Conversations about Photo Albums

Who would have thought in those days of Polaroids and slides, when a film roll came with 20 or 36 pictures, that we would be looking at photographs on a computer screen?

I have two computer folders of old photographs my father had scanned in, some from slides and some from prints. Each folder has just over five hundred pictures, some ordered and labelled but most just anonymous.  There are places and buildings and people and animals. Some are badly taken, poor focus or needy exposure, but some are absolute classics, and belong in the National Geographic.

Sometimes I look at big thumbnails, other times I go through full screen slideshows. I recognise quite a few people, and can tell you who they are and how we are related, or what route the friendship took with my father. Some people remained steadfast friends to the end; some of the very old are still alive. Others came and went, blowing with the wind, changing direction when principles were cast in stone. The old photographs capture them quite prominently, while the real friends seem to be in the background. Real friends are always in the background, for that background is the fabric of our lives.

There are photographs from Athens, Jerusalem, Alberton and Paris. There is a picture of the Eiffel Tower with its mast in the clouds. Except for Jerusalem all the places especially Alberton and the outskirts of Athens seem open, with ground for people to look over and let their eyes roam freely. That is no more, as the buildings have crept closer together and higher up. The roads were simple in those days, like rivers finding their way with the flow of people. Now they are channels, forcing us in a direction we may not want to go.

There are pictures of christenings, simple lunches, picnics and sheep on the spit. There is a lot of dancing: in the garden, in the fields, in houses and in the kafeneio. There are many pictures with glasses and bottles raised in celebration, but no one seems drunk. They are all really happy to be together and free to live.

The animals include some of our old pets, rabbits in Greece, donkeys in the village and stray dogs and cats around the old house. The animals are all skinny and generally unkempt, except the rabbits that were being fattened up for a stifado.

I can imagine someone going through my photographs in fifty years time. I have eighty eight thousand digital photographs at the moment. It would take that person a few months to go through those, and see the people and places that I have seen. There are some good photographs, but I am not sure if they tell as good a story as the old slides my father had digitised.

A screen shot of my father's pictures

Conversations with the Sun on My Back

I have slept late a few days this week. I woke at 5 am but then fell asleep again and only got to my writing at 5:45 am and nothing happened. Now some more time has passed, the cats have been fed, coffee has been made and the struggle continues. After all these months of easy, if not bad, writing, the block has set in.

The only cure is to just write. So I sit at my desk with the sun much higher than when I normally write and it burns my back. Feeling this warmth reminds me of a picnic. Picnics remind me of the family picnics at Germiston Lake.  The lake is a man made reservoir that was sued by the local mines, edged by industry on the north and a park and Germiston Boys High School on the south. The park and school are set in amongst pine trees, with a meandering road leading along the water’s edge and another nearer the fence. Both lead to the red facebrick columns that frame the gates that guard the school. When I think about it if there was any school I wanted to attend, it was that school. It seemed to be solid and peaceful, with a history that extended beyond the fact that my father matriculated there.

The park area had open pergolas interspersed amongst the trees. At the south eastern corner, near the weir that was the outlet of the water, you could hire row boats. Directly opposite this was the Victoria Lake Yacht Club, where I eventually managed to get membership as a windsurfer.  It was like a drug addict asking to join the Jehovah’s Witness: awkward!

As a family we would arrive on the weekend and camp out at one of the pergolas. I remember braaing on the cut 44 gallon drums, rickety folding picnic tables and the dank smell of mould in the creosoted wood that famed the pergolas. I remember playing cricket in the open spaces after lunch, while the older people had a siesta.

The thing I remember most is how big the group was. When I say the family camped out at a pergola I mean the extended family and friends. So there might have been anything from five to 20 couples with their children and grandparents. It was a very social event.

I cannot remember if they ever played music, either from the car radios or from a portable radio or tape recorder. But I do vaguely remember them dancing, clearing the pergola of tables and chairs and doing the Tsammiko on the bouncy wooden floor of the large square pergola.

