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 as I look past my feet

There is a photograph that was stored on my father’s small Olympus camera. He was in the alone in the village and had taken a whole lot of pictures of the house, the village, the mountains and the plain filled with red poppies. He was alone because from the time my mother had her spinal surgery travel became difficult for her  and she tried to limit flying because of the discomfort it caused her. So she went with him in summer for a few weeks, but stayed away in the colder spring, autumn and winter when he went to Greece to attend Bank of Athens board meetings.

He was very proud of this appointment and I believe he contributed to the bank and board in his stern principled manner. But secretly he was proud because now he had an excuse to go to Greece four times a year and instead of staying in a five star hotel in Athens near Kolonaki, he would stay in the Patriko, in his father’s house in the village of Kakouri.

On the day of  the board meeting he would arrange with his taxi driver Stavros, who was from Levidi, a bigger village nearby, to take him to Athens   and drop him off at the bank. No doubt he introduced him proudly to all the other board members. He was, after all, a sort of batman for my father. Stavros was also connected to important people. When he first met my father and started taking him to Athens, his cousin was the Head of Interpol in Brussels, and then took over as Chief Security Officer at the new Eleftherios Venizelos Athens Airport.

They would have left at 7 am from the village and got to Athens at about 9 am for the whole day board meetings. My father would have done his homework, studied all the papers and documents before hand, and after the meeting would return dead tired to the village, sometimes at 9 pm. Noula, who looks after the  house for us with her nieces, would have left a simple salad with cheese and bread for him to eat on his return. He would also sip some homemade Retsina.

Then he would crash into bed. He had chosen the south west corner room. It had windows on each corner wall, one with a view of Mainalon and the other west looking over the adjacent almond grove to a small hill and further on towards the little church he built, Agios Nectarios. The room was simply decorated, a typical village modern functional dresser, built in cupboards and the bed. On the bedside tables rested pictures of us, his children, and all six of his grandchildren. There were always magazines nearby, and the obligatory few comics for light entertainment. There was no television in that room.

So he took this photograph one day. He was the happiest man in that room, in that house, in that village.

17 May 2008

Conversations about Pigs

One year when my brother and I were teenagers my father sent us to Greece in December. The trade-off for going to spend 3 weeks in the village was a few days skiing in Seefeld, Austria. Two years before that my father had taken my brother alone on a winter trip. All I remember from that is the fact that it was so cold in the old stone house with no central heating or fireplace that my father covered my brother with newspapers to keep him warm.

So we arrived in Kakouri for December and as tradition has it we went to visit all the family and friends we knew. At each stop we were given a liqueur to drink accompanied by a rich sweet. Being so cold, the alcohol helped warm me up. It also helped that my brother did not drink, so I had to finish his drinks as well. So by the time we returned home from our rounds I was completely drunk and warm. It also helped that everyone we visited had a wood burning stove in a room they lived in for winter, which was usually held at 40 degrees Celsius. It was terrible coming in from the cold to the hot steamy rooms, shedding layers of clothes and reapplying them before we left.

That year we were invited to a pig slaughter. It had something to do with Old Man Vlachos, but I do not remember as the gory details of the killing blotted out any memories. Being from Africa everyone thought we were the Great White Hunters. So did we, I suppose. This huge pig let out a squeal like a human baby being tortured as its feet were tied together. It knew what was about to happen. A quick slit of the throat and the squeal became blood curdling before it stopped. The village men celebrated with the equivalent of high fives and cut out the larynx and thyroid and started grilling these on a fire on which a huge blackened cauldron was boiling. This was a delicacy, offered first to the visitors. Then they took burning logs and singed the hair, after which they rubbed the blackened white skin down with boiling water to remove the hair. The smell was horrific.

After that they hung the pig by its hind legs from the ubiquitous hook that lived in the rafters of all the buildings on the plots of farmland. They systematically butchered the animal with old wooden handled knives that had been sharpened on a block of stone that looked like it had been taken from the nearby Ancient City of Mantinea’s walls. The liver and kidneys were extracted and the liver was cut into little squares and deep fried. The day was wearing on and this butchery was becoming a full miniature panigiri, or festival. Wine was being passed around. The strong retsina helped wash away all these flavours that were so new to my palate. All I had eaten from a pig before was bacon wrapped in a neat plastic package at the supermarket.

