Damiani Georghiou brought feta cheese to Newfoundland, fell in love on a balcony in Cairo, escaped a war in Cyprus and once scared off a knife-wielding robber by brandishing a bigger knife of her own.
To her customers at George’s Store on Pennywell Road, the first store in St. John’s to stock feta cheese, olives and other Greek delicacies, she was Mrs. George. To her friends, she was Noulla.
Georghiou died March 25. She was a “larger-than-life character,” said her son, Paris Georghiou, and a “matriarch to the Greek community” in St. John’s.
She and her husband, Menelaos, opened George’s Store in 1979. It was a kind of mom-and-pop corner store, said Georghiou, where Greek food was sold alongside penny candy and loose single cigarettes. Stocking Greek food was a boon for St. John’s’ growing Greek community. It also satisfied folks who had travelled to Greece and returned with a penchant for Mediterranean flavours.
Georghiou and her husband lived above the store, which they ran together until his death in 1984. She kept it open for two more years before retiring in 1986.
For the couple, St. John’s and George’s Store offered a new lease on life, says Georghiou. In 1974, they had fled Cyprus to Greece following the Turkish invasion, leaving their life savings behind invested in a printing business. They moved to St. John’s several years later to join their son, who was a chemistry professor at Memorial University.
“They just picked up the pieces and opened up the store,” says Georghiou. “And they were embraced by the community.”
Georghiou became something of the neighbourhood grandmother, says her son.
“Many of the kids came to the funeral. And Mom went to the wedding for many of them.”
Georghiou was born in Cairo, Egypt, in 1921, the youngest of five children. She grew up in Cairo’s Greek-speaking community, although she also spoke some Arabic.
In 1939, standing on the balcony of her family home in Cairo, she caught the eye of a young Greek Cypriot serving with the British colonial forces in Egypt. Her father gave a stern order that she wait several years before pursuing the romance.
Menelaos Georghiou persisted and in 1943, the two were married. Their only son was born three years later, and the family moved to South Africa, eventually settling in Johannesburg. They left for Cyprus after their son immigrated to Canada to study chemistry, and joined him in St. John’s a few years later.
“My mom loved St. John’s because of the freedom she had to travel around the city without fear,” said Georghiou, recalling how his mother rode Metrobus routes for fun. “The courtesy people had towards a senior was something she hadn’t experienced before.”
Not that it was always safe. Twice people tried to rob George’s Store, said Georghiou. But both times they met a formidable opponent.
“They came in with knives,” said Georghiou, laughing, “but she had a bigger one.”
Georghiou spent her retirement vacationing in Florida and volunteering with the Seniors Resource Centre and Miller Centre in St. John’s. Here, according to her son, she carried out the tradition of her namesake, St. Damianos, who cared for the sick.