history

Ejo #118 – Our House

On the 25th October 2012, David and I were crouched down, in the dark, in my sister Mari’s bedroom at our parents’ house. We were hiding. It was her 40th birthday and we’d flown to Melbourne to surprise her. And when she walked in and turned on the light and saw us, the ecstatic expression on her face as she jumped up and down, shouting “OH NO, YOU DIDN’T!!!!!” was absolutely fucking priceless. I relive that joyful moment often.

Another moment that has stood the test of time harks back even further, to around 1985 or perhaps 1986. I was in the exact same room, lying in wait for my youngest sister, Pieta. It was the middle of the day and I’d been sitting in her closet for about 45 minutes, patiently waiting for her to come in, close the door and make herself comfortable before jumping out of the closet and scaring the living shit out of her. She tore through the house, screaming like someone whose pants were on fire, and when I finally caught up to her and showed her it was just me and not the bogeyman, my ten year old sister collapsed in shock and relief. It took an hour of comforting her in my arms before the tears finally abated and she stopped shaking with fear. Good times.

Recently, I’ve been reliving many memories from my past. Memories inextricably linked to the house I grew up in. As you know, I recently spent several weeks in Melbourne, preparing our home for sale after my Mum died. And on a rainy day, in the first week of September, it was sold to the highest bidder at auction. Just six weeks later, on Wednesday, 16th October 2019 the keys to our family home were ceremoniously handed over to the new owners, and the front door to a massive part of my life was irrevocably slammed shut.

Before I go on, let me tell you a little bit about my parents. Both of them came from very poor families in Greece. But, while Dad grew up in a joyful, loving home, lavished with kindness and affection and praise, my Mum was raised in a hard, sterile environment bereft of love. Despite this, my mother’s ability to give love remained unscathed, and when she met my Dad her heart finally found its real home. When my sisters and I came along, the five of us created the sense of family and home that Mum had never experienced as a child. We all lived happily in a two bedroom flat in Elwood until I was twelve years old. And in 1983, after years of struggling, scrimping and saving, my parents achieved the great Australian dream of finally owning their own home – the house at 1 Anthony Drive, Mount Waverley. I remember the pride on their faces as my sisters and I ran around the “fixer upper” four bedroom house, on the day that we moved in.

Over the years, as my father put his talents to work transforming it, the house became not just somewhere for us to live, but a place that defined our family. Over a 20 year period, my Dad plastered and whitewashed the house, he knocked down walls, tore up the carpet, constructed staircases and decks, installed floor to ceiling windows and built a small scale working version of the fountain he’d been commissioned to create for Government House. He remodeled the bathroom and the kitchen, installed a sauna room for my Mum, paved the driveway and front courtyard, re-tiled the roof, insulated the whole building, re-stumped the foundations and, to my great consternation at the time, built a magnificent arched wall that ran the entire length of the front of the property (a massive nod to our wog heritage). The house we moved into was pretty great, but the house my father died in, in 2003, was something else. He had not built it from the ground up, but he might as well have, and everywhere you looked he was there. In every corner, in every room, he had left his mark on the Stathopoulos family home.

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My Dad single-handedly built the fountain at Government House.  Go check it out on Australia Day – the only day of the year it’s open to the public.

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Mum and Dad.  ❤

My sisters and I all moved out of home around the same time but our house was a place we could always return to, whenever we needed somewhere to stay, and I actually moved back home several times over the years – after every major breakup, after my year living in the United States, in between share households and for a few months after Dad died, sleeping on a foam mattress on the living room floor. It was a place I knew I could always come home to, and David and I always used it as our base whenever we visited Melbourne. Mari felt the same way:

It was a place that, no matter what I did or where I went, was always there. That welcomed me back into its folds after break ups and break downs, like a revolving door of love, sending me back out into the world stronger and with a fresh reminder that I was welcome back any time.

When our Dad died, everything changed. Mum was robbed of her partner, her lover, her companion, her rock. She desperately held on to all she had left – her three daughters and the house. For my Mum, those four walls had come to represent more than just a place to live. The house was how she defined herself, as a wife and as a mother. The house was our family history. It was security, and comfort and love – tangible things to a person who had grown up without them. It was her safe space, the only safe space she had ever known.

