Conversations with Priests

One of the most memorable things about my parents wedding in 1959 is the wedding cake with two Greek flags fluttering on the top tier of the wedding cake. But the most memorable thing is that the priest who married them at the Johannesburg Church of the Saints Constantine and Helene disappeared shortly after the wedding, both from South Africa and the priesthood. It was later circulated via the grapevine a few years later that he had qualified and was practising as a gynaecologist in Athens!

There have been so many priests involved in our lives. Like the one who was an accountant and gave this up for the calling. I followed him down to Durban where I proposed to my future wife, Ines. I went to the priest to arrange the wedding. We sat in the lounge of the old house opposite the old church in Durban, near the harbour. I had visited him every so often the church was in fact opposite the King Edward VIII Hospital, where I spent a few years of post –graduate training. I told him that I wanted to get married. Judging by the behaviour of the Durban Greek boys he asked one question.

“Is she Christian?”

“Yes, father, she’s Catholic. She’s Italian.”

“Good. Never mind that she’s Italian. Let’s have a drink. Papadia, bring some whisky, please”

I cannot remember if he said please. But his wife dutifully brought the whisky, glasses and ice and he poured me a huge tot and we drank; him happy that I was marrying a Christian and me happy that he was happy to marry us. He married most of the extended family, baptised most of the nieces and nephews and said his goodbyes tearfully at a few family funerals as well.

The other priest who made an impression on me was the village priest. He introduced me to alcohol at the tender age of 14, one December when I was in Greece with my brother. He poured an ouzo and added water. The white cloud swirled in the glass as I sipped the aniseed taste and slowly got drunk. We were sitting in his kitchen, at the end of a long passage that led from the front door. The next thing a young man came running through.

“Hide me, father, he wants to kill me!” he gasped as he hung onto the priests knees. The priest had just buried this scared young man’s father. The other brother was challenging the will, and felt he could not survive on half the land his father had, and needed more to feed his family.

The first brother exited, to the cellar I think, and the second brother came through in heavy boots, holding a shotgun. “Where’s my brother? I’m going to kill him!” He brandished the gun in front of the priest, who was a keen hunter, but I do not think appreciated the idea of a shooting in his house or village.

Wide eyed and drunk, I watched this action like a scene in a movie. Brother wanting to kill brother. Just like in the Civil War. Just about land.

They were mad. And the priests were crazy.

A working priest in the village, circa 1970

Conversations about Professionals

My father expected professionals to be just that: professional. He consulted the best in the field, always paid top dollar and if ever concerned, he would get a second opinion.

He was difficult as a patient. He was demanding. He would ask thorny questions. He would expect availability. He would offer his opinion and assistance. The one professional who got the better of him was the big strong nurse who clipped the laceration in my forehead when I fell in Aegina in 1970. She tucked me under her hairy armpit, her starched uniform scratching me as would her moustache if she kissed me. My father made a move to follow her into the procedure room and she turned, said the famous “oxi” – no – , and closed the door in his face. It was not often that happened, as he always managed to get a foot in the door and force it open.

I would love to have had him when I am called out sometimes. My best trick is just to listen sympathetically, to try pick up all the ques that I saw my father giving off and then address them with a verbal answer, sometimes throwing in a big medical word to put them off the trail, or just nodding and touching their forehead or hand. After so many years in the business it’s not difficult to take a deep breath and diffuse any situation.

One thing my father never quibbled about is fees. He expected professionals to charge and never quibbled. Unlike all the people I see today who have off-road motorbikes, cell phones and Sony play stations for the injured children, and then still question my fee.

The other thing my father did not tolerate in professionals was incompetence. He acknowledged clearly that if there was a problem that was insurmountable then defeat in the hands of the professional was acceptable. But the communication from the professional was important. But he had disdain for professionals that should be qualified for routine problems and are not. Like the lady doctor who called me last night panic struck with an old man with a three hour old dislocation of his shoulder. She woke me at midnight with the call, telling me that she had sedated him and given him morphine, and could I come help. She sounded nice, but as I woke from my Christmas Day lunch slumber I asked if she had attempted to reduce the dislocation.

