Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Afternoon delight? Don't think so

It's struck again. That apathetic malaise that usually raises its ugly head in the afternoon - and I hate it.

I hate the fact that I’m sitting at my desk like a sack of potatoes, studiously ignoring those jobs on my “To Do” list that bore the socks off me and repeatedly pressing the email Send/Receive button in the hope that something more interesting will suddenly appear on my screen.

ut so far, nothing. Tipota, nada, rien.
In short, sweet Fanny Adams.

If it carries on like this, I may be forced to have a go at that article I have been pretending doesn't need to be written, in the vague hope it will go away and leave me in peace. Yawn!

I always tell my son that people who are often bored are boring themselves – someone with imagination will always find something interesting to pass the time.
But the truth is there are times when - despite the best will in the world - boredom strikes big time. For me, that usually happens between 3 and 6pm. What Douglas Adams called “the long tea-time of the soul”.

Most people seem to class themselves as either Early Birds or Night Owls. But I think I qualify as both, as I am equally functional early in the morning and late at night. I seem to be up for most things the world can throw at me the minute I roll out of bed first-thing, but still can be raring to go after midnight.

Trouble is, there has to be an energy dip somewhere during the day and unfortunately for me it usually comes at a time when I'm being paid by someone else to sit at my keyboard looking (sorry, being) industrious. It doesn’t help that rather than being in my own little office with a door that closes, my desk is in the middle of a an open plan area which means that every Tom, Dick and Harriet would (probably) notice if I started snoring.

So, those hours between lunch and home-time (now there’s a phrase that really harks back to my schooldays) are anything but “afternoon delight” for me.

I just keep hoping in vain that my In Box will suddenly light up with a message from someone big in publishing or showbiz who wants to make me a star and gives me truckloads of money. That would certainly wake me up!

Monday, 29 June 2009

Watch my lips

Some words just feel darned good to say. Regardless of what they mean, saying them feels good. They fill your mouth with meaty consonants and force your tongue to wrap its way around their vowels in a most satisfactory way.

Place names are a good example, with Azerbaijan and Bujumbura (capital of Burundi ) being particular favourites of mine. But there’s also Kolopetinitsa, Sourmena, Magoufana and a host of other Greek places. Trouble is, unless you’re giving detailed instructions for an extremely long and winding road trip, they’re not that easy to drop into your everyday conversation.

I have better luck, however, with some other Greek favourites. Take ‘bichlibidia’ for instance (a wonderful word describing ‘bits and pieces’). I love the way it dances its way around your mouth on its way to be heard. And, of course, I casually drop it into as many sentences as I possibly can.

When you ask for an ‘angalitsa’, it really does sound like you’re after a little cuddle (which you are). And, among other things, a ‘markoutsi’ is a garden hose but it is so much more fun to say than the rather pedestrian ‘lastiko’.

If you say that someone is talking ‘barboutsala’ it’s the Greek way of describing whatever they say as poppycock (in itself a terrific example from my native language).

Calling your neighbourhood skirt-chaser a ‘berbandis’ feels so much better than characterising him a ‘gynaikas’ (especially as there’s a chance that he may have to check it in his dictionary before he knows whether he should be offended or not).

And swearing in Greek feels SO much more fulfilling than it does in English. Aside from the fact that it feels less ‘naughty’, the meaty sounds of Greek ‘vrisidia’ or even ‘gamostavridia’ really make you feel like you mean it!

(Just don’t tell my son I said so....)

Friday, 26 June 2009

Behind the sofa

There are some things that instantly mark you out as someone who grew up in England during the 1970s.

Show me someone with vivid memories of hiding behind the sofa in delicious terror as the Dr Who theme tune played, and I'll show you someone now in their 40s. In other words, someone who should know better by now, but who probably still gets a little misty-eyed at the thought of Mr Ben, The Magic Roundabout,and the 'real' Blue Peter with John Noakes and Shep.

Despite growing up in Greece, my son has become a bit of a Dr Who fan, thanks to family trips to the UK for high days and holidays. But let's face it, today's revamped reloaded Doctor just isn't the same as it was back in the days of the delightfully wild-eyed Tom Baker, is it? It's just too polished, too professional, and the inside of the Tardis is just too flash to pass for the real thing.

The whole appeal of the Dr Who in the '70s was that it was believable enough to give us that thrill of fright that sent us scuttling behind the furniture, but naff enough not to give us sleepless nights.

And, of course, the Daleks were the mainstay as the baddies.

When I was about ten, we made a Dalek in our back garden. Me, my little sister and two cousins from down the road got together during the endless rainy afternoons of the English school summer holidays and made a Dalek. In the shed. Surrounded by bent bicycle wheels, broken spades, discarded badminton racquets, a deflated Space Hopper and forgotten seed packets, we upturned a plastic dustbin, stuck egg cartons and a sink plunger to it (bit of a challenge - even for Dad's heavy-duty masking tape) and tried to mount it on a bit of plywood perched on top of some roller skates.

Then, when it finally stopped raining, we burst out of the shed yelling "Exterminate! Exterminate!", pushing a rather dodgy-looking Dalek and trampling all over the soggy grass.

Mum was none too pleased.

The hitch came when we tried to take it down the garden steps to the back door. Major design flaw. Davos (or whatever the original creator of the Daleks was called) had failed to foresee the down-side of not being able to tackle stairs. Bit of a problem for an arch-villain, but somehow in keeping with the wonderful naffness of 1970s TV.

I'm just not quite sure how Dr Who, in all his Time Lordly wisdom, never worked out that all you had to to escape the baddies was to leg it upstairs.

But then, it never occurred to us either. When things got too scary round the Tardis, our refuge was always behind the sofa...

Thursday, 25 June 2009

The B word

Have you noticed that there are certain words that only a genuine Brit can say convincingly?

While there are oodles of words that have either been kidnapped or transplanted themselves into the mindset and culture of English-speaking people around the world (and even into some foreign languages), there are a few little gems that stubbornly refuse to sound right coming from any mouth other than that of a True Brit.

And for some reason, a lot of them seem to begin with the letter "B".

Think about it. For a start, there's the ubiquitous "bloody".
With a very few exceptions (and there are always exceptions), if an American says "bloody" he will either sound like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins or a horrible approximation of Hugh Grant (not sure which is worse, to be honest). But hand it back to someone who grew up in Britain (or perhaps an Aussie) and the word is comfortably back in its natural habitat.

The same goes for a whole load of other B words: bum, blimey, bugger (my Mum's fave), bottom (as in "ample") and many more that refuse to spring to mind right now.

(Taking a step back in the alphabet and for the benefit of my American friends, an "ass" is a donkey, not a backside. The right word - suitably round and meaty - is "arse".)

But my all-time favourite, and probably the most British of all B words, is the word that describes what certain lucky people (OK, some of them are talented, but certainly not all) get paid to talk: bollocks.
(Sorry Mum!)

Trying saying that in a Transatlantic accent!

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

A cynic's plea

“Does thinking the phrase ‘the God squad’ make me a bad person?” she said.
“Yes,” he replied, looking her squarely in the eye.
She shrugged her shoulders and thought if she was doomed anyway, she might as well go for a pound as for a penny...

