Conversations at Keza’s

Gia sou Vasili. Ela. Ti nea? Ti na sou keraso?”

Keza always greeted me almost like a son. Definitely like a nephew. His kafeneio is up in the village, a block away from the main square and church, in front of a triangle of roads where three roads meet in a low triangle.

“Your health, Basil. What news? What can I offer you?”

When I was younger I would ask for a gazoza, a carbonated drink. Now I ask for a coffee, metrio, and a cognac in the morning, or an ouzo in the afternoon.

The kafeneio is the heart of democratic royalists. Occasionally a visitor of another persuasion may attend, by virtue of a polite invitation, but most times the politics that is spoken is weighted on the right. In summer everybody sits outside, now around small metal tables and clean slatted chairs with rattan seats. The original furniture was rough wooden tables with village wooden chairs, the bases supported by tension wires under the straw woven seats. At one stage in the nineties when China flooded the market with cheap garish desire, the chairs worn chairs were replaced with ugly white characterless chairs. At least he recovered some sensibility in the local interior design sphere.

The long veranda faces east and is covered by a vine. The trunks of these are old and gnarled, the bark replicating the faces of some of the village men who sit in the shade of the translucent green leaves in the afternoon. The floor is simple cement and runs into a square interior through cream painted French doors. During the summer day these are closed with a beaded curtain keeping out flies as Keza delivers drinks to the customers under the shade. As the flies rest for the evening, the doors are opened but everyone sits outside anyway. In winter they huddle along one wall to play cards.

Opposite the veranda a counter runs the length of the shop. For most of its length the dark rough wood is empty, and in the corner is a glass fronted refrigerator with some beers, cool drinks, cheese and meat. Next to that is the old till and besides that along the end wall a two gas burner. Here Keza can make coffee in a briki, or boil up some lamb or goat stew to feed his customers.

He keeps a flock of sheep attended by his son; his son has not finished school and is challenged. As people die and their gardens are left untended in the village he can be found grazing the sheep in forgotten garden singing baritone klepht songs that are so beautiful they haunt you. The sheep stayed behind the house, next to the kafeneio. The smell of lamb and mutton, their droppings and rancid fat from carcasses hanging next to the kitchen added strong flavour to the air of this rustic kafeneio.

Xarika pou se eida, Vasili. As sto kalo. Xairetismata

“I am happy to have seen you, Basil. Go well. Greetings to all.”

Autumn with Keza standing next to my father in the Kafeneio 17 September 2007

Conversations on Directions

My father always drew a distinction between a house and a home. The former was a shell that was never filled with love or tradition; the latter was filled with family, love, tradition, happiness and sadness. As Zorba the Greek might have paraphrased: “A home held the whole catastrophe”.

Before Greece started its cadastral records for the European Union our house in the Arcadian mountain village of Kakouri had no number, yet everyone knew where we stayed and any visitor could easily be directed from entry into the village. After the avenue of plane trees take the first fork left. At the next intersection our house is diagonally opposite you on the left. And if they lost their instructions they would usually stop at the fork and ask directions of the nearest house, which happened to belong to Caterina Simbonis.

Caterina was a big buxom bossy woman whose small sharp eyes in her round face always peered through her window covered in white lace to see who was coming to the village. At its peak there were no more than 1200 residents in the village. The population has dwindled to a few hundred, and in 2011 the primary school finally closed its doors for lack of youth to teach. So it was easy for Caterina, who was married to my father’s best friend George, to keep up with visitors to the village.

On being asked directions to our house she would squeeze her ample body, plaid blue dress with a black scarf as a belt and her tight bun of grey hair neatly tied, smelling of garlic and goats, into the usually small Fiat rental car. Sometimes the guest’s wife had to get in the back, knees up against her ears while Caterina easily spoke nonstop in Greek to the visitor, irrespective of whether they understood her.

She would motion left at the intersection and do her cross at the churchlet to the Resurrection. Then point straight up the road   and put her hand up to stop at the next intersection and as she said “Takis, Takis” excitedly she would motion for them to park at the house, like some graceful traffic policewoman. She would get out, nudge the gate open and call out for Takis, my father, if she could not see him under the grapevines on the veranda.

He would appear and she would say she has brought guests. He would welcome them and greet them, and introduce them to Caterina. She would embrace them, give them a double cheek garlic kiss and from that moment on they were part of her family.

After the cadastral records were formalised the house was given the number 45. Nothing changed with the number that was the same as our home number in South Africa.

Caterina Simbonis, Second from the Left

Conversations while Walking

The best time we had together was when we walked. We never walked together in Durban. It was too hot for my father, and he used to get chest pain in the heat. Also, to be fair, I work in Durban and I would rush off early to work and come back late.

We used to walk at Mbona. We would walk past the stables down the valley, over the dam wall and up through the wattle and pine plantation past my brother John’s place for coffee. Then we would contour in the grassland, past the zebra that always hide in a hollow and back onto the main road to our house.

Walking at home in Alberton was fun, because it was with the dogs. They would lead the way and set the pace. There were certain houses with enemy dogs that always required a stand of aggression, and there were other gates and poles that required a territorial marking. His attorney’s house always required the dog to mark with something more solid. The house was the last in the suburb without a fence, so it was easy to let the dog make a mark in the open. It was an abvious calling card.

