Conversations about Farming

In the seventies my father and uncle bought a farm on the Klip River. I remember driving past the block houses along the road imagining the British holed up in the tall dark windowless towers with rifles protruding against the marauding Boers. I was always proud my mother’s family had fought against the English in the Anglo-Boer war.

There was a square farmhouse as you entered the farm. There was no veranda, just an extension of the roof at the front door. At the back door, from the kitchen, there was a small veranda that looked down onto the field and then to the curve in the river. There was a big tree in front, a jacaranda, I think, with red sand grooved by cars and tractors. On the south side of the house was an open square reservoir, about a metre deep and above ground. It had a plastered lining painted blue and the wall was of quartzite rock, roughly put together. On the river side stood a working windmill. I remember at some stage that my Uncle Terry, my mother’s youngest brother, spent few days at the farm and fixed it. In summer when the windmill pumped in thrusts it was cold and refreshing water that splashed your face as you lent over to drink at the spout.

Away from the river and along the driveway on the other side of the reservoir was a drip fridge. This was about 1, 5 metres cubed, and build of a brown brick laid in a way to have large gaps between the bricks. There was a slot in the wall lined with chicken mesh and filled with charcoal. The roof was a large zinc drip tray with holes drilled above the charcoal slot. The windmill water could fill this drip tray and as it drew through the charcoal and evaporated it would cool the contents.

I remember one function at the house. It must have been a Sunday, and the whole family and community descended on the farm for a day of leisure. Many of the people had shops that were open 24/7 till late, so some must have had young Greeks manning the stores. I think there was a sheep braai, but what I do remember is a cool watermelon coming out of the drip fridge. I remember sitting on the edge of the reservoir, watching people dive off the windmill ladder into the clear cool water, spitting seeds behind me into the red dust.

I seem to remember that Uncle Terry had had the grass cut in front of the house and afterwards we all played a game of cricket. It was incongruous, all these Greek expats playing cricket in their everyday clothes, making up rules as they went along to allow the game to flow.

The best part of the farm was the river, about 1 km away from the house, to the east. It was lined with willow trees and had banks of slippery black clay. As we got older we returned there for summer camps. What a privilege.

Conversations on Citizenship

Last night I attended the Oath and Allegiance ceremony of migrants receiving their Australian citizenship. It was held in a small but neat community centre filled with pride. At the end, each new citizen received a small indigenous plant, a Kangaroos Paw, to cherish as the day they received ownership of Australia’s wealth.

Some took an oath by swearing allegiance on God; others just swore allegiance, not on god, but on the principles of what they believed in.

In the speeches they are reminded that Australia is a multicultural society and they are encouraged to maintain their cultural links. In fact, one of the recipients in the patriotic video run before the ceremony said this:

“My love for my old country is like the love I feel for my mother; my love for Australia is like the love I feel for my wife. A love full of possibilities”. Well. The cynic in my can analyse modern marriages and why they fail so often, or even worse, why they do not happen at all and compare that to citizenship. At which stage it would be easy to conclude that citizenship is doomed.

But citizenship is not doomed. In Australia it comes with an obligation to vote. You can spoil your paper but you have to attend the poll, or face a fine. It comes with an attempt to accept all culture on the surface of politeness, but the power is there to wash them weakly and just leave a few innocent and quirky traditions and festivals to liven up the desert landscape.

The opening of the ceremony was embarrassing, as the master of ceremonies mumbled respect for the people whose land they now occupy, and held a moments silence in respect. That is what defines Australian citizenship; a desire to be correct, to acknowledge a multicultural background but to be white. If only they could be made to pay for the evil they have committed, like their white counterparts in South Africa have been made to pay for Apartheid.

I remember how proud my father was when he received his Greek citizenship to the European Union. And equally proud when he had secured his children the same. Here was a loyalty to the culture but not the politics. No apology to any group. No indigenous tree to plant. Just a fire to burn in your heart.

Conversations with the Head of Interpol

My father’s taxi driver in Greece was a gem. He sat on a cushion to be able to see through the loop of steering wheel onto the road. He didn’t always look under the loop, and his eyes often strayed to make contact with the passengers as he held conversations after long absences.

He stayed in Levidi, the village along the short cut road that passes our house. It is a pleasant 2 hour walk through fields and pastures, past old churches and ancient city ruins.

The Head of Interpol was born in the same village and cousin to the taxi driver. So when he completed his stint as head of Interpol in Brussels and returned  to Greece it was natural that he saw my father more often. Those were the networks. His wife was a lawyer ( so was he by training) and my father used their services on occasion.

