Conversations with a Health Inspector

Union Cafe was built by my grandfather a few years before the country became a republic.  He did not change the name in 1960.

It was the quintessential Greek cafe. It stood on the corner of 7th Avenue, a steep sloping road, in the middle where it flattened out a bit. The double wooden framed glass doors opened onto the corner. The cafe stocked all day to day requirements, and at some stages in its life had a soda and milkshake bar.

There was a storm water drain as the road flattened out, just above the entrance. In summer I remember making little boats out of empty cigarette cartons, and after the rains letting them sail in the cascade of water from the koppies. We would release them in the gutter at the house and run down to the corner of the shop and rescue them at the storm water drain.

There was a stockroom behind the shop, and between that and the kitchen, a storeroom with all sorts of treasures in wooden chests that once stored grains and flour. We used to spend hours here searching for tools and King George coins. The kitchen was big and square, with linoleum tile floor and simple cupboards, a small 4 seater yellow table standing in the centre. It was a personal kitchen, although originally the shop was also a tea room.

The back door opened into a courtyard shaded by vines growing on tall pergola frames. Steps climbed up the slope to the courtyard of the house next door, its courtyard and kitchen.

My Uncle Piet took over from my grandfather John in running the shop eventually. While my father was at university he helped in the shop. One year, inspired no doubt by some practical marketing lecture, he set up a train display in the window, with self made buildings and trees. This was a big attraction, and Union Cafe did its best Christmas turnover ever.

There were many inspectors in those days, bureaucratic posts to employ white people.  One year a Mr Willemse came, the health inspector.  He wanted to check the toilets. Now, these were for personal use, and anyway the men generally went back to the house to use the toilet. He was persistent in pointing out dirt in the toilet, and my Uncle Piet kept asking him to show him exactly. No doubt he was trying to solicit a bribe, but my Uncle Piet would have none of it. He kept asking:

“Where it is dirty? Show me!”

Hierso, look here”, as he bent down near the rim of the toilet bowl my Uncle Piet forced his face into the (clean, I hope) water of the toilet.

He left and never came back, except as the butt of the joke for many years to come.

Conversations with a Coach

My father and I often spoke about life coaches. In a way, he was a crisis coach for many people. People came to him with a problem, he analysed it with them and helped them look for solutions. He was a financial coach for others, a bit more structured, and something he clearly understood.

We spoke about coaches when he discussed solutions for people who had consulted with him. I think he knew a lot more about them than he let on, but used this trick of ignorance to absorb as much information from others on a topic, so that he had no bias.

The movie “The Bucket List” came out the year before my father died. I only saw it afterwards. It would have made a good conversation with him.

The thing people forget about the bucket list is you need a plain tin bucket to hold the water of your dreams. And that bucket comes with hard work. Then as you grow the dreams you need to use that water to make sure the plants of your dreams continue to grow. Some of these plants will be fruit and vegetables you eat every day, others will be shade trees to relax under while others may be blades of grass in a field that will inspire you.

But besides working to buy the bucket and fill it with water using dedication and integrity, I wonder when my father defined his Bucket List and what was on that list. I have some of his writing, but those are mainly speeches.

His list must have had categories like family, work, Greece, the community and Hellenism.

He knew he wanted to marry my mother from when she was 17 and he was 19. He wanted children to educate and leave to stand on their own feet. He wanted to ensure some financial support for his grandchildren.

He reclaimed his father’s house in the village in Greece, restored it and treasured his annual holidays there. He secured his mother’s vineyards to make wine from them each year to store in the cellar. He immersed himself in the village community and became one of them. He set up a business in Greece to secure more property (and add a lot more stress to his life).

He founded the local Greek Community in Alberton and gave it direction for many years, facilitating the building of a hall and then church. He dreamt of a local Greek school, but was a vehicle for other dreams of other people in the building of SAHETI. He dreamt of and founded the Hellenic Federation.

Those were the big dreams. The small ones were just as important. Like building a soap box cart with me.

