Friday, 31 July 2009

Lost in Translation

There are some who say that humour doesn't travel. Others claim that good comedy, like good wine, can travel well when handled properly.

The truth is that sometime language conspires against you. Linguistically, some jokes just cannot work in another language.

The genderisation of the definite article (to you, me and other English-speakers that means "the" is either male or female - or perhaps, in the case of Greek and German, neuter) is a case in point. Because of that, I can't use half of my best one-liners (most Greeks laugh at me for OTHER reasons).

Let me explain. The Greek for God is "O Theos" ("O" being the masculine definite article) which completely scuppers one of my favourites. I get nothing when I say it to my friends here (in Greek) - nothing except puzzled looks that say "Huh??".

So, I'm gonna try it out on you - here goes: When God made man, She was only joking.

(Geddit? Yes? No? Maybe not?)
Oh dear, seems that no-one understands me (yup, THAT old chestnut). Perhaps language isn't the problem after all?

Thursday, 30 July 2009

When is a bad word not a bad word?

When it's uttered by the leader of the Tory Party... or my Mum.

Bless him, David Cameron was not aware that the "T" word (the one that rhymes with 'that') he said TWICE during an interview about Twitter on the BBC is not what middle-aged matrons want to hear coming from the lips of "that nice young man who wants to be Prime Minister".

According to one theory, his touching innocence is proof-positive of his poshness, for some reason. Seems that hoorays can use obscenities in a 'nice' way that escapes the rest of us plebs.

But he's is good company. My Mum also suffers from this form of word-blindness. Despite her pillar of community-ness, high standards, well-spokenness and Surrey respectability, she is not averse to a heartfelt, rip-roaring expletive now and then.
Specifically one expletive - Bugger!

Whether the spuds have boiled dry leaving a black crust on the saucepan bottom, the heavens have opened 10 minutes after she's hung the washing out, some well-meaning but useless helper has pulled up her prize peony thinking it's a weed, or someone has the bare-faced gall to steal her parking space, Mum's verbal response is the same.

"Bugger it!" she'll spit, making the very most of the two passion-filled syllables.
(In the case of the stolen parking spot, she'll follow up by winding down the window to deliver a torrent of middle-class abuse, as whoever is in the car with her tries to sink out of sight).

All this from the woman who washed my mouth out with soap (a fresh new bar of green Fairy, I remember it well) when I silently stuck two fingers up at her in a fit of teenage pique years ago. I tried reasoning with her that my mouth wasn't the guilty party - at the most, she should wash my hands - but to no avail.

But no, Mummy dearest (and believe me, she is the best Mum and friend that a gal could have) just will not accept that "Bugger" is a bad word. I tried shoving dictionary defitions in her face, but she just says "Yes, yes. I know what it means".

And yet, ten minutes there'll be a screech of "Buggeration!" from the kitchen as her grip on the baking pan slips and roast spuds bounce across the lino.

But that's OK. It makes her human, it makes her real, it makes her warm and passionate, and it gives me a bargaining chip when my 12-year-old threatens to tell Nana about my frequent use and love of the word "Bollocks".

I'm not sure if it has the same endearing effect for Mr "just call me Dave" Cameron...

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Friends indeed?

Who you befriend has always been something that requires care and judgement. And that has never been more true than today, with the plethora of chat rooms and personal home pages we all love to surf. And just like surfing the waves in Hawaii, surfing Cyberspace requires caution – because there are sharks out there swimming amongst the angel fish and friendly dolphins.

Of course, I’m not talking about you LOVELY people but a certain brand of annoying anonymous idiots... I’m sure you know who I’m on about.

Most ladies on-line face a constant barrage of unsolicited messages from would-be Romeos (who seriously need to get a life) wanting to flirt, flatter and bombard us with images - both mental and physical - that we frankly are not in the market for.

No, thank you very much, I have no desire to see a close-up of what really - I mean REALLY - should be kept within the comfines of your Y-Fronts. Nor do I want to add to your "Naughty Gallery".
What I DO want to do is reach my arm through Cyberspace, wring your scrawny neck, slap some sense into you and give you a wedgy to remember me by.
So, please, just GO AWAY!

