Conversations with Advocate Barbie

Advocate Barbie was convicted recently of, amongst other things, child abuse. Before she was dragged into the underworld she was held in high regard in the legal and fashion stakes of South Africa.

Pandenaughty’s Golfing Promotions idolised her. The Chairman, my father, and secretary, George Dracatos, his attorney, offered support by way of letters and requests for consultation and opportunities for promotion.

The motto at Pandenaughty’s Golfing Promotions was:

“Don’t let it happen to you,

Join Pandenaughty’s Golfing Promotions.

We provide and see to all your golfing needs.

Let us arrange to have your handicap re-assessed.”

They even had corporate insurance. By a company called the Mafia. On their business card small print should have been written:

“Insured by the Mafia.

You hit us, we hit you!”

Pandenaughty’s was a way of elevating a handicapped four ball to a level of competition with near scratch corporate golfers. This promotions company sometimes did play scratch golf: occasionally they scratched their balls while playing!

This handicapped four ball was the life and soul of the local golf course, Reading, and any visiting course they contracted with. They would return home with great prizes, but less of the alcoholic ones. Those were usually consumed on site.

His attorney kept a file of letters from the chairman to his secretary requesting the pleasure of Advocate Barbie’s presence at this or that golfing promotion. The innuendo was high: she was invited to join them for stroke play.

Conversations with Khulumani

Yesterday I saw a humble patient in the clinic. He has been with me since the beginning of the year. He has been unable to return to heavy work in the factory after I operated on both his shoulders, but is positive that by next year he will be back. He always jumps up from the chair when I call him, gives a slow imperceptible bow and walks briskly in his old, smartly pressed clothes. He always greets me as uBaba, and holds my hand with both his hands when I extend my hand to greet him. He is not much older than me.

Yesterday I noticed his second name. It was Khulumani. After I had completed the examination and we were talking, I asked him what it meant.

“uBaba, the one who talks a lot.”

“And do you?”

“Yes, even as a child I was the one who spoke a lot.”

He is not loquacious with me, but he does speak well. And positively.

It reminded me of a Christmas a few years ago when my father and father-in-law had us in stitches. My father-in-law speaks Zulu fluently and he was having a conversation with my father who he had baptised Khulumani, because my father spoke a lot. My father was answering him in gibberish, with the odd Zulu, English, Greek or Afrikaans word interspersed to add flavour. They went on for a long time, and when they stopped the children begged them to talk “Khulumani” again. For once the children were spellbound by my father’s conversation, as the adults were when he spoke normally or made a speech.

My father had four sartorial setups. Sartorial is not a word I use to impress. It was drummed into me by one of my father’s prefects who later was my English teacher at high school. If we were not dressed properly in jacket and tie for school the teacher would question our sartorial elegance.

My father used to wear a white shirt and tie with flannel pants to work originally. He would add the suit jacket for business meetings. This formal attire included the use of his monkey suit, or tuxedo. As he got older he wore ordinary lounge shirts and flannels. He wore shorts when he went swimming and a tracksuit when he went walking. Otherwise, like the time he was Khulumani, he was well dressed in flannels and a lounge shirt. He used to wear smarter shoes when he was younger and traded these in for comfortable shoes when he developed arthritis in his feet. There was another kit he used to wear, his golf outfit. This belonged to Pandenaughties Golfing Promotions, so I have not described it here, although Pandenaughty was indeed at one with Khulumani.

My father and Khulumani both spoke well. They both could hold a conversation with anyone about any topic. And they could make us laugh.

Conversations on Planning

My father was a very good planner. As he always said, he planned for the worst scenario possible.

I always thought this was inherently a Greek form of negativity. I have come to realise that most Greeks use it as a smoke screen, to talk as if the worst has befallen them, yet meanwhile they are living life to the full, enjoying time with friends, not working too hard and avoiding any responsibility to the nation and fiscus as a whole.

My father was different. He was responsible, and added to the nation’s fiscus.

When anyone else went to him with a problem, be it personal, financial or moral he could easily crystallise the problem for the person who was seeking his help to be able to see the solution. Sometimes the solution was a series of options, results depending on which scenario unfolded. My father was a kind of Clem Sunter, although unlike Clem he often seemed to end up in a negative scenario, and then he would work his way up from that.