Conversations with a Municipal Manager

In the seventies our home town near Johannesburg faced massive growth and became a hub for commuters staying nearby but working in Johannesburg. Traffic volumes were set to increase in the next decades and even though there were new highways replacing the old main road, aptly called Voortrekker Road for the locals, the cars and trucks still needed to by go through the town.

It was also the age of American style malls, and Eastgate and Sandton City were luring shoppers away from the downtown shopping hub of Johannesburg. Soon even the cinema theatres of Johannesburg and Hillbrow were to lose flavour and style to the mall cinemas. And the town council of Alberton was aware of this. So they engaged a town planner that would design a semi pedestrian open mall through Alberton and build a ring road around the CBD.

My father’s hub of commercial and residential buildings was on the northern end of the ring road. He stood to lose traffic to the commercial buildings on the main road, and to lose peace for the residential apartment buildings that would now have their backs exposed to the ring road and speeding trucks and taxis, instead of backing onto suburbia.

Before the plans were mooted officially some of the council members bought up houses in line with the future ring road. These would later be expropriated at prime cost by the council and make the councillors rich.

Remember in the fifties and sixties we were “blerrie Grieke” and were classed as second class citizens. The council was essentially Afrikaans in this conservative town that still had a curfew siren for blacks to be off the street at 9 pm. I remember hearing this gut wrenching noise, and wondering what emergency was befalling us. Until 1976, when it dawned on me there was inequality that raised fear in our gut. But I digress; suffice it to say there was tension between the Greeks and Afrikaners.

So my father launched a court objection after discussions failed. He engaged an American town planning expert with impressive credentials and unfortunately of Greek origin. It may have helped if he was from the Deep South and a member of the Ku Klux Klan, but he was not. He appointed lawyers to fight his case. He spent a lot of money on this, committed as he was when he identified his goal. I remember the figure being around a million rand, which in those days was a lot of money.

During proceedings in court my father lost his cool and much to the concern of his law team, approached the bench to talk to the municipal manager who was under cross examination. He risked being charged with contempt of court.

As he approached he picked his nose. He broke through the manager’s personal space, as he did when threatening someone, and pulled his finger out, inspecting it like a cherished grape from his mother’s vineyard in Greece.

“I’m clean. But I am not so sure about you!”

Conversations with a Gypsy

I used the think the Jews were a measure of the wellness of a country. Its weather and opportunity and lifestyle and democracy and lastly its economic viability. Now I know it is the gypsies.

I saw no camps in Greece this year, no caravans with cars, in fact the only beggars I saw in Tripolis were Greeks! They used to camp in two places, regularly: outside Nauplion, along the beach, and in the fields of the plain along the road from the village to Tripolis. Now that Greece’s economy has collapsed, they are nowhere to be found. There is no longer economic opportunity in Greece. And they are opportune. Just like the Greeks, who are left there.

I remember my father telling a story in the village when I was younger. The gypsies were frowned upon, if not hated. Apartheid comes to mind. In those days they had real wagons, occasionally towed by big old black cars. They were colourful camps, bright fabrics hanging and draped the way a Westerner would not imagine. Old men sitting around, children playing, young people returning from scavenging and woman doing the cooking. I always looked for Esmeralda, the beauty, and never saw her.

It was at the time of the Festival of the Virgin Mary, in August, and there was a panigiri down in the fields, opposite the ruins of the ancient city of Mantinea. All the villagers went down, and in those days the gypsies were nearby.  There was meat on the coals, wine and beer, rich mountain music. A few villagers started dancing. The night wore on, and the gypsies joined in, with richer music, alive and vibrant. One played a clarinet and one a violin.

My father returned home as the sun was rising, after a party in the fields. I remember the warmth with which he spoke of these amazing human beings who lived life to the full, who were so passionate.

I always wondered why we were so different, and why they seemed so happy? They just moved on.

Conversations with the Baker’s Wife

The straight road from our village Artemisio into Tripolis reaches the first platea or square quickly. The bus stops here as well, and it’s our village square. The villagers alight here, greet each other and bemoan the state of affairs.  The square is dry and dusty, with bright light because all the buildings are painted white or have white marble cladding. The sidewalks are narrow and uneven. The roads congested with cars, and the occasional bumper bashing adds excitement.