I am online to air some of my views and hopefully have some intelligent conversation with like-minded folk that I would otherwise probably never have the chance to meet. My profile and blog entries make it very clear I’m not in the market for cyber-nooky or anything approaching it, and yet I still have to ward off stupid messages starting with “Hello pretty eyes” and “I dream about you all the time” (No, you bloody well don't!).

Oh god, how boring!

Not only are these online Lotharios irritating, they’re also horribly unoriginal. They all come out with the same lines. I mean, honestly, at least try and come up with something a little more inspired that the cyber equivalent of “Do you come here often?”

Whenever one of THOSE messages pops up I get a mental image of the sender. Deep in the bowels of their darkened bedroom, surrounded by piles of dirty underwear and discarded comic books, ignoring pleas from their Mum to go out and get some fresh air, slathering over the keyboard as they obsessively send moronic messages to people they’ll never meet and desperately beat the meat at the thought that someone might just respond.

Does ANYONE respond to these modern-day creatures from the Black Lagoon and their ridiculously unoriginal opening gambits? I mean….. really?

Most of us come ready equipped with my degree of common sense and judgement – and we know how to hit the “Delete” and “Block” buttons. And so, the folk I call my online friends are genuinely smart, interesting and decent people.

It just takes one pervo to ruin the whole experience, and in our eagerness to reach out and connect with others, its scarily easy to reveal much more about ourselves that we realise. So let's be careful. It’s sad that we should have to be so wary of the friends we make in Cyberspace, but the truth is that there is just an “r” separating the friends from the fiends.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Athens Portraits: The self-made tyrant

You’ll see them if you take a stroll around some of Athens' more affluent suburbs. There they are, hiding conspicuously behind the darkened windows of their shiny perfomance cars, expensively but not necessarily well dressed, preening themselves like peacocks amid a flock of sparrows as they bathe in the glow of their own self-satisfaction.

They’ve 'made it' and they want to make damn sure that it shows.

They are that select group of Greek businessmen who have built successful enterprises over the past two or three decades through a combination of hard work, vision, good luck and sheer guts. But if you look a little closer, you’ll see that - for some at least – there's a dark side to their success too.

They are that particular breed of tycoon that personifies the rise of the self-made tyrant.

They've built their empires – and amassed a considerable personal fortune – on the strength of their momentous egos and on the backs of the little men they have trampled all over to reach the top of their particular tree.

They're the ones whose companies are household names within Greece, but who haven't cracked the international market thanks to their refusal to accept that global standards of business conduct apply to them. Not for them those faddy new business 'philosophies'. Not for them the 'touchy-feely' management practices that seem to be all the rage. They have no need to adapt to the so-called 'new reality' where there's more to making money than bottom-line sales. To them, all this talk about standardised procedures, treating your workforce as team-mates, or connecting with the online community is nonsense that only fools will swallow.

But – really - who can blame them? Even in today's cash-strapped days when small businessmen and mere employees are feeling the pinch, they’re still sitting pretty, with wads of influential people in their pockets, trophy wives (and ex-wives) and pampered neglected kids, a stable of conspicuously luxurious homes - most of which stand empty for much of the year, a fleet of fancy cars and maybe a private yacht or two.

What need do they have to leave the small pond where they’re the ruling barracudas to become mere sardines in the oceans of international commerce?

So, they keep on ruling by fear rather than consensus, treating their staff like dirt, paying minimal wages, reneging on promises and cutting corners that would have any business consultant worth his or her salt running for the hills.

And in true tyrant style, they hold endless meetings – sometimes into the small hours – where they get to enjoy the sound of their own voices as they pass down their 'wisdom' (yet again) to their hapless employees, without ever reaching any concrete conclusion.

It matters not a jot to them that their staff have homes and families to go to. The way they see it, their minions should count themselves lucky to be working for such a prestigious name. And anyway, who needs family? Their own marriages that collapsed under the weight of their megalomania didn’t do them any harm, did they?

To them, mere mortals like you and me are about as important as ants. So, the emerging social conscience or democratic business approach of some of the new-style global tycoons are not for them. No, the way they see it, such nerds and aging hippies are fools who cannot even approach the dizzying heights of their own success.

But if one day they stumble from the lonely peak of the mountain they've built from loose morals and broken promises, it’s a long way to fall and there’s a chance that it will all come tumbling down on top of them.

