Monday, 21 December 2009

A(nother) fond farewell

Some people leave an indelible mark on your childhood. If you're lucky, like me, they're all good ones. And last week, we bade farewell to one of the people to left his mark on MY childhood.

Uncle Don was no relation to us, and we didn't see him that often. But whenever we did, it was a treat. If you can imagine Father Christmas before his bushy beard turned snow white and he got the North Pole gig, then you'll get an idea of how I saw Uncle Don. He was always full of humour, bonhomie and with a seemingly inextinguishable twinkle in his eye.

The last time I saw him was at the funeral of my father a few years ago. And ironically, it was the same beast - cancer of oesophagus - that claimed Don a couple of weeks ago.

Another thing Uncle Don and my Dad had in common was that indefinable quality that meant people always remembered them once they met them...

....as for me, I remember him as one of the people who helped add warmth, colour and laughter to my formative years.

I couldn't be at his funeral last week, but I hope that his son (with whom I shared a strong platonic bond despite our age difference of exactly eight years), his daughter (who always seemed impossibly beautiful, gracious and glamourous to me) and their mother (one of my mother's life-long friends) know that I was thinking of them.

I'll be raising a glass of robust red to Uncle Don this Christmas and remembering him with much fondness.


Friday, 27 November 2009

And they all lived happily ever after?

We all love Happy Endings, don't we? I can't be the only one that spins out Happily Ever After conclusions to what's happening in my life, sometimes forgetting to enjoy the moment I'm in.

The trouble with "Happily Ever After" is that they are precisely NOT what they claim to be. There must be something that comes after the Happy Ending - we just never hear about it.

So, in my quest for the truth (the Public has a right to know, you know), this occasional investigative journalist has dug deep to bring you the news of what happened after some of our better-known Happily Ever Afters:

Pinocchio
Years of therapy have had only limited benefits for this former child performer, now in his late 40s. He now - finally - considers himself "A Real Boy" but continues to have body image issues and pines for the carefree days of his firm-bodied youth. Convinced that his nose it too big (at least some of the time), he is in discussions with several plastic surgeons about the possibility of transplanting the nasal tissue to another part of his body.

Pollyanna
Most of her friends abandoned her when they were in their 20s, unable to tolerate her relentless optimism and insistence that they look on the bright side every time their hearts were broken. After hitting the menopause, she sunk into a depression and now needs a handful of Prozac to even think "I'm glad".

Snow White
Well, her Prince did come all those years ago, but there are times when she wishes he would go away again - or at least get out out of the armchair and do the dishes. Life is hard enough for her with a fat, balding, unemployable Heir to the Throne (will his mother NEVER die?) snoring in front of the TV, without her seven small but very demanding permanent houseguests. Sometimes she wishes she had eaten the whole apple. While it's good to keep in touch with her friends from before her marriage, she's had enough of the whole "surrogate mother" gig.

Rapunzel
Years of obsessive brushing, braiding and supporting suitors clambering up walls have taken their toll on Rapunzel's flowing locks. After one particularly tearful break-up, she shaved her head and spent a year in a bobble hat to cover the grey stubble that grew back. Now considering having extensions added.

Cinderella
Yes, she got her Prince - but her ugly step-sisters are still trying to get into his pants. They have had gastric bands fitted, Botox injected and spray tan applied. Traumatised after catching the three of them in a drunken orgy, Cinders turned to junk food for comfort. The only thing the glass slipper fits these days is her little finger.

Rumpelstiltskin
Changed his name by deedpoll to Kenneth.

Dick Whittingdon
Now lives alone with his cat, never leaving the house, plotting against Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson.

The Famous Five
Once inseparable, Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy the Dog rarely see each other these days. George finally had the op. Dick and Anne have set up home together and moved to a remote village where no-one knows they're brother and sister. Julian hit the hippy trail and fried his brain in Kathmandu. Timmy the Dog is now a leading Reality TV star.

Pippi Long Stocking
Now making a good living as a pole dancer in a Moscow nightclub. Her signature striped stockings, plaits and freckles are a key part of her act (very popular with the Dirty Mac Brigade lurking in the darkest corners of the club).

Stig of the Dump
Has opened his own home improvement and decorating business.

The Borrowers
Facing an uncertain future after calling in the receiver and declaring bankruptcy.

So, maybe there really is no such thing a Happy Ending, after all? Just "the continuing story"....

Friday, 20 November 2009

They're out again...


...but this time it's the WOMANnequins.


Creepy!


Friday, 13 November 2009

So tight, you squeak when you walk...

It must have been a man that came up with the idea of tights. A bitter, twisted man. With a special talent for sadism.

There's no other explanation for the trials and tribulations we submit ourselves to every time we feel the need to cover up our leggy imperfections with a sheer layer of unforgiving nylon in attractive shades of "Sable", "Capuccino" and the ubiquitous "American Tan".

If nothing else prepares women for the challenges, disappointments and pain of life, the daily routine of putting on a pair of tights certainly does.

You open up the pack, and hold up something that looks like two lengths of empty sausage skin joined at the top with a series of reinforced bands, intrusive seams and tortuous control panels.
It looks big enough to fit an anorexic Barbie doll - at a stretch.

Undaunted, you go through the ritual your mother handed down to you all those years ago. You insert your arms into the legs and stretch the nylon to something approaching human dimensions. If you're lucky, you won't snag the delicate fabric with your nails, rings or dry knuckles in the process.

That done, you're ready for a sit-down. You know what's ahead, and the very thought has you breaking out in a cold sweat.

Sitting there in their underwear, in the morning chill, and without the benefit of your first shot of caffeine, you're feeling pretty vulnerable. But you screw up your courage and get on with it. Carefully gathering each tube of nylon onto your hand, you ease it onto your legs and wiggle it upwards....
Blocking out the pain of the torniquette forming round your knee or groin, you soldier on.

Pantyhose MANufacturers (again, there's a man in the formula) must think most women are the height of your average Oompla-Loompla. If you're not, this is where you'll encounter the first major humiliation of the day.
The crotch of your tights will reach exactly 2 inches above your knees, making you look and walk like a penguin with special needs. You tug and pull, jiggle and wriggle, and eventually you reach the mid-thigh region. That's a far as it will go. You slap an extra pair of knickers on over the top of your tights to bring them closer to where they should be (maybe that explains Superman?), and try to ignore the rub of gusset seams against the delicate blubber of your inner thighs.

Red of face, with sweat oozing out of your scalp, you congratulate yourself on "mission accomplished" and reach for your skirt or dress.

And then... you spot a ladder working its way relentlessly the full length of your legs. As you watch, motionless, it grows like the popcorn in a microwave into a series of gaping holes spanned by a few strands of nylon cutting into the sweaty, throbbing flesh splurging through.

Cue desperate rifling through undies drawer for a replacement. And the whole thing starts over again.

Even if you do manage to get your tights on without incident, by lunchtime you'll be nursing a red welt round your waist (or worse, around the lower hip-line) and the sore tingling where the sensitive skin or your inner thighs is oozing through the weave like boiled spuds in a potato masher.

And before you say it - don't.
Stockings are just as bad. The truth is most of us girls only ever wear them when we want to... get some action. Any other time, friction burns on our naked loins and cutting off your circulation with elasticated hold-ups just aren't worth it.

