
In his short history of Cordelio, Niko Kararas writes that towards 1922 the area had nine Greek schools, a Turkish high school and two Catholic schools including Notre Dame de Sion for girls. This may have been the school my mother and her siblings attended.
In On Being a Levantine in Izmir, a former pupil of the Notre Dame de Sion school, Claire Kopri, describes the typical education girls received at this period as follows:
“The schoolchildren firstly had to go to the nursery school in Notre Dame de Sion, and later to the elementary school in the same school. We used to have a teacher who was called Mademoiselle Valentina. Teaching the pupils how to read well was not that much of a concern in the school really. For a long time Turkish did not play any role in my life. They taught us in French in the school. Five years of elementary school, three years of middle school and another year would make the whole typical educational experience of a schoolboy or girl. Then he or she had to take an exam held at the consulate and get a diploma.”
CHAPTER THREE – THE CATASTROPHE
“No one noticed that twilight was rapidly approaching”
Smyrna remained virtually untouched by the Great War of 1914-18. Business continued to flourish and it seems that most people did not regard the conflict which was raging on their doorstep as having anything to do with them. As Giles Milton writes: “In the genteel colony of Bournabat, the Whittalls and Girauds stuck rigidly to the old rules and conventions. Their daily lives retained the Edwardian splendour. No one noticed that twilight was rapidly approaching.”
Once the war was over, Smyrna did not have any say in its future. However its fate was sealed by the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Lloyd George was a passionate supporter of Greek ambitions to rebuild their long lost empire – the so called Megali Idea – which would see all the Greek people of Asia Minor brought under the rule of a newly formed Greek Empire. Lloyd George had told Greece’s prime minister Eleftherios Venizelos that if his government joined the war on the side of the Allies, he could ‘have’ Smyrna – and the fertile lands around it – as a reward.
At the Peace Conference, Lloyd George told his colleagues in Paris that in his opinion Greece should send troops to Smyrna as per his promise to Venizelos. The Greek Prime Minister was duly summoned to Paris and told that President Wilson of the United States, Clemenceau of France and Lloyd George had decided that Greece should occupy Smyrna. In light of what happened as a consequence – and was foreseen by many advisers to the conference – this casual disposal of the territory seems unbelievable.
Greek forces landed in Smyrna in May 1919 and trouble immediately flared up on the waterfront where the jubilant invaders waving flags and making tactless displays of Greek dancing inflamed the Turkish residents. A shot was fired from the Turkish barracks at this point and this led to brutal but short lived reprisals. Turkswere bayoneted, beaten and many taken prisoner. The Turkish quarter was looted and hundreds died, some say 400 Turks and 100 Greeks were killed in the first days of the occupation.
Order was soon restored and the next two years were relatively quiet in Smyrna. Under the stewardship of Rahmi Bey, almost all the important Turkish functionaries were kept in their posts to quell rebellion and business resumed as normal. Among the rich Levantine families, the Girauds, Woods, Pattersons and Whittalls, the gaiety of the pre-war years was recovered. In Bournabat, where my father was growing up as a teenager, life went on as if nothing had happened.
However the occupation of Smyrna had sent shockwaves through Constantinople and it was not long before a Nationalist army headed by Mustafa Kemal (later Mustafa Kemal Ataturk) would recapture the city.
The forces of Mustafa Kemal gathered in Anatolia and Asia Minor and here nationalists, brigands and chettes (irregular soldiers) roamed the countryside attacking Greek and Armenian villages. There were numerous atrocities, in particular against Armenians. The massacre of the Greeks of Aydin 50 miles south of Smyrna is just one of the many terrible episodes recorded.
As 1921 wore on Smyrna’s economy went into decline as a result of the troubles in the interior of Anatolia which severely disrupted trade. Public services stopped functioning and even the great Levantine families were affected, although their response to the decline seems to have been to spend all day at lunch!
The growth of the nationalist forces under Kemal was worrying the Greek generals who decided in their wisdom to push deeper into Anatolia to deliver what they hoped would be a knockout blow to Kemal’s troops. A few early victories led them further into the delusion that they would re-conquer Asia Minor.
King Constantine – the uncle of the late Duke of Edinburgh – was now back in power and hisdesire to restore the Greek empire knew no bounds. Despite the counsel of his brother Andrew, the King encouraged his army to push even further into Anatolia. “It is high time the [Turks] disappeared once more and went back into the interior of Asia, whence they came,” he told his sister in the summer of 1921.
A year later, in August 1922, the 200,000 strong Greek army which had unwisely pressed into the Anatolian desert was routed at the Battle of Dumlupinar. Within days of the defeat a tidal wave of soldiers and refugees began to surge back to Smyrna, pursued by the victorious Turkish forces.
The events were recorded by the Levantine heiress Hortense Wood. Looking out of the window of her house in Bournabat in September, Hortense realised that something catastrophic had happened to the Greek army in central Anatolia. “I saw endless streams of disbanded Greek soldiers. A miserable rabble, ragged, weary and wan and with them hundreds of refugees….plodding their way under a burning sun.” Behind and pursing them to their fate came the now victorious Turkish army.
Within a week, this tsunami of human misery would be camped on the waterfront of Smyrna. Hearing of the defeat of the Greek army, 21 warships were now stationed in the harbour but if you suppose that the next stage would be a miraculous evacuation on the lines of Dunkirk, you would be much mistaken.
The Greek ships in the quay did embark thousands of soldiers but the refugees and stragglers were a different matter as the ships were supposed to uphold complete neutrality.
