Conversations on a Farm

I was always envious my father never bought me an Alfa Romeo.

I remember when he bought me a new Honda after Uncle Piet’s Peugeot was stolen at medical school, and Uncle Philip asked him why he didn’t buy me a smart car, like a BMW or Alfa Romeo. My father didn’t answer.

Although all the properties he and my uncle owned  were held by  companies,  I don’t remember  the holding of the farm on the Magaliesburg ; my father really bought it for me. In retrospect this was much better than a fancy car.

I don’t ever remember going to the farm with my father, although I must have. They bought it in the late seventies. It was on the road between Magaliesburg town and Oliefantsnek, just before the stall that sold biltong on the mountain side of the road.  There was a dip in the main road as you turned right through the open gate to ace the cliffs of the Magaliesberg. Late afternoon was best, in winter after the veld fires stained the sunset with orange, and lit up the cliffs in surreal light. The road was sandy and went straight towards the mountain. At the entrance to the neighbour’s farm there was a gate on the left to our farm. Then shortly after that a gate leading straight to a small dam and on the right, a gate to the house. This passed from a grove of Blue gums into indigenous bush, with a donga paralleling the road on the right. First you passed the labourer’s kaia and then the citrus grove; lemons, oranges and naartjies. Further up the road was the main rondavel on the left, with a smaller rondavel housing the bathe and toilets, a small greenhouse and two flats apart from the main dwelling. A large open shed divided the flats. The borehole was slight back, between the shed and the smaller flat.

I remember this so well because after I graduated I spent 3 months living there. My father said nothing, which I took to be approval. I used an old Nissan Twincab 4×4 bakkie and cleared the farm of all the debris the previous elderly owner had accumulated. I used the dump this in Rustenburg, about half an hour’s drive away. I set up a sprinkler system for the citrus grove. I fixed up the hothouse behind the rondavel. I built a braai out of rock and cement under the shade of the big trees far enough from the thatch of the rondavels not to cause concern.

Then in the afternoon I would take Kristen, my border collie, and walk up the screed through the scrub to the cliffs, and climb these to watch the sunset, sometimes with the baboons. The sunsets were spectacular, as you looked over bush and cattle country, interspersed with mealie farms. When they were really impressive I stayed up too late and made my way in the dark as I knew the paths so well.

After I moved to Durban and my father knew I was not coming back to Johannesburg they sold the farm. But not before Ines and I drove up and spent the weekend there.

Conversations about Cats

My mom shouted down the passage while my father was still in bed.

“Peter, come see. Basil slept with Gina last night.”

Not the sort of thing you say in a conservative Greek household when your son is 17 years old. Not just that Gina was Italian and not Greek, but that Gina sounded like a woman. Actually, Gina was a cat, a grey striped cat’ I think from the pet shop on the road behind the offices. Why Gina? Well, she looked like and behaved like a “Gina” cat. Did I know a Gina then? No. Perhaps it was the idea of Gina Lollobrigida who graced the Friday evening movie screen at home occasionally?

But my father was angry. His son shouldn’t be sleeping with a woman. Not in the house, heaven forbid. Then when he saw the kitten he was still angry. Not at the practical joke, he enjoyed those. But at the fact that a pet had spent the night in a bedroom. That was also anathema in the conservative Greek household. We had had a cat before, Lord Mortimer, who lost and eye and was one of the first cats to have a cataract operation in the remaining eye at Onderstepoort. But Morty slept away from us, and he was a fine rat catcher. He had a job in the conservative Greek household. But Gina was to lead a life of luxury.

To me she was just a Gina Cat. She was the wildest of the kittens, very playful and could easily find the highest spot anywhere in the house to ambush you. She grew old but never lost that playfulness. She was the first of the cats in my life. My father always used to rush off to work. Many years later when he and my mom adopted 2 collies from Border Collie Rescue he was confronted by a dog psychologist. My mom was worried the dogs were not settling in, so she called in a dog whisperer. She was at home early one morning when my father rushed out. She stopped him.

