Friday, 21 December 2012

Emerging from the cave….

What are you lot still doing here?

That’s not the way it was supposed to go.

When I holed myself up in a cave deep beneath suburban Athens, armed only with a bumper shipment of Pot Noodles, a silo of teabags and six months’ worth of 'Crosswords for Idiots Weekly', it was in the sure and certain knowledge that I would have the place to myself when I emerged just after the Winter Solstice.

No longer would I have to worry about the unpaid bills staring accusingly at me in a pile of guilt on the kitchen table. No more would I have to wait in line at the supermarket behind the little old lady trying to pay for a year’s supply of cat food with her collection of five-cent coins. Nor would I have to fend off the attentions of smiling men with dirty sponges oh-so-keen to clean my windscreen at every traffic light, or resist the urge to throw accordions out of train windows when angelic faced urchins disrupt my morning commute with 'Lady of Spain' (on an Athens train, for heaven’s sake).

No, I’d have the place to myself. And though I might get a little bored, I’d no longer have to ‘make nice’, dress up or wear shoes for the sake of getting along with the rest of the world. In short, my world would be…. me.

Imagine my dismay then when I unbolted the 15 padlocks, rolled away a boulder worthy of an Indiana Jones movie, opened two sets of metal doors, and pulled the camouflaged curtain in the mountainside to find everything as I found it.

Blinking in the bright but chilly sunlight, I scratched my head as I spied cars and lorries bustling like beetles along the nearby highway, heard the distant yells of kids in school playgrounds for the last time before the Christmas break, and smelled the scent of woodsmoke in the air as Athenian households with fireplaces burn everything they can get their hands on (including grandad’s wooden leg) to get warm without switching on the central heating.

Then it dawned on me.

I’d been had. Taken for a mug by the Mayans – those geometrically dressed but oh-so-cool ancient dudes in South America whose left-behind wisdom told us that time would literally run out just four days before Santa Claus was due to set off from the North Pole to start his marathon delivery for 2012.

Maybe they just ran out of numbers, or stone to carve them into?

Perhaps their alien masters set it all up as a huge practical joke to be enjoyed through the distance of time and space, in their alternative dimension?
Or could it all have been an elaborate hoax dreamt up by Central American Tourist Boards to encourage doomsday believers from around the world to travel to their countries in the hope of being picked up by the Mother Ship before the end was nigh?

Or maybe, just maybe, it was a diversionary tactic to get us all talking about the impending end of time (or not) to take our minds of the mess than the powers that be have made of everything?

Whatever the truth behind it, I’ve been forced from my subterranean refuge after scraping the bottom of tea barrel, chugging the last pot of monosodium glutamate and filling in the final 15 Across. I’m back in the real world, with all its problems, pitfalls and practical jokes.

I suppose I’d better start being sociable again. And what better way to restart after months of hiding out waiting for the end of the world than reconnecting with you lovely people, safely hidden behind your flickering screens, out there in Webland?

We survived the promised Armageddon of 2000 without a single plane falling out of the sky, we faced the end of times fondly prepared for in the wild mountains, we even came through TellyTubbies and Turkish soap operas relatively unscathed. So the next time I hear about the impending end of everything my response will be “Oh yeah? Bring it on!”

Until then, I promise to do my best to be chatty and personable, perky and punctual, and to get back into the habit of boring you silly with 'She means well, but…' witterings on a regular basis.

And I suppose that wishing you all happy, peaceful and fun times with people you love to celebrate Baby Jesus’ birthday is as good a start as any.

And as for 2013? Well, I can now say that she (even years are boys, hence all the major sporting events, and odd years are female cos we secretly admire all things odd) no longer scares me.

I’m a tough cookie that can do two months of solitary confinement, cackling hysterically no more than eight times daily, with only arrow words and anagrams to keep me company. So go ahead – hit me with your best shot.  

Just don’t come near me with that accordion.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Ghoulies and ghosties...

When I was at primary school, we had a wonderful teacher called Mrs. Griffiths (sadly, no longer with us) who – among many other things – taught us the “Hallowe’en Prayer”…
From ghoulies and ghosties,
And long-legged beasties,
And things that go “bump!” in the night.
Good Lord, deliver us.

Now, the rhyme is of Scots origin, but it is forever imprinted on my mind in the musical lilt of the Welsh Valleys that was so apparent in Mrs. Griffiths’ voice.

I’ve been thinking about the Hallowe’ens of my youth over the past few days as I the In ternet goes creepy crazy in anticipation of this evening's antics. I've seen several people I thought I knew transformed into walking pumpkins, my normally benign nephew as a seriously scary looking serial killer bunny, and some of the more budget-minded planning to wrap themselves in toilet paper to play the mummy (which is fine unless it rains...).

At the risk of sounding like an old fart (again), when I was a lass (you have to imagine this in a Northern accent, in the style of the Monty Python '4 Yorkshiremen' sketch), we never had no trick-or-treat. We just had bobbing for apples – if we were lucky.

The whole imported American concept of Hallowe’en has really only taken hold in the UK since I left, so I find it really strange to think of gangs of 12-year-olds roaming the streets dressed as witches, ghosts, vampires… and fairy princesses (aren’t they s’posed to be scary?) to menace householders unless they dosh out enough goodies to give the kids a sugar rush that will have them bouncing off the walls until the Christmas onslaught.

Back in MY day, it was a far more enigmatic and creepy night. OK, we didn't exactly lock ourselves in the broom cupboard for the night (well, just that once) but I certainly remember hiding my head under the blankets after a Hallowe''en bedtime story.