So why, I wonder, would ANY man want to subject themselves to the same agony and humiliation that we put ourselves through every time we fancy a break from our trusty trousers?

The truth is, most blokes I know wouldn't.
Phew, that's a relief! The sight of the men in my life in the top of the range of M&S's control top hosiery is not one I am impatient to see.
That's why I'm still trying to get my head around the news of a range of 'mantyhose' being tipped as the next Big Thing in Men's Fashion this winter. (Tell you one thing, mate. Once you wrestle your tackle into the vice-like grip of elasticated nylon, it'll be anything BUT a Big Thing!)

I'm sure there will be an elite group of metrosexuals who will give it a go, cheerfully trotting off to Selfridges for their supply. I just don't think they'll be making a return trip to replace the first lot of shredded nylon in a hurry.

Face it boys, the only men that look good in tights are Robin Hood and his Merry Men, Nureyev and a few superheroes...

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Not to be forgotten...

Like almost every former British schoolkid, I was exposed to the 1914-18 War Poets as a teenager. Although poetry never really did that much for me, these verses did. There are countless examples that throw the poignancy of so many young lives lost into sharp relief, especially after the jingoism of post-Victorian sentiments at the beginning of the war. Some reduce me to tears.

The below - "Dulce et decorum est" by Wilfred Owen - is possibly the best-known...

Bent double, like old beggards under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Til on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues -
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for soem desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The author of this powerful poem did not survive the war. He was killed in action at the Battle of the Sambre just a week before the war ended, and the news of his death reached home as the town's church bells declared peace. His poetry, including "Dulce et decorum est" and "Anthem for Lost Youth" were published posthumously in 1919.

"Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" translates very roughly as "It is good and right to die for the Fatherland".
As they say in exam questions: Discuss.


Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Athens Portraits: Bouzouki Nights

He's as Greek as you can get - and fiercely proud of it. A creature of the night, you're unlikely to see Bouzouki Man in his full glory before 1am. If you do spot him during daylight, he'll be nursing his morning coffee in the kafeneion or sitting outside smoking ad clacking his worry beads.

His natural nocturnal habitat is the bouzoukia, a uniquely Greek breed of night club named after the stringed instrument that forms the mainstay of its music. There, Bouzouki Man thinks nothing of shelling out 200 Euros for a bottle of whisky and another 200 for tray after tin-foil tray of carnation flower heads to shower the singers churning out a repertoire of Greek hits at full blast.

The ultimate social animal, he's usually found in large group in which the Alpha male establishes his dominance by mounting the stage to perform an intense 'zebekiko' dance that requires a special kind of concentration and endurance as he stoops to the ground, balancing on one foot, before leaping up and switching legs. Purists frown on women joining in. It's considered a fiercely masculine dance - females are expected to simply kneel in homage around the dancer, looking up in adoration and clapping the slow rhythm.

The ladies' chance to shine comes when they climb onto tables to wiggle and squirm their sparkling evening wear in a 'tsifteteli' (a kind of Greek belly dance) that could make Madonna blush. Even middle-aged matrons sometimes climb onto the stage to shimmy frantically next to the singer.

It gets more and more crowded on stage as the night wears on, and it's only by virtue of the club's offical sweepers armed with brooms that performers and audience alike don't slip up on the mountains of flower heads thrown in tribute. But as fast as they can clear the stage, shapely young girls weave between the tables selling more carnations to fill it up again.

Come 5am, the die-hards are still going strong, Even when the bouzouki players and singers have left the stage, Bouzouki Man and his gang are heading for an all-night restaurant on Syngrou Avenue for a plateful of 'patsa' (tripe) to soak up all that whisky.






Thursday, 5 November 2009

Wartime memories, reunion hopes

Anyone who might have read my tribute to my 99-year-old Nana (http://shemeanswellbut.blogspot.com/2009/06/forget-girl-power-heres-lol-power.html) back in June this year will probably have an inkling of what a little diamond she is and how much I love her.

I always thought I knew everything about her. But I was wrong, as I found out this week.

Though I never knew it, during those hard days of World War II, she was more than just a rock of domestic security for my mum. Like countless other country housewives, she opened up her home - and her heart - to a young lad evacuated from London during the blitz.

It was on 11 November 1941 that she welcomed a dark-haired, well-spoken seven-year-old boy from East London to her Surrey home. And during his time with her, she grew so fond of him that when she gave birth to my uncle a few years later, she named him Alan after that wartime visitor.

When Alan returned to London, Nana wrote to him but sadly never received a reply. Since then, she has hoped that some day, some how, she might hear word and learn how that 'lovely young boy' turned out.

Now, in her 100th year, she's giving it one more try as detailed in a BBC news story today at http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/surrey/hi/people_and_places/history/newsid_8344000/8344148.stm

Sadly, no-one remembers Alan's surname, but who knows? Stranger things have happened. Maybe the wonder of the Internet might just make that reunion my Nana has waited more than six decades for a reality?

If anyone thinks they might know Alan, please let me know...






Tuesday, 3 November 2009

All or nothing


It's just as well I've never done drugs.
I'm a bit of an 'All or Nothing' kinda girl, so I probably wouldn't be burbling away to myself today if I had tried much more than a few exploratory aromatic puffs in my early 20s (my response was "Is THAT what all the fuss is about?" Coincidentally, precisely my same reaction to another not so momentous first - but that's another story).

It's not just illicit substances - I'm just not capable of having "just one" of anything.
When I smoked, I could happily wheeze my way through a couple of packs before even noticing that my mouth and throat felt and smelt like the sad remains of a bonfire on a rainy November morning.
I've been known to gulp my way through 12 cups of coffee in a day, and then wonder why I can't sit still.
And don't even get me started on tea, especially when back in the home of the cuppa....

And then there's biccies.

I rarely buy cakes or biscuits. When I do, all it takes is for me to break the seal to be possessed by a creature that is somewhere between the Cookie Monster and Taz the Tasmanian Devil. My intentions may be pure ("Just a couple of Rich Teas with my cuppa") but the moderate, halo-crowned Alter Ego on my right shoulder is quickly shouted down and beaten to a sobbing pulp by the red & black-clad Mini Me waving a pitchfork next to my left ear. A flurry of unwrapping follows, then much crunching and spraying of crumbs. Before you know it, all that's left is a dejected looking bit of plastic that once housed some digestives.

You can imagine the carnage when there are Chocolate Bourbons, Fig Rolls or Jammy Dodgers in the house.

That same 'All or Nothing' attitude bleeds over into other aspects of my life. Whether it's love, friendship, beliefs or hobbies, I throw myself into it with a fierce and burning passion (I once scared some girl witless with my declarations of friendship. She reacted like I'd suggested we run away and spend the rest of our lives in a Sapphic idyll. For the record, all I fancied was an occasional coffee with someone who made me laugh).

For me, it's no half measures, no compromises. Either that, or I just don't bother.

So, it's probably just as well that I was either too much of a wimp or a nerd in my youth to dabble. If I had, I probably would have given Keef Richards a run for his money (but made a lot less dosh in the process).

On the other hand, it also means that when I set my heart on something, I usually get it.

Speaking of which, where did I put those ginger nuts?


Tuesday, 27 October 2009

When I grow up, I want to be...

