Conversations on Leap Year

29 February seems such an auspicious day. Yet is simply exists because when we developed our calendars in the civilised world we wanted to dice the years into equal parts except every fourth year when we add a day to the year to make up for accumulated time revolving around the sun that was  not included in the calendar.

Much as New Year’s Day holds promise of resolutions, as does each month, each new moon, so then 29 February holds promise. It should be easy to remember back in four year cycles what memorable thing has happened, if not on that day, then that year.

2008 was the year my father died. 2004 passed in a blur. 2000 was the new Millennium. It was a good year for my father to warn us against relying on computers too much, as when the calendar change would crash the world the literate pen pusher who could do arithmetic in his brain would rule. 1996 featured only as the year after the Springboks won the Rugby World cup and when I qualified as a specialist. The legal system of Apartheid was repealed in 1992, the year I left Pietermaritzburg for Durban, to formalise my specialisation in orthopaedics.  I graduated from WITS as a doctor in 1988.My father gave me an American Gold Dollar to remember it by and one of the few notes he ever wrote to me. 1984 came and went, yet continues forever as George Orwell’s Animal Farm. I matriculated in 1980. My father kept quiet when the principal was upset with my closing valedictory speech in which I compared school to a stone in my shoe: irritating! The ex- principal, Rod Conacher, who was at that stage a senior inspector in the Transvaal Education Department was there as well, and commended me on my insight. He could read between the lines, and was a wise man.

I remember that day Hector Petersen was shot in 1976. That year was my initiation into the reality of life in South Africa, of forced life in the townships that was erupting violently in search of freedom and self determination. In 1972 my father made a speech at the unveiling of the foundation stone for SAHETI.  In the audience was the Minister of Education, Jack van der Spuy, of the National Party government. In the audience also was George Bizos, advocate for freedom and defender of Nelson Mandela at the Rivonia Trial. The first year I went to Greece was 1968. What a privilege. We missed two weeks of school in August but in those days we did not miss much and I had to do a show and tell as not many children had travelled overseas that year. The teachers were also thrilled with their gifts of Greek ornaments.

In 1964 I was two years old and do not remember much. The year South Africa became a Republic was the year my brother was born: 1960.

I will remember 29 February from now through for my writing.

Extract of my father's speech at the unveiling of the foundation stone at SAHETI

Conversations about Memory

My father had an excellent memory that he exercised often.  He remembered dates, figures, names and faces, events and patterns. What was amazing was that he had an excellent memory of his visits to Greece, where he spent six or eight weeks a year. These memories filled his life.

He was a good conversationalist and a good story teller. Not that he wanted to be the centre of attraction, but he was when he told a story. I suppose this blog is about those stories.

But his good memory was more than that… He created or precipitated or anticipated the event that would create the memory. He would gather as much information as possible about the event and people before hand, and then he would participate in the event, retell the story many times afterwards, so that it was committed to memory.

I suppose one of the other aspects of his good memory is that he never allowed poisonous people to drag him down. He just cut them off, and did not see them nor speak to them. There were not many people like that, a handful perhaps. There were many people that he had disagreements with; sometimes they agreed to disagree and still things worked out.

He had another unusual aspect of memory. One does not see that around much today: the inherited memory. He had this huge repository of information of the village in Greece from his father, Uncle Piet and his mother. His other cousins who came out later from the village also helped  create this vision of Arcadia for him, so that when he went there for the first time in his thirties it was almost like he knew every church, every family and even the position of the headstones in the small cemetery on the hill, surrounded by tall cypress trees.

His memory would be expanded at the kafeneio, when he sat and caught up the previous day’s events, or when they played cards in the evening, and he used the numbers and suites to sharpen his mind. A great repository of historical memory came from Old man George Simbonis. He was really my father’s best friend, even though he was a generation ahead and was almost a contemporary of my grandfather. My father would see him every day he was in the village, and spend an hour just chatting. Going over the details of some past event, of current Greek politics, of world politics or of family politics. The Old Man always had a sparkle in his eye and knowingly raised his arthritic finger to his temple, his sharp blue eyes close, when he made a point, with a sweet smile that was almost feminine but probably came from an Arcadian forebear called Diotima.