Which is why, I guess, Greece's self-made tyrants seem hell-bent on enjoying their conspicuous wealth at the expense of the little man – while it lasts.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Signs of the times

There are some things I love about the Brits – and one of them is our dry sense of humour. The following are real signs from around Britain:

At Penrith railway station:
Keep back from the platform edge
Or you may get sucked off

At a zoo:
Please be safe.
Do not stand, sit, climb or lean on zoo fences.
If you fall, animals could eat you and that might make them sick.
Thank you.

In a public toilet:
Our aim is to keep this bathroom clean.
Gentlemen – Your aim will help. Stand Closer. It’s shorter than you think.
Ladies – Please remain seated for the entire performance.

On a piece of machinery:
CAUTION: This machine has no brain. Use your own.

On a company van:
“Stiff Nipples” air conditioning service

In a Nitelink bus:
Ladies, the poles are fitted for your safety.
No dancing.

At a beauty spot:
Attention Dog Guardians: Pick up after your dogs. Thank you.
Attention Dogs: Grrrrr, bark, woof. Good dog.

Notice at a “Toskana” shop:
Mr Toskana has had an expensive divorce and now needs the money, so

At a bar (before the smokign ban came into effect):
Don’t throw your cigarette ends on the floor. The cockroaches are getting cancer.

Any other examples of inspired notices or announcements will be gratefully received.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

New Commandments for a PC Age

Political correctness started off with the very best of intentions, in a bid to create a kinder, fairer, more tolerant and understanding society. But it has morphed into a monster that makes sane people despair and gives ample ammunition to bigots who pine for the days when they could slap offensive asides into everyday conversation without anyone (apart from those they insult) batting an eyelid.

For the Daily Mail and the likes of 'Angry of Tunbridge Wells', having the opportunity to justifiably rant "It's Political Correctness gone mad!" at the drop of a hat is like having Christmas every day.

It seems that we need a new set of rules for this age of precautions and Political Correctness. The old Ten Commandments we had drummed into us at Sunday School are simply no longer relevant or enough to meet the demands of our new reality. So, maybe a starting point for the New Commandments could be something along these lines:
1) Thou shalt not touch
2) Thou shalt not question the Powers That Be
3) Thou shalt not be thyself (unless thyself has been approved by an officially-appointed Commission, or starred in a Reality TV show)
4) That shalt worship at the altar of tabloid celebrity
5) Thou shalt not use long words for fear of offending the willfully ignorant
6) Thou shalt not scold or punish children in any way
7) Thou shalt not take photos of your kids at play without written permission of all blood relatives of other children within a 100-metre radius
8) Thou shalt honour thy partner or significant other (the terms 'husband', 'wife' and 'boy-' or 'girl-friend' are hereby outlawed)
9) Thou shalt not answer for the consequences of your actions
10) Thou shalt not reward ability, but encourage mediocrity and reward the 'special talents' of the intellectually-challenged

Of course, as for all thing PC, these new commandments must pass through a labourious committee stage. So, please feel free to chip in...

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Is there anybody out there?

I'm no technophobe. I love technology. When it works, it's an absolute marvel: it helps me reach out and make contact with people all over the world; it lets me get things done quickly and easily; it enables me to keep up-to-date with my family in the UK; it allows me to rapidly correct my online mistakes (hopefully before anyone else notices them); it lets me deal with some of the more boring aspects of daily life at the touch of a button; and it has proved to be a valuable work tool and even a source of income.

I spend at least 8 hours a day at my PC, tapping away, getting my work done, chatting to colleagues around the world, bashing out ideas, smoothing out agreements and generally making my presence known from Houston to Tokyo (and many points in between). I have long passed that stage when the Internet scared me stupid and I can now html with the best of them (well, maybe not the best - I guess I can html with the average).

But it's no substitute for real life.

Nothing drives me further up the wall than meeting up with friends you haven't seen for ages, only to sit there sipping your coffee patiently as they risk tendon damage by tapping away at their mobile phone sending out endless badly-spelled and inane text messages to someone (anyone?) they'd apparently rather communicate with than me, even though I'm sitting right in front of them.

Or when my son meets up with pals he hasn't seen for weeks, only to spend the next 3 hours each staring at the screen of their PSPs or whatever the latest "must have" is.