Hallowe’en is a shortened form of All Hallows’ Eve (Hallows = Saints) as it's the night before All Saints’ Day on November 1. This was supposed to be one of the few times of the year when spirits can make contact with the physical world and when magic is at its most potent. It was the night when all the ghoulies, ghosties, witches and goblins et al would come out to play for one last blast before the goody-goodies from the Saints’ camp took over.

Not surprisingly, it's yet another example of Christianity absorbing a much earlier Pagan festival in order to win followers in the early years of the Church. Hallowe’en origins lie in an ancient Gaelic festival called Samhain, which celebrated the end of the harvest season. It was the time when the ancient pagans used to take stock of supplies and slaughter livestock for their winter stores. The ancient Gaels also believed that it was night when the worlds of the living and the dead overlapped, allowing the deceased to come back and cause havoc by spreading sickness and damaging crops. Costumes and masks were therefore worn in a bid to placate the spirits by mimicking them.

One year, I decided to conduct a Hallowe’en experiment. Tradition has it that if a young virgin peels an apple (symbol of fertility) anticlockwise, keeping the peel in one unbroken coil, in the front of a mirror at midnight on the night of October 31, her husband-to-be will appear to her. Mum must have wondered why I so enthusiastically offered to peel a couple of pounds of Bramleys for apple crumble during the day (well, I had to practice, didn’t I?) but come midnight, I managed to peel my apple in one intact snake of peel. And sure enough, a male figure appeared from the shadows behind me - but it was no tall, dark stranger from my future, just dear old dad coming to tell me that it was well past my bed-time and to go to sleep!

Growing up in England in the '70s and '80s, we were still relatively unsophisticated compared to today's children and Hallowe’en held a thrill of fright and anticipation (a bit like watching Dr Who from behind the sofa), but none of the pallaver we see these days.

It was a simple pleasure that came with the season – along with the scent of bonfires in the air as devoted gardeners burned off their garden waste, the joy of wading through fallen leaves in the park in search of conkers, and coming back to the house after a walk with your cheeks burning from the chill. And just around the corner was the promise of lighting up the skies for Bonfire Night.

Maybe I’m just getting nostalgic in my old age?
Oh well, 'Happy Hallowe'en ya'all!'

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

She stoops to conker?

Ah, autumn. Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, bringing back memories of shushing through piles of fallen leaves and playing conkers in the school playground. But did you know that the good old horse chestnut (a.k.a. the conker tree) is NOT a native to Britain, but a migrant from... Greece and Albania?

Yes, apparently it's true. But somehow I can't see the Greeks embarking on the annual orgy of smashing your opponents' nuts (in the nicest possible way) that generations of British schoolkids have enjoyed.

Time and time again, I have greeted the first hints of that gorgeous autumnal tang in the air with an attempt to explain the rules and reasoning of conkers to The Other Half.

He sits there patiently, giving me the indulgent look of one humouring a slightly dim but lovable child, while I try to convey my enthusiasm for scrabbling about in the wet grass to find the perfect shiny brown conker with which to annihilate my rivals' offerings.

His demeanour is one of "OK, that sounds like the sort of thing you Brits would do. But why?".

To be honest, I don't have an answer. It's just one of those things that is an integral part of growing up in the UK. No rhyme nor reason is required - it just IS. Just like he can't explain to me WHY Greeks traditionally fly kites on the first day of Lent, why Greek grannies put a red and white knotted string bracelet on their grandchildren's wrists every May Day, nor why taramosalata (made from fish eggs) is allowed during the Lenten fast which forbids both fish and eggs.

For the uninitiated, to play the game, you need to take a large, hard conker and carefully drill a hole through it. Then you thread a piece of string through the hole and knot it at one end. Next step is to find an opponent, with whom you will take turns to hit one another's conkers. This goes on until one of the conkers is smashed, and the status of the winning nut is enhanced according to how many rivals it has annihilated (one-er, two-er, six-er, etc.).

That's it, really. Nothing more, nothing less. But it used to keep us happy for hours on end.

Over the years, the World Conkers Championship held in the UK has raised thousands of pounds for charities for the blind - and, in a delicious twist, a few years back it was sponsored by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health in a bid to counter the public's perception of its inspectors as killjoys.

Now, those of us who nurse fond memories of the annual search for the perfect shiny conker (perhaps still hidden in its spiny green outer casing) amid the dozens fallen at the feet of a spreading horse chestnut tree will also recall the tricks we used to employ to make our conker a champion. Baking it in the oven, soaking or boiling it in vinegar, coating it with clear nail varnish or rolling it in hand cream to make the impact softer (but be warned - conkers explode when microwaved).

Unfortunately, any 'artificial hardening' of your conker will immediately get you thrown out of the World Conker Championships as ex-Monty Python Michael Palin found out to his cost in 1993 (he was disqualified for baking and soaking his conker in vinegar).

I hope that despite Britain's increasingly enhanced fears of how every-day life can harm our offsping (Daily Mail-type stories of 'Elf & Safety gone mad' when schools ban playtime games of conkers, for fear of bits of smashed nuts flying into kids' eyes or even triggering nut allergies), the autumn air in my homeland is still filled with the sounds of horse chestnuts cracking against each other - and the occasional bashed knuckle.

As for me, I'm off in search of a conker tree in its native Greek habitat.

I may be some time...

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Blasphemy, blas-for-you, blas-for-everybody...

He spotted the warning signs straight away.
Maybe it was the steam coming out of my ears, or the sparks flying from my eyes, but after all these years together, the Ovver Arf can tell when I'm about to clamber up onto my high horse and start ranting.

Poor fella, I could almost hear him groan internally before I even let out an outraged "What?" at my computer screen.