As the song says, “those were the days”. Indeed, the less we had the more people we needed.

My father at a picnic at Germiston Lake: the cars belong to the "family" and the pergola is in the background.

Conversations with Mr Stander

I found a letter in the pile of personal documents my mother gave me. It was posted on 24 February 1958 from Warmbaths, then part of the Transvaal. The single small stamp looks like the precursor of a portrait of the stylised zebra that Investec has as its emblem. The envelope is addressed simply to:

Mnr Peter Stathoulis

Union Caffee


It arrived the year before my parents were married. They had their honeymoon in Warmbaths, and Mr Stander, the writer of the letter, lived there. He had helped my grandmother with my father when he was small. She would have been in South Africa only a few years when Mr Stander helped. I cannot imagine how they met, or what he did to help. Or even how they communicated, because she could speak no Afrikaans or English in the early days of her immigration.

His letter is addressed to my father, family and dearest friends. It is written in old Afrikaans, with more than a hint at Dutch. Mr Stander complains of the heat in Warmbaths. February would have been the end of summer. He developed pneumonia and was bed bound for eleven days. After the diagnosis his one leg went lame and he was worried that he had contracted polio. There had been four cases diagnosed in the Warmbaths community over recent months, and with respect I assume these were amongst the whites only. Using heat treatment and rest to retard the damage done to the spinal cord by the polio virus was in vogue at the time. This much is evident from the medical literature at the time. Who knows, with all these people seeking treatment in the warm waters they probably caused infection of others. Mr Stander was happy when the doctor told him that it was not polio, and that he must get out of bed and walk. He did, slowly, and walked with a “kierie”. He complains that he had to do everything himself, that there was even no maid to help him. With the heat and his illness his garden had dried up and the weeds had taken over.

It is an odd letter. I suppose an sms would impart that information from an old friend today. “Hot in Warmbaths. Recovering from pneumonia and thought I had polio. Dr says not. Garden a mess. Regards to the family. HC Stander.” In sixty years time no one would have any record of the event. Instead I have neatly folded letter posted with care and carrying news of illness to friends who cared. It does not ask for anything, other than Godspeed to meet again.  The addressing of the envelope is also heart warming. No street or number, no code, and yet it arrived. In those days Union Café was a landmark in Alberton, with my grandfather and Uncle Piet delivering some semblance of social service to the poor whites of the area. The same poor whites that the government introduced affirmative action for in the form of Apartheid.

The tragedy today is that the poor people today  cannot write letters and only use sms’s to communicate. They also do not have a Union Café to look after them.

The letter from Mr Stander

The Lost Immigrants 6 September 2002

Edinburgh’s late summer was beautiful. The festival was over and a lazy peace enveloped the city. It was warm and the people were warm. The crowd of orthopaedic surgeons from South Africa were great fun albeit that a large part of the fun involved trying as many pubs as possible. This all culminated with the end of the festival firework show, which was quite spectacular. It was also the night of our second visit to Cappadocia, a Turkish take-away which we tried a few nights before. The doner kebab was a great giro with fresh salad and lashings of a spicy chilli sauce. Eugene did not eat that night and the cook noticed it. The second night he ate, and the cook noticed that as well. He noticed too that Eugene was a huge man but of the earth. He probably didn’t notice that he had typical rugby ears.

The story starts with me not being too happy about supporting a Turkish business.  But then again, they were the closest thing to family for me in Scotland. Still, I remember Nicosia and the Red Line that divided families and destroyed lives. It was and it still is sad. But one of the soundest principles by which one can live is never to generalise. It is useful having such basic principles. We always learn our lessons the hard way.

Our last night in Edinburgh was sad; we had made new friends and built up lasting relationships. We had learnt a lot and drunk a lot. So we visited a few pubs on that last night.  The weather had changed slightly.    It was cooler and there had been some rain the previous evening, but it was still unseasonably warm. I went for a long run around Arthur’s Seat. The surroundings are not quite the Highlands but there are two pretty little dams that look like lochs. I ran up through a saddle and saw ravens struggling like crowbars bending in the wind. Their cruel call came at me straight from Macbeth with the three witches just around the corner. They were not ….