If you turn left then left again around the square, further down the next block is a bakery. My father would always have a spot to park nearby and his first stop was always the bakery. In the morning all the breads and cakes and pitas had been baked and the smell stopped you even if you thought you were in a rush and had to be somewhere else..

The daughters behind the counter would always call their mother when my father arrived.  My father would tip his hat at the iconostasio high up in the middle of the bakery, facing the entrance, at the photograph of her late husband. A big man with a handlebar moustache. She would ackwoledge the greeting of her late husband, smile, and they would exchange small talk. He would always leave with a koulouraki or kourambiede or some other sweet in the morning.

Anybody who accompanied my father was always introduced, and their lineage dissected to a level where both parties were satisfied they could guarantee an understanding of who they were talking about and what relationship existed with a visitor from say three years back. With the “aha” moment a big smile would spread over both faces and the bond was deepened. The visitor would then be offered the freshest biscuit or pita, warm and fragrant, as one of the daughter came out with tongs to serve.

My father was in the village for maybe two months of the year, sometimes only a few days at a time when he had bank meetings. Yet he never failed to stop at the bakery and enquire to their health and progress of the family. He also never failed to make sure he walked into Tripolis with a fortifying offering from the baker’s wife.

He would always return just before lunch to buy bread for the house. Happiest when it was a large round village bread, the crust of which could withstand the pressure from any other shopping bags with which it was forced into the car. Also the bread felt it was made of something, it had weight beyond the airiness of designer and convenient breads of the American lifestyle.

Conversations around a Bowl of Soup

Every Easter the Orthodox are supposed to fast for Lent. Now that I stay in Durban it seems everyone thinks a fast is like the Muslims do for Ramadan: nothing passes your lips from sunrise to sunup.

The Orthodox fast is supposed to be a sacrifice as well, but not of meal times, just of food types. One should forego luxurious items, and if one were an aesthete one would live on unleavened bread and water for 40 days. Most Orthodox fast for the week leading up to Easter, from Palm Sunday. My father was very strict on himself. No animal products, no shellfish, no olive oil for the week. Vegetables and legumes and bread and water, with fruit made up his diet. Included was attendance at the services on each night of the Holy Week and also the morning service of Good Friday where the semblance of the body of Christ was placed in the Epitafio, for the procession later that night.

In the beginning of the church’s existence in Alberton, we had to help set up the stage outside the church for the priest to deliver his “Xristos Anesti”, Christ has Risen, message to the community after the midnight mass on Saturday. Sometimes we had communion on Saturday morning, some years on Thursday morning before School. Come to think of it, I think Greek school in the afternoons was cancelled over the Holy Week.

Communion was really communion in those days. The priest knew everybody by name, they would all have fasted Islamic style that morning and the first item to pass through their mouth was the gold spoon holding the sweet wine representing the blood of Christ. The priest then gave the spoon a quick wipe before the next lamb of God sucked on it. And we all lived healthier lives than now despite the lack of hygiene!

The midnight mass started around 9 pm. My father would be in attendance shortly afterwards. Most people arrived at 11:30 pm, in time for the church to be plunged into darkness and occasionally silence from the rabble gathered outside, and the light of God to make it’s way out from the altar. The priest would proclaim “Xristos Anesti” and then sing the beautiful funereal celebratory song. The congregants would join in and then wish each other. The community would pass out red eggs and these would be broken against friends and family member’s eggs, to symbolize the return to life of Christ.

Everyone in the family and friends would then make their way to Aunty Marina’s house, a few houses away from the church. Everyone except my father. He would stay on till the end of the service and then come, holding the candle with the new light reverently.

We all went there to break the fast. Aunty Marina made the most divine egg and lemon soup, a rich creamy broth with pieces of chicken on the side. This was in some years the first protein to pass your lips in a week, and then in the early hours of the morning.

