My big fat drunk Greek holiday

Greece is the big story at the moment. Here at home we don’t really have big stories any more. Our last one was in 1994.

Instead, we have ill-tempered swarms of loathsome little stories that scurry about yelping and snapping at our synapses, eventually forcing us to self-immolate, overmedicate or emigrate.

I was going to write about how Germany keeps ending up with short, unpleasant chancellors who possess an inexplicable aversion to the Greeks, but I don’t think I will. Let me just say, though, that the Greek king and his government had to go and live in Egypt while Hitler, Mussolini and some Bulgarian lunatic grabbed the best bits of the country for themselves.

The brave men and women of the Greek resistance made the lives of the Axis forces hell, right up until they started fighting among themselves over whether the afternoon nap should be three or five hours long.

The point is, the occupation claimed the lives of nearly half a million Greek people and left the country in ruins, although it was sometimes hard to tell in a country with a proud history of ruins. No, wait. That wasn’t the point. The point is that in 1953, Greece was one of several countries that agreed to write off a huge chunk of Germany’s debt. How about repaying the favour, Angela Merkel?

I said I wasn’t going to write about what’s happening to Greece today and this is one of the few promises to myself I shall keep, even though the consequences of keeping promises can be far more devastating than breaking them. That’s my experience, anyway.

So. I shall write about my holiday to Greece. Everybody loves a holiday story. And if you don’t, there’s probably something wrong with you and you shouldn’t have been allowed out on your own to buy this newspaper.

It happened in the summer of love. When you’re 23, every summer is the summer of love. I was looking forward to three months of wine, women and, well, more wine and more women. Song is for other people.

I got my first real taste of ouzo on the ferry from Italy to Greece. It was brutal. I was drinking with Ralph, a fellow South African who, at some point in the night, went reeling across the deck and disappeared. I dragged his backpack, my backpack and myself into the nearest lifeboat and passed out. The next morning he was nowhere to be seen. Drowned? Possibly. He was certainly going overboard when I last saw him.

Carrying his backpack and mine, I disembarked and went through a ramshackle immigration point, then walked to a nearby village and sat at a table outside a bar, moaning softly to myself. Half an hour went by before I saw a lone figure shambling up the road. He wept when he saw me. He couldn’t remember a thing from the previous night and, his holiday in tatters, had been on his way to the police station.

Greece was awash in beautiful women, many of them travelling alone. I don’t recall speaking to any of them. One night I was in a bar filled with other young people. I had my eye on a woman sitting alone reading. She was gorgeous. I wanted her book. When she left her table for a few minutes to dance, on her own, I quickly went over, grabbed the book and left. I think there might have been something wrong with me.

I’d just come from Spain, where a friend had suggested I go to Greece and pick watermelons. He lied to me. There were no watermelons. Everyone I asked looked at me as if I were mad. I didn’t know the Greek word for watermelon so I had to mime one. Try mime picking a watermelon. It’s dangerously suggestive in a country where men are impressed by the notion that anyone might have a willy so big and heavy that you’d need two hands to lift it. Let alone put it in your mouth. And then spit the pips out.

I spent some time, and the last of my money, drifting around the islands. They were pretty enough. White houses. Blue shutters. Sunsets. Restaurants offering steak, egg and chips. Bars full of plumbers from Putney.

I overheard a table of Poms talking about work opportunities. Crete seemed to be the best bet. Olives, grapes, apples, women – all ripe for the plucking.

Crete is the largest of the Greek islands. It was once the centre of the Minoan empire, the earliest recorded civilisation in Europe. I saw some of their buildings. They were rubbish. Civilisation, my arse.

I needed work. Well, I needed money. In a village I found fellow travellers drinking and playing cards. I got talking to a young couple. He was white and British and his girlfriend was black and Swedish. Later in the evening, she and I made a bit of cash getting people to bet on which one of us was from Africa. It was the only time in my life that my South African passport was worth anything.

