Greeks in Australia could feel at home because Australia was a free and democratic country, based on Christian ideals.
That was the message the leader of the Greek Orthodox Church in Australia and the South Pacific, Archbishop Ezekiel, told a gathering of members of Mount Isa’s Greek community at a dinner given in his honour at the Finnish Hall, in September, 1959.
He said that the love all Greeks had for their home country should not cause them to hold back their love for their new country.
“You are not Greeks living in Australia, but Australians of Greek origin”, he told the gathering.
And in those few words, the Archbishop acknowledged and praised the small community of Greek Nationals and Greek Cypriots who were already in the throes of establishing their mark on the local community.
Listening carefully was a young Greek Cypriot couple, Nicolas and Paraskevou Alexi from Cyprus.
Nick, as he was called by his Aussie mates, arrived in Australia nearly 68 years ago, in 1949, and within the year had found his way to Mount Isa via circuitous job opportunities in a glass factory in Spotswood (Melbourne), cane cutting at Mina Creek (Innisfail) and the Tivoli Café in Bowen where his mother’s cousin, Harry Avramides told him to go west to Mount Isa because ‘it would become a big place one day’.
It was the middle of summer with temperatures hovering around the 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37C) when he finally arrived by train and was met by fellow Greek, Sosthenis (Con) Constantinides.
And although he was in a new country, on the opposite side of the world, the weather was not all that dissimilar to that of Cypress, with its subtropical-Mediterranean climate of hot summers and very mild winters.
The weather may have been one of the settling factors together with getting an immediate start on the Mount Isa Mine payroll that gave Nick the hope of a good future in the town, one that resonated in Harry’s words, ‘it would become a big place one day’.
Nick did not dream of such hope as a boy growing up in the village of Peyia for he was too occupied from a tender age to help his father in the fields and care for the family livestock including his donkey, ‘Gemedos’, which he used to carry the water from the village well for his mother.
But it was not long before his little world was turned upside down, firstly with the death of his beloved mother and secondly with the outbreak of World War Two which soon saw the British Forces increase their presence in Cypress in the British Overseas Territory of Akrotiri and Dhekelia.
This was a period of great poverty for 13-year-old, Nick who had to finish his education a year earlier to work with his father, farming, all-the-while with hunger intruding on his life.
Only when he joined the Cyprus regiment of the British Army, two years later at the age of 16, did his hunger subside with regular meals and he was given more appropriate clothing for his work with the troops which was to transport food and supplies by mule to the front line during the night in treacherous conditions.
Three years after the war finished he emigrated to Australia, with the financial help of the village merchant.
And like many emigrants before him, Nick understood only too well what the outcome of poverty and hunger could do to a man’s psyche so he worked indefatigably to build a more abundant life in his adopted country and eventually in Mount Isa.
The next step was for his brother Stevie to emigrate to Australia and in 1951, Nick welcomed Stevie into his new home.
After six years working at Mount Isa Mines, Nick and his friend Nick Leonides bought Johnno’s Fruit Shop in Miles Street, where they continued to sell fruit and vegetables but were also enterprising enough to build a successful fish and chip business in the back of the shop.
Nick’s fish and chips were always duly served with a good douse of vinegar and enough salt to give today’s medical profession a heart attack, but gave the eater finger lickin’ enjoyment.
And the crunchy takeaway was deftly wrapped in sheets of the latest newspaper by either Stevie, or one of the newest Greek immigrants, Peter Bravos, who made his own mark in town with his vegetable farm at the northern end of Miles Street, and the brick works on Duchess Road.
The Greek bachelors soon lost one of their own, when after five long years, Nick went to Townsville to meet his new bride-to-be Paraskevou, whom he married in the Greek Orthodox Church before returning to Mount Isa as a married man.
Together, the newlyweds worked side by side in their little business and in time they welcomed three baby boys into the world.
No one was more proud to be called ‘Baba’ by his sons, Alexi, Stavros and Vassilli, than Nick.
The boys grew alongside the business and as they reached school age they too would follow in their Father’s footsteps and do little jobs in the shop alongside Stevie.
Nick never lost his humbleness, his pride in his neat attire, nor his empathy with people, never discriminating against any nationality or creed.
He lived the life that Archbishop Ezekiel spoke of all those years ago and which Nick and his wife embraced, “… you are not Greeks living in Australia, but Australians of Greek origin”.
Nick’s lasting legacy to Mount Isa has been to teach us the delights of tasting, cooking and enjoying the national delicacies of the Mediterranean region, especially Greece, food which he sold in his epicurean outlet, Nick’s Foodland for many years.
(Aged 90 years and after several years of health issues, Nick passed away on Friday December 23, 2016).
Researched and written by Kim-Maree Burton
Photographs courtesy of North Queensland History Collection, the Alexi Family and the North West Star newspaper.
Information sourced from the Mount Isa Mail and the North West Star newspapers and Nick Alexi’s eulogy read at his funeral on Saturday December 31 2016.