Now I would be happy to spend a few days in the village, without the trade-off of time in an Austrian ski resort.

Sweet offerings at the village

Converations from Tripolis

I have walked from Tripolis to Kakouri. One third of the distance might include the outskirts of Tripolis, until you reach the provincial road to Levidi that crosses your path perpendicularly. After this the road narrows. There is a small church on cement stilts opposite on the right. The road narrows and has a shiny tar surface, spotted with sheep droppings that have been flattened into black discs on the grey road.

After that you pass a place called Xania, which is halfway between town and village. It is a collection of a few houses, stables and chairs on the side of the road that used to welcome villagers on the way back from the market at Tripolis in the days when they too used to walk to peddle their wares. They would have had hard earned cash in the scarves around their necks, some of which could be spent on a coffee or cooled water with cherry preserve.

After this on the right you can see Analipsi, the mountain above Kakouri. It is covered on an oak bush called pournari for the lower two thirds. The peak is at about 1800 meters, and is rock and screed. Just above the junction of the pournari there is a small plateau facing Tripolis and if you lock closely you can see the white walls and red tiles of a tiny church called Analipsi, The Resurrection.

After Xania, below Analipsi, is a small round hill called Kortsouli, with the ancient city of Mantinea at its feet. The road to Old Man Simbonis’ farm runs along the outer boundary wall of great stone blocks that are 2500 years old, and everyone referred to his farm as Kortsouli. An everyday term used easily that encompassed a whole civilization of proud farmers and warriors.

After Kortsouli, also on the right, is a taller round hill, with another church, this time Agio Ilia. This is hidden amongst the pines on the crest. This saint’s churches are always on the top of mountains or hills, closer to the sun, after which he is named.

The road curves slightly, left here, right there, but there is no altitude change from Tripolis to Kakouri, until you enter the village which straddles the foothills of Analipsi. From Agio Ilia you enter an avenue of plane trees, their white fluff ball blossoms covering the road like snow in late summer. A few of the trees are missing, like a tooth missing in the gnarled mouth of a villager. In the missing tree’s place is a small iconostasio, in remembrance of the young person who died driving too fast on this quiet road. If the tragedy was recent, or if they were really loved, there is a fresh bunch of flowers lying inside with the burning olive oil wick.

As the avenue ends you enter the village, with Simbonis’ house on the right and the old Manelis house on the left. My grandmother grew up as a Manelis there. In front, in the elbow of the fork, is a bigger iconostasio for The Ascension, and on the right is the now disused village spring, where we used to fill our large glass wicker covered bottles for house water when we first arrived in the village.

If you follow the left fork, towards Levidi, at the first intersection 150 meters further on is our house, the Patriko, on the left opposite corner.

The Iconostasio Analipsi in the elbow of the fork of the road as you enter Kakouri

Conversations on Blessings

My father would always say we should count our blessings.

We always had to go to church on St. John’s day, 6 January, when the priest blesses everyone in church with Holy Water from the Epiphany sprinkled with a sprig of Sweet Basil. The heady mix of a summer day in South Africa, incense, candle wax and the Basil mades one feel blessed without any further ado. But kissing the big gold Crucifix in the priest’s left hand while he sprinkled the Holy Water on you head, cooling the day and your thoughts, was the ultimate blessing.

Until he occasionally got confused and made you kiss the wet Sweet basil and sprinkled your head with a heavy gold Crucifix!

Blessings are important in most cultures, but doubly so in Greece and for the Greeks. Any new building or venture needs to be blessed, and the priest is engaged for the engenia. Obviously babies need to be blessed, and important farm animals and vineyards also need blessing. Domestic pets do not feature, but I am sure if the Orthodox had a St Francis he would gladly bless the arrival of a new precious pet.

