Conversations on Photography

Just yesterday I was telling my mother that I was going to Namibia to do a photographic workshop. She was very happy for me, and reminded me of how my father loved photography and used to develop his own black and white prints, but he never pursued it. “Photography was not a career in those days,” she said over the telephone.”But dad really loved doing it.”

Any art form was not a career in those days. Perhaps even now. One gets the idea from the older generation that art was a weakness. It is intriguing. Especially as they all seemed to appreciate the culture of art, and knew the value of art. But when I was growing up the most artistic local art icon was Peter Soldatos, a famous fashion designer. I doubt whether my father would have allowed me to pursue a career in fashion.

I might have taken a shot at fashion photography. But that would not have been where my heart of pictures lies. That would have been a means to an end, a means to own a camera and develop techniques that I could use in my art to make pictures that would light up my soul.

The other artistic talent that I was aware of was a local Greek author. Kimon Neophyte published a book called Xenos, a collection of short stories. That he was doing law and qualified as an attorney may have helped my father cross the line into art and assist him with the publication of Xenos, his first book.

When I was younger I had no inkling that I wanted to write. In high school it became an avenue of release but somehow I rebelled against my English teachers as I they did not reflect the beauty and release that the written word offered. I also enjoyed photography as a youngster, and even had my own darkroom before I had my own camera. It was borderline commercially viable, what with the sale of prints from sports events and of houses on sale for my father’s estate agency business.

When I went into medicine I left engineering because I saw art in the human body. I had no idea at that stage that the human mind was the heart of art.

Now I am off to Namibia to work under the tutelage of Philippe Pache, who is a career photographer. To all intents and measures he must be successful. He loves what he does, with a passion to share his joy and wisdom of the art.

There is art in everything. That’s why they coined the phrase “the art of living”.

“The art of living well and the art of dying well are one.” Epicurus (Greek philosopher, BC 341-270)

These are my portfolio pictures for critique by Monsieur Pache:

Snow white clouds on the hills

Racing plains

Grass whirl

Amalfi Sunrise

Surreal Sea

Sirente morning

 

Passegiata Park Bench

From the inside out

Whale bone storm water pier

 

Here and now

 

Conversations from the Inside Out

Writing is like photography. When you cannot think of a composition use one of the topics the camera clubs use to make a picture. Or tell a story. Today’s choice is “from the inside out”.

I cannot imagine what my father would have thought about this idea. For me sitting at the typewriter (I wish) it means that what you are inside will reflect on the outside. Sometimes when extreme emotions rule inside then it is the ability to control what appears outside that distinguishes us.

In his younger days when my father was angry inside it all escaped unchannelled into the outside world, and had us filled with fear if we had done something wrong, or confusion if we did not know the reason. Later on in his life when we had an adult relationship I would challenge him if he was angry for what I thought was no reason.

He would speak little and frown, his bushy eyebrows knitting above his darkened brown eyes. I could see his face flush as his blood pressure rose. I would look at him and ask:

“Is anyone really sick? Is anyone going to die?”

He hated talking irreverently about death. “Why do you ask?”

“Well, the way you’re carrying on looks to me that it is serious. You always tell us to worry only about health. Proto ygeas, remember? So who is so sick, or who is going to die?”

“No, it’s not like that. But..” he would be disarmed and defused, and start thinking again. I suppose I could have been easier on him, but asking him what the situation would yield in five years time would not have disarmed him. Talking about death and health did.

I was angry with myself when I got to the village in 2009 and realised I had lost my passport. I left it at the Hertz car hire counter and it had disappeared. I called them, and drove two hours back to the airport to check, but no luck. The next day I drove back to Athens and fought the traffic in Kifisia to get to the South African Embassy to apply for an emergency passport. Two days later I drove back to collect it and on the fifth day I left Athens for home. My father would have been very angry if he knew I had misplaced and lost my passport. So I had to ask myself the question:

“Is this going to make any difference in five years time?

From the inside out

Conversations about Anticipation

My father was a master of anticipation, but would downplay it with a “God willing” or “if things work out at the office”.

There were two events he really anticipated with childlike happiness and desire: his trips to Greece and his golf days as the director of Pandenaughty’s Golfing Promotions. His diary was cleared with more fervour and regularity for the Wednesday afternoon golf day than for the trips to Greece.