This week brought news that the British education authorities are going to start giving careers advice to seven-year-olds.

Yes, you heard right. Seven-year-olds are going to get vocational guidance.

Apparently, the idea is to empower and raise the ambitions of kids from less advantaged backgrounds.

Yeah, right. What a kid from a sink estate with an alcoholic mum and an abusive stepdad needs is some well-meaning but utterly clueless and PC middle-class Yuppie telling them how to become a lawyer. If anything's going to send them over the edge into the oblivion of a tube of Uhu in a paper bag, I reckon that would do it.

Most seven-year-olds I know haven't even got a clue if they want fish fingers or cocoa pops for their afternoon tea, let alone what career path they want to follow in 15 years time.

I was unusual. At the age of eight I had decided that I was going to be (not "wanted to be", note) a journalist. I later qualified that to say 'journalism or advertising' (since then I've had a go at both and now earn my crust doing something like a hybrid of the two).

But at seven, I wanted to design theatre sets. And tame lions. And be the Queen of the World. And be Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds. And a Womble. And still be home in time for my tea-time boiled egg with toast soldiers.

A quick poll of friends and acquaintances revealed an interesting selection of their seven-year-old ambitions: nurse, puppeteer, vet, fighter pilot, hairdresser, pirate, spy, fairy, drummer, princess, paleontologist, footballer, astronaut, pink pony (yes, I know - and she seems SO normal now), doctor, international telephone operator.... stripper.

To my knowledge, none of them are now doing what they planned all those years ago.

So WHY did some genius in the Ministry of Education think it would be a good idea to heap yet more stress on seven-year olds already teetering on the precipice of SATS-induced breakdowns and nervous exhaustion by expecting them to have a life plan drawn up before Blue Peter and Jackanory are over?

Can't they just let them be kids? There's only one time of our lives when we can enjoy (without guilt or embarrassment) the sheer joy of building a teepee in the garden with some bean sticks and an old blanket, making a Dalek in the shed, or simply spinning round and round until you fall over laughing like a loon for no reason other than the thrill of silly dizziness.

My son summed it up pretty well five years ago. When I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he answered "I don't WANT to grow up. I want to stay seven forever."

Out of the mouths of babes, and all that...

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Mirror, mirror

Human vanity never ceases to amaze me.

I just can’t understand the lengths to which more and more folk are prepared to go, and the pain they are prepared to endure, to become someone else’s idea of ‘perfect’.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m as vain as the next not-so-yummy mummy trying to beat off the ravages of time and too many cheese pies as she hurtles towards her 45th birthday.


Every morning I apply slap to my face and try to tease my hair (recently butchered by my usually trustworthy hairdresser in a fit of snip-happy enthusiasm) into some semblance of sassy smart, and I try to avoid clothes that make me look like a pregnant hippo on heat.

I would LOVE to look like the gorgeous creatures that populate the pages of the magazines and TV screens. But I’m also a realist.

Reality is that I am something like a cross between Xena the Warrior Princess crossed with a Rubens’ muse or one of those larger-than-life ladies that Beryl Cook used to paint. My hands are an un-manicured disgrace, and my eyebrows look more like a healthy rain forest than a neatly kept lawn (someone once asked me why I don’t pluck them – the answer’s simple: It bloody hurts!).

To become anywhere near the so-called ideal everyone seems to aspire to these days would take far more time, money and dedication than I have to spare. And pain, incredible pain.

And for what? To become yet another clone to have had every last milligramme of fat hoovered out of my body (making me look like a famine victim, with eyes and teeth too big for my head)? To get arms and legs like pipe-cleaners that shatter the minute someone sneezes too hard on them? To eliminate all feminine curves (except for the obligatory augmented boobs) in order to look fabulous in clothes I can’t afford anyway?

No. Quite honestly, I can’t be bothered.

Though I moan on a regular basis to my long-suffering Other Half about the bulk of my considerable behind, the expanse of my upper thighs or the unstoppable creep of my double chin, I’m just not prepared to sacrifice everything to adopt the “Me! Me! Me!” attitude that it would take to make me ‘perfect’.


I DO care about my health. Though I have the occasional food splurge, I generally eat healthily. I don’t smoke (even though most skinny bints recommend it to keep the kilos at bay). And I take a brisk hour's walk almost every day. It hardly puts me into the same category as fitness-Queen Madonna, I know, but it seems to be keeping me healthy. I just happen to be healthily imperfect.

The idea of someone wrapping a band round my stomach to ensure I writhe in agony and throw up every time I swallow more than a thimble-full of soup does not appeal (that kind of aversion therapy is not for me - I ENJOY food too much). So that's not an option.


And anyway, I don’t find the half-starved, pre-pubescent look teamed with plastic bazookas, an orange tinted fake-bake tan and too much blusher attractive (but maybe it's just me?).

It’s no longer just us girls that have fallen into the quest-for-perfection trap. The man who made my cappuccino when I stopped off my way to work this morning had clearly had a recent hair weave. It looked like his head had been covered in a fine dusting of candy floss, which was then trimmed, had a precise hairline added with the help of a geometry set, and was sprayed with super-strength lacquer. Not a good look. I wanted to look him in the eye and say “Why?”. But – softy that I am – I couldn’t do it. Obviously, he thought it was worth it, so who am I to shatter his illusions?

Let’s face it, very few of us are truly beautiful. Just like very few are really ugly. Most of us are just average, ordinary, with some good points and a few bad ones.

So why this obsession with physical perfection, which so often ends with its victims looking like Comic Book caricatures of themselves and the loss of any ability to express emotion?

Is it to get a man (or woman)? No, most of us manage to find someone even when we’re far from perfect.

Is it to achieve success? Doubt it, as relatively few of us are top models and manage to make a living through brains, ability and hard work.
Is it to boost our own self-confidence? Possibly. I know I’d feel much better if I was a Size 10 with bumps only in the right places. And yet, all my skinny friends are always moaning – to me! – about how much they’ve let themselves go.

Back in the prehistoric, free-lovin’ hippy days of the late ‘60s, there was a song that said “If you can’t be with the one you love, Love the one you’re with”. Maybe now, 40 years on, we need to adapt that to “If you can’t be the one you love, Love the one you is.”?



Thursday, 15 October 2009

Please girls, pick a role model - not a topless one

When I was a little girl, I wanted to be just like Tammy.
Tammy was my Mum's Canadian cousin. She was pretty (long straight black hair), very cool, happily married (to Dermott, who carried off his mid-'70s facial hair SO well), and as smart a cookie as you could hope to find. Oh, and she worked as an Editor for The Toronto Star. Not a bad role model, eh?

These days, there seems to be a bit of a problem with role models for young impressionable girls - and that worries me. Most of the public figures young girls are inspired by seem to be admired simply for being famous, rather than for any significant acheivement or talent.

"Girl Power" should be a declaration of independence and dynamism. However, all too often it seems to be be more about emaciation than emancipation. Perhaps it's simply a code for overt sexuality, usually supported by stick-thin bodies, surgically enhanced boobs and an almost psychotic need to air their dirty laundry in the pages of the tabloids.