Yes, memory can extend that far back, to the ancients, in our collective unconscious. Not all of us can tap into that power. The noise of modern living distracts us from the roots of the past and we easily lose our way.

Surreal Sea

Conversations about Culture

As I look back at my writing about my father on this blog it is apparent he was very Greek. Many of the stories are set in Greece, or concern Greek tradition, or revolve around the local Greek community, the Greek Federations of Communities, or SAHETI and the Bank of Athens.

It is amazing that someone can be borne in a country and live there for 72 years and spend at most say five years out of that country in another, and yet in their reflection, the five years is all you see.

I suppose one of the reasons is almost genetic. There are some Greek things that move me to feel Greek: a great song by Dalaras, the National Anthem, a simple greeting, and a good tiropita. I cannot explain it other than to say sometimes I just feel Greek.

The other reason is an almost romantic dream that was woven by my father’s parents. His father told him all about the village, and his cousin Piet, who like my father’s father never returned to Greece, told him details of the village even forty years later, of trees and roads and houses and people that enticed my father to return.

Then there is a sense of displacement. When Greeks arrived in South Africa under Apartheid they were not really wanted by the government, who was looking for Calvinist Europeans, not Catholics (as the Orthodox Greeks were referred to). So the Greeks and Italians were second class citizens and were forced to stick together. Most could not speak English or Afrikaans and were excluded from socialising and participating in business ventures. So they started up small stores and worked long hours, slowly weaving their way into the foreign community. Their children attended school and university and were often regarded as strange. The children came from strict families, were dressed as nerds, were generally polite and formal and just did not seem to fit in.

When democracy arrived in South Africa and the Greeks were settled and successful many felt a new power of displacement. The threat of Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Zimbabwe loomed large and they gathered their Greekness and left for Greece or Australia or the States, where they melted into the Greek community there.

Back then and now

Basil (left) with my grandmother, Marigo

we hardly celebrated Ester with the rest of the world. We always had the Romans crucify Christ at a different time, and then we coupled it with a fast of no animal products so we all smelt of garlic at school and work. This Lenten passion drove us far away yet in itself is one of the most Greek events anyone can experience. The Easter Service dates back to ancient Greek pagan festivals of light at the end of winter, when spring is born.

So if I wrote about my African or South African culture I would struggle, for the stories would be anecdotes without roots. I have no roots here other than the fact that this is the Cradle of Mankind.

Conversations with Hippocrates

Long before I had an inkling that I wanted to study medicine and then be a doctor, when becoming an orthopaedic surgeon was still occupied in that part of my brain by a desire to become a game ranger, I dislocated my right shoulder. The injury dated back from primary school and was recurrent, popping out every few months. It was painful when it happened but my mother learnt how to put it back without hurting me, doing a gentle manoeuvre that engaged the joint and let it to slide back into place almost painlessly. Much further down the academic line and after putting other’s dislocated shoulders back I came to know that my mother was in fact using a well established technique, the Kocher Technique. Like all things in medicine, it was named after him because he published it in a journal, but in fact it was first described in Egyptian hieroglyphs 3000 years ago.

One year when I was fourteen I participated in the school gala. Everyone thought I should be a good swimmer as I was a good runner, but halfway down the lane at the municipal pool my right arm caught the floating lane divider and my shoulder popped out of joint. My father was there, talking to Rod Conacher, the principal of the school, but he was not watching. When my arm came out of joint it would stick up like I was asking a question in class. That is how I tread water in the middle of the pool. My mother jumped in to save me, because she was astute enough to see I could no longer swim and that my shoulder was out of joint.

As they waded toward me my mother later told me that Rod Conacher asked my father if Olga was also swimming in the gala. My father, who normally took every detail in at any function, had not noticed me floundering in the pool nor my mother wading toward me, clothes billowing in the water.

The worst part was when they got me to the edge of the pool and all the rescuers lined up, reaching to pull my dislocated arm that was asking the proverbial question in class. I screamed in pain and then remember resting against a small retaining wall, while my mother supported my arm. She was waiting for the spasm to subside before attempting a reduction, but before I knew it an orthopaedic surgeon, a big rugby type, a parent of one of the children, arrived. He promptly placed his foot in my armpit and pulled so hard I cried with pain and because of the spasm he struggled and worked up a sweat getting it in. He used the Hippocratic Technique but he had no feel for it. Normally the pain is reduced by some sedation. I heard the joint crunch into place and limped away sniffling with pain and from the near drowning.