The scale of the impending disaster was soon apparent to the leaders of America and Europe.
The American ambassador warned that Kemal’s forces would follow their victory with a massacre. The British consul urged everyone with British nationality to leave Smyrna. One by one, the great families of Bournabat quit their palatial homes and moved into their townhouses in Smyrna – with the exception of Hortense Wood who refused to go.
On the 9th of September the Turkish cavalry swept into Smyrna making a powerful impression with their gleaming swords and magnificent horses. Orderly, smart and well-disciplined, people foolishly believed that all would be well.
“Everyone is inwardly delighted to have the Turks back,” wrote Grace Williamson who was head of the English Nursing Home and who has left a vivid account of the next few days. Her delight soon turned to despair as the Turkish forces, many of them irregulars, began the systematic destruction of Smyrna, pillaging, murdering and raping on a scale that it is almost impossible to conceive.
The rampages began in the Armenian quarter on September 10th. The same day the Orthodox bishop Chrysostomos of Smyrna was murdered by a mob. In Bournabat, now a ghost town, the churches were destroyed and the great villas ransacked.
Themost distressing reports are of the murders and maiming and in particular the rapes. My aunt Yvonne was just a girl when the chettes (irregulars) and soldiers came to their house at Cordelio. She and her mother were both gang raped in front of Joseph and Alfred. There is little doubt that the horror of what happened contributed to the early demise of Joseph and also to the fact that Yvonne never married.
Many parents died trying to defend the honour of their daughters who were subjected to these violent and horrific rapes and sometimes murdered afterwards.
It appears that some of these events were witnessed by the officers on board the ships still stationed in the bay, who watched through their field glasses. Yet still nothing was done to assist the refugees whose numbers had swollen into the hundreds of thousands.
The burning of Smyrna began a day later in the Armenian quarter, on the 13th September. Fanned by strong winds, the flames spread throughout the city and soon reached the waterfront. The quayside, which was over two miles long, now became a refugee camp of abject misery. The flames from the fires were so hot that the miserable hoards were being scalded by the heat and many people drowned jumping into the water to try and escape.
In a chilling note, Oran Raber a tourist who was unlucky enough to witness the events wrote: “There was a choice of three kinds of death: the fire behind, the Turks waiting at the side streets and the ocean in front…”
News of the Great Fire briefly touched the world press. ‘Smyrna Wiped Out’ was the headline in the New York Times. “Tonight’s holocaust is one of the biggest fires in the world’s history,” wrote Ward Price in the Daily Mail.
At first the ships refused to evacuate anyone, claiming it would violate their neutrality. The American Admiral Mark Bristol – who had only US commercial interests at heart and hated “Greeks, Armenians and Jews” – was adamant that he would not lift a finger to help anyone. He gave orders to move his ship away from the quayside to avoid the intense heat. It is recorded that the ships’ bands struck up tunes to drown out the screams and shrill cries of the frantic crowds on the quayside.
By now the harbour and streets were filled with bloated corpses, people, dogs and horses. Everywhere there was a stench of burning flesh yet still more terror-stricken refugees pressed onto the streets and quayside. All were targets for the chettes and regular army as Smyrna was plunged into anarchy with shooting, looting, and rape on a scale that it is almost impossible to imagine today.
A British admiral was one of the first to decide to defy the order to be neutral. He ordered all available boats to be lowered and dispatched to the quayside. There was total chaos as Greeks and Armenians swarmed the boats. Some 20,000 people were rescued and the British warships sailed to Athens, already crowded with refugees, and Malta.
My ancestors were probably aboard these boats for only people with British passports would have been taken, even though others with no papers swam in desperation to the ships and a few managed to scramble on board them.
My father never spoke of his flight from Smyrna and how they reached safety other than to say that when the Turkish army and chettes came to their house, Polycarp spoke to them in perfect Turkish, and they went away.
The saga of Smyrna found an unlikely hero in the figure of Asa Jennings, a 5ft tall hunchbacked employee of the YMCA who mounted a rescue operation to save hundreds of thousands of refugees. There is a short video about him made by MGM which you can see on YouTube.
The diminutive Methodist from New York was aboard one of the ships in the bay witnessing the refusal of his navy and in particular Admiral Bristol to assist. Eventually using a bribe, a lie and a bluff he secured the help of the Greek merchant navy. He became an unofficial admiral and over the next fortnight rescued 250,000 Greeks and Armenians, taking them to nearby islands.
Jennings, who said he “felt the hand of God on his shoulder” was unable to do anything for any men of military age, most of whom were imprisoned and later force marched into the centre of Anatolia to suffer an unknown fate. There is no accurate record of casualties of the Great Fire but historians believe that at least 100,000 people were killed and 160,000 deported to the interior at this time.
This was the beginning of the ethnic cleansing of Anatolia which brought to an end the 3,000-year Greek presence on its Aegean shores. A year after the Great Fire, the Treaty of Lausanne was signed which among other things led to the exchange of Christian and Muslim populations. The Treaty was tantamount to murderous ethnic cleansing – but that is anotherstory.
To this day the question of who started the Great Fire of Smyrna is debated. Giles Milton quotes several eye witness accounts of Turks moving wagons of petrol and gunpowder into the city but some historians say Armenians started the fires which then spread because of the strong winds. As recently as 2018, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said of Izmir: “The biggest blow given to this beautiful city is by the Greek soldiers who burned Izmir as they retreated.”