So we spent the last evening at Cappadocia. There was a severe earthquake in Greece 3 days before and the Turkish government was the first to send a search and rescue team. Strange, as they had just had 12 000 of their faithful killed by one largely because of fly-by-night builders who did not adhere to the appropriate codes. When we arrived at the little take-away we rushed in and it was empty. Eugene had hesitated outside to see if the owner would miss him. Indeed he did and came rushing out to drag the giant in by his arm. Indeed a warm welcome for a stranger that had eaten there only once before. We all ordered Doner Kebabs again and he laid on all the extras as if we were all good friends of the family. Haig, who did not order any food and asked for a coke, was given this on the house. We struggled through the huge meals looking at posters of Turkey that are Greece in a different language. Or the other way around.

As we relished our food a couple walked in. They were Turkish, we all presumed. In their late twenties and he looking like any Greek palikari while she was a goddess. Her hair was straw coloured with the sun still setting. Her eyes were blue grey like the med at midday in the midsummer’s shimmering waves. They went behind to the two tables at the back of the counter and sat and chatted; she animatedly with her hands while she rolled up a cigarette in a slip of paper and then smoked it. She did not eat. I think they just had coffee and then they left. As she passed I noticed a crucifix in her ear – she couldn’t be Turkish. She said goodbye to the old man and hugged him. She then left with her partner talking Greek and shedding the Scottish weather as if she had oil on her body as she got out of the sea.

So I called the old man over. I asked him if the couple was Greek, which he confirmed and added that he had many Greek students in winter that spent their evenings there. I told him that I too was Greek and half expected myself to have a human rights abuse argument with him. I didn’t, and instead introduced myself to Kerrim, who by now had his arm affectionately around my shoulder. We spoke of the Turkish earthquake disaster and then obliquely about Cyprus. He shrugged his shoulders and said that we were friends and that politics was ugly. Indeed it was. So we carried on and I asked him if he had a small coffee. I could not bring myself to say a Turkish coffee. He apologised that he only had the coffee and briki at home, but wanted to kerasi us some cappuccinos. We were now part of the family. Some Scots came in while we were chatting and he ignored them essentially till they left so he could continue with his new friends. We told him where we were from and our profession. Faf Labuschagne, a lost immigrant as well had joined us and through him we were able too guarantee Kerrim access to the best orthopaedics that the NHS had to offer.

I gave him my business card and he proudly stored it; in exchange I got a take-out menu with his hand-written name. He is sixty years old and married a Scottish lass with two children aged 7 and 5. He proudly showed us photos of them. John had pictures of his two daughters and he shared a bond across the sea and cultures in a moment of pure pride for the two of them. Kerrim had just opened this shop 6 months ago and was working everyday from lunch 4 p.m. until closing at 3 or 4 a.m.. A hard life at sixty, but not without its rewards; like the time a Greek student brought a belly dancer to dance just for him as a thank you for all his kindness. His face lit up at the gesture but also at the vision of this nubile dancer gracing his small storefront.

He used to be a singer, first in Turkey and then in the UK. He was even on television and he proudly showed us the review in the newspaper, the faded yellow paper glinting like gold foil in his eyes. Then out came an ancient photo album of him in his Austin Moore outfits: velvet jackets and frills creasing an ancient microphone. He shoed and belittled himself but enjoyed sharing his experience of San Francisco with us: he stayed mistakenly in a gay hotel and when he tried to date a hot babe she refused him on confusing grounds. But once the misunderstanding was cleared up he had the time of his life.

Then it was time to return to Pollock Halls; we hugged goodbye in the true Mediterranean fashion and left warm in our new friendship. At the landing outside there was a beggar. Eugene dragged him in as he begged for money, put £5 on the counter and ordered Kerrim to give him a doner kebab. Just like that. Just like the silent moment Eugene took in prayer before his meal.

