Conversations about J.S.Centre

Voortrekker Road is the main dual carriage way that runs through the industrial town of Alberton that manufactures for the gold mining industry of the Witwatersrand. It used to be the main road to Durban before the National Roads Department built the N3 that now bypasses the eastern border of one it if many suburbs. I remember cycling on the unfinished highway in my teens, the seventies. Highways changed the nature of life. We took our first step towards speeding up life to a frenetic pace on that tarmac.

You enter Alberton from Johannesburg by driving down the gold bearing ridge and crossing a small river, the Natalspruit. This flows into the Vaal River eventually, but is named in honour of the road towards Natal and Durban. I suppose today we should call it the KwaZulu Natalspruit.  The river used to run yellow with mining acid and dust until some measure of control was forced on the processing for gold. In fact, it is more likely that the process became more cost effective and efficient, and a cleaner river the by product. I remember doing a school environmental project on the river: it was sterile. Occasionally it would burst its banks in heavy summer rains and flood the lower valley. Downstream in the townships it did more damage to the small houses packed close together in regular geometric patterns on sand roads with no drainage.

Once the steep road flattens into Alberton there is a tall block of flats on the left, York Building. Before, after this for a long way on the left was the open valley of the Natalspruit. First they built new municipal offices that looked like a mini parliament (well before 1994) and then a garish shopping mall. When the valley was still green and unbuilt my grandfather built his first commercial building with apartments above the ground floor. This was Stats Building, on the northern corner of Fore Street, which led to the pretty golf course nestled in the koppies, and Voortrekker Road, en route to Durban. I live in Durban now.

My father and his brother built J.S. Centre on the southern corner of the same intersection. The façade was originally face brick and the building was rounded on the main corner with a pleasing effect. The bottom floor was commercial and the next two floors were offices, while the top two remained lovely north facing apartments.

My Uncle Mika had the largest corner cafe there, in the years before supermarkets. Then Barclays bank took over and expanded to include the first floor as First National. My father’s auditors also remained as tenants on the first floor and in his corporate heyday his company occupied half of the second floor, including a wide passage that paralleled the curve on the corner of Voortrekker and Fore Street. My father’s office was the last on the left of the passage that ended in a strong room.

J.S. Centre on the left, Stats Building on the right, in the Sixties.

Conversations at Keza’s

Gia sou Vasili. Ela. Ti nea? Ti na sou keraso?”

Keza always greeted me almost like a son. Definitely like a nephew. His kafeneio is up in the village, a block away from the main square and church, in front of a triangle of roads where three roads meet in a low triangle.

“Your health, Basil. What news? What can I offer you?”

When I was younger I would ask for a gazoza, a carbonated drink. Now I ask for a coffee, metrio, and a cognac in the morning, or an ouzo in the afternoon.

The kafeneio is the heart of democratic royalists. Occasionally a visitor of another persuasion may attend, by virtue of a polite invitation, but most times the politics that is spoken is weighted on the right. In summer everybody sits outside, now around small metal tables and clean slatted chairs with rattan seats. The original furniture was rough wooden tables with village wooden chairs, the bases supported by tension wires under the straw woven seats. At one stage in the nineties when China flooded the market with cheap garish desire, the chairs worn chairs were replaced with ugly white characterless chairs. At least he recovered some sensibility in the local interior design sphere.

The long veranda faces east and is covered by a vine. The trunks of these are old and gnarled, the bark replicating the faces of some of the village men who sit in the shade of the translucent green leaves in the afternoon. The floor is simple cement and runs into a square interior through cream painted French doors. During the summer day these are closed with a beaded curtain keeping out flies as Keza delivers drinks to the customers under the shade. As the flies rest for the evening, the doors are opened but everyone sits outside anyway. In winter they huddle along one wall to play cards.

Opposite the veranda a counter runs the length of the shop. For most of its length the dark rough wood is empty, and in the corner is a glass fronted refrigerator with some beers, cool drinks, cheese and meat. Next to that is the old till and besides that along the end wall a two gas burner. Here Keza can make coffee in a briki, or boil up some lamb or goat stew to feed his customers.

He keeps a flock of sheep attended by his son; his son has not finished school and is challenged. As people die and their gardens are left untended in the village he can be found grazing the sheep in forgotten garden singing baritone klepht songs that are so beautiful they haunt you. The sheep stayed behind the house, next to the kafeneio. The smell of lamb and mutton, their droppings and rancid fat from carcasses hanging next to the kitchen added strong flavour to the air of this rustic kafeneio.