Sometimes I wonder if my inner cynic makes me a bad person. It certainly lands me hot water time and time again in the game of family politics, and my native sarcasm just makes things worse.

Like 95% of the population of Greece, the family I married into is Orthodox Christian. I’m not.

I try to respect other peoples’ beliefs. Trouble is that it doesn’t always work the other way around. Though I’m prepared to make concessions, getting married and baptising our son in an Orthodox Church, I won’t fake personal piety and start genuflecting all over the place for anyone. And unfortunately, when cornered, I either state my case – loudly – or I get sarcy.

Even after two decades, my sweet but relentless mother-in-law has still not quite given up on me. She always reminds me of every important religious occasion - it seems like every other day is a ‘megali yiorti’ (a major festival). And when I got a new car to replace my faithful Fiat that went up in flames (that's another story), she wanted to bring in a priest to bless it!

To keep things sweet-smelling in my new ride, my Other Half installed an air freshener that resembled a ‘komboloi’ (worry beads). It was all a little too reminiscent of a Greek taxi cab for my taste, so I foolishly said – in front of his mother – that all we needed to complete the car’s Hellenic identity was its very own dashboard icon.

Sadly, the irony was lost on my mother-in-law who enthusiastically leapt on my suggestion – debating with herself which saint was the best one to protect my wheels, which monastery to go to buy it and where best to mount it so the doleful eyes on my 'protector' could follow me at every turn - while my Beloved sat there making “Serves you right” faces at me behind her back.

Another time I nearly gave her a heart attack while having a moan about a particularly pious neighbour who seems to consider me an aberration for not having converted to the One True Faith, but who I feel fails to show much compassion in her daily life.

“She gives me such looks, just because I’m a Pagan,” I ranted, meaning of course that I’m not Orthodox Christian.

You should have seen ma-in-law's face! Shock and horror was etched into every line, and her normally healthy glow paled to ashen white.

“You’re a Pagan?” she asked, in a tremulous voice.

Oh, when will I learn? Irony, sarcasm, dry humour, call it what you will – it’s lost on most Greeks, at least those of a certain age.

On the other hand, maybe I should consider slaughtering a rooster and dancing around the garden naked come the next full moon?

Now here comes the plea - remember, a cynic is nothing more than a disappointed idealist. Inside every one of us is a wide-eyed optimist dying to wake up to a kinder, brighter, fairer world. A world where diversity is embraced, everybody gets along - and sarcasm is valued, not misunderstood (we only start getting snide when we realise we have woken up to reality, honest).

So, be kind to the cynics in your life. We’re a lot more sensitive than we look!

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Life lessons on the Athens Underground

Travelling on the Athens Underground every day has given me a new perspective on some things.

For a start, I have now worked out why people wear sunglasses indoors. And, believe it or not, it’s not just to look cool, enigmatic and interesting.

No - people wear their shades on the train so they can stare directly at other passengers without it being obvious how rude they’re being! Once you’ve got your trusty Raybans on (just make sure the lenses are nice and dark) you can really scrutinise everything about the people in the carriage with you – their untouched roots, badly applied lipstick, crooked toupees, what they’re reading, the faces they pull as they listen to their iPods. It’s great.

Public transport is a positive paradise for people-watchers. All humanity is there, and some things that belong in other categories too. The freaks, the wage slave veterans, the knackered new parents, the cheeky school kids, the young lad with the unmistakable look of one who got lucky last night, the hopeless gaze of his mate who didn’t…

Whether we’re waiting at the platform or actually riding the train, we all establish our own little exclusion zones, don’t we? Even when we’re packed in so tight that you need a crowbar to get off at your stop, we all maintain our private space. You might be so close to your nearest neighbour that you know – in intimate detail – what he had for dinner the night before (especially if it involved garlic), but those precious few millimetres are impenetrable.

And another thing - we all either lean or hang, don’t we? Personally, I’m a leaner. Always have been, always will be. Probably comes down to innate laziness, but I do like to think I am doing my fellow travellers a favour by not hanging from the overhead straps on a sweaty day in the Athens Underground (just think about it for a moment).

As I lean, I slip on my shades (looking very cool, enigmatic and interesting as I do so – at least in my mind) and check out my fellow travellers as we sway all together to the rhythm of the traffic. Some stare solidly ahead of them throughout the entire journey, like they’re afraid that civilisation would come to an end if they caught someone’s eye. Others constantly flit their gaze from one place to another, trying not to get caught staring at anyone in particular. Some simply seek refuge in a book, magazine or feigned sleep. And then there are a few – very few, mind you – who will occasionally look at you and even (gasp!) smile.

But beware! Letting down your defences sends out a signal to the itinerant loons that can be found on trains and buses all over the world. Like Jasper Carrott, I seem to be something of a homing beacon for the 'nutters on the bus' and, being a soft-hearted old boot, have become embroiled in more than my share of discussions about the colour of my aura, the imminent invasion of earth by giant earwigs, or the demons that live in the air-conditioning vents.

Kids are pretty safe. Pre-schoolers usually haven’t learned to be all inhibited and buttoned-down yet, they take you pretty much as they find you. All you have to do is pull a few silly faces to capture your audience and produce a fit of the giggles and the illusion that you are the most entertaining person on the face of the earth.

But when you arrive at your destination, the illusion is shattered as Mum gives you a filthy look (the type reserved for dirty old men who hang around school playgrounds) and whisks her little darling away to safety....

Monday, 22 June 2009

Confessions of a Mumbler

When I was a kid, my Dad nicknamed me 'Mumbles' thanks to my habit of muttering things under my breath. Now that he's gone, I feel a little sad that there's no-one left to call me by that name.

Some nicknames have a limited shelf-life. You just grow out of them and what once seemed cool and clever, in time sounds crap and stupid.

When I was at school my little gang of mates called me 'JAM' (a play on my initials) or 'Baggot' (which applied equally to us all). And that was fine, while it lasted. But by the time we went our separate ways after the trials and tribulations of the O levels, they had reached their expiry date. Today, I cringe almost as much at those names as I do at the haircut I had at the time, and I'd be hard-pressed to even tell you what a Baggot is.

But with 'Mumbles', I have actually grown even further into the name as I've got older. Dad obviously knew me well.

What started off as the habit of chatting to myself has developed into a perverse sort of communication tool. Whilst I can still occasionally be caught rehearsing one of those conversations going on in my mind, I now consciously mumble as a way of making people think I know what I'm talking about when I don't.

The idea is that if you talk quickly, clearly and enthusiastically enough, and with the right air of authority or confidence, you can skim over the bits you don't know by half-swallowing the words.

You'd be surprised how effective it can be. It even works in a second language (especially in a second language?).

No matter how long I have been here and no matter how good my Greek gets, there are certain words that I never seem to be able to get my mouth around properly. So, when I know I'm going to have to say one of those dreaded words, I work up to it by building what I am going to say into the context of the conversation and then just mumble an approximation of it when the time comes. Ta-ta!

If I wave my hands around enough (someone once said all you have to do to shut me up is to handcuff me!), the meaning is understood and it doesn't occur to anyone to ask what on earth I am waffling on about.

So, the lesson of the day is: When in doubt, mumble!

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Hitch-hiking on the info highway

When was the last time that you actually bought a newspaper? At the risk of being branded a turncoat as a former print hack, I have to confess that it’s yonks since I actually shelled out real money for a paper.