Constantinople 6 May 2011

Here is an answer:

Some Fill With Each Good Rain
There are different wells within your heart.
Some fill with each good rain,
Others are far too deep for that.

In one well
You have just a few precious cups of water,
That “love” is literally something of yourself,
It can grow as slow as a diamond
If it is lost.

Your love
Should never be offered to the mouth of a
Only to someone
Who has the valor and daring
To cut pieces of their soul off with a knife
Then weave them into a blanket
To protect you.

There are different wells within us.
Some fill with each good rain,
Others are far, far too deep
For that.
It’s a long story and it’s not my poem. It belongs to a Sufi poet, Hafiz, from the 14th Century.

I am so confused about going to Istanbul. I have on this same hard drive copies of letters written by my father dated 21 August 1974, my 12th birthday. Co-signed by his friend George Bizos. To the Minister of Foreign Affairs of South Africa, the Ambassador to Pretoria of the United States Government and the Ambassador to Pretoria of Her Majesties Government. All decrying the behaviour of the Turkish government in occupying Cyprus. This shortly after we had returned from Greece. I remember the morning clearly, at Hotel Solon in Tolo, where my father took my brother and told him that he was the head of the family now. My father had been conscripted to fight in the Greek Army. The nation was tuned in to black and white TV with military marches blaring while Turkey invaded Cyprus with American hardware. Nothing has changed, in the week that America assassinated Osama bin Laden. Or murdered him. For what are we if we stoop to the same level as our enemies, if not the Devil himself?

In 2002 I wrote this about a Turkish Takeaway called Cappadocia in Edinburgh. The piece was called The Lost Immigrants:

The story starts with me not being too happy about supporting a Turkish business.  But then again, they were the closest thing to family for me in Scotland. Still, I remember Nicosia and the Red Line that divided families and destroyed lives. It was and it still is sad. But one of the soundest principles by which one can live is never to generalise. It is useful having such basic principles. We always learn our lessons the hard way.

So best not to generalise, even about the Americans. Who can imagine the details of their existence?

Who can imagine the details of anyone’s existence?

So here I sit in  Turkish Airline’s new Airbus en route to Istanbul. Originally to see the Grand Prix, with Caterina trying to open all sorts of doors at the race for us to enjoy. So far the best seems lunch with Mercedes on Saturday.
But the best after some thought is that I am going to what was Constantinople, the seat of Byzantium Christendom, to visit Agia Sophia. And at the same time see feel the streets Hafiz and Rumi walked on, perhaps to find an old book of his poems.

Only to discover that Ataturk banned Sufis. They are now tolerated but are not a force within the confusion of this non-secular nation of Islam.

And so we arrived in a cold and wet Istanbul. I exercised a bit then slept and then we made our way to Istanbul Park, the Grand Prix circuit on the Asian side. The first Formula 1 car that started up and shook out of the garage got me feeling like a little boy with a new bicycle. Pure unbridled joy! I took lots of pictures, mainly panned shots and had a lot of fun. It was cold in the stands.

That night I wrote in my journal:  Wow, I can see why Alexander the Great was enamoured by the Persians. They are a gentle, beautiful, quiet nation,  full of life and joy and passion. Let me try explaining the appreciation:
Turkey works. They have an economy that is still growing at 6 % per annum. The city of Istanbul has a real European capital infrastructure. There are huge suspension bridges over the Bosporus Straits, highways and intersections with automatic toll registration. They have their own airline fleet. Friendly airline staff, even friendly ground staff. An ethos on looking after tourists. Sure, the Turks like to bargain in a shop, or worse in the Grand Bazaar. And there are beggars. And they are Muslim. But the founder of modern day Turkey, in the beginning of the 20th century, outlawed the burka  and adopted the Latin alphabet instead of the Arabic script. The hotel we stayed in was clean, did not smell of smoke and the staff were quiet and unobtrusive as they went about their work. I was walking up one flight of steps from Dom’s room on  the last morning , at about 8am, carrying a small suitcase and one of the cleaners insisted that he carry the bag for me. Genuinely. And was disappointed when I would not let him.

