If you happen to pass by Bloomburg Street, make time to stop and relish the flowers and plants that have transformed this quiet strip in Abbotsford, where Vasili Perkoulidis lives with his wife Demetra for the past 47 years.

Just under the train tracks, at the end of the road, a shared garden blooms, and even out of sight, close to the tracks, the energetic Greek from Veroia climbs with a scaffold to plant and tend to his flowers, his pomegranate tree, his orange and olive trees, making the surrounding area more and more beautiful by the day.

At the end of the road, a shared garden blooms. Photo: Stavroula Lambropoulou

It came as no surprise that the neighbourhood chose to honour him in the exhibition “Faces of our Community” which recently launched by three local organisations (Victoria Street Alive, Mind Your Langr!dge and Headspace) to highlight the contributions of the “legends” the community is so proud of.

Vasili says he always loved flowers and admired them in his sister’s Efthymia’s heavenly garden, but he only found the time to become the neighbourhood gardener when he stopped working as a fishmonger a year and a half ago. Photo: Stavroula Lambropoulou

Vasili’s portrait hangs in the photography exhibition in PEDDLR Café, but he has also been captured in a mural, by renowned street artist, Ling, wearing his characteristic beret alongside three other notable residents.

He tells us that he always loved flowers and admired them in his sister’s Efthymia’s heavenly garden, but he got the opportunity to become the neighbourhood gardener when he stopped working as a fishmonger a year and a half ago.

“As soon as I stopped working I needed to do something,” Vasili says as we sit for a coffee next to his house.

Photo: Stavroula Lambropoulou

Under the shade of a small tree, with the sun shining, and trains passing by, we travel back to Veroia, the city in northern Greece where he grew up.

“Veroia is one of the most beautiful places on earth, with the best figs, the sweetest cherries…” he says.

“I was a fishmonger from my childhood years. I always enjoyed the hustle and bustle of the market. I worked during the summer holidays from the age of seven.”

Vasili as a boy in Veroia, worked every summer in the markets. Photo: Supplied

In total, Vasili has worked for 70 years without a break. In Melbourne, many Greeks will surely know him from the Queen Victoria Market where he sold his fresh fish.

Vasili Perkoulidis (second from left) was captured by artist Ling, alongside three other notable residents of Abbotsford. Also featured (right) is Greek Australian artist Nicholas Tsekouras. Photo: Instagram/Ling ID

His father was a refugee from Pontos, and tragically he never met his mother who died when he was a baby. He was brought up by his eldest sister, Roza, who he cherished as a mother.

“Naturally, I never wanted to leave Greece,” he says, as he begins to explain what led him to take his young family and migrate to Australia in 1968.

“But there was no future for me there. The system in Greece has always been unfair to its people. It destroys the community and gives no hope to the young. My brother went to university and couldn’t advance professionally for political reasons. And even I, when I wanted to renew my license to sell fish they were requesting a social conduct certificate,” he says, and adds that he was even approached to become an informant during the dictatorship since he met so many people, but of course he refused.

“Though I did have work, I was very much aware of all this misery around me, and I kept telling my wife that I just couldn’t do it anymore.”

Vasili and his wife Demetra. Photo: Supplied

“My mother-in-law was very upset. She didn’t want us to leave. She had a point, but we were also young, with our whole life ahead of us. I was 27-28 years old at the time.

“We left at night…” Vasili says and recalls with emotion his young daughter asking repeatedly to go back home.

Though the circumstances were different, Vasili compares their journey by train to Platy, to the images we see today of Ukranians packed in trains, leaving in masses to escape the war.

“With a heavy heart we continued on to Athens. It was August, and it was very hot. We boarded the ship and set off for Australia. Under our cabin where we slept there was a swimming pool. Heading for the unknown, we couldn’t really enjoy all that.”

The ship docked in Melbourne after midnight, and a strange coincidence would bring him in touch with a cousin he had lost every contact with, since he departed for Australia years before.

In the middle of the night, Vasili accompanied a fellow passenger to an acquaintance of his, as he planned to leave the very next day for Bonegilla.

“The man opens the door, makes us coffee and we strike up a conversation. Since he had lived here for years, I thought I’d ask him if he knew my cousin. It turned out that not only did he know him, he even had his number and he called him right there and then to tell him the news.”

Photo: Stavroula Lambropoulou

For the first month, they stayed with his long lost cousin, Ioannis Perkoulides, who found a job for his wife in Richmond, and Vasili would soon start working in a shoe factory.

“I didn’t stay long. I am used to the streets and the bustle of the markets, I didn’t like the machines… My hands were bleeding.”

The future had other plans for him. From the moment he discovered the Queen Victoria Market, he would go there every day, after work, just to observe how the people worked. “I would watch them and my heart felt heavy with bricks… I told a friend of mine, George Diamantaris, that I wanted to work there.”

Photo: Stavroula Lambropoulou

With his help, Vasili was soon back in his element and would spend the next several decades in the market, showing how things were done in the markets back home.

“Back then, caviar was thrown away. I salvaged it and placed it on a plate and people started buying it. They would throw away the fish heads, which make the best soup. The ice they place under the fish, to keep them fresh, it is I who taught them to do that.”

Vasili Perkoulidis in his ‘new’ element. Photo: Stavroula Lambropoulou

His passion for the market has now transferred to nature, to the world of flowers and fruit trees he plants, and he rejoices seeing his neighbours’ delight. One of them has also started planting and caring for the plants alongside him. Vasili may not know the names of most flowers, but he recognises the prettiest, and the ones that flower for the longest periods, as he chooses the seeds to renew the street gardens.

Vasili may not have wanted to leave Greece, but he has never regretted their decision to settle in Australia.

“To be honest, this country is the best in the world.”

He adds with a laugh that “it is here that I had the opportunity to make this whole street my own!”

The initiative of local organisations to bring life to the neighbourhood, to bring residents together and showcase local artists continues with new events that will be held in the coming months.

The next event is an Acoustic Sesh with Mozë on 29 May, which will take place a few metres from where Vasili lives, at The Carringbush Hotel, (228 Langridge Street).

For more information visit: www.mindyourlangridge.com.au