Steve's life - one love on the job, the other at home

By Victoria Bartle

Steve Tsoukalas, head of maintenance at the Sydney Opera House. Photo / Supplied
Steve Tsoukalas, head of maintenance at the Sydney Opera House. Photo / Supplied

In 1968, Steve Tsoukalas fell in love with "two beautiful ladies" and knew he would never be able to choose between them.

Forty years later, the prospect of saying "goodbye" to one brings tears to his eyes, but he knows that one day soon it will have to happen.

The lady he's preparing to leave is the Sydney Opera House. The one he'll be able to stay with is his wife Marina.

That's fair because it was Marina he saw first, back in 1964, on his island home of Kalymnos in Greece.

Back then she was only 13 and Tsoukalas was an adventurous 19-year-old whose thoughts were only for the journey he was about to make, following his five older brothers to Sydney.

But eventually Marina also migrated to Sydney. "When we met again here, she had become a beautiful young woman. I married her and we made a family," Tsoukalas says, his Greek accent still strong despite four decades as an Australian resident.

"That same year I married my Marina, I met this other beautiful lady," he says. "I'm trying to stay with her for as long as I can, but now I am 64 and I am running out of time to find someone to love her the way I love her.

"I know the hardest thing will be that day I say goodbye, it will be a knife in my heart."

Millions of people know and love that second lady, the Opera House, but none know her as well as Tsoukalas does.

Having worked there in various capacities for over 40 years he knows every nook and cranny, every curve of steel, slab of stone, timber and glass panel and every centimetre of her ceramic tiled roof-tops.

"For the last 41 years, I have come to work on my bicycle at 5.15 every morning. I am supposed to start work at 6.30, but I love to be here early when the sun is rising. I want to be the one to make sure she is safe.

"These are how strong the feelings are that I have for her. I am not here to pass the time. I am here to do things for this beautiful building."

Tsoukalas' work has ranged from lugging hundreds of steel scaffolding tubes into place as the Opera House took shape, to diving into the harbour with just a snorkel to breathe with, for three and four hour stints working on the seawall panels, and to scrambling up scaffolding to the top of the roof beams.

Nowadays, Tsoukalas is the senior maintenance man in a 14-member team for "the house" as it is fondly referred to by all those who work there.

His most-recent achievement has been to freshen and brighten the exposed concrete ceiling beams in many of the rooms and restore the bronze-panelling on the doors using his own chemical-free and environmentally-friendly recipe.

"It is the old Greek way to protect her from corrosion from the salty sea air," he says, grinning secretively, "and these are products we eat every day."

Then, "I can tell you," he reneges. "It is the baking soda for cleaning and the olive oil for protecting."

For Tsoukalas, going to the Opera House each day is more like "coming home to my other home", and he cares for her as if she was his own home.

"Sometimes I am thinking about the day that will be my last day here, and the tears fill up in my eyes," he says with a watery smile.

"I will not want to go, but I also know I have my other beautiful lady waiting for me at my home."

- NZ Herald

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