Xarika pou se eida, Vasili. As sto kalo. Xairetismata

“I am happy to have seen you, Basil. Go well. Greetings to all.”

Autumn with Keza standing next to my father in the Kafeneio 17 September 2007

Conversations on Speeches

Whenever I was faced with making a public speech as a child my mother always used to tell me to imagine the audience in their underwear, so that I would not be intimidated by them. In those days it was safe, but imagine today. Those that are cross dressers would vie for attention with those that wore no underwear!

My father loved talking. He could talk to anyone, of any standing in life. He would strike up a genuine conversation and become involved in that person’s life. He made many speeches and was passionate about formal speeches. He collected all of these, neatly typed, in a file and stored them in the strong room at his office. I had seen the file before when I was a child and after he died I knew it was the one item of his that I wanted. I have digitised the speeches and have started writing about them. The Arch Lever file is an old one, neatly labelled with a simple “SPEECHES”. The pages inside date back to flimsy copy paper and Tipex for typewriter mistakes. The fonts start with the old typewriters that almost delivered a handwritten message their mark was so characteristic. Then they progress to the IBM Golfball electronic machine with its neat, perfect font. The last quarter of the speeches were typed on word processing programmes on the computer.

He was a tall orator, and these speeches were delivered flawlessly in one of three languages: Greek, English and Afrikaans. Some of them were delivered in all three languages, with him switching easily between mother tongue and the adopted languages with succeeding paragraphs. They reflect his endeavours and achievements within his community, at SAHETI, of his involvement at his children’s school and his ability to motivate young people.

When I saw him in Greece in 2006 I gave my father a gift of a digital voice recorder which had the capacity to store two hundred hours of speech. I remember him using a micro cassette recorder to dictate letters while he drove us to Alberton Primary School in the seventies. He would drive his little two door pastel blue Fiat 128 as if it was an Aston Martin and he was James Bond, talking into that Olympus spy recorder.

So I asked him in 2006 to dictate about his life, about who he knew, and what he had done, so that I could write the story on paper and leave a book for posterity. I asked him to do this for posterity and his six grandchildren, whom he loved dearly. I thought the last reason was a good one, and would motivate him to talk to the electronic gadget so that I would have a record.

But he never dictated to that machine for me. After he died in 2008 I found it in its box, unused with no message other than the one that I had recorded on it for him. It was then that I committed to writing a book about his life.

Speech on the Occasion of the Opening of the Alberton Hellenic Hall 2 December 1967

Conversations about Playing It By Ear

My father employed a lot of sayings, some of which are worth repeating, if not for their wisdom, then for their frequency of use.

He used to play the piano. He loved playing La Paloma, and sat a tall graceful player with just enough flair to show off and be a spectacle when playing. He went to piano lessons, and had memorised this and other pieces of music. Although he had a musical ear I do not think he could play by ear. None of his children inherited a musical ear, so none of us play a musical instrument.

But playing pieces on the piano by ear was not what he was talking about. He would play many other strategies by ear, and offer free advice to others when faced by co-ordinating events. I remember arranging holiday meetings and visits to Tripolis by ear with my father. Sometimes when events were not going to unfold his way he hid behind the saying allowing for fate to dictate events in favour of others.

So did he really mean it or was it just wallpaper over his face to hide his emotions if things were not going his way. When the dies were cast in important life decisions he never said “let’s play it by ear”. When we attended university our career choice was never left to the winds of fate. When we chose marriage partners he certainly did not anticipate anything else than love and hard work, with no room to play it by ear. He expected commitment in those matters. But once the foundation was laid and the roof over our heads, then I suppose, we could play things by ear.

If ever we faced a serious decision and I offered immature advice that “we can just play it by ear, like you always say” he would frown at me and I would wither under his bushy eye browed stare. So in fairness the saying had a place in playfulness, but not in serious times.

What if it was the other way round?  I might have been a game ranger who wrote books and sold photographs. I might have been a dope smoking Bohemian divorced and living with my fifth partner. I might not even be alive, although the serious path of life has its own price to pay in terms of personal health.

My father loved to fall back on Ancient Greek philosophy and he used Aristotle’s concept of achieving virtue by balance between excess and deficiency, to correct the path chosen by playing things by ear. Achieving balance is far more important than playing it by ear.