The golf always lived up to anticipation. There were competitive comedy antics on the fairways of Reading Country Club and the restructuring of these at the denouement in the change room into fireside stories.. Once every few months the “boys” would get together for dinner at one of the homes. My father’s speciality was grilled prawns, which they loved. He would disappear into his kitchen and fire up the steakhouse grill fittings and produce a spicy mix of succulent prawns. I played with them once when I visited, but that was a tame day. It did not include swimming in the lakes tor retrieve balls, or losing clothes as they played, or even hitting traffic cops on the helmet with a golf ball as he directed cars at a nearby intersection. It was a bad slice that hit the target, and fortunately the traffic cop still had his helmet on. He took it off and looked at the dent, looked around, and replaced the helmet. The traffic snarled and hooted as he neglected it until he regained his composure and directed the flow again.

The prelude to a trip to Greece was different. My father was more tense in the days before as he organised the office and any other community events in his anticipated absence. He would work longer hours in the weeks before the trip and then return home at lunch time on Friday for the evening flight to Athens. My mother would have his bags ready, still open, packed from the night before and lying in a spare bedroom. He did not take much in later years as he had everything he needed at the village house. But the bag packing left the dogs depressed, as they knew they were to be abandoned. When he used to walk Kristen and later Leon, they would mope in the knowledge that their suburban walks would be curtailed for a few weeks. When my father walked in Greece he would often say to me he wished he could have his dogs with him.

That is what he anticipated: a walk in the valley, then a return up through the foothills into the village and to Keza’s Kafeneio to meet his crowd for early morning coffee, water or booze, whichever they chose. I can imagine they knew through the bush telegraph that he was arriving, but they never seemed to make a big deal of his arrival. Perhaps it was their way of saying he was one of them, and not a visitor.

Extract on Golf from my father's 70th Birthday Booklet

Conversations about Calendars

Greeks live their life mapped out by a calendar that lists the saint’s days and other religious holidays. To this gets added some national holidays in remembrance of independence from the Ottomans or the rebuffing of the invasion by Mussolini’s troops. The calendars dot homes in three shapes. One is a  pad the size of two matchboxes one on top of the other, where each small page is a day. The other is a small booklet, with a double page feature for each month and some liturgical devotion for the remaining pages. This may be printed by a church. The last form of calendar is a busy year planner type with all the days listed in small ancient script.

The 9th of November is Agios Nectarios, Saint Nectarios Day. In 1992 on that day my mother returned home after going for her constitutional walk with her sister Marina. The fridge had been giving problems and when she saw two strange men she thought they were appliance repairman, and was unperturbed. Until they pulled out a gun, pushed her around and threatened to shoot her unless she opened the safe for them. My mother did not have the keys, so the thugs forced the maid to call my father’s office.

“Baas”, she spoke formally, “come quickly. The madam is sick. I don’t know what happened.”

I cannot imagine she gave any clue of what was going on, and with health foremost on his mind my father grabbed his brother and they rushed home from the office on the main road of the suburb. My father always said “proto ygeas – first health” then everything would fall into place.

But when the front door was opened by the maid they were ambushed by the thugs, guns pointing at my mother and my father. They knocked my mother to the ground and a welt appeared on her cheek. “Open the safe or we kill her” they shouted, gun at her head.

My father opened the safe. The thick steel walled Chubb safe door swung open on its well oiled barrel hinges. They took two guns from the lower drawer. One my father’s .38 special and the other my grandfather’s pistol. Heirlooms in the least. Then they took whatever gold coins my father had stored and all my mother’s jewellery. Greeks in Greece and the Diaspora have this thing about gold. If you look at the price of gold from when you were born to now you would understand. And for the engagement the bride to be would have been showered with gold jewellery, bracelets and necklaces, to portend wealth and fertility in the future. All that gold was stolen.

My mother, father and uncle survived the attack. They were scarred for life, and it took my mother months to go out into the garden again. I even gave them a new dog, Skye, a blue eyed border collie that loved swimming. Skye brought a sparkle to my parent’s eyes again.

But I should have called Skye Nectarios. That was the name of the church my father built to honour God for saving the family that terrible day. The small stone church lies behind our house on a small road that leads to the village of Levidi.

Agios Nectarios,Arcadia, Greece

Conversations about Stray Dogs

Greek dogs, especially village dogs, are essentially neglected and often tied up by chain to a tree or spike in the ground. They grind the sand into a fine dust in concentric rings around the origin of the chain. They are fed scraps whenever the owners remember and are not thought of if the owners go away for a day or two or even weeks. Fresh water never exists; perhaps an old bucket might hold dirt specked algae ridden liquid for them.

