Conversations with My Father’s First Cousin

Panayiotis is the son of my father’s mother’s sister, Christina. He was born between my father and me, and was my father’s most important family connection in Greece, and the only real cousin I adopted in Greece. All my first cousins are in South Africa, Australia or the USA.

Panayiotis is the sort man that will drive four hundred kilometres to share an ouzo with you, then drive back at midnight to work the next day. He is a great guy that has built a small empire in his suburb of Athens, the Forest of Xaidari. The only forest that remains is the olive grove that covers his property, which is the only garden with a house amongst neat apartment blocks. He has green fingers and plants vegetables alongside the olives and has a driveway lined with winter and summer orange trees. The summer trees  are in blossom as spring unfolds in Athens.

I have not seen in him in a year but it is as if we have not called since yesterday. He exudes a genuine caring and he has a mystic mix of spirituality and capitalism. His spirituality comes from annual sojourns to Mount Athos where he fasts with monks and his capitalistic streak emanates from his mother, who, when they were small used to go out at night and move the boundary stones of their Athens  property. Notwithstanding the real estate gains, he started building apartments around the house and now has a collection of non government employees paying rentals. In anticipation of the economic crisis that hit Greece he reduced his rentals in 2010 by twenty percent and again by a further ten percent this year. He has kept all his tenants and they seem t be paying the rent. He delivers basket of home grown produce to each of the apartments as he harvests. His daughter, Dionysea, named after her grandfather Dionysius, and also the god of wine by the same name, knows all the tenants by first name and can list them as if she is repeating the alphabet. She is only seven years old now.

Panayiotis came out for my brother’s wedding. He arrived with a beautifully cut suit, specially tailored for the wedding. In the days before the wedding my mother arranged for the suit to be pressed at the dry cleaners and my father then substituted one of his own suits with the same fabric, carefully placed under the plastic cover with the tag attached. Panayiotis left the suit in the plastic till the day of the wedding. When he dressed he was dumbstruck that his pants were too long and the waist too narrow. He accused the drycleaners of messing up his suit and was so upset he shouted at my father through closed doors that he could not attend the wedding. My father was silently laughing, but egging him. “Imagine what people will be saying: I brought my cousin from Greece for the wedding and he did not want to some because his suit would not fit! Perhaps, Panayiotis, you should try another suit?”

“How will you find one to fit me?”

“Try it anyway”, said my father, proffering it through the crack  door.

As he fitted it he exclaimed “this is just like my suit!” and then he realised he had been duped.

Until he got his own back. Many times. The Greeks call it plaka.

Panayiotis in his garden

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

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.


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