Friday, 29 May 2009
No matter what the reason – be it a wedding, baptism, name day or religious holiday – you can be sure that there will be food involved. And lots of it - for, as with so many things here, moderation is thrown out of the window when putting together a Greek family dinner.
The rule of thumb is, as my mother-in-law says, "den ftanei an den perisevei" ("it's not enough if there's nothing left-over"). So, a typical family gathering will be centred around a plethora of sights, smells and tastes fighting for space on the white linen-clad table in pride of place in the dining room.
Typically, that table will be weighed down with a huge variety of dishes to tempt your palate, perhaps including: fragrant kokkinisto (beef in a rich tomato sauce flavoured with cinnamon); platters piled high with slabs of pastichio (layers of macaroni interspersed with mince meat and bechamel sauce); cheese pies; bowls brimming over with glistening salads; steaming horta (wild greens); homemade taramosalata and tzatziki; crisp deep-fried slithers of aubergine and courgette; and scrumptious roast potatoes. And that's just for starters! The main attraction might be roast suckling pig or even a whole goat or lamb that has been slowly cooked on a spit over hot coals since the early morning.
Any protestations of diet or vegetarianism are – predictably – ignored or dismissed as passing fads.
It's all washed down with lashings of soft drinks, beer and local wines. Despite my years here, I've still not learned to love the sharp acidic twang of retsina-type vino, but if I'm lucky there'll be a few bottles of the rich fruity reds that Greece is so good at producing (but less expert at promoting in the international market – perhaps intentionally?).
As the mountainous feast on the table grows, the menfolk will sit on the balcony talking politics and smoking, while the women bustle in and out of the kitchen in a frenzy of preparation. As they do, they catch up on family gossip, exchange agonies of their latest ailments and engage in a little speculative match-making for the younger members of the family who are not yet spoken for.
Over-indulged children wander in and out to steal scraps of food before the main event (much to the delight of their ever-obliging grandmother who will pick out the choicest pieces for them). After all, it's their reward for enduring assorted aunts' whoops of delight, declarations of amazement at how much they've grown and the agony of affectionate cheek-pinching that comes with such family events.
At the very eye of that storm of activity is the noikokyra (housewife and hostess). This is her showcase and she is certainly not going to give anyone grounds for going away unhappy or unfed. She bustles about in the best tradition of village PR, attending to everyone's needs and ignoring the family's pleas to sit down, relax and eat. And when she does finally settle down, she'll alternate her apologies for the inadequacy of the food with little grunts of self-congratulation at how well her prize dishes have turned out.
Meanwhile, everyone – from the ancient yiayia (grandmother), in the place of honour at the head of the table, to the cockiest youngster fresh out of college – will feel free to discuss and offer their expert advice on the issues of the day.
Whether it's political analysis, health tips, career guidance or parenting advice, they all have an opinion. And they all express it. Loudly. Usually, all at once.
There are no rules about talking while you eat here.
Once the din recedes and everyone has eaten themselves into a stupour, the remains of the main course are whisked away to the kitchen, and yet more food appears – as if by magic – on the tabletop battlefield.
Boxes of goodies visitors have brought from the local zacharoplasteio (a kind of luxury version of a patisserie which does a roaring trade on high days and holidays) will be wheeled out, along with platters of fresh seasonal fruit, trays of homemade bachlava rich with honey and walnuts, kataifi like exotic syrup-drenched Shredded Wheat, or tiny saucers of local fruit cooked in heavy syrup to produce a delicacy so sweet it can only be consumed by the teaspoonful.
Food and family are perhaps two of the most important threads woven into the fabric of Greek society. If they were removed, I suspect the whole thing would simply unravel. As elsewhere in the Mediterranean, the two are so intrinsically linked that it takes the fiercest of feuds to break that warp and weave.
So, raise your glasses and give a hearty "Stin i yeia mas!" (To our health!) to that flavoursome and distinctly Greek bond between the generations. Long may it reign.
Thursday, 28 May 2009
For those who don’t know (has anyone escaped it?), Sponge Bob (or ‘Bob o sfoungarakis’ as the Greek kids call him) is a household sponge who wears shorts and lives in a pineapple under the sea (like you do) in a neighbourhood called Bikini Bottom. His friends include: Patrick - a good hearted but terminally stupid starfish; Sandy - a squirrel who lives in an upturned fish bowl on the seabed and gets around in a diving suit; and Gary - his pet snail who meows (well he wouldn’t, wouldn’t he?). His next door neighbour, Squidward, lives in a house modelled on the Easter Island statues.
Oooookaay. Yeah, right….
Then there are other favourites like ‘My gym partner is a monkey’ and ‘Oggie & The Cockroaches’. Aha, OK. All is well in TV-land, I guess.
Looking back, however, such surrealism seems to have been a vital ingredient of kids’ TV for some time now. I grew up during the 1970s in typical middle England , and to be honest, the sights and sounds that coloured that long-ago childhood were probably no less weird. At the time I just took it all at face value – as you do – but looking back, I wonder….
One of my favourites was ‘Mr Ben’. For the uninitiated, it was a series of drawings (they didn’t even move!) following the daily adventures of – yes, you’ve guessed it – Mr. Ben. Every day, Mr Ben would put on his dark suit, white shirt, dark tie and bowler hat, leave the house and go to… ...a dressing-up shop!
There, a bald-headed man with an accountant’s moustache and a Turkish fez would hand him the ‘costume du jour’ and Mr Ben would walk through the magic door to the changing room, where he would enter a phantasmagorical world of crazy psychedelic colours, shapes and swirling patterns for the day’s adventure. Maybe the clothes were dipped in acid, who knows? I was (and still am) too innocent to know the difference.
Then there was ‘The Magic Roundabout’. Star of the show was Dougal, the hairy dog with no perceivable legs and an obsession with sugar lumps. His supporting cast included: Florence (boring and sensible with a freakishly large head), Brian the Snail (Dougal’s long-suffering best mate), Ermentrude the cow, Dylan (the terminally laid-back guitar-twanging rabbit), and Zebedee (who simply defied description!).