He's not the only one. There's many a soul sistah or bruvva over the years that have dragged me away from confronting bar-fly bigots when we're supposed to be out for a 'nice, quiet drink'. To be fair, I probably owe the fact that I've reached the grand old age of (ahem) umpty-um relatively unscathed to them judiciously removing me from possible confrontations.

I'm pretty easy-going, tolerant and generally lovely (or so I like to think). But I do have some strongly-held views. I also know that plenty of folk diametrically disagree with me, so I usually take a 'live and let live' stance and avoid rocking the boat by challenging them.

There are times.
Times when the steam starts flying and the sparks start shooting, and I just have to let out some of the righteous indignation boiling up within me.

The latest case in point came last night when my evening's trolling of the internet landed me on the news that a 27-year-old Greek man had been arrested and charged with blasphemy.

Blasphemy? Didn't that go out with the Spanish Inquisition?

I check the calendar. Sure enough, it IS the 21st century. And yet a man has been arrested, in a modern European country, for blasphemy.

His crime? Creating a satirical Facebook account for the persona of 'Gero Patstitsio' (pastitsio is a popular Greek dish of layered minced meat, pasta and bechamel sauce) in parody of the late 'Gero Paisios', a monk revered by many of the country's faithful for his piety and wisdom.

So what? you might say (especially if you spent your teen years reading 'Private Eye').
So what? indeed...

But here's the nub. 'Gero Patstitsio' has been trolling various websites, including those sympathetic or supportive of the extreme right nationalist Golden Dawn party. And it seems he's touched a raw nerve along the tentacles of influence they use to reach out to many Greek folk for whom their Orthodox Christianity is as much a clan allegiance as it is a matter of faith. 

Let's not forget something here. These are the same people who viciferously claim their right to freely express their diatribe. The ones that gained a degree of respectibility since winning votes in the Greek Parliament. Their opinions offend me, and many others, to the core - and yet we have to respect their right to spout them if we truly believe in the freedom of speech.

Am I the only one to see the heart-aching irony in the criminalisation of someone whose crime is creating a parody of a dead monk to satirise modern Greek society? This is, after all, the birthplace of satire - thanks to Aristophanes et al all those years ago.

In nearly a quarter of a century that I've lived here, I've learned that religion is woven into fabric of Greek society. And believe me, you don't want to take on a determined God-fearing Greek yiayia (granny). They've lived through a lot and they're a lot tougher than they look, despit their litany of aches and pains.

I have no faith. So, like a cuckoo in the nest, I'm the odd one out. But like a smart cuckoo, I don't make an issue of it beyond politely declining when encouraged to genuflect and kiss icons on Holy Days. I try to respect others beliefs but hope they will grant me the same courtesy.

Religion is still strong here, and the relatively crude humour of Gero Pastitsio is not going to bring about the fall of the Greek Orthodox Church. Just like the antics of Pussy Riot were never any threat to the Russian Church. Surely, both are robust enough to survive a little ridicule? 

OK, I promise to climb down from my high horse now.
I've come off the boil and the red mist is clearing.

But if you care about the freedom of expression of opinions (yes, even the ones you abhor) and think that blasphemy laws are out-dated, you might want to consider signing this petition


Friday, 14 September 2012

Specs and mugs and rock ‘n’ roll

Middle age crept up on me.

There I was, minding my own business, getting on with being me, when suddenly it leapt out at me as I turned a corner in my late 40s.

At first, I wasn’t too surprised. Let’s face it, I’ve been spreading middle age spread on my toast for some time now (though I still prefer Marmite). 

I thought I was cool with the inevitable.

Turns out I was in denial – and I’m not talking about a river in Egypt.

This week brought me back down to reality with a bump. Summer’s over, school’s back in (for now), unpaid bills glare at me accusingly from the ‘To Do’ pile, the ManChild is more Man than Child these days (he’s shot past my 5 ft 10 height and wears boats with laces on his feet), a good inch of mousy grey winks at me when I run my hands through my hair, and the highlight of my Saturday night is a nice cup of tea.

I’m wearing SLIPPERS as I write this, for pity’s sake!
(The Ovver Arf is thrilled – he’s been raging against my bare feet for the past 23 years)

And reading glasses too, to stop the letters doing the Macarena in front of my lens-enhanced myopic eyes. Talk about adding insult to optic injury.

Applying a slash of eyeliner for that desired 'Rock Chick' look on a rare night out results in something half way between ‘trying WAY too hard’ and 'hasn’t slept since Tuesday’.

And as I pull my aging band t-shirt over my head I'm making a mental shopping list (bleach, eggs, bananas, washing up liquid, Coco Pops, toothpaste...) and planning the coming week’s menus. Whatever happened to 3am burgers on a Wednesday and a roast peanut sandwich for a very late Sunday lunch?

Life happened, I suppose.

After a false start, I found the love of my life – in Greece (tells you something that I had to leave the country to find my soulmate, eh?). We make a son together. And a life. And a big pile of debts, obligations and concerns. And then there's the conspiracy of events trying to throw my adopted country into the waste disposal of 21st Century history, adding to my mid-life angst. Now maybe you understand the flashes of silver twinkling from my scalp?

But I won't give in without a fight. So long as there's hair dye in my shade on sale in the supermarket and I can still pull on a pair of jeans without ironing them first, I refuse to surrender to mid-life frumpiness (or worse, over-groomed, tweezed, teased and panic-stricken Yummy Mumminess).

For deep in my soul, a driving guitar riff and a stick-smashing drum solo still play - LOUD. 

And who’s to say I can’t step up to the mike with a cuppa in my hand?

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

How to change a life – teachers that make a difference

A long time ago in a classroom far, far away, I was taught a valuable lesson in humility.