Then there is the ubiquitous Blue Tooth ear appendage thingie. It seems that anybody that is anybody (OK, that makes me a nobody, but I can live with that) has to have this latest accessory that screams "Hey, look everybody! I've got a gizmo stuck on my ear 'cos I'm so busy and important. Next stop, brain implant."

And when someone who calls themselves my friend sends me an automatically-generated generic text message from their mobile phone instead of actually remembering it's my birthday and calling me to say Many Happy Returns, I'd much rather they didn't bother.

Technology is a tool, something we should use to enrich and ease our lives - not replace them. But we human beings are fatally flawed and we just don't to know when to stop, do we?

Thanks to the massive splurge of easily-accessible communications technology in the past couple of years, we've seem to have forgotten the joys of actual human contact.

You know, the simple stuff that can make life so much better. When you meet a friend, actually sit down and talk to them, look them in the eye, listen to what they say, laugh at their jokes (even if they're not funny), offer your shoulder if they need to cry, take the trouble to suss out how life is treating them and what they need from you - their friend.

And if you can't do all of that without sneaking a peek at your mobile, switch the damn thing off!

When you walk down the street, nod and smile at those people you see every day but you never acknowledge. Maybe the next day, they may greet you with a shy "Good morning" and - who knows - before you know it, you may have made a new friend!

When you buy something from a shop or supermarket, look the cashier in the eye as he or she hands you your change and say "thank you" - and mean it. That simple gesture costs you nothing, but it could make all the difference to their hum-drum day.

I like people, I really do. Though there are plenty I can happily live without, and plenty more I'm sure aren't crazy about me, I really like folk. In all their glory, with all their faults and failings, warts and all, it is our fellow people that give life the colour it needs. Personally, I don't dream in black-and-white, so I certainly don't want to live in monochrome.

And that's why I get so upset at everyday scenes of people sitting right next to each other but failing to make any meaningful contact thanks to the demands of their mobile phones, Blackberries or PSPs.

So, I have decided to start my own little campaign to get people back in touch with one another.

I was going to call it Touch: The Campaign for Human Contact but that didn't grab the imagination of my Other Half, so I am in the market for a better name. If any of you out there (is there anybody out there?) have any bright ideas, I'd love to hear from you.

And when all else fails - smile.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

The science of the bleedin' obvious

Scientists seem to love spending their time doing detailed studies that come to conclusions about a whole load of things we already know.

Such world-shattering research has shown us - scientifically and based on empirical evidence - that chocolate produces a stronger and longer buzz than a passionate kiss, tea makes us feel better, and - wait for it - "modern life puts stress on the heart”.

No kidding! As my sister would say, I'm gobsmacked. I’ll have to pass this latest pearl of wisdom on to my Other Half, though I suspect that he may already have a sneaking suspicion, having had a minor heart attack brought on by extreme stress at the tender age of 39.

What will they come up with next, I wonder? That we tend to feel more positive when the sun is shining and birds are singing? That water is good for you? That children are more likely to thrive when they're happy and secure at home? Or that regular bowel movements help prevent bloating?

With all due respect to science and medicine, but I look to those clever bods with the PhDs to tell me what I - a mere wordsmith - don't already know by virtue of my own common sense or general knowledge.

I want to know the secrets of the Universe, the winning number for the lottery (just once will do!), how to make a maximum profit with minimum effort (perhaps the scientists have claimed the monopoly on that one?), the key to happiness and how to achieve global peace and justice for all.

But no, they conduct exhaustive research into the bleedin' obvious, and their conclusions usually fall into one of three categories, depending on the response they invoke: "No shit, Sherlock", like the chocolate findings; "Why?" like the chemical formula for the perfect biscuit to dunk in your tea; and "What?" like the survey that showed that - in total (at work and at home, mind) - men in developed countries work harder than women.

"What?" I hear you cry (see, I told you). "Surely some mistake? What about the cooking, cleaning, ironing, bill paying, nose-wiping, priority setting, supermarket trawling, ego-massaging, ironing, et al, on top of the old 9-to-5 (or more) at a desk, shop counter or factory floor?"