But there is a negative dichotomy. The Turks do not have freedom of speech. There are over 300 journalists and outspoken professionals in detention. Prison really. They have internal strife with the Kurds. They have odd bedfellows in Libya and the USA. They are very chauvinistic.

And they have invaded the northern half of Cyprus. That hurts. The fact that they conquered Constantinople shows their military and organizational superiority. And I wonder at the military and organizational inferiority of my home nation, the Greeks. Still resting on their laurels proclaiming them as the fathers of democracy. Pity they have not realised that has no value in the financial bale out package offered by the European Union.

The Roman empire ruled over the Greeks for a few centuries and the Greeks have got over it. The Macedonians ruled over large tracts of the near and Middle East and they seem to have got over it. The Crusades stole the Lions from Agia Sophia’s towers and left them in St Mark’s Square in Venice. The Ottomans seem to have got over it.

The epitome of a name change, for those of us familiar with South African modern history. Istanbul became the new name for Constantinople when the Ottomans conquered Byzantine in the 1400’s.  Greeks still refer to it as “Konstatinopouli”, somewhat romantically and also bitterly, the way hard liners would refer to Verwoerdburg instead of attending a cricket test at Centurion.

So yes, Turkey is complicated. Even for a South Africa Greek with Cypriot family.

Agia Sofia

Conversations about the Resurrection

Xristos Anesti – Christ has risen in the Orthodox World.  In a world crippled by corruption and greed, yet filled with passion and lust for life beyond any measure of sanity. Today is Easter Sunday for the Greek and Eastern Orthodox churches.

There should be a candle burning in my kitchen representing the Resurrection service last night, but there is not. When I first moved to Durban my father would always ask on the telephone: “Are you going to church?”

“I’ll try. I’m on call.” In the beginning call was a nightmare at King Edward VIII Hospital, where I would be stuck operating through the night and work nonstop for thirty six hours. The call in private became more civilised but I stressed over it anyway. I am on call this weekend again.I did pop into church when Father Mina was there. He was a strong link with the family and being Greek, because he was our parish priest for many years in Alberton and officiated over many weddings, christenings and funerals. He knew us all very well.

I never brought a candle home in Durban. My father always brought a candle home in Alberton. It was the most important thing to do. I think he always completed the attendance at the church service after the Resurrection and then took the candle home to lie safely in a glass vase so that it could burn through to the next morning, and also safely so that it did not burn the house down as the kitchen in those days had flimsy flammable nylon curtains. After that he would arrive at Uncle Phillip’s house which was two houses and the hall away from the church, as everyone had finished Aunty Marina’s avgolemono soup, which was a light meal to break the fast in the early hours of the morning. He would eat alone as we all watched and talked.

After a few hours sleep he would rise to supervise the lighting of the fires at 6 a.m., and then after thirty minutes put the sheep on the spit. We usually tied them down on the Saturday afternoon and left them standing like dead soldiers with spears leaning against the kitchen wall. On the Sunday morning it was an appropriate funeral pyre for them to burn on, for us to celebrate six hours later.

Once the sheep were safely on and turning slowly on the fire, before any real smell came off them, my father would take us to visit the ancestors and wish them Xristos Anesti. At the cemetery we would clean out metal vases and place new flowers on the graves of my grandparents in honour of their resurrection. The fine red sand surrounding the graves would smell of Africa when we poured water onto it. The incense we burnt to carry their spirits and our prayers to God smelt of Greece.

Alithos Anesti – In Truth He has Risen.

Father Mina in the Friday with the Epitaphio following. Circa 1974

Conversations about Paraskevidekatriaphobia

My father was superstitious and spiritual. Sometimes the two became blurred and no logic or belief was evident.

He would never sit at a table with thirteen guests. It is an easy superstition to explain: Judas was the thirteenth guest at the last supper, and it was he who betrayed Jesus Christ and tagged the number thirteen as an ill omen. If you think about it, most of us betray Jesus and should place a thirteen cent coin in our mouths when Charon transports across the Styx. Our forebears in Mantinea would have carefully placed a coin in the mouth of their deceased relatives to pay the ferryman.