There are also many stray dogs in the village. They are as thin and mangy as the chained up dogs, as hungry, yet they have their freedom. They are abused, kicked at, shot at even; so they are wary of humans. The skulk along the roads, moving into vacant land and bush where ever possible, a mixed pack sometimes. They seem to never fight with each other, having defined territories and aware that the need to survive is more important than ego.

When you walk from Kakouri to Levidi past Agios Nectarios there are few no houses and it is a wild valley compared to the main valley of Tripolis which is cultivated and has wine farms and dilapidated farm out buildings and many more churches. The villagers think you are crazy to walk, when you can drive, and then warn you about the dogs., There is always a story about someone being attacked by dogs and a child almost dying, the parents losing their job because of the stress and medical costs and then getting divorced, or some such catastrophe. The details change but the catastrophe remains. I have seen foxes and rabbits walking back in the late afternoon from Levidi, as darkness rolls off the tall shadows cast by the mountains. No great catastrophe.

When we first went to the village as children, accompanied by my grandmother, dogs were anathema. We were not allowed to feed them, touch them or play with them. She chased them away with her South African “voertsek” and a kick or waved fist. As the years passed, and so did she, my mother started feeding some strays scraps on the corner opposite our house. She had to be careful, because the divorced couple still faced with medical bills and the injured child and their family, or a similar type, would frown on my mother’s actions and spread rumours in the village of four hundred people that my mother wanted the child dead so that’s why she feeds the dogs. The logic amongst those philosophers astounds me sometimes.

As the years went by my mother started buying dog cubes at the supermarket in Tripolis. There were not always supermarkets there, it is a recent phenomenon. And dog cubes arrived even later. About that time my father built the garage with a separate gate to a small vegetable garden, and my mother started feeding her dogs regularly in that space. She was like a Mother Theresa for the dogs.

Even when my father used to go alone to the village, he would emulate her and buy the cubes at the supermarket and feed the dogs in the garden.

My mother feeding her strays

Conversations on Philosophy

All Greeks think they are great philosophers. After all, the very word is pure Greek, derived from two simple words: philos –friend and sophia – wisdom; this combination makes Greeks friends of wisdom. Let me rather say that it made the Ancient Greeks friends of wisdom and somehow the Modern Greeks seemed to have strayed, for surely financial wisdom forms part of general wisdom.

My father had friends, both in South Africa and in Greece that he could comfortably philosophise with for hours on end. Somehow the friends in Greece seemed better in these discourses and there was one friend in particular that stood out as a fountain of wisdom for my father. It helped that my father had the time when he was in Greece to sit for hours on end, sometimes days, talking with the old man, George Simbonis.

The old man would have made fine company for Solon in Athens 27 centuries before. Solon said “I grow old learning many things.” My father learnt immeasurably from Simbonis. When they were both younger and the old man would work in the fields near Kortsouli my father would walk there, about 7 kilometres from the village, have a break and a chat and then work in the fields with him and walk back. They would talk comfortably about this and that, never scandalous, always enquiring, reasoning and advising.

The walk from the house to Kortsouli is flat and on a narrow tar road that takes you to Tripolis. After passing a handful of houses and the old village spring’ you enter the avenue of planes trees for about a kilometre. This shades you from the warm morning sun in summer with its promise of heat later. The road curves gently to the right around a hill with a church on top amidst the pines, Agio Ilia. As you round that hill you can see the smaller hill of Kortsouli, after which lie the fields of the old man, amidst the ruins of the ancient city of Mantinea.

The two men, one older by twenty years, were quite ascetic in the fields. Working and drinking deep dark cold well water, eating fruit and for lunch some cheese and bread with a sip of wine. It was one of my father’s favourite sayings, metron ariston – moderation is best, attributed to Cleobolus, who was another of the seven sages, like Solon. All fathers of philosophy. The two friends lived this philosophy in the Arcadian sunlight.

This legacy of philosophy has left me intrigued; it is an exploration of the link between modern and ancient life that is bridged by Christianity. One of my old affirmations is this:

“My mind is quiet and rich, and I have accumulated the wisdom of the generations before me.”

It came to me from this rich tapestry, and the more I think about it the more complex it is in its derivations yet simple in origin.

A page from my father's 70th birthday book gift from the staff at his office

Conversations on the Threshing Floor

When we first arrived at the village there was a threshing circle alongside the house, just behind the outbuildings which were co-owned by a cohort of cousins, including my father. Eventually he struck a deal, exchanging, I think, most of the land for a small strip which he enclosed to build a fourno, garage and to grow a vegetable patch.