Indeed. Show me a man that frets about shirts that need ironing, or makes a mental inventory of the contents of the fridge as he drives home to see if he needs to go the supermarket, and I’ll show you a confirmed bachelor. Not to mention the mental exercise of rustling up a nourishing family meal from the depleted contents of that fridge (a dried up clove of garlic, some withered tomatoes and a spoonful of cream cheese) in that gap between last month's salary running out and next one dropping gently into the bank.

Personally, I think the reason for this seriously scewed result is that most of the respondents to the survey were probably blokes.
Simple as that.
Of course fellas will say they work harder than women. To paraphrase Mandy Rice-Davies' famous comment during the Profumo Trial back in the 1960s: They would, wouldn’t they?

Let’s face it, most of us girls (sorry, women) have far more important things to do with our time than fill in silly on-line questionnaires, don’t we?

So, with all due respect to the scientists, I think I shall continue to take their findings with a pinch of salt if you don’t mind.

That is, until the can tell us the very Meaning of Life - or at least a lasting cure for cellulite.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Keeping my cool?

It's hotter than a handbag in Hades.

At more than 40 degrees Celsius (that's way over 100 degrees Farenheit to the metrically-challenged among you) in the shade, you start sweating before you've stepped out of the shower, cats and dogs lie panting spread-eagled on the coolest spot they can find and ice cream melts before it reaches your mouth.

For the past couple of days, Greece has seen the mercury shoot up to more than 43 degrees in built-up areas, and even in the relative cool and leafy greenery of my in-laws' country house north of Athens, in the smallest hours of the morning, the temperature hasn't dropped below 30 degrees.

And we're the lucky ones, surrounded as we are by pine-clad hills sloping down to the sea that separates Attiki from the island of Evia.

In the centre of Athens, I'd have melted into a sad little puddle days ago. There, the tarmac on the roads sticks to the heels of your shoes, pigeons in Syntagma Square dive-bomb the fountains in search of a little relief and our (in)famous city taxi-drivers charge sweaty tourists extra for turning on the air conditioning in their cabs. Little wonder that those-who-can escape the capital for the nearest beach, or retreat to the artificial cool of their air-conditioned homes.

Our country sanctuary is within easy driving distance of the city, so we can commute between the relative rural cool and our air-conditioned offices every day (if you call a four-hour round trip by road, train and foot easy). Even so, trying to stay lady-like and well-groomed in such heat is a challenge to say the least.

Now, I'm not known for my grace and poise at the best of times. So the chances of me presenting a cool, collected image to the world when the heat is on are pretty remote.

Take waxing, for instance (if that's not too much for you on an empty stomach). It's generally accepted as the best way to remove the unwanted hairs on your legs (ripping them out from the root – ow!). But have you ever stopped to think what happens to the wax at 40 degrees? I hadn't - but I found out the hard way this weekend.

Picture the scene. There I was, struggling with waxed strips of cellophane, trying to slap them onto my hairy calves to rip them off in a smooth easy movement. The reality, however, was not quite like what you see in the adverts. The wax took on all the properties of treacle and ripping the strips off was more like pulling stringy cheese on a pizza. The stickiness that theoretically would remove the hairs from the root was everywhere but my legs – the floor, my hands, my nose (why did I have to scratch that itch?), the walls....

Naturally, the hairs on my legs stayed exactly where they were.

Any make-up you slap on your face in the morning is pretty much guaranteed to gradually make its way down your face by the time you reach wherever you're going (ever seen mascara in the place of blusher?).

And whatever you've done with your hair is bound to be undone by the copious amount of sweat oozing out of your scalp. Makes me wonder why we bother, to be honest.

They tell me that 'savoir vivre' says linen is the ideal summer fabric. Cool, natural, and elegantly crumpled. Unless you're me. I don't know what I do wrong – maybe I sit all wrong or perhaps I'm simply the wrong shape – but whenever I put on a linen skirt or trousers, elegantly crumpled translates into something with as much grace as a wrung-out dish rag. And by midday, the almost skin-tight linen trousers I pulled on in the morning have expanded to a degree of bagginess that would make Coco the Clown proud.

So, you'll have to forgive me if I'm a soggy bundle of sweat and crumpled clothes. Inside, of course, I'm as a cool, calm and collected as a cucumber sandwich with its crusts cut off!

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Rude awakening

4.30am: An acid stab of pain in my right side jolts me awake.