“You can’t rush out like that. You’ll upset the dogs.” “What?” “You need to take time to talk to them before you leave. Tell them you’ll be back”

Which is a useful thing to do with any loved one…

One morning my father was rushing off to work and drove over Gina and killed her. I was devastated. A few weeks later I got a new cat, white with one green eye and one blue eye. No, I didn’t call her Elizabeth Tailor; her name was Fabiana.

Conversations on Holiday

For most of my school days we were dragged to Greece on holiday for six weeks of the South Africa winter. The trip from Athens was long and windy before the road was improved, and then again before the highway was opened with twin tunnels through Artemision Mountain to cut the trip to less than two hours by car.

It was such a tedious journey in the early seventies that we used to land in Athens airport and stay over in a hotel. First we stayed at the Hotel Amalia near Syntagma Square in Athens. After a few years we moved to a Hotel at Voulagmeni, an upmarket beach resort next to Athens, on the east. We used to stay at Margi House, a modern hotel that was used extensively by American families whose father’s were at the local military base. This was an altogether happier hotel for us, with the beach nearby and a pool in the courtyard.

We would rush to the private pay beach the next day, listening to the cicadas warm-up in the pines that fringed the beach. There was lots of gravel around that crunched under leather sandals as we made our way to heaven. The beach had a change room with lockers and a kiosk that sold Greek food and coffee, but also catered for the Americans and want to be American Africans like us. We used to buy a coke, and a ham and cheese sandwich. These were on sawdust white bread with no crust, filled with no butter and a single slice of cured ham and a slice of yellow tasteless cheese. If we were lucky we got to hire a pedal boat and go for a pedal on the Mediterranean with my father.

We were bribed, to some extent, to go to Greece and the village, with this luxurious 3 days stay at the beginning of the holiday. The rest of the holiday was spent in the village with no amenities, no Americans (other than the Americano who built a church on the mountain) and long days filled with fun in the fields, helping the farmers and shepherds.

The village house in the beginning did not have running water. The first years saw us going to Tripolis, to the Hotel Galaxy once a week to bath. We would spend the morning in the hotel room at a special rate washing! Then my father built a reservoir at the house and we would sneakily fill it up with water from one of the central village taps, running a long hosepipe at night so the villagers would not see it.  Ha! We were quite naive about their knowledge of our design on life. Besides using too much of their precious spring water the villagers were very concerned about our health as we then washed every day.

When we stayed in the village we would beg to go back to the sea. More like nag. My father would acquiesce and started a tradition of landing in Athens, going to the Hotel Solon, at a resort village called Tolo in the Peloponnese. Once acclimatised to the summer furnace heat, we would go to the village after two days to return to Tolo for a week somewhere in the middle of our Greek migration.

Funny thing, now I am happy just to sit in the peace of the village. It would be a great place to write.

Conversations with an Herb Seller

I really do not know what else to call her.

The walk to the open market in Tripoli is from the main square through the narrow roads on uneven pavements. As you leave the square there are modern shops and banks and as you approach the market there are general trading stores, saddle makers and even an iron monger. Although Tripoli may give you the impression of sophistication with its smart bars and fancy shops, it really is a hard core survivalist agricultural trading town, where farmers can sell their wares and buy supplies to crack open the rock strewn earth to plant vegetables.

Originally they used furrows to distribute the water in the fields, then they moved onto long steel linkable pipes, with bulbous clamps to join one to the other. Now the shops sell boring black plastic pipes in big rolls, to be used for a season or two, then discarded.

The market happens on you suddenly. My father always stopped just before, on the sidewalk, where a lady used to sell fresh fried bunches of oregano. Now, I grow fresh herbs at home to cook with, but this dried oregano from the mountains of Arcadia, growing amongst the rocks and with hardly any water, is the most aromatic herb I know. A few pinches of the leaves can add another dimension to food. And if the food happens to be robust local Arcadian lamb or tomatoes, accompanied by homemade cheese, then the gods of flavour have blessed you.

Clutching the bag of mountain herbs my father would enter the market, and speak to stall holders, always spending more time with people from our village or the villages of his close friends in South Africa. He would taste and apple here, sample a cucumber and buy a few tomatoes for the house. When he was alone in the village on business he would never buy a lot, and then only classics like bread, tomatoes, onions and cheese.