The argument that the Turks would not have wanted to reduce Smyrna to ashes and ruin its infrastructure certainly carries weight. What benefit to the Turks could this have been? As one of Kemal’s officers Colonel Izmet said: “We have taken Izmir. But what is the use? The city and half of Anatolia have been reduced to ruins.”
The most famous survivor of the Great Fire was Aristotle Onassis, the Greek shipping magnate who was born in Smyrna. His father was avery wealthy tobacco merchant. Onassis was just 16 when the Turks overpowered the city and his father was taken prisoner. Onassis later gave several accounts of his own escape. It seems he watched the city burn from the bridge of a Greek ship. He landed in Athens with other refugees and a year later travelled to Argentina on a refugee passport. Here, with $250 to his name, he began to rebuild the Onassis business empire making his first million in tobacco.
For me however the most famous survivor was my mother who with her three sisters was at a boarding school in Cordelio when the Great Fire broke out.
They would have had no communication with their parents Joseph and Catherine (mobile phones had not been invented!) and I am not entirely sure what happened but somehow their mother and father escaped on a boat along with the older siblings, Yvonne and Albert, and the four girls were left behind.
It is possible that they were told that their parents had died in the fires and likewise Joseph and Catherine must have been told (or thought) that their daughters were dead, otherwise they would not have left Smyrna without them. This remains a mystery. All I know for sure is that in the confusion the family were separated, with Joseph and Catherine plus their older two children leaving on the boats that came to the rescue of those fleeing the Turks.
Incredibly, the four girls were found years later at an orphanage in Smyrna run by The Daughters of Charity of St Vincent of Paul where they had been ever since the Great Fire.
How this discovery came about was quite by accident it seems. In 1932, when the girls had been at the orphanage for some 10 years, a cousin who had emigrated to Tunisia decided to return to Izmir to see the state of the city where he was born. At the same time he decided to try and trace the school where the girls had been boarders and he ended up finding they were alive and well at the orphanage.
On his return home to Tunisia he arranged and paid for the four girls to rejoin their mother Catherine, who had also moved to Tunisia. Her joy at being re-united with the children whom she thought dead can only be imagined but it must have seemed nothing short of miraculous. However tragedy struck again soon after when her youngest daughter Renee died from tuberculosis at the age of 18 and later on a second daughter, Louise, also died.
One of the only documents that my mother kept as a souvenir was a photo taken in March 1931 when she and her sister, my aunt Fanny, made a trip to Constantinople with a number of the nuns. This shows a large group of girls and woman in fashionable cloche hats and the nuns with their magnificent winged corrnettes typical of the Order. Both Renee and Louise, who were unwell, were unable to join the trip and they stayed behind in the orphanage, so the photo only shows Mum and Fanny.
The second item Mum kept is a slip of paperwith the address of her parents’ country house at Karsiyaka which was 24 miles to the north west of Smyrna. Years after the Great Fire when the family settled in Tunisia they wrote to the British Embassy to ask what had happened to their houses and received a reply saying that the house in Cordelio had been burned down during the fire. The letter also stated that after the war of 1919-22 all property that had been unclaimed for a few years had become the Turkish government’s property and could not be reclaimed.
Another very touching story concerns my father’s half brother Emmanuel. He had been engaged to an Italian girl called Anna. During the Great Fire, they rushed to a church and asked the priest to marry them but the cleric refused because the church itself was on fire. If Anna had been married she would have been able to follow Emmanuel onto one of the British ships but she did not have the right papers. So she dived into the harbour and swam to a ship and was taken on board but it was the wrong ship and she ended up in Rhodes. Years later, Emmanuel discovered what had happened and went to Rhodes to find her. They married and had three children, all girls.
FOUR – Refugees
“My father had miraculously escaped from the Turks”
The Turks, who were stationed at gates on the quayside robbing and beating the refugees as they boarded the boats, stopped any male aged between 15 and 50. They were taken away to be deported to the interior. I am not sure how my father, who was 19, managed to evade them but he did. He was taken aboard a British vessel along with about 1,600 other refugees. They disembarked In Malta on the 15th September and were taken to Fort Ricasoli, which guarded the entrance to the Grand Harbour of Valletta, where they stayed for many days.
About 1,400 of the passengers held a British passport and half of these were of Maltese origin although only six were born in Malta. In due course many refugees were relocated to other countries, although a few remained in Malta.
Fort Ricasoli, which is now leased to the Malta Film Corporation, features in Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator. When I visited it during filming, the producer let me look around. It was a wreck, I cannot imagine how they managed to make it look so good in the film. There have been lots of plans to restore it but nothing has come of them.
My father was obviously grateful to be rescued but one of the few things that I remember him mentioning was how bad the food was at Fort Ricasoli. “It was not fit for dogs,” he said.
All the women who had been raped in Smyrna, including my aunt Yvonne and my grandmother Catherine, were immediately hospitalised in special wards that had to be set up.
It is possible that both the Cassar and Cilia La Cortez families were on the same British ship but we will probably never know. The Cassar family went to live inSliema at 16 Rue (Triq) d’Argens where they remained for seven years. Both families later went to Tunisia.
My father, who had miraculously escaped from the Turks, was able to pick up the pieces of his life to an extent and he was taken on as an apprentice by a barber and a cobbler among others. He learned to speak English fluently. He also taught himself – and his five-year-old brother James – the violin and the pair of them played from time to time on board the ships that came and went from Valletta. They used to play in front of the captains and were paid one shilling for their tunes, for the Navy liked music. He also learned to write music.
