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