Many theories have been offered about the real message behind Dougal & Co, from a parody of Swedish politics at the time (‘really?’) to not-so-thinly veiled references to drug culture. But it was all lost on me in the 1970s. Then, it was just that slightly odd thing that filled the 5 minutes between the end of children’s programmes and the 6 o’clock News. And I never missed it.
Others worth an honourable mention included ‘Rainbow’ (remember Bungle, the world’s stupidest man-sized teddy bear? Or Zippy, everyone’s favourite smart-arse loudmouth?), ‘Bagpuss’ (which I found strangely creepy, I’m afraid), the seriously low-tech but delightful 'Ivor the Engine' & 'Noggin the Nog' (ruined for me by a boyfriend who said it sounded like an act of sexual depravity); and the wonderfully British but slightly defective superhero ‘Danger Mouse’. I guess they were responsible for laying the foundations of my abiding love of Monty Python, Dr Who (memories of hiding behind the sofa to the opening credits), The Rocky Horror Show, Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or even that American upstart, The Little Shop of Horrors.
So maybe I shouldn’t worry about Sponge Bob after all? Maybe it’s just an expression of the imagination that we have to let rip during childhood?
Now, excuse me, I have to go ‘cos it’s nearly time for ‘Dexter’s Laboratory’.
Wednesday, 27 May 2009
In the relatively short space of time since I’ve been a working bod (OK, it's been a quarter of a century but it FEELS like just a couple of years) many things have changed almost beyond recognition.
When I started out as a trainee reporter on a South London local newspaper, I had to bash out my copy on an antique manual typewriter (1 original & 2 carbon copies) and the paper was still printed using hot metal technology.
I won’t deny that I was glad to see my old typewriter go the way of the dodo and be replaced by the far more forgiving computer keyboard and screen, but there was a strange glamour to the old printing process that I still miss.
Our Newsroom was above the print floor and there was an indefinable thrill in watching the Chief Sub and printer bent over scrutinising the 'stone' that would become the plate for each page. Next would come the unmistakable rumble as the massive presses started up for the Thursday afternoon print-run, accompanied by the distinctive smell of hot metal and printing ink.
Once those presses were running, the Newsroom would heave a collective sigh of relief, safe in the knowledge that another edition of Croydon’s finest had been 'put to bed'. Then, we'd submit our expense slips and head for the pub. Of course, there was always the chance of something big happening and us having to swing into action. But the cry of “Stop the presses!” was rarely heard (mainly due to the huge cost of stopping and starting the machines once they were on a roll).
The Newsrooms of today are very different to the one I walked into at the tender age of 18. Then, they were chaotic, cluttered, smoke-filled dens filled with scruffy excitable individuals who were deceptively organised (they had to be, to create order out of that chaos). Desks were littered with copy slips, expense claims forms, old notes slammed onto “spikes”, forgotten coffee cups and overflowing ashtrays. Sounds like hell, but I loved it.
These days, Newsrooms tend to be quiet, politically correct, clinical, air-conditioned havens peopled by clean-living, non-smoking (either by choice or enforcement) individuals who have probably never seen a manual typewriter. And the only sounds to break that ordered atmosphere are the gentle clicking of computer keyboards and the occasional chirrup of a mobile phone.
Thanks to the Internet, news is now instantaneous, so the focus of a weekly local rag has changed too. It’s not so much a matter now of getting the news to your readers, but offering the best promotions, inviting 'citizen journalists' to contribute to your column inches (filling space for free and allowing them to grind their own particular axes, sometimes at the cost of impartiality and decent writing) and attracting the most profitable advertising.
I am not going to pretend that I don’t get nostalgic for the 'old days', when the grimy gritty glamour of organised chaos, combined with uncompromising News Editors who insisted on the best possible quality of reporting and writing, produced something we were satisfied with every week – and occasionally something we were genuinely proud of.
However, times are a-changin’, as they must, and in many ways things are better now. We all have access to multiple sources of information, instantly, at the touch of a button. And if we are so inclined, we have the ammunition to judge and reach our own conclusions based on a variety of sources.
But let’s not throw out the baby with the bath-water.
The renegade tradition personified by the newspaper hacks that populated Newsrooms for much of the 20th century still has valuable lessons to teach us. That we should never simply swallow everything we are told. That we should not be overawed by authority. That we should always ask the key questions – what, when, how, where, and (most of all) why – and insist on straight answers. That it’s OK to break the mould and take a sideways look at things. That it's right to be outraged by injustice and to believe that things can be changed.
Looking even further back, the roots of that tradition go back to social observers and would-be reformers like Samuel Pepys, Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and George Orwell.
Isn’t that a tradition worth keeping up?
Tuesday, 26 May 2009
I know it’s too much to expect the same from an Athens taxi as I would from a London cab. For a start, compared to their London equivalents, Athens cabs are dirt-cheap (sometimes quite literally).
Apparently, Greek taxi-drivers don’t have to learn the equivalent of ‘The Knowledge’, the detailed test of city streets and the best way to get there that every London cabbie has to commit to memory. You don’t tell London cabbies how to get there – they know. And if they don’t, they're not the genuine article. But if you happen to find a Piraeus taxi-driver in the northern suburbs of Athens, you will have to tell him every single twist and turn along your route.
Then, you must be prepared for the fact that you will probably share your taxi with a total stranger.
Imagine my surprise, as a newcomer to Athens nearly 20 years ago, when the cab I was riding in suddenly stopped and a granny loaded up with the week’s groceries climbed into the back seat with me! Then, she took us literally all around the houses to be delivered to her front door, which meant I arrived half an hour late and paid extra for the privilege. I wanted to get mad and make a fuss, but my Greek wasn't good enough. Anyway, I felt sorry for the ‘old dear’ (though I now know that if I had challenged her, she'd have given me a run for my money). I just spent the rest of the day kicking myself for being such a wimp.