Sadly, like everything else, our house weathered the ravages of time, showing signs of decay in the years following my Dad’s death. The house got older, and so did Mum. Maintaining it, and the huge garden, became more and more difficult for her. I tried several times to convince her to sell it and move into something smaller and more manageable. I hated seeing her struggle, and wanted to make her life a bit easier. I never understood why she resisted, or exactly what I was asking her to sacrifice. Until my Mum died, I always thought that the house I grew up in was just a house. It was only afterwards, living there with my sisters as we cleared it out, that the enormity of selling it actually struck me. The magnitude of it punched me in the chest every night when I went to sleep in my old bedroom, and every morning when I woke up and looked out the window at my Mum’s beautiful garden. And every day, the memories came flooding back.

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My amazing Mum and her amazing garden.

In that very bedroom, I got my first period (and incidentally, quite possibly my last). A few months later, after countless failed attempts leaning up against my bedroom door, I successfully hammered in my first tampon. And around the same time I discovered the joys of masturbation. It was in that room that my fifteen year old friend Tina and I would turn out the lights and talk about sex for hours on end. It was where my first love finally, drunkenly kissed me, at my 18th birthday party. And where, a year later, I lost my virginity to a younger man I snuck in through my bedroom window in the middle of the night.

The rest of the house holds equally strong memories. And not just for me. Mari remembers:

Any time I needed someone to talk to, whether it was about a boyfriend, my work, my studies, my hopes and dreams, just life, whether the conversations were whispered in bedrooms with one sister or the other, hatching plans and keeping each others’ secrets, it was in our house. If it was a long meandering conversation over cups of coffee in the dining room with my Mum, or life lessons in the sunroom with my Dad, it was in that house. And you can bet any time there was joyous, chaotic yelling or singing at the top of our lungs in the lounge room, it was in that house, with my family, the people I love the most in the world.

My memories include our next door neighbour ringing the doorbell to complain to my parents about my horrendous singing (while I was still actually in the shower murdering “Fiddler on The Roof”). Endless summers tirelessly practicing dance routines with Mari and Pieta. And birthdays (so many birthdays, so many sparklers). I clearly remember the Holden Gemini filled with lanky teenage boys careening out of control and crashing into the side of the house while our parents were out, the three of us terrified that they were all dead and too afraid to go outside to check (they were fine). Roasting a whole lamb on a spit every single Christmas, and the obligatory family pic in front of the fountain. Endless VHS video hours of our parents entertaining friends – tables laden with food, live music, Greek dancing and thunderous, thigh-slapping laughter. I remember Mari dramatically throwing a plateful of spaghetti Bolognese at me when I pushed her just a little bit too far one day at lunch. And I remember grudgingly helping my Dad build that damn fucking wall, hating every minute of it, but still, knowing that I was helping him to achieve something remarkable.

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Xmas, 1999.  The wall… in the background.

Our house is where our dogs Barnaby and Subby lay buried in the backyard (shhh, don’t tell the new owners!!). It’s where David asked Mum for my hand in marriage. Where my father took his last breath as we held onto him, crying for our loss. In July of this year, the three of us moved back into that house, together for the first time in 25 years. For the last time. It was where Mari, Pieta and I mixed our parents’ ashes together. It was where we spent two months scrubbing our home of all the markers that had made it that. Mari remembers:

In clearing it out for sale it I felt like we looked over and contemplated every part of the house in a way we had never done before. It would have been so easy to just pay someone to do it, but that time of working through every item together, the questions of will we keep this, who will keep that, why are you keeping those? was a process of grieving for the house.

Even after methodically emptying out 36 years’ worth of belongings and memories and cobwebs and junk, even after it no longer looked or felt like my home, it was hard to let it go. My last day in Australia, we drove to the house one more time. I tried so hard to say a proper goodbye to a place that actually feels woven into my DNA, but I don’t think I did a very good job. That night I had to get on a plane, and five days later the house was sold. It was goodbye, whether I liked it or not.

Our house being sold is only a symbol of something greater being destroyed. With our parents gone, the selling of our home represents the fragmentation of the cellular walls of our family. My sisters and I are now like three untethered electrons, spinning around each other in ever greater orbits. Our family tree ends with us. In a weird way, I’m OK with that. Knowing that when we die, our family dies with us, gives me comfort. Nothing will be carried forward into the unknown. Our family was something that existed only in this lifetime. We will have had a beginning, a beautiful middle, and an end. In a way, it will have been perfect.