He also joined a football club – the Sliema Wanderers or SWFC – which is still very much alive and is in the Maltese Premier League. The SWFC was founded in 1909 and was a professional Maltese football club. Today it is the most successful team in Malta. A series of photos taken in the 1920s shows Dad among the players. Three are of the team when they won the cup in 1925-26 when he played as a midfielder in the finals. The excellence of the club makes me believe that my Dad must have started playing football for a team in Smyrna, unfortunately I would never know.
On a family holiday to Malta in 1951 we visited the club. The reception area contained a huge photo the size of the wall and my Dad was very proud to show the receptionist that he was among the players. The photo was taken in 1925-26 and shows all the cups the club had won since 1909.
Granddad Joseph, who changed his name from Cilia la Cortez to Cilia la Corte for some reason, died not long after arriving in Malta. There is no doubt that the drama of his escape from Smyrna, the horrific rape of his wife and my aunt and then the loss of his four daughters, whom he must have presumed dead, as well as his house and all his possessions, contributed to his poor health and somewhat early death.
FIVE – TUNISIA
‘Refugees from Smyrna headed to Tunisia, France or England’
Tunisia, which from antiquity was inhabited by the indigenous Berbers, had come under Ottoman rule in 1574. In 1881 Tunisia became a protectorate of France by treaty rather than by outright conquest, as was the case in Algeria. The French wished to suppress both Italian and British influence in North Africa. Although Tunisia is the smallest country in North Africa, it is world famous for its great number of historical attractions, including the Roman city of Carthage and huge amphitheater of El Jem near Sousse.
The Cassar and Cilia La Cortez families both came here in 1929 when the British government gave refugees from Smyrna the choice to stay in Malta or head for another country – usually Tunisia, France or England. The refugees were given a small amount of money by the British Government to help them to settle in their chosen country.
There was said to be plenty of workin Tunisia, which was the reason for the decision of the Cassars and the Cilia La Corte to move here. In fact it was a repeat of the 1840s to an extent as once again it was difficult to find a job in Malta.
My father’s half sister Baptistina – Polycarp Cassar’s daughter by his first wife – had already moved to Tunisia after escaping from Smyrna with her Italian husband and their three children, Gemma, Ursula and Nicolas. The family lived in the town of Maxula-Radès (now Radès) south of Tunis where they had bought a house.
Tragedy was to strike the family later in the Second War, when Nicolas died at the age of 18. Though he was Italian, he had joined the French army in a pact agreed with close friends but only he was able to honour the agreement as the parents of the other boys refused to let them sign up. Nicolas died in Germany after driving there on a motorbike. His mother Baptistina was not told of the death because she had recently lost her husband and she died believing Nicolas would one day come back from the war. The street in Maxula-Radès where the family lived was renamed Rue Nicolas Bassi in memory of the teenage soldier.
Joseph’s widow, Catherine Cilia La Corte, moved to the seaside village of Le Kram, on the other side of the Lake of Tunis, where she and her daughter Yvonne – who had both been raped – were able to pay for a two bedroom house with extra money received from the Turkish government as compensation for having been victims of the Smyrna atrocities.
Mum’s brother Alfred, who had escaped from Smyrna with their parents, was working as a furniture maker in Tunis and after she arrived in Tunisia the two of them decided to rent an apartment together. She remained living in the apartment after she got married in 1939 and I was born there and we lived there until we left Tunisia in 1965.
Dressmaking had been her passion at the orphanage and so she started work as a fashion designer in Tunis and was successful at this, gaining many clients.
My grandmothers, Victoria Foscolo Cassar and Catherine Cilia La Corte, who had met in Malta, remained in contact and paid regular visits to one another in Tunisia. After a while, both of the women decided it was time to arrange the marriages of their children. My father chose my mother from Catherine’s daughters and to his delight she accepted the proposal.
Dad’s sister, my aunt Irene Cassar, became engaged to my uncle Alfred soon after he broke off a long engagement with a French girl.
The engagements took place in 1937 and the two couples were married in a joint ceremony at a church in Maxula-Radès two years later on the 23rd February 1939, six months before the outbreak of the Second World War.
Afterwards, my parents went to Malta for their honeymoon so my Dad’s friends could meet his new wife. They had a fantastic time. This was also their first holiday.
Mum and Dad’s first born was a boy who passed away at a very young age. Then came my sister Colette, who was born on the 30th May 1942 and then me two years later on the 11th February 1944.
Over the years my mother had built up a very large selection of clients and only worked at the homes of these ladies. She also designed and made at least 10 wedding dresses during these years all of which were made as presents for young women whom she had known for a long time. Mum also made my dress when I got married. It was the last wedding dress she ever made but she went on making other clothes for me, including coats and skirts, so I was very lucky and always had a wonderful wardrobe.
One of my mother’s clients was a well known painter called Genève Gavrel Bascou (1909-1999). My mother used to go to her house for dressmaking sessions several times a month. Bascou kindly did my portrait when I was 13 years old and only charged us for the materials.
I had to pose for several sessions but standing still for two hours at a time was not easy for me as I was always bursting into fits of giggles. She was a very nice lady but she left Tunis in 1957 and we did not see her again. I saw some of her portraits on the internet some time later and noticed that one of them had the same frame as the picture she had made of me.
My father, who worked at Mercedes in Tunis until we came to England in 1965, used to make a little money on the side giving English and violin lessons and cutting hair. Sometimes he used to repair shoes for the family, especially for my mother and me as our stiletto heeled shoes often needed mending. He really was a Jack of all trades.