We also walked in Astros. I only remember really hot days with early walks, past the village shops that were still closed, past the harbour with yachts lying unmoving in the still blue water. Past the Duck House in the middle of the harbour, and the amphitheatre at the edge of the harbour. Up the hill, with a rest at the church and sometimes to light a candle, then downhill, back into the village. Now the bakery was open and the heavy smell of fresh bread and pastries would force us to stop to buy breakfast; then laden with bags we would walk the few blocks home and devour the fresh bread with fig jam and share the apple pastries.

The best place to walk was Kakouri. He was always so happy heading off into the plain. Down the avenue of plane trees, the village fresh in the morning, the earthy smell of sheep not yet fermented in the day’s heat. After a while he would turn left into the fields, along a sand road, then left again to slowly walk up a long hill to the original spring of the village which still trickled fresh sweet water. He would stop for a drink and then continue up to the church of Agio Dimitri and then backtrack into a small ravine that separated the village from the mountain of Analipsi. From there onto a tar road studded with sheep droppings and into Keza’s Cafe, where the men were already sitting in the shade of the pergola covered with vines as old as the shop. Some were drinking coffee; a few others would always be nursing a brandy. The usual group was always chatty. More often than not someone who was not regular would come by, be offered a coffee and information would be exchanged.

I am sure the same happened at the socialist cafe up the road.

Conversations on Rituals

I always questioned my father’s rituals. He had many. Some every day, some every week, some every season.

It is easy to see why the seasonal rituals worked well. He used to go to Greece every June and July for six weeks and have a good rest.

He would wake up every morning and say a short prayer. I think it was the same one all the time. Then after his mother died in 1981, he would touch the garlic keepsake she had sewn in a linen sachet held on a small gold chain around his neck.  And think of her, and of being kept safe from evil. He used to exercise every morning, and when he had the dogs he would walk the same route. To the point that after he died and I took Leon for a walk, if left on a loose leash, he would walk the same route my father had taken him.

Ritual can teach children something. Even dogs.

He would devour the English and Afrikaans newspapers after eating grapefruit and taking his medication with a Vitamin C effervescent booster. Breakfast would be two slices of black toast and black instant coffee. His treat for breakfast on rare occasions would be eggs and kippers.

A more subtle ritual and not obviously clear was to anticipate issues at work and delve into various scenarios in his mind. Sometimes he would make notes.  When the work was done, his filing of documents was a ritual, perfectly labelled and collated.

On Sundays, depending on which priest held the Liturgy, he would visit the cemetery to pay respects to his dead father and mother, cousins and friends. He always said that he found God in the cemetery; that he not distracted by people. I suppose he meant living people. He would clear the flowers and place new ones. Then he would light incense and let his prayers and thought float up to heaven with the white smoke, and be at peace.

He would never leave a house other than through the same door that he entered. Ritual allows control in a strange place.  When he travelled his documents were always kept in the same place, with a certain heightened tension attending their retrieval from my mother’s bag. But he never lost his passport in Greece like me. Ritual keeps you safe.

His daily walk in the fields and mountains in Greece, followed by his visit to the kafeneio with his friends, set the tone for his day there and months in South Africa. He would always walk the same direction and route, stop at the same spring for a  sip of clear life giving cool water and proceed with his shepherd’s crook to share conversation and coffee with his  friends. Even the way they approached any greeting and discussion was ritualised.

Ritual is an amazing anchor in our lives of uncertainty. We can learn, be safe from evil, be organised, be in control and be more human.

I have only understood that now.

Conversations with the Baker’s Wife

The straight road from our village Artemisio into Tripolis reaches the first platea or square quickly. The bus stops here as well, and it’s our village square. The villagers alight here, greet each other and bemoan the state of affairs.  The square is dry and dusty, with bright light because all the buildings are painted white or have white marble cladding. The sidewalks are narrow and uneven. The roads congested with cars, and the occasional bumper bashing adds excitement.

If you turn left then left again around the square, further down the next block is a bakery. My father would always have a spot to park nearby and his first stop was always the bakery. In the morning all the breads and cakes and pitas had been baked and the smell stopped you even if you thought you were in a rush and had to be somewhere else..

The daughters behind the counter would always call their mother when my father arrived.  My father would tip his hat at the iconostasio high up in the middle of the bakery, facing the entrance, at the photograph of her late husband. A big man with a handlebar moustache. She would ackwoledge the greeting of her late husband, smile, and they would exchange small talk. He would always leave with a koulouraki or kourambiede or some other sweet in the morning.

Anybody who accompanied my father was always introduced, and their lineage dissected to a level where both parties were satisfied they could guarantee an understanding of who they were talking about and what relationship existed with a visitor from say three years back. With the “aha” moment a big smile would spread over both faces and the bond was deepened. The visitor would then be offered the freshest biscuit or pita, warm and fragrant, as one of the daughter came out with tongs to serve.

My father was in the village for maybe two months of the year, sometimes only a few days at a time when he had bank meetings. Yet he never failed to stop at the bakery and enquire to their health and progress of the family. He also never failed to make sure he walked into Tripolis with a fortifying offering from the baker’s wife.

He would always return just before lunch to buy bread for the house. Happiest when it was a large round village bread, the crust of which could withstand the pressure from any other shopping bags with which it was forced into the car. Also the bread felt it was made of something, it had weight beyond the airiness of designer and convenient breads of the American lifestyle.