My father could easily read an architect’s plan and visualise the structure. He could improve the efficiency and allow for future expansion in his mind. The simplicity of it all was encapsulated in his Flexihome concept of the seventies. An affordable 3 bedroom house, lounge dining room and kitchen with a car port that could be closed in later to add to the lounge. There was also a bedroom wing that could easily have rooms added on as if part of the original design. I remember printouts from the accountants on A3 paper, narrow blue and white horizontal stripes allowing one to read the figures easier. I would sit unfolding piles of this paper doing the costings on the houses as a teenager. It would probably take an hour or so now with a spread sheet, but then it took me a whole day to do one style of house. My father frowned on the use of a calculator. He would sometimes look over my shoulder and look at a column of figures and say:

“Let’s race. I’ll add it up in my head and you use the tin brain.”

He usually won!

That’s not to say he did not use a calculator. He was a pioneer in the use of the HP financial calculators, which were really small computers that used Reverse Polish Notation. I was quite proud at university when I mastered the use of this calculator in the scientific realm. I felt disappointed when I could not use it in medicine.

The last bit of planning I saw my father had done was after he died and we were clearing out his office. He had an exam pad with cash flow calculations for the business, going three years ahead. His untidy left hand converted to right hand scrawl sloped this way and that, with the final figure double underlined and circled.


Conversations about Nothing

I thought it was only in marriage where I had this sort of conversation:

“What’s the matter?”


“But something is bothering you?”

“Just leave me alone.”

But as the years have passed and egos have softened more often than not, with a bit of space we can share the problem and halve the worry.

I thought about this because this morning I felt like I had nothing to write about. Just for now. I know I have to cover the Alberton Hellenic Community, the Greek Federation, SAHETI, the Bank of Athens, Pandenaughties Golfing Promotions, my sister and business in Greece. How that built the man up and how the one thing broke him. But those stories will come. For now I felt like I should write about nothing.

So when I started writing I remember there were many times when I was younger and moody and my father would ask the same question:

“What’s the matter?”

I would fob him off, my ego being too big in the beginning. He would persist sometimes, at other times he would just give me space. I suppose that defines our relationship. As the years passed I came to understand him better and could ask the same question of him. If he was really negative about something I would ask how bad the situation was.

“Very bad” he would answer.

“So, has someone died, or is someone really ill?” I would ask.

Looking offended, he would say: “what do you mean?”

Then he would realise what I was asking and we would talk.

Greek family philosophy is at odds with existence in the modern world, and there was always something the matter. It was certainly never “nothing”.

Like instead of playing sports some afternoons, we would have to attend Greek School. Or like we were not allowed sleep over at South African friends’ houses. Or like we were expected to marry a Greek. I put paid to that expectation with my lovely Italian wife whom my father loved dearly. Or like in July instead of going to Durban for a holiday we would fly out to Greece, be the envy of everyone and come back a week after school had started. One just could not travel for four weeks only. It was a long trip and one needed time, at least six weeks to recover the flight and have a good time. Or like we were not allowed to have a girlfriend at high school, and even when I was at varsity things were odd in that respect.

But all that has passed, as has my father, and it really does not seem to matter anymore. It’s nothing now. Not the kind of nothing that does not matter, but the kind that has passed and become part of one’s life.

Conversations at the Opera

Two nights ago I escaped the first snows of Vienna to watch Madame Butterfly at the Volks Opera. This is not quite as grand as the State Opera, but opera is about the music, the singing and for me, the acting. That’s because I just cannot understand what they say. I might catch a few words here and there, mainly amore, and then I get lost following the story almost through mime. Except there is some really beautiful music to accompany the mime. For me the voices become instruments with beautiful sounds.

I was looking for something to write about. I was in the opera store at the State Opera the next day, and I saw the cover of a biography of Maria Callas. She died in 1977, two years after Onassis died. She withered after his death. She was born in Manhattan, and after her father ran out on her overbearing mother, she moved to Greece with her mother where she knocked on the doors of the arts and became an opera singer.

Her surname came from the shortened version of Kalos, which her father chose in America to simplify Kalogeropoulos.