"She's such a good mother - you can see she really loves her kids" is also an oft-quoted justification for someone being held up as a role model. Fair enough, but the same applies to thousands of other mums - including my own - who face much greater challenges than those "yummy mummies" (I shudder at that phrase) the next generation of girls aspire to aping.

I'm not saying that we should deny our feminity (I'm as attached to my lipstick and mascara as the next girl). I just feel there's so much more to women than these two-dimensional role models represent. Isn't it better to be known for something you've done rather than simply slotting into a tabloid cliche?

That's why I was heartened this week to read about 22-year-old Emily Cummins, a Business Management student at the University of Leeds, who has been named one of the Women of the Year for inventing a 'sustainable' fridge. Her prototype fridge, which does not need electricity, was designed for use in the developing world and was refined during a gap-year visit to Namibia. It works by harnessing energy from the sun to cool medicines and other small items using evaporation.

Emily has been making things since her grandfather handed her a hammer when she was four (go, Grandad!). She has been an inventor since the age of 15.

Judging from her photo, Emily is a pretty girl (which is nice). But most importantly she is a girl with a brain and a conscience, and she is willing to make the effort to do something that could - even if in just a small way - change the world. (You can read more about her at http://www.emilycummins.co.uk)

Now, who would YOU prefer your daughter or neice to be inspired by - someone like Emily Cummins or some woman whose private life we know intimately through the pages of junk 'celebrity' magazines?

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Election Day blues

When I first arrived I Greece in 1989, I stepped off the boat into the noisy, passionate turmoil that marks the lead-up to a National Election. I have now lived through eight General Elections (not to mention countless local & Euro votes) - and we’re about to have No.9.

Even though my first experience of the pre-vote melee was not in the big city, but rather the island of Samos, it was a cacophonous affair. Day after day, the town square next to the office where I worked was packed with party faithful of different hues, yelling into megaphones, waving their flags, and generally making it hard for me to book excursions for the well-meaning tourists I was supposed to be there to serve.

Every Greek I met wore his or her political allegiance - like their heart - on the sleeve. Even though my grasp of the language was minimal at the time, it wasn’t hard for me to understand that politics was a serious – and very public - business. Even if they didn’t wear a party badge, their choice of daily newspaper shouted out their preference.

It was all a little overwhelming for a green 24-year-old freshly arrived from a country and culture where it was just “not good form” to talk about politics, religion or money.

The result of that first election I experienced in June ’89 was a hung Parliament - and another national vote just five months later. Since then, there have been more (many more) in 1990, 1993, 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2007.

This Sunday, Greeks go to the polls again.
Much to my chagrin, I won’t be joining them.

Despite being a fully paid-up member of Greek society, paying taxes for more years than today’s first-time voters have been alive, I don’t have the right to cast a vote for my Parliamentary representative in Greece. As an EU citizen, I can vote in local & Euro-elections, but not the national ones. To do so, I would have to take Greek nationality and that would mean surrendering my British passport.

I COULD use my right to a postal vote in the UK, but it seems wrong somehow when I haven't lived there for more than two decades.


So much for "no taxation without representation".

Surely if we are supposed to have a united Europe, there's an argument for letting EU citizens vote, wherever in they the Union may be?

It’s all very frustrating. I’ve always been a political creature, and I follow Greek, British and world politics closely. Many’s the time I have become embroiled in a heated discussion (occasionally lubricated by the odd glass of plonk), and had to be dragged away by loyal friends who save me from the consequences of trying to convert to unconvertable.

I have a healthy disdain for most politicians, but I’m passionate about politics. And I don’t want that to change. Apathy is an anathema to me. In politics, apathy is a creeping danger which entices us to roll over, play dead and leave the way clear for the not-so-democratic power hungry to stroll in and take over.

The British have raised indifference to an art form. A frightening number of people in the UK respond to a politic debate with a wave of their hand and “Oh. I’m not interested in politics”, before they scramble to the phone to vote for their favourite on Big Brother, Britain’s Got Talent or Strictly Come Dancing.
(Shome mishtake, shurely?)

But what REALLY worries me if the fact that I am seeing more and more Greeks going the same way. Yes. Greeks. Noisy, shouting, passionate, snarly, banner-waving Greeks. Disillusionment has set in, and now that the vote is no longer compulsory (and the memory of a military dictatorship fades into the past), there seems to be a growing number who simply won't bother to make their trip to the polling station on Sunday.

I could be wrong. I HOPE I’m wrong.

Athens Portraits: The (Loud) Voice of the People

In case you didn’t know (or don't have a friendly Greek to remind you), Athens is where Democracy was born.
And 2,500 years later, you’ll find no shortage of folk ready and willing to exercise their democratic right to protest – loudly, and often.

Every week, somewhere in Down Town Athens, you’ll find a group of demonstrators making their feelings felt by marching down the street, banners in hand, chanting and banging on drums.

It’s part of the tradition of resistance in one of the few countries to have a National Day celebrating a famous “No” from its history (Prime Minister Metaxa’s reply on 28 October 1940 when Mussolini asked him to hand the country over).

So, don’t be surprised if you leave Syntagma Metro station, or step off the bus at Klathmonos Square, to find a mob of snarling students, furious farmers, cross college professors, growling grandfathers, livid lawyers or enraged ecologists chanting slogans and waving banners declaring “Hands off our pensions/jobs/education/forests” (take your pick).

Protests are frequent, noisy and disruptive for anyone who needs to get somewhere in a hurry. Streets are blocked off, shops close, traffic is diverted, and knots of riot police gather at strategic spots - just in case something gets out of hand.

Most of the time, they don’t. But there are times – like the anniversary of the storming of the Polytechnic on 17 November 1973 which sparked the fall of the dictatorship, or last December’s riots after the police shooting of a teenager in Exarchia – when it can get serious. Stones are thrown, shop windows smashed, rubbish bins set alight, cars overturned and Molotov cocktails hurled, prompting Kevlar-clad police to respond with batons and tear gas.

Every demonstration will include the ‘usual suspects’ like the organised anarchists (surely a contradiction of terms?), political agitators, those who just enjoy the thrill of the fight, and rubber-necking spectators keen to get a whiff of the action.



But there are also dozens of civil servants, teachers, students, utility workers and more who voice their outrage about the injustices and outrages that affect them.

At least, until the next day, when those same ordinary men and women will complain bitterly over their coffee about the ‘trouble-makers’ disrupting the city and stopping them from getting to work on time.

(Don't go expecting anything to change after this Sunday's General Election. Street protests and demos are a fact of life in Athens, regardless of who's in power.)

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Feline good

If I’m going to be reincarnated, I want to come back as a cat.

But not any old cat – I want to come back as a pampered puss who is fed on demand, given the run of the place and is never expected to contribute anything more than a purr. In short, I want me as an owner.

There’s something ridiculously hedonistic about cats. They just wallow in the sheer sensual pleasure of whatever feels good, right now. They have no embarrassment about it, no “Sorry, could you just hang on a mo’. I just want to... oh, that feels SOOOO good”.

No, when a cat is in his or her personal pleasure zone, the rest of the world can just go to blazes. Their gratification comes first.

Dogs, on the other hand, seek our permission to enjoy themselves. And then, when given leave to go for it, they launch themselves into it with unbridled joy and enthusiasm, tinged with disbelief at being given the go-ahead to enjoy themselves.