My Other Half is another matter – at least at the weekends. Every Saturday and Sunday he nips out to the periptero (kiosk/news stand) and staggers back with something that represents an acre of Amazonian rain forest. According to my calculations, about 2% of that bulk is made up of news – and about one-fifth of that is something that either of us is likely to actually read. The rest is made up of freebie CDs, DVDs, books (without which no household is complete) and a huge pile of advertising bumph that will be stuck in the corner where it festers for a couple of months before I have one of my Whirling Dervish style cleaning sprees and chuck it in the Recycling bag.

It all brings home the simple fact that I never wanted to admit to when I was churning out copy in a newsroom all those years ago. Like so many others, newspapers and magazines are not in the business that we think they're in. They don't really exist to sell information and comment to readers (who can get a much better selection for free online anyway). No, they’re in the business of delivering an audience to their advertisers.

Let’s face it, we don’t want the vast majority of advertising that comes with our Sunday papers. The first thing most of us do when we’ve ripped open the cellophane wrapping is to shake the paper over the bin until the various offers, brochures, leaflets, Uncle Tom Cobbley and all dribble out. Then all that remains is to wade through the ads in the actual paper and all the stuff we’re not bothered about in order to reach that one article or column we don’t want to miss.

That’s why I've taken to surfing the net for my news these days. In fact, I've become a bit of an online info-junkie. It’s not just a matter of getting the absolute latest news at the click of a button (courtesy of the Beeb, CNN, Al Jazeera, CBS, ERT etc.). Nor is it the joy of getting all the background I can possibly digest thanks to Wikipedia, Ask.com and others. I can also check out the front pages and contents of those papers I no longer pay for. In addition to the online versions of The Independent (which I love for the sheer cussedness of its determinedly-different front page policy) and The Telegraph for its sometimes brilliant (though slightly fogey-ish) writing, I can also shamelessly check out The Sun or even The Daily Hell without jeopardising my carefully cultivated public image (ha!).

AND I can play Dr Who and go back in time to check out what they had to say a year ago.

The Internet is the ultimate democratisation of the information highway (as evidenced by the amount of crap and unreliable information it hosts), and if so inclined you can get a variety of viewpoints in order to hopefully form an intelligent opinion of your own (yeah, I know, wishful thinking).

It can also (partly) eliminate the irritation element of advertising in the Sunday papers. Though my In Box is swamped with Spam mails on a daily basis, all I need to do is hit the Delete button. Online the pop-up ads are quickly dealt in the same way, BUT discreet links give me the option of clicking for more information about that one thing I am actually interested in.

So, why do we keep on buying papers? Personally, apart from the pleasurable frustrations of the crossword, I think people buy them as props. Newspapers are part of our uniform, part of what declares to the world what we want them to think of us. For both the city gent with his FT tucked under his arm or the media type with their Grauniad, the paper they buy on the way to work say something about them. They help confirm our place in the world - and that makes us feel safe.

They’re also good for hiding behind on the train.

The same can't be said for the news sites you browse through. It's an intimate relationship between you and your screen and (hopefully) there's no-one looking over your shoulder forming an opinion about your IQ based on your dot-com of choice. Or are they?

Beware - in cyber-space, no-one can hear you scream.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Forget Girl Power - Here's LOL Power

I think it's about time we raised our glasses and toasted the Little Old Ladies (the REAL meaning of the acronym LOL, at least in my Universe) in our lives. They’re a force of nature, a force to reckon with – and something we gals should all aspire to.

My Nana, who turns a relatively sprightly 99 tomorrow, is a prime example. She qualifies on all counts:
- at a tad under five foot, she’s definitely little, just about reaching my chest. She also takes great delight in telling us that precious things come in small packages – but so does poison;
- she’s undeniably old (I don’t think even she would get cross at me for saying so – she was born before the First World War, for goodness sake);
- and she is a “lady” in every sense of the word.

She’s remarkable - delightful, coy, charming, often infuriating, fiercely independent in her own way, too trusting of 'respectable-looking' strangers at times, and unmovable when she’s made her mind up (you can tell from the set of her jaw when she’s dug her heels in).

Though not as strong or mobile as she used to be physically (much to her frustration), mentally she’s still as sharp as a knife and a devil at the Scrabble board. Beating Nana at Scrabble is a major achievement in our family, it’s that rare.The words she comes out with to catch those triple word scores are just not the sort of thing you’d expect from a genteel lass raised in a strict Methodist household. But challenge her and her defence is ready: ‘It’s in the official Scrabble dictionary!’ And of course when you check, there it is, in all its outrageously obscene glory. I think she must have memorised the entire thing.

I tried calling her bluff once:
‘Nana, do you KNOW what that word means?’
‘Of course I do, Mandi. I could teach you a thing or two - I’m not as green as I’m cabbage-looking, you know!’

But that doesn’t mean she won’t put on her ‘helpless old dear’ act when it suits her. It comes in very handy when charming visitors and getting them to do something she’s frankly capable of but can’t be bothered with - especially after she’s plied them with tea and homemade shortbread.

I have a theory. I think that Little Old Ladies have evolved into a separate, super-resilient sub-species that feeds on our belief in their helplessness.

After all, my Nana and others of her generation have lived through two world wars, witnessed mind-boggling social changes – good and bad, seen the media explosion of radio, television and all things Internetty, seen telephones evolve from clunky contraptions in only the most well-off of households to mobiles the size of a credit card in everyone's pocket, and bid a sad farewell to their husbands and many of their life-long friends.

And yet, I’m willing to bet that if the bomb dropped tomorrow, the ones to emerge from the rubble - albeit at a limp and with the help of their walking sticks - would be the Little Old Ladies, with their bi-focals and blue rinses intact. Forget the cockroaches, the LOLs would soon zap them with bug spray before settling down to a nice cup of tea and wicked game of Scrabble (‘No Enid, you can’t put that - it’s slang! Oh, you can. Here it is in the dictionary. Hmm…, well well, I never knew it meant all that! If I’d only known 60 years ago….’).

My Nana is fiercely proud and hates to be patronised. She still takes a pride in her appearance, using the same trusty brand of rouge and lipstick she has for decades and preferring clothes in jewel colours (like her favourite, cherry red) she knows suit her. But that pride can be her worst enemy at times - like the time that she wouldn't give up a recent photo of her for her OAP travel pass before she 'looked dreadful' in the snap, or when she tells visitors that she manages just fine even though there is no shame in anyone in their 90s admitting they need more help than family can provide.

Like all of us, she is a mixture of qualities. She's far from perfect, but that takes nothing away from the simple facts that she's remarkable, she's always been part of my life, and I love her to pieces.

If you have a Little Old Lady in your life, don’t write her off. Spend time with her, enjoy her company, have a giggle with her, take her on at the Scrabble board (if you’re feeling brave and willing to accept defeat gracefully), look her in the eye and tell her you’re not falling for her tricks…. and then watch her chuckle quietly to herself as you swallow a classic LOL line.

And, if you’re lucky, one of these days you might become a Little Old Lady yourself.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Shopping therapy? No thanks

Those of you that have been paying attention over the past month or so may have worked out that I am a reasonably well-upholstered lass. Not dangerously obese but definitely a bit on the stocky side.