Rod Conacher offered to give my mom a prize for life saving at the school prize giving later that year, but she declined. I thought they should give the orthopaedic surgeon a prize for butchery, but they declined.

The new Umhlanga Storm Water Pier

Conversations about Smoking

If you were caught smoking at school in our day, you were summarily expelled. My father would have whipped us and removed all privileges. Perhaps we would have ended up as labour in the building game. But we had no desire to smoke. I tried three Marlb

Smoking sheep on the spit,late sixties in Alberton

oros at the end of my medical degree, because a few of my friends smoked. That was it. I never continued. But isn’t it funny how many doctors do smoke?

One evening when we were all at school my father came home. Those were the days before automobile air-conditioning and we could smell his cigarette smoke as he pulled into the garage. We were all waiting outside for him. Most days he came back late at night after meetings for the community, the Federation and SAHETI. He then left early to work efficiently in the office before the staff arrived. So I remember him arriving home that day. But we were quite vicious. We would not allow him inside the house with a lit cigarette, and as far as I know he never smoked after our little campaign.

I think we hated smoking from our exposure to smoking in Greece. I remember one year when my brother and I went alone and we caught the bus to Tripolis. It was the same shape as the American Greyhound of the sixties, rounded back, but without the corrugations. Instead of silver, these buses were splashed with blue and white to fly the Greek flag as they chugged along. Also, I do not think the American Greyhound buses had roof racks. The Greek buses had roof racks with chickens and goats tied on.

The driver was in complete control and had immense support from all the icons, good luck charms and lucky money around his cockpit. He was also in charge of the heavy laika music that emanated from the speakers on the roof, but which would easily be confused with some goat mating ritual on the roof rack.

In winter the windows of the bus were always closed in case someone caught a chill, and the airline type vents above never worked. There was always a blue cordite haze at head height bubbling against the lower yellow sulphurous mix from the cigarettes everyone smoked. Including the driver. I seem to think they smoked cheap Middle Eastern cigarettes with Greek names but Turkish tobacco. No fancy American brands here.

When we eventually got off at the basement bus station in Tripolis we had been thoroughly fumigated. After the short taxi trip to the village we still stank of smoke. In the clear mountain air with earthy smells of sheep in the stables and potatoes stored in the cellar the smell still lingered. In the rooms upstairs every fibre of out anoraks leeched out blue yellow fumes and we stank until we got back home to South Africa, hoping to get a seat in the Olympic Airways non-smoking section. This was the front half of the plane where they were allowed to smoke occasionally, as opposed to the smoking section where they chain-smoked.

Isn’t it odd how many doctors smoke and how the Greeks were scared of a chill from fresh air but not lung cancer from smoking?

If you were caught smoking at school in our day, you were summarily expelled. My father would have whipped us and removed all privileges. Perhaps we would have ended up as labour in the building game. But we had no desire to smoke. I tried three Marlboros at the end of my medical degree, because a few of my friends smoked. That was it. I never continued. But isn’t it funny how many doctors do smoke?

One evening when we were all at school my father came home. Those were the days before automobile air-conditioning and we could smell his cigarette smoke as he pulled into the garage. We were all waiting outside for him. Most days he came back late at night after meetings for the community, the Federation and SAHETI. He then left early to work efficiently in the office before the staff arrived. So I remember him arriving home that day. But we were quite vicious. We would not allow him inside the house with a lit cigarette, and as far as I know he never smoked after our little campaign.

I think we hated smoking from our exposure to smoking in Greece. I remember one year when my brother and I went alone and we caught the bus to Tripolis. It was the same shape as the American Greyhound of the sixties, rounded back, but without the corrugations. Instead of silver, these buses were splashed with blue and white to fly the Greek flag as they chugged along. Also, I do not think the American Greyhound buses had roof racks. The Greek buses had roof racks with chickens and goats tied on.

The driver was in complete control and had immense support from all the icons, good luck charms and lucky money around his cockpit. He was also in charge of the heavy laika music that emanated from the speakers on the roof, but which would easily be confused with some goat mating ritual on the roof rack.