My father was known as Stat in high school. But he always used his full surname, and it’s surprising how problematic it can be just in terms of pronunciation, never mind spelling, for other people.

My father was never an opera fan, but any Greek worshipped Maria Callas, and also her marriage to Onassis. The interesting thing is that there is a Kalogeropoulos wine estate in Mantinea, near our village. My father loved music, and was a piano player. His favourite song was La Paloma. It was written by a Spaniard, but the motif, a dove, can be traced back to the just before the invasion of Greece by Darius, the Persian king, in 492 BC. The white dove had not yet been seen in Europe. The Persian ships were caught in a storm off Mount Athos and the doves were released as the ships fragmented and sank. The Greeks on shore, seeing this, started the legend that white doves herald a lost sailor’s love.

That story in itself deserves to be an opera.

Conversations about Travel

Old Man Simbonis told me this when I went to Greece this year. Somehow I remember him telling me this whenever we spoke:

“Travel broadens the mind.”

He has had a stroke now and is bed bound. His mischievous eyes always alert sparkle when he gets visitors. Tiny drops of tears from in the corners of his yes when he blinks. The window in his bedroom where he lives faces the mountain. There are pale blue shutters that are closed at night, and in the day warm light streams in through the skirt of crochet that covers the lower half of the window.

My father used to say the same thing:

“Travel broadens the mind.”

In truth, although I have said we lacked for nothing, especially books, he also made sure that we travelled. We fought against just spending Greek summers in the village, but he was just teaching us to budget. He never taught us how to budget money, but now that I think of it, he taught us how to budget time and travel.

If I said it another way, I could have asked him to go to Greece as often as I liked, and he would have sent me. But I had to have a good reason to broaden my mind to travel somewhere. If he thought it would do the trick, then I was allowed to go. One year I hatched an expensive plan to go into the Central Kalahari with Izak Barnard, son of the great Bvekenya. I cannot remember if I motivated for the broadening of my mind or just begged my father to allow me to go. Somehow he paid the fee, which was more than a flight to Athens, and let me go. I am not sure what he was thinking when he dropped me off early one December morning in 1982. I remember he always made me carry a credit card for an emergency, and that I should not hesitate to use it if needs be. A few years later I did used it, in a different kind of emergency, but that is another story.

Thinking of Simbonis and travel always conjures up that trip into the Kalahari. Our arrival was heralded by heavy rains that filled great pans with water deep enough to swim in to cool off. We had to walk through many of the deep drifts to check the condition of the sand below for the vehicles to cross. We were deafened by hundreds of bullfrogs that had come to life under the overnight greening of the acacia trees.

The San were the ultimate villagers of the world. Without understanding their language we communicated and bonded like human beings. It was far removed from the Parisian language barrier I was to experience later. I have beautiful slides of my 2 weeks with the San. And amazing memories.

We camped about 500 metres from where they had erected shelter. On the last night two English nurses and I went dancing with the bushman. There was a young Argentinean woman who joined us. We spent the night dancing and telling stories, sharing beyond the language barrier.

It really did broaden my mind.

Conversations at Epidavros

I had forgotten about the few days I spent in Vienna with my mother and father, about 1979 or so.

I would have to look through the old passports my father so carefully collected and wrapped with an elastic band in the safe at home. Unlike me who lost a passport at the Athens airport two years ago.

Seeing Niki Lauda’s scarred face on his airline, Niki Air, triggered the memory. When I was last there with my father we took a bus tour into the hills west of Vienna. We drove past Niki Lauda’s farm; I remember a clear torrent of mountain water streaming along the border of his forested farm. From there we went to the vineyards and had lunch under the vines of an estate looking out at the vista of the pre-Alps. I remember being allowed to enjoy the wine with my father. I remember crisp rosé and mild cheese in the cool of the late summer mountain afternoon.