He joined the local orchestra in Maxula-Radès as a clarinetist and used to go to rehearsals every Wednesday after work. During my holidays I used to enjoy going along with him to listen. Every November, the band would march through the streets of Maxula-Radès to the war memorials and play at the commemoration services. I was very excited and proud to see him being part of it.
I used to call my Dad Hector as he never replied when I called him Papa. He kept telling me that was the name his mother used to call him by. He was very close to his Mum. People were surprised and this was very unusual but for me this pet name made me feel closer to him.
When I was 18 months old I got an infection in my right eye and my Mum took me to hospital to have it treated. Mum had to walk to the hospital and it was a long journey. Sometimes we had to go daily.
My Mum was told that there was no option but to remove the tear bag of the right eye, as it was also infected and this caused tears to run down my face all the time.
By May of that year, my condition was not getting better and my mother went to church and prayed and made a wish to the Virgin Mary.She pledged to light a candle every May for the rest of her life if my eye got better before the end of that month. When on the last day of May she took me to the hospital, everything was nice and dry. She lit the candle every day until the end of her life and I carry on, to this day, to light a candle every May.
I had to have three operations in all which left me with a loss of 80 to 90 percent of the vision in the eye and also with a squint. Unfortunately this later made me prey to the bullies at school.
At the age of 4 I started to go to a crèche run by Les Soeurs de Sions. I could only speak Greek so I started to learn French. At 6 years old I started school. It was a 20 minute walk from our home and I went every day on foot which at that time was normal and safe. I used to come home for lunch, so in all I was walking for 80 minutes every day. My Dad used to prepare lunch as Mum was sometimes still at work with her clients. My Dad insisted that I walk alone and not with school friends, so that I would not hang around with them and be late. He was very protective probably as a result of his experiences in Smyrna.
I started secondary school at a private half-boarding school run by the Nuns of St Bernadette of Soubirous (Lourdes). The school was situated not far from the Bardo National Museum in Tunis.
After my Brevet (O levels), I remained at the school and took a course in Secretarial and Business studies. After successfully passing my exams I found work within a week as a secretary/accountant which I enjoyed.
I was very proud to hand my monthly pay envelope over to my mother – and to find out that I was earning a little more than my Dad! I felt that they deserved my pay in return for having funded my schooling, as the fees were higher than their rent.
Every year we went to Carthage where the Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity was celebrated in the Roman amphitheatre in March. It was the biggest celebration of the year for many Christians and young people who come from all over Tunisia to witness the spectacle. Yves Mifsud, my future husband, also used to go with the Scout groups but we did not meet until much later in England.
The event began with a procession from the Cathedral of Carthage to the amphitheatre with prayers in Latin and loudspeakers telling the story of the two Saints, who were represented in the procession by two girls dressed in white robes.
Perpetua and Felicity were Christian martyrs of the 3rd century who were killed by the Romans at Carthage in 203 AD. Their feast day, which falls on March 7th, is celebrated even outside Tunisia.
Vibia Perpetua was a recently married well educated noblewoman, said to have been 22 years old at the time of her death, and mother of an infant. According to the Passion narrative, Perpetua’s dreams in prison (which she believed were prophetic) offered visions of her entry into heaven, her deceased younger brother Dinocrates, and her ordeal in the arena.
Felicity, a slave imprisoned with her and pregnant, died alongside her at the games in celebration of the Emperor Septimius Severus’s birthday when the gladiators opened the doors to the arena to let in the wild beasts. Although we used to go to the Passion every year, every time we found it very moving.
The Cathedral from which the procession departed was built between 1884 and 1890 when Tunisia was a French protectorate. It acquired primacy over all of Africa when the title of Primate of Africa was restored to the French Cardinal Lavigerie.
After Tunisia gained independence, I believe that the Cathedral was used as a mosque but since 1993 it has been known as the Acropodium and is no longer a place of worship but instead hosts public events and concerts of Tunisian and classical music. Currently, the only Roman Catholic cathedral operating in Tunisia is the Cathedral of St. Vincent de Paul in Tunis.
We had a large choice of fantastic beaches in Tunisia. Now when looking for a holiday with beaches I realise that we rather took them for granted.
When I was in secondary school there were many coach trips to the famous amphitheater at El Djem. Built around 238 AD it is one of the best preserved Roman stone ruins in the world and one of the biggest amphitheatres in the world. It has survived in an exceptional state of preservation given its past history. In the Middle Ages, it served as a fortress protecting the population from attacks by the Vandals in 430 AD and Arabs in 647 AD. It is believed that the amphitheatre was used as a saltpeter factory in the 18th and 19th centuries and in the second half of the 19th century the building housed a random collection of shops, dwellings, and grain stores. We made many coach trips to the amphitheatre to watch plays in the openair.
Tunisia’s path to gaining independence took place slowly between the years 1952 and 1956. A separatist movement led by Habib Bourguiba had arisen and after successfully negotiating with France, Bourguiba became the first Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Tunisia bringing to an end its colonial protectorate status. On 20th March 1956, Tunisia gained full independence from France and a year later in 1957 Bourguiba abolished the monarchy and declared the Republic of Tunisia.
The transition was far from smooth. Groups of armed fighters known as the Fellagha (an Arabic word meaning bandit) who had fought for independence from colonial rule, both in Algeria and Tunisia carried on their often violent anti-colonial campaigns.
