Oscar Wilde once said that life imitates art far more than art imitates life. The tale of Christian Stergiannis is so remarkable, so outrageous and so positive that one can’t help but feel it reads more like the script of a Hollywood film than the life of a Greek Australian café owner.
As he explained his life story to me during our interview, I found myself enthralled by his story, his discipline and his dreams.
“I came to Australia from Greece already a citizen of this country. I came just to try my luck and I ended up finding siblings I did not know I had; I found a family,” Christian says.
“I grew up as an only child, having no contact whatsoever throughout my life with my siblings. Since meeting them, my life has changed drastically.”
“What brought you here?” was the question that sparked Christian’s initial confession. It’s a question I love to ask newcomers, knowing in advance that the answer will be more or less the same as countless I’ve heard before. Yet while most new arrivals share similar experiences, each is unique.
Few are as unique as Christian’s, though, which I must admit is a tale that even my wildest imagination could not have conjured.
“You don’t know my story?” he asks me with an air of certainty, as though everyone should know it.
“I came to Australia in August 2012, mainly out of curiosity. I had heard so much, I came to see what all the fuss was about. Once I was here I thought to myself, ‘I’m here now, I should at least try to make a go of it’.
“One thing always led to another, dishwasher then waiter, then a barista, then I became a store manager and after that I opened my own shop. What’s next? No one knows.”
Christian has come to appreciate the beauty of uncertainty in life, not least through an extraordinary chance meeting.
“Last year on a cold and wet Tuesday evening in March, a guy was standing outside the shop I was working in for some time, before deciding to come in,” says Christian.
“He looks at me and says ‘can I ask you something?’ I say ‘please’. He asked my name, I answered ‘Christian’. So ‘Christos?’ he says. I replied ‘yes’.
“He then asks if my surname is Stergiannis. On hearing it was he froze, said something to his wife, and then he turns to me and says ‘I’m your brother!’
“I said ‘sorry buddy, you must have me confused me with someone else’, but he insisted he was my brother, so I invited them to sit down and he shows me his driver’s licence with the name Theodore Stergiannis, my grandfather’s name. I took one look at the photo and instantly saw the incredible resemblance he shared with my father.”
At this point I stop Christian, needing a moment to take it all in. The whole scenario felt so unreal, almost as though I was witnessing a real-life ancient Greek drama.
Christian was eager to continue: “My brother and his wife were out when they walked past the store, neither had ever seen a photograph of me, but as she caught a glimpse of me working inside she turned to my brother and said ‘this guy looks a lot like your father’.
“My brother then teased her about looking at younger men, but she insisted he take a look and once he did he says he instantly felt he had to come inside and ask me.”
It’s quite remarkable to think something like this can happen. That brothers who grew up so far apart could then live in the same city and not even know each other, before fate brought them together.
Born in 1983 in Melbourne, Christian spent his early childhood growing up with three brothers from his mother’s first marriage. In 1990, Christian’s parents moved to Greece, taking only Christian, their only son from their marriage, with them. He didn’t see his three other brothers for 22 years.
“I have 20 years difference with those brothers. We kept in touch all the while and met again when I returned to Australia, and I discovered I also had nephews,” Christian adds.
Unknown to Christian up until the fateful meeting in March, he also has three siblings from his father’s first marriage.
“When I arrived in Australia I had no idea as to their whereabouts, I wondered if they were in Australia or could they even be in Greece.”
If the story of the chance meeting doesn’t melt your heart, the rest of his tale should do. “They embraced me as though we had never been separated,” he says.
“The following Monday I had my day off, and my brother invited me to his house to eat. I went and we sat all together when suddenly the door swings open and in walks Soula, the twin sister of Theodore, together with my nephew and my niece and around ten other relatives. We sat together and bonded instantly.”
Christian and his reacquainted siblings spent Easter together and then met up in Greece for a holiday, spending nearly a month together.
On returning to Melbourne, Christian moved in with his new-found family. “I’d been considering branching out on my own business-wise and was looking for opportunities.
“Everything happened very quickly. My brother happened not to be working during that period, so he helped me set the shop. We worked day and night, seven days a week for four weeks straight, but thank God, everything is going from strength to strength. We’re thinking of opening a second store soon.”
For Christian, the experience has lessons for other migrants. “Australia is the kind of country where you must have a desire to work. to really make things happen. If you have no appetite for work, Australia isn’t for you,” he says.
“Work hard, seven days a week, be frugal and when you can, take out a loan and branch out. If you work hard you can engineer your own success.”
As for the future, Christian’s philosophical. “I’ve met cousins, uncles, aunts I didn’t even know I had, so it’s hard for me to know what will happen in the future. What I do know is that things in Australia are going well and that’s encouraging. It’s unexpected but pleasant.”
Focused solely on developing his work in Melbourne for now, Christian has one other ambition: “I want to set myself up, and in five to ten years move back to Greece so I can see my children grow up there. My goal is to build something substantial here and then go to Greece and enjoy life.”