Writing had always been my ‘thing’. It was something that came easily to me, I’d already decided I wanted to become a journalist, and by the age of 14 I had received enough praise from assorted teachers to become a bit cocky (or unbearably smug, depending on your point of view).

That changed the day our English teacher, Mr Gear, asked me to read out one of my essays to the class.

I can’t remember what the assignment was, but I had written a story in which I made heavy use of a recurring metaphor. And I say ‘heavy’ I mean the weight of anti-matter that can only been found on this planet hurtling round a huge subterranean tubes in Switzerland being monitored by over-excited physicists.

Think Adrian Mole at his pretentious worst, after being force-fed Barbara Cartland.
Yes, it was THAT bad.

My chosen metaphor was blossom being blown from a cherry orchard by cold spring winds. By the time I'd read the first three paragraphs, there was a mountain of metaphorical petals at my feet and I was sniggering at my own absurdity. By the end of my 'masterpiece', the entire classroom was howling with hysteria, tears were streaming down everyone's cheeks and I could hardly speak (nay, breathe) because I was laughing so hard.

Luckily, I got the point about my own ridiculousness, though the occasion held the potential for the kind of public humiliation that most adolescents would rather eat their own buttocks than face. 

But what else could I expect? This was the teacher where studies of Thomas Hardy and T.S. Eliot came to an abrupt halt when he got bored and decided to hold a Pop Quiz that sparked a heated debate about the colour of Noddy’s car (yellow), call in the school nutter from another classroom to show us his charging bull impersonation, stage desktop fashion shows if he spotted new shoes and have us seeking out the smutty bits in 'Twelfth Night'.

He was, in short, a brilliant teacher, though I believe some of the more timid in our school were terrified of catching his eye. To this day, after nearly three decades of earning my daily crust with words, I always keep the “less is more” mantra in mind.

Mr Gear was the third of four teachers I believe helped change my life. The first was the headmaster at my Middle School, an enthusiastic scientist who rewarded good work with boiled sweets and the privilege of cleaning the school pond of algae (yes, that was a reward!) or holding the smoke machine when he opened up the school beehives. Like Stephen Hawking at the opening of the London Paralympics, he urged us to “be curious”. The second was a mellifluous Welsh woman with a heart of gold and a voice of molten honey who planted in my heart an abiding love of words and music. The fourth was a radical college tutor who loved nothing more than provoking a furious political or philosophical argument while we were supposed to be picking 'Volpone' to pieces, who firmly planted the "question everything" seed.

I was lucky. Four is probably much more than I deserved. But I believe that most of us encounter at least one teacher during our school career who help change our life for the better by passing on their passion for their subject, encouraging us when no-one else believes in us or simply by challenging us to cultivate something within.

So, as children across Europe get back into the school year, I’d like to offer a small tribute to those great teachers, and a small word of thanks to those who touched my life, even if it did mean making a fool of myself.

Who influenced you the most during the school days? I’d love to hear.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Dream on

Have you ever woken up in the morning, scratching your head in puzzlement and asking yourself “What was all THAT about?”

Dreams are a fascinating subject – especially the science behind them. Though for most of us, they are primarily a personal movie playing out in our head, they are not always composed of images, as it is known that blind people and those who cannot visualize while awake also dream, mostly in sounds and sensations.

It is estimated that the average person can have 49,000 hours or more worth of dreams in their lifetime, so they must mean something surely?

I’ve applied an awful lot of amateur psychiatric self-analysis to my dreams over the past umpty-umm years I’ve been around. I’ve tried theories about suppressed desires, hopes and fears, and even old wives’ tales of the significance of black dogs (death), loose teeth (sexual anxiety or impotence) and naked supermarket shopping (exposure anxiety). But I’ve now I’ve reached the point when I’ve called a halt to the amateur analysis, and now just surrender myself as an amused spectator of my internal cinescope.

I guess I’m pretty lucky that I have had very few nightmares in my life (or at least if I have I don’t remember them). Those that I do recall seem to have a feel of a Tim Burton film, though sadly without Johnny Depp.

Perhaps the worst dream I can recall came about three years after my beloved granddad died. He was a gentle, charming, loving and highly moral man, but for some reason, in my dream he appeared as a monster which I had to protect the baby I had been given to care for from (this was long before I became a mother or even started thinking about having kids). I woke up in floods of tears, more out of a sense of betrayal because my sub-conscious had thrown up such a dream about the man who played such a big part in my happy childhood, than any sense of fear. I still haven’t worked out what that was all about.

But that was the exception. Most of my dreams are vaguely amusing, surreal and lucid (in full colour and, if I am particularly enjoying the plot, I can sometimes go back to sleep and continue it to see what happens next).

Dream Scape No.1:
I’m walking through some woods (which I instinctively know are somewhere in East Sussex) with a group of friends from college, when we come across a clearing with a large, well-maintained swimming pool in it. For some reason, we conclude that we must have wondered onto land owned by Paul McCartney. It’s a hot day and there’s no-one around, so we decide to take a dip. But the minute we hit the water it turns into a purple cloud which floats off, with us on board, into the summer sky.
[No, there was no substances anywhere near me before, during or after this dream]  

Dream Scape No.2:
Back in my early teens. I’m sitting on a bench at the mouth of a cave, making small talk to a terribly well-dressed and eloquent vampire (as you do). All is well, until he gives a little sigh, turns to me and says “And now, my dear, I must pierce your neck.”
[OK, this one doesn’t take a lot of analysis. Awakening sexual awareness, mysterious strangers, blood, danger, etc. Sort of like my own personal ‘Twilight’ 30 years before Bella and Edward got their act together]

