Conversations with a Translator

We had to attend Greek School at the community hall for 2 afternoons a week for most of our junior school career. The obligation faded in senior high school when the pressure to matriculate well was not helped by a non registered 7th subject. Our first teacher was Mrs Zaxa, an Athenian dragon. The second was Mr Paschali, from Ionena, with terrible halitosis. He became my father’s first speech writing assistant.

At various functions my father would generally speak in 3 languages: English for everyone, Afrikaans to appease the locals and Greek to satisfy his soul. He never had formal education in Greek like English and Afrikaans, and struggled. So he used translators to put together a professional speech. He even practised with them. And then he practised some more on his mini voice recorder, at a time when the micro tapes were only being used by the CIA and Fortune 500 directors. He was ahead of his time.

In 2002 he began using a professional translator, Chariclia Voulakis, on a regular basis. It was about the time he retired from direct local community involvement and had attained life honorary presidency of the South Africa Hellenic Federation, an organisation he was instrumental in founding. He was also made honourary vice president of the board of SAHETI. He was also appointed a director of the bank of Athens. He elevated his game in speech making with Chariclia to be able to present at various functions both at home in South Africa and in his homeland, Greece.

Chariclia recalls his presence from the 70’s when my father was instrumental in organising Greek films to be shown on Sunday evenings at Uncle Mike’s cinema theatre, the Libertas. It was a draw card for Greeks from all over the Witwatersrand. As children we loved it as we could throw popcorn while everybody was laughing at the crazy slapstick Greek humour. And we got to stay up late on a Sunday night, where before we were in bed by 8pm and listening in secret to radio shows on the English service under the covers.

Chariclia subsequently said the following about my father: he was “a passionate patriot to the bone …, considering his indefatigable efforts and contributions towards promoting and fortifying the Hellenic spirit, culture and education in South Africa and in particular, in our Greek school, SAHETI.”

“It was an absolute pleasure to liaise with Peter regarding various queries I had from to time in respect of certain documents. Besides providing me with the required information, he never lacked a wonderful sense of humour! “

“When perusing my work, he showed great objectivity, not hesitating, in a very courteous manner, to point out an error or inaccuracy that needed to be attended to. In my mind, Peter will always stand out as a man of integrity, who unselfishly gave of his wisdom, education, knowledge, experience and his kind and generous disposition, in a genuine effort aimed at creating a better community and world for his compatriots and fellow human beings respectively. In short, he was consumate.”

Conversations with a Chevrolet Driver

The ’48 Chev with a straight six had curves where most cars don’t even have places.

The body work was immaculate. Even the domed chromed hubcaps with the red Chevrolet lightning bolt and plain black print was perfect. The car had been on blocks having been tied up in some old lady’s estate. It had 16 000 miles on the clock and the first set of Goodyears was still good.

The dark green leather interior offset the lighter green body, an altogether more pleasant combination that any colour interior and foreboding black paint. The dashboard housed the first built in radio for a car in metallic faux wood panel.

The ivory steering wheel gave my father a warm feeling when he saw the Chev the first time. Warm, like when the radio valves warmed up for a few seconds before the rich sound filled the car.

Two years before this car was manufactured by the Americans, Winston Churchill made his “Iron Curtain” speech on acceptance of an honorary degree from Westminster College in Missouri:

“Ladies and gentlemen, the United States stands at this time at the pinnacle of world power. It is a solemn moment for the American Democracy. For with primacy in power is also joined an awe-inspiring accountability to the future. If you look around you, you must feel not only the sense of duty done but also you must feel anxiety lest you fall below the level of achievement. Opportunity is here and now, clear and shining for both our countries. To reject it or ignore it or fritter it away will bring upon us all the long reproaches of the after-time. It is necessary that the constancy of mind, persistency of purpose, and the grand simplicity of decision shall rule and guide the conduct of the English-speaking peoples in peace as they did in war. We must, and I believe we shall, prove ourselves equal to this severe requirement.”