By now the morning was late and the sun high and hot. He would make his way back to the main square past the church that used to house the coffee shop, a small roastery that sold fresh ground coffee, an added aroma to the heavenly incense wafting from the church: frankincense and myrrh . Off another side road was a cafe under some chestnut trees, large and shady. He would pull up a chair, usually the same one, greet a few people he knew, ask of their families and businesses (although I really think they do very little work there, hence the dire current economic times) and have a  coffee.

He always finished by saying how he loved shopping like this, and not in a mall.

Conversations with a Portuguese Tiler

My father had a Portuguese tiler working for him at the time of the main expansions of our house.

“Patria”, he would shout as he passed the tiler, and the tiler would give him a broad smile. There was a labourer or two, but they were always in the background.  The tiler did all the laying, each tile placed to perfection and on the veranda, edged with a perfect cement frame.

I used to love watching them work. As a young boy I was fascinated but the trades; carpenters, tillers, electricians, even plumbers. These were men who created something every day. They were also story tellers and dreamers.

The tiler was particularly happy doing the front veranda. He had recently completed the floor and veranda of my father’s tavern at the back, in the same style as the church. He didn’t enjoy that job so much, because there was no cement border for him to show his skill. Although I am sure he enjoyed the idea of the open entertainment area. My contribution to the tavern was to hand the pelmets with my friend Reggie. We used large iron brackets and placed 3 planks of split pole to add to the rustic atmosphere.

I think I used to irritate the tradesman. Perhaps they thought I was spying on them for my father. I was not. My father often had the work at the house done when he was away in Greece, so he avoided all the tension of renovations!That’s why I hate renovations.

The one year I did get involved was when my father decided to redo the brick driveway. It was an Afrikaner that had done some work on the houses, but I wouldn’t class him as a regular contractor for my father. He did the most awful job of laying bricks, with no eye for detail or level. In fact, I remember he just dropped his labourers off to do the work and went off to another job. No pride! So he and I had a big fight, and eventually the bricks were relaid.

Unlike “Patria”.

When he finished the front veranda with the perfect cement rim he added his trade mark. Not a signature nor imprint, but a coin.

This time I remember he put three coins in, one of each of the corners. For more good luck? For good luck for each of the children?

“Just good luck” he said.

Conversations on Olympus

Mount Olympus is the highest mountain in Greece. It is also the most revered, as home of the gods. I am sure it would be safe refuge from some of the money mongers who have dug Greece into debt. Perhaps they should just let those innocent of any financial misdoing live there peacefully with the gods; the small space would be big enough for those few.

Olympus is also a brand of Japanese camera. I bet if you could analyse camera purchases by Greeks and the Greek Diaspora you would find that if they did have a camera, it was an Olympus. Greeks are funny that way, anything that can vaguely be traced back to Greek roots is accepted. For instance, did you know the original Mini was designed by a Cypriot?

I feel the tug especially with artists; I have books by Greeks who live in the States and feel connected, and listen to music by Muslims of Cypriot origin, and feel connected.

My father had many Olympus cameras. He started with a compact 35mm camera called a “µ”, a Mju. This was the greatest compact camera ever. Small and tough, with an oyster shell of plastic and the clearest optics. I had one as well. He then migrated into the digital era quite early, even before me, and after a Kodak camera ended up with the  digital Mju.

I had an OM1, a small light manual SLR first released in 1972. I bought it second hand in 1981. I still have it, half the size of my current cameras but with so much more design in its simplicity.

My father loved photography from a  young age. He had a Brownie camera when he finished school and developed his own film and printed at home in a makeshift darkroom. There is no doubt he encouraged me to make pictures as well, but never really bought me any camera equipment. He gave singular unwavering support to my studies; for instance I had a nice new Olympus microscope to study pathology specimens in case I was to become a famous pathologist. And all the latest textbooks. But I wasn’t studying photography, because that was a bit like game ranging and wasn’t a real job. So no camera. My brother, on the other hand, gave me a .375 H&H Magnum rifle for my 21st to use in the bush.