Both have a place in life. Balance in life allows for some things to be played by ear, and playing by ear allows for life to unfold as fate would choose.

Conversations about Worry Beads

When I was small worry beads used to irritate me. When my father played with them in South Africa the concept jarred with the Anglo-Afrikaans culture. It just did not seem the done thing. He did not always tick the beads and swing the komboloi; he went through phases. Before he left for Greece and on his return he played more, but in Greece he had one every day. After all, when in Rome do as the Romans do. Everyone plays with worry beads in Greece. They have so much to worry about, after all.

Most religions have prayer beads. The Catholics have a Rosary. The Muslims have the Misbaha, with ninety nine beads corresponding to the ninety nine names of Allah. The Buddhists and Hindus have the Mala, to guide them in repeating their mantra. The Greek Orthodox have wool knotted prayer strings, σε κάθε κόμπο προσευχή λέω, which are used by bishops and priests and less common amongst the laity. At every knot I say a prayer. The number of beads is a multiple of four plus one.

The komboloi may be a corruption of κόμπο and λέω. But in Greece today and in the 20th century it is and was a tool of pleasure and distraction, seen in Rebetika taverns and coffee shops. It is the sign of a manga. Manges were the counterculture, the punks of Greece in the late 19th and early 20th century. Today the term is used loosely for a cool dude, someone who swaggers and is over confident.

So thinking about the history and my father’s scorn for the Rembetiko I wonder how he got around playing the komboloi. It is a sign of being truly Greek, no doubt. He used the small metal beads, although the classic komboloi is made of amber. Antique amber elevates the worth of the string and beads. When the Komboloi Museum Shop opened in Nauplion my father bought me a hundred year old komboloi. The amber is a rich honey orange with streaks of black that light up in bright sunlight.  The beads are smooth and not cold, with one having a rough hemisphere. The anchor bead, or priest, is slightly bigger and the komboloi ends with a small tuft of string.

I do not play the komboloi. I am not a manga.

But a circle closed this week. I was watching a video by Robin Sharma, who is the cool manga who wrote “The Monk who sold his Ferrari”. He was offering tips for the New Year. One of them was to use worry beads. Not one hundred year old antique worry beads, but any cheap bead or bean and  count each one as you toss the loose bead into an empty glass. I smiled, and last night after a trying day at work I saw my komboloi in the corner of our kitchen where odds and ends are stored.

I picked it up, rubbed the glowing amber and counted off each of my worries. After twenty four plus one I laughed. My worries are chained by a loop of string, and have been lit up by the glowing amber of the Byzantine world.

My amber komboloi

Conversations about Credit Cards

From a young age, in our mid teens, my father ensured we had a credit card when travelling aboard. Just for emergencies. When I started university this continued, to be used to purchase text books. And when I was studying engineering, an HP 40C calculator. So I suppose if I was studying now I would have asked him if I could buy an iPad. He was very impressed when I received my first salary cheque as a student intern in 6th year medicine in 1988. All of R 200 a month. I had a bank account with an overdraft facility of R 5 000, Just for emergencies.

He, on the other hand, was a pioneer with credit cards. As the American Express and Diner’s cards were launched he ensured copies of the shiny cards for himself. With the many banks he banked with, he ensured he had the maximum credit on his cards. By the time I started working as a medical officer I also had three credit cards, fewer than his, with less credit, but on my salary of R 1 500 a month my father was my credit company, not the cards.

Interestingly, one of the friends he made in Greece, Mr Gonos, who moved to Chicago for work, invented the old credit card machine that is still used by car hire companies, the king that reads the raised letters by sweeping the handle over the triplicate carbon paper. My father was very proud that he knew someone who had invented a device that was used worldwide.

During the world financial crises over the decades he would lock all his credit cards up and keep only one in his wallet, for emergencies. Then as the crises waned, the cards would reappear. Not that he would use them to buy things for himself. Perhaps the only luxury he afforded himself besides the flights to Greece was his visits to the casino, where I think he would use the credit card to draw money to gamble on the tables. He was not a machine man, but loved roulette.

Many years later after I had whittled my credit cards down to one charge card so I had no credit and was spending real money I spoke to him about his fetish for credit cards.

“You don’t understand, my boy” he said. “There were times when the banks had called in our facility for the company and we had no credit facilities. Those were tough times, and the best time to buy property. So between your uncle and I, and all the credit cards we could raise a significant amount of money to purchase property and then try get finance later once we had a formal plan for the banks.”