Dream Scape No.3:
I’m visiting my mum in the house I grew up in. For some reason, the trip from Greece to Gatwick has been a grueling one, so I tell my mum I’m going to have a lie-down in my old bedroom, in the middle of the day (gasp!). However, I’m too wired up to sleep so I decide to go down into the town to walk it off. So, I calmly put my bed into gear, drive it down the stairs, out the front door, and down the road where I park it in the middle of town. The bed sits there, complete with matching duvet cover and valance, waiting for me to finish my stroll round the shops.
[Answers on a postcard, please. Personally, I haven’t got the foggiest idea]

Dream Scape No.4:
I seem to be young again. I’m wearing a long white nightgown and I'm heading for my bedroom, but for some reason it is in a dark forbidding building (perhaps something like the Victorian infants school I attended – and ran away from). To reach my room, I have to walk through some long, damp, unlit corridors. I’m not wearing my glasses or contact lenses so everything is a blur. It is seriously creepy, but I’m not scared because I have my dog with me. I seem to recall this dog as a character from other dreams. He’s big and scruffy, possibly with a dose of Irish Wolfhound in the mix, and vaguely annoying in a good-natured way. He walks along beside me, occasionally grabbing my hand in his mouth in a bid to get me play. But I know that if anyone or anything tried to do me any harm, he’d see them off in a blink of an eye.
[Maybe this is a metaphor for uncertainty about the future? Interesting that there is something with me that stops fear taking over. Not sure who or what the dog represents. An aspect of myself, perhaps?]

If you’ve read this far without falling asleep or coming to the conclusion that I’m an acid-fried old hippy (not guilty) or a raging psychopath (also not guilty - honest), I’d love to hear about your dreams.

If nothing else, they might give us a starting point for a screenplay we could try to flog to Tim Burton.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Time wounds all heels

I’m no Carrie Bradshaw.

Despite my arty-farty aspirations and claims that I don’t follow trends cos I’m more interested in my own personal style, no-one has EVER put the word Fashionista anywhere near my name. 

I simply cannot work myself into a paroxysm of girlish glee at the sight of a spikey-heeled instrument of torture that everyone from Vogue, to Nuts, to The Independent tell me I must dribble with desire over if I’m a REAL woman.

Even in my teens, back in the dodgy days of the early '80s when being in fashion meant nicking my Dad’s jumpers and stretching them beyond all recognition, I was several degrees ‘off’ from the uber-cool ones who made Oxfam rejects look amazing. I just looked like a slightly confused, over-sized wannabe art student who pretends to read Sylvia Plath poetry but really prefers the sophistication and subtlety of 1980s British TV comedies like ‘The Young Ones’. I was simply not put on this earth to be a clothes horse.

For a start, my body is NOT fashion friendly. I’m more like a messy, effusive St Bernard puppy than a Whippet. And like my doggy soulmate, I have a tendency to unwittingly provoke damage wherever I go with my manicly wagging tail and insanely grinning mouth.

Secondly, I HATE shopping. With a passion. I’m convinced that I develop a genuine physical reaction after the first 30 minutes of traipsing round the shops, trying (and failing) to find that perfect something that both sends the right message about my personality and (crucially) fits without making me look like a demented hairy mammoth on speed.

It’s not just the awful sameness of everything in the shops – and by implication, the way we’re supposed to present ourselves to the world – it’s also the soul-destroying strip lighting in the changing rooms and the sneers of assistants as I try to coax a pair of must-have jeans up any further than the lumps of correlated fat above my knees. It's just SO boring - and sweaty.

When others talk about 'shopping therapy', I'm mentally checking the Yellow Pages for specialists who can fit me in for an emergency session after I've endured an afternoon of shop-trolling. 

It’s not that I don’t like new stuff. I LOVE new stuff! But the process involved in getting it (even without the screams of protests coming from my credit card) seems to eclipse all the joy.

Thirdly – and this seems to be the real ‘clincher’ – Mandi doesn’t do heels.

At 5 foot 10 inches (1.78 metres to you metric bods), I never have, and never will. Despite protestations from almost all my girlfriends that the right heels will make my hated, lumpen legs look amazing, I’m unconvinced. Images of the certain chubby girls from my schooldays in the '70s and '80s parading around in bare legs (in February) and stilettos are still burned into my brain, bringing to mind purple mottled thighs and the phrase “pigs on stilts”. I have enough trouble with my body image without adding porcine elevation, stabbing pain and the ability to look over the heads of EVERYONE on the bus, instead of just 90% of the passengers.

The few occasions on which I’ve been persuaded to give high heels a go have not ended well. The unaccustomed change to my posture makes we walk like someone suffering simultaneously from sciatica and severe gastroenteritis. My ankles have panic attacks and simple collapse sideways the minute they’re lifted more than a couple of inches from the ground. And if I manage to hobble my way through the day in heels, I pay for it in blisters, swollen ankles and shooting arrows of agony through the balls of my feet. 

Frankly, I'd rather people would just focus on what's going on from the neck up than obsessing about what I'm wrapping around my freakishly long toes and cracked heels.

Everywhere I look, I see woman in high heels – apparently not in agony. This worries me. How can they DO that? Is there something anatomically incorrect about me? OK, I’m a big lass, but I see super-sized Weebles out there strutting their stuff with six-inch nails coming out the heels. 
How do they do it? 
Levitation? Meditation? Heavy sedation?

If I don’t drool over a ridiculously overpriced of (admittedly nice looking) pair of designed-labelled courts, I feel like I’ve put myself into the corner along with the other oddballs, mis-fits and freaks (again). And if I express my distaste at a pair of hooker heels, I feel like the world is looking at me as if I’ve just exposed myself as a smelly, hairy, man-hating feminist. 

Believe me, I don’t hate men.

