Conversations on Standards

I was listening to an audio book by a motivational speaker recently. “The universe is change, life is an opinion”, he states. The usual motivational lingo.

My father, as all Greeks, liked to think himself the philosopher. He had many classic quotes that he stood by, and some that he had adapted to suit circumstances. He was very principled, and one of the principles he imbued in us was that we set the standards by which we should achieve.

Let me give you an example or two. If I did well in an athletics race, he said just that. “Well done. Remember, you’ve set your own standard.” The same was said if I did well at school. Or in Engineering at varsity. It is an oddly motivational concept, for if I did not do well, or if I fell short of my standards, then I realised later that I had in fact let myself down. And those dependant on me.

The motivational speaker I was listening to went on: “Begin – to begin is half the work, let half still remains; again begin this, and you will have finished.”

My father’s energy in dealing with his work and community was almost unlimited. If I look back I am truly impressed. I guess the following quote from the motivational speaker was an adage my father lived by: “It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.

Although my father loved dancing, and he was an excellent dancer, he was also a keen wrestler. There certainly is some wisdom in the sage’s advice that “the art of living is more like wrestling than dancing.”

Then I thought of my favourite quote from Oscar Wilde:
Work like you don’t need the money.

                     Love like you’ve never been hurt.

                   And dance like no one is watching.


I suddenly realised why this quote has always harmonised with me. It is exactly how my father lived. The love he experienced and was hurt by was not some romantic teenage heartbreak, but the love of his family.

By the way, if you’re interested in the motivational speaker I have been talking about he wrote a book called “Meditations”. His name is Marcus Aurelius, a Roman Emperor born in 121 of the Common Era, anno Domini.

Conversations on Retirement

My father never retired. He continued to work in the office till the last. He continued as a director of the Bank of Athens till the last. He continued raising funds for the Greek community and SAHETI till the last.

He was passionate about all these things. There were phases in his life when he did more, like work from 5 a.m. until 9 p.m. every day except Sunday, but that changed. He was chairman of the Alberton Hellenic Community for many years, but that changed. He was founder and the president of the Greek Federation for a few years, but that changed. He went to Greece for six weeks on holiday every year in July, but that changed.

He started a building company in Greece. This required more frequent visits, and stressful dealings with the South African Revenue Services to set up an offshore company and ensure the profits returned to South Africa. This was the early eighties, at the height of sanctions against South Africa and with our dual currency to prevent loss of foreign exchange.

In the nineties he slowed down with building development in South Africa and took on only a few small projects here and there. At the time of the electricity crisis in 2006 when ESKOM had rolling blackouts my father was innovative in building townhouses that each had their own solar water heating system. It was a good marketing ploy and he was proud of the greenness.

He never really saw anything but property as an investment for retirement funding. Saving money and gold was for “a rainy day” and “a nest egg”. You had to have rental property to obtain an annuity income. But I know you have to manage the property yourself, and he had his own agency, Civic Centre Estates, that did the rentals and collections. The residential rental seemed to be just to tick the capital over, as some social circumstances for tenants have always been dire. The commercial rental was the mainstream of income and status for his companies.

When we were in senior primary school he bought the house next door, on the north side of our home in Alberton, where my mother still stays. He fenced off that house, a traditional sixties square face brick house, from the property and included the rest of that newly acquired house and swimming pool into our garden, so we had almost an acre of land. The original split pole fence had a line of lemon trees planted by my grandfather, and these remained for a few years until they died. That house next door is rented just to have an occupant. Not to make money.

My father knew his tenants like a doctor knows his patients. Which ones needed more attention. Which ones needed protection from  drainage on income, and which ones were hiding their money. The only thing is that a doctor can only collect rent from his patients while he works, not once he is retired.

Conversations at Olympia

In modern times the flames for the Olympic Games are lit by concentrating beams of sunlight reflected in a parabolic mirror in front of the Temple of Hera at Ancient Olympia. The jealous goddess of women and marriage gives fiery light to the torch held in her gaze. The flame then travels to the host city.

Olympia lies to the west of Arcadia. The summer heat can be unbearable. I have been there a few times; the first was my initiation to the ancient classical sites of Greece, which included Epidauros, Sparta, Corinth, Delphi and Athens. Each has its own special memory, but Olympia stands out for its legacy in the modern world. As a child of the Apartheid world I was entranced by the freedom and spirit of the modern Olympic Games. While outwardly I agreed that the Springbok athletes should be allowed to participate in the games, inwardly I knew my country was divided and the Springbok emblem would need to include those who were disenfranchised.