Then there is the taxi-driver himself (or occasionally, herself). Alfred, our long-serving London cabbie, says that life is all about communication. Not so in the case of your average Greek ‘taxitzis’ (let’s call him Mitsos).
Mitsos will probably furiously puff his way through at least five fags during the course of your ride, despite the prominently displayed 'No Smoking' sign. He may only communicate in monosyllabic grunts in between the wailing demotic clarinet blaring out of his radio – or he will take one look at your face, decide you're a good listener and tell you his life story, including his trials and tribulations dealing with the ingrate public.
No wonder I get confused!
When I finally reveal that I’m English, I'll either be berated for everything from the Elgin Marbles to Maggie Thatcher, or subjected to a love poem dedicated to my homeland, on the basis of a week Mitsos spent in Southampton back in 1973, when he was a merchant seaman.
All this time, the meter is running…… Tick, tick, tick…
I never said that Mitsos is Athens' answer to Alfred Collins, but he's certainly an experience.
Monday, 25 May 2009
But it’s an unpredictable beast with a nasty habit of turning into a monster without a moment’s notice. That’s when we lose control and find ourselves spiralling helplessly down into a vicious circle of panic. We’ve all had those moments of uncontrollable fear or dread with no apparent cause. It’s all part of the human condition, they tell me. The trick is to achieve a ‘balance’ (back to old yin-yang again).
Now, I know that what I am about to say is tantamount to heresy, but I just don’t get the whole yoga/meditation thing. Believe me I have tried it, but the main thought in my head when I finished was – ‘BORING!’.
And as for emptying my mind, what’s that all about? I spend years at school trying to fill my head up and now I’ve got to get rid of it all? Yeah, right!
I mean really, just HOW can anyone empty their mind? I tried it, and though I managed to expel thoughts of work and traffic jams, the piles of washing waiting to be done kept popping into my head.
I guess I must not be a very enlightened individual, but the yoga/mediation thing is clearly not for me. I’m sure I am missing out on some very deep spiritual experiences, but to be honest, that’s OK. We can't all be Mahatma Gandhi.
Taking a long walk on a glorious spring day, losing myself in music, having a really long hot shower, enjoying a laugh at the silliest things with good friends – that’s what works for me. That’s what keeps me on the level and in control.
There’s probably more to it, but I haven’t found it yet.
I’m open to suggestions, so ‘Answers on a postcard please’….
Saturday, 23 May 2009
I should have known it was too good to be true.
And I definitely shouldn't have started thinking...
For as the thoughts bounced around my head, it occurred to me that we really should get some food in for the kids coming over on Sunday to celebrate our son's Name Day. And some of those nasty sugar-laden drinks they crave too.
And whilst I was at it, shouldn't I lay on some adult grub for any grown-ups who might choose to hang out and cast a critical eye over us? So, I loaded up with bread sticks and veg to dunk in the hummous & cheese dip I planned to make. Then it occurred to me - most grown-ups don't eat like me. They wouldn't know one end of a tapenade from the other, though they'd probably try it and smile politely at me before turning gratefully to the crisps and sausage rolls.
Of course, we'd be needing a bit of booze to see us through the evening too.
What about dessert? Do we traipse off to the patisserie and fork out another 40 Euros? No! I'll save money (Ha!) and do Chocolate Cups. And, as not everyone likes dark chocolate, I'll do two types - white & dark. So, into the already heaving trolley with the wheels of death went a couple of bars of plain choc (my fave) and in the total absence of plain white choc, two big bars of White Chocolate Crunch - and a couple of tubs of cream into the bargain.
I have to admit that I approached the check-out with some trepidation, and not just because I was worried that the whole precarious lot would come tumbling down if I breathed too hard. It was the final number that worried me - I'd started the day expecting to shell out 30 Euros, tops, and I was pretty sure that I was at least 50 Euros over budget. Not really what you want to hear in the gap between the last of last month's pay packet trickling away and the next one dropping neatly into your account. But, what to do?
I waited patiently for three weeks in the queue, then tried to explain to the well-meaning but not-too-sharp check-out girl what exactly I was going to do with sundried tomatoes AND White Chocolate Crunch. I struggled to simultaneously unload my trolley AND load up the bags at the other end (something that requires a PhD in advanced Quantum Physics and the ability to bend the space-time continuum). And then I awaited the verdict.....
Ow! It was worst than I thought.
Rather than facing the humiliation of putting stuff back on the shelves in the midst of the manic Saturday morning shoppers (no round-the-clock Tescos here folks), I gritted my teeth and pulled out the plastic.
After all, we wouldn't want the other Mummies to think that 'the English one' is a bad hostess, would we? I just hope they don't expect jelly & ice-cream too...
Friday, 22 May 2009
Maybe it says something about the Mediterranean temperament versus the classical British stiff upper lip (sometimes the only stiff thing to be found on cold days) but somehow I doubt it. After all, Germans also class everything as male, female or neuter.
I just don’t know why chairs, saucepans, doors, curtains and toilets are all female. Nor why (grammatically, at least) all cats, owls, tortoises and whales are too.
Dogs, of course, are male.
OK, I guess it could be argued that cats are clearly female (mysterious, enigmatic and obsessed with cleanliness), and dogs are obviously male (love of balls and a one-track mind when on heat). But I still don’t get what makes a chair female. Or a toilet or that matter.
Though I’ve been here for 20 years, I still sometimes fall into the 'xeni' (foreign) habit of using the third, neutral gender in places where it shouldn’t go. Sometimes, it is simply ignorance or laziness on my part. Other times, however, I just cannot bring myself to refer to something as female when it so clearly is NOT.
We used to share our home with a big, ginger tom who took great pride in presenting us with an impressive pair of furry balls at every opportunity (apparently, the height of good manners among cats). Sorry, but when evidence to the contrary is so literally ‘in my face’, I just could not refer to him in the female terms of ‘gata’ or ‘gatoula’. For me, Maxi will always be a ‘gatos’ or ‘gataros’ – no matter how often my mother-in-law tries to put me right.