Once I flew over the Greece for a few days while everyone was preparing for a wedding in Italy. On my departure my father called the ex head of Interpol who was now the head of security at Greece’s new International airport.  My father said I should say hello to him when I arrived.

“But how will I know who he is?’

“He’ll find you, don’t worry.”

So I stood in the queue to check in and two security guards arrive and ask if I am Basil Stathoulis?

“Come with us.” They led me to the business class check in, checked me in and whisked me through passport control and security and to me to the head. He embraced me, kiss on either cheek, asked questions about the family and the situation at home in South Africa, then took me to the Business Class lounge, made me a great espresso and we chatted some more. Then he said to wait till he would collect me. Now I travel a lot and like to be on time, so I edged my way up to the boarding area. He found me there, and wouldn’t let me board till the end. He came on with me, greeting all the crew.

To the senior stewardess “Einai gnostos prosexai ton (He is known to us, take care of him).” Then the same to the pilot.

I was disappointed when I found myself sitting in economy. Surely he could have swung that for me?

Then as the plane took off and the seatbelt sign switched off the air stewardess came to me and said the captain was waiting.

So I went to the cockpit, admired the view and the buttons, chatted a bit about work and then said goodbye. The captains said no, buckle up and stay for the landing.

I flew into Rome on a clear spring afternoon in the cockpit of a commercial airliner, saw the Coliseum and Forum from the air, the Olympic Stadium and St Peters. It was an incredible entry to the Holy City.

It helped that my godfather had been the senior pilot of Olympic Airways a decade earlier.

Conversations with A Greek Pop Singer

In November 1994 the New South Africa welcomed a Greek hero to its shores.

He is without doubt the most recognisable Greek singer in the world, his name never besmirched in a world where entertainers have no principles; he seems at one with the people.

He sang and promoted songs by Mikis Theodorakis, who had been exiled to France by the Colonel’s Regime, a military junta that overpowered Greece in 1967. Exiled because he was a Communist, Theodorakis’ songs were about the people and freedom. In 1974 he returned to Greece to power a left wing coalition. In the 80’s he founded a Greco-Turkish friendship organisation.

Much as he was loved for his music, in South Africa Theodorakis would not have been welcome under the Apartheid Regime. Nor by people living under the regime.

Daralas, as he was born, anagrammatised his name to Dalaras. He was instrumental in the resurgence of the “rebetika”. According to an academic expert on Rebetika, Elias Petropoulos, “The womb of rebetika was the jail and hash den. It was there that the early rebetes created their songs. .. The early rebetika songs, particularly the love songs, were based on Greek folk songs and songs of the Greeks of Smyrna and Constantinople”.

Furthermore, a perhaps overemphasised theme of rebetika is the pleasure of using drugs, especially hashish. These songs have become known as the “hasiklidika”.

One of Dalaras’ more energetic concerts is memorable. He introduces the “hasiklidika” as simply that: “ta hasiklidika”; my spine tingles when I hear it.

So that is the background to my father welcoming Mr George Dalaras at the Jan Smuts International Airport of Johannesburg in November 1974. A singer whose LP’s lived in my father’s record player, a box as big as a server, along with one or two records of Theodorakis, but were played by my brother and I in secret. I don’t ever remember my father listening to them; he loved the more traditional and nationalistic music of Samos and Kalamata, although he did a really good “tsifteteli”.

Dalaras and Theodorakis were in conflict with my father’s conservative upbringing in South Africa and from Greece. Yet they were both massive vehicles for pan-Hellenism, a cause close to my father’s heart. So he embraced them.

My father could always see the bigger picture. He arranged concert tickets for Caterina, my sister-in-law (who is Italian and loves Dalaras) and I. He invited us as guests of honour to the post concert cocktail at the Carlton Hotel.

I was shy in those days and just wanted an autograph. I remember my father pushing me, saying “go talk to him”. I was so nervous and in awe of Dalaras. I met his wife, who loves horses, and have a framed autograph of the program in my study: “Ston Vasili, me agape, Giorgos Dalaras”.

I am so proud my father could “walk with kings nor lose the common touch”. And that he could see beyond the smoke and mirrors of politics.

Conversations about Tea

I remember waiting for our luggage at the old Athens International airport. I was 16 years old. I waited with pride for my framed rucksack to come onto the roundabout. Secretly I was hoping I could join the hippies hitchhiking around the islands, but I think the rucksack was enough to raise concern for my father. If I did try join the wandering dope smoking free love group I would have been grounded very quickly.

