There was a Christmas in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, that had an Australian feel to it when my later father’s old friend, Vangelis, came to see us on a surprise visit from Melbourne.

The Bulawayo tradition that marks Christmas Day as unique are the carols performed by a Salvation Army Band that roams the streets in the morning gathering money for charity. The sound would not make it onto a CD, but it was an uplifting cacophony that has always suited this special day in Bulawayo.

My dad knew Vangelis from back in the day when both had migrated in 1956 to Southern Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was then known.

Vangelis had come from Cyprus and my father, from Ioannina. Both men were contracted to work in the workshops of the Southern Rhodesia Railways and shared a bachelor’s flat with other young Greeks.

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In time, the young bachelors moved out, married and set up their families. Vangelis left Rhodesia for Melbourne in the early 1970s. He settled in Niddrie to begin his new life in Australia.

He returned in 1993 to catch up with his old friends, many of whom had left the country. That Christmas Day, he popped in for a morning visit and my dad demanded he stay for the traditional Christmas lunch when he learnt that his friend was going to his hotel to spend the rest of the day alone.

At the best of times, few could ignore a command from my father Christos, especially on his name day. So Vangelis stayed.

Another unexpected visitor on the day who was also at a loose end was an old school friend Andrew. He too was not allowed to leave but had to share in the Christmas feast.

The other guest was my wife-to-be Celia. It was her first time to meet the family and she marvelled at how quickly and with no formality, this Greek family accepted unexpected guests to its Christmas table.

It was a family tradition that my father bundled my mother out of the kitchen on the evening of Christmas Eve. He then dragooned his children, namely me, to wash the rice, peel the potatoes, carrots and chop up the onions, peppers and fresh herbs – all grown from our little garden at the back. Then we had to get out of the way while the master set to work on his own.

What came out of that oven was unique to my father, ever the iconoclast. I have never been able to match my “barba’s” traditional Christmas masterpiece, his Chicken-and-rice Youvetsi à la Christos. A true Youvetsi uses kritharaki (rizoni/ rice pasta) but that is not something you will easily find in Zimbabwe – you learn to make do with what is available.

Dad also had little regard for Turkey, thinking chicken infinitely superior in flavour and lighter than red meat on a hot southern hemisphere day.

That Christmas, we washed the meal down with fine Australian wine brought by Vangelis and everything was sweetened at the end by my mother’s glorious trifle, which she made sure was ready long before the old man took over the kitchen to create his brand of Christmas havoc.

Vangelis was to repay my father’s generosity in a thousand ways when I migrated from Africa in 2008. His home in Niddrie became my home when I visited him. Always he looked out for me in those early years and he was my father in Australia.

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