Now I am going back to Vienna. I spent the day in Tutelingen, near Stuttgart in Germany. My host was Stefan Drop, head of sales for an orthopaedic devices manufacturer. He speaks English well, even with idiom. He fielded questions on the development of the company he works for, and even some on the social responsibility they hold in terms of staff benefits, salary and happiness. We had a VIP lunch at the staff canteen, in the century old restored warehouse the company owns. The workers filed past our tables holding food from the canteen on trays, to their plain wooden tables. They were a mix of male and female, mainly young, satisfied but not excited. We sat at the same wooden tables set with white linen aand napkins, and were served by a fraulein waitress. The food was delicious and the company interesting.

We spoke of work ethic, systematization and vision. The vision of Stefan’s company is to be sustainable. In the visitors centre the urinals have a sign saying that only rainwater is used to flush the toilets. The exotic hardwood floors that line the spectacular lecture hall come from sustainable harvesting enterprises in South America. These details are all that is needed to emphasise the sustainability of the company, which internally finances any capital development.

At lunch we touched on economic affairs. I led the question into the adoption of East Grmany. It was quite clear that Germans were happy, and felt responsible, to subsidise their kin, who had been unden the yoke of communism for 45 years. But they were not happy about subsidising Greece’s debt crisis, especially when the Greeks were striking as we spoke. The irony is that it is Turkish immigrants working in Germany that are paying off Greece’ debt.

 But here was proud young German whose company was 159 years old and was going to be sustainable. He loved his work, his county and his company. A company with a Greek name, Aesculap.  Aesculapius is father of medicine, whose temple is in Arcadia, our province in Greece. At Epidavros, away from the single stone in the centre of the floor of the amphitheater that carries a whisper to the top seats, away from that, is the temple of the Healer. The company’s emblem if his staff with the snake wound around it.

They had replicas of coins and statues of artifacts from the temple at Epidavros. In their excellent medical instrument museum they had large Perspex cylinders cut at different angles arranged artistically. Each of the ten or so cylinders had sayings of Hippocrates engraved.

These people loved the Greeks; they worshiped the ancient history and land and had included it in their business.

Now they have to pay for Greece’s debts. Why should they?

Conversations about Swiss Chocolate

When I arrived in Zurich after the visit to my second goddaughter,Gabriella, who had been skiing in the Swiss Alps, the airport was barricaded. We waited in the car park, uncertain of what was going on except that it was obviously a security problem.Ten years ago was just after 9/11, and the world remains on edge.

A muffled explosion, then silence. The security and army moved into the terminal, swept up the rubber mats that were torn and bent like some new piece of modern art. They cordoned off the immediate area, and ushered us past the smell of cordite. This time, with Swiss efficiency, they had blown up someones baggage that had been left unattended.

It made me think about what the Swiss banks do with money that is unattended? After how many years of no claims do they decide to move it into the car park and blow it up under protective rubber mats?

I never liked Switzerland.

Initially I was thrilled to be in a new country. Excited to be walking on pavements recently cleared of snow, the low sun adding no heat to the crisp cold that filled my lungs.I think we used to land in Basel then catch a train to Zurich. We would lug our rectangular brown suitcases with chrome latches and protective corners along Bahnhofstrasse and then branch off over the bridge and into the old town. There was a Swiss traditional restaurant as you entered the small suburb, walking over shiny,wet cobble stones.After dropping our baggage at the small inn with huge duvets and warm central heating, my father treated us to a meal there. I remember having cheese and meat fondues, and always leaving with a burnt tongue. Even the crisp white ice-cream covered in Champagne did not soothe the pain. When we left to go back to the hotel, we had to move aside for a Lamborghini Muira. The low car was so wide, not just because of the narrow streets. But the street amplified the guttural sound of the motor at low revs.

I didn’t like Switzerland because they were too organised. Rumor parallels similar White African fears at the time that had each Swiss man conscripted to the army and each family with a concrete bunker in which to survive an atomic attack. That’s why it looked so organised.There was just no heart in Switzerland.

Here I am ten years later, to discover if there is any heart in Switzerland. The money has long been moved into the Greek banks, where there is unlimited heart and maximum inefficiency!

Conversations about Business Cards

My father was not impressed by my first personal business card. He said that a business card had to make a statement about me, and this one did not. It did not even have my qualifications on it. As if that made a statement about who I was?