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The End.

Ejo #25 – Sheikh Zayed: The Father Of The United Arab Emirates

Every day I drive to and from work on a freeway called Sheikh Zayed Road.  It’s a 16 lane behemoth, flanked on either side (in the downtown area) by the soaring skyscrapers that define the city’s skyline.  It’s a very impressive thoroughfare and so it should be, for it is named after a very impressive man.  That man is the topic of this month’s ejo.

 

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan is widely regarded as the father of the United Arab Emirates.  Before 1971, the country as we know it didn’t even exist.  The seven emirates that make up the country (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah, Umm Al Quwain and Ras Al Khaimah) were then collectively known as The Trucial States.  They were called that because in 1820 they all signed a treaty with Britain, called the Perpetual Maritime Truce.  In layman’s terms, the treaty gave Britain exclusive rights in the region in exchange for protection against external threats, particularly from Europe.  England allowed the emirates to rule themselves but oversaw governance – which involved, amongst other things, arbitrating the frequent disputes between the sheikhs.

 

Almost 150 years later, in 1968, England announced that they planned to withdraw from the region and Sheikh Zayed (ruler of Abu Dhabi at the time), sensing an opportunity to form a coalition with the other emirates, proposed to them that they unite to become an independent country.  Of course, now it seems obvious that they would do so.  But at the time, this idea was revolutionary.  The states may have agreed to form a trucial union way back in 1820 as a British protectorate, but the ruling Sheikhs of 1968 were prone to disputes, and in particular Abu Dhabi and Dubai had clashed a number of times.  They weren’t exactly on friendly terms.  In addition to this obstacle, some of the other states (namely Bahrain and Qatar) had plans for their own independence and wanted no part of Sheikh Zayed’s preposterous idea.

 

However, such was the Sheikh’s conviction that unity would provide strength, that he diplomatically persisted for three years until he convinced the others to sign on.  On 2nd December 1971 six of the emirates signed an agreement to form the country the United Arab Emirates.  A few months later, Ras Al Khaimah joined them and the country as we know it was born.  Last year marked the 40th birthday of the UAE (an excellent vintage, if I do say so myself)!  Now, if you think the USA puts on a good show for their Independence Day (4th July) celebrations, you ain’t seen nothing!  The citizens of the UAE are not just proud of their country, they absolutely adore it.  The National Day celebrations each year are bigger than anything else on the social calendar, including New Year’s Eve.  Emiratis, and expats alike, adorn their cars with the national colours of red, white, black and green.  Ribbons, stickers, flags, paint (yes, people paint their cars) and streamers.  They fill the streets, covering everything with glitter and silly string.  They sing, they dance, they do cartwheels.  They beep their car horns and shriek with glee.  There are parades and concerts and fireworks.  It’s quite something to behold and you really can’t help getting caught up, not just in the excitement but also the great sense of national pride.  And of course the undisputed hero of National Day is the man that made it all happen, Sheikh Zayed.

 

National Day car decorations

 

Zayed was born in 1918 into Abu Dhabi’s ruling family.  When he was ten years old his father died, leaving Zayed’s older brother Shakhbut ruler of the emirate.  Back then the entire region was poor and underdeveloped – oil hadn’t been discovered yet and the economy relied heavily on pearling and fishing, which provided scant income.

 

Zayed spent most of his youth in Al Ain (a desert oasis outpost), hanging out with his Bedouin tribesmen.  They taught him their way of life, skills and traditions – a love of which stayed with him for the rest of his life.  In fact even after he became very powerful he preferred to spend time with the Bedouin rather than with people of his own status.  It was in the desert that he felt most comfortable, and it was there that he was taught, and became passionate, about hunting and falconry (though when he was 25 he famously gave up rifle hunting to set an example for wildlife conservation – another of his passions).

 

When Zayed was 28 his brother appointed him ruler of Al Ain and his political life was born.  He started travelling extensively, particularly throughout the Middle East, Europe and the USA and it was on these travels that he noticed the high standard of education and health care available in the more developed countries.  He saw how large the divide was between the Trucial States and the rest of the world, and he believed that it was imperative to bridge that gap.  Unfortunately, as long as his brother Shakhbut was in charge, Zayed’s hands were tied and he was unable to effect any change.