The first engenia I remember, a sort of roof wetting, was the blessing of the cellar at 45 Kakouri. After the squatters had been moved out and a house built for them in the village at my father’s expense, Number 45 was quite run down. The cellar was a mess of storage and animal waste and was not desirable.

The cellar was cleaned out, the floor was dusted with sawdust and barrels of wine were installed. The grey double doors which were low and forced you to stoop when entering were painted with a fresh coat. The inside walls of rock were painted with whitewash that left a sweet moist aroma, like bread still to be baked. The six cement steps leading down to the cellar had their edges trimmed in the same whitewash. I remember whitewashing the walls once, with a great big wooden brush that allowed you to slosh the limestone mix happily over the dirtied wall. It was quite therapeutic.

Our whole family was present, with both grandmothers, Big and Small Giagia. All the village friends were invited but the main players were the two men who were to become my father’s greatest friends. Old Man Vlachos and Old Man Simbonis. They were both almost twenty years older than my father, but embraced his desire to be part of the village and sprinkled his life with simple wisdom and love.

The evening of the engenia of the cellar arrived and sheep on the pit were brought from Tripolis. Feta and olives were laid out and the newly pressed Retsina barrel was drilled so that a spigot could be inserted after the sudden rush of pink fluid.

The village priest blessed the proceedings, there were speeches and then people ate and danced. They danced and laughed into the early hours of the morning. Old Man Vlachos drank so much he passed out, and they remaining men carried him home in a funeral procession. They laid him in his wife’s outdoor oven, lit candles around him and closed the door.

I am not sure who was more shocked: Dina when she opened the door to bake and found her husband lying there, or the Old Man who woke dry throated surrounded by heavenly candles in the dark?

My Father's First Trip to No 45 Kakouri 1968

Conversations while Looking at a House

No 45 in Kakouri lies on the southwest comer of the intersection of a small tar back road from Tripolis  to the bigger village of Levidi and a road that goes up into the village and down into the planes to the even smaller village of Simiades, in the  shadows of the tallest mountain in Arcadia, Mainalon.

The intersection is criss crossed at roof level by a Zembetiko dance of telephone and power lines. My father always used to look up and say:

“See how clean the air is here. The wires have been up for years and still shine”. Somehow it was true. I can still see the spirals in the cables clearly.

The main gate to the house cuts a small corner off the property. The old gate was a rough wooden plank affair, with an old cement slab between two columns. A vine used to struggle to cover this from the village side. The original wall was of stone, roughly put together and low. It was whitewashed every year. A few years ago when my father finally sorted out ownership of the adjoining property amongst the cousins, he build a garage where the family stables were and over an old threshing ground. He build a smart low wall with a metal balustrade, and made a gate of the same. The cobbled stone front courtyard suddenly looked neater and quite suburban, and the grapevine made way for a struggling rose or two.

The house is two storeys, made of stone. There are small holes in the masonry that held the rough wooden scaffold as they built the house which was completed in 1936, the year my grandfather John came back to the village to marry his bride Marigo. The red village tiles rise in a simple quadrangular cone above the lines, so that if you were on the roof you would have an uninterrupted view of Analipsi to the north and Mainalon to the south, and a great swath of summer blue sky between. From the street and even the first floor verandas, the view is as good but the sky loses impact with the black and silver lines.

The lower floor which would have held the animals in winter is above the cellar which still holds wine barrels and would have stored earthy potatoes and luscious red apples that seem to increase in flavour in winter until they were brought up cold and refreshing as dessert after a rich winter stew for lunch at any of the villagers houses. At the entrance to the cellar is a wine press whose drain aims into the stairwell, so that buckets can be placed to catch the freshly pressed juice.

The wine press is under the steps that lead outside to the first floor veranda and main door. We seldom use that door, but the concrete structure has been clad with stone tiles to make it look less modern and the cement slab that shades the veranda from the fierce afternoon sun has a pine ceiling to cool it off. The original would have been of wood, planks thick enough to hold the weight but thin enough not to cost to much. They never lasted, as can be seen in any of the older neglected houses in the village, where sometimes only the beams and struts remain.

