Conversations with Old Man Vlachos

Old Man Vlachos was one of my father’s best friends. He and Old Man Simbonis. I say old, because as I write this Simbonis is still alive, of clear mind, at age 98.

These were two men from the next generation to my father who adopted him in the village of his father when he returned from South Africa to make a second home. Two men, of different backgrounds. Old Man Vlaxo was nicknamed a Vlach as he was an orphan from Thessaly. He grew up in hard times in Kakouri, was a shepherd and farmer. He had fields in the southern part of the plain of Tripoli, and would pass by the house to collect my brother John to work in the fields with him. He was essentially unschooled, but wise beyond books. He, like Simbonis, could read people easily and see where they were headed even though the person they were seeing had no idea. I think they knew where my father wanted to go, and helped him reach his destination.

I remember the engenia of the cellar at our house. My father had finally secured tenure of the house from a cousin who had been squatting there. John and his son had carved their names in the cement staircase my Uncle Arthur had built a few years before. I remember the rage on my father’s face, the insult to him and his family, as he made my brother chisel the cousin’s name from our lives. It was my father’s first big expense in Greece, to build a new house for his cousin that thought he had rights to live in our house. I wonder what the two old men advised him to do, and what they thought of what he did?

But that didn’t detract from any celebration. The biggest was the engenia, the blessing, of the cellar. My father had allowed someone from the village to use the vineyards he had inherited from his mother, a small piece of land near the river bed. The fee was a barrel of wine a year for the cellar. The appropriately named the barrel “PIS”, for my father’s initials: Peter Ioanis Stathoulis. Much to his concern, although at times when I was younger and stole a sip of the retsina from the barrel I did think it tasted like donkey pis!

There would always be last year’s barrel and the current years in the cellar. The wine was pressed by foot from a cement bath built in under the steps next to the entrance to the cellar. The wine of the current year was a delightful rose with strong resin flavour. As I grew older I loved it as much as my father did, and the smell or quick taste can transport me back while accompanying some strong cheese or meat.

For the engenia they had a whole new barrel for use. And sheep on the spit from Tripoli. And the finished the barrel that night, with much dancing and joking. Even more so after the women had gone home and we children ran out of steam as we played late into the night.

Old Man Vlaxo got so drunk that they carried him back home in a  funeral procession and placed him in his wife’s “fourno”, the outdoor stove where they would bake bread once a week and on Special Sundays cook meat and potatoes. They lined candles along his side and left them lit as the closed the door. When he wife came out to bake the next morning Dina found him wishing he was dead from the headache. Good thing they did not know what a babelaas was in Greece!

Dina died last year. She was gentle soul, always tearing a piece of small leafed Basil from her gardens as she blessed you with sparkling tears in her eyes, on the road to the good.

Conversations on Dancing

Nikos Kazanatzakis: Zorba the Greek

Zorba was dumfounded. He tried hard to understand; he could not believe in such happiness. All at once he was convinced. He rushed towards me and took me by the shoulders.

“Do you dance?” he asked me intensely. “Do you dance?”



He was flabbergasted and let his arms dangle by his sides.

“Oh well,” he said after a moment. “Then I’ll dance, boss. Sit further away so that I don’t barge into you.”

He made a leap, rushed out of the hut, cast off his shoes, his coat, his vest, rolled his trousers up to his knees and started dancing. His face was still black with coal. The whites of his eyes gleamed. 

“I feel better for that,” he said, after a minute, “as if I had been bled. Now I can talk.”

He went back to the hut, sat in front of the brazier and looked at me with a radiant expression.

“What came over you to make you dance like that?”

“What could I do, boss? My joy was choking me. I had to find some outlet. And what sort of outlet?    Words?    Pff!”

Words. Conversations. And dancing.

My first memory of Greek dancing was at home in Alberton in the garden after Easter lunch. Someone would put some music to play, a record or 8 track cassette and the people would just start dancing on the lawn in the sunlight. My Uncle Piet would have been a gymnast if he was not forced to leave Greece as an 13 year old and become a second brother to my father. He would dance with energy and happiness, grabbing people to join the line.

I was always embarrassed, and as a six year old did not want to dance. I was distinctly antisocial. I remember Uncle Piet bribing me with a one Rand note for each dance.

My father was a consummate dancer, with a limited repertoire based on socio-political beliefs. He would dance the Kalamatiano, the Tsammiko and the Tsifteteli. In the village with his best friend he would dance Pos to Triboun to Piperi, How does one Grind Pepper, with his best friend, Gero Vlachos. This last one was more of a tarantella with actions on grinding pepper with various body parts. Trust me; it was really funny to watch.

Although he danced in happiness like Zorba, he never did a sirtaki. The composer, after all, was a communist and socialist, although he served as minister under the New Democrats after his return from exile. My father also never danced a Zembetiko. With that, he never broke plates that I can remember. Burn whisky on the floor? No.

So who taught him to dance, and who taught him not to dance some of those liberating moves?

Remember, he was born in South Africa and first went to Greece when he was 28 years old. He knew how to dance from his parents. I suspect they also taught him what not to dance; what was too modern and what had roots in Asia Minor and the hash dens of Athens. Part of that crisis that unfolded in Greece in the 1920’s must have contributed to them leaving their homeland before the Second World War for South Africa. I have no memory of my grandfather as he died when I was two years old. But I grew up with my grandmother and remember a proud village woman with great principles. She was also very stubborn.

I used to love watching my father do the Kalamatiano. He would lead and be held by a handkerchief anchored by his strong brother. My father was an acrobat in the front, a Peloponnesian warrior, dancing from the days of Homer around Achilles spear; he was a Spartan where the woman held the handkerchief for the warrior to spin and jump.

When he danced the Tsammiko he was clean and fluid, nothing fancy, but easy to follow. Being tall he stood straight and was lithe and consumed by the music.

I remember he would do the Tsifteteli with Aunty Penny and Thea Vasiliki. This is a belly dance and I am not sure if my grandmother approved of this. After all, it is purely Turkish. So why was this dance allowed, but the Zembetiko not? Perhaps it’s because he always did it with an inverted glass of water on his head?