 

When oil was discovered in 1958 things started to look up economically.  Sheikh Shakhbut, however, was a frugal and cautious leader accustomed to a more austere lifestyle in keeping with Abu Dhabi’s historically hard times.  Members of the ruling family became unhappy with how slowly he was progressing with oil exploration and development and in 1966, with Britain’s backing, they decided to oust him and appoint Sheikh Zayed as new ruler of Abu Dhabi.  Zayed took to the role as though born to it.  Using his own funds, he immediately set about making many changes and improving the emirate – developing housing, schools, hospitals.  Later on when the oil money started pouring in he spent it on ports, roads, an airport and other infrastructure.  He also began a lifelong project of conservation, responsible for the planting of millions of trees throughout Abu Dhabi (becoming known in the process as “The Man Who Turned The Desert Green”).

 

After taking power, he also realised that for Abu Dhabi to truly prosper it would need to co-operate and join forces with its neighbours.  And when Britain declared its withdrawal from the area his vision for the UAE was ignited.  At a time when the Sheikhs of the other emirates were looking at how they could gain advantage over each other, Zayed was looking at a bigger picture.  He saw that if they got together they could achieve much more than if they remained separate entities and just a few short years later, his vision became a reality and the country experienced unbelievable growth (bolstered of course by the discovery that Abu Dhabi sat atop nearly 11% of the world’s natural oil reserves).

 

When the UAE came into existence in 1971, Sheikh Zayed was naturally elected President.  He continued to be re-elected, and serve as ruler of the country, until his death in 2004.

 

Sheikh Zayed in the desert wearing traditional Bedouin clothing

 

When he died at the age of 86, the entire nation went into deep mourning.  They were shattered.  They had lost not just their leader but their father.  And Zayed loved his people in the same way.  He was once asked in an interview why he donated land and housing to his people, why he gave them free utilities, education, health care and many other advantages.  To paraphrase, his response was, “Don’t you feed your children?  Don’t you put a roof over their heads, put them in school and take care of them when they’re sick?  That’s all I’m doing too – I’m taking care of my children.”  His vision of the UAE as a powerful force in the world wasn’t restricted to economics, or finance, or oil.  He wanted his people to be educated and healthy so that they could in turn contribute to their country, and to the world.  Idealistic?  Perhaps.  But it was these ideals that made him one of the most adored rulers in history.

 

Why was he so loved?  The basic answer is that he took care of his people.  But it goes much deeper than that.  He actually loved them, and no matter how powerful he became he never presented himself as being better than anyone else.  He remained accessible.  He prayed in the mosques with the common men, he sat and drank tea with the Bedouin, and if someone approached him in the street with a gripe he would listen.  And yes, he would walk the streets.  The idea of locking himself up in a palace didn’t appeal to him.  Even after he’d amassed a personal fortune of over USD20 billion it wasn’t in his nature to act the privileged Sheikh.  To the end he remained within reach and open to his people.

 

Perhaps what made Sheikh Zayed different was that he understood he was lucky, and he generously shared his wealth, not just with the citizens of the UAE, but with other countries in need.  He donated fantastic sums of money to charities and causes around the world.  He was also famously moderate in his views, believing in and encouraging women’s rights in the workforce.  And even though he was devoutly Muslim, he was open-minded enough to allow the building of temples and churches in the UAE.  This was something that more conservative Muslim countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia thought was outrageous.  But Sheikh Zayed firmly believed that tolerance, not tyranny was the right way to govern.  His intelligence and perspicacity made him a visionary leader.  His warmth and wisdom and approachability made him a loved one.  Sheikh Zayed was considered the country’s national treasure, and today the UAE is a living memorial to his greatness.

 

The friendly and wise Sheikh Zayed

 

I have developed a deep respect and love for the father of my adopted home.  Every day when I drive past his enormous memorial poster on Sheikh Zayed Road, I look up and think about what kind of man he was, I think about everything that he achieved, and how to this day I have not heard one bad word said about him.  There seems to be something almost magical about Sheikh Zayed.  And every day, his warm eyes and wise countenance look down upon me and it feels as though, even though he’s now long gone, somehow he’s still watching and looking over all his children.