That was not retail therapy with credit cards that you see very weekend in the malls today. That was serious risk taking to build a portfolio that could grow and feed the family.

My Grandmother, Marigo Stathoulis, nee Manelis, with her grandsons at Warmbaths, circa 1967

Conversations with the Minister of Defence

I received my call up papers for military service when I was 16, in 1978.

After conversations with the minister of defence, I completed 2 and a half degrees by 1996 and conscription had been abolished.

I never went through life as a boy or young man not wanting to do military service. I don’t think it would have been good for me. I might have had to emigrate, which might not have been good for me either.

My father used his network. He knew someone who knew someone who knew the then General of Defence. A man hated by the democracy of South Africa. But between personal and family security, financial and land tenure security and a son who was taking forever to complete his studies, my father had a few conversations with the minister of defence. He even cooked a few sheep on the spit for a big do for the minister of defence and his entourage. Today he would have to kill a few cows on the property and have an equally big party.

The minster arrived in civilian clothes, with his wife. They were surrounded by killers posing as bodyguards. There was an air of despisement, sardonic smiles on their faces, and any person who was not white and could not speak Afrikaans. My father always confused them, as he spoke Afrikaans fluently. He had immaculate English, and being conceived in Greece had a genetic predisposition to speaking Greek. He would have been a superlative Zulu speaker. He had the moves; I remember at one of my birthdays when I had a drumming session and he took some walking sticks and did the Mhlungu Zulu thing.

So if I had a drumming session for a birthday you can see why I would not have fitted in the military.

At the time of the big marquee sheep braai for the minister of defence I was a rebel student at WITS. Although not a liberal by WITS standards, by my home town standards I was radical. I went to university and my first year class in medicine had the biggest non-white percentage of students in any medical class in the country to date. Excluding my later Alma Mater in KwaZulu Natal which was reserved by the good government of the time for non-white undergraduates.

The year the good minister came to our house was the year of our Lord 1987. Conversations had started with him in 1982 when I changed from engineering to medicine at Wits. That year Neil Aggett, a doctor, died in police detention. Although he was an Ikey there was an irreverent conspiracy against the national government by our two universities. In 1987 I was completing my undergraduate degree and my father knew I would die in the army, and needed to keep me out.

That year we were entitled to sing “Asimbonanga”, we have not seen him.

My father’s best friend could not sing that. He had just seen him. He was Nelson Mandela’s attorney.

Conversations as I look past my feet

There is a photograph that was stored on my father’s small Olympus camera. He was in the alone in the village and had taken a whole lot of pictures of the house, the village, the mountains and the plain filled with red poppies. He was alone because from the time my mother had her spinal surgery travel became difficult for her  and she tried to limit flying because of the discomfort it caused her. So she went with him in summer for a few weeks, but stayed away in the colder spring, autumn and winter when he went to Greece to attend Bank of Athens board meetings.

He was very proud of this appointment and I believe he contributed to the bank and board in his stern principled manner. But secretly he was proud because now he had an excuse to go to Greece four times a year and instead of staying in a five star hotel in Athens near Kolonaki, he would stay in the Patriko, in his father’s house in the village of Kakouri.

On the day of  the board meeting he would arrange with his taxi driver Stavros, who was from Levidi, a bigger village nearby, to take him to Athens   and drop him off at the bank. No doubt he introduced him proudly to all the other board members. He was, after all, a sort of batman for my father. Stavros was also connected to important people. When he first met my father and started taking him to Athens, his cousin was the Head of Interpol in Brussels, and then took over as Chief Security Officer at the new Eleftherios Venizelos Athens Airport.

They would have left at 7 am from the village and got to Athens at about 9 am for the whole day board meetings. My father would have done his homework, studied all the papers and documents before hand, and after the meeting would return dead tired to the village, sometimes at 9 pm. Noula, who looks after the  house for us with her nieces, would have left a simple salad with cheese and bread for him to eat on his return. He would also sip some homemade Retsina.

Then he would crash into bed. He had chosen the south west corner room. It had windows on each corner wall, one with a view of Mainalon and the other west looking over the adjacent almond grove to a small hill and further on towards the little church he built, Agios Nectarios. The room was simply decorated, a typical village modern functional dresser, built in cupboards and the bed. On the bedside tables rested pictures of us, his children, and all six of his grandchildren. There were always magazines nearby, and the obligatory few comics for light entertainment. There was no television in that room.

