In more ways than one, the story of Giannoula Panagiotopoulos resembles stories of many other immigrants who left their homes in search of better lives.
Along with the thousands of Greeks who emigrated to Australia in the 1950s, she and her husband Fotios faced the challenges of a new land, language and culture.
The difference? Giannoula is celebrating her 100th birthday — a feat accomplished only by approximately 500,000 people worldwide as of 2015, according to the Pew Research Center.
In sharing Giannoula’s story with The Pappas Post, granddaughter Natalie Cunningham described her as “the strongest woman I’ve ever met” and said she played a major role in her childhood.
“Growing up, my sister Isabella and I lived around the corner from our grandparents,” Cunningham said. “Going to yiayia and papou’s was one of our favorite things to do.”
Cunningham said she remembers hearing stories, learning Greek and cooking favorite foods while playing in her grandmother’s garden and rummaging through her books and makeup.
In 2012, she made her grandmother the star of a short documentary titled You Know What? I Love You.
The film shows Giannoula going about her daily activities — feeding the chickens, crocheting, baking and reminiscing about her younger years — and has captured the hearts of audiences worldwide.
“The time I spent filming with my yiayia is something that I will forever be grateful for,” Cunningham said. “I remember asking her to take part. She did not hesitate for a second. ‘Of course, why not?’ she replied.”
The granddaughter said Giannoula welcomed the film crew like family, as she often interrupted filming to offer food or Greek coffee and sent everyone home with a bag of lemons and freshly baked koulourakia.
Cunningham said that, although the editing process was not easy, the final product made her efforts worthwhile.
“Piecing together the film in the edit was another journey with so much footage to choose from,” Cunningham said. “I’m so proud to be able to share something of our relationship and her loving character with people through this film.”
You Know What? I Love You made its world premiere at the 2013 Palm Springs International Short Film Festival and has since screened at various festivals in Australia, Greece, Cyprus, Germany, Italy and the UK. Cunningham presented the film in 2015 at the Australian Embassy in Athens.
Watch the Film
Born December 19, 1918 in the Peloponnesian village of Chrysohori, Giannoula grew up in a time of great turmoil and change in Greece.
She endured the turmoil of both World War II and the Greek Civil War, which forced her husband Fotios to be away for months on end while serving in the Greek army.
Working in the fields and doing jobs around the village, Giannoula made every effort to sustain her supply of food, firewood and other necessities. But in 1955, the struggles of post-war life forced her and her husband to leave for Australia during one of the largest Greek immigration periods in that country’s history.
After traveling by boat aboard the Tasmania, the family arrived at Port Melbourne on September 23, 1955, later traveling by train to a migrant camp in Bonegilla and two weeks later to another camp in Townsville, Queensland.
Two months thereafter, Fotios decided it was time for the family to try their luck in the city, and with no more than a few pounds in their pockets they boarded a train for Melbourne where they would ultimately settle.
Forming lasting relationships in both the Greek and Australian communities, the couple helped many fellow migrants to find housing, employment and a sense of community.
In the decades following their departure, Giannoula and Fotios would return to Greece once during the summer of 1981 to reconnect with family and friends.
In 2009, Giannoula’s youngest daughter Olympia (Cunningham’s mother) held a reunion in her home for passengers who had traveled to Australia on the same ship — the Tasmania — many years before.
Cunningham described it as a “moving and emotional afternoon” during which guests shared memories of their experiences and reflected on establishing their new lives in Australia.
Inspired by her parents’ story, Olympia is an author who has spent several years researching and documenting their lives. She recently completed a family memoir entitled Fig Leaves and Philosophy: A Love Story.
The memoir delves into Giannoula’s early years in Chrysohori, the challenges she faced as a young woman and her and Fotios’ move to Australia to began a new life.
Fig Leaves and Philosophy is slated for publication in 2019.
These days, Cunningham said, Giannoula is no longer cutting down tree branches or working the soil, but she still keeps a sprig of basil in her jacket sleeve and sends her grandchildren out to check her tree for figs.
“On the occasion of her 100th birthday, we pay tribute to an extraordinary woman; a beloved mother, grandmother and great-grandmother who exemplifies courage, strength and great spirit and love,” Cunningham said. “She is an inspiration to us all. “
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