1. The years before the acquisition of the Greek hall (1962)
1.1 Banquets and celebrations
Until the 1950s the Greek population of Bloemfontein consisted of only about 50 individuals (ten to twelve families). Their social life had two main characteristics: long working hours on the one hand, and on the other their keen desire to meet with compatriots. They seized every available opportunity to do this. Once or twice a month, on the occasion of a naming day, a wedding, a christening, etc., they would get together in a Greek’s house.
Because they were few, and they were all related by marriage or sponsorship, all were invited when a dinner was planned. What is more – since there was no orthodox church in Bloemfontein yet – even the sacraments were carried out in Greek houses, followed (as usual) by a good time for all (see seminar 3).
The housewife had everything ready, and would serve various Greek traditional foods and desserts. Some of the guests were really popular at these gatherings because they could play an instrument such as the guitar, the accordion or the violin, or simply because they created a convivial atmosphere. It is strange, however, that no one in Bloemfontein could play the bouzouki, Greece’s most common instrument. Even if no musician could be found, they were undeterred. Everyone had Greek music records in their houses and the dinner would therefore be followed by dancing, with kalamatianos, syrtos, tsamikos and zeimbekiko being the most popular dances amongst the Greeks in Bloemfontein. (Reference is made to these dances in section 5.1 of this seminar). Everyone was in high spirits and, as Mrs Eleni Vahli, a Greek immigrant who arrived in Bloemfontein in 1920, used to say: “it is like in our village in Greece. No one ever spoke a bad word about anyone else”.
A number of Greeks, such as the Perivolaris and Apostolelis families, had small farms. On Sundays they closed their shops early, around one o’clock, and went there in the company of other families to enjoy the countryside. Others left the town centre where they lived and strolled on foot to Hamilton Park to spend a few hours of family relaxation in this “shaded garden of flowers and shrubs”. On working days, the children could play carefree on President Hoffman Square.
Since 1947, George Vrahimis and his brother Antonis have enjoyed numerous bird-shooting expeditions on the farms of the Van Biljon families in the Hoopstad district. The farm owners themselves would ask them to come, since birds were ruining their crops. Sometimes they could also hunt big game, though not frequently.
1.2 The youth
Young people were also among the guests at the houses where dinners took place, and they had good times in the company of their married friends. However, the evident different social rules for boys and girls were a legacy of the conservative, rural Greek society. A sentiment prevailed that a young boy could act “like a man”, go out with his friends and have fun, only returning home late at night. However, this did not apply to girls, who were expected to be careful and moderate – not only until they grew up, but even into their marriages.
In those years, the choices for young men wanting to go out were limited to a cinema, a club where they could sit and listen to music, or a concert. They could take out a local girl, but not a Greek girl. It seems that it was generally quite easy to enter into relationships with local girls – in fact, young Greeks of the time boasted about how popular they were.
Girls, on the other hand, were very restricted. They were allowed to go to the cinema on Saturday nights, but strictly only if accompanied by a close relative. In some cases, parents did not allow their daughters to take part in extra-mural sport activities at school. Others, again, would not let their daughters finish school – even less study at university – or go to work for a stranger, for fear that they could be seduced. Parents wanted to see their daughters marrying a Greek man, raising their own families, and finally working in their husbands’ businesses.
Furthermore, no case of a Greek girl having a relationship with a local is mentioned during this period. Even the dates amongst young Greek people were very restricted. At the very most, they could go out with other relatives and friends, always with their parents’ permission, to enjoy a film at the drive-in. (The first drive–in was erected in post World War II years at the exit to Kimberley, followed later by a few more.)
2. The years after the acquisition of the Greek hall (1962 and onwards)
As was previously pointed out, the purchase of the Greek church and the hall – partly owing to the fresh migration wave from Greece – changed things. Almost all the religious and social meetings now took place there. Celebrations were transformed into feasts and festivals of a sort (in Greek: panygyri). As in Greece, everybody assembled at their communal meeting place, the Greek hall. They had fun eating traditional food and listening and dancing to the Greek music, live or from records.
Before long, however, the nature of these festivals gradually began to change. The annual Greek ball in the city hall looked more like a “Greek culture” demonstration to the locals than a pure festival. Local guests enjoyed the Greek food, music and dance, and – much to their surprise – watched the Greeks drinking “ouzo” and breaking plates. (This dangerous habit has been prohibited in Greek clubs for some time now.)
An explanation for this could be that, through hard work, without any support, and within a sometimes hostile environment, they had at last attained their desired social and economical status. The time had now come to “show their superiority”, as well as to feel that “strangers” (non-Greeks) “admired them”. There is nothing wrong with this ideal, as Greeks are renowned for their convivial spirit and their hospitality towards their guests. Moreover, these processes enabled the Greeks of Bloemfontein to preserve their customs, traditions and unity to a certain extent. However, it is not only a superior financial position that lends prestige to a community. Unfortunately, there was no equivalent in other fields such as the arts or sciences. Among the few exceptions to this rule is Antonis Vrahimis, who – despite his long working hours – obtained a Doctorate in Philosophy of History at the University of the Orange Free State in 1962. Together with H. Savas, he contributed to several articles in local newspapers regarding the Cyprus issue during the period of British rule and also later, after the Turkish invasion.