And although I would love to be naturally slim and athletic, I'm OK with what I am. My health is good, I don't wobble (too much), I'm much more supple than most of my skinny friends and my bulk does not stop me enjoying anything in life.

Except shopping.

Over the years, I have developed a severe allergy to scouring the shops for new clothes. (I'm in good company - the divine Vanessa Redgrave has gone on record as hating clothes shopping). And it has got worse since I've been in Greece.

Let me explain. I'll be the first to admit that - even as a young girl - the prospect of traipsing around the shops never filled me with the glee I see light up in my eldest niece's eyes at the very thought. But as the years have passed I have developed a real aversion, even a phobia, to the whole business.

Shopping isn't therapy for me - I need therapy for the shopping.

"Zo, vat could be ze deep-seated source of zis strange aversion?" I hear the Austrian psycho-analysts amongst you cry (don't I?).

Ever since my teenage years, I have had to come to terms with the fact that the retail trade believes large girls are second-class citizens. Not for us the cute, colourful designs offered to our skin-and-bone sisters. Oh no, fat girls have to wear black tents. Or worse, huge baggy top-and-trouser sets in polyester strewn with hideous giant flowers.

Apparently, when you are a large lady, the right to dress to express your personality goes out of the window. The only thing that counts is "Does it fit?", no matter if it is something your blind granny wouldn't be seen dead in.

Well, I've got news for you. We won't wear just anything out of sheer gratitude that it actually fits.

It was yet another example of my impeccable timing that just as things were improving in the UK, with High Street stores starting to sell real clothes in sizes beyond the accepted norm – Size 16s, 18s, 20s or even more, I moved to Greece.

And despite the fact that your classic Mediterranean beauty has a bit of meat on her bones, finding anything in my size that is not vomit-inducing is a real challenge. It does not seem to have seeped into the market's consciousness here that being overweight and having taste are not mutually exclusive.

Then, there is the attitude of the sales ladies (dontcha just love 'em?). The minute you walk in the door, they're all over you, asking if they can help and what you're looking for. Even when you say you're just browsing, they hover ominously looking slightly anxious – maybe they think I'm going to eat the stock or something?

The worse humiliation comes when they ask if you're looking for something for yourself. You nod meekly, knowing that you're going to get "that look" of disdain and disbelief that such a blob would dare to try to buy clothes in a shop for normal people. They inform you (like they were telling you something you didn't know) that you "need a big size" before directing you to the Fat Girl rail, hidden at the back of the shop. There you find an array of sacks cut as square as a 1970s Lada, designed to hide our curves, our bumps, our personalities, our very existence…

I have a friend here who is, like me, on the large side. She is also brilliant, charming, beautiful, and brighter than a whole swarm of super-models. She is a confident, intelligent and dynamic woman, and yet she can be reduced to a blubbering heap by the frustration of the ordeal of clothes shopping, and the insensitivity of the uber-bitch sales women we have to deal with.

My friend is a highly qualified, tri-lingual professional doing very nicely on her own terms, thank you very much.

And you – dear shop lady – you sell frocks, right?

Despite the images that magazines try to force-feed us, the average woman in Europe and the States is getting bigger. More and more of us take a UK Size 16 or more. But we're not lazy, we're not overindulgent and we do exercise. We just happen to be bigger.

As the legions of large ladies grows, one of these days, the fashion industry is going to suddenly wake up, smell the non-fat latte and realise what a (literally) huge opportunity they've been missing.

But there's another thing that we big girls have in common with elephants. We never forget.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Living the life bilingual: Part 4

There's a certain perverse pleasure to be had from being bilingual - and it's multiplied when we're talking about a relative 'minority' language like Greek.

Outside of Greece - despite the diaspora - the chances of someone eavesdropping on me and my Other Half as we chunter away merrily a la Grecque on the bus or train, and understanding what we're saying, are pretty remote.

Of course, there are ex-pat Greeks to be found virtually everywhere on the face of the earth, but the chances of one of them being in earshot of us as we rip our fellow passengers to pieces are pretty damn slim. And even if there's a Greek listening in, surely they won't take offence but are more likely to greet us with a huge grin of recognition and a heartfelt "Yeia sou, patriote!"

If we were speaking French or German, there's a good chance that EVEN THE BRITS around us will get the gist of what we're saying and - if we're engaged in our usual people-watching analysis - that could result in a smack round the chops!

The trouble is, it just doesn't work the other way round.

Virtually everyone in Greece has at least a rudimentary understanding of English so, any observations about my fellow man, woman, child or wombat have to be made in the privacy of my head, the car, our living room - or in the safe anonymity of this Blog.

So, humour me while I take advantage of my online anonymity to share some of those observations I dare not state out loud in public about the different folk we see every day:

There's the ever-so-macho male who is so confident about his superior manhood that he proves it by strutting everywhere with his paunchy chest thrust out as he puffs furiously on a fag with the vaguely uncomfortable look of a constipated hamster on his face (personally, I think the too-tight jeans with the stomach hanging over the belt may be the problem).

There's the rusty black-clad little old lady who goes to church more often than the local priest but who would think nothing of cutting you down in your prime with her walking stick to get that bargain in the 'laiki' (local market).
[Warning: Despite their frequently recited and lengthy lists of ailments, these old dears are made of stern stuff, having grown up amid the hardships of Greece in the early-to-mid 20th century. We baby-boomers are no match for them!]

There's the new generation of the 'Ekalia Mafia' in their designer clothes and big fat cars, who owe everything they take for granted to the very Greekness that they treat with utter disdain ('cos they're dead cosmopolitan, dontcha know?). They're the offspring of self-made Greek businessmen, that older generation who have literally dragged themselves out of poverty to build a rich comfortable life for their families. But the offspring weren't around to witness Dad climbing that slippery pole, spitting blood, dripping sweat and sometimes shedding ethics as he scrambled to the top - they just appeared in time to reap the benefits, attend the private school, drive the BMW/Merc/SUV and enjoy some 'trendy' hobby-career until they get bored with it.
These are ones who look at me in horror when I reveal that my son goes to a state school (Omigod!).

And of course there's always good old Mitso, the ubiquitous Athens cab driver I've mentioned here before. Often a retired mariner, Mitso has an opinion about everything and everyone, and he enjoys his God-given right to express it - loudly - amid a spray of coffee droplets, tyropita (cheese pie) crumbs and cigarette smoke as he drives you around the houses to your eventual destination.

There are many more Athens portraits I could paint - including my fellow ex-pats - and maybe one day I will.

But love 'em or hate 'em, they're all part of the rich tapestry that is Greece... ...and life would be just a little less interesting without them to gossip about behind our hands on the bus.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Tripping the night slapdashtic

I've not been sleeping well lately.

It's not really a case of insomnia with its hours of desperate staring at the ceiling begging for the sandman to come and do his stuff. Been there, done that, it's not the same. Nor is it anxiety-induced (at least, no more than the usual existential angst).

It's just a sort of irritating low-grade sleep where you're nearly unconscious but aware of every single bloody thing around you - taps dripping, flies buzzing, clocks ticking, Other Half snoring - where your head is spinning, but your body is paralysed by laziness.