I used to borrow a camera from a friend and take pictures at school sports events. I would print and develop them in my darkroom at home and sell them. My biggest income was from A 2 prints of new houses that were for sale. Once built, I would take pictures and sell them to my father for display in the window of the estate agency downstairs from the office.

Come to think of it now, I should have studied photography in those days, even without support.

Conversations with a Lamb

The carcasses would normally arrive Saturday morning, sometimes three or four of them. They would be laid on the kitchen table, covered by a cool white sheet as we had no cold room. The smell of dead meat and almost rancid fat would pervade the house. As the day wore on specks of blood would stain the sheet where the brown paper had broken and the flesh was exposed. Sometimes, in the early days of farm animals, a leg would peep out, a small patch of white fur calling for help on the white sinews.

We would wait until my father arrived, and then we would spear the lamb carcasses onto the spit spears, tie the neck first, sometimes breaking it to get it parallel to the spit. Then the legs were tied to the clamps we had locked on the spit. Finally we would sew up the abdomen, leaving the blue kidneys attached inside. If the weather was warm, we did the tying up on the veranda, in the fresh air; if it was cold we worked in the kitchen. Either way afterwards we left the carcasses on the kitchen table.

Remember we had been fasting for a week, not eating meat, so the incongruity of what we were doing was somewhat removed. The event was tense, as we often did not do it right, and always got poked by the wire ends and mixed our blood with that of the lamb. And we did not need the kitchen table that evening, as after the Resurrection Mass we would all go to Aunty Marina for a late supper, to break the fast with avgolemono soup.

Early on Sunday morning we would all be up, helping to make the fire, doing the final adjustments on the homemade frame that would turn the lamb for six or seven hours. There was always an obligatory discussion on improvements to the machine, usually by complicating the mechanism. It seemed to be a Greek thing, to complicate things. I wonder what we would have done if we were German?

The cooking , however, was simple: on the fire turning for five hours and then another one or two hours basted with a simple mix of fresh lemon juice, sunflower oil, salt and oregano from the village. As the basting started the aroma would transport the sacrificial lambs to heaven, and a select few family members would be allowed to pick at pieces of the skin; their appreciation showing in the smacking of lips and thankfulness at eating meat again.

I remember the first spits were fresh poplar stems, with the fire in a hole in the ground, and having to manually turn the lamb. Then we got a single motorised spit. In time,as money became available Uncle Peter made a three lamb affair under my father’s direction, and shortly afterwards extended it to hold five. This caused much stress, as it was difficult to manage the fire for the middle lamb and the whole thing sometimes set up harmonic motion, usually to a Tsamiko, and danced all over the garden.

Until the day the shaft of the spit broke in the middle, and delivered the half cooked lamb into the fire. I was traumatised and it took a long time for me to be able to cope with lamb on the spit again.

Conversations on Filing

“An office stores documents. It’s up to us to organise them.” That’s what my father thought of filing.

I remember my first job in the office when I was about 12 was filing in the big Lever arch files, placing them in the metal filing cabinets. Each document had to have a section in which it belonged. The holy of holies for filing, the strong room was out of reach for me in those early days. This is where the important files were kept: company financials, insurance policies, deeds and plans and my father’s important personal files.

The family passports and identity documents were always stored at home in the safe. Also in the home safe was his will and some historical documents relating to my grandparents. In the office strong room he stored his speeches and personal letters.

The files in the strong room were always carefully labelled. In the days before computers, they were stencilled on, colour coded in keeping with various subjects.

It is a strange personality trait that I have inherited, to look upon organised files and feel satisfied. In the computer age I save time by not labelling cardboard files nor punching them, and by storing digital copies that are searchable on my computer and backed up on the cloud, in case of the proverbial fire. The scanned documents are placed in boxes for each year and in 5 years now I have yet to go back to one of those boxes. My boxes do not feel as powerful as the files in the strong room. They use up less space, and are hidden from sight as I reference only off the computer. It’s a bit like having an e-reader and missing turning the pages of a book.

My father’s filing system failed at home next to his bedside. He accumulated newspapers and financial magazines for months and would wade through them when he wasn’t too tired. I supposed  he would file the information away in his brain. My mother fought ongoing battle trying to keep the pedestal clean.