“Oh, no “she said, “I just gave him the dormicum and morphine because he was in so much pain!”

So I politely asked her to reduce the shoulder and call me. It took her 40 minutes, no doubt during which time a professional nurse and one of the experienced ambulance paramedics helped her reduce the dislocated joint.

My mother could have done a better job. I suffered from recurrent dislocation of my right shoulder as a teenager and most times my mother would gently manipulate it back into place without causing me pain. She could feel the tension in the muscles and worked around that quite professionally. It was the doctors who hurt my shoulder when they tied to reduce it.

And this young lady doctor hurt my concept of what professionals are at midnight of Christmas Day.

Peter Stathoulis, The Professional
Peter Stathoulis, The Professional

Conversations about Christmas Lights

Ever since I can remember my mother would put a real pine tree in the corner of the lounge and decorate it for Christmas. My father would never allow a plastic one, and I feel guilty very year when I haul out my small yuppie

Uncle Piet and Zaccharia at our Christmas Tree in the seventies

plastic tree and light it up near the window of our dining room. At home, the lounge would slowly be imbued with a foreign fresh pine scent that must have reminded my father of the plantations in the Berg or the forests on the slopes of Mainalon in Arcadia.

After Christmas the tree would be planted in the garden. There was an aquifer running below our hose and we had a strong borehole; when any tree tapped into the sandstone water reserve it shot up. Once during a storm my brother and I smelt that same foreign fresh pine scent and we found one of our giant Christmas tree tops speared through the roof and ceiling of my parent’s room. After that, and at an age when we realised that pine trees were exotic and used up our water, we stopped planting them.

In the front garden we had a cypress tree, which in the eighties was big enough to hold a string of large coloured outdoor party lights. My father would religiously switch them on at night, and pressure the gardener to replace any broken ones. There were often grand hailstorms on the Highveld in December that decimated the show of lights.

I remember driving though the streets of Benoni and Johannesburg to look at the Christmas lights hung between lampposts. Those lights did not seem commercially based; they were just beautiful for the sake of Christmas.

The funny thing is that when my father spent his December at 45 Kakouri in the village in Greece, he had a plastic tree. There a tree cut from the forest slopes of Mainalon would have made a mess and he used to help clean the house in those days.  So it made sense to forego the fresh scent of pine that could flavour retsina, and rather just drink the retsina and admire the plastic tree with colourful lights. His coup was decorating the veranda with Christmas lights and waiting for the village children to come singing the kalanda – carols. He used to drive us crazy when he came home loaded with tapes then CD’s of the Greek Christmas carols. He would play them nonstop and we would cringe. But in the village, especially if it was snowing, it was beautiful.

My favourite carol is in fact the New Year song Άγιος Βασίλης έρχεται – St. Basil is coming. It is a particularly beautiful piece of Baroque music that when played by a master on the piano without vocals is haunting and reminds my inner soul of the real reason we celebrate Christmas. We light up our lives during the darkest night of the winter solstice to celebrate life.

Christmas Lights at No 45 Kakouri, my father's pride.December 2007.

Conversations about Dowries

Dowries are just not the done thing in the modern world. The Greeks still do it. My father gifted a dowry for his sister, as he was head of the household after his father died and assumed the traditional duty. I remember part of the wedding gift; really, that is what it was. If it was expected then I suppose it became part of the dowry. My father and his brother gave the newly married couple a Jaguar X-Type. In 1972 that was a real car. It was brown with tan leather seats and a walnut dashboard with more chromed dials than an aeroplane. It had twin fuel tanks and a rocker switch on the dashboard to change the fuel supply. The fuel flaps were chrome and lay streamlined behind the rear window pillars on each side. My cousin George has lovingly restored the car to its former beauty.