Another problem is knowing when to use of the plural or the singular. In English we talk about a pair of trousers or a pair of pants, but in Greek they are singular – ‘panteloni’ and ‘vraki’.
But when Greeks go to the hairdresser, they speak in the plural – ‘Prepei na kopso ta mallia mou’ (‘I must cut my hairs’). Now, maybe I am a little warped (‘No! Really?’), but that phrase always brings some wonderful images to mind involving special salons with lawn-mower type trimmers for those particularly hairy chests some Greek men specialise in.
And to add insult to injury (at least for those of us who were born BEFORE The Beatles broke up), a Birthday is not a singular either. When Greeks wish you Many Happy Returns with a cheerful ‘Haroumena Yenethlia’, they are actually saying ‘Happy Birthdays’.
So, does that mean that I've really been here 40 years and not 20?
Thursday, 21 May 2009
Dury, who lived with the after-effects of the polio he contracted as a child, died of cancer in 2000. Together with his band, The Blockheads, he is probably best remembered by most for “Hit me with your rhythm stick”. But my personal favourite is his bitter-sweet hymn to happiness "Reasons to be cheerful, Part 3".
I wish I could come up with an equally brilliant list, but let’s face it, I’m no Ian Dury. But that doesn’t mean I can't be inspired by the irrepressible spirit and cockney humour of a man that had few favours dealt out to him, but who still felt it was worth paying tribute to some of the small pleasures of life.
So, with apologies to countless better poets than me, but in the spirit of looking on the bright side, below are just a few of my own reasons be cheerful:
Freshly brewed Darjeeling,
tanning without peeling,
finding you appealing
Spending pocket money,
hot crumpets with honey,
feeling rather funny,
Singing in the shower,
turning up the power,
the smell of a fresh flower
Acting rather silly,
gilding up the lily,
A bunch of yellow tulips,
a dash of mint julep,
thinking about your lips
Not exactly art, I know. But if nothing else, all the above - and many more - are great incentives to get out of bed and face the world every day.
I am hoping that both my sister and Ffynella The Fragrant will share some of their reasons too, as they both have a talent for verse that I lack.
So, come on. I’m waiting!
Small, unassuming and usually languishing in tins or unappealing bags of dried pulses on supermarket shelves, she’s easy to overlook. But the truth is that beneath her uninspiring exterior lies a positive powerhouse of nutrition and culinary possibilities.
I’ll be honest, it’s only recently that I have come to truly appreciate her. Chickpeas (or 'revythia') are among the staples of the traditional diet in Greece, which has been my home for the past two decades, but I had always turned up my nose when it was served. This was probably due to the fact that most Greeks only eat just one variation – a plain, rather bland soup which was never visually enticing enough to make me want to try it.
My chickpea epiphany came a little over a year when I decided that I didn’t need meat at all in my life anymore (I still tuck into fish, seafood and all things dairy). To eat well – to get all the nutrients you need AND to enjoy whay you're eating – without meat takes a smidge of learning, and a good glug of imagination.
Enter the chickpea. Incredibly cheap (something not to be sneezed at in these cash-strapped days), with a long shelf life, and packed with protein, fibre and all sorts of goodness a body needs. It was begging to be cooked, eaten, enjoyed.
So, I cast aside my pre-set notions of unappetising (for me) soup my mother-in-law serves up, and got creative with the chickpea.
My first tentative steps took me in the direction of hummous (a delicious puree of chickpeas with garlic, lemon, tahini and olive oil), then started experimenting with variations on the theme. Adding mashed up avocado pears to the mix adds a velvety dimension (plus a double-whammy of nutrients and – sadly – calories) to the dish. Similarly, chickpea mash as featured in the brilliant book ‘Backwards in High Heels’ by Tania Kindersley & Sarah Vine gives it sharp spicy edge by replacing the tahini (sesame paste) with a smidge of dried chilli (Harissa paste also works well). All of the above are wonderful with Arabic bread, corn wafers and a fresh green salad.
Fresh, homemade, easy, virtuous and tasty. Who could ask for more?
And yet, I felt there was still more I could do to transform the chickpea from humble to orgasmic.
I experimented with one of my mother-in-law’s signature dishes – chickpea fritters, a local delicacy on her home island of Samos. Mashed up chickpeas, mixed with chopped onions and dill, these fried fritters are delicious hot from the pan. But, if you’re trying to give the frying pan a wide berth, they're probably not a great idea.
Then, one day, when flicking through an old recipe book, I came across a recipe for Moroccan lamb, pepper & chickpea casserole, and I decided to experiment with a meat-free version. Tentatively, and not knowing if all the effort would be worth it in the end, I set about getting creative in the kitchen. With the recipe and my foodie instincts as a guide, I set about gathering ingredients, chopping veg (something I find strangely soothing), boiling chickpeas (soaked overnight) and anticipating the feast I would – hopefully – enjoy at the end.
Well, dear readers, it was a success – the Orgasmic Chickpea was achieved. Good-looking, aromatic, tasty and good for you. It’s the sort of thing I could serve up for my most extreme vegan friend (she knows who she is) and yet still be enjoyed by avowed carnivores (at least open-minded ones) like my Other Half.
Here’s how I did it:
2 medium red onions sliced
juice of 1 lemon
1 large red (bell) pepper, deseeded & thickly sliced
1 large green (bell) pepper, deseeded & thickly sliced
1 large yellow/orange (bell) pepper, deseeded & thickly sliced
pinch of saffron strands
cinnamon stick, broken
1 tablespoon clear honey
300ml/halfpint/1 and quarter cups vegetable stock
1 teaspoon Harissa paste
200g/7oz can of chopped tomatoes
1-2 cans of cooked chickpeas (or a good handful of dried chickpeas soaked overnight & boiled til tender)
(Optional extra 1: A handful of mixed pulses, beans etc – soaked overnight and cooked til tender)
(Optional extra 2: 1-2 sweet potatoes cut into bite-sized cubes gives it extra substance)
Salt & pepper
1. Toss onions in lemon juice and put in saucepan. Mix in sliced peppers, saffron, cinnamon stick and honey. Add the stock, bring to boil and cover & simmer for about 5 minutes.