Each games, from Munich to Montreal to Atlanta, I was entranced. With the advent of television in South Africa in the seventies the Montreal games took on a new dimension. I had three scrap books filled with newspaper articles of the games. So my visits to Ancient Olympia did mean something. What I remember most is the heat and tunnel that leads to the stadium. The stadium itself has a simple track for the sprint and gentle grassed slopes for the spectators. When we first went there it must have been by taxi, probably with Aleko. I remember the taxi driver parking the car under the shade of pine trees and assuming the role of idleness until we returned hot and sweaty from our education. I remember my father being proud of his roots as a sprinter. Who knows, perhaps one of our ancient forebears did run there when the temples were tall and the agora filled with people. The trip from Tripolis to Olympia might have taken three or four days on foot. An athlete would have arrived quicker. I also stood there, on the start, and remember running down the track the way I have seen bronzed American tourists emulating their heroes.

Olympia honoured the heroes of the time. I was honoured to be able to run there, in a past life and again now.

The Modern Era Athens Olympic Stadium

Conversations in Kitchens

At home in Alberton, a long American style ranch house, my father had his own kitchen. It was a complicated path to arrive there. It was after the second extension of the house that we acquired a large laundry that was too big just to wash clothes. I should have known. Along with this extension came an industrial capacity electrical supply in the form of three phase electricity.

The laundry is square with a door to the courtyard and a door to the garage. There are high windows on the south and north walls. The north facing windows give the laundry a pleasant warmth in the Highveld winter. Against the southern windows my father installed a commercial catering stainless steel counter with two electrical grills, one smooth, as you see in the American diners, and one ribbed, and rectangular, as you see in the steakhouses. Above these two grills is an extractor that is powered by a motor large enough (and loud enough) to power a small Cessna that could land at the nearby Rand Airport. These appliances were fed by the three phase electricity.

He used to love cooking on those grills. They were simple dishes. Lamb chops with lemon and oregano. Chicken pieces or fillets, with about the same marinade. Prawns on the flat steel with garlic and peri-peri. Much as the flavours were simple, so the volumes were vast. The two grills could feed a small Greek wedding and have spare. He would have his golfing partners over every so often for a dish of prawns. Pandenaughties Golfing Promotions were a hoot, with ribald comments and extended laughs about performance on the greens and elsewhere.

I remember him cooking for us when the Springboks won the 1995 World Cup. It was a happy evening with my father-in-law, Luigi, my brother-in-law, Domenico, myself and some friends. After the meal we retired to the study where my father played the piano and Luigi sang. Much wine was consumed that night in ardent patriotic fervour. It was the pinnacle of being a displaced South African.

I too used those grills. I remember one year when my parents were in Greece I had my twenty fifth birthday party at home. Those grills must add some hallucinogenic substance to events, because we too ended up with a mad hatter’s party in the Highveld winter sun. I cooked breakfast for everyone after we moved one onto the veranda. It must weight close to 50 kg, so that in itself was hard work. I do not remember much after the brunch. It was a good day.

My father loved the real kitchen of his homes, in South Africa and in Greece. They were the soul of the home, he would say. It was where people would congregate and talk. Not in the lounge, which was reserved for more sombre occasions. Life was lived in the kitchen.

My Father's Grill on the Veranda


Conversations with the Archbishop

My mother tells the story of the surprise visit to Kakouri by the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Zimbabwe, Father Kyrillos. She had stayed behind in South Africa while my father visited Greece.

It was a Sunday. Church in the village finishes by 9 a.m., so the farmers can get to the fields and do the necessary to keep the animals fed and produce watered. As the years have passed, fewer and fewer old men go down to the fields, and after church they walk the forty steps down from the church into the village square. The socialists peel off and take their seats at their bar on the square, and the right wingers continue on a hundred meters into the village to Keza’s Kafeneio. The Communists used to go up to what looked like a squalid kafeneio higher up the village toward the mountain.

That Sunday in November 1981 my father was sitting with his group of old men, Simbonis and Vlachos included, at Keza’s. They would no doubt be talking, and playing cards. The talk covered many subjects, from religion to politics to philosophy and some good jokes. If you walked past the kafeneio the French doors would have been closed to the cold, and the square room would have been filled with a white haze of smoke. That was before the days of health restrictions on smoking, and of them would have been sitting with cheap Greek cigarettes dangling from their unshaven faces. They only shaved for major religious feasts, not an ordinary Sunday. After sipping their Cognacs, they puffed on their cigarettes, blue smoke melting into the haze.

