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 about Pictures

When my father was at school and varsity he used to develop and print black and white pictures in the bathroom at the old house. The prints were smaller than a postcard and were contact prints. He placed the negative over the paper and exposed it to light. No enlarger.

At home these prints were stored in the study in an old shoe box, along with other photographs of holidays and events. There was also an old brown suitcase with chrome locks that housed the 8mm films of family and sporting events. He never made the transition to a video camera but embraced digital photography. The thing about digital photography is that he bought a new memory stick whenever the camera had no more file space, and never downloaded them on a computer. He always had jumbo prints made of his pictures with digital cameras.

A few years ago he digitised the 8mm films. The athletics meetings we participated in were a harsh reminder of fit and fast young days. The family parties were a reminder of simpler functions. There was food and drink on the table, and afterwards they would often get up and dance, no hifi or disco, just a small tape recorder making the noise. The community affairs and Greek National Days were funny, with important looking Greeks posing for the camera and children reciting poems they did not understand. Wearing clothes they were embarrassed to have on: the foustanella (white pleated skirt) and white stockings.

At home in South Africa, in the lounge and dining room, are only wedding pictures of my father, his parents and his children.  The face of his only son-in-law does not shine in those rooms. At home in the village, in the simpler dining room cum lounge, there are all the family weddings, including his siblings and their children. There is also a table of frames filled with family pictures and achievements, birthday milestones and graduation pictures. In South Africa my mother’s fridge smiled with happy pictures of grandchildren, godchildren and pets.

In fairness, the house in South Africa was my father’s. The house in Greece was my grandfather’s.  So, in fairness, my father has honoured the genealogy of the house in Kakouri.

Whenever I am in the village I always spend some time being quiet and looking at the pictures. People preserved in their finest, at their finest hour. Smiles that hide the anticipation of a journey to an unknown world in Africa. Smiles that hide the next 47 years of marriage and end with fracturing of a relationship with a daughter. Smiles that hide the knowledge of a career not chosen. Smiles that hide children, and no children.

Still they smiled.