But as I said, dowries are not done anymore. But if the groom expects a gift from his future wife’s family, then that is the dowry.  How do you work it out, if you were to pay it. Does it depend on the status of the man, or his race? Assuming the bride is Greek, would the dowry paid for a Greek doctor be the same as for a Jewish Doctor. Surely not, because a mixed marriage in those days was frowned upon. Even if the Jewish doctor was a specialist?If the groom was a successful business man, would the dowry depend on whether he could franchise the business to include his future brother –in-laws? Or perhaps would it be lowered, or increased in value, if the business was based on stolen goods? And how would the value of the dowry paid vary if the groom was in his father’s business which could be amalgamated with the bride’s father’s business to increase sales?

I am not sure about the calculations. I assume the wedding gift from the bride’s parents would be just that: a gift. Not a calculated valuation of their daughter’s worth in a  new life with essentially an unknown man. For how can anyone know how the young man turns out. For how can anyone know everything about the young man’s history, and if they did, how many of them turn a blind eye to his exploits.

The sad thing is that the  dowry did not represent the worth of the daughter. It may have been higher if she was worth less, to convince a suitor to marry her, but otherwise the woman’s worth in a chauvinistic Greek society was calculated in a bizarre fashion, if you ask me.

Now on a more serious note about dowries. When my grandfather sponsored his cousins from Greece to come and work in Union Cafe in Alberton, South Africa, they had a poor command of English behind the counter. A woman came in asking for a Primus Pricker. Uncle Jimmy went to my grandfather and asked him panic-struck.

Theo, what does this woman want? A prika? Does she want to marry me?” Paled faced he stood, wringing his hands in fear of some sin he may have to commit to live in this new world.

My grandfather laughed. He explained what a Primus Pricker was.

Because a dowry in Greek is a Prika. We are all involved in it, somehow.

Conversations at a Bakery

My mother’s father was a baker. I have his first name, Basil, but a different surname. His was Moutsatsos. He comes from a beautiful seaside village on the eastern phalanx of the Peloponnese, from a village called Velanidia. The story goes that during the invasions by the Spanish fleet the villagers would all run down to the beach shouting “muchacho, muchacho”, Spanish for friends, in order to sell their wares to the galleons. So “Muchacho” became Moutsatsos.

I do not remember my grandfather at all, although I remember the bakery he had in Van Riebeck Avenue. It was an underdone art deco building, with plain white columns holding up the long  veranda alongside the road. Proto Bakery was glass fronted with specialist cakes displayed in the windows. The counters were glass and lay in an L shape, with one arm  running on the left side as you entered, with the till, and the other side facing you. Behind the glass counter facing you was the bakery, through a door, you could see the ovens and the mixers. There were also great big bags of flours, white dust everywhere, that my grandfather sued to sleep on when he first arrived in South Africa and worked at his uncle’s bakery.

There was no air-conditioning in those days and the climate on the Highveld was mild. It was a busy bakery, as my grandfather had nine children to feed and school, with five daughters that helped behind the counter on weekends when they were not attending Bertolis Greek Boarding School in parktown. The clean air and busyness filled the store with mouth-watering aromas, and the sight of crisp French loaves and newly iced cakes made people salivate as they anticipated the tasting.

On the north side of the bakery on the same side of the road was the Reno Bioscope. There were steps leading down to the road from the ticket office and at interval the bakery would fill with bioscope viewers and many of the neighbourhood friend would help the five daughters behind the counter. That in itself was an enticement.

My father’s father, John, and Papou Basil were good friends, so Basil did not blink an eye when my father started helping out behind the counter and then started walking one of the girls to their home on 5th Avenue after the movies. Bets were on as to which of the five sisters he was after. My mother says she like him, and he approached her sister Irene to arrange that he could sit next to my mother at the bioscope. My mother was sitting already when he sat down unexpectedly next to her. She was quite angry and gut up with a quick move that almost tore her skirt off as he had made sure to sit on the wide long skirts of the fifties to make sure she could not leave.