2. Add to pan with the onions & peppers. Season and stir in Harissa paste, tomatoes, chickpeas and mixed pulses/sweet potatoes (if using). Mix well, bring to the boil and simmer - uncovered - for about 20 minutes.
3. Serve with couscous dusted with cinnamon powder, or boiled rice.
It’s a simple as that!
Even if you have to soak the chickpeas overnight and boil them in advance like me (I’ve yet to find tinned chickpeas at Greek supermarkets), it’s hassle free and easy.
But I’m all for expanding my chickpea horizons, so if any of you our there have any other recipes I can try, bring it on.
After all, who am I to turn down the opportunity of multiple orgasms?
Wednesday, 20 May 2009
Unfortunately, this is not a trait we share (in fact, despite being life-long friends, we're pretty much as chalk & cheese as you can get). When chatting online to people, or even when getting caught up in the flow of what I'm tapping out, I type in a sort of streamofconsciousness way. And inevitably, that leads to DFS.
DFS (Dyslexic Fingers Syndrome) and the resulting inadvertant Spoonerisms are something that my mate (let’s call her Ffynella the Fragrant) is quick to spot and slow to forgive, thus reminding me that she's a clever old boot who learned how to touch-type properly at the age of two, while I'm still operating on the 4 finger system decades later.
To drive her criticism of my all-too-frequent typoes home, next time I’m anywhere near the Valleys, she has invited me for a slap-up meal of caked bod with prushed cotatoes and spreamed crinach. She offered belon malls as a starter but I begged her to spare the poor belons’ manhood, so we’ll probably have harma pam instead.
There is no end to the mixed-up menus you could come up with, including:
Boast reef & Porkshire yudding
Shamb Lank with grinted mavy
Celly & Justard
Dotted spick ('old on, that one sounds funnier in the original!)
And to wash it down, how about a shottle of Biraz, some Phateuaneuf du Crape, or perhaps a sisky & whoda followed by some chink pampagne?
Moments of silliness are essential for my sanity. And, despite her outward appearance of dignity and decorum, Ffynella knows that better than most.
Tuesday, 19 May 2009
It's not a big deal, it's simply a way of spreading the word and sharing with whatever readers we may have the blogs that we have recently discovered, enjoyed and think others will enjoy too. And when a fellow blogger chooses to read and follow my efforts, it's a huge honour.
Nora told us that the Rules are simple:
1) Accept the award, post it on your blog together with the name of the person who’s given it plus his or her blog link.
2) Pass the award to 10 other blogs that you’ve recently discovered. And contact the bloggers to let them know they've been chosen for this award.
So that's what I'm doing. Below is my top ten (there are others, but the limit is ten) nominations for blogs that you really should check out the following (in no particular order):
1. The trials & tribulations of urban gardening pioneer (and my best mate) Sarah, a.k.a. Farmer Georgy, Georgygirl, etc. http://plotz.blogsome.com
2. The very VERY talented Lucy Pepper, another transplanted Brit (she's in Portugal) at http://lucypepper.com/pt/blog
3. From the co-author of "Backwards in High Heels" (I'm eagerly awaiting my copy any day now), Tania Kindersley, at http://taniakindersley.blogspot.com
4. The musings of a wife and mother trying to make sense of this weird old world we live in at http://itsnotjustmeisit.blogspot.com
5. Stevyn Colgan, our token male (in this list) and author of "Joined Up Thinking" (also eagerly awaited) at http://stevyncolgan.blogspot.com
6. Hints on acheiving (or not) Domestic Divinity at http://domesticgoddessism.blogspot.com
7. A brilliant writer who just happens to be another wife and mum at http://redmummyrambleson.blogspot.com
8. The lovely and self-explanatory http://luluslalalife.blogspot.com/
9. The thoughts of an author juggling real-life and day job with getting published, at http://writing-about-writing.blogspot.com
10. The Diary of a Diet from Hannah Jones (recently of BBC documentary fame) at http://hanjonhanjon.blogspot.com
Really, I'm nobody’s idea of the perfect “nikokyra” (neat & tidy housewife). I’m a mouthy, bolshy scruff-bag whose dress size leaves much to be desired.
And no matter how much I love my husband and my son – and believe me I do – they are NOT my raison d’être.
Modesty does not feature heavily in my character, and I do demand recognition in my own right ('selfish cow'). Worse still, I consider myself to be better at some things than my man ('shock, horror!').
Hey, this Confession business feels good!
I grew up with the Sunday School/church choir/afternoon tea tradition (otherwise known as the Church of England), so I’ve never really had the chance to purge my soul.
Watch out, the floodgates could be about to burst!
What else can I confess?
I hate ironing. With a passion! I know it’s a necessary evil, but I refuse to go with the Greek flow of ironing towels, underwear and socks. If I can get away with it, the iron won’t touch it. Fortunately the Other Half doesn’t mind - just as well as he never lifts the iron ’cos he “never learned how to do it” ('yeah, and I’ve got an Honours Degree in it, haven’t I sunshine?'). Don’t get me wrong, I will dutifully - though not beautifully - iron his shirts (I can already hear my feminist sensitivities screaming in the background), but I don’t pretend to get any kind of satisfaction from it.
And I LOVE to go barefoot ('get thee behind me, slippers'). Actually, I believe that according to accepted Greek wisdom, this IS actually one of the Seven Deadly Sins, leading to all manner of evils including painful periods, athlete’s foot, infertility – probably the Black Death too. I’ll probably go straight to you-know-where for that alone.
Hey, I’m really working up a head of steam on this confession thing!
But, hang on a mo… something just occurred to me.
For confession to count, you’re supposed to repent aren’t you? And I don’t. This is who I am. Take it or leave it. Like it or lump it. What you see is what you get.
Luckily, I have a family (including the in-laws) and friends who (mostly) do take me for what I am, so it looks like I am saved - at least in this lifetime.