Filing was a bit like collecting information for statistics. That was one my father’s favourite topics.  He often said: “Statistics are like bikinis.  What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.”

Conversations with a Physician

My father had a diligent team of physician, cardiologist, cardiothoracic surgeon and a cardiologist specialising in arrthymias. They were all top of their game; they excelled in their profession.

But before them he had a only physician, in the days when most people had general practitioners. He was top of his game; he excelled in his art. We shared the same first names.

Dr Basil looked like someone out of Zorba the Greek. He was a character. His wife was a model, Spanish dancer and dress designer. They made a handsome couple.

They were special guests at many of the community, federation and school functions. They were both respected and admired, and participated in the festivities, adding a touch of class. I remember whenever my father took him to a table and sat with him, there was always a bottle of whisky, ice and water in between the plates. Don’t get me wrong, any Greek function worth its salt in those days would have had a bottle of whisky in between the plates of meze. Dr Basil smoked, and my father had tried but we three children had blackmailed him into stopping within a few months. We all detested it even in the years of great adverts.

My father and Dr Basil were great friends.

Sometimes a few days after the functions my father would appear at Dr Basil’s consulting rooms for a physical, occasional for an insurance policy.

“Do you smoke?”

“No, my children made me stop.”


“Do you drink?”

“Eh, you know, a glass here, a glass there, like you.”

Dr Basil looked up over his horn rimmed glasses hanging low on his Roman nose, still weak after the last party. “Hmm, socially. OK, so you only drink a glass or two of whisky on weekends.”


Signed, stamped and handed over the form over for my father to apply for insurance.

Shortly after my marriage to Ines in 1993, he stopped at the roadside to assist at a motor vehicle collision. He must have been in his late sixties by then, and was a true Samaritan. After helping he got back into his car.

As he was placing the buckle of his seatbelt a truck drove into his stationary car at full speed and killed him.

My father was lost for a long time without him.

Conversations at a Funeral

Our neighbour, Mr Austen, used to work for MGM, Metro Goldwyn Meyer, in South Africa. In the 70’s my father arranged that he brought films home on the weekend and a projector, and we would show it for the neighbourhood and extended family.

Eventually my father bought a Bell & Howell 16mm projector with Cinemascope with a formal projector stand. We then helped him hang a large roll down screen under the pelmets of the curtains in the playroom, which much later would become the TV room. Sometimes on hot summer evenings we would point the projector out from the glass sliding doors and show the movie on a big screen tied against the fence and above the lemon trees. The screen would billow in the breeze like a great spinnaker, pure white, before the days of commercial advertising.

We would wait in anticipation for Mr Austen to make the delivery. He always brought a “short”, I suppose what we call a series on TV, and then a full feature film. Those were the days of classics, like Ben Hur, the real Bond movies, war movies like the Green Beret, Kelly’s Heroes and Dirty Harry.  Even The secret of Santa Vittoria, which we watched recently on DVD.

Although my father liked a practical joke, he never joked about death. He had a reverential respect, not dissimilar to the Zulus, for the dead. He was also particular about the detail of ritual and superstition created around the Orthodoxy he practised.

So he was upset the night Mr Austen brought home Funeral in Berlin. It was not correct to play on funerals according to my father. But he got even more angry when Uncle Peter walked in, master of practical Jokes:

Gia sou Pete.  Silipitiria (sympathies). Who’s the black armband for?” asked my father. Remember, the ancestors were very important. “ Zoi se mas (life to us).”

Uncle Peter was a master actor.  I remember the detail of him walking respectfully through the French doors to where we were all sitting on the veranda before we moved in to watch the movie. He put on a sad face, drooped his eyes willingly and appeared to almost cry. “What do you mean, you invited me to A Funeral in Berlin, so I was just being respectful.” He slapped my father on the back and roared with laughter

We all cracked up, and he kept repeating it. At interval after the short and before the full feature he dominated the kitchen scene with laughter, while my father was a bit subdued.

Uncle Peter’s humour always added life. He was a master raconteur.