My mother was seventeen and my father eighteen when they met. He took her to his matric farewell one year later and they were married three years after that.

My grandfather’s bakery supplied the cake. It had a Greek flag and Ionic columns supporting the happy figurines that stayed together for forty nine years.


Conversations on Blessings

My father would always say we should count our blessings.

We always had to go to church on St. John’s day, 6 January, when the priest blesses everyone in church with Holy Water from the Epiphany sprinkled with a sprig of Sweet Basil. The heady mix of a summer day in South Africa, incense, candle wax and the Basil mades one feel blessed without any further ado. But kissing the big gold Crucifix in the priest’s left hand while he sprinkled the Holy Water on you head, cooling the day and your thoughts, was the ultimate blessing.

Until he occasionally got confused and made you kiss the wet Sweet basil and sprinkled your head with a heavy gold Crucifix!

Blessings are important in most cultures, but doubly so in Greece and for the Greeks. Any new building or venture needs to be blessed, and the priest is engaged for the engenia. Obviously babies need to be blessed, and important farm animals and vineyards also need blessing. Domestic pets do not feature, but I am sure if the Orthodox had a St Francis he would gladly bless the arrival of a new precious pet.

The first engenia I remember, a sort of roof wetting, was the blessing of the cellar at 45 Kakouri. After the squatters had been moved out and a house built for them in the village at my father’s expense, Number 45 was quite run down. The cellar was a mess of storage and animal waste and was not desirable.

The cellar was cleaned out, the floor was dusted with sawdust and barrels of wine were installed. The grey double doors which were low and forced you to stoop when entering were painted with a fresh coat. The inside walls of rock were painted with whitewash that left a sweet moist aroma, like bread still to be baked. The six cement steps leading down to the cellar had their edges trimmed in the same whitewash. I remember whitewashing the walls once, with a great big wooden brush that allowed you to slosh the limestone mix happily over the dirtied wall. It was quite therapeutic.

Our whole family was present, with both grandmothers, Big and Small Giagia. All the village friends were invited but the main players were the two men who were to become my father’s greatest friends. Old Man Vlachos and Old Man Simbonis. They were both almost twenty years older than my father, but embraced his desire to be part of the village and sprinkled his life with simple wisdom and love.

The evening of the engenia of the cellar arrived and sheep on the pit were brought from Tripolis. Feta and olives were laid out and the newly pressed Retsina barrel was drilled so that a spigot could be inserted after the sudden rush of pink fluid.

The village priest blessed the proceedings, there were speeches and then people ate and danced. They danced and laughed into the early hours of the morning. Old Man Vlachos drank so much he passed out, and they remaining men carried him home in a funeral procession. They laid him in his wife’s outdoor oven, lit candles around him and closed the door.

I am not sure who was more shocked: Dina when she opened the door to bake and found her husband lying there, or the Old Man who woke dry throated surrounded by heavenly candles in the dark?

My Father's First Trip to No 45 Kakouri 1968

Conversations about Divides

The Corinth Canal divides Attica from the Peloponnese. It is over 6 km long, hewn into solid marble. It was dug at the end of the 19th century.

When we first crossed the canal in the late sixties there was a single railway bridge of metal framework and a concrete road bridge with a single lane running either way. There was a toll as you left Attica, even in the early days, the only toll in Greece for a long time. I seem to remember that we would stop on the Corinthian side, in Peloponnese, to stretch our legs, have a cool drink and ham and yellow cheese sandwich on sterile bread. There was a curio shop that sold miniature Corinthian bronze warriors alongside beach bags and hats.

It was an event to cross the canal in those days. One would marvel at many aspects of it. The bright light reflected off the steep white walls of the canal, the blue ribbon of water shimmered at the bottom and the ships passing almost touched the edges. The ships looked so small so far below the bridge. The old bridge had an expanded metal pedestrian walkway which was nerve wracking. I always felt pulled down as I peered over the rail into the canal.

