Conversations about a Shopping Centre

Bracken City is an open air shopping centre in the sprawling suburbs of Alberton that lead off from the heart of South African industries at Alrode and run down the gentle slope of veld to the Klip River. The suburbs all start with Bracken, an apt term for South Africa today where bracken invades more and more grassland in the more temperate areas of our mountains and hills due to the increased load of carbon in our atmosphere. Brackenhurst was first, with multiple extensions, and then Brackendowns, also with multiple extensions. This was where my father cemented his building business with the Flexihome.

Bracken City was his pride and joy in his property portfolio. It sprawls over an area of 300 by 200 metres and faces onto the main dual arterial way leading into the suburb off the main road from Alrode to Uncle Charlie’s Intersection. The outline has remained the same over the years, but the façade and interiors have changed as different tenants have moved in and out. The southern end has offices including a dentist and doctor, and used to house our favourite steakhouse. The building itself is single storey and runs north south with a small indent that leads to the main retail anchor, now a Pick ‘n Pay. Behind, between the shops and the adjoining school grounds, runs a service road for deliveries. For some reason, in the early years this road used to get easily flooded in the impressive Highveld summer thunderstorms. Hail blocking the drains helped push the floodwaters on the flat piece of ground into the shops and caused havoc in the stores and stress for my father.

I remember the opening night. I was doing my second year engineering and was an arrogant antisocial student who was forced to attend. There was a large marquee erected on the grass south of the offices and my father was proud, strutting around, posing for official photographs and making a speech. I do not have a copy of that speech. I am sure the priest would have been present and blessed the enterprise, but I cannot remember. I imagine there was a lot of muttering from the locals about this Greek upstart who had woven himself into the very fabric of their life by building their homes and shops.

My Uncle Lambro had a new large chemist facing north at the indent leading to the main retailer. It was pride of place. The chemical smell of the dispensary mixed with his tobacco aroma and it was always fun to visit him there. He was very advanced even then with electronic stock gadgets that had just been released in the pharmaceutical industry. I remember the days of pharmacists typing the drug orders and dosage labels on a small type writer.

Even in my father’s busy weeks where he had meetings galore in Johannesburg, at SAHETI, the Bank of Athens, the Greek Federation, he would always make time on the weekend to go to Bracken City on the weekend to check the stores and the traffic and keep a feel for the place. In the new millennium he made me do an internet search for open air shopping centre façades when they wanted to refurbish the centre. It was his pride and joy and important to be abreast of retails trends.

Satellite view of Bracken City

Conversations on Speeches

Whenever I was faced with making a public speech as a child my mother always used to tell me to imagine the audience in their underwear, so that I would not be intimidated by them. In those days it was safe, but imagine today. Those that are cross dressers would vie for attention with those that wore no underwear!

My father loved talking. He could talk to anyone, of any standing in life. He would strike up a genuine conversation and become involved in that person’s life. He made many speeches and was passionate about formal speeches. He collected all of these, neatly typed, in a file and stored them in the strong room at his office. I had seen the file before when I was a child and after he died I knew it was the one item of his that I wanted. I have digitised the speeches and have started writing about them. The Arch Lever file is an old one, neatly labelled with a simple “SPEECHES”. The pages inside date back to flimsy copy paper and Tipex for typewriter mistakes. The fonts start with the old typewriters that almost delivered a handwritten message their mark was so characteristic. Then they progress to the IBM Golfball electronic machine with its neat, perfect font. The last quarter of the speeches were typed on word processing programmes on the computer.

He was a tall orator, and these speeches were delivered flawlessly in one of three languages: Greek, English and Afrikaans. Some of them were delivered in all three languages, with him switching easily between mother tongue and the adopted languages with succeeding paragraphs. They reflect his endeavours and achievements within his community, at SAHETI, of his involvement at his children’s school and his ability to motivate young people.

When I saw him in Greece in 2006 I gave my father a gift of a digital voice recorder which had the capacity to store two hundred hours of speech. I remember him using a micro cassette recorder to dictate letters while he drove us to Alberton Primary School in the seventies. He would drive his little two door pastel blue Fiat 128 as if it was an Aston Martin and he was James Bond, talking into that Olympus spy recorder.