Aleko, the taxi driver called the kafeneio. “Mr Peter. Hello. I’m coming from Athens with a visitor. Father Kyrillos.”

My father always reacted to authority with respect and speed. Church authority deserved more and Father Kyrillos, who had been a family friend, received attention beyond anything seen in the village for a while. My father rushed off home to receive him. He shaved and changed into new clothes. I can imagine the bathroom downstairs smelling of shower steam and aftershave, with my father pacing up and down as he waited for his esteemed visitor. It would be a different Sunday.

When the Archbishop arrived my father took him straight to Keza’s kafeneio. The French doors had been opened to clear the air, the cards had been packed away and the old men sat drinking coffee demurely out of thick white cups like angels. They still talk about the visit of this charismatic visit by the African Bishop.

In Kenya, during the Mau Mau uprising that led to independence, the British arrested the Greek Orthodox priests and nuns and incarcerated them in concentration camps. They stood accused of aiding the struggle.

In 1986 in Zimbabwe after independence, militants placed a bomb at the house of a British Military officer. It was in fact Father Kyrillos’ home. He died instantly in the explosion.

Father Kyrillos at the house in Kakouri. The wine press is on his right, below the steps.

Conversations about Holidays

We had an inverted life in South Africa, following the European seasons. In the middle of the year we would leave the crisp Highveld mornings for an oven baked Greece and return to the end of winter when the weather would always sour and sometimes even snow.

As children we would nag my father to explore South Africa, where we lived. South Africa, which we considered home. But come December he would go to the office every day even once the strict builders holiday had started and catch up on work gone by or strategise into the New Year.

I remember three holidays beyond the Highveld and the Middleveld of Rustenburg and Warmbaths. The first was to a retirement hotel in the Drakensberg, with a chapel waiting to bury those residents that did not make it through the night. The second was a stay in the Lowveld, at Mount Sheba Hotel. And the last was at the newly built Beacon Island Hotel in the whale lookout island of Plettenberg Bay.

We arrived at El Mirador in the afternoon and settled into the musty rooms.  We were told not to make noise, not only after 7 at night but just not to make noise, period. The food at dinner was budget limited with enough roughage to keep the old folks bowels going. We walked around the hotel and discovered the chapel. This was long before couples had decided to use exotic places to get married, and it did not serve as a wedding chapel, unless any of the octogenarian couples renewed their vows or perhaps remarried their long lost sweethearts after their life partners had succumbed to the great mountain calling them away from life.

We stayed the first night of our weeklong reservation and ate breakfast, which started with stewed prunes, once again to keep our aged fellow residents regular. The Eagles released “The Hotel California” in 1977, a few years after our one night stay at El Mirador. It was a reflection of their high life in the City of Angels, Los Angeles. Later I would parody the song to reflect the high life of our stay at “The White Road”, named after a pre-Columbian ancient Mayan city. The only correct reflection to the naming of the hotel was in fact the reflection of the ancient residents.

After breakfast we abandoned the excesses of El Mirador and checked into Champagne Castle nestling in the real mountains of the Drakensberg. We arrived in the mist and because of the late desperate booking my brother and I ended up in a newly built honeymoon suite. I was only ten years old, but that room did set my dreams alight for what a honeymoon room should look like. I had no idea what else happened on honeymoon at that stage of my life, and any ideas I might have had were recently dispelled by the aged residents of El Mirador.

We had a great week there, walking behind guides who made us fresh tea in a billycan on a fire on the rocks of the clear stream banks.

On the way home we passed El Mirador. The chapel remains near the road, and forty years later reminds the visitors to the Champagne Sports Resort that it once was a retirement hotel.

Conversations about a Shopping Centre

Bracken City is an open air shopping centre in the sprawling suburbs of Alberton that lead off from the heart of South African industries at Alrode and run down the gentle slope of veld to the Klip River. The suburbs all start with Bracken, an apt term for South Africa today where bracken invades more and more grassland in the more temperate areas of our mountains and hills due to the increased load of carbon in our atmosphere. Brackenhurst was first, with multiple extensions, and then Brackendowns, also with multiple extensions. This was where my father cemented his building business with the Flexihome.