So instead of spending my Greek summer holiday on some beautiful and idyllic island I spent it in a mountain village in Arcadia. As usual, as I did every year.

This year I wanted to explore. Exploring was a difficult concept for Greeks, considering their heritage of ancient expansion and marauding, chasing after each other’s wives and destroying cities in the process.

First I walked around the valley in a day. From Kakouri to Simiades to Kapsas to the intersections with the main road, then back through Ancient Mantinea past Ta Xania and through Pikerni home. Each village was smaller than ours, and of course, Mantinea was in ruins. Each cafeneio had old men sitting on wicker chairs at small tables nursing a coffee when I passed in the morning and a drink in the evening. I greeted some, but others really looked through me like I was a xenos; a stranger. Strange at that.

A few days later I left for the top of the mountain behind the village. I packed food and water and left early in the morning before the 35 degree heat would melt me away. Most people in the village on the way to the fields knew me and greeted me, but turned around as they passed to inspect my blue nylon framed rucksack. At the edge of the village I skirted a dry river bed and passed a bloated dead donkey amidst the rubbish dumped by the villages in the days when there was no municipal collection. From the river I chose one of the paths through the pournari, a kind of bushy oak with leaves like holly that tear at your skin and clothes. I started the ascent, gentle at first, then steeper and finally almost a cliff, before reaching a small plateau just below the peak.
Here was a small white church, the reason I had climbed: Analipsi, the Ascension. It was rectangular and low and had a low bent wire fence around it. I rested in the shade and lay out my sleeping bag next to the south wall ready for the evening. I had a small gas cooker and cooked some rice and canned meat. I lay down to sleep in the quiet darkness. I was nervous, because all the villagers wanted to know why I wanted to climb in the first place, and in the second place, why I wanted to sleep there.

I did not know either.

The next morning I was awake when in the soft light of the mountain sun I saw and heard a couple with a donkey approaching the church. They knew who I was, and by the time I returned home and had a garden shower, the whole village would know that I slept on Analipsi.

I slept there because it was cooler than in the village and you can smell wild rosemary and oregano even without stepping on the leaves to release the aromatic oils.

The couple came to collect mountain tea. I forgot to take some back.

Conversations on Potatoes

I know today is a holiday in Greece. The day we said OXI (no) to the invasion by the Italians. Yesterday we said yes to the European banks writing off 50% of their Greek debt. I doubt OXI will change to EFXARISTO (thanks).

My father spent many OXI days making speeches at schools and churches and communities. In 1974 he made a patriotic speech at the new church. Yes, church and state were indivisible. It is filled with rhetoric and slogans. I have translated from the Greek:

“NO to baseness;

NO to darkness;

NO to slavery.”

The great OXI was shouted out loud in October 1940, across the Mediterranean Sea and Balkan Mountains, hearkening back to the Ottoman Occupations and the freedom once known by the expansion of Macedon into Asia by Alexander the Great.

The next speech I have on record is 3 years later. On 28 October 1977 my father made a speech at Marais Viljoen Technical High School. This was a dual medium high school, with beautiful grounds at the foot of the koppies in Alberton. It had a strong academic and sporting tradition. They were my high school’s arch enemies in athletics. I remember running a 200m race and being cut off by their star sprinter in the corner as I overtook him on the inside. I lost that race, but we won the 4 x 100 m relay.

He was invited to speak at the conservative school on  ”What Hellenism has Contributed to South Africa” . It must be one of the few speeches he made on 28 October that did not contain any slogans and win which not a word of Greek was spoken. In fact, in that speech he does not mention the relevance of the day to Greeks.

He expounds on the history of Greeks arriving in South Africa:

The he moved on to explain the two types of immigrants who arrived: the unskilled initially and then the skilled. All of who had the entrepreneurial spirit. He expounds on great Greek sportsman, but refrains from mentioning that the Greeks started the Olympic games.

Along the way in trying to explain the dual nature of the South African Greeks he emphasises that “ we do not worship two gods”. I am not sure why he said that.

He concludes the four  page speech typed on a typewriter and edited with Tipex with a summary of the commercial success of South Africa Greeks. A classic is the Potato King, Lampies Nichas, whose spud empire threateden the USA.  They supported farmers to outstrip his production so that he would lose his dominance in the industry.