In winter the windows of the bus were always closed in case someone caught a chill, and the airline type vents above never worked. There was always a blue cordite haze at head height bubbling against the lower yellow sulphurous mix from the cigarettes everyone smoked. Including the driver. I seem to think they smoked cheap Middle Eastern cigarettes with Greek names but Turkish tobacco. No fancy American brands here.

When we eventually got off at the basement bus station in Tripolis we had been thoroughly fumigated. After the short taxi trip to the village we still stank of smoke. In the clear mountain air with earthy smells of sheep in the stables and potatoes stored in the cellar the smell still lingered. In the rooms upstairs every fibre of out anoraks leeched out blue yellow fumes and we stank until we got back home to South Africa, hoping to get a seat in the Olympic Airways non-smoking section. This was the front half of the plane where they were allowed to smoke occasionally, as opposed to the smoking section where they chain-smoked.

Isn’t it odd how many doctors smoke and how the Greeks were scared of a chill from fresh air but not lung cancer from smoking?

Conversations about Choices

“It’s your choice,” my father would often say. Usually the issues at hand were important, and although there was freedom of choice, it was accompanied by responsibility for the outcome.

So he never asked why. He just left the choice to us. There were times I made choices that he did not approve of, and had to bear the responsibility. There were times I made choices that in his opinion were based on youthful fervour, and he accepted because they seemed the right choice.

Life is made of choices. I choose to wake up early and meditate now. I wish I had a done that all my life; my breathing is that important. I choose to write every morning. Some days I am inspired and the words flow, other days I struggle with concepts.Some mornings I choose to make time to go for a walk or run near the sea. When I am out there I choose to feel the luckiest person alive; waves crashing next to me and the sun rising, sometimes high, sometimes peeping through layers of cloud; occasionally dolphins playing in the blue.

I would not say that I freely choose to go to work. But somehow I am aware of my responsibility and the outcome born. The responsibility to my patients and the outcome born on a sense of achievement. I choose to listen to stories and poems as I drive, and not the news and the popular radio shows that fill the emptiness of the car with nothing. Somehow I am aware of what happens in the world, and most times it is so negative I can imagine the world choosing that path without having to hear about it. But I choose to feel the pulse of goodness beneath my feet as I walk and breathe.

I choose to breathe at work. That is sometimes my only choice, to focus on my inner strengths and be able to make all the choices required for a good outcome. After all, medicine is just that. Decisions affect outcomes, and those outcomes are a measure of our success. I choose to use mental checklists to improve my outcomes. I breathe slowly and deeply when faced with cognitive dysfunction. Slowly I realise how we are all affected by problems and sometimes stop thinking clearly. I work very hard at making the right choice, not for me but for my patients. At work I choose to do everything once, and to do it well. I choose to do it today. I choose to use a diary, not just to book patients but to record messages and attend to planning and protocol.

In the evening I choose to end my day by writing in a notebook. I record the day, my ideas and these four items every day: two of my successes, two things  for which I am grateful, two answers I have received and actions I have taken regarding my dreams, and what my purpose for the day has been.

Choices are like doors...

Choice is such a simple word.

Conversations about Dictation

“Dad, you know, you’ve done so much. You’ve been involved in so many things. You’ve met so many people. You’ve lived your life in two continents and spoken three languages.” That is what I was thinking, but could not say it. Instead, in 2006, when I visited my father in Greece I have him an MP3 player about the size of two flash drives end to end, with the capacity to record two hundred hours of speech.

So I said something like this: “I found this nice gadget at the airport. It’s like your old Olympus micro-cassette recorder, but does not use a tape. It has a built in memory. While you’re here in Greece and catching up with everybody why don’t you dictate into it? I want to write a book.”

Much as my father liked giving gifts he struggled to receive them. I had to open it for him and showed him how to record some dictation. I knew he was no stranger to dictation. Dictation is a dying art. When he started a recording he would greet the secretary who would be typing. Sometimes he would sketch the scenario: that is was for a fundraiser, or concerning Greek Federation’s next meeting. Then he would announce the format of the letter, the title and address if needed. All this was performed quickly and without pause usually. Then he would dictate the letter. There would be pauses. He might refer to some notes. He would play it back, then speed it forward, sometime delete the whole body of the letter and start all over. When it was complete he would announce what type of closure he needed.