Not sure about the next one though…
Monday, 18 May 2009
Judging by the Spam that magically appears in my In Box every day, the Great Cyber Brain out there KNOWS that I am:
- desperate for penile enhancement
- waiting for the right investment opportunity for the millions burning a hole in my pocket
- in need of prayers offered by obscure Evangelists
- seeking the companionship of a good woman called Ludmilla
- looking for a revolutionary weight loss plan that involves no diet or exercise
- in the market for cheap Viagra
- fluent in Russian and Japanese
- likely to give my bank account details to someone promising me a share in a clandestine fortune
- willing to believe that a miracle will happen if I forward a mail to 20 other people within the next 5 minutes
- haven’t seen the Dalai Lama’s guidelines for a happy life at least 400 times.
Strange thing is, they’re wrong – or at least mostly wrong. When I was at school, 1 out of 10 meant a resounding 'F'.
Conclusion? Spam aint smart - Spam is dumb. We’re the smart ones. We just tend to forget it at times.
Spam could be smart, but frankly for most of us, it can’t be bothered. No matter how much we obsess about Big Brother and the pervasive and invasive nature of the www (the only acronym I know that takes three times as long to say as the thing it abbreviates), most of us are not really that interesting.
Big Brother and his Internet Thought Police don’t really care if I put sugar or sweetener in my morning coffee. Nor does it give a monkey’s dooh-dah what colour I dye my hair. Sure, they can sell that fascinating information (for the record: either brown sugar, & red with strawberry blonde highlights) to stealth advertisers who will then bombard me with sugar substitutes and hair dye offers. But I can always ignore them or (as I regularly do) hit the Delete button.
There is no intelligence at work. Just a database. A list of information which users (and abusers) try to match to their own criteria to identify 'victims'. Nothing more. No thought. No real judgement. No opinion.
Despite the fact that South Korea is already drawing up legislation to protect robotic rights, it is you and me (and even that moron next door) that represent the most phenomenal piece of cerebral engineering imaginable. And that’s not likely to change for as long as we refuse to surrender into a supine, vegetative state.
We have the divine ability to be bloody-minded and unreasonable, even when we know it’s not in our interests - to literally rage against the machine.
Problem is, it’s much easier to just go with the flow. After a hard day’s work, followed by the weekly supermarket fight to the death and mental acrobatics trying to balance our budget, who has the energy to actually THINK rather than let the flood of infotainment wash over us as we sprawl on the sofa?
But that way leads to slavery, with the machines as our masters. So, let’s get bloody-minded, take control of our own thoughts and reclaim our mastery over those dumb machines that were created to be our servants.
Now, where did I put my whip?
Sunday, 17 May 2009
Over the past few weeks, I have made a point of taking a daily walk of at least an hour around my neighbourhood. And every time I have discovered at least one sight or sound that has made me smile and inspired me to get snapping with my little camera.
Saturday, 16 May 2009
Varvara (Barbara) was probably only in her early 50s, but she had the stoop, scowl and outlook of a bitterly disappointed and world-weary 80-year-old. In response to our cheery "Ti kaneis?" ("How are you?"), she would look up at you with the morbid eyes of a disillusioned camel and sigh "Ti na kanoume?" ("What can I do?").
With her wispy grey hair hastily gathered into a messy bun at the nape of her neck, baggy black garments covering every conceivable piece of desirable flesh, fierce scrubbing of every inch of surface she was charged with cleaning and an expression that could sour milk at ten paces, Varvara was my first experience of the eternal Greek martyr.
At the time, I thought that life had obviously been hard on Varvara (which, incidentally, was exactly what she wanted me to think). Surely, no-one can possibly be that miserable by nature?
Well, actually, I was right - or at least partly right. Indeed, she was not that way by nature, but by nurture. For Varvara had carefully nurtured a persona filled to the brim with woes, suffering and sorrow in order to become the perfect martyr. If my Greek had been good enough at the time, I would have no doubt been subjected to a daily liturgy paying homage to her list of ailments and the disappointments of a woman who had given everything to her ingrate family but received nothing back.
Little did I know, at the time, how lucky I was that my grasp of the language then extended to little beyond the basic everyday pleasantries and essentials like "Pou einai i toualeta?" ("Where's the toilet?").
Since then, I have come across her soul sisters in many shapes and forms in every corner of the country I've visited. They're not all cleaners, they're not all old, they're not all scruffy – but they're all martyrs on a mission to make sure the world knows about it. Without exception, they feel life has dealt them indignities and injustice that no-one but the most evil deserve – though of course, being extremely pious church-goers, they are definitely not evil. And, indeed, most of them ARE good women with a heart of gold buried beneath their pile of complaints.
Without exception, they endure a long list of ailments (real or imagined) that they recite at the drop of a hat.Without exception, they have given their all for their children, who simply refuse to respond in kind.Without fail, they share their woes with the world.
And when a gaggle of them get together, you'd better watch out! The competitive edge really comes to the fore as they jostle verbally to prove who is the most hard-done-by, the most unfortunate, suffers the most agony and is least appreciated by the world.
I've tried reasoning with them, appealing to them to look at the good things in their life rather than focusing on disappointments. But to no avail. And as the years have passed, I've realised that I can't change them, any more than I can understand their chosen take on life - or vice versa, for that matter.
But I do have a theory.I think it has something to do with the melancholy faces of the Orthodox saints and martyrs in the icons that adorn most Greek homes and the ornate images the faithful kiss as they enter their church. Those long-suffering eyes and doleful expressions form part of the fabric of the society that created these ladies. A society that has seen its fair share of suffering – even in living memory Greece has experienced war, occupation, starvation, civil war, a military junta and more. Those icons and that history tell a story of suffering as the way to salvation, so I guess that's why the self-appointed eternal martyrs of Greek life have chosen that as their road to redemption.
And anyway, a sob story is a great way to grab the attention and sympathy of a soft-hearted listener, isn't it?