So he took this photograph one day. He was the happiest man in that room, in that house, in that village.

17 May 2008

Conversations with Rod

I remember the day Rod Conacher died.  It was a hot summer in Astros, Greece. Glorious for a beach holiday with my father and brother and his children. We lived in the air conditioned flats and moved into the sea for the morning and sat under the thatch pergola of Costa’s psarotaverna for languid lunches.

It was a Monday when Mom told us Rory had called her about Rod’s passing. We had to tell dad. He was in 7th heaven on holiday in Greece with his sons and grandchildren. But he was fragile. He had had his defibrillator for two years and was coming to terms with the loss of his daughter. Just earlier in Greece he had met his confessor at Agio Dimitri, the church in Tripoli where his parents were married. He needed to rest in the morning heat as we climbed the hill that housed the old harbour houses of Astros, overlooking two beautiful bays. On Tuesday Peter and Nico came with us, in their shiny basket ball long shorts and fancy running shoes. We jogged a bit ahead of dad, and joined him on the way back to get fresh pastries from the bakery for breakfast.

On Wednesday dad and I went walking alone in the heat of the early morning. Sometimes we could talk easily, sometimes things were awkward. This was an awkward walk, and I convinced him to sit at a coffee shop on the beach along the way from Costa, to have an iced tea or frappe or something. Then I just blurted out that Rod had died.  I swear my father died before me in that moment. Yet he was so full of life. The same thing happened three months later. He was so full of life, at the 80th birthday celebration of his friend George Bizos, yet he died at 430 am the next morning.

Rod and my father met when my father was chairman of the governing body at Alberton High and Rod was appointed Headmaster. He was a breath of fresh air, a leader ahead of his time. My father and he shared a passion for life and people and learning. They both respected everyone, from cleaner to teacher to banker to grandparent. They both believed in people. They both harnessed the power of other people to improve the world.

Rod managed to get my father on a wilderness trail in Zululand with Jim Feely. My dad took over by sourcing fresh prawns and Rustenburg wine from a small village bottle store and they had a party in the bush not quite in keeping with the traditions of the Wilderness Leadership School. But in keeping with life!

He advised Rod on financial matters. Rod bought a Peugeot, after dad was so happy with his 504. He made Rod keep his first house when he moved to Pretoria as an Inspector, and saved him from selling t a loss when the market was down. They met every now and then, at a function or just to meet, and recharged each other’s batteries.

Rod moved on to become Rector at JCE, the College of Education. His secretary would treat me like a visiting professor as she called him on the intercom to advise him that a distinguished visitor dressed as a sloppy student was waiting for him. We would always have tea and chat, and he would hold a real conversation.

Then he became head of Crawford College and developed the private system into what it is today. The last I saw him was in 2002 when he attended my 40th birthday at Mbona. He died in 2009. In those 7 years we shared conversations and spoke of dreams of finding the Lost City of the Kalahari.

A part of me died too when he died.

Conversations with Kristen the Collie

“You really should roll the ‘R’ in my name”whispered Kristen the Collie, ear cocked as she looked at her new owner, my father, who went to fetch her leash.

That goes a long way back, when I took your son from the village in Greece to Woodstock in New York. But that’s for another conversation. “I am here to stay and I love to play. Give me a ball or Frisbee and take me for walks and leave me with people.”

So walking tediously on the treadmill for my father became huge joy as he went through his routine early in the morning, tea for mom, his medication with a fresh grapefruit and then a walk around the neighbourhood with the dog.

He made a point of teaching the dog to do her business on his attorney’s front yard. Even in recent times, the attorney had an open front yard, no fence. Just like when we were growing up.

My mom got a dog whisperer in once for the two collies. As the visitor was tuning in to the dogs, my father rushed out as usual on his way to work, with his “see you later, cooks” as he whizzed past my mom.

The dog whisperer stopped my father in his tracks. No one does that to him, by the way, unless you’re at least a bishop in the Orthodox Church.

“You can’t talk to the dogs like that!”

“What?! I was saying goodbye to Olga?”

“You have to stop and look them in the eye and pat them, slow down and say you’re going out but will be back later…”

My father left, ignoring the dog whisperer but the next day, after having eaten dog biscuits by mistake, he took Kristen for a walk and stopped to say goodbye before he left for work. And he promised he would be back later!

Kristen the Collie, ready to play