I recorded “testing one two three” and placed the recorder back in its box.

We chatted a bit after that. We were sitting in the kitchen in the village house. Imagine if that house could record the voices that passed through, and the stories I would listen to on this magical recorder.

The artistry of dictation continued with the typist. She would load the cassette in a player, place headphones over her stiff lacquered hair and control playback with a foot pedal.  If it was a standard letter the golf ball would whir and twist rhythmically, like some Flamenco dancer as the fonts appeared instantly one by one on the textured paper. All that was missing was a burst of steam as the die branded the paper. Most times the paper would have been loaded in duplicate, and typed without any mistakes. When it arrived in my father’s inbox it was a pristine piece of work, you could almost feel the typed words, slightly indented into the paper.

That was art. Using a word processor is not art. Using voice recognition is even further removed. I cannot do any creative work using voice recognition, even though I use it extensively at work.

A few years later I found the digital recorder I had given my father at home in Alberton. It was still in the box. Hope rose in me as I opened the box and switched it on to hear some stories.

All I heard was my “testing, one two three.”

My father and his remaining Godsons at his 70th Birthday

Conversations about a Rocking Horse

Kolisto! Kolisto! – Stick it together!” My father was only four years old but he was adamant. The legs of the rocking horse had to be stuck on to the body again. My grandmother had cut the legs off his favourite toy, a wooden rocking horse, to make it smaller so that it would fit in the kitchen. That bit of village logic escaped my father, who at four was already showing signs of being a perfectionist. He did not appreciate the change in proportions of his favourite toy.

I cannot imagine that he had many other toys. I have seen a picture of him with a red four-wheeled Dennis the Menace pull trolley, and an enamelled metal tricycle. He spent his childhood in the war years, the war that came after the war that was supposed to end all years. He was exposed to the ugly politics of the Ossewa Brandwag and their attempts to destabilise the Jan Smuts government’s participation as Allies. The Brandwag wanted to support Germany. Much as he disliked the discriminatory body, for they had a low esteem of Greek, Italian and Portuguese immigrants, sometimes when we were discussing history he would say: “Imagine if South Africa had joined Germany and Germany had won. The world would be a very different place.” It would be different. As bad as it is now, I believe history has unfolded according to fate, driven by a mix of human emotions, both good and evil, with neither dominating.

My father was passionate about Dennis the Menace and other comics. I think he learnt English by reading from them, as when he started school he could only speak Greek and had to be held back a year to learn some English. When he was older his favourite places were littered with comics, and if he was on holiday he would pop into the local bookstore and in the same bag pack away The Economist and Newsweek along with Archie and Dennis the Menace. The comics always left him smiling, while the news magazines stirred up fear and negativity and his mind kept working on scenario planning.

Before his rocking horse suffered near-mortal injuries, he used to love being taken for walks in his pram. He would sit eagle eyed in his pram, with his puffy clothes and bonnet, the first son of a proud Greek mother. If she deviated from the routine route he would throw a tantrum, forcing her to return to the previous route through the park.

He grew up quite dominant in the family, as first born and lover of comics. His preference for routine and perfection added to him being the man of the family. Even while he was at high school, if anyone wanted to know or do something my grandmother or grandfather would answer: “Rota ton Taki –ask Peter.”

Conversations about Passports

“Where’s the passport bag?”   My father would raise his voice and glare at my mother when he could not see the large beige unflattering handbag tucked under her arm, the straps cutting into her shoulder as if she was carrying gold bullion. Somehow bullion would not have made my father so tense, because that was recoverable. Passports were not, and in another country they defined you.

We had our own passports from an early age, in fact, our first trip to Greece in 1969. Until I left home my father managed the storage, renewal and retrieval from the safe of these important documents. In the safe, wrapped up in a rubber band lay piles of archived passports, ours, his parents and Uncle Piet’s. Their passports allowed them into the new world, a world of promise and employment. Our passports allowed us into the old world, a world of passion and the classics. A world that seems to be failing us. We could see the extravagance of  life where little work seemed done, and where dealings with the government departments was worse than trekking up a high mountain in the dark.