Friday, 15 May 2009
It's not much - a discarded coffee table (a DIY conversion we were once very proud of), my new collection of herbs (good feng shui, apparently), a marigold to fend off the mozzies, and the rocking chair in which I spent many a sleepless night 12 years ago trying to convince our newborn No.1 & Only Son that night-time really is the best time to sleep.
No, it's not much. But I have high hopes for it.
In my mind, it will be my oasis from the rigours of family life, the constant drone of the telly, the demands of work, and my Internet addiction.
My plans include me coming in after my hour's walk every day, throwing off my shoes, grabbing a book, fixing a cup of green tea, and settling into my own little nook for some serious relaxation.
Nice idea, eh?
Certainly sounds appealing, but somehow I still haven't managed to put it into practice yet.
But, eternal optimist that I am, I'm sure that I will get down to some serious contemplation this weekend. In a nutshell, my weekend plans are..... as little as possible. Sounds good, eh?
And whatever you're going to be up to this weekend, I hope it's a good one.
Fortunately, most Greeks under the age of 240 can at least make themselves passably understood in English - and many under 50 speak it better than we do. So, we Little Englanders can function pretty well here even if we are too lazy or arrogant to learn the lingo. But that’s not the point, is it? It just not polite not to make the effort - and anyway you miss out on an awful lot going on around you if you don’t have a decent grasp of what’s being said.
Greeks can seem pretty intimidating when you first arrive. You get off the plane at Athens airport or the ship at Piraeus port and all around you are people waving their arms and shouting at a rate of knots. Passions run high, voices are raised, moustaches (male and female) quiver, faces turn a delicate shade of magenta. Any minute, you expect to see daggers drawn and blood spilt. And then, they roar with laughter and embrace like brothers.
It’s a powerful incentive to learn Greek. It’s only when you get at least a rudimentary grasp of the lingo and an inkling of the national character that you realise that they are not at each others’ throats – well, at least, not all the time.
I’ve been here for 20 years and have got a fair handle on the language by now (some people even occasionally pay me to translate it). There are times when I don’t know which language I am thinking in.... Unless there are swear words involved. I swear more easily in Greek than I do in English (it feels less 'naughty' and the meaty Mediterranean vowels of “malaka” and “gamoto” are far more satisfactory than their Anglo-Saxon equivalents).
I’m English, my Other Half is Greek, so our 12-year-old son is properly bilingual. He’s been hearing both languages since the moment I saw those little blue lines on the ‘Predictor’ stick. I guess it is only natural that there is a third language at play in our house – Gringlish, a strange mish-mash of Greek and English.
For instance, based on the Greek verb “pistévo” (believe), we often describe something beyond belief as “unpistévable”.
So, if you ever bump into me, please forget me if my conversation is littered with exclamations of "Ela, re", "Bravo" or "A pa pa".
They're just some of the unavoidable side-effects of living the Life Bilingual.
Thursday, 14 May 2009
It’s there – amid the mountains of locally-produced fruit and veg, cheek-by-jowl with stalls piled high with knock-off designer bags and clothes – that you will find ‘laiki man’.
He is one of the many players in the theatre of the laiki. And it’s a heady and colourful set against which he plays his part.The market is a treat for (and sometimes an assault on) the senses. Crowds jostle, trolleys trundle (sometimes right over your toes), hawkers shout each other down in contests to grab your attention and veteran buyers examine the goods and haggle over prices.
The air is filled with the sweet scent of ripe strawberries and cherries; the sharp aroma of fresh lemons; the pungent twang of huge purple onions the size of my hand or heads of garlic like a fist; and the heady smell of fresh basil plants or dried local herbs (oregano, marjoram – good for anxiety and headaches, thyme – recommended for asthma and coughs, and something called ‘louiza’ which is supposed to aid weight loss). And putting the cherry on the top of that intoxicating cocktail of smells are the souvlaki sellers grilling a constant parade of skewered pork cubes over hot coals from daybreak til traders and shoppers alike surrender to the midday sun, pack up and go home.
The feast for the eyes is no less seductive. You’ll find none of the clinical uniformity of a British supermarket’s fruit section here. Large and small keep company, and there’s not a waxed orange or vacuum-sealed package to be seen anywhere.
Instead, you’ll find shiny fat black aubergines nestling next to their slimmer mottled mauve cousins, plump red tomatoes, scarlet peppers shaped like horns of cornucopia, massive watermelons like striped green bowling balls – some cut open to display their succulent red innards - and a veritable rainbow of fresh flowers, plants and herbs.
It's here that ‘laiki man’ is in his element. And he’s as 100% locally produced as the fruit and veg he sells. Whether he’s a moustachioed giant with a belligerent belly or a wiry tanned chancer with a cigarette permanently clamped between his teeth, he’s as authentic as they come. There’s no sophistry in him - he is the Del Boy of the Greek stage.
Despite having been up since before the crack of dawn, he’s always ready for banter or a good-humoured argument about football. And he’s always on the look-out for a chance to rake in a little extra profit. No sooner does his neighbour start shouting out a new reduced price as the end of the market hours approaches, he will shout out even louder an even lower price, and a well-rehearsed ‘spontaneous’ war of words will ensue before they sell-off the last of their wares and pack up before parting like brothers.
Like the best salesmen the world over, they’re all convinced of the superiority of their produce – or at least they’re very convincing. Theirs is the sweetest, the freshest, the firmest, the juiciest – and if you don’t believe them, they’ll cut open a sample so you can try for yourself.
So, you can forget pretentious overpriced delicatessans, or the clinical anonymity of the supermarket shelves. Good food, fresh food, real food, is all about authenticity and passion – and ‘laiki man’ is brimming over with both.
Wednesday, 13 May 2009
By evening, a sad trail of soggy, crumpled loo roll criss-crossed the house, and a certain 12-year-old was sitting like damp rag in the armchair with tears in his eyes, snot in his nose and self-pity in his heart.
Spring has well and truly sprung here in Greece - and so has hayfever season.
Before the antihystemines kicked in, the letter "n" had disappeared from No.1 (and only) Son's vocabulary, misery was on the menu, mucus dripped like it planned to form a stalactite from his nose, and red-eye was the new look du jour in our house.