Bracken City was his pride and joy in his property portfolio. It sprawls over an area of 300 by 200 metres and faces onto the main dual arterial way leading into the suburb off the main road from Alrode to Uncle Charlie’s Intersection. The outline has remained the same over the years, but the façade and interiors have changed as different tenants have moved in and out. The southern end has offices including a dentist and doctor, and used to house our favourite steakhouse. The building itself is single storey and runs north south with a small indent that leads to the main retail anchor, now a Pick ‘n Pay. Behind, between the shops and the adjoining school grounds, runs a service road for deliveries. For some reason, in the early years this road used to get easily flooded in the impressive Highveld summer thunderstorms. Hail blocking the drains helped push the floodwaters on the flat piece of ground into the shops and caused havoc in the stores and stress for my father.

I remember the opening night. I was doing my second year engineering and was an arrogant antisocial student who was forced to attend. There was a large marquee erected on the grass south of the offices and my father was proud, strutting around, posing for official photographs and making a speech. I do not have a copy of that speech. I am sure the priest would have been present and blessed the enterprise, but I cannot remember. I imagine there was a lot of muttering from the locals about this Greek upstart who had woven himself into the very fabric of their life by building their homes and shops.

My Uncle Lambro had a new large chemist facing north at the indent leading to the main retailer. It was pride of place. The chemical smell of the dispensary mixed with his tobacco aroma and it was always fun to visit him there. He was very advanced even then with electronic stock gadgets that had just been released in the pharmaceutical industry. I remember the days of pharmacists typing the drug orders and dosage labels on a small type writer.

Even in my father’s busy weeks where he had meetings galore in Johannesburg, at SAHETI, the Bank of Athens, the Greek Federation, he would always make time on the weekend to go to Bracken City on the weekend to check the stores and the traffic and keep a feel for the place. In the new millennium he made me do an internet search for open air shopping centre façades when they wanted to refurbish the centre. It was his pride and joy and important to be abreast of retails trends.

Satellite view of Bracken City

Conversations about Remembering

There is a story about a believer who spoke to God. He had walked many times on the beach, through good and bad times. He looked back on the pair of footprints that traversed the sand. God had accompanied him.But he saw stretches of sand with only one set of footprints. He asked God: “Why is it than in the stormy times of my life you abandoned me?”

God answered. “My son, you do not remember. In those times I carried you. Those are my footprints”.

So why do I tell this story? Because I do not remember much. I probably do not remember more than I remember. But it is interesting, because not remembering can be far richer than remembering. It can uncover your heart and mind in layers that do not hurt.

I am not talking about not remembering after drinking too much. That is a few hours that one regrets. I am talking about not remembering the texture of life, the gesture that made a difference, the few words that touched you to keep you going another day. All those are forgotten. In some way I pay homage to them by writing, by keeping contact with family and friends and by making pictures.

I remember filling books with poetry and then burning them, because the words were too close to my soul. Now I wish I had them to help me remember.

I remember making black and white pictures of the church on Analipsi in the snow only because the pictures hang in the house in Kakouri. I remember one stretch of treacherous ice John and I had to cover and being breathless tired on the last stretch to the peak, but I do not remember taking those pictures. I must have had one of my Olympus cameras, but was it the OM-1 or OM-2? What film did is use? I used to buy it in bulk and load it in the darkroom, but I cannot remember developing it. I cannot remember the ghost image appearing in the tray as the exposed Ilford paper gained life. I cannot remember how the pictures got to Greece, if I took them or if my father did? Where they were framed escapes me. I have no idea.

But the pictures hang in the entrance hall of the Patriko. I have no copies of them in Durban, even though I usually photograph everything in that house to help my memory. Even though that entrance hall is my favourite room in the whole world, as it used to be a stable, and evokes a sense of security in me with memories.

It is a cool room with kitchen smells of bread and fruit and cheese. The straw cut below the almond trees outside smell meets the wet stone sweet basil smell of the courtyard and brings you to the village. Along with the tinkling of the voluminous bell on the sheep leading the herd with the shepherd behind making guttural Balkan sounds as he drives them past with a smell of their own.

Not remembering always helps one to remember.