I literally spend hours like that, asleep but not asleep, thinking murderous thoughts about my dearly beloved softly grunting in oblivious slumber next to me.

All the while, I'm telling myself relaxing calming thoughts, repeating "Ommm" over and over again, and trying to imagine myself a pebble on Brighton beach as the tide gently washes over me. Unfortunately, the only result is that a sea-bashed tar-covered pebble gets thrown into the melee of thoughts swirling around my head.

Not exactly the desired result.

Sometimes, I go with it in the hope that this strange semi-conscious state will bring forth something marvellous and creative. And indeed, as I am lying there, I compose entire monologues filled with wit and insight, the like of which the world has never seen (or heard I suppose) before. I have even come up with proposals for a a couple of TV series that seemed brilliant at the time (one of the Miss Marple genre centred around the elderly genteel curator of a Cathedral tentatively named 'Other Tales form the Crypt' - and the other featuring a rock band that travels from summer festival to festival in a pirate ship. Hmmmm).

Problem is I can't be arsed to get up and capture those thoughts on paper, so either the ideas in their entirety - or at least whatever it was that made them seem so inspired - are lost.

The other night I had an entire routine composed (complete with delivery technique and ad libs - if you can plan ad libs). And it was brilliant. It was funny. It was original. It was even intelligent.

Come morning, the only thing that was left was something about walnuts on a string.

Your guess is as good as mine....

Monday, 15 June 2009

School daze

The Greek primary school term came to an end today, leaving 6-to-12 year olds across the country bubbling with excitement at the prospect of THREE WHOLE MONTHS with no homework, no tests and endless sunny days to play with their friends.

For my son, it marks the end of an era. The class of schoolmates he has spent the last six years with have seen their last days together. And, as the Class of '09 has been especially tight-knit, the end of the year brought some bitter-sweet emotions to the fore.

Over the past six years we have had broken limbs, broken promises, a couple of broken hearts that healed amazingly quickly, a few run-ins with a teacher who made no secret of the fact she couldn't stand kids, a classmate hovering between life and death (thankfully, two years later, he's made a full recovery) - and a smidge of learning too.

Our little darlings first met as mere six-year-olds, children in every sense of the word. Now, they are teetering on the precipice of puberty and this summer may be the last time they will enjoy life truly unfettered and uncomplicated as only children can.

It's not just the kids that have become close, but the parents too. So when we learned that, for the first time, there would be no full-day fun-filled excursion to the seaside for the leaving classes, we decided that we would arrange one ourselves.
Or rather Agni did.
There's an Agni in every group - the one with the magical combination of enough freedom from wage slavery, energy, willingness, organisational skills, drive, forceful nature and sheer chutzpah to get things done. All we had to do was say "Count us in" and cough up our share once Agni told us what had been arranged.

So, yesterday, bright and early (unreasonably early for a Sunday morning), we joined sixteen kids, six adults, some diving masks, a couple of fishing nets, a selection of clean designer swimsuits and gallons of sunscreen at the bus stop where the coach was waiting patiently for us. And we waited, and then we waited some more. We probably would have waited another hour or more if Agni hadn't pulled out her mobile phone and put a fire under the heels of the missing adult and two children on her list.
Five minutes later, they arrived in a fluster of half-packed beach bags and apologies.

By the end of the day, we still had the same number of kids and adults (thank God!) but we had acquired a collection of sea and pool-water soaked clothes, half a beach's worth of fine gravel, at least one case of mild sun stroke, several scarlet shoulders and noses, a coupla of tantrums, and a bus load of over-stimulated 12-year-olds who had not stopped for a second for six hours since we arrived at the resort.
Happy, but utterly shattered (and that was just the parents).

Come September, they'll be plunged into the abyss of Junior High. And from what I've been told, within a couple of months they will have left behind the sheer joy of being a kid and immersed themselves in the murky, antisocial waters of adolescence.

From our side, we are frantically making copies of photo CDs immortalising their last day together in the vague (and vain?) hope that they won't completely forget what a truly wonderful thing it is simply to be a kid.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Eurover here, there, everywhere...

The news that the BNP (British National Party - an alliance of thugs who feed off people's fears, insecurities and disillusionment to promote racial hatred) have won two seats in the Euro Parliament has got me thinking about the differences between people from different countries – and what we have in common too.

Last week's Euro elections may have awoken dormant patriotism (or more likely disappointment and apathy). And that’s fine – it’s good to be proud of who you are and where you come from.

But what most of us don’t really realise is: WE’RE NOT WHAT WE THINK WE ARE.

You’d be hard-pressed to find an English person who considers themselves first and foremost European (after all, there’s 20-odd miles of Channel separating us from those Continental types!).

Sorry to break it you, but most of us little Englanders are much more European than we might be comfortable admitting to. Even BNP leader, Nick Griffin, has a less than perfect British pedigree, as his surname is of French origin.

About 95% of those that make a point of calling themselves English are actually descended from foreign immigrants, and genetic research shows that the Y-chromosomes of most English males are as Germanic as sauerkraut. The phrase “English Rose” is a complete misnomer - it describes the classic blonde-haired, blue-eyed characteristics of the invading Saxons from Germany. And it's common knowledge that the British Royal Family is more “Gebildet in Deutschland” than “Made in England”.

The Bank of England was set up by the Dutch, who also established Saville Row as THE place in London to go for fine gentlemen’s tailoring (with a little help from the French Huguenots). And the words “royal” and “roast beef” are French in origin.

And of course, I wouldn’t be forgiven if I didn’t mention the Greek influence. According to my Other Half, about 50,000 words in the English language are Greek in origin, including most medical and scientific terms.

Some might decry the sullying of pure bloodlines, national identity, etc., but think about it for a moment.

No matter how pretty some pedigree pooches might look, the healthiest and smartest dogs are mongrels. That's a fact. You only have to look at some of the world’s more isolated spots (or the British aristocracy) to see the consequences of too pure a bloodline (which could explain the peculiarities of the ultra-posh British accent).

Like the English language, the English 'race' is a mongrel. And like the lingo, it's all the more interesting for it.

So next time you start to think in stereotypes – organised Germans, passionate Spaniards, snooty French, convention-bound English, chaotic Italians, laid-back Greeks – stop for a minute and think about it. They’re qualities or faults we all have but perhaps we just don’t see them in ourselves.

We’re all part of each other – literally.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Parallel lives

Somewhere out there in the vast emptiness of space, there is probably an alternative Earth. Indeed, astronomers have found the most Earth-like planet outside our Solar System to date, a world which could have water running on its surface.

Of course, the chances of us colonising it are prettly remote. It would take us several thousand years to reach it - by which time, we would probably have forgotten why we were going there anyway.

But it has set me thinking about the possibility of parallel realities.

When I was a teenager I read a short story by some sci-fi great like Clarke or Asimov about a parallel world where life started in the same way that it did on Earth, but took a different turn at a key point in its evolution. Instead of evolving from monkeys, the dominant species in that reality evolved from lizards.

So, taking that concept to its logical conclusion, somewhere out there, there is probably a scaley green Mandi staring at a computer screen trying to think of something inspiring or even vaguely interesting to write. Intead of the obligatory cup of tea or coffee, there will probably be a glass of slime by her elbow (do lizards have elbows?) ready to be knocked over the keyboard at any minute. And lunch is not likely to be a Greek salad but maybe an insect omelette. But, except for such minor details, I reckon that she and I are probably not all that different.