Maybe, despite my height, I’m part hobbit?
The idea of never having to wear shoes because you’ve got a nice pair of comfy feet that take care of themselves with tough leather soles and warm, hairy uppers sounds like the ideal solution.

And if you want to make a fashion statement from the ankles downwards, all you need is some funky hair dye and some curling tongs....

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Night and day: Greece, August 2012

Like the beat, beat, beat of the tom tom
when the jungle shadows fall.
Like the tick,tick, tock of the stately clock
as it stands against the wall.
Like the drip, drip drip of the rain drops
when the summer showers through.
a voice within me keeps repeating...
 ...doom, doom, doom!

With apologies to Cole Porter, that’s pretty much how life in Greece feels lately. Like Chinese water torture or the slow but sure tightening of the screw stretching its victim on the rack, every night and day brings a small but inexorable increase in the pressure affecting most folk simply trying to get on with their lives with some semblance of normality.

We adjust, we trim, we sacrifice, we surrender another degree of sovereignty. We try to accept the inevitable stoically, to take yet another deep breath and tighten the belt yet another notch.

But after two solid years of constant squeezing, we wonder how much more uncertainty we can stand as incomes dwindle (or are slashed) across the board, with deepest cuts being made in the pockets of those with the smallest reserves.

Every news bulletin brings the latest ‘expert’ opinions about Greece’s impending doom, and we grit our teeth for yet another round of cuts, raised taxes and spiralling prices. All the while, we wonder if any of it will avert the disaster and final melt-down, the prospect of which has certain international pundits rubbing their hands with glee.

Meanwhile, the long hot Greek summer is gradually drawing to an end. The temperature is still in the 30s, occasionally spiking into the 40s, but those still in work are returning to duty and parents prepare for the back-to-school flurry of early September.

Few have had the luxury of a proper summer holiday, though those that could may have left the city to spend some weeks with family in the country. But now, as the last few days of August play out, it’s time to get back to business and face whatever the autumn will throw at us.

Above all, the Greeks are a resilient, stubborn lot. Whether that’s enough to get them through the next round of trials that await them remains to be seen.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Letter from Athens: 26 July 2012

Greece is divided. 
Not in the way you might think, between haves and have-nots, or between the powers that be and those who have to put up with their machinations. But over the ill-judged quip of one of its Olympic hopefuls.

As the world’s top athletes started limbering up in London for their events in the 2012 Games, triple jumper Voula Papachristou opened up her Twitter account and posted a not very funny ‘joke’ about mosquitoes carrying the West Nile virus and the increasing number of African migrants in Greece.

Presumably it was meant to make someone laugh – though who would be amused by such a weak attempt at humour is debatable.

They certainly weren’t laughing in the offices of the Greek Olympic Committee when they heard about it. They were so upset by the offending tweet, deemed racist by some, that they expelled her from the Greek Olympic team and sent her packing. Papachristou, they said, had expressed herself in a manner that is contrary to the ideals and values of the Olympics.

In truth, her comment was probably no more offensive that hundreds of so-called jokes bandied about in cafes, bars and even the media every day in Greece.

Whenever someone hits the headlines who is not a Greek national, their country of origin will always be reported regardless of whether it is relevant to the story or not. Kids throw around names in fun that would have many a northern European bleeding heart liberal covering their ears in horror. The terms 'Albanian', 'African' and 'Pakistan' are rarely used as complimentary or purely descriptive adjectives. And Mitsos in the local coffee shop has a whole repertoire of immigrant jokes to keep his pals amused as they battle it out on the backgammon board.

It’s harmless fun, many a Greek will tell you, and not indicative of any deep-seated animosity to foreigners.

They’re right. Up to a point. Despite the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in the current tough times, and the new presence of the extreme-right Golden Dawn party in Parliament, most Greeks are not racists. But casual verbal racism does persist in the
kafenion, in school yards, the workplace and – as illustrated by the case of Voula Papachristou – on social media, where many young Greeks are enthusiastic participants.

The thing is that Papachristou is not Mitsos from the

As an Olympian, she is a figure head, a role model and – like it or not – a representative of her country. When she opened her Twitter account this week and decided to make her wry remark, she failed to consider the weight that her sporting prowess would give her words in the public domain. She also failed to consider that the eyes, ears and translation tools of the world were now on her and her fellow Olympians, and that what might be a harmless throw-away remark in her neighbourhood could be perceived as highly offensive elsewhere.

She tried to put it right with a public apology, but it was not enough for the Greek Olympic Committee. As a result, she has paid a high price for her foolish remark.  She has lost her chance to compete against the world’s best in the biggest sporting event – something she has spent years working towards.

Some say it’s too high a price to pay. That whatever her personal political opinions, her comment was as innocent as it was ill-informed. Others say she has no business expressing such an opinion when she’s representing her nation at a time when its image could do with some positive vibes.

However you see it, Papachristou has learned the hard way a lesson we should all take on board: “
Think before you tweet!

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Letter from Athens: 12 July 2012

Greece is in the grip of another heatwave. 

When the temperature soars to more than 40 degrees Celsius during the day and stubbornly refuses to drop below 30 even in the dead of the night, it’s hard to stay focused on the job in hand (if you’re lucky enough to have one).

Those that can have abandoned the city. But for those who can’t, due to obligations or lack of funds, it’s a struggle. 

Refuge is sought in air conditioned shops or offices, fans are pulled out of storage to move the lethargic air around, sweat-soaked workers flop onto armchairs the minute they reach home, dogs pant madly for relief in the streets, a million cold showers are taken, cats refuse to budge from the shady spots they've stretched out on, and those who have to venture out into the sizzling heat bouncing off the city's cement and marble find it hard to put one heat-weary foot in front of the other.