From the canal the next landmark was the ruin of Mycenae above the Argolid plains. A divide between modern and ancient times. A divide between Indo-European culture from 2000 years B.C. and the Greek civilisation..

From Mycenae the central mountains of the Peloponnese rise, sharp, rocky and sparsely covered, towards Arcadia. The Artemision Tunnel now funnels traffic through to Tripolis, almost 100 years after the canal separated the Peloponnese from Attica.

Now the trip from the new airport to the village is a two hour drive. In the sixties we needed to stay a few days in Athens to acclimatise, then drive through and stop at the canal. From there to Argos for souvlakia and to avoid the high mountains, before the tunnel was built. Now we rush through and sense nothing was we speed through the dry landscape fringed by sea up to the mountains.

There was no air conditioning on those days. Some of the trips were undertaken by train , some by bus, until my father organised a taxi to collect us and deliver us home.

Why the divide? Geographic. Cultural. Chronological.

The Corinth Canal circa 1970

Conversations about Levels

My father was a firm believer in technology and psychology. When we were close to finishing school we were subjected to a battery of tests at the CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research) for a whole day. Doing tests and answering questions asked by young psychologists.

The CSIR was at the bottom end of the WITS complex, on Yale Road. It had a modern facade at the time, with vertical blue aluminium balustrades that were too long. I stills see it in my mind’s eye, but do not remember the details of my visit. I remember my brother going there a few years before and becoming an accountant. I remember going in with a very negative attitude.

I knew where my family was pushing me. I had to get a degree in law, medicine, accounting or engineering. I suppose the only other option in those days was teaching, the arts and architecture. I think that creativity was not even on the horizon in the view of the old people who had struggled from Greece. Possibly on the horizon for my father, but only for professional reasons. As in creating a new business or designing a building of shopping centre. It was a luxury in those days, and our white South African society, although luxurious in it lifestyle, did not allow for visionary creativity. I suppose that’s what stifled the country.

So I completed the battery of tests and was labelled somewhat anti-social and not creative. They recommended I become an engineer. What I really wanted to do was become a game ranger, and even offered to do the B Sc degree at Stellenbosch in Forestry. But that did not fly well with my father. Even though it was a B Sc, how could I think of getting a degree from Stellenbosch? Come to think about it, how could I think of even getting a degree away from home? WITS was near home and was my father’s alma mater.

He started out doing pharmacy but could not handle dissecting the platanas so he changed to commerce. I started out doing engineering and after two years changed to medicine. Antisocial me. The first year was a breeze. I had a physics credit and only did chemistry, biology and sociology. Coming from the engineering faculty I was jeered by my previous classmates when I entered the sociology school for lectures and tutorials.

I had revolted against my engineering friends to leave technical engineering, and was revolting against myself to do medicine. I discovered that towards the end of my undergraduate training I could not keep up with the volume of information to be digested and committed to memory. I went to one of the professors to discuss it and he told me about the Bullshit Level Detector.

I had to adjust mine. If I thought something was below the Bullshit Level Detector, then I had no need to spend more time on the matter nor remember it. It has paid off in life.

It is amazing how much bullshit there is out there.

My Graduation Proof Print 1988

Conversations about Failure

My father started primary school at the White Only Alberton Primary school. The school was two roads down into the valley, in the alluvial plain of the Natalspruit, 5 avenues from the Union Cafe. He started school as an immigrant’s son.

The school has had a colourful record after educating the white youth of a conservative town in South Africa. In the sixties it became the town prison, mostly full of blacks who had broken the Pass Law, or were caught in the streets after the 9 p.m. curfew. After that the prisons were centralised in the bigger cities and the jail became the police headquarters and has remained that into South Africa’s democratic age.