They would attack French colonial infrastructure as well as the property of European settlers, French or otherwise, looting shops and houses. Europeans felt increasingly unsafe as a result.
Overnighta band of Fellagha emptied nearly all the stock of my aunt’s shop, taking away clothing, material and underwear which would be given to other Fellagha fighters.
Bombings became common and as the French began to withdraw from the country the Fellagha began to occupy city apartments and country houses in a determined effort to get all foreigners out of the country.
Everyone was very scared and it was not safe at all, especially for women and girls. But it was also very difficult for my Dad to make the decision to leave the country, as he had the traumatic memory of having had to flee from Smyrna.
People who had been settled in Tunisia for generations had to uproot and leave the country, not knowing what to expect in other parts of the world. They were allowed to sell their property and were able to transfer their money to their destined country – but the only buyers were the Tunisians. All properties and businesses were sold at very, very low prices – which benefited by the Tunisians and this allowed the Bedouins who had lived in the deserts of the south of the country to move north into the towns. Sometimes they brought their herds with them and installed the animals in their gardens and even indoors in their apartments when they did not have a garden, using some rooms for sheep and goats.
By early 1960, a lot of people had left Tunisia left taking very large amounts of cash with them, usually all they had, as they needed the money to open new bank accounts and buy new businesses and property.
As a consequence, the Tunisian Government decided overnight to make the Dinar a closed currency and it became a criminal offence to import or export the Tunisian Dinar. Suddenly everyone who left the country with money found it had no value – and this also affected all banks which held Tunisian Dinars and which lost their money. No bank in the world will exchange money against Tunisian Dinars and even if you findsomeone to do it, it is illegal to take the money into the country.
To be able to carry on working I needed a work permit and the only way for me to get it was to change my nationality, as only Tunisians were allowed to work. As far as I was concerned, this was not an option and I lost my job. Gradually Mum lost one client after another as the Europeans started leaving Tunisia for France, England and Italy.
The 1960s saw the start of a new chapter in the lives of both my family and my future in-laws, the Mifsuds who had settled in Maxula-Radès. In 1961 they decided to leave Tunisia as they could not see any future for their children, Christiane, 17, Yves, 16 (who I was later to marry), Gilles, 13 and seven-year-old Alain. With them was Grandmother Lobello and Uncle Armand and Aunty Annette. They arrived in London on a cold grey day in November.
In 1963, I visited London for a holiday with my father and mother and for two weeks we at lastfelt safe. On this occasion we took this opportunity to go and visit the Mifsuds and met three of their children but it was to be another two years before we also moved to the UK permanently.
In 1964, my sister got married and she and her new French husband moved from Tunisia to the South of France where she later gave birth to three daughters; Claudine (b.1966) Martine (b.1967) and Joelle (b.1971). In 1993, tragedy struck again when Joelle, who was just 22, and her fiancé Richard were both killed in a car accident a few months before their wedding.
Being British subjects, we did not have the luxury of choosing a country and had to head to England. In March 1965 we arrived in London. Dad was 62, Mum 55 and I had just turned 21.
Just before Tunisia became independent, my parents had bought a piece of land near the coast on which they were planning to build a house. Sadly, when we left, they lost the land.
SIX – London
“It was hard not knowing what would happen to us next”
We arrived in London on a March morning in 1965. My aunt Fanny was with us. As we climbed off the train onto the platform we came face to face with none other than Mrs Mifsud, who was picking up a suitcase from lost property for her daughter.
She invited us for dinner the following Sunday and told us that she knew someone also from Tunisia who was about to rent out a furnished apartment in the Brixton Hills area not far from them.
This was good news because on arrival all we had was an address for a house near the station which belonged to a Maltese ex-pat who rented out rooms. Our room was right at the top, in the attic, with cobwebs on the ceiling. It was not very nice accommodation and there was just a single room for all of us.
We felt quite strange and lost as we realised that the honeymoon of travelling and arriving in London hadended and it was hard not knowing what would happen to us next. My father went to the employment bureau to register and look for a job.
Dad was the only person in our family who could speak English and at the employment bureau they managed to obtain an interview for him for a job as a fitter at a small business in South Norwood which he was very pleased about. He got the job straight way and started immediately the following Monday. He got his first pay as cash in a small brown envelope.
The Mifsuds were the only people we knew in the UK and we were delighted to be invited over to see them. Together we all went to have a look at the flat in Brixton Hill which was being redecorated and another which was available but only had one bedroom. One big advantage was that the apartment was just a few bus stops away from Dad’s new job.
It was at this point that I first met the Mifsud’s eldest son, Yves, who had not been at home on our first visit in 1963.
Yves was born on the 14th August 1945 in the magnificent Hammam-lif Behilical Palace – one of the residences of the Bey of Tunis who were the monarchs of Tunisia from 1705, when the Husainid dynasty acceded to the throne, until 1957, when monarchy was abolished.
Yves’ grandfather was at the time the property manager responsible for the maintenance of the entire palace and the family lived in a large apartment in the palace at the time. Before retiring, the grandfather had also built three houses, one for each of his two children and one for himself, in Maxula-Radès where they had all then moved into before coming to England.
Yves was attending evening classes in English at a school in Stockwell on a weekly basis when we met and I was very pleased when my father said that I could go along with him because it was very important for me to learn English, which became my third language.
A few weeks after we moved intoour new apartment, a neighbour told us that across the road from us there was a family called Cassar, who also spoke Greek.
We found this intriguing and so we paid them a visit only to discover that one of the Cassars was my Dad’s cousin, Sauveur.