Each morning, a dozen of us would gather in the square to wait for the farmers to drive through town looking for casual workers. We’d whip off our shirts, flex our muscles, drop to the ground and do sit-ups and push-ups. I think the farmers were looking not so much for the strongest in the group, but rather the ones who seemed the least hung over. Retsina was cheap and potent and we chucked it down our necks every night by the bucketful. Sunrise would reveal gaping head wounds, suppurating grazes, cuts and even broken arms and legs. It was like 1943 all over again.

One morning, when I looked like a relic from the Minoan era, a farmer waved me over. I limped to his bakkie and got in, along with an American Hell’s Angel called Pete. He was a bear of a man with a wild beard and crazy eyes. He used to ride with the Oakland chapter.

Picking grapes, the farmer kept shouting at Pete to hurry up. We had to fill a certain number of baskets per day or, I don’t know, have our throats cut. Pete, monstrously hung over, was trying to hide beneath the waist-high vines. He eventually lost it.

“Stop breakin’ my balls, old man!” he shouted. But that only seemed to encourage the farmer. I was working near Pete and saw him toss his basket aside and start heading down the hill, his cutting knife in the stabbing position. I went over and talked him out of it.

We were paid so little that we were effectively subsistence labourers. All our wages were spent in the taverna. This went on for weeks. Possibly months. Maybe even years. There was no way of telling. My only hope of ever leaving Crete was to sell something and run for the harbour. I had a change of clothing and a camera. An American girl declined my jeans and other offers but said she’d take my beloved Nikon for the price of a ferry to Athens.

That’s how I arrived at Piraeus docks with five drachma in my pocket and no way of getting back to London. I wasn’t the only one. At least 20 other bandits of the road who’d run out of luck and money had also washed up. I picked my way between the sleeping bags, looking for a piece of wharf I could call my own.

A friendly face caught my eye. He had long hair and lots of beads and other shiny hippy stuff. I spread out near him and nodded a greeting. Later, he came over and asked for money. I laughed, but he wasn’t joking. This is what they did every afternoon. Someone would come around collecting spare change. Then they’d buy as much wine as they could. The wine would be shared among everyone. This was socialism at its best and I was happy to contribute to the greater good. I put my five drachma into his velvet hat.

“Gunther,” he said.

“Same to you,” I said.

“No. My name is Gunther.”

Two nights later, Gunther and I became closer than I expected. We were drinking and talking when he reached into his bag and hauled out a hunting knife with a 12-inch blade. By this stage I didn’t particularly care whether I lived or died.

‘We become blood brothers, ja?’ It seemed like a great idea. He drew the blade across his wrist and handed the knife to me. I did the same. Blood trickled down my arm and dripped onto my sleeping bag. Gunther raised the knife above his head, said something profound in German, then grabbed my wrist and mashed it against his. This was before anyone knew that someone else’s blood could kill you.

I relied on my shoplifting skills to stay alive. Nothing fancy. Cheese, bread rolls, a tomato here and there. I would occasionally harass passing tourists for a few coins, hoping that one day I’d have enough to return to London. But then the collection hat would come around and getting a bottle of wine seemed a lot more feasible than getting back to England.

After a couple of weeks I went to the South African embassy in Athens, expecting a flurry of behind-the-scenes activity as diplomats worked feverishly around the clock to help rescue one of their citizens.

“So what do you want us to do?” said the gum-chewer behind the bulletproof glass.

“I was thinking you might lend me some money.”

“We are not a bank.”

“I understand that. You’re an embassy. My embassy. I’m one of your people.”

She studied her nails. “Actually, I’m Greek.”

“But you work here, right? You’re a representative of the South African government.”

She shrugged. “I think it is better that you try to borrow the money.”

“That’s why I’m here.”

“Borrow money from other people.”

“I’ve tried.”

“Try harder.”