With the arrival of mechanical threshers long before us in the village, the circular threshing floor remained unused until part of it was covered by the garage and the rest of it lost in the field that feeds the odd goat or sheep. The threshing circle was made of white stones from the nearby river, packed tightly together to form a smooth enough surface for the horses’ hooves to crush the wheat ears. I can imagine the villagers bringing their wheat in wagons or on the backs of donkeys to be threshed. I imagine everyone would have taken a turn, young and old, male and female, to toss the crushed material into the wind, letting the wheat fall to the ground and the chaff blow into the field.

At lunch time they would have taken a break, eaten some thick crusted chewable village bread with feta from their sheep’s milk. The village onions were like apples and would have made a perfect tangy accompaniment to this peasant meal. Perhaps they drank some retsina, watered down to allow them to continue to work. The Ancient Greek armies had rules of dilution for wine serving: before a battle they watered it down, a quarter wine and the rest water. After battle, if they survived and were victorious, they celebrated with full strength wine.

I do not know if they had communal threshing sessions, or if they each did their own. I suppose then, like now, there were family feuds and some families probably threshed elsewhere. Perhaps they would have a party afterwards, as the autumn sun fell behind Mainalon and cast a shadow across the flat plain. It is easy to hear a clarinet playing in those hills. The sound of the wind in the silence hints at this music when you walk quietly in the evenings down from the house, across the river bed and along the edge of the plain.

This threshing floor also had an old wagon parked on it when we were small. We would climb up and sit on the seat, making imaginary horse drawn expeditions into Arcadia. Until we lifted the wooden lid of the seat to find some treasure left behind and were stung by hornets.

It was just a circle of stones next to our house. If it that threshing floor was still there now I would go along at full moon and sit in the middle of that ancient circle with a bottle of retsina and bread and cheese. It would be obligatory to have some wild mountain music playing and I am sure the spirits of the past would visit me and allow me into their world.

The view over the site of the threshing floor

Conversations about Syntagma Square

I was reading a book about a garden in Helekion outside Athens and the horticultural intern mentioned a day trip to Athens and Syntagma Square. That brought back a flood of memories, since it has been well over twenty years since that  I walked on that marble paving.

When we first used to visit Greece and stay in a hotel in the city, we would have an obligatory visit to Syntagma Square to confirm our return air tickets even though we had just arrived for a six week holiday. My father was very particular about confirming return flights. Much as he loved Greece, he did not seem to want to be stuck there. We always thought it would be cool to spend a few more weeks exploring the village or if we were lucky a few more days at the sea, snorkelling, paddling and eating at tavernas. It never happened.  My father was never bumped off a flight, although there were many horror stories about South African Greeks, or worse still, first time travellers from the villages who had never been on a plane and then were bumped off as Olympic Airways was  always overbooked. It helped that my Godfather was a pilot on the national airline. It also helped that my father nurtured the family’s relationship with the lady who worked at the Olympic Airways office tucked into a corner behind grey marble columns on Syntagma Square.

Syntagma means Constitution and the square was formed on the foundation after independence from the Ottomans and specifically after independence  of the Hapsburg advisors to the new king, whose palace on the northern aspect of Syntagma is now the Greek parliament. It is a large oblong square with its length leading toward the sea away from parliament. It is ringed by busy roads and a main road, Amalia, which tries to bisect it at the waist. Many times I imagined the frustrated buses and taxis driving straight through the square to avoid the snarling traffic that blocked the Athenian roads. As slow as the traffic seemed it was still difficult to cross the road from the inner square. Traffic lights were suggestions for drivers and Zebra crossings were distorted strips on the melting tarmac that mirrored the neo-classic columns of the parliament in sympathetic decoration but did nothing to slow the traffic for a mere pedestrian to cross. I soon learnt that it was all about attitude when crossing a road in Athens. Put your foot into the road without hesitation and walk confidently, head up, without so much as looking at the cars threatening to drive over you.

If you stood at the parliament and looked toward the sea, which was invisible for the buildings and smog, at the bottom of the slope lay a few open cafes, where we would be treated to iced lemonades and ice creams as children. Tucked in between the cafes was the American Express office, where we used to change travellers cheques.

When I started going alone as an adult I loved Syntagma. Occasionally I would walked up to the square and see the ominous gathering of the crowds threatening a demonstration and turn and go back. Other times I would sit and drink a frappe and enjoy some people watching. Once I dived into the Olympic Airways office and on a whim booked myself a flight to New York and Los Angeles. That my father knew the staff meant I got a good deal without any questions being asked.