Like many Athenians, I take the city’s public transport to get to work. It’s relatively cheap (though who know how long that will last), it’s eco-friendly, it saves on petrol and eliminates the problem of where to park once I arrive at my Piraeus office. On the downside, it’s slow (60-90 minutes one-way from my home in the northern suburbs to the office), often crowded, sometimes bumpy (I have the bruises to prove it) and with air conditioning that’s unequal to challenge set by this week’s weather.

But it’s one of those things you accept, warts and all. The inconveniences are as much part of the Metro, bus and electric rail network as the conveniences it offers…

…unless you’re an MP.

This week, New Democracy MP Adonis Georgiadis went on record saying that it would be an unacceptable humiliation for Members of Parliament to take the bus. (Presumably, he doesn't feel the need to win any popularity contests now that he has been voted in once again.)

That’s why they accept the complementary hire cars afforded to them by the Greek system. That’s why your chances of seeing a Greek MP riding the Underground like New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg, or even pedaling round the streets like London’s Boris Johnson, are about as strong as they are of Angela Merkel being named Athens' favourite blonde. They won't be found hanging onto the straps on the crowded train, sharing body odour and reminders of last night’s tzatsiki with fellow passengers. 

Greek MPs apparently are worth more than the people who voted them in – and they certainly can’t risk be confronted by a tired, sweaty constituent while riding the No.040 to Syntagma Square.

But we mustn’t condemn them for stinginess, for they’re saving none of their own money by refusing to join the common people in the public transport system.

MPs get to ride for free - unlike the unemployed, who aren't even entitled to reduced ticket prices.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Letter from Athens: 5 July 2012

This week, I managed to escape the city. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I’m now slaving over a hot keyboard as I sit at a battered kitchen table several decades older than me, under the shade of a feral grape vine in the back yard of my in-laws’ small country house an hour’s drive from Athens.

And yet, although the insistent buzz of the cicadas has replaced the city’s shouts and sirens as my workday soundtrack, my escape is incomplete. The noisy insects have a rival for the attention of my eardrums – the relentless drone, and occasional explosion, of wall-to-wall TV news from the moment my husband’s parents make their morning coffee til late at night when they head for their bed.

Like many things in the country, the Greek way of delivering broadcast news takes some getting used to – especially if, like me, you’ve been raised on a diet of BBC’s Radio 4, ITN’s News at Ten or (on particularly daring days) Channel 4 News.

Greek news broadcasts are an entirely different beast. Though the main channels aspire to the standards set by Auntie Beeb, CNN, even Al Jazeera, with fancy opening titles, dramatic music and somber-faced anchormen, they don’t quite deliver.

For domestic news, especially politics, the main order of the day – every day – is shouting. Loudly, insistently and without a care for whether viewers can actually make any sense of what they’re watching. In a news technique particularly loved by the country’s private TV channels, a panel of guests are invited to (ahem) ‘debate’ the issues of the day, with each talking head shown on screen in a separate ‘parathyraki’ (little window). Perhaps it harks back to the days when the news of the day was passed from window to window in the villages that many Greeks still consider their ancestral home.

In reality, guests will probably be seated around the same table in the studio, but on screen we see each one in their own little box. And even before newsreader finishes their intro, we know that that three or four of squares will spend much of the following debate staring blankly out at us, saying nothing but looking increasingly frustrated and taking sneaky peeks at their watches, while the two most vocal – or extreme – members of the panel with go at it hammer and tongs. Most times, it’s little more than a formalised slanging match, a legitimised form of a schoolyard brawl (quite literally in a recent case), that viewers can justify watching in the name of staying abreast of the news of the day.

Almost everyone complains about the news programmes, whether it be for their sensationalism, political bias or obsession with plunging necklines for female newscasters. But the older generation, a highly-politicised group who built their lives against a backdrop of post-WW2 hardship, civil war, military dictatorship, the return of democracy and a period of prosperity before the current storm, stay loyal.

Not so, however, their children and grandchildren. They have grown up with, or been born into, the digital age. More and more, the theme tune of the morning, midday, early evening, mid evening and late night news is their cue to switch off, change channel or head out of the room for a toilet break. It’s not that they don’t want to be informed – though many would love to be able to simply turn a blind eye to the daily diet of doom and gloom – they just don’t trust the TV to deliver anymore.

Civilian journalism is on the rise. Countless blogs and portals have sprung up to keep the citizens of Greece – and beyond – abreast of what’s going on, and what’s not, in the country. Some are reliable. Others little more than rumour-mills. Some are highly professional. Others would make a fifth grade school project look good. Some strive to maintain balance. Others have a clear (or worse, hidden) political axe to grind. Here, as elsewhere, the extreme open access nature of the www is both its blessing and its curse.

Since I first arrived in Athens 23 years ago, the news landscape has changed beyond recognition. Then, TV was a stark choice of what was on the menu of the state-sponsored broadcaster, ERT. Today, myriads of private channels vie for the attention of your living room, and more and more people go online for their updates.

Babble is the order of the day, even in the idyllic Greek countryside. Most humble country retreats are equipped with antennas, so even when sipping your frappe over a game of backgammon on a balcony with a view of the Aegean, there’s always a timely reminder of the impending doom to compete with the shimmering summer heat and incessant cicadas.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Letter from Athens: 28 June 2012

This week should have been when those the Greek public reluctantly elected to run the country finally got down to business. 

It should have been. But it wasn’t.

It seemed like just moments after Antonis Samaras was sworn in as Prime  Minister when an announcement came that he was being admitted to hospital for emergency surgery for a detached retina.

Looking at it charitably, you might say “Tough break, Ant” and put his optical problems down to the huge strain of the daunting task ahead of him. Greeks, however, are not over-inclined to being charitable towards their politicians – especially these days. The moment the news broke, the cyber waves were swimming with cartoons and heavy satire about the one-eyed ruling the country of the blind.

