From orphan in Greece to restaurateur in Australia – The tragic story behind a beautiful painting

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The common phrase is that pictures can tell a thousand words. Yet, the story of Vasilis Zisopoulos proves this is not true; they can tell one million.

Vasilis, known by friends as ‘Bill’, became the proud owner of a new Greek restaurant in Townsville in the 1970s, naming the restaurant ‘Zorba’. Upon its opening, he noticed a large empty space on the wall. A lover of art, Vasilis employed the help of a Mytilenian artist from Townsville to help paint a picture for the empty space.

“The artist said to my dad ‘I’ll paint you by the beach, we’ll have some ouzo we’ll add some boats and water and we’ll make it as Greek as possible,’” Maria Marmanidis, Bill’s daughter, says to The Greek Herald.

Neither of them knew that the painting would become a symbol of Bill’s rise from poverty to a better life.

A Tale of Two Siblings

Forty years prior to Bill opening up his store in Townsville, he became witness to his father’s death by German soldiers in Trikala.

“My dad grew up as an orphan. He moved to live with his uncle who couldn’t afford to raise him and so he put him in an orphanage in Volos,” Maria explains.

Little did Maria’s father know, he was lucky to be sent to an orphanage and not left to die in the snow. A fate that his sister almost had to endure.

Photo: Supplied

“My dad had a sister, who he didn’t know he had because when my yiayia gave up my father and his sister, she gave my father to her brother and left my auntie (Bill’s sister) in the snow to die.”

Given a second chance at life, Maria’s auntie was found by some neighbouring Greek locals after she was left in the snow. She was picked up and sent to her new home. An orphanage in Volos.

“Coincidentally, it was the same orphanage my father was at. The two grew up together never knowing they were siblings,” Maria says.

Bill in his early years as an electrician in Greece. Photo: Supplied

Maria explains that her father never found out until he grew up and went to find his mother, who had given up her children to get remarried in Mytilene. Bill ended up tracking down his sister, finding out that he spent his whole childhood with her.

“Imagine going to the same school or same orphanage as a girl and never knowing she’s your sister,” Maria said bewildered.

The Electrician and the Australian

Living in Mytilene permanently and working as an electrician, a Greek Australian woman caught Bill’s eye while he was on the job.

“My mum was in her 30’s, she was happy being single, then she met my dad; An electrician in Mytilene who had come to the house to fix the lights.

“They fell in love.”

Maria and her late father, Bill. Photo: Supplied.

When Maria’s mother came back to Australia, the two wrote “beautiful romantic love letters” to each other during their time apart.

Wanting to come to Australia for a better life, Bill was encouraged by Maria’s mother to move to Sydney. The pair got married at Saint Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Newtown.

Moving to Canberra in the 1970s, the couple opened up the first charcoal chicken shop in the city. After giving birth to Maria and her brother, Christos, in Canberra, Maria’s parents decided it was time to move “somewhere warmer”.

“My brother was so sick all the time with croup and it was so cold,” Maria says, adding that her brother took repeated trips to hospital.

Zorba’s Restaurant in Townsville. Photo; Supplied

“My dad took a drive all the way up the coast with my mum and got as far as Townsville. They sold the shop in Canberra, packed us all up and relocated us there.

“They built a restaurant in Townsville which was a charcoal chicken restaurant called Zorba’s restaurant and that’s where it all started.”

A framed tribute of her father

Maria’s parents eventually divorced in 1995. Bill then moved back to Mytilene, leaving his daughter and son to run the Zorba restaurant.

Four years ago, tragedy struck Maria and her family.

“I lost my brother to pancreatic cancer,” Maria says with sorrow.

“I brought my dad from Greece, he said goodbye to his son who he hadn’t seen for 25 years.

“We said goodbye to my brother together as a family and he was taken back to Greece. My father built a beautiful church in Plomari in Mytilene, and that’s where my brothers remains are.”

Only two months ago in June 2020, four years after she had lost her brother Christos, Maria’s father passed away in Mytilene from an unexpected stroke.

“With Covid, I wasn’t able to go back, which was heartbreaking. But incidentally by mother went back after 51 years in November and was with my dad until his final hours and ended up burying my father.”

Following her father and her brother’s death, Maria was left with the restaurant building and painting inside.

“I didn’t want to throw that painting away because it did mean something to me but it was too big to put anywhere in my home,” Maria says.  

“I contacted the president of the Mytilenian Brotherhood of Sydney and told him what had happened, and incidentally he had also lost his father recently.”

Honoured to take the painting, the president said he also wished to design a memorial plaque for Maria’s father.

“When my kids and my family visit the club, we can see the painting and know that it’s still around and know that my dad is still around as well,” Maria says hopefully.

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