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Stranger In A Strange Land

July 8th, 2009 11 comments

sandfFrom as far back as I can remember I have been Greek – with as much English blood in my veins which has at least contributed to my convoluted accent and good looks. During my formative years I was surrounded by just enough of my father’s culture to take a liking to it, from the food and hearing the language to the occasional trip to church (once a year on Easter only). I wasn’t exactly immersed as much as being regularly introduced.

And even though I was born in South Africa in the heart of the East Rand in Germiston City hospital (which I hear now is one big ARV clinic), I didn’t understand the concept of being South African for a very long time.

I was privileged in the sense that my parents worked very hard and spent everything they had practically to send my brother and I to private schools, the majority being spent at Catholic schools (without the baptismal badge of honour to be fully accepted). Being a predominantly “European” school, and I say this because there were not many students with a long family history in South Africa.

I believe there’s an identity crisis lurking in the mind of a first generation child, they cling to their parents culture as the one they respect and know – it defines them for a very long time, and it also sets them apart to an extent. I, for one, always found it very interesting visiting my Italian and Portuguese friend’s houses, having different food and hearing different languages – we were all special and unusual.

At the age of eight I had the amazing opportunity to go to Greece with my father. He was working on a long contract in Australia at the time and we actually met at Athens airport – not something I would recommend to a seasoned traveller, let alone a pre-teen who doesn’t speak a word of Greek.

This isn’t story of cultural differences, however, that would be way too simple.

It was, during that trip that I really started to realise that the country I had been born in was different. I had heard of some problems and questioned every now and again why there would be days on end when the black kids in our class didn’t come to school but I never remember getting a satisfactory answer. I also heard about things like the Equity Ban and riots every now and again, but I was obviously sheltered enough that it didn’t affect my daily life, never mind the fact that I could barely tie my own shoelaces.

lisbonWhat made me open my eyes happened in a sad little hotel room in Lisbon. Portugal wasn’t on our itinerary, except for a brief stopover, but problems arose with my father’s friend’s Mother (we were escorting her from Greece to visit her family in South Africa).

So what was meant to be a few hours ended up becoming a two (maybe three) day bonding experience for us at the Hotel Presidente (2 stars and as dirty as you can imagine a downtown Lisbon hotel to be).

Our luggage was already in South Africa and we really didn’t want to do much, so we sat around in the hotel room and talked a lot.

It was September I believe in 1988, just a month after Adriaan Vlok banned the ECC (End Conscription Campaign) which spurred on protests by UCT students and the confiscation of the Weekly Mail by security police.

It was essentially a blow to my future because as it stood I would still be doing two years forced army service after I finished school. My father explained to me the importance of going to university and getting a good education which would at least make my stay bearable.

I remember asking something along the lines of why my dad didn’t go to the army. And he explained it quite briefly, in that he wasn’t South African when he arrived in the country, he simply didn’t send the papers back and they didn’t bother him.

I wouldn’t have had that choice if the law stayed in effect. I couldn’t even comprehend what it would have been like, it was ten years away and a concept I couldn’t grasp, but even so at eight years old I secretly resented my country.

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