I went back to the embassy every day for a week and I did the same dance with the same horrible woman. Eventually she cracked and arranged for me to get R50. That was the exact amount it cost to get a bus to Calais and a ferry to the other side. It was even stamped in my passport that I owed the South African government fifty stinking bucks.

Three days later I crossed the Channel and arrived in Dover unwashed, penniless and without a return ticket to South Africa. I was staring deportation in the face. By sheer luck, it was a friendly face. She stamped my passport and waved me through.

I found the station, jumped the turnstile and hopped on the next train to London. My exit strategy was simple: run. The plan was complicated by two British Rail cops who grabbed me and took me to their office at St Pancras station. I explained that the only reason I hadn’t bought a ticket was because I had no money. Under the circumstances, it seemed unfair to punish me. They disagreed. They also were less than impressed to discover that my home address was a squat in the East End. They issued me with a summons to appear in court and sent me on my way.

“See you in court,” they said. “Absolutely, officers,” I said. Then caught the tube to Rotherhithe, dodged the Pakistani ticket inspector and bolted for home.

Trovato-Greece

RUINED: The author as a young dog (left) with Ralph who went overboard on ouzo.

 

Patently not inventors

Our government is worried that not enough people are applying for patents. In other words, South Africans are useless when it comes to coming up with stuff that nobody else has thought of.

And it’s not just democracy that has made us stupid. We were stupid long before then. Let us take a look at some of the things that South Africans have invented.

The CAT scan. Personally, I think this is a misprint. Either that, or something got lost in translation. What physicist Allan Cormack did in the 1960s was invent the cat scam. I am not going into detail because this has the potential to make buckets of money and I want it all for myself. Besides, there are only two people in this country capable of training cats to perform this scam and I am not about to give you their names.

The oil-from-coal refinery. Given the current hoo-ha about global warming, putting this on your boasting list is a bit like a German property developer from Camps Bay listing acceptance to the Hitler Youth as one of his achievements. Eventually we will all be byproducts of Sasol, anyway.

Heart transplant. Not strictly an invention, but we’ll take what we can get. Dr Chris Barnard was a philandering playboy who barely recognised his own kids. But he was good with a knife and he knew his way around the chest cavity. Just like most middle-ranking members of the 28s today.

Speed gun. Invented in 1992 by Henri Johnson, this could have been the final solution to crime. Just imagine. A gun that fired at the speed of light. A gun that shot bolts of pure white energy into the black hearts of the yellow-eyed varmints, instantly vapourising their bodies. A gun that fired by itself whenever it sensed the presence of evil. But, no. Henri’s invention measures the speed and angle of rubbish like cricket and tennis balls. You can see the results at the bottom of the screen when Morné Morkel bowls. 138km/h, says the speed gun. And nobody dies. I really can’t see the point.

Kreepy Krauly. Easily the most dangerous thing ever invented. I doubt I am the only person to have come close to cardiac arrest while running between the pump and the inlet, backwashing, circulating, pushing, shoving and shouting, “suck, motherfucker, suck!” Only someone who stumbled out of the Belgian Congo in 1951 could have come up with such a monstrosity. Colonel Kurtz was an aid worker compared to Ferdinand Chauvier.

APS therapy. The Action Potential Stimulation device was invented by Gervan Lubbe, whose name alone should have seen him incarcerated in a home for the criminally insane. At first glance the gizmo sounds like something really useful. Something that might enable women to take care of their own orgasms while giving men time to focus on their golf game, for example. But it’s not. The only thing it does is relieve arthritic pain, which counts for nothing if you don’t have arthritis. Anyway, all you have to do these days is wince in a doctor’s direction and he happily hands over a giant bag of super-addictive painkillers.

Pratley Putty. This ridiculous sounding substance held Apollo XI mission’s Eagle landing craft together, making it the first South African invention to go to the moon. Or, more likely, to a secret film studio in the Nevada desert. Hundreds of tons of the stuff are exported around the world each year. I have never used it because I have other ways of keeping my shit together.