The boat on which he had been rescued from Smyrna had taken them to India. He was married to an Italian girl and they had a son named Sebastian who had been born in India.
They arrived in the UK after India gained independence in 1947. The two cousins were much excited by the reunion as after the Great Fire of Smyrna the family had lost track of the other side and so it was a very emotional encounter after 43 years.
By now I was looking for a job and I was advised that the best way to learn English was to work in a factory. So I applied for a job as a machinist as I had been taught how to use a sewing machine by my Mum. The factory was in the City, quite a long way from our home and involving a long journey by Tube which was quite expensive. Most of the girls at the factory were Cypriot Greek, although as the Greek they spoke was different from mine we could barely understand each other at all.
Being a machinist, I was paid by piece and I was not very fast so I was only really earning enough to pay for the cost of the Tube fares. I was making one skirt while the other girls were stitching five or even six at the same time so I decided to leave.
I needed to work in an office but as my English was very poor – basically little more than what I had learned at school – I applied to all the French banks, including the Swiss Bank in Lower Regent Street in the West End.
I was taken on after my first interview and given the job of looking after the customers’ accounts at a salary of £11 a week. I soon became an expert at recognising the signature of each customer and putting a name to it, as at that time names were not printed on cheques. I was also frequently called to the tills by the cashiers to confirm a customer’s signature.
Soon after I got the job, the bank moved into what was then a brand new building called the Swiss Center in Leicester Square. We all were privileged to be working in the center of London and I loved it. My journey home was only 20-25 minutes by bus. Yves used to come to my office after work and we used to go and see most of the film premieres. We saw Doctor Zivago and the Sound of Music at the Odeon Leicester Square- the cinema looks just the same today as it did then.
My relationship with Yves grew ever closer. Every weekend we used to take buses and tour London’s attractions. By the end of the year we were engaged.
As Yves was not yet 21 his salary was very low. At that time employers could pay workers what they wanted, there was no Minimum Wage but at theage of 21 by law they had to pay a proper salary.
From day one we both opened an account at NatWest Brixton – we are now very old customers of the bank – and we started saving £1 each per week. We found it difficult to save any more, as Yves gave all his salary to his Mum and only got some pocket money in return. So as a result we decided to get married.
We tied the knot on April 1st, 1967. The wedding took place at the French catholic church, Notre Dame de France, off Leicester Square next to the Swiss Centre. Afterwards there was a small a family reunion at Yves’ parents’ house. The only guests were my bridesmaid Angela, from work, and her family. They too spoke Greek and came originally from Smyrna but had gone to Egypt in 1922.
Yves was now 21 and had proper salary of £15 a week, so we had enough savings to pay for our honeymoon in Madrid where we spent two weeks exploring the city inside out. We had no money for extra things like restaurants or trips by bus and so we used to buy food in the market and eat it in our hotel room.
SEVEN – FAMILY LIFE
“Our dream of having a boy and a girl was fulfilled”
After the wedding we stayed with my parents for a month before moving in with Yves’ parents where we rented a room and a kitchen which were vacant as Yves’ uncle Armand and aunt Annette had decided to go and live in France. The rent was £5 per week. It was ideal for us, so we could save money for the deposit to buy a home of our own.
On New Year’s Day 1968, the bank changed to a computerized system and a number of staff were made redundant. I was now pregnant and so I lost my job in the reshuffle. Bernard was born on 15th February 1968.
We carried on saving and wanted, by now, to have our own house so after Bernard was born I had to find another job. I started working at the French Railways (SNCF) in Piccadilly next door to Fortnum & Mason. I helped with the accounts and from time to time issued railway tickets.
My Mum had agreed to look after Bernard who was only 14 months old and after work Yves would collect him as his work was only a five minute walk from her home. Dad was over the moon about his new grandson and he would rush back home from work as soon as he could to be with the boy.
We bought our first home in 1969. It was a three bedroom house in Thornton Heath, near Croydon, and cost just £5,200. We put down a deposit of £1,000 and obtained a mortgage for the rest. Our nearest station was Norbury and I had the advantage of getting a discount of 75% on our railway tickets in England and France.
Our plan was to have a second child five years after Bernard. As soon as I told my manager at SNCF that I was pregnant I was replaced, literally over theweekend. That was very upsetting particularly as I had to work with the new girl to show her the ropes. Perhaps in the end it was for the best. By the time he started school, Bernard was showing signs of asthma and having regular attacks. Our doctor said that it was too much with him starting school and me having another baby, so he advised me to stop working.
On 3rd April 1973 our daughter Anita was born. We were delighted as we wanted a boy and a girl so our dream was fulfilled.
Both our children were born at St Thomas Hospital, Westminster, and strangely both in bed no 18 on the 3rd floor. The maternity hospital was a shocking place. There were 18 mums in my ward and I was the only one to breastfeed Anita when she was born. The others all gave their babies bottles which they fed them while sitting around smoking! When I wanted to breastfeed the nurses used to close the curtains around my bed so that the others did not see me doing this.
When Bernard was five he started at Winterbourne School not far from our house. My father had to go to pick him up after school and bring him to our house where he waited until Yves or I were back at home but it was only for a short time as I was soon leaving SNCF.
In 1976, Dad fell sick and it was very difficult for us and the doctors to convince him that he did not have cancer. He decided to travel to the south of France with Mum to see his sister as he believed that he was dying despite what the doctors had said. During the journey he had an attack of thrombosis. He was taken to see a doctor and immediately sent to hospital for a blood transfusion.