My father stopped the driver of the Chev, in the late 70’s, 30 years after it had passed through the American Dream, and wanted that car. He did not covet material things beyond those items that had sentimental value to him. This car was a reminder of the “old days”, of his father establishing himself in South Africa, of families sticking together. Of the good times, hard times that forged a man’s character. He asked the driver of the Chev to name his price, went up to the office and collected the cheque for R 5 000 and drove off in his dream car.

My father had another car that he had bought in the early 70’s. A 1928 Model A Ford. A car that had a gravity feed fuel system, could be cranked up to start and that served as a bridal car for more brides than “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”. The double declutch required forced a jar as you changed gears into the years of the Great Depression.

America was the only country during the Second World War to grow its economy, increase employment and reduce the number of people living away from the breadline.

That Chev was made by a country at the pinnacle of world power.

All that has changed.

Conversations with a Lottery Ticket Seller

“Lacheiopoulieo”. That’s the beauty about the Greek language. One beautiful word that takes an ugly mouthful to explain in English.

The other beauty about being Greek is the simple interchange between annotations from male to female first names. My first name is Vasilios.The lacheiopoulieo was called Vasiliki. Vasso for short. She sold lottery tickets from the corner of the main square in Tripoli opposite the main church, Agio Vasili. St Basil.

Like all following her trade she seemed to have fallen on hard times. Dressed in somewhat old clothes, smelling of garlic, tired from selling morning to night. The sunburnt hand that held the wooden staff that slotted the tickets like some Byzantine church insignia were gnarled like an olive branch; the tickets looked like some Banana Republic currency. Or perhaps they were a reflection of the tragicomedy of Greece’s current economic state.

My father, being a gambler at heart, would always buy from her. Not just that, but he got to know her. He would use her as a communication relay for anyone with him in Tripoli, as a reference point. If he had a  change of plan he would tell Vasso and she would tell anyone that needed to know. No need to use a cellphone to communicate. Although that, like all modern conveniences, removed some flavour from life in Tripoli.

My mother was in my father’s shadow. He was taller than her, and much noisier. But Vasso knew he had died 8 000 kilometres away when we arrived in Greece 7 months later to visit with mom. She hugged mom and passed her condolences with the beauty of the Greek language. Ugly mouthfuls in English: “My sympathies. Life to us. May God embrace him.” And she gave mom a sheaf of funny money lottery tickets. Mom is always lucky, but never won the big lottery. Always a small win here and there.

But my father won the big one when he found Vasso. She was his communicator and medium in the square of Tripoli. She was his hope of winning the big one. She was evidence of much more than an attraction for a gambler. She showed that he was a risk taker, in plans and on people.

Some he won, some he lost.

Conversations with the Moungko

The village idiot. That’s what the Moungko was. We were terrified of him as children. When we heard his guttural animal noises as he walked with his obedient sheep we would hide. The local village children would tease him.

Funny why we are scared of someone that is different.

He was different, I found out later, because when he went for a tonsillectomy as a child  the good doctors ripped out his vocal cords by mistake. So his voice and future is destroyed by my colleagues and forebears, not far from the Temple of Aesculapius. That’s how close greatness is to disaster.

My father would always call him over as we sat on the veranda, he drinking retsina from the cellar with mezze, and the children having a treat with gazzosa. Flavoured gassed drinks, from when the Greeks said “Oxi” to the Italian invasion during the Second World War. These drinks were watered down orange, but tart and tasty. The invasion was watered down, “una fazza una razza”, and the Italians have beautiful woman and tasty food!

My father would call him over and offer him a gazzosa in a small glass bottle. The dust from his sheep on the then sand road in front of the house would settle on the bottle as the cold liquid parched his torn throat, and he would smile as he was given sweets, one of which he would eat there and then, his bad teeth showing a big smile. The others would be secreted away in his pants.

In later years the Moungko would offer us sweets, and we would gladly take them.

As he grew older, his body beaten by the harsh Arcadian sun, he aged prematurely. He aged I am sure without bitterness for the doctors that tore out his voice box. And he was placed  in an old age home in Tripoli, the market town near the village.

My father used to visit him there.