Not so cats, they are much cooler about the whole thing. Their pleasure is not something we bestow on them – it is theirs by divine right and there’s no need to make a big deal about it. The cat’s creed is: If it feels good, do it (and sod the rest of them). It’s as simple as that.

We don’t own cats, they simply deign to accept us as their chosen humans, to act as their hand-servants while allowing us to bask in the reflected glow of their regal glory. So don’t expect to gain your cat’s respect or be able to command it to do anything. Where your dog will sit there with his tongue hanging out eagerly lapping up every word you utter, the best you can expect from a cat is ‘Yeah, whatever. Have you finished?’

Having said that, your average cat doesn’t ask much from us to fill its everyday pleasure quota. So long as they are fed on demand and allowed to bugger off whenever the mood takes them, they are perfectly capable of gratifying themselves, thank you very much.

The simple act of keeping clean seems to be the ultimate sensual experience for your feline friend (let’s face it, if you could reach the parts they can, you would, wouldn’t you?). I read somewhere that cats lose more fluid every day washing themselves than they do through urine. That sounds unbelievable but if you think about it, it makes sense. They spend hour after hour licking every conceivable part of their body (usually in full view of your more squeamish visitors) and smoothing themselves into a stupour of satisfaction. And when they’re done they sit there blinking at you with a look of almost Buddha-like serenity.

Yup, I definitely wanna come back as a cat.


Thursday, 24 September 2009

Putting your best foot forward

One of the things that makes me proud to be British is our attitude to good causes. As a nation, we have a knack of combining fun with philanthropy.

Growing up, every year I would pester family, friends, neighbours and my parents’ workmates to sponsor me in my latest charity efforts. Many miles were walked, often in full costume (once, running a fever and dressed as the nursery rhyme ‘Hickory Dickory Dock’ in a masterpiece crafted by my dad from a cardboard box). Endless lengths were swum – once with a rubber duck in tow. Ping-pong rallies were batted back and forth. Spelling marathons were tackled. Silences were observed.

For some reason, potential sponsors seemed keener to back my little sister for Sponsored Silences than they did me for Sponsored Swims. Maybe because she was cuter than me as a kid? Or perhaps because they reckoned she would give up keeping schtum long before I stopped churning up and down the local pool. My stubborness was always an asset in such efforts, much to the shock of my mother’s well-meaning boss who had agreed to a generous amount per length (“She swam HOW far?”).

Many British celebrities are willing to literally go the extra mile or make utter fools of themselves for a good cause. Most recently, comedian/actor Eddie Izzard completed 43 marathon runs in 51 days around the UK, raising money for Sports Aid (you can still sponsor him at
http://comicrelief.com/donate/eddie ). It was amazing, admirable and awe-inspiring.

I’m just a little worried that it may belittle the efforts of mere mortals like my Twitter Pal Fiona who will be participating in the Great South Run on 25 October in aid of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (sponsor her at
http://www.justgiving.com/fionaflaherty1/ ). If Izzard - until now not known for his athletic prowess - can run over 1,100 miles in less than two months, maybe the response to less headline-grabbing attempts might be “You’re running a marathon? Good for you. Just the one, is it? Right. And will you be juggling kittens, or on stilts? No? OK then. Yes, I suppose I could sponsor you.” You get the support, but you also get the feeling that they think they’re getting pretty poor value for money. (Bear in mind, however, that Izzard had the luxury of being able to devote the full 51 days to his efforts. Other folk, like Fiona, have babies to care for, families to raise, 9-to-5 jobs to turn up at.)

STOP PRESS: I just learned that my nephew and his girlfriend will be running 10K in aid of CHASE Hospital Care for Children on 1 November. Good on yer, Peter & Alex! Sponsor them at http://www.justgiving.com/loseley

Here in Greece, such efforts are virtually unheard of. It’s not that Greeks are not generous – they are, sometimes to a fault. It’s just that they don’t have any tradition of individual efforts (often at the cost of personal dignity) in the name of charity. Fund raisers tend to be overtly noble events, with national celebs wheeled out to look serious and tearful on TV, and not a dot of silliness in sight. We have an annual marathon – THE original Classic Marathon, run along the same route that ended with the hapless messenger uttering ‘We won’ before dropping dead all those years ago – but you won’t see any comedy costumes struggling towards the finishing line in aid of their favourite charity.

This presents me with a bit of a problem. Over the past few months, I’ve been making myself walk for at least an hour every day. I have come to realise that putting one foot in front of the other, and to keep doing it, is no big deal - and it offers plenty of benefits. I’m stronger, a little leaner (though no lighter, much to my chagrin), and much more relaxed. I have thought that the next stage might be to start running, but I’m a little worried that my pounding the pavements might spark an earthquake alert in Athens.

What does seem natural – and do-able - is a Sponsored Walk in aid of some worthy cause. But when I mentioned it to my Other Half, he looked at me and shook his head.


He’s right, the typical Greek response might be: “You’re going to walk all day. Why? For someone else? And you want ME to pay you for it? Forget that, come and have a coffee – we can do our bit for charity by buying some UNICEF exercise books for our kids.”

Like I said, Greeks have no shortage of charitable sentiments – they’re simply not used to this particular form of giving. I’m sure that once they get over the “We don’t do things that way” barrier, they would happily cough up – even in these cash-strapped times.

Now, I may regret this. But if anyone has any ideas (events for me to participate in, good causes to do it for, etc.), I’m willing to put my best foot forward so long as you are willing to put your money where my trainers go.

Just don’t expect any “Iron Man Triathlons”. “Wobbly Woman” is more my style…




Wednesday, 23 September 2009

The Secret Diary of a Transplanted Brit-Chick, aged 44 & 3/4

Tuesday, 22 September 2009
Caffeine intake: Too much
Alcohol intake: Not enough
Days since stopped smoking: 1,168 (v.good)
Cigarettes smoked: 0 (v.v. good)
Cigarettes craved: 93 (not so good)
Stray hairs plucked: 4
Kilometres walked: 7
Chocolates eaten: 0 (am v. virtuous)
Weight: Don’t even go there – km walked & chocs not scoffed having no effect


Dear Diary,

I know it’s not really the ‘done thing’ to start a diary in September, but I only came across you this week when I ventured into the Black Pit (a.k.a. the spare room, where all manner of junk goes to die – or breed, not sure which) to unearth an exercise book that No.1 (& Only) Son needed for school. There you were, winking at me innocently from atop of a pile of free never-to-be-watched DVDs, silently accusing me of my good intentions back in January.

Well, better late than never.

S'pose I’d better introduce myself first (it’s only polite after all).
I was born in the south of England at the end of 1964, which means I am part of Generation X (sounds much more interesting than “Hello, I’m from Surrey”). In 1989, after a stupid marriage that went pear-shaped and a series of disastrous attempts at relationships, I threw a wobbly about men, Britain, my brilliant career (ha!), etc. and packed it all in to come to Greece for six months.
Or so I thought.
Then I met Nikos – and 20 years later, we’re married with a millstone-like mortgage and a 12-year-old son to show for it.

Thanks to millstone, and habit of a lifetime, I’m a working mum. Since hitting the big 4-0, all illusions of immortality melted away, so I try to eat right, exercise every day and keep off the demon fags. Oh, AND look drop-dead gorgeous at all times and keep my man happy in every room of the house (remember what Jerry Hall had to say about the bedroom, the kitchen, etc?).