The school was almost Cape Dutch style. It did not have the gables. It was white with simple white columns at the front veranda which was the entrance to the administrative offices. The classes were in two wings on either end of the administrative building enclosed a dusty courtyard which was the playground. There was no green grass, much like one of the poorer township schools today. The verandas of the classrooms had simple wooden poles supporting the corrugated tin roof. The floors were cement polished red with Cobra polish. Each day the dust on the children’s shoes would scuff the floor until the next week when it was polished again.

My father was born in 1937 on 1 September, Spring Day in the Southern Hemisphere. He started primary school in 1943. He was the pride and joy of my grandparents John and Marigo. I can imagine them buying his uniform and preparing a satchel with notebooks and pens and pencils from the shop for him. It was my grandfather’s vision that had afforded his first born son an opportunity to be educated. In the village in Greece after World War tow a civil war consumed the nation in the years my father would have been a primary school. He would have witness atrocities of Royalist brothers against Communist fathers. He might not have made in further than primary school and might never have gone to high school in Tripolis. For in Greece in those years there was apartheid that the town folk were aloof to the starving villagers.  That was one of the reasons my grandfather was in South Africa.

My father started his first year at an English medium school and was only able to speak Greek. Greek was the language spoken at home and the children were not really allowed to have friends with the foreigners. As proud as his parents were of him attending school in a neat uniform they must have been scared they would lose him to the new culture.

He failed that first year at school and had to repeat it when he knew more English. But he never failed my grandparents in a more important way. He never failed to keep his culture alive: he built Greek halls, churches and schools.

Alberton English Medium Primary School Soccer Team 1947: My father at Mr Gouws' right shoulder.

Conversations about Banks

My father always had various banks as tenants in his buildings. They were good anchor tenants and signed long leases.IN the early days of building societies he also had one or two of those as tenants, and was appointed chairman of the local board of the Prudential Equity Building Society and later a director of the Standard Building Society.  When the Bank of Athens opened in South Africa he was also appointed a director of that bank.

He was particularly proud of that appointment, and had a small branch in one of his buildings. That branch has just closed down this year, not because of my father but because of the GFC, the Global (and Greek) Financial Crisis. This appointment gave him an excuse and a ticket to attend board meetings in Athens. He would base himself in the village and have Stavros drive him through for the meetings and wait for him until the meeting finished and they could return from the world of high finance to the real world of sheep in the valley around the old stone house.

In 1986 I did my fourth year elective in internal medicine at Guy’s Hospital in London. We stayed in the nurses/doctors residence with communal toilets that everyone used and communal kitchens no one used. We ate in the hospital canteen and when we were out and about in London at McDonalds where a Big Mac as less than £1, which was good value. That was until we discovered a Lebanese drug joint behind the hospital that made the most amazing kebabs for the same amount and we risked our lives to enjoy good food and become regular clients there. We never bought drugs, though.

Four events remain with me from that time in London. One was getting so down with London weather that we escaped to Amsterdam for a fun weekend. The second was hearing Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto at the Royal Albert. The third was being complimented by the consultant who saw me once a week when he worked (the rest of the time I was exploring) and was most impressed with my diligence?

The last event was an invitation by the chairman of the Bank of Athens in London to lunch. My father had been in contact with him, as they were good friends. All I had to do was call from a red public telephone and arrange a day with his secretary. It was another grey day in London and I arrived with creased clothes as we never ironed our clothes after washing in the Laundromat. I was led into his office and we chatted. He accorded me respect because of my name, and my father, and imminent profession. They were all greater than I was at that stage of my life. I still had to grow up. I was only 24 years  old.

After our business chat I was led into the board room, where two dining settings were placed. We took our seats and the secretary served a true Greek salad and we had roast chicken with lemon. We washed down the moist aromatic chicken with Retsina from Greece and finished the meal with fruit and a Greek Coffee. It was the best meal I had had in London. My father must have known I would be on the verge of nutritional bankruptcy, and edged me on to meet with his friend for lunch.

Banking had many facets in his life.

A shepherd in the field next to No 45 Kakouri