If that were not enough, the Finance Minister was rushed to hospital after collapsing before he could be sworn in. Details were hazy – some say he fainted, others that he had a gastric problems, others yet that he was not happy with the make-up of the cabinet. But the result was the same - he resigned from his post and was replaced by (surprise, surprise) a banker.

So, the governance of the country was left to limp aimlessly along as Europe’s Big Wigs met again to try to sort out how to tackle the continent’s growing crisis, and the 83-year-old President of Democracy (a largely symbolic role) Carolos Papoulias flew Economy Class to Brussels to face the music.

Beyond the hallowed halls of Government, schools have now closed. The morning commute has become easier, now that hundreds of school buses and doting parents are not delivering the kids to class. Families around the country are coming to terms with exam results of varying quality and kids have their mind on their next trip to the beach. Many have been shipped off to relatives or summer camps in the countryside.

No such luck for elected MPs, due to be sworn in today, who are among the few to benefit from a cash injection. The same state that is figuratively pulling out the sofa cushions to look for spare change to keep the country’s health system creaking along has come up with 50 million Euros for its beloved political parties. 

The lion’s share goes to election winner Nea Dimocratia (15.4 million, down from the 17 million it received in 2009), followed by the leftist SYRIZA coalition which gets 14.1 million and former political heavyweights and now 'Yianni-no-mates' PASOK getting a mere 7.5 million. Smaller parties - the Independent Greek, the ultra nationalist Chryssi Avgi (Golden Dawn), the Democratic Left and KKE (the Communist Party of Greece) - each get between 3.4 and 4 million. And perhaps as a consolation prize, 750,000 Euros went to two more parties that failed to muster enough votes to enter Parliament.

Meanwhile, the mercury has been steadily rising to 'hotter than a handbag in Hades' levels. In temperatures up to 40 degrees Celsius, you're sweating before you stepped out of the shower, cats and dogs lie panting spread-eagled on the coolest spot they can find and ice cream melts before it reaches your mouth. In the city centre, tarmac on the roads sticks to the heels of your shoes and pigeons in Syntagma Square dive-bomb the fountains in search of a little relief. In shops, offices and homes that can afford it, air conditioning offers some artificial relief but the burden on the power grid has already bought the first (albeit thankfully brief) black-outs in some areas.

Things have started to hot up elsewhere too. 

Strong winds combined with soaring temperatures have put much of the country on high alert for forest fires, and the first of the summer’s blazes have already claimed swathes of green countryside and country homes.

Back in the capital, presumably in a misguided attempt to make a political point by targeting a big name multinational, armed arsonists set fire to the Athens headquarters of Miscrosoft. Apparently, however, they didn’t know that Microsoft Hellas is one of the few organisations offering practical assistance to small Greek start-up companies trying to make a new start in these trying times, by offering them office space and access to equipment. And it was the offices used by those Greek start-ups that were damaged by this week’s fire. 

Proof positive that the word 'irony' is Greek in origin. But then again, so is 'drama'.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Letter from Athens: 21 June 2012

A mass sigh of relief was let out across Greece this week – and it had nothing to do with the politicians who managed to strike a deal and form a Government.

School’s out for the nation’s schoolkids, and for those aged 12 and up, that marks the end of a grueling month of intense revision for their end-of-year exams to determine if they graduate to the next year of High School.

By yesterday evening, the ink was dry on the last of the exams in the nation’s schools (though some youngsters still face the tests set by foreign language institutes, taken through private evening schools) and the kids could finally let their hair down and enjoy being young.

In an ordinary middle class suburb of northern Athens, like many across the country, the class of 15-year-olds graduating from Junior to Senior High celebrated in a uniquely Greek way with a show that combined a spoof awards ceremony, self-penned songs, traditional folk dances and a full-on mini-rock show by the students.

It was a much needed release of tension for these adults in training. They’re part of a generation having to come to terms an uncertain future, the overturning of expectations and prospects, and the strain put on Greek family life by the economic woes of the country. These past two years have been more of a baptism of fire than an education for these teens now at an age when they’re becoming aware of politics and its effect on the society they live in.

Many have been caught up in the general anger of the time, fueled by massive disillusionment at mainstream politicians. Some have thrown themselves enthusiastically into the mob expressing their frustration in the most physical way at protests. Others have been even been charmed by the sinister siren call of extremism.

And yet, for most, teen life still goes on - albeit with some serious cutbacks. Fewer families than ever before have the means to head off for a week or two on an island or even their grandparents’ villages, take-away coffees drunk in the leafy shade of public parks have replaced hours spent in the city’s cafeterias, and jamming at a friendly house has taken the place of heading for a night at a club.

At their best, both Greeks and adolescents are irrepressible. They’re nearly always loud, frequently argumentative, often messy, and perhaps a little wayward – but their energy and lust for life is what they are all about.

Despite what some might think, it doesn’t take much to make them happy. A little respect, someone willing to listen to their point of view, the chance to express themselves without being slapped down by the Powers That Be (be they parents, teachers or the EU and IMF) and the right to have a say in their own destiny. Most just want to be left alone to enjoy the things they love – their friends, their family, their music and (yes, still) their beautiful country.

You’ll see their patriotism and passion on full display in the living rooms and balconies, coffee shops and bars of the country tomorrow night – when Greece and Germany go head-to-head on the football pitch in the Euro quarter-finals. Though few really dare to believe it, there’s a spark of hope that maybe (just maybe) the players in their national team might repeat the giant-slaying trick they pulled back in 2004.

Now, more than ever, they need a reason to celebrate.