Yeah, right…

That’s the Cosmo-inspired dream. Reality bites. I keep thinking about having a mid-life crisis, but I never seem to have the time.

Aaaannnnyway… today.

Erm.
Ignore 7am alarm, crawl out of bed at 7.15, kick No.1 Son out of bed & have argument about breakfast/schoolwear/homework, reject last night’s outfit choice, empty wardrobe in search of perfect emsemble, revert to last night’s choice, slap gloop on face. No.1 ignores my pleas for kiss before leaving, Other Half snores through my parting hug and I stumble out door and head for bus stop. Feel invisible (quite an achievement when you’re 5 ft 10 and unmentionable dress size).

Athens public transport for hour’s trip to office. Sit-down on bus (good, chance to read & look intelligent), stand all the way on train (bad, blisters already bubbling in new shoes). Try to adopt confident, casual and sashaying walk from station to office. Stumble over unseen pothole, lose all credibility, try to slink unnoticed to desk.

Eight hours tapping away, trying to look industrial, bashing out words for other people. Then home-time. Rewind morning commute.

Decide to be v
irtuous and walk last 20 mins from station to house. Regret decision 5 mins later as new-shoes blisters re-awaken.

Home to OH & No.1. They ignore me. Teenage pursuits and YET MORE shouty Greek party political blah on telly (elections in coupla weeks - hooray!) far more interesting than me. Make tea, ignore messy kitchen, and dive into cyberspace in a sulk.

Tired, time for bed. Bored. Restless. Can’t sleep. Remember washing not done, unironed clothes, bills not paid, zits not squeezed. Get up and shave legs. Hunt for Band Aid to stem gushing flow of blood from nicked ankle. Compromise with toilet paper. Fall back into bed.

(Note to self: Must make future diary entries more interesting – anyone who finds diary will think am most boring middle-aged wimp ever.)

Wednesday, 23 September:
Alarm screams at 7am. Hit the snooze button. 07.05 Bleeping alarm again. OH opens eyes, asks “Why’ve you gone half a loo roll wrapped round your leg?”, goes back to sleep.

Get up, turn on light in No.1’s bedroom, shower, kick No.1 out of bed….


Hey ho! Another day, another Drachma (oops, sorry, Euro).


[THE SECRET DIARY OF A TRANSPLANTED BRIT-CHICK, AGED 44 & 3/4 WILL CONTINUE AT http://transplantedbritchick.blogspot.com/]

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Hell in a handbag

Who was it that decreed, some time in the past century, that us ladies must carry bags?

I know I'm probably in the minority, but I hate handbags.

I hate the fact that I am obliged to carry one whenever I leave the house - ready for my boys to dump all manner of stuff on me so they can stroll along unfettered. Meanwhile, I have to struggle along with the leather monstrosity weighing me down, giving me a peculiarly lop-sided gait of the handbag hod-carrier (sometimes it takes all my strength just to stop going round and round in gravity-dictated circles).

I hate the fact that I am expected to coordinate my bags with whatever I'm wearing. Switching bags to accommodate my change from drop-dead red ("Lookatme!") to earthy neutrals ("I'll just sit here in the corner, don't mind me") nearly always results in me ending up wherever I'm going without the everyday essentials we're told we can't do without (keys, phone, money, sanitary - umm - essentials, etc.).
You can bet your Prada that the one time I will need to produce my Residence Permit to avoid being dumped in a police van and shipped off to Sierra Leone, it will be a day when I've switched bags and left it on the kitchen table.

I hate the fact that I can't do normal human things, like run for a bus or bend down to pet a cat, without the Quasimodo-like bulk on my shoulder flapping about or slipping down, making me as coordinated as a Womble on heat (and bashing the poor cat in the face into the bargain).

But most of all, I hate the fact that handbags turn into portable black holes, drawing in all the debris and detritus of modern life with no rhyme or reason. Along with the old train tickets, sweet wrappers, leaky biros, forgotten reminders on Post-It notes, defunct shopping lists and neglected bills, there's always a pile of utterly inexplicable stuff in there.
It's like somewhere at the bottom (maybe that hole in the lining I keep meaning to stitch up) there is a portal to another dimension that let's in all those little metal widgets with no apparent purpose, random fluff, a disposal nappy (worrying, as my son is now at High School), assorted leaves and seeds, maybe the odd small furry creature from Alpha Centauri...

Can't I just stuff it all in my pockets? Or better yet, get my Other Half a Manbag?

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Confessions of a sloven (Look away, Nigella!)

Try as I might, I just don’t cut it as a Domestic Goddess. I haven’t got that Secret Ingredient at the stove top, ironing board, kitchen sink, child’s bedside, etc. that the armies of Size Zero super-mummies the media bombard us seem to manage so effortlessly.

Really, I'm nobody’s idea of a Stepford Wife.


You want proof? Well, as I write these words my 12-year-old’s bedroom (tidied by himself) is the neatest and cleanest room in the house.

Yes, it’s THAT bad.

Today is one of the days I work from home - which is great. Or at least it would be if I didn’t have an over-developed sense of guilt. I'm having great trouble focusing on the stuff those lovely people pay me to do – largely thanks to overflowing rubbish bins, a Himalayan mound of ironing, scraps of paper confetti-ed around the place, leaning towers of pizza plates, school books yet to be wrapped in sticky-back plastic, bills to be paid, and a bathroom crying out for a bottle of bleach and a scrubbing brush.

I’ve always been a little bit of an over-achiever and tend to approach most new challenges with a Gung Ho! “How hard can it be?” attitude. So, it really riles when I fail to live up to the post-feminist icon of a Woman for All Seasons. I tell myself that there is no reason I can’t be that fabled hybrid of Career Woman/Earth Mother/Eco Warrior/Social Activist/Stand-up Comic/Champion Triathlete/Intellectual/Sex Kitten. If they can do it in the pages of Cosmopolitan, why can’t I?

Then reality kicks in, and I have to face the fact that the best I can hope for is to deliver the goods as a 9-to-5er, make sure the sprog isn’t starving or in tears, and recycle when I remember to. I must have inherited my dad’s slob-genes rather than my mum’s frighteningly-organised domestic DNA that would put a whole army of Nigella Lawsons to shame.


And the sparkling wit? Well, I can deliver the occasional one-liner when sitting down, if that counts.

I tell myself that all this guilt is a waste of time and energy. That I am an accomplished, gutsy, unique woman with oodles of va-va-voom. That I should focus on one thing at a time without beating myself up about the other stuff.

And as my gaze strays above the laptop screen to the chaos beyond, I decide there is just one answer.

I need a wife.
Someone to take care of the mundane, necessary chores of everyday existence. Someone to make sure there is food in the cupboard, that bills are paid, clothes are ironed and the milk in the fridge is not on its way to becoming cheese. Someone to soothe my fevered brow and make a fuss of me when I walk in the door at the end of the day…

…and then, I wake up.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Answers on a postcard please

Proof positive, if it was needed, that it's always worth keeping your eyes open - even on your mundane walk home from the office.