Over the years we had a variety of priests. Some concluded the service early and my father could join us at Aunty Marina’s house. Other years the priests would extend themselves to try make up for all our sins and my father would pick up his bowl of soup from her front porch, while everyone else was asleep in their beds.

I visited my mother last night and Aunty Marina made Avgolemono soup. Just look at what flavours of memory can create….

Conversations with Number 100

I don’t know why I chose 100.

I wrote it in red figures on a white circle on the shiny black background. I won 2 races in it, and have 2 big trophies at home to remind me. I deserved those trophies, as the victory really was on the edge of my being. It scared me compared to getting an “A” for mathematics at school.

Being a pessimist and fatalistic at the time gave me sleepless nights designing a braking system. Eventually I worked out a slotted system with release springs to use my feet to apply pressure on the rear wheels. It worked at low speeds, but slew dangerously at stopping from top speed.

My soap box was a winner. My father built it for me over a few weeks in the evenings and on weekends. He was a master woodworker, unlike a certain famous political figure that often graces headlines in the second decade of the new millennium. We also built it with no power tools. I guess I needed to appreciate the work that went into planing the meranti planks and then sanding them down for the paint job. Black gloss enamel.

The box, or seat, had sides and a back of chipboard and I upholstered it with sponge padding covered by red vinyl. A t least my Alfa Romeos now have stylish red leather seats. At the time I had no ambition about vehicles other than dreaming about owning one of the sleek enclosed downhill racers with wheels on ball bearings. Although I was given a frame by a friend and I managed to learn how to use a pop riveter and bend hardboard to fix it over the frame, I did it alone and was never encouraged.

The start was on top of the hill on 5th Avenue, in Old Alberton. There was a stand that sloped at 30 degrees with a footstop that was released by crank to start the race. The hill was parabolic, so in the beginning the speeds were mild. As the slope steepened it became quite scary controlling the soapbox at 35 km/h.  I wore a motorcycle helmet, supplied by the race organisers, and crashed into the straw bales at the end of the race as the brakes forced me to lose steering. What steering? A simple nylon rope knotted through the plank with the front axle bolted beneath.

The second year I won I was even more nervous, as I know knew how fast this box on wheels actually went. I had to replace the old axles as the mild steel rods bent with the heat  caused by friction of the wheel interface.

Come to think of it, I learnt a lot from the Soap Box Derbies.  I learnt a lot about myself and my father.

I just don’t know why I chose 100?

Conversations with a Doctor

In the end my father only dealt with super specialists: he had a Chinese cardiologist and another cardiologist who managed his arrhythmia. A pulmonologist who spoke Greek.  A daughter-in-law who is a breast surgeon.  A son-in-law who is a hand surgeon.

But in the early years our general practitioner did everything. He delivered my father’s three children. Declared my grandfather dead after my uncle brought him for resuscitation after one of the early Alberton Greek Community meetings. He reduced my dislocated shoulder more than a few times and never sent me for surgery. He saved my brother when he choked on a piece of cucumber. My mother and Aunty Marina ran from our house to Dr Prinsloo’s house on the block next door holding him upside down by the ankles. I think that’s what saved him. I always think about this event when I eat cucumber.

Dr Prinsloo was married to Anne, whose parents were Polish, and stayed with them. Jaja, her father, lent an air of Eastern Mysticism to the house that was filled with light and Anne’s colourful paintings. The house was different to the other ranch style houses or old fashioned square houses in Alberton. It had curves and arches, nooks in the garden. It had a real artistic atmosphere.

He was also my introduction to motor vehicles. In an era when American was best, he drove a Citroen Pallas saloon. One of the movies of the day (The Pink Panther?) had the estate version as an ambulance, so when I was young I thought the car was for medical professionals. It was quiet, had curves like their house and the suspension that levelled the car when it was started was amazing. It also had directional headlights

Those were special days. None of the houses had fences, and most garages were left open for whatever reason. My father left the keys for my mother’s Mercedes Benz 190 under the seat, in case anyone ever needed to use the car in an emergency. It was well before the time that we would sneak cars out for test drives around the neighbourhood.