No 45 Kakouri at Night

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 Rabbits

The smell of stifado alone warmed me up that winter evening. The onions that were stewing released an earthy tone reminiscent of the harvest smell in the plains. This was sweetened by the cinnamon and wine. The slow bubbling of the pot on top of the wood burning stove made the kitchen so inviting, warm beyond the invitation.

Kortsouli is a hill nearby the ancient ruins of Mantinea, in the plains of Tripolis. We always referred to the farm that Old Man Simbonis had there as just that, Kortsouli. When we were children my brother would spend time in the ruins before they were excavated and find arrow heads and other items from the war against the Athenians.

The building on the farm was medieval. Some of the ancient blocks of the walls of Mantinea were incorporated into the mud wall that formed the outer wall of sheds, stables and a simple summer home, when the old man would stay at Kortsouli if there was a harvest or birthing. The heavy wooden double doors, big enough to allow a horse cart through, faced Mantinea. On the right of the door was a pigeon loft, and next to that the rabbit hutch.

The rabbits faced the courtyard through old chicken mesh, with a handmade wooden frame hinged to allow entry.  One day a litter had been born, and somehow all three of us and some children from the village ended up at Kortsouli. Often one or two of us were there with the old man. Originally it would involve a donkey ride from the village house, but later he got a Zundapp motorcycle and we would ride pillion. My father used to walk there, and I still do not understand how we were allowed on the motorcycle when in South Africa we were not even allowed to look at them. My brother even had an accident once when the old man rode into the furrow along the narrow tarred road. My father trusted his life, and his children’s, with his best friend, George Simbonis.

I do not remember the day we played with the rabbits. I remember my favourite captain’s hat, but do not remember donning the rabbit as a prince would for some wedding. I think we adopted a rabbit each, and were allowed to play with them each time we were at Kortsouli. I remember the soft fur, the warm wet nuzzle against my palm. The heat and dust of the courtyard, reprieved by the shade of a mulberry tree just outside the gates, and another at the other corner, shading the well with cold dark water.

Many years later I remember eating the winter kitchen stifado and crying inside. Because the main ingredient of stifado is rabbit.

Conversations at an Interview

Alberton in the seventies was already blown wide open when one of the Greek community’s sons underwent gender reassignment surgery. In his teens he became a she. There was never any malicious talk that I can remember from that conservative community. There were no hushed whispers when she came to church.

We used to be friends when we were preteens, but then drifted apart. Nothing was forced, and they were a lovely family.

One day my father was interviewing for a post in the company. It was an administrative position, one that would normally be filled by a woman. It’s interesting how gender roles were so fixed in those days, and still we struggle to break them down. South African women were only empowered to vote in 1943. In the years when my father was active on the community there were no woman on the committee. Woman had defined roles, catering in the hall, preparing the bier of Christ, the epitaphio for Good Friday and other important events.

And in those times here was my father interviewing, quite fairly, a gay man for a woman’s post. No doubt my father sat at his ash wood desk with a folio of foolscap pages to make notes. He would have had some questions prepared, written untidily because although he wrote right handed, he was born left handed and all of society forced him to change. Being left handed was too close to the devil, too sinister. While interview, or chairing meetings, he would unnerve people by changing pen from right to left and continue writing.

He would always ask about education and achievements at school, because they were important. Playing sport was a good indicator of social integration. Church attendance was more important than what religion a potential employee followed; I am not sure if Jehovah’s Witnesses were ever employed. I have a feeling they were, but that religion was never discussed at work. Family life was another topic to be covered in the interview. I am not sure how that would have been answered by the gay candidate. It was acceptable in a manner of speaking in those days to declare yourself gay, but not to live with a lover. Of course, marriage to that lover was unheard of, and sodomy was still a crime in the Republic of South Africa.

The candidate was a good option for the job. Well educated, a sportsman, churchgoing and well spoken. My father let him leave.

He called in his senior secretary. Prim and proper, she sat down.

“Yes, Mr Peter?”

“He is a good candidate. But I will not take him. I am worried about you girls.”

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.