This sight caught my attention yesterday (well it would, wouldn't it?), and I reckon it is a natural for a Caption Competition. There are no prizes, just the kudos of being a Smart Alec and making me smile.

So, if any of your clever people out there have any ideas, let me know...

Friday, 4 September 2009

Snarling shouty people

The volume levels in Greece are rising - and they're not going to get any quieter for at least a month.

As announced by the PM this week, there'll be a General Election here on 4 October. And that means that our TV screens will be EVEN MORE dominated by politicos and pundits - all competing fiercely for a share of the voting public's consciousness.

Let the shouting begin.

Greeks are generally not known for their low-key nature. They're a demonstrative lot, given to fast and furious speech littered with expansive hand gestures. When I first arrived 20 years ago, I found them a little intimidating. It probably didn’t help that I got off the plane to find myself in the midst of a strike - all around me people were waving their arms and shouting.

I quickly learned that passions run high here. Voices are raised, moustaches quiver, faces turn red. Any minute, you expect to see daggers drawn and blood spilt. But then, they roar with laughter and embrace like brothers. It was a powerful incentive to learn Greek. Once I started to understand the Greek language and character I realised that they’re not at each others’ throats – well, at least, not all the time.

But the standard hub-bub of Greek life reaches a pandemonic fever pitch when politics is under discussion - so you can imagine the volume levels in the run-up to an election.

Campaign vans tour the streets of quiet neighbourhoods at all hours shattering the peace with strident calls to the polls, letter boxes are crammed with tons of election literature destined to never be read, every day brings a new party rallies to disrupt downtown traffic, office gossip switches from the trials of Toula to the flaws and failings of the would-be leaders of the country, and the TV simply becomes unwatchable.

Wall-to-wall coverage of the various parties' campaign trails, cheek-by-jowl with the inevitable innane Party Political Broadcasts (covering the full range from Seemingly Sensible to the Daft & Deluded), are just part of the telly-menu as we approach Election Sunday.

And perhaps worse from my point of view, a feature peculiar to Greek news shows goes into hyperactive overdrive. I'm talking about the so-called "windows" in which up to six guests are shown in little boxes on the screen to debate an issue of the day - a debate which consists of everyone yelling at once in a bid to convert the hapless electorate to their point of view. We, the viewers, are supposed to come away more informed and aware, but the philosophy seems to be "He who yells, wins".

I should be used to it by now, but I'm not. I grew up in a country where it's considered "bad form" to discuss politics, a nation which seems to have raised political indifference to an art form in recent years.

In some ways, I admire the Greek passion for politics - I just wish we could bypass the snarling shouty people...

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Rules for an ‘Above Average’ Life

I seem to have spent most of my life boringly ‘above average’. School grades, height, bumps and bruises, weight, and more…

And now, I suppose I am reaching ‘above average’ in terms of age. I have to come to terms with the undeniable fact that Middle Age is looming on the horizon like some kind of monolith that we all try to ignore but which casts a shadow over everything. And if I should dare to forget, my son is ready and willing to remind me.

Over the years, I have realised that there are a few simple ground rules that can help you make it through (and even enjoy) an ‘above average’ life without making much more than an average arse of yourself. And being a generous soul, I’ve decided to share them:

* Develop a sense of humour that’s WAY above average. You’re gonna need it.
(It’s better to beat others to taking the piss by choosing your own self-deprecating insults - you may even make it through adolescence)

* Don’t expect men to open doors or carry bags for you. You will have a very long wait.

* Get used to the fact that shorties will see anyone above average in height as their own personal fetch & carry slaves.
(On the plus side, you get a great view of their neglected roots or bald patches - good material for your sense of humour)

* Most men will never consider you ‘cute’ or ‘sweet’ as long as you are their equal (or more) in height, weight and IQ. That’s their problem, not yours.

* If you’re chunky around the hips and thighs, don’t EVEN think about wearing leggings – even with a long top. You will simply look like a fatty in denial.

* You will never be able to hide in the corner or disappear in a crowd, so enjoy standing out for reasons you decide - a drop-dead red lipstick, a brilliant long tailcoat (shorties can’t carry them off), an infectious laugh or sparkling eyes.

* Unless you’re aiming for the “frumpy, dumpy” look, don’t fall into the neutral and pastels trap. You won’t blend into the background - you’ll look like a lost pink elephant.

* Resist the urge to beat your petite girlfriends to a pulp every time they start moaning about their weight or agonising about cellulite (while chomping on a chocolate ├ęclair). They probably envy your height, your cleavage, your ready wit – or perhaps the fact that you shove your way through a crowd without risking serious injury.

* Stop obsessing about numbers. Sizes, calories, kilos, et al don’t matter so long as you’re healthy and happy (OK, you can check your cholesterol, BP and bank account now and then).

* Avoid frills, flounces, bows and large florals like the plague – unless you want to look like Auntie Florrie’s three piece suite (complete with antimacassars).

* Stop reading women’s magazines – stories of ladies whose total weight is less than your left thigh can only end in tears.

* Enjoy your life – who wants to be ‘average’ after all?

Monday, 31 August 2009

Changing gear

Am I the only one you feels like September is more of a New Year than January?

The long summer days are noticably shorter, schools are reopening, workmates are returning to the offices, tans are fading and a small hint of cool has crept into the early morning air. Things will soon start feeling fresh and renewed after a long hot dusty Greek summer.

In the next ten days, we’ll have to pack up our belongings from the little house by the sea where we’ve been camped out (and commuted from) since late June and return to the grime of the city. And waiting for us there will be parched plants to be revived, piles of bills to be paid, school supplies to be purchased, sports clubs to sign up for, and empty larders to be filled.

We’ve done almost everything al fresco in the past two and half months – even showers are open to the elements, the lazy buzz of passing insects and the tickle of stray strands of honeysuckle. Indoors in the country is strictly for sleeping during summer.

September is one of the best months in Greece – the strong summer winds that fan forest fires have blown themselves out, the weather is blissfully warm without making you break a sweat just toweling off after a shower, and the sea is clear and calm.

And yet, it’s also the month that will bring that fresh note to the mornings, marking the end of summer’s lazy dog days. My floppy sun-bleached mop will be tamed, helped by an emergency trip to the hairdressers to make me look at least half-way professional for a business meeting. Bare tanned feet will swap strappy sandals for closed shoes. And, little by little, more make-up will be needed to make me look alive at 7am.

Gradually, the curtain down will come down on our seasonal outdoors life.

It will also mark a return to our own bed, our own space, a shorter (and cheaper) commute to work, and fewer people fighting for control of the TV remote control. School friendships will be revived, I will reclaim my own kitchen - and before we know it we’ll be back to the work-school-home routine.

But before that happens, I hope there are just a few more days on the beach…

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Hello, goodbye

I fell in love this summer. And like most holiday romances, it was sweet, tender and short-lived.

Less typically, the object of my affections (and that of my hubby and son too), had four legs, huge eyes, a furry face and fitted into the palm of your hand.

It all started one week into my 'staycation' at my in-laws' country house about an hour north of Athens. For a couple of days we had been hearing the plaintiff cries of a kitten somewhere nearby. My Other Half, bless 'im, decided he couldn't leave the poor thing in distress and set about trying to find the source of the pathetic mews. He soon found it, in a closed storage space under the stairs in the abandoned house next door.