My father would always leave a house or building by the same door he entered. In open plan houses with free movement through verandas this would sometimes mean a tour of the house until he found the door he wanted. He did not believe in the mati – the evil eye, that blue beaded teardrop, as other Greeks and Mediterranean’s did, but he did believe that the soul could be possessed. He had a prayer incantation which he would repeat fervently while holding anyone that was possessed to free them of their chains.

Whenever anyone came around to show him a new car, he would always take money out of his pocket and place a few notes in the cubby hole. I still have the original notes he placed in my first Alfa Romeo, transferred from car to car. The envelope is dirty and frayed, but the good luck money lies safely inside. Not that I have had that many new cars, but over 30 years they tend to get worn out and need replacing. Especially Alfa Romeos.

He did not like giving knives as a gift. A knife was a tool that could sever a relationship. So when his good friend Rod Conacher introduced him to Piet Grey, who made beautiful handcrafted knives, he bought one for my brother and me. But in receiving it we had to pay him a token coin to prevent the knife from being used to sever the relationship.

Today’s mouthful of a title is a concatenation of a few Greek words: Paraskevi is Friday, dekatria is thirteen and we all know what phobia means.

Piet Grey's Beautiful Blade


Conversations about Calendars

The Jewish Passover celebrations began yesterday. The Passover commemorates God’s gift of saving their firstborn while the Egyptian firstborn were struck down in the plague. This Passover, in synagogues all over the world, the first born sons of Jews will recite thanks to God for saving their kind. It is an incredible tradition.

The Passover lasts seven days. At the end of those seven days in Biblical times the Romans crucified Jesus Christ. The Jews base the dates of Passover on their calendar which is lunisolar, or semi- lunar. They have an intercalary month which takes place seven times in 19 years; this is called the Metonic cycle, after the Greek astronomer Meton, who proposed it about 432 B.C. to express the relation between a lunar and solar year. The Jewish Diaspora traditionally added an extra day to their Passover just to be safe, in case the local calendar was wrong.

The early Christians based their calendar on the same lunisolar system which was integrated into the Julian Calendar, named after Julius Caesar and which ruled time from 45 B.C until 1582 A.D.. This calendar was not astronomically correct in that although it had a leap year, the actual variance was slightly less than the six hours per year that the Emperor calculated. So in fact as time progressed the calendar was being thrown out of pace.

The Gregorian calendar was adopted by the Western World in 1582, when by the political plotting and the use of the Julian Calendar Easter was falling too early in March. The principle of calculating this Spring Festival was, and still is, based, on the vernal equinox that occurs in March. Vernal implies spring (as it would be in the northern hemisphere) and the equinox is an astronomical description for that time of year when the sun is perpendicular to the equator. Easter is calculated on the first Sunday after full moon after the vernal equinox. The Orthodox Easter has to fall at the end of the Passover, which is historically correct. More importantly, the Gregorian calendar has fixed the vernal equinox on 21 March, when in fact it varies astronomically by a day each way. In addition, the Gregorian calendar uses an “ecclesiastical” full moon, and not the astronomical full moon in the calculation.

So this year the Orthodox Easter and the Catholic Easter should coincide by virtue of the moon and the vernal equinox, but in fact the Orthodox Easter is delayed by one week to fall at the end of the Passover.

Greece remained true to her stubborn nature in that she was the last to adopt the Gregorian calendar, as late as 1928, after the population exchange destroyed the Levant. The yellow beast, China, only adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1949.

It is a fascinating moveable feast, the Jewish Passover and the Christian Easter. The one Christian church follows the Jewish rite, while the other has chosen to rule the astronomical calendar with an average day, 21 March and an arbitrary full moon. The Jewish word for the Passover is pesach. The Greek word for Easter is pascha. Not too dissimilar in sound?

The Paschal Sheep in Alberton, circa 1970.