Dolosse. Not only one of the most lyrical words in the English language, but also the best way to keep the ocean from crashing into the street and drowning you and your loved ones. Designed by Eric Merrifield, a man built like a large, oddly shaped concrete block, dolosse weigh up to 20 tons. Eric, slightly less. The Coega Project near Port Elizabeth recently made history with the casting of the biggest, ugliest dolosse the world has ever seen. Foreigners visiting PE often have trouble telling the dolosse from the locals.

Appletiser. Undrinkable when mixed with whisky, brandy, vodka or anything else. Completely pointless.

Fire. First used at Swartkrans cave 1.5 million years ago. Used mainly as a reason to file insurance claims and activate deadly carcinogens in boerewors. An increasingly viable alternative to Eskom.

Hippo drum water roller. This device makes it possible for rural girls as young as three to transport drinking water over vast distances. Many of them will go on to become world-class athletes in the hippo drum water roller event, only for their dreams to be shattered when it turns out that the water they drank as kids caused bunches of testicles to grow in their armpits.

Apartheid. A political system similar to democracy except that only white people get to vote. Many South Africans living in Perth, New Jersey, London and Wellington proudly claim apartheid as a uniquely South African invention. However, this is strongly disputed by the few remaining Australian aboriginals, North American Indians and Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party.

 

No woman, no slaai

The loss of life today is going to be quite spectacular, even by South African standards.

senatortrovato2

Thousands of pigs, sheep, goats, cows and chickens are right now fighting among themselves for the honour of being the first to lay down their lives so that South Africans can celebrate Heritage Day in true style.

Gutters are running red with blood, dogs are running wild with bones and paramedics are running themselves ragged tending to the usual braai-related assaults, rapes and homicides.

Brenda wanted to do something different. Quite frankly, I couldn’t see the point.

“We’re white,” I said. “We don’t have any heritage.” We did, on the other hand, have plenty of meat. It made more sense to celebrate Braai Day.

We arranged to meet Ted and Mary down at the beach where we could fall down without worrying about splitting our skulls open. This is always one of the biggest hazards facing those who choose to celebrate Braai Day instead of Heritage Day.

We passed a lot of families braaiing along the way. Many of them had taken over entire parking lots. Brenda wondered if arguments had broken out in homes across the Cape Flats this morning.

“I want to braai in the parking lot in Muizenberg!”

“Forget it. We’re going to the one in Camps Bay.”

“There’s a new lot opened near the Waterfront. Can we go there? Please, daddy!”

I told Brenda there was a very simple explanation.

“A lot of coloured people regard their cars as members of the family. We wouldn’t leave our child in a parking lot and go off and have fun without him, would we?”

Actually, I would, but I couldn’t tell Brenda that.

Both Heritage Day and Braai Day are reportedly aimed at bringing South Africans closer together.

In our case, it brought us a little too close. Encamped on the beach, we had just finished our first case of Tafel and were wrestling a second kudu haunch onto the grid when we were forced to take up braai forks and fend off a pack of hungry darkies.

Look, I’m all for unifying the nation and whatnot, but there are limits.

Engorged with dead animal and thoroughly beerlogged, we returned home to celebrate Heritage Day like the decent god-fearing patriots that we are.

Panda braai

Heritage Day is a relatively new addition to the public holiday calendar. Prior to 1994, it was known as Right of Admission Reserved Day.

Our country has a fascinating array of indigenous fauna, all of which go well with one or other of the many indigenous sauces available in supermarkets everywhere.

Our flora, too, is not to be sneezed at. Unless, of course, you suffer from seasonal allergic rhinitis, in which case you have no business living here.

Look at our national flower, the giant protea. Actually, I can’t look at it for too long because I find it hostile and ugly. To be honest, I would rather look at roadkill.

Fynbos is unique to the Cape Floral Kingdom and you will be fined if you pick it. Cannabis sativa is unique to KwaZulu-Natal and you will be arrested if you smoke it. That’s diversity for you.