He emerged with a tiny, terrified, trembling ball of tabby and white fluff, with one huge blue eye and a swelling the size of a marble where the other should have been. Cleaning her up revealed an infected cut under her eye - and it also relieved the swelling and showed another frightened eye blinking at us and mutely begging for help.

At most, she was two weeks old - an age when she should still be with her Mum, who was nowhere to be seen. My maternal instincts kicked in the minute I clapped eyes on her.

Hubby named her "Skala". Greek for the stairs under which he found her, and we set about trying to find ways to feed her, and make sure she could thrive. The vet wasn't optimistic - she was dehydrated and way too young to have much chance of surviving being separated from her mother.

And yet, over the course of the next two weeks, she rallied. Her eye healed, daily saline injections according to the vet's instructions replaced her lost fluids, she started eating from a tiny baby's bottle, and - after a couple of false starts - she started trotting around. Hugs were a big favourite, and she would clamber up to your neck where she would snuggle up, or she'd sit on your chest and intensely study your face with a gaze filled with trust and determination. She even started making efforts to clamber out of her box - something we saw as a sign that she was doing well and getting stronger.

Sadly, it was just that which was her downfall.

My son found her lifeless on the floor next to her box this morning. Apparently, she had climbed out and fallen badly, either hitting her head fatally or breaking her neck. Just a couple of hours before I had given her a full bottle of milk before leaving for work early in the morning.

So, today we are trying to get used to the idea that Skala was destined to be part of our little family for just a short while. Just as we had started to think that she would survive the rough start she had in life, her time with us ended.

She came, she stole our hearts, and then she was gone.

Friday, 7 August 2009

I'm outta here...

Summer breezes, inviting waves and afternoon naps are beckoning, and I'm ready - at last - to answer that call.

Although we're not going to go away to an island as we had hoped, for two weeks and two days, I'll focus on having a life rather than "making a living" (I think it was Maya Angelou who had something to say about the all-important difference between the two).

And that means going Internet cold turkey and withdrawing from cyber-space.

So try not to miss me - and don't worry, I'll be thinking of you all as I snorkel away and scoff squid at beachside tavernas.
(Yeah, right!)

Happy now?

"Nobody ever said life was easy," my Mum once told me. "But that doesn't mean it's not worth the effort."

That advice has been a pretty good guide to me so far. It has helped keep me plodding on at times when, quite frankly, it would have been easier to simply give up, curl up into a ball of self-pity and hide in the corner.

Though generally I consider myself a lucky person, there have been times when it was tempting to just stop in my tracks, flop to the floor, dissolve into tears and wail "Go'way. Leame 'lone!" to any well-meaning passers-by who encourage me to get up and carry on.

It's tempting - but you don't do it, do you?

We can all find reasons to feel sorry for ourselves. No life is without sorrow, real or imagined. And perhaps that's the way it should be? How else can we appreciate the good times if there are no bad times to throw them into bright sparkling contrast?

Though a lucky person, I could find plenty of reasons to feel despondent:
it's sometimes hard work being a transplanted Brit - I'll always be an outsider and nothing can change that;
I constantly battle between my pride in being different and my desperate desire to 'belong';
my self-esteem takes a hit every time I pass a mirror or see an unkind photo of myself;
my three soul sistahs (they should know who they are) are in the UK and it's been years since we were face-to-face;
I can't just pop in for a cuppa and natter with my Mum whenever I feel like it;
I still feel a failure because my first marriage went pear-shaped in the blink of an eye;
I miss my Dad desperately, nearly four years after cancer claimed him, and have no faith in the hereafter to offer comfort for that loss;
money is tight and it looks like it always will be;
my body is starting to betray me in ways I never knew before;
there are things I have never done and now never will;
I worry that people only pretend to like me;
I'm constantly waiting to be exposed as a fraud as folk discover I'm not really smart, funny, nice or interesting after all;
I don't get enough time with my Other Half and too many conversations are fraught with tension and worry;
I feel like the supporting cast in the drama of my life, rather that the female lead I yearn to be...

My woes are really not so bad. They're just what life is all about. But what I'm trying to say is that we all can find reasons to be miserable. Indeed, some make it their life's work (see http://shemeanswellbut.blogspot.com/2009/05/athens-portraits-eternal-martyr.html).

So why is it that some of the most positive people you will meet are those who have much more than their fair share to deal with? The terminally-ill who savour every sight, sound and sensation to its full. The young woman robbed of her mobility by a drunk driver, who now coaches an Under-16s wheelchair basketball team. The clinically-depressed who find a reason to get out of bed every day. The hippy chick who turned the triple-whammy of losing her job, relationship and home into a new beginning filled with the promise of new fruits and potential.

Maybe the reason is that those positive people have discovered that happiness does not lie in the big picture, but in the details?

The Big Picture is almost universally depressing - global warming, human rights trampled the world over, children abused, youth disengaged and disenchanted, wars raging every second of every day, world pandemics (real and imagines), financial collapse, urban isolation, rural decay.... the list goes on.

It's a wonder we don't all give up and jump off the nearest tall building. And yet we don't. Why?

Because happiness is not a reflection of the world around us. It's a mirror of what's going on within us, and it's also a state of mind.

As hinted at in the experiment in cheerfulness started this week (http://scienceofhappiness.co.uk), the secret is in the little things. The Science of Happiness asks participants to identify a single thing from the past 24 hours, every day. It could be the best cup of coffee, the smell of a fresh-mown lawn, a smile from a friend, or a moment of uninhibited silliness when no-one is looking (at least I hope no-one's looking when I bounce around the house belting out 'It's raining men' by the divine Weather Girls!). Then, throughout your day, think of that moment of happiness - and it should automatically raise your spririts, no matter how tough things might seem.

"Yeah, right" I hear you say. All very well when you're slaving away at a job you hate, it's pissing down, the cat's thrown up on your bed, kids are screaming, the car's broken down, your feet are covered with blisters and the Webster's Dictionary definition of pain has taken up residence in the whole left side of your head.

Believe me, I KNOW how hard it can be to think positive on days like that.

But what have you got to lose? It's worth a try. It doesn't have to be much, but just thinking about some of the things that make me smile did for me when I put together my own list (http://shemeanswellbut.blogspot.com/2009/05/reasons-to-be-cheerful.html) a while ago.

Life never WAS intended to be easy. The most rewarding things are often the most exhausting (just think of raising kids, or conquering that IKEA flat-pack construction). But we don't give up. The feeling of satisfaction when Junior does you proud, or when you finally get to put your knick-knacks in the new bookcase, would be nothing if we hadn't sworn and struggled over the nappies, homework and Allen keys to get there.

One of my favourite comics/actors, Eddie Izzard, seems to have the same 'keep on going' approach. Though known for plenty of things, his sporting prowess is not one of them. And yet, he is running more than a marathon EVERY DAY around the UK for the next 6 weeks or so, to raise money for Sport Relief. The first week brought blog shots of epic blisters - and yet he kept on going, fosusing on the good things of the experience and not the agony underfoot. (You can follow his blog and sponsor him for a great cause at http://www.eddieizzard.com/news/view.php?Id=38)

So, make the effort and get happy.

And if all else fails - smile (people will wonder what you've been up to).