I'm sure that we both worry about our offspring, stress out over the bills, fret unnecessarily about bad things that haven't happened yet (and probably won't) and wish there were more hours in the day. I'm sure we both have moments when we want to be more selfish and think about only ourselves, followed by gushes of guilt for daring to be so self-centred. And I'm sure we both sometimes track the progress of our wrinkles in the mirror and wish we were carrying a little less excess baggage around the thorax.

Reptile Mandi probably doesn't have to worry about fixing her hair every morning, but then I don't have to consider when I am next due to shed my skin. So I guess it all evens out in the end.

A decade or two ago, there was a great print ad campaign for a major airline with the tagline "More unites us than divides us". Each ad carried a photo of people from different cultures in comparable situations, for example, a blushing white lace-clad English bride next to a highly-coloured lavishly-decorated Indian bride in all her gold and glory. The message was that although the two contrasting images were visually drastically different, the hopes and dreams of the people depicted were the same.

That has always stayed with me. Let's face it, whether we're talking about Reptile Mandi from Planet Slime, Susie from Skegness, Christiana from Copenhagen, Betsy-Sue from Missouri, Beena from Bangalore or Fatima from Fallajah, we all basically want the same things in life. A little peace and quiet, health and happiness for us and our loved ones, the bare necessities to lift our existence above "struggle" status.

When you put it like that, it all sounds so simple. Shame we always manage to complicate things.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Chocolate 1-Sex 0

Stop the presses!
Hold the front page!

Scientists have discovered that chocolate produces a more intense and longer lasting "buzz" than a passionate kiss!

Er, yeah. Yet another lengthy scientific study to add to "Things we already knew". Doh!

I'd be willing to bet that the scientist (who MUST be a man) in charge of this study is probably unmarried and has never spent much time in the same household as women. If he had a wife, girlfriend, pubescent daughter or even a female flatmate, he would have reached his conclusions MUCH quicker.

EVERY woman knows that good chocloate has a massive "feel good factor" that is hard to beat, even in competition with a passionate clinch with the likes of Johnny Depp, George Clooney, that ridiculously toned window cleaner, or whoever your choice of fantasy happens to be. Scientifically, it produces endorphins (or 'them dolphins' as a wonderfully loopy neighbour of mine used to call them) which are key ingredients for that much-sought-after natural high we hear so much about. And that's just the chemical reaction.

Then there is the creamy velvety sensation spreading across your palate, coupled with the unmistakable rich sweet smell as it slowly melts in your mouth. And if the only melting that goes on is in your mouth, then chocolate is much less messy than getting physical - and it involves less effort.

What surprises me is that men still haven't twigged to the fact that given the choice between a bar of Belgium's best and a roll in the hay, most of us gals would go for the nibbles (at least for starters). That's probably why God invented diets - and guilt (yet more proof that if God exists, he's a bloke).

Men, bless 'em, are incredibly gullible and they are very lucky that we are not all soul-sisters of Cruella De Ville, 'cos we can (if so inclined) literally wrap them around our little fingers.

Case in point. Many years ago, I suffered from slight asthma. One winter evening, I had a mild attack when out with my then boyfriend and I didn't have my inhaler with me. I'm ashamed to admit that I played the sympathy vote - and with my tongue firmly in my cheek - I looked at him with big innocent eyes and told him in a small and rather pathetic little-girl voice: "Chocolate usually helps".

To my amazement, he believed me! I was so surprised that I nearly fell off my bar stool laughing (but that would have given the game away and I would have lost out a bar of Galaxy).

Of course, not all women are like me. Some, like my dear friend Ffynella the Fragrant are restrained, disciplined and dignified... ...until a Chocolate Sundae appears on the horizon. Once she gets a whiff of hot chocaoate fudge sauce, you'd better clear the path and make way as Hurricane Ffynella dives in face-first. The aftermath is ten minutes of her making the kind of appreciate grunts and moans that could make her a fortune on the phone-sex lines.

So, it's official. Chocolate beats sex.

But don't worry, girls. I'm pretty sure that no men read this Blog-o-mine, and I think only us females that would make the effort to read an article about their relative merits.

Let's just allow our men folk to keep on thinking that they are really all we want, while we continue to smile sweetly and fantasise about a Cadbury's Flake.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Living the life bilingual: Part 3

Words fail me.

Strange as it may seem, it's true at times. Those little blocks of language that have always been my allies just aren’t always there to do my bidding.

They got me through the horrors of being a seriously uncool and unsexy teenager with legs like upturned milk bottles. They got me through countless job interviews when I’ve sat there thinking ‘Any minute now they’re gonna work out that I haven’t got the faintest idea what I’m talking about’. They even got me out of a more than one beating from the scariest girl at school.

And yet, I find myself struggling to find the words that should leap unaided and elegantly to mind, but stay stubbornly buried in my subconscious.

‘What’s that thingy, you know, that - erm - machine wotsit, that um, washes? What’s the word?’, ‘You mean a washing machine?’. ‘Yes! That’s it. Well done!’.

I guess it is one of the perils of spending about 50% of your time functioning in a second language. Certain turns of phrase become second nature and the sneaky little buggers creep into your first language, cancelling out some of the simplest words and phrases.

On the one hand, you could say that being bilingual can only enrich your vocabulary – which is true. But that’s not much help when nobody has the foggiest idea what you’re waffling on about!

It can be the simplest thing, like prepositions. You can usually spot a Greek who speaks excellent English by their prepositions. Where we have ‘on, at, in’ etc., Greeks say ‘sto’ (or sta, sti, ston, etc., depending on the sex of the sentence – but that’s another story). So when you hear someone say ‘they were sitting to the table’, they probably didn’t grow up in Guildford….

Greeks simplify the act of switching things on and off by just saying ‘anigo’ (open) and ‘kleino’ (close). They open and close everything, from windows to the telly, whilst we tend just open doors or tins of beans. So I guess it's no wonder that my mum gives me one of her funny looks when I tell her to close the light.

Then, we get into the joys of phrases that defy translation (actually, it’s a good thing that literal translation is so flippin' useless – otherwise everyone would use the free online Babel Fish programmes and I would be deprived of my occasional source of pocket money).

Take a thong, for instance. Colloquially, some Greeks refer to it as a ‘kouradokofti’, or simply (and graphically) put, a ‘pooh cutter’. Wonderful image, but it would definitely be lost on the streets of Eastbourne.

And if you want to say the equivalent of the sarcastic 'big deal' in Greek you have a choice of 'siga to polyelaio' (slowly the chandelier), 'siga ta avga' (slowly the eggs) or 'siga to lachano' (slowly the cabbage). Slowly just about anything, actually....

And when you predict that uproar will ensue you say 'tha ginei tis putanas' (the prostitute will happen).

So, as you can see, literal translation is no bloody help - you've got the really live the language to get a decent grip on it.

And even if you do, some things never leave you and they actually become some of your characteristic quirks that mark you out as the 'pet Brit'.

I don't know if it is a Surrey/Sussex thing or if it's just me (could be), but I have always used the expression 'standing there like a lemon'. Dropping that into a Greek conversation always prompts a few odd sideways looks.

