Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The Walking Dead (Athens edition - late January 2015)

This week, spare a thought for the lost, the lonely, the displaced of Greece.

You may have seen them already, shuffling aimlessly through the streets of Athens in dust-smudged designer suits and expensive silk ties. 

They’re the ones mumbling defunct campaign promises, trying to shake the hands of random strangers, and approaching small children to plant a slobbering kiss on their cheek.

You’ll know them from the dazed look in their clouded eyes and their repeated demands for directions to Syntagma Square. You might even spot them trying to climb up onto any elevated surface to deliver a rousing speech no-one will listen to, or evoke the name of some long-dead relative to stir up brand loyalty (few have the heart to tell them that – in the immortal words of Monty Python’s Parrot Sketch – such loyalty has “ceased to be”).

Be kind to them, for they are ill-prepared for the harsh chill wind of reality that most Greeks have adjusted to in the past few years. They’ve spent most of their working lives in the cosseted corridors of power, stroked daily by admirers and buoyed up by well-connected supporters with the means and the influence to ease their route from their luxury homes through the grit and grime of the city.

They’ve never had to search their pockets for a ticket for the Metro (even if they used public transport – something most considered below their station – they were entitled to ride for free, unlike the country’s army of unemployed).

They’ve never had to hustle for the last empty seat on the bus. 

They struggle with the concept of paying for a meal or a coffee, having been treated as non-paying guests by honoured proprietors keen to make the most the VIP patronage of their premises.

Little wonder, then, that they feel lost and utterly abandoned now that the Parliamentary rug has been pulled out from beneath them. 

Quiet tears course down their smooth but grimy cheeks as they contemplate the TV screens on which they were holding court to a captive audience not so long ago, but which now show a slightly chubby-faced 40-year-old – with no tie! – walking up the steps of the Prime Ministerial mansion to take his oath.

They shake their heads in disbelief at the sight of back-packs being carried into the corridors of power by what look like overgrown college students.

They cover their ears in horror to the sound  of “Rock The Casbah” and “People Have The Power” at rallies instead of the sonorous, serious tones of Hatzidakis, Orff or Theodorakis.

Be kind to them. Point them gently in the direction of the nearest coffee shop (explaining that they must pay for what they consume) and let them sit there sipping the thick bitter beverage of defeat until they come to terms with the fact that they are no longer Members of Parliament.

Just don’t turn your back on them. For all their forlorn looks, they’re survivors, prepared to do pretty much anything and form the strangest of alliances to assure their survival. By the time they’ve drained their last drop of coffee, they’ll already be plotting their return.

You have been warned.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

The Night Before Christmas: Greece 2014


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-S_WhinXs8

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the land
Not a civil servant was stirring, no offices manned;
The melomakarona* were laid on the table with care,
In hopes that Kostakis soon would be there;

Little Alexi was nestled all snug in his bed,
Visions of election and power in his head;
Bills to be paid by New Year on the floor,
Light, heat, phone and taxes galore;
                                                                                               
The children left their trigona** untouched,
Knowing their jingling won’t gather much;
The days of profit from their song are no more,
“Na ta poume?”*** most likely to meet a closed door.

Piles of rags in shop doorways shuddered,
No home, no Christmas, they no longer mattered;
Shave-headed trolls were sleeping til Dawn,
With dreams of “Ellas über alles” and burning crosses on lawns;

When out in the street there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon shone weakly through the wood-smoky air,
Giving a hazy view of what I saw there,
And what to my eyes appeared at the gates?
A bullet-proof Mercedes with ministerial plates.

The driver had glasses and he frowned as he muttered,
I thought for a moment it was Harry Potter.
But no, no magic, it was just Samaras,
Waving promises like a priest performing at Mass.

Beside him appeared a fat red-robed elf
Who started to take all our gifts from the shelf;
He had a broad face and a big round belly
That shook when he laughed – yes, it was Vangeli.

I watched as our visitors took gifts from the tree,
To hand over to Troika and cover their fee.
Yiayia and Pappou**** slept on, I should mention,
Worn out from hours in queues for their pension.