When my father travelled with John and me, he took charge of the passports and kept them in a kangaroo pouch around his waist. He would lock it around his waist first thing in the morning and focus when he had to deliver the documents, be it at the airport, a border crossing or the bank. After they had served their purpose, he would refocus and place them safely in the kangaroo bag.

From small he had given each of us a leather document holder that could hold the passport, a flight ticket, some cash and later on, an international licence. I used mine extensively, and thought I had a strict simple routine of using the contents of my document holder, storing it safely either in my jacket pocket or the rucksack I use on my travels.

After my father died I visited Greece and was at Hertz Car Hire collecting a car when my brother arrived from the village to drop off his car and return with me. We chatted excitedly about the trip so far, the children and mom. I collected my bags and walked past the rosemary scented pavements to the car hire area under the exit flyover of the airport. The drive was pleasant with company, each trip allowing a feast of the eyes on some ancient immoveable structure and quizzical glances and some of the new buildings, some exquisite and others part of a global branding depersonalisation exercise.

I arrived at the village and unpacked. I was pleasant being home, the soft lights of the houses adding to the cool of the thick walls although the serious summer heat had not yet started baking. As I went through my methodical placement of my travel wallet I realised quite quickly that I did not have it. I had left it at the counter in Athens. I called Hertz, and lost property, and drove two hours back to the airport to no avail.

Only then did I understand the fear that not having a passport. I panicked briefly. The next day I went to and internet cafe and downloaded printed copies of all my documents and had passport photographs made. Then I braved the crazy traffic in Kifisia to get to the South Africa Embassy. They did look at me like I was an idiot, but the next afternoon I collected my temporary travel document.

Passports do not always define who we are.

Uncle Piet's Passport to the New World in 1934

Conversations about Networking

My father attended many events. One would almost call him gregarious, were it not for the fact that I know he enjoyed being by himself walking  or thinking. The events were varied. Business meetings, community meetings, local school meetings, bank board meetings, SAHETI meetings, ambassadorial meetings, church meetings and family events. Had he kept a diary it would have made fascinating reading about who he met and what they spoke about.

He did not complete the meetings with the record in a diary, but he did prepare diligently before meetings where he knew he would meet people who would be able to have some influence, not necessarily for him, but for the group he might represent. His preparation might be just innocently asking us about the children of fellow Parents Teacher Association members, so he could use their name or comment on their performance at school or in sport, to form a bond. My mother could contribute with details of the wife. In those days, it was chauvinistic: men drove the vehicle of school board management while the women did the fund raising.

His preparation for other events was much more organised. Before the days of Google and the internet, he would have his secretaries research high profile people that would be attending ambassadorial gala events. He would have a list of their names, the name of their wives and children, the schools the children attended or what they were studying at university, their birthdays and anniversaries, their political affiliation and their business interests. Some information he would have gleaned in conversation with others, and other information was researched by the secretaries. This would be typed on a foolscap page and he would review it in the bedroom as he dressed in his pressed tuxedo with starched white shirt. He had a good memory but he would review the information over and over and commit it to retention for years so that it was available should he meet this person anywhere in the world, or even someone close to them.

When he was at these cocktail parties he never seemed at a loss; he was always in a group, talking, and easily moved off to join the another group, greeting people by their name and adding some detail that made them feel special.

He expanded his networking and refined the relationship by inviting certain people home and working on the relationship. The special people were invited to Greece and allowed a glimpse into Greek philoxenia, the friendship of strangers. They would enjoy the soft blue Mediterranean, sipping earthy resin infused wine while tasting fresh fish still barred black and brown from the charcoal grill. Or they would sit in the village kafeneio drinking coffee or cognac with old men who educated them in the ways of life with their wisdom. Uneducated as they were, my father used this network as  a base and held this mix of Ancient Greek Philosophy and modern Balkan farming wisdom as a beacon in his life. His guests were sure to be exposed to it as well.

Wherever I travelled my father made sure I was to look up  some of his network. He prepared the ground for fertile harvest.

My Father at George Bizos' 80th Birthday fundraiser for SAHETI. He was instrumental in organising the event. Photograph courtesy of Jeff King