Gina's sketch of the Patriko that my father used on his business cards

Conversations about Winning

I remember in the nineties my father was visiting us in Durban and received a midnight call from Uncle Arthur in Johannesburg. Under normal circumstances nobody called our house after 8 p.m. unless there was a major crisis, usually equal to the death of a friend or family member.  Imagine as well that this call came before the days of cell phones. My parents were staying in the flat in Umhlanga and would have been in the main bedroom.  The yellow telephone on the land line with its round dial face would have rung shrilly at midnight, stopping their hearts. My father would have had to get out of bed to answer the call.

Even for me after many years of having doctors and hospitals calling me at all unearthly hours I still get a heart stop when I am deep in sleep and the phone rings. To be fair, most times the requests are reasonable. The call still messes you up for the next day.

So my father answered the call and he was told that he had won the draw at the fund raiser at the Alberton Hellenic Annual Ball. He always purchased tickets for this event since he started it with a small car for a prize. He would buy a ticket for each member of the family, including Uncle Piet and his mother, Small Giagia, when they were alive. The odds were certainly in his favour that he should win the big prize at least once. One of his many tickets won the second prize, which was usually a twin return air ticket to Athens on Olympic Airways.  That ticket was usually donated by one of the Greeks that owned a travel agency, not the airline itself. Imagine that, Olympic Airlines is gone, buried under a mountain of debt. I hope we do not talk of Greece in the same vein in the future.

I went to one or two of the draws for the big prize as a teenager. My father, as chairman of the community, used to preside over it. They had short dowels with the numbers of the ticket on the end, all spinning in a metal wire mesh barrel. One of the dignitaries’ wives would be the one to pull out the numbers. My father increased the tension by doing the draw in reverse. He had a big board with holes drilled in it and each hole was numbered. There were at least three hundred tickets, like the Spartans at the Gates, and as each number was drawn, the dowel was inserted into the corresponding place on the board. It took some time during which community committee members roamed accruing extra donations. By the time the last five dowels were drawn the tension was like a Vasilopita with a gold coin waiting to be cut on New Year’s Day.

It was one of the few occasions in two decades my father did not attend the draw. He had handed the reins of the community over after many years and was having a break. That day my father won R 200 000. The thrill of the win was evident, but I think he gave some of the money to his children and the rest away.

The Three Hundred had passed through the Gates.

Boarding Olympic Airways in Athens in the days of glamour travel. My mother is in the purple dress. Circa 1972.

Conversations about Farming

When I returned from a long trip, as I have now from Australia for Marina’s wedding, my father would phone me to make sure we had arrived safely. As I got older I thought it wiser and more respectful to phone him first.

I miss that about him.

I also miss the drama about him when I was sick or going for surgery. He would always phone as soon as I could talk and just listen to make sure I was alive.

Thank goodness he lived in a world where he had not yet embraced the sms or email for personal use.

I remember when I stayed at the farm in the Magaliesburg.  It was late summer and I would wake up early to work in the yard or citrus grove. I dumped all the agricultural paraphernalia the previous owner had accumulated over decades. Each heavy load, and there were many, required the bakkie to be loaded, tied up, and driven 40 km to Rustenburg. I usually got the first load to Rustenburg by 7:30 a.m.  and then had breakfast and called my father on the “nommer asseblief” telephone. One long crank for the operator, give her the home number and wait to see how many farmers’ wives would listen on their end. They would be upset if we spoke Greek!

Once I had cleared the farm of old barrels, broken pumps, odd building materials, bits of fences, I fixed up the main shed. I redid the cladding and painted it.

My favourite place to potter around was the shaded exotic potted garden behind the main rondavel. But working in the citrus grove was so much better. I installed an individual sprinkler system which was operated manually by the farm assistant. The soil of the grove was rich below the screed of the cliffs of the Magaliesburg. It had a slight slope and the feint smell of cow manure, as they were herded by the neighbouring farms in the valley. As the lemon trees blossomed they covered any farm smell and left a perfume on you as you finished the day.

I would sit outside and watch the sunset with my collie, Kristen. On some afternoons, if I still had energy, I would climb to the cliff tops, along with the baboons and at the same height as the Cape Vulture Colony at Skeerport a few kilometres away. The sunset there would always be more impressive, and I would return in the dark with Kristen leading me down the path, through the thick bush between the cliff and farmhouse.

It was good for the soul to be able to collect oranges and lemons and grapefruit and deliver them in bags from the back of the bakkie to all the family.

Growing something that costs mainly hard work and giving it away is good for the soul.

Inside the Old Rondavel circa 1991