With a wave of his hand and a wink of his eye,
Our guest took the coin from our New Year’s Pie.
Yet I knew in the morn he’d be pious in church,
Not giving a jot that we’re left in the lurch.

As I gathered my thoughts and prepared for the morrow,
I decided for one day to put aside sorrow.
So as we head towards Yuletide, I say with good cheer,
“Happy Christmas” to all,
....but to politicians “Ai sihtir!”*****




[Explanatory notes for non-Greek residents and others not in the know:

*Melomakarana are Greek honey traditionally served at Christmas

**Trigona – the musical triangles Greek kids use as a clattering accompaniment to the traditional Christmas carol they sing from door-to-door on Christmas and New Year’s Eves to collect for money (usually for their own pockets, not charity).

***”Na ta poume?” Literally “Shall we sing it?” as a prelude to the Christmas carol once the door has been opened.

****Yiagia and Pappou – Grandma and Grandad

****“Ai sihtir!” is a curse used is Greek (though stolen from Turkish) which roughly translates as “Sod off!”]


Friday, 19 December 2014

The Gift

It sat there, calling to her to unwrap it, then rewrap and feign delight on Christmas morning. 

She’d sworn she wouldn’t. 

She’d also sworn she’d cook the family meal - but that was before Mum took pity on her office party hangover.

The gift beckoned: ‘Just a little peek.’

She sipped her wine as she flipped through the channels, smiling as she pictured her parents’ Christmas Eve frenzy of activity.

The TV couldn’t distract her from the perfectly wrapped present. She picked at the cellotape to reveal a box. Inside - nothing. What?

Oh, a letter.

This year, we're giving you a special gift - your independence.
(Lily checked the envelope for a cheque.)

We know you’ll open it before you should. So, you’ll know you have to feed yourself on Christmas Day (there’s a turkey dinner in your freezer).

Lots of love – from Bali!

Mummy and Daddy.


+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

[Note:
This story was written for the 6th SSFFS (Short Story & Flash Fiction Society) Project contest.
For more about the SSFFS Project go to www.shortstoryflashfictionsociety.com or follow Facebook https://www.facebook.com/pages/Short-Stories-Flash-Fiction-Stories/692915047420207?fref=ts or Twitter @SSFFS_project]

Friday, 12 December 2014

Athens rains – and we all get wet

Rain doesn’t suit Athens.
It’s all the concrete that’s the problem, I think.

At least when it rains in London, the green gets even greener (and there’s probably more square metres of green space per capita in London than any other city in Europe), and there’s nothing to beat the smell of Regent’s Park after a shower. The thing is, London was built on the premise of its dampness. Just like Stockholm, which is built on a collection of islands in the Baltic Sea, it’s at peace with the liquid element, its natural habitat.

Athens’ natural habitat, however, is not damp. Its element comes from the Attica Sky all right, but not in the form of raindrops, rather in the form of heat from Apollo, the sun god.

So, when it rains in Athens, it is just not right. Everything looks soggy and grey and uninspired. It's almost as if the city is sulking.

This week has been an especially damp one, starting with some spectacular rainfall on Monday as I was making my way across the city to the office after a couple of weeks off. In the hour it took me to make my way by public transport from Holargos to Piraeus, I reckon it dumped the equivalent of the Aegean Sea on the city - the Attica Sky has been heavy with brooding, dark grey rain clouds. It didn’t take long for new rivers to form in the roads, raging torrents that seeped through the seams of your boots and soaked you from the ground-up, in spite of the brolly you’re gamely carrying.

Athens doesn't handle wet weather well – and nor do its residents. Just one good drenching and the number of cars on the road quadruples, dusty pavements become as slick as skating rinks, traffic grinds to a halt, public services change pace from slow to stop and debris-filled drains explode with gay abandon like geysers. 

Athenians feel cheated when it rains.