One day something happened to Dr Prinsloo’s Citroen and he needed a car for an emergency. We were out for the day, in a big American car. He ran to our house and found the garage open, the keys to the car under the seat and drove off.

My father was right to leave things in case anyone needed it in an emergency. He was always creating safety mechanisms for people.

Conversations with a Navigator

My father always had the street maps for the Witwatersrand n his car. Over the years it grew from a   40 page booklet to a 2000 page map guide the size of a telephone directory.

We needed the map to guide him to meetings and also to look at properties that were for sale and or development. As he got older his secretary would copy the relevant pages and leave them in a folder. He would plot a route, mark it and memorise it to a great degree.

In the late nineties I bought him a Garmin. In those days it was the size of a small shoe box, and the screen was not as clear as they are now. Nor as big. And the computer generated lady’s voice was much more irritating. I gave him the device when he came to visit in Durban one year. He had hired a car. He was always aware or in possession of modern equipment, but not quite a gadget man. He had been using an Olympus Micro Recorder from the days when they were considered spy equipment. He adopted digital cameras earlier than I did. He was a whiz on the HP Financial Reverse calculator.

Much as he should have loved the navigator, he hated it. Perhaps it was the bossy voice?

Perhaps it was the first day he used it in Durban. I programmed various sites for him as favourites: Home, the flat at the beach, the Greek Church, the La Lucia Mall and the casinos. So he and mom had the usual busy day out, seeing sights, shopping and visiting the casinos. They got into the car, tired and pushed home as a favourite. Only when they were driving pas the Pavilion in Westville did my mother venture to ask if they were on the right road? She had long since learnt to keep quiet, but this was too obvious.

I had told him I programmed “Home” as his house in Johannesburg, and my place as “Basil Home”.

Sometimes he was as stubborn as his children and just did not listen!

Conversations with a Rocket Scientist

I was listening to a lecture by Alain Aspect, a French physicist. His lecture at the Imperial College of London was entitled “From Einstein’s Intuition to Quantum Bits”.

He is a wonderful speaker, passionate and very clear in his argument. He also took measure of his audience. In the first quarter of his lecture he moved toward expanding on experiments that have only  recently allowed us to prove Einstein’s intuition on bits of matter. These bits are required to balance our world. His experiments to prove Bell’s Theorem of Inequality  (that no physical theory of local hidden variables can reproduce all of the predictions of quantum mechanics) were real rocket science.

He put up this fairly complex equation on the screen. He spoke about it in principle, and then like Inspector Clousseau asked if everybody could read equations? Needless to say, as it was a public forum, there were some very distinct headshakes.

He then asked the audience if any of them attended the symphony concerts? A few nods.

And further, could they all read music? A few more very distinct headshakes.

“Ah, so, you do not have to be able to read music to be able to appreciate a symphony. Quantum physics is the same: you do not have to read an equation to appreciate the simplicity of the balance around the equal sign.”

This was very reassuring for me, as since my engineering days and a passion for quantum physics I have forgotten the lyrics but remember the tune…

It is a very interesting lifestyle concept as well. We don’t always have to understand the detail of each day or event therein to arrive at a balance. Sometimes our life is indeed so complicated that we do not understand the equation of life while we are immersed in living.

It is worthwhile to stop each day and make time to appreciate our life and enjoy the music. If we spend too much time and energy trying to understand the very complex equation of life we really miss the point.

Today is the anniversary of my father’s birthday. In the month leading up to this day, without realising it I have been writing regularly, in between working, living and taking photographs.

I usually imagine a conversation my father would have had with one of the many people he met. And then I write. Sometimes I was told or even observed some of the detail. At the time, like with the complex quantum physics equation, I got lost in the detail. The detail was my self interest sometimes. As I let go of that my understanding of the balance seemed to improve.

My father possibly spoke to a rocket scientist at some stage; he knew everyone. I hope to think he would have understood the argument about appreciating without always understanding.

From my first attempts at writing.