The central image on our coat of arms is a secretary bird, a graceful creature known for launching random attacks on unsuspecting tourists. It specialises in pinning people to the ground and pecking their eyes out.

Canada’s national bird is the Common Loon. It reminds me of Julius Malema.

The motto on our coat of arms is !ke e:/xarra//ke. Nobody outside of the /Xam tribe knows what it means. Most South Africans think it’s computer code.

When it comes to the national animal, we have the springbok. France has some sort of chicken. Our rugby team is also called the Springboks. The French once accused us of playing like animals. This made us feel tremendously proud.

Our national fish is the galjoen. Like most hard-drinking South Africans, the galjoen is regarded as a creature that will fight to the death. Cooked over an open fire, however, galjoen tastes a lot better than the national drunk.

I am particularly proud of my heritage because South Africa is the cradle of humankind. So what if modern man migrated to Australia as soon he could walk upright? We’re still the cradle.

Our scientists have found blue-green algae dating back nearly four million years. Ted speculated that the slime was one of Radovan Krejcir’s earliest relatives. Let’s see if he’s still laughing with two broken legs.

I’m hoping to get one of the national orders that President Zuma hands out each year around this time. I keep getting passed over. Apparently you have to either be dead or Afrikaans to get any kind of recognition in this country.

As an English-speaker, I am doomed. Even though my forefathers invented gin and tonic, lap dancing, airbags, the cat flap and the rubber band, nobody around here seems to care.

Oh, now I get it. Of course. It’s far more important to reward a people who came up with jukskei, witblits, the Voortrekker Monument, the G6 artillery gun and a racial superiority complex so twisted that it makes their koeksisters look straight.

 

Citizen Cane (& Coke)

Citizenship issues seem to be in the news lately. Here’s a column I wrote in 2010. Not much has changed.

 

IF the ANC gets its way, which generally happens in this benevolent dictatorship of ours, people who want to become South African citizens will have to renounce citizenship of their countries of origin.

In a sentence that belongs in calipers, Home Affairs Minister Noksazana Dlamini-Zuma said: “A people that does not value its citizenship is not worthy of being characterised as a nation and will not be taken seriously by other nations.”

This is a pack of jingoistic lies and the minister should be arrested at once. With the exception of money, geographical entitlement is the single biggest cause of conflict in the world. What else are the Israelis and Palestinians fighting about if not ownership of territory?

What our government should be doing is scrapping citizenship laws, not reinforcing them with misplaced notions of superpatriotism. We should throw open our borders and issue everyone with passports declaring the bearer to be a Citizen of the World. If, as the minister fears, other nations don’t take us seriously, then we resurrect our nuclear weapons programme and build bigger and more powerful bombs than the world has ever seen. That should stop the sniggering.

An ANC MP said the legislation, which essentially forces people to choose between deportation and pledging their undying allegiance to South Africa, would also prevent naturalised South Africans from participating in “wars which the government did not support”. How quaint to have, in this era of death and destruction, a lawmaker who proudly admits we are a country that supports war. Not all of them, though. Just the sexy ones.

How about a law that outlaws wars altogether? A law that converts the defence force into a peace force. A law that says war is an aberration and makes it illegal for any South African citizen to ever participate in one.

Nkosazana-Zuma says citizenship is one of the key elements in our precious national heritage. So is good governance. Once nationalisation has crippled our mines and the media is muzzled, our jails are full and the coffers are empty, at least we will be able to hold up our little green book and say: “I am South African! Hear me roar!”

As it turned out, not much could be done with the Citizenship Amendment Bill because parliament lacked a quorum. This means a fair number of MPs were too sick, drunk or lazy to come to work. But at least they don’t have dual citizenship. And once these fiercely proud South Africans return from recess, “it will be one of the bills put up for adoption”. Much like an unwanted child.