Unlike northern Europe, things are not designed for the rain here. Many homes have tile or mosaic flooring – great in the hot summers, but chilly in the wet autumn and winter months. Tumble driers are a rarity, and with more and more people avoiding turning on their radiators due to the past few years of crisis and enforced penny-pinching, there are times you think your washing will rot on the line long before it has the chance to dry.


It was against that sad, grey background that I was making my way to the office, when I suddenly spotted something that changed everything in an instant. Standing in the Metro station was a middle-aged man chatting on his phone – like thousands of other commuters that pass through every day. But in his hand he held a simple bunch of bright yellow roses.

It was the kind of sight that makes you wish your eyelid was a camera shutter, that you could capture that single fleeting image for all eternity.

That simple splash of yellow amid the rain-washed grey of Athens was the kind of image that reminds you that even the most overcast of days holds the potential for colour. It was a sight that… ...on the other hand, somebody better stop me before I start to sound like a bad greetings card.

Meanwhile, the rain goes on, and on, and on...

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Glögg! Mandi lets her Swedish Chef out to play

Well, the nights have well and truly drawn in, the Christmas tree is up (and so far has not been attacked by Joker Da Kaat) and the festive season is well and truly upon us.

I've been a little lax of late on the blogging front, due to giving myself some time out to celebrate my birthday (one of the biggies) in style back in Blighty, so I thought now might the time to revisit an old post about a rather delicious (hic!) Scandinavian treat that's sure to warm your cockles, and more, in the run-up to Santa's big night.


Meet Lars.
You may not know his name, but I'm sure you all know him.

He's the Swedish Chef, usually seen burbling incomprehensively (but enthusiastically) around The Muppet Show kitchen, often with a chicken looking on in horror. 


I don't really know his name, but after more than two decades years of working for a company with Swedish management, he is definitely a Lars to me.
And he has a very special specality: Glögg.

I first came across it as an innocent 28-year-old, as I approached my first Christmas in my new job. Though based in Greece, many of the managers were Swedes - and they were keen as mustard to bring a little taste of the Baltic to the Eastern Mediterranean. I had already reluctantly sampled reindeer (I know, I know - but actually Rudolph and his ilk are surprisingly tasty) and had managed to avoid Rotten Herring (don't ask - it IS what it sounds like), but the smells coming from the lunchroom that December morning were infinitely more enticing. 

Curiosity got the better of me and I was soon to found hanging my head over a gently seething cauldron of ruby red liquor bubbling with almonds, orange peel and sultanas, with my boss stirring away merrily. It smelt orgasmic. (The booze, not my boss!).

Before I knew it, I had a little glass of the stuff in my hand and was taking my first tentative sip. Then a bolder slurp. Then another glass or two - or four.

I don't remember much after that... except a mental note that this Yuletide concoction was lethal enough to fell a whole longship of Vikings. And that I got the bus home that evening. I think.

So, if you're feeling bold, here is a recipe, including the extras my boss liked to throw into the mix. It will certainly keep the cold at bay - but you may not feel your nose after a glass or two.

You will need:
3 sticks cinnamon
2-3 pieces dried Seville orange peel (use fresh if dried not available
2-3 pieces dried or fresh ginger (not ground)
some 10 cardamom seeds (whole)
some 10 cloves (whole)
1 cup (2.5dl) water

and:
sugar
1 bottle of red wine 

(added extras: a few good slugs of vodka or brandy, or both!)
Blanched almonds and sultanas for serving

What to do:
- Put the spices and water in a small pan and bring to the boil. Then turn off heat and let it stand overnight
- Pass the mixture through a sieve to filter out the 'bits' from the spices 

- Pour in the wine and gently heat (don't boil!)
- Add sugar to taste (about half a cup) and stir til it dissolves
- Heat but do not bring it to the boil. Alcohol evaporates when boiled and that sort of defeats the object!

- If you're feeling naughty, spike the whole thing with a splash or three of vodka or brandy
- Serve hot with raisins and blanched almonds (dropped into the cups after serving).


Skål!