And, apparently, it's all my fault (nothing whatsoever to do with rolling around on the grass with his friends or smashing into bushes in bloom on his skateboard. Oh no).
It seems that by puffing and panting, pushing and grunting, and going through the joys of labour to bring him into the world all that time ago, I was magically imbued with super-powers to control the weather, pollen count, Financial Times Index, and the Universe in general. I just choose not to - so I have to bashfully raise my hand and croak "mea culpa" for any resulting suffering.
My sincerest apologisies to you all - unless you're bankers, in which case you owe ME an apology (but that's another story).
Good news? The torrent of snot seems to have dried up now that young'un is on the meds.
Bad news? His father has now started snuffling and sneezing like a good'un. Aside from the entertainment value of his highly theatrical (dare I say camp?) sneezes, this means I'm going to have another professional sufferer on my hands - and he won't see sense and take the tablets. He prefers to wallow, frequently and at full volume.
Even worse news? After nearly two decades of being allergy-free, I can feel the little pollen imps buzzing round me, shoving and pushing in line for their turn to irritate my nasal passages, then stand back to enjoy the spectacle as my carefully applied mascara gets redistributed round my face.
What I want to know is "Who do I get to blame?"
Tuesday, 12 May 2009
The frozen food so lovingly selected at Marks & Sparks was trapped in a state of suspended animation. And, as I was on the second floor of an old Victorian house with wooden floors, I couldn’t defrost for fear of flooding the loopy old dear downstairs (Rita - she of the ochre-stained net curtains and flower pot hats).
In the end, I had to chuck the entire thing away, ice monster and entrapped frozen peas intact. And now, many years later, I suspect it may have taken flesh and still be lurking somewhere around a Brighton landfill (strange things do tend to happen south of the Downs, you know).
My ice ogre was a classic example of the domestic demons we all try to ignore. Those chores you keep putting off until eventually, there is no turning back – it’s just too late to put it right.
Our spare room has similar potential, despite my periodic attempts to sort it out once and for all.
I am not by nature a tidy person. But I do try. And I have made some progress over the years. In the past couple of months, our home has become noticeably more organised thanks to repeated visits to IKEA and hours deciphering incomprehensible flat pack instructions. And now, I can proudly announce that after only ten years in our apartment, some of the better photos taken on my stomps around the neighbourhood now grace our walls - and we EVEN have flowers in our balcony planters instead of random crap.
Unfortunately, the spare room has remained stubbornly immune to this fresh wave of household efficiency sweeping through our lives. It has long been a general dumping ground and it seems it has gotten used to that role in life. It was originally intended as an office with a large desk, our PC and a wall’s worth of bookcases. But, it evolved in an entirely different way. The computer committed a cyber version of hari-kiri a couple of years back when replaced by a handy laptop, and it is waiting - in a sulk - to be taken for recycling. The desk, bookcases and every spare inch of floor have gradually filled up with teetering piles of old suitcases, newspapers, tools, carrier bags and all manner of things unknown and unmentionable.
It got to the stage where just a glimpse of it out of the corner of my eye as I passed on my way to the loo sent me into a panic, so I kept closing the door (hoping that if I ignored it long enough, it would go away). At one stage, I had even forgotten what the floor looked like.
My Beloved Other Half is classic Pack Rat. He cannot bring himself to throw away the Sunday papers until he has gone through every single ad supplement and flyer, and rubber bands, bits of string, old paper bags, paper clips and probably even ancient Greek chewing gum all head for the spare room for possible future use. Hence the clutter.
Now, thanks to a recent flurry of activity, can now see the floor again - or at least part of it. And there’s a lot more of it than I remembered.
Getting rid of clutter in your home is recommended by feng shui, as it symbolises the clutter in your mind and/or life blocking the flow of clear thought and positive energy. Or something like that. I have to admit, getting rid of it DID feel good, but I suspect than is more due to a smug feeling of achievement than anything on a higher astral plane.
But we are not out of the woods yet. The next stage involves going through everything in or on the desk and bookcases, chucking out what is surplus to requirements and arranging what we keep nicely and neatly. And keeping it that way.
I'll let you know some time in 2012 if we ever get there...
I have. It has even followed me into exile, as a transplanted Brit in Greece, and continues to stalk me even 20 years since I sampled my first mouthful of REAL tzatziki and slurped my first frappe (iced coffee).
"And what is that phrase?" I hear you say (I do, don't I?).
It's "She means well", usually followed by an apologetic "but...", and anyone who has known me long enough can vouch for its accuracy, and probably have said it themselves on more than one occasion.
Hence the title of this new blog-o-mine (past ramblings can be found at the boringly titled ajm-online.blog.com).
Nature has made me long of limb, broad of beam, open of mind and impatient of nature. Sometimes the results are embarrassing, sometimes hilarious (in retrospect) and - occasionally - unintentionally hurtful.
I'd like to think (hope) that the times I have made folk laugh outnumber the times I've made them cry.
And if that means making an utter fool of myself by bouncing off lampposts in France (and apologising - in True Brit style - in schoolgirl French), ploughing into a precious collection of miniature liquers to prevent a toddler from causing damage, sending a sugar sachet sailing through the air to land with a 'plop' in an unsuspecting coffee drinker's cappucino, or leaning off just a little too far over the food display to seeing my sunglasses drop off and land in the stew, then so be it.
The immediate result is usually cringing embarrassment from me, occasionally accompanied by attempts to hide under a small coffee table (remember the long of limb & broad of beam bit here). Later comes hilarity from those who witnessed it or hear the story richly embellished by my gleeful Other Half. All I can do is sit there and good-naturedly shrug my shoulder, give a lop-sided grin and hope they can see beyond my 'Queen of Klutz' image.
I can live with being the Diva of Disaster, but the one thing that rips me up is when I unintentionally wound someone.
So, just for the record, I'd like to take this opportunity to apologise to anyone whose feelings I may have unwittingly hurt. I may be tactless, clumsy, irrational, or artless but I DO mean well...