And if that was not enough, there are certain words from my childhood - courtesy of my too-soon-departed Dad - that have firmly established themselves in my slightly schizophrenic Anglo-Hellenic existence.

No-one else knows what the hell my son and I are talking about when we say 'ning' (quick hug) or 'grupping time' (time to get up, gerrup, grupping time - geddit?), but we do - and that's enough.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Staying Mum

Sixty-five years ago today, a young girl went to bed looking forward to waking up to her 7th birthday, against a backdrop of rationing, scattered families and the sounds of the Battle of Britain in the skies over south-east England. The next morning would bring news of the D-Day landings on the northern coast of France and start of the Allies' attempt to liberate Europe.

She celebrated that birthday without her Daddy, who was away at war (she sometimes struggled to remember what he looked like), but her Mummy tried to keep things "normal" for her young daughter.

Tomorrow, that same girl celebrates another birthday - and with it the trials and triumphs of a life well-lived and well-loved. I should know: the Birthday Girl is my mother.

Until I was about ten, I thought her the most beautiful and accomplished woman on the face of the earth. I didn’t want to be an air hostess or a ballerina when I grew up. I wanted to be ‘just like Mum’ (so long I could still climb trees and I didn’t have to do the ironing).

Then puberty struck, and a snarling monster was unleashed.

Poor old Mum, almost overnight she saw me mutate from her smiley golden-locked little girl who hero-worshipped her, to a mean-spirited cynical Creature from The Black Lagoon demanding a drastic haircut. And yet she never stopped loving that teenage monster who hated to hear “You’re just like your Mother”.

By the time I hit my 20s, I’d forgiven her for giving birth to me and grudgingly admitted that I liked her. Quite a lot, actually. I even acknowledged that, throughout my Black Lagoon years, she was always there - the convenient butt of our jokes and a reliable source of practical advice, cups of tea, sisterly guidance and unconditional love.

My view of my Mum broadened and matured as I did. To my amazement, I realised she was someone in her own right - someone smart, charming, inventive, broad-minded, strong, creative and even funny at times. She was much more than just a mum!

She taught me I could do anything I set my mind to and that no-one should tell me otherwise. She showed me that most things have solution – even if we don’t always like that solution. And she taught me the value of true friendship.

It’s only the past couple of years that have really revealed how amazing she really is - a tough cookie who is 100% in touch with her emotions; a respectable pillar of the community with a wicked sense of mischief; a fount of practical wisdom who is prepared to open her mind to the possibility of another way of doing things.

She’s one of the most resilient people I’ve ever met. She still misses my dad (who died in 2006) terribly, but sitting at home feeling sorry for herself is simply not her style. Even after major knee surgery last year, her determination to make a quick recovery and get back to her busy life left doctors and physiotherapists agape with admiration.

So, I could certainly do worse than be “just like Mum”. Looks like I've come full circle, after all.

Happy Birthday, Mum!

Inconvenient allergy

When I was a teenager I was diagnosed as being allergic to – among other things – paper dust. A touch inconvenient for a book addict who started her working life in an dusty, musty, old-school newsroom.

But as I’ve grown, and my working environment has become more sterile and allergen-free, I realised that I am suffering from a far more debilitating affliction: an allergy to red tape.

That’s a problem in Greece - a big one.

Every single move you make here seems to be wrapped up to strangulation point in red tape. It’s no mistake that the Greek for bureaucracy is ‘grafeokratia’ (the marriage of ‘grafeo’=office/writing & ‘kratia’=rule).

Opening a bank account, renting an apartment, buying a car, taking maternity leave, getting a phone line, probably even sneezing in public – they all require inordinate amounts of paperwork extracted (and I use the word advisedly, as in ‘painfully extracted’) from a variety of public offices staffed by bored, indifferent public servants who can never be fired. And that means you have to take the morning off work to achieve anything.

While you agonise about the work piling up on your desk in your absence you have to wait patiently and uncomplaining as civil servants get their morning coffee, file their nails, take an age to open their computer (although all paperwork still seems to be done painstakingly by hand, before being sent to the other end of the building for an official stamp after which you have to come back to where you started for another signature and rubber stamp), and sigh heavily before they turn their sloth-like attention to you… …I could go on, but I don’t want to risk my chances next time I have to deal with the Greek civil service.

If you live here, you’ll know what I mean. If you don’t, count your blessings.

As a foreigner, I feel at a distinct disadvantage when dealing with bureaucrats. Although my Greek is pretty good, there’s no ‘Campaign for Plain Speech’ here, so most official documents might as well be written in Swahili for all the sense I can make of them. It’s complete goobledygook and I suspect there is many a Greek as much in the dark as I am, but reluctant to admit it.

It’s all very well for politicians and others to talk about creating a user-friendly, accessible society where the citizen is empowered, but frankly it’s all talk. To actually put those words into action would mean taking the kind of radical measures that no politician hoping to get re-elected would ever risk. So Stalemate continues to rule – yet again.

Meanwhile, my red tape allergy has morphed into that worse of personal monsters - a phobia. The very thought of filling out official forms scares the bejeezus out of me. And the prospect of completing the annual tax return brings me out in a cold sweat: I’m petrified of getting something wrong and paying through the nose for it from here to eternity.

But aversion therapy doesn’t work, and the tax man won’t go away – even if I do bury my head in the sand. So I have to get my finger out, fill in the tax form (in triplicate), dutifully staple all the supporting bits of paper to it and then get myself down to the tax office before it’s too late.

Like they say, death & taxes, death & taxes...

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Times, they are a changin': Take Two

As a species, we humans really are remarkably adaptable. Just two short decades ago, most of us hardly dared touch a computer's "On" button. The few that did were those isolated but dedicated geeks (you know, those Spotty 'Erberts we branded losers at school but who are now looking at early retirement on the proceeds of their pioneering software designs).

Yet now, most of us are at least computer-literate - and some are even venturing out into the outer reaches of cyber-space.

To be fair, the whole computer scene has changed beyond recognition since then. In those days, pressing the "On" button produced a little luminous green square flashing ominously in the top-left corner of the black screen. You had to have a working knowledge of some mysterious secret language called "Machine Code" (or whatever it was) to take the next step (hence the rise of the Spotty 'Erberts).

As for the computer itself, it could almost fill the Albert Hall, had a screen the size of a Mars bar and the phenomenal storage capacity of about 3 kilobytes (even Bill Gates, back in 1995, said he couldn't conceive that anyone would ever need more than 640 k on their PC).

Now, every Tom, Dick & Harriet has a lap-top, palm-tops and Blackberries are a bit past it, and I'm pretty sure that we'll move on to finger-tops or direct input soon enough (if only we can downsize our fingers to match the pesky keyboards).

The pace at which technology has progressed in the space of a few years, months, weeks or days frankly takes your breath away. But even more breath-taking is the ease with which we have adapted to those changes (even to the point of forgetting how we ever functioned before mobile phones, online banking, e-mail and the like).

That's what makes my generation - that disparate band of baby-boomers born some time between the mid-50s and early 1970s - unique and (though I say it myself) rather special. We are perhaps the only generation to have a foot planted firmly in two distinct eras: Pro-Internet (P.I.) and Meta-Internet (M.I.).

