Instagram’s ‘Yiayia Next Door’: A heartbreaking Melbourne story


The videos are almost always the same. You never see the faces, or even the old woman’s hands because she’s a bit too short, just the food she has prepared for her neighbours.

It could be a plate, or maybe a pot, or sometimes a platter. Peel back the foil or cling wrap to reveal fish, chicken or soup. You can hear her voice from the other side of the fence, sometimes she asks the young man if he has a girlfriend yet.

“Thank you, Yiayia,” the neighbour says, using the Greek word for grandmother, and the clip ends.

It’s these simple videos documenting the relationship between a young man who lives in Melbourne’s northern suburbs and his sweet elderly Greek neighbour that have made the Instagram page ‘Yiayia Next Door’ a social media sensation with nearly 25,000 followers.

On the surface, the story appears to be little more than that, an unlikely friendship built on food. But this neighbourly bond is far deeper than most could imagine: an amazing tale of love forged in tragedy.

“It’s kind of like that Home Improvement show with the neighbour next door,” says Daniel Mancuso.

“No one knows who we are or who yiayia is.”

While the first video was posted about a year ago, the page has recently won a legion of fans after featuring on morning television and pop culture websites. The Greek newspaper, Neos Kosmos, beamed with pride, writing that “there’s nothing better than living next door to a Greek yiayia”.

But for Nina, 73, living next door to Daniel, 28, and his brother Luke, 26, in Reservoir is about more than sharing her cooking.

Melbourne’s most famous yiayia feels like she has a duty to look after them because they lost their mother in the most horrible circumstances.

Nearly six years ago, on July 15, 2013, Nina heard what sounded like a scream for help from the other side of the fence. It was dark, about 9pm on a Monday night.

Nina called Teresa Paulino, the mother of Luke and Daniel. After the breakdown of her unhappy marriage, Teresa had moved in with her ageing mother, who lived next door. But on that night she was alone.

When she didn’t pick up, Nina tried Teresa’s sister, who sent around her husband and a friend to investigate. All the lights had been left on in the house. The men walked down the concrete driveway through the side gate to the garage.

The roller door was open. When they switched on the lights, they discovered Teresa’s bloodied body. She had been stabbed at least 16 times by her ex-husband, Fernando Paulino — the father of Luke and Daniel.

Luke remembers everything about that night clearly. “We’ve been talking about it for the past five years,” he says.

The last photo of Teresa taken with her sons Luke (left) and Daniel in early 2013.

It happened just after the weekly family dinner. Normally, they would gather to eat on a Sunday at the house where their mother would be killed. But the plans had changed and the meal was at their aunty’s house just around the corner.

About 7.30pm, the brothers went their separate ways. Daniel drove to the house in Taylors Lakes where the family had lived together before the separation. His father’s Mitsubishi Challenger four-wheel-drive was missing from the driveway.

Two televisions blared in the brightly lit, empty house. He would later give evidence in court that this was strange. Their father, an electrician, had a thing about wasting power.

The brothers tried to call both their parents but the phones rang out. Luke, increasingly concerned, rang the aunty he had seen earlier that night. She was crying.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” she told him. “Nina just called me and said that she heard screaming next door.”

Now frantic, Luke sped towards the house on Massey Avenue in Reservoir.

Turning onto the street, he saw three police cars. Bewildered, he got out of the car before it came to a stop and ran to the house. He walked into a room full of police.

His family was crying. He asked what was going on. They told him his mother had died.

“You feel like you’ve had everything sucked out of you,” he says.

Daniel and Luke still feel guilty about what happened, wondering what they could have done.

Their parents separated in 2010 after 23 years of marriage. Teresa was terrified of her ex-husband and had taken out intervention orders against him. Paulino began a campaign of intimidation: hang-up calls, stalking, threats. He spread rumours that she was promiscuous and even circulated a pornographic video.

“She stuck in the family for us…Growing up we thought that was the normal thing when your parents are fighting all the time,” says Luke.