Conversations about Watermelons

The tragedy in Greece is reflected by the tragedy in Turkey. Not financially. Of course, all the financial tragedy is Greek.

Before the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens there was great debate and concern about where the Muslim athletes would worship. Would a temporary hall suffice, or should they build a proper mosque? Meanwhile, in historic Athens there is a mosque that is boarded up and ignored. In Istanbul there is a great cathedral that now is a museum but was recently a mosque, having served the Orthodox Christians of the city for years.

There is great common ground that neither side recognises, and common ground that has been destroyed by the education system on both sides. Common ground that was destroyed by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. The treaty changed the path of nationalist development not just for the near east, but for the whole world. This change was facilitated by the diminishing power of religion on the global stage and the growth of human consciousness.

Yes, they are different religions. But the people are very similar.

There is tradition. There are candles to be lit. I remember a few years ago driving back from Levidi at night along the back road to Kakouri. There are no lights in that valley. The Arcadian mountains rise high up on the sides and block out any distant village and city lights. The road curves through wheat fields, a thin strip of tar. A fox ran in front of the headlights, and as I dimmed the lights and slowed the car I saw a light in the distance. I was in no rush and drove slowly, window open savouring the smell of the earth and wild herbs crushed by the black hooves of herd of white sheep. As I approached the light I saw it was at Agios Nectarios.

Someone had lit the oil wick in the iconostasio at the corner of the church. I parked the car and got out. The small metal frames window opened easily and inside was a bowl with oil floating on water and a waxed wick pushed through a cork disc with a metal under surface to hold it upright. In the corner was a small bottle of olive oil, matches, spare wicks and a cloth to wipe your hands once you had created light and dirtied them.

I sat down with my back to the wall and watched the stars. I could easily make out the horizon where the stars stopped shining and the mountains became black. Then I could see nothing. Except close by.  By the flame burning in olive oil, I could see the shadow of the road and the harsh white Arcadian rocks lying on the side as the path led up to the iconostasio.

So you might ask what this has to do with watermelons? Well, do you know what the correct name for a watermelon is in Greek? Hydropepon.

Do you know what all Greeks call a watermelon? Karpouzi.

It’s a Turkish word.

Conversations on Ablutions

I was quite impressed as a young teenager, to be sitting on the first flush toilet in our house in the village in Greece. I was even more impressed when I pulled the chain on the cistern and steam appeared from the bowl. The village plumbers who had installed the geyser and toilet had no idea what either was for, and probably thought the hot water was needed to disinfect the toilet.

The geyser is in the same, and at that stage, the one and only bathroom of the house. It lies exposed above the bath. To this day it is safer to switch the geyser off at the mains, rather than risked being shocked when showering. Perhaps the installers thought it evil to wash every day and needed to remind us of our wrongdoing.

My father used to do the “crap patrol” every morning after his walk. We were not allowed to flush anything down the toilet except body waste. The toilet paper would have blocked up the small septic tank. So it was deposited in a little bin and he would burn it outside.

The original toilet for the house was a long drop in the front yard. It was built of red bricks, unplastered, and the wooden door faced the kitchen door. The outhouse had no roof, and if you stood on the front veranda upstairs you could see the head of the person in the facility. There was no toilet seat, just a precast slab over the hole with imprints for your feet. As a child I struggled because my feet were not big enough and I was always scared I would fall into the hole. When the house was full, the men and boys were expected to use the outhouse, with the 44 gallon upright drum inside, holding ashes from the “crap patrol”.

It was odd to see my father doing the dirtiest of jobs in the house, where in South Arica he did no cleaning at all. Once, at home in Johannesburg, my mother complained that he never helped with the dishes. It was a light hearted jab in front of family and friends. In fairness she never expected him to help anyway. But he said he would that day. After the meal, he picked up the four corners of the table cloth and pulled them together, sliding the contents into an improvised bag and deposited this on the scullery floor. Clearing table and dishwashing was not his strong point.

Summer in the village was fine. Sometimes I ran the hose pipe up the veranda and showered underneath it outside in the front courtyard. But in winter it was different, running across the cobbled stone courtyard to the outhouse and exposing your backside to the cold above the deep hole.

Eventually with the building of a bathroom upstairs for my mother, the outhouse was demolished. I spent less and less time in the village and the “crap patrol” degenerated to a municipal waste collection function.