So I asked him in 2006 to dictate about his life, about who he knew, and what he had done, so that I could write the story on paper and leave a book for posterity. I asked him to do this for posterity and his six grandchildren, whom he loved dearly. I thought the last reason was a good one, and would motivate him to talk to the electronic gadget so that I would have a record.

But he never dictated to that machine for me. After he died in 2008 I found it in its box, unused with no message other than the one that I had recorded on it for him. It was then that I committed to writing a book about his life.

Speech on the Occasion of the Opening of the Alberton Hellenic Hall 2 December 1967

Conversations about Breathing

I enjoy meditating. I wait for the slowing of my heartbeat and breath to allow my soul to connect to who I am. I start the morning in peace and hope for a better day.

When my father was agitated or angry his breathing would speed up. If he thought the issue at hand was manageable he might frown. If he was really tense his face would whiten like knuckles ready to box and his eyes would widen, his movements would slow and then he would almost stop breathing. Then I knew he was really angry.

I have found myself doing the same in the office at work before. A few years ago my chest tightened with a crushing pain and I decide to change things. The first thing was a visit to a cardiologist for intervention, and the second, much harder, was to discipline myself to be responsible. To be able to choose my response to any situation. In my world I have chosen the path and if events force me off that path they are events beyond my control. My response to those events, however, is well within my control. So I finally came to understand a very personal form of responsibility. There are other responsibilities in my life; to my wife, to family, to friends, to myself, to my cultures, to my nations and to my dreams. Each one of those I was taught as a child. Choosing a peaceful response to a situation came later, perhaps after mastery of some aspects of the other responsibilities.

My father was very serious in his responsibilities. He was responsible for his wife, his children, his mother after his father died, his sister after their father died, his church and religion, his Greek community and federation, his SAHETI and many other people and ideals. These formed part of his dream, and fulfilled him to a degree as much as they caused him angst at times.

The difference in our lives is astounding. Mine a life of luxury and meditation and his a life of giving and prayer. There are similarities but those lie in his shadow. But it is the similarities that allow me to write his story. The differences will add many more pages to the road he travelled.

It is fair to say my father meditated while in prayer. His breathing slowed and he spoke to God of his desires, his dreams and the hope he had for his family, his church and his community. In prayer his breathing must have slowed down.

His favourite saying in times of hardship was a simple Latin motto: “dum spiro spero”.

I breathe therefore I hope.

Dad, Panagioti and Me; Kakouri 11 July 2008

Conversations with a Coach

My father and I often spoke about life coaches. In a way, he was a crisis coach for many people. People came to him with a problem, he analysed it with them and helped them look for solutions. He was a financial coach for others, a bit more structured, and something he clearly understood.

We spoke about coaches when he discussed solutions for people who had consulted with him. I think he knew a lot more about them than he let on, but used this trick of ignorance to absorb as much information from others on a topic, so that he had no bias.

The movie “The Bucket List” came out the year before my father died. I only saw it afterwards. It would have made a good conversation with him.

The thing people forget about the bucket list is you need a plain tin bucket to hold the water of your dreams. And that bucket comes with hard work. Then as you grow the dreams you need to use that water to make sure the plants of your dreams continue to grow. Some of these plants will be fruit and vegetables you eat every day, others will be shade trees to relax under while others may be blades of grass in a field that will inspire you.

But besides working to buy the bucket and fill it with water using dedication and integrity, I wonder when my father defined his Bucket List and what was on that list. I have some of his writing, but those are mainly speeches.

His list must have had categories like family, work, Greece, the community and Hellenism.

He knew he wanted to marry my mother from when she was 17 and he was 19. He wanted children to educate and leave to stand on their own feet. He wanted to ensure some financial support for his grandchildren.

He reclaimed his father’s house in the village in Greece, restored it and treasured his annual holidays there. He secured his mother’s vineyards to make wine from them each year to store in the cellar. He immersed himself in the village community and became one of them. He set up a business in Greece to secure more property (and add a lot more stress to his life).

He founded the local Greek Community in Alberton and gave it direction for many years, facilitating the building of a hall and then church. He dreamt of a local Greek school, but was a vehicle for other dreams of other people in the building of SAHETI. He dreamt of and founded the Hellenic Federation.

Those were the big dreams. The small ones were just as important. Like building a soap box cart with me.