Friday, 14 November 2014

The Night Shift

A fox barks, and a distant owl hoots somewhere across the playing fields. I peek out from my shelter among the roots and watch as darkness rapidly covers what’s left of the dull, damp day like a shroud spread over a dearly departed. The glare of a street light pokes jagged fingers through the branches above me as I wait for dusk to give way to night.

Out there, humans are returning to their homes. Closing heavy curtains against the unknown night. Enfolding them in the comfort of their own homes, where they’ll grab a few hours with their loved ones – and maybe a take-away as they watch a TV movie – before seeking solace in the safety of their beds. At least, that’s where they think they’re safe.

There’s no home our kind hasn’t visited. No sleep we haven’t shattered with a spasm of fear and panic. No locked doors or barred windows that can keep us away.

Ironic really that they’ve started hanging up ineffective spiders’ webs of wool and trinkets bearing our own name to keep us away. 

Little do they know that we’re not the ones who conceive and give birth to the night terrors that haunt them – they manage that just fine all on their own in the depths of their buried hopes and fears.

We just gather them, take sustenance from them, and use them to build our dark subterranean kingdoms.

We are the Dreamcatchers.  



[Note:
This story was written for the 5th SSFFS (Short Story & Flash Fiction Society) Project contest - and it won!

For more about the SSFFS Project go to http://shortstoryflashficitonsociety.com/ or follow Facebook https://www.facebook.com/pages/Short-Stories-Flash-Fiction-Stories/692915047420207?fref=ts or Twitter @SSFFS_project]

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Coming ashore

Jacob heaved his sailor’s sack onto his shoulder as the ‘Wind Rider’ bumped into her berth. He sniffed, unused to the singed caramel tinge to the smoggy air from the nearby Tate & Lyle sugar works at Silvertown. 

Stevedores’ shouts cut through the damp evening and light drizzle shimmered the cobbles. Ahead, the refinery’s twin chimneys rose up behind the dockface of warehouses, cranes and bustle – a dark terrestial reminder that he was leaving his old life behind.

A small black paw gently batted his sea-roughened cheek. It came from a cat perched parrot-like on the old salt’s other shoulder, nestling in the bush of hair that hadn’t seen a barber for nigh on forty years.

“Don’t fret, Shaitan,” rasped the sailor. “Tis land, nothing more. You’ll come to know it soon enough.”

Nodding farewells to the deckhands, he walked down the gangplank and left a lifetime afloat behind him. It was time to reacquaint himself with the London land he had left as a boy.

The tavern had no draw on him, buoyed as he was against the cold by the tot of rum in his last mug of ship’s tea. A faded beauty threw a weary “Fancy a good time, darlin’?” in his direction, but he just trudged on. He’d had every kind of portside whore the world could offer, and had probably fathered more street urchins that he’d had hot dinners.

He stopped at a fishmonger’s stall. Shaitan purred into the sailor’s beard at the smell of poor man’s fish. Jacob pulled out a few coins for a pint of winkles and couple of pieces of the jellied eel.

Two streets down, he reached a door unopened for many a year and pulled a key on a grimy string from around his neck. It slotted into the lock, and turned rustily to open to a small room, piled high with the cluttered order of poverty. An embroidered tablecloth beneath the dust of neglect revealed the woman’s touch that had once held sway. But no more. Sarah was gone. Taken away by the diphtheria whilst her brother was sailing the world.

Shaitan leapt to the ground, sniffing at her new surroundings. Jacob dropped his sack, took a saucer from the shelf above the sink in the corner and placed on it a piece of gelatinous fish. He put in on the floor and settled into a tired red armchair, taking a long pin from his pocket to ease the winkles out of their shells.

Empty shells rustled as he fell into a deep sleep, dreaming of the sea. The mistress – sometimes harsh – that he had served, man and boy, and who he had now left behind.

A sudden weight on his chest jolted him awake. Luminous eyes stared into his watery blue ones. Claws, ever-so slightly extended, experimentally dabbed his lips, and a pink tongue voiced a demand for more food.


Jacob had a new mistress now.