“If you came here, the same as what Yiayia’s doing, she’d be saying ‘How are you going, sit down, do you want this, do you want that’. But she’d also yell at you a little bit and tell you it’s alright.”

You feel like you’ve had everything sucked out of you.

Luke Mancuso

It took nearly two years for police to charge Paulino with murder after they broke down his alibi that he was collecting hard rubbish at the time. In June 2017, he was found guilty and later sentenced to 30 years in jail.

At sentencing, a judge said the crime was “one of jealousy, hatred and rage by a male against a woman who just wanted to be equal, independent and free, or more simply just wanted to be”.

Nina has nothing but fondness for Teresa, the woman she had known for many years.

“Yiayia and mum are not the same, they can’t be. But their mother was an angel. She helped me a lot. So close to me,” she says.

“She’s still here,” says Daniel.

“Still here, in the heart. Your mum,” says Nina.

The two brick houses on Massey Avenue are typical Reservoir, a suburb made a home by European migrants who came to Melbourne from Italy and Greece after World War II.

Daniel and Luke live together in the house with the white pillars and aluminium shutters.

They’ve renovated but kept some of the “wog” features, as they call them, including the 1970s-era kitchen tiles.

Nina’s backyard is home to a thriving lemon tree and a crop of chillies which she dries on string hanging from the shed roof. Five minutes after meeting her, she fills a bag full of both to take home for later.

She’s also made spanakopita, a cheese and spinach stuffed pastry, to eat with our morning coffee.

Contrary to what some of Yiayia’s new fans might think, Nina does not live by herself. She and her husband Petros (or papou, which is grandfather in Greek) moved to Reservoir from Albert Park in the 1970s.

“We’ve known Nina and papou for our whole life,” says Luke.

Yiayia with her lemon tree.

Yiayia with her lemon tree.Credit:Tom Cowie

Being part of Nina’s family means lots of food. She insists they call her yiayia.

Whatever Nina cooks, there’s always extra to be passed across the fence. Despite her efforts, she thinks the boys are still too skinny. But the plates always come back clean.

While the menu varies, there are some regular specialties.

“Friday is soup day, you can guarantee that,” says Daniel. “We always get lentil soup.”

As a bit of fun, Daniel and Luke posted videos of Yiayia on their own social media pages. With some encouragement, they set up the dedicated Instagram account Yiayia Next Door.

Nina agreed but wanted to remain anonymous. She still refuses to have her photo taken.

While surprised, the brothers think people love their Instagram page because the content is so wholesome — also, it’s about food.

“We get so many messages from people saying ‘this page has made my day’, ‘this is so good’. Some might say, ‘I lost my grandmother last year’ or ‘I lost my yiayia five years ago’, it hits the heart when you hear things like that,” Luke says.

Next to the green and cream fence where they collect their food is the garage, which Daniel and Luke refused to go into for a year after moving into the house.

They have since repainted the walls that were splattered with their mother’s blood. It’s been turned into a “man cave” where they can watch football with their mates or play table tennis. A former crime scene is the place where they now spend most of their time.

You’ve got a yiayia, I look after you now. That’s it.

Yiayia

“It’s using mum’s outlook on life to change the worst possible place in the house to the place where we can create good memories,” says Luke.

Daniel and Luke want to use the platform they have created to raise money and awareness for people who have endured family violence.

They have plans to harness the unexpected popularity of Yiayia Next Door and produce memorabilia, including plates, aprons and cups, with all the proceeds to go towards women’s shelters and other charities.

More than that, they hope their story will encourage people to connect with their neighbours. Then, if they hear something, they might be more likely to act, like Nina did that night.

“You can have your own yiayia with any neighbour,” says Luke.

For Nina, feeding the boys is something she loves to do.

“You’ve got a yiayia, I look after you now. That’s it,” Nina tells them.

Tom Cowie is a journalist at The Age covering general news.

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