Syntagma is worth a visit. I am going back this year, even if there is a protest.

A photograph of my father's from the sixties in Athens

Conversations about Birthdays

My father only really celebrated one birthday, his seventieth. All I remember from the other birthdays are the odd dinner with the family, but nothing more. I do not remember any gifts that I gave him, except for his seventieth: six bottles of Champagne. I guess it was a good reason to celebrate, and we opened three of them when he cut his cake.

His birthday on Spring Day in South Africa, 1st September, followed the Dormiton of the Virgin Mary on 15th August, the day on which he celebrated his name day. On that day, two weeks before his birthday, there would be a constant stream of visitors and well wishers passing through the house. Some staying for coffee and cake, and others for dinner. That was his real annual celebration.

So when he turned seventy in 2006 he threw two big parties: One in the village in Greece and one in Alberton. Needless to say, the real party on his birthday was in Greece at his father’s house. A few weeks later on 8th October he celebrated with friends and most of his family at his home in Alberton, where we had moved in when I was born in 1962. I did not attend the party in Greece, although I was there just after 15th August and spent one of my birthdays in the village with my parents and Ines. I do not remember that day other than that we went up to the monastery at the neighbouring village of Kandila.

Back home in South Africa the party was held on a Sunday in the pleasant early summer of the Highveld. The venue was my father’s taverna at the back of the garden, and people sat outside under umbrellas and watched the sheep turn on the spit. Most of them were synchronising their eyes with the rotations and planning when they would be able to grab a piece of the crispy skin to snack on before the feast started.

There was a separate tent with all the drinks. This was the only difference from any previous function, where there was usually just a drinks table on the veranda and wine and whiskey on the tables. There was a good mix of people: immediate family, friends from his days of involvement in the Greek community, his golfing buddies, the neighbours, some old Albertonian friends and his dogs. The two dogs, Lady and Leon, were kept behind the fence although they were such gentle creatures they could have easily joined in the party.

After we cut the cake and drank the Champagne, another group became evident: his five remaining Godsons. The eldest, Basil had flown all the way from Australia for the celebration, and I remember taking a picture of them in the lounge. This was a group of young men my father had mentored and whose families he had been intimately involved with. They have remained close to us even with his passing.

The Sheep on the Spit, Taverna on the left

Conversations about Corners

The Iconostatio in the Village House

Every Greek household has an iconostasio, a corner in a room to hold icons and burn incense and store memorabilia of the religious year. In the house in Kakouri the iconostasio is in the north east corner of my late grandmother’s room. It is a simple affair; two planks that have become part of the wall meet in a corner and support Jesus. The walls and planks have been plastered in a village fashion, attempting to be perfect but ending up rough without looking like Spanish plaster.

The iconostasio has a bare electric bulb with the element in the shape of a cross and it burns a soft orange red but does not flicker. When I sleep in that room I usually turn it off, because in the mountain darkness it shines bright and stops me from sleeping. Also, I am a bit of a purist, and enjoy the sensory experience of a wick burning in olive oil and incense of myrrh burning on charcoal. Incense is  more than quintessentially Greek Orthodox. It joins all the great ancient philosophies in a wonderful sensory experience.

The village house iconostasio has two big icons, one unusual in that it is Catholic in style, and the biggest. The other is slightly smaller and Byzantine in style. The gold foil has been burnt by a flame and obscures the top of Christ’s head. They are two smaller icons, one of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus and another of a saint. In between these two small icons is a vertical piece of wood engraved with “Evlogia” – blessing, much as is the fashion in décor stores where they sell big signs proclaiming Love, Faith, Happiness and Joy.

The most noticeable item is a bottle of wine from the Roussos Winery on the island of Santorini. It is called Nama, and is a blend of five varieties: Mantilaria, Aidani, Asyrtiko, Athiri and Mavrathiro. It is reserved for Holy Communion. I have no idea why it is there.

There are also flowers from the Easter Epitaphio – the Tomb of Christ, dried with time, remnants of an Easter visit by my father a few years ago. An olive branch is propped up behind the main icons. I cannot see any palm crosses, which would be kept and stored with the icons after Palm Sunday.

A thick church candle sits next to a jar that holds the holy water from the epiphany. If you open this you can still smell a hint of the Sweet basil that was dipped in it to sprinkle the house for good fortune on that day.

There is a cotton cloth with a red ribbon that lies loosely folder behind the candle and the jar. Again, I have no idea where that comes from.

It is a peaceful corner. An anchor in the house, that over the years the family has prayed at and written about.