He was less scathing when I went into private practice and worked through some drafts of business cards with him. I gathered that a business card should have your name, address, business details and qualifications on it. While I chose the blue writing to represent the big African sky, for him and all Greeks, it represented the flag of their Patrida – homeland. He was even more impressed when I appended the word ORΘOPAIDIKO below my profession, listed as an Orthopaedic Surgeon. After all, it does come from the Greek. I had a funny call from an old G.P. in Durban who had received a copy of my letter to a colleague when one of his patients came for a second opinion. I thought the G.P. was calling to find out about my incisive opinion; in fact, he threatened to report me to council because I had illegal items on my letterhead. The Medical Council rules only allowed name, address, contact numbers and description of specialty. No pictures or any other proclamations. I tried to explain to him that ORΘOPAIDIKO  only translated to what I did in Greek.  He was Colonial and did not understand. There were two offshoots from that telephonic discussion: firstly I dismissed the old doctor as uneducated; and secondly, I removed my profession from future business cards, in Greek and English, and looked for a new profession. My anger reflected the anger my forebears felt when they were called “blerrie Greeks” or even “WOPS” mistakenly.

My father liked to think of himself as creative, as do I. His first foray into branding was when he did the sign for his construction company ACC. This was an acronym for Alberton Construction Company. The letters were in a Roman Font lying vertically in the outline of a blue Corinthian column. I remember the billboards outside new developments, and the first time we saw the new logo on a Sunday drive. He must have been very proud.

His second significant foray was when he needed a card that made a statement about himself. His wings had spread, and he had achieved more and needed to encompass the various facets of his life, which did not just include construction. That it had to be in blue was an easy decision. He was Greek. Who he really was had to be encapsulated in a logo. For this he turned to the wife of a friend of his son-in-law. Gina was an lively artist, and he commissioned her to do a pencil sketch of his father’s house in the village. They went through various designs until he chose the one that appears on his card.

Conversations on an Aeroplane

In those days there was a Greek national airline. It was originally a private airline owned by Onassis, and later was sold to the Greek state and run into the ground as any Greek state enterprise.

It was on one of the Boeing 707 ‘s that my mother collapsed. She suffered from Rheumatic Fever as a child, and had a leaky heart valve. The stress of travel and the heat of the stop for an hour in equatorial Nairobi sometimes pushed her heart into another rhythm, and made her unwell. On one flight she became unresponsive. The usual announcement went out in Greek first, then in English. My father knew there were some doctors on the plane, and was pacing up and down around my mother fighting for space with the fat old Olympic stewardesses.

Shorty after the English announcement a well dressed elderly doctor arrived, introduced himself and attended to my mother. First he took off his plain and worn sports jacket, handed it to my father to hold, and rolled up his sleeves. He felt her forehead with the back of his hand, the white pink of his palm facing my father, who was observing from the row in front. The he gently took her pulse. He paused, measuring the gap which varied between heartbeats. Sometimes less than a second, sometimes even three in a second and occasionally one every two or three seconds. He listened to her heart through her blouse with the stethoscope the stewardess proffered. He certainly was confident and looked like he knew what he was doing. He then proceeded to take her blood pressure. It was low, but not critical.

I have been in situations like that on aeroplanes and its not easy. What can you do in a small room in the sky when you have had a few whiskies and you do not have any of your team to consult? I always feel helpless in these call up situations. Sometimes I must look helpless, like the time I was struggling to get a drip up on a German lady who had had a heart attack the senior stewardess said very helpfully:

“Doctor, would you like me to announce for a nursing sister? They are usually better at putting up drips!”

My ego battered, I finally got the drip in and used the cockpit’s satellite phone to call my anaesthetist for help.

The kind doctor made space around my mother, cooled her down with a damp cloth and fanned her. He checked her pulse regularly. Eventually her colour returned, and she smiled back at him. My father was profusely grateful.

There was however no exchanging of cards. In the seventies, in the depth of Apartheid, there would be no need of a Black struggle doctor. He was out of place boarding the aeroplane in Johannesburg, would fit in in Nairobi but would stick out like a Fez in Athens.

My father shook his hand, bowed his head and thanked him.

“May God bless your hands.”

Years later my mother called me one evening, excited that she had found a picture of the doctor that had saved her. It was an obituary.