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.