From that date his health got steadily worse. His weight dropped to 36 kilos and he was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. My father had never drunk alcohol or smoked in his life and we found it very strange. So did the doctors in the UK.
After three months in hospital in Marseilles, my father asked for me and the children to come and see him before he died. It was to be our last visit. In September of that year, Dad passed away. Ten years later we found out from the French news that the blood transfusion given to patients in 1976 was taken from homeless people and tramps who were paid to give blood. As a result there were a lot of deaths.
Our own situation at this time was not good. Six months after buying our house in Thornton Heath, Yves was made redundant after his company moved to the north of London. However he took the opportunity to start his own business in our garage. It was very hard work as he had to build up the business entirely on his own with two small children – Bernard who was eight years old and Anita who was just three – under his feet.
Losing Dad was a very big shock to my mother as they had been inseparable and also she could only say a few words in English. I was only 32 myself and it was very hard for us as well knowing how much he loved Bernard and Anita and would not see them growing up.
After the funeral, Mum came back home to London. In 1979 she had a nervous breakdown. She was very depressed and lonely. Every Friday night she would arrive at our house to stay the weekend with us and I hope that helped her a little. She had to be admitted to hospital at one point and then she had a fall. Later she had a hip operation. She died of a heart attack in November 1981. After a few years I organised for my Dad’s body to return to the UK and now they both rest in peace together at the Greenlawn Memorial Parks in Warlingham, Surrey.
Our son Bernard went to the Shaftesbury Independent School in Purley at the age of 11 where he was, I think, quite happy as he did very well. He took education seriously and was very keen on writing computer programmes. In 1981 Yves got him his first computer, a Sinclair ZX81 and at lunchtime he used to teach programming to his classmates.
Having passed his O levels a year early, he moved to Wilson’s – a state maintained selective school for boys in the Sutton area – to study A levels and again passed a year early in Maths. He then headed to Hatfield University and did a degree in Electronic Engineering.
After his degree, Bernard went on to become a seismographer and worked abroad in several countries including Pakistan and Egypt.
He met his wife Jaturporn (Jum) on a trip to Thailand with colleagues to learn deep sea diving. Jum was the secretary and accountant at the hotel where the group stayed. After getting married, they moved to Paris where Bernard began working as an electronic engineer. Their first child, Benjamin James, was born at Coulommiers in 1993.
They later moved back to London where their two girls, my first grandchildren Jessica Beth (b. 1997) and Annabel Zoe (b.1999) were both born.
Some years after this Bernard did a Masters Degree in Business Studies at the Open University of London. His graduation ceremony took place at Versailles in Paris.
Our daughter Anita was 7 years old when she started at Croham Hurst Independent girl school in South Croydon which was only a few minutes’ walk from our home. She then went to Leeds University and took a degree in International Business. Her graduation ceremony was held at the Barbican Centre in London.
After her degree she went on to become a financial adviser. Later she became a professional photographer and in 2020 started a new on-line business manufacturing and selling natural skin care products.
Anita met her husband Tony, the cousin of her best friend Nicky from university, at Nicky’s wedding. They got engaged and married in 2002. They have two children, Scarlett Bo (b.2004) and Ava Mae (b. 2007).
I had gone back to work when both my children were at their independent schools where the fees were high. As a result I started asa secretary and carried on as an accountant in a company called Electronic Engineering Systems. At the time, the company specialised in bespoke data systems for industry and the military. Yves also joined the company and became General Manager. In 1990 the director retired and Yves took over. A few years after that, Bernard took over and Yves retired.
SEVEN – Travels on a trike
“There are a lot of bikers in our family”
We used to spend most of our holidays on a campsite which was just south of Rome. Later in 2007 we bought a house in the South of France at Blois and that catered for our holiday needs for a few years.
Then in 2008 Yves and I splashed out £24,000 on a Harley Davidson trike and after that we never looked back. We joined the Harley Davidson Le Mans Chapter, so I suppose technically speaking I might be called a Hell’s Angel although we prefer the term ‘Business Angels’ as most of our crowd were professionals, lawyers, doctors, engineers and so on.
Biking seems to be part of my family’s DNA because my father, my cousin Nicolas Bassi and my uncle James Cassar were all bikers. I am however probably the first lady biker in the family.
After buying the Harley we went all over France and Europe and twice we went to the bigger Harley Davidson gatherings in Europe where there were around 70,000 bikers and 120,000 guests. With our trike we could take our luggage and we had all the proper gear. I still have my boots and helmets somewhere although we do not ride these days.
Our biggest adventure was going to Alaska. We flew to Seattle with 12 bikers friends and there we were provided with bikes by the local Harley Davison agent. From Anchorage we drove down to Canada, and from San Francisco we explored the west coast of California. On other trips also we went through Death Valley, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas and did Route 66.
We also went all over Scotland in 2017 on a trip that Yves and I organised. There were about 14 of us in the group and we had to do a lot of research to make sure that we got it right. We were shocked at how well it went! We ended up seeing the Edinburgh Tattoo and everyone was over the moon about that.
We had the best time of our lives on these trips.
Yves and I are now both retired and we live in the heart of a most beautiful part of Kent. Our lives are peaceful and happy and we enjoy being with our children and grandchildren. I only wish sometimes that I had shown a little more interest in the lives of my mother and father as very few people know anything at all about the tragic Great Fire of Smyrna which they were fortunate to survive. This memoir is dedicated to them.