With the municipal collection came the need for landfill sites. The village got wind of the plans of one of its son’s, the town engineer of Tripolis, to propose a landfill site for the whole of Arcadia behind the village, in the   vicinity of Agios Nectarios. They blocked him on that, and I am sure he lost a lot of money in the deal. He should have done the “crap patrol”. He might have learnt something.

Conversations about Pictures

When my father was at school and varsity he used to develop and print black and white pictures in the bathroom at the old house. The prints were smaller than a postcard and were contact prints. He placed the negative over the paper and exposed it to light. No enlarger.

At home these prints were stored in the study in an old shoe box, along with other photographs of holidays and events. There was also an old brown suitcase with chrome locks that housed the 8mm films of family and sporting events. He never made the transition to a video camera but embraced digital photography. The thing about digital photography is that he bought a new memory stick whenever the camera had no more file space, and never downloaded them on a computer. He always had jumbo prints made of his pictures with digital cameras.

A few years ago he digitised the 8mm films. The athletics meetings we participated in were a harsh reminder of fit and fast young days. The family parties were a reminder of simpler functions. There was food and drink on the table, and afterwards they would often get up and dance, no hifi or disco, just a small tape recorder making the noise. The community affairs and Greek National Days were funny, with important looking Greeks posing for the camera and children reciting poems they did not understand. Wearing clothes they were embarrassed to have on: the foustanella (white pleated skirt) and white stockings.

At home in South Africa, in the lounge and dining room, are only wedding pictures of my father, his parents and his children.  The face of his only son-in-law does not shine in those rooms. At home in the village, in the simpler dining room cum lounge, there are all the family weddings, including his siblings and their children. There is also a table of frames filled with family pictures and achievements, birthday milestones and graduation pictures. In South Africa my mother’s fridge smiled with happy pictures of grandchildren, godchildren and pets.

In fairness, the house in South Africa was my father’s. The house in Greece was my grandfather’s.  So, in fairness, my father has honoured the genealogy of the house in Kakouri.

Whenever I am in the village I always spend some time being quiet and looking at the pictures. People preserved in their finest, at their finest hour. Smiles that hide the anticipation of a journey to an unknown world in Africa. Smiles that hide the next 47 years of marriage and end with fracturing of a relationship with a daughter. Smiles that hide the knowledge of a career not chosen. Smiles that hide children, and no children.

Still they smiled.

Conversations with a Priest

This was no ordinary priest. Not one whose voice resonated in incense filled churches. Not one to confess to. Not one to ask to marry, baptise, nor bury you.

Tou Papa, The Priest’s Place, is the other side of Tripolis. My father had spoken of him with reverence as with all priests, and with some eagerness for us to meet him.  We set off in the car from Kakouri and drove through Tripolis after 20 minutes of straight road and passed many churches. Then the same road exited Tripolis after the three squares and we continued until we turned right into a maize field. The maize was high with yellow inflorescence in the late summer evening light. It was to be an early dinner at 9 p.m.!

Tou Papa lay like a hacienda when viewed from the maize field. The gravel parking area had been crunched by a few cars that were standing already. To the right his sheep were grazing in an open field, and to the left was a large vegetable patch. We parked, and walked across the gravel. Cicadas quiet and crickets not yet chirping.

The front veranda had chairs and tables on it, more so than for a priest’s house. Come to think of it, there were more cars that there would be a Sunday’s Liturgy in Kakouri. Granted, most people walked to church in Kakouri. It’s not that big.

And inside there were people seated in the restaurant. An older lady and a younger man were taking orders, and delivering house wine in carafes, village bread in baskets and mezze on thick white plates. The tables were all square, covered with white tablecloths protected by white wax paper. Small village glasses for wine, no balloons. No clowns either. The smell of fresh bread and cooked beans and yellow roast potatoes had me salivating even before the roast lamb and grilled souvlakia (kebabs) came out.

We sat and waited for bread, wine and mezze. The other tables around us were filled with older people and younger families with children. There was a quiet buzz, a bit less noise than one would expect in a Greek tavern. Certainly, there were no expletives emanating from the kitchen or serving staff. Even later, when a few tables filled up with hip youngsters in designer clothes, it remained subdued.

The priest received special dispensation from the Archbishop to open a restaurant. His passion was cooking, and as a farmer he had produce to use like generations before would have done. The archbishop placed two limitations on him. One, he was not allowed to open on Sundays; and two, he had to confine himself to the kitchen, and could not come to the open area and mingle with clients.

So my father took us off to meet him in the kitchen. Greeks are like that. Rules, even religious rules, are just guidelines.