We are also, perhaps, the last generation to enjoy a number of clear-cut certainties that don't seem to exist any more. During my formative teenage years in the '80s, things were crystal clear. In South Africa, apartheid still ruled and Nelson Mandela was still languishing in a prison cell on Robben Island. American missiles still sat - patiently waiting to nuke Moscow - in a bunker at Greenham Common. The Berlin Wall still stood strong and impenetrable. UK unemployment was at an all-time high (3 million!). Coal mines were being closed down across the north while Yuppies lived it up with conspicuous greed in The City. And in politics, Right was right, Left was left, and never the 'twain would meet.

In short, we knew where we stood. Our battle lines were firmly etched in granite - it was just a matter of deciding which side to stand on. It's no surprise that the post-Punk era in the UK produced such a politicised generation - we had something tangible to kick against.

Now it's a different story. Battle lines are vaguely doodled in the shifting sands of popularity contests and reality shows, and Right and Left alike have moved so close to the middle ground that they are now virtually indistinguishable (so much for the democracy of choice!). If you don't believe me, you should see the incredulous look on the faces of many Greeks when I inform them that the current UK Government (for now, at least) is in the hands of the Labour (as in Socialist) Party. Many assume that Blair & Brown are Margaret Thatcher's political offspring.

At least with Maggie, you knew where you stood.

This may all be getting a little too political for comfort, and that's not my intent. I am simply trying to show that the world we grew up in is very different from the one in which we are trying to raise our kids. And yet, we function just as well Now as we did Then.

The post-war Baby Boom produced some remarkable talents and visionaries in all fields. I'm not just thinking of the likes of Bill Gates, but also of Bob Geldof, Bono et al, who saw something wrong with the world and decided to use their fame, fortune or even egos to bang on about it until we wake up and do something about it.

Though the battle lines are only faintly drawn for our children's generation, there are some fights that should always be fought. Poverty and injustice have not gone away and despite the changes we have seen - for better and for worse - there's another world out there where thousands of children still go to bed hungry and frightened every single night.

I hope we will continue to adapt to the changes we face, and not let disillusionment push us into indifference (thus risking handing the reigns of power to a bunch of extremists riding high on the current wave of disgust at the current state of politics).

So, if you are reading this from the UK, please DO vote today and - wherever you choose to put your mark - please be guided by hope, not hate....

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Ode to my Other Half

Today, my Other Half and I will celebrate his birthday together for the 21st time.

Yes, "It was 20 years ago today...." that I first wished him Many Happy Returns and all that. Mind-boggling.

Now, I think that even my Other Half would admit that he is not perfect, though there's plenty of things he is: smart; funny; frustrating; demanding; laid-back; quixotic; loyal; confusing; inventive; creative; complicated; generous; cynical; excitable; cool; infuriating; ingenious; original; kind-hearted; quick-tempered; borderline manic depressive; idealistic; capricious; fun; warm; sexy; cuddly; charismatic; abrupt; neurotic; clever; charming; hard working; lazy; talented; a challenge.

In short, yet another flippin' Gemini in my life (I'm clearly a glutton for punishment!), even though I don't really believe in all that astrology tosh.

He is Hubby No.2 for me - and it seems that I got it right second time round, even if I did have to cross a continent to find him.

My Other Half aint perfect - but he's perfect for me.

Happy Birthday, my love. I look forward to celebrating many more with you.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Athens Portraits: Touristas Gormless

There's a certain kind of visitor to Greece that seems to be under the impression that a brain is not essential for travel.

There's no mistaking them as they mill around the shops in Plaka or the slopes of the hill on which the Acropolis stands.

Often found in herds, they are clearly distinguishable from the native species due to the bright scarlet markings on the head shoulders and arms. They seek out pools of blazing sunlight while the resident species hide in the shade, and (when in large packs) have a distinctive braying cry that resembles that of a pack of stranded sealions. Some varieties also carry multiple cans of luke-warm beer, in preference to the plastic bottles of water favoured by the locals.

Their scientific name is Touristas Gormless, and though there are many sub-species, there is one characteristic they all share. For some reason that remains a mystery to science, they are totally clueless.

In their native habitat, they may be highly accomplished businessmen, educators, professionals or self-made men (and women). But once they set foot on Greek soil, a mystifying transformation takes place. The eyes glaze over, and the thought processes are disengaged, as they switch from 'real life rat-race' to 'holiday stand-by' mode. Their plumage changes from sombre neutrals to brightly coloured shorts, vests and (in extreme cases) straps of fabric that sadly leave little to the imagination. Footwear varies from sandals with socks to fragile strappy high-heels that snap easier than a dry twig in the Attica sun.

What experts believe is behind this strange metamorphosis is the effects of anticipation, fuelled by stereotypical images they have been force-fed by the media in their homeland that depict Greece as a Land That Time Forgot - a place populated by charming but slightly inferior locals, where everyone spends the afternoon on the beach or sipping ouzo at a seaside bar, and transport still relies largely on donkeys and carts.

Hence their surprise (and shock) when they arrive at Athens International Airport (much shinier, newer and – dare I say it? – more efficient than Heathrow, Gatwick or Luton). More shocks await as they arrive in the city centre to see thousands of brand new cars whizzing around the streets, and a network of (mostly clean) Underground stations to get them around. Disappointment often follows with the realisation that there is no beach next to the Acropolis and there aren’t any sunbeds for hire in Syntagma Square.

They've heard all the warnings about the dangers of the sun, and obey the instructions religiously in their natural habitat. But on foreign soil, it is all forgotten as they believe that 'drink plenty of water' equates to 'have a cup of tea followed by a couple of lagers'. And while some start off their fortnight slapping on Factor 60, after a couple of days many are down to Factor 2 or even straight Baby Oil and are proudly showing off their 'tan' while the locals wince at the sight of their raw, red shoulders and rapidly peeling nose.

Normal common sense, like keeping an eye on their wallets or not letting their young play in the middle of the street, go out of the window once in Greece. But if anything goes wrong, like sunstroke, theft or an accident, they rant and rave about “the bloody Greeks” and swear that they will never set foot in the country again (well, not til next year’s bargain break, anyway).

But they're not alone. Along with the flocks of Touristas Gormless that arrive every summer, increasing numbers of Touristas Sensibilas have been witnessed over the past few years.

Unlike their fellow travelers, this species has done a little homework and actually packed its brain along with tickets, passports, money and sun screen. It has already sampled Greek fare at restaurants back home and is eager to try the real thing. Some have read about the places they will visit and dress and act appropriately. Some are even repeat visitors who have formed firm friendships with the native species and have learned the basics of the local lingo.

Yet despite the rise of Touristas Sensibilas, its gormless cousin is in no danger of extinction.

Just take a look around next time you visit any of Greece's tourist hot-spots. See that sweaty red-faced one with the baggy shorts and vest sitting at a table in the full glare of the midday sun as he chugs down a cold beer and tries to work out which end of the souvlaki to start with? He’s a classic male of the species. And you can be sure that his mate will be found somewhere nearby, flitting from shop to shop, in search of a trophy to take back to their nest.

But by October, the last of the breed will have disappeared from the Greek coasts and countryside, leaving it once again to a few foreign culture vultures and the many colourful native species.