I leap out of bed like a scalded cat, snap on the light, and inspect the sore spot just above where my ribcage ends.

A red patch and a pool of white fire pain are spreading rapidly from two neat little puncture holes.

Damn! Something has snuck into the bed and stung or bitten me as I snoozed. And I was having SUCH a lovely dream. Better find the culprit before it decides to take another piece of me, or turn on my Other Half who is snoring softly next to me, totally oblivious to my wee hours adventure.

A quick flip of the top sheet reveals a surprise. Not a wasp or even a red ant as I expected, but the shiny, slinky, armour-plated body of a centipede. I didn't even know they could bite! (I suppose I should be thankful that it was my side it went for, and not my face or other tender sensitive parts).

The shock of discovery makes me cry out, waking the Other Half.

My attacker takes fright and shoots away under the mattress - with us in hot pursuit. Sheets and pillows go flying and mattresses are upturned as we hunt the little bugger down, determined that he is not going to get another piece of me - at least not tonight.

I'm not sure what any passers-by might have thought if they spotted us, bare-arsed in the hot Greek night, leaping around like maniacs, throwing bedclothes around and hunting down an offending bug with a murderous glint in our eyes.
Fortunately, there are not many passers-by down our way at that time of night.

With a cry of triumph, OH catches the offender, and I take a good look at my univited bed mate and night-time attacker. I'm not usually bothered by bugs. Instead of fear or repulsion, I tend to find their alienesque anatomy rather beautiful and fascinating in a David Attenborough kind of way. This one, however, gets no such admiration and analysis. Instead of adopting a my usual zen live-and-let-live stance, I look him straight in the mandibles and say "Die, you bastard!" before OH takes him outside to do the dirty deed.

I guess I'll never reach Nirvana now...

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

A nice cuppa

Years and years ago there was a very simple yet brilliant ad for tea on British TV.

It showed absolutely nothing, just a blank screen. But the soundtrack was a series of those charmingly familiar sounds involved in making a nice cuppa: filling the kettle, the whistle as it comes to the boil, water being poured into the pot, tea going into the cup, the clink of a spoon as it stirs, the slurp and that satisfied “aahh” as it slips down.

The tag line was the simple text on the blank screen:
“Tea. Best drink of the day.”

Greeks just don’t get the English obsession with tea. To them it is a tasteless brew which they only resort to in cases of high fever, severe colic or extreme diets. It is not something that they associate with anything approaching pleasure.

There’s a reason for that - they haven’t got the foggiest idea how to make a decent cup of tea.

I found that out the hard way when I first arrived in Athens. Whenever I asked for tea, even when it was billed as 'English Breakfast Tea' in some fancy kafeneio, the result was (and still is) always the same. An insipid brew made by briefly introducing a sachet filled with something resembling sawdust to a cup of warm water. And then – horror of horrors – adding a drop of sweet creamy evaporated milk from a tin. Bleurgh!

No wonder most Greeks think that tea is awful.

Just like most Brits, who wouldn’t know a decent cup of coffee if they were slapped in the face with one (and no, Starbucks has not changed that).

If you don’t believe me, compare the shelf allocation in two average supermarkets - one in Greece and one back in Blighty. In the UK, you will find about 6 square inches of space devoted to that particular type of powder than produces the boring grey-tinged beverage the English call coffee, hidden at the end of two full aisles packed with every kind of tea imaginable. Lapsong Souchong, Gunpowder, Orange Pekoe, Darjeeling, Jasmine, Green Tea, English Breakfast, Prince of Wales’ Blend, the list goes on and on and on... while the coffees are all a variation on the bland freeze-dried theme introduced to the UK in the 1970s.

But visit a Greek supermarket and – despite recent marketing drives to promote tea as cool, trendy and healthy – you’ll need a magnifying glass and the detective skills of a modern-day Sherlock Holmes to find a pack of PG Tips.

The secret to making a nice cuppa is really very simple. To get the proper flavour, the water has to be boiling - not boiled, but actually boiling when it hits the tealeaves. That why English tea-purists like my Nana insist on using a ceramic pot (metal robs the water of its heat too quickly), which must ALWAYS be warmed first.

It’s also why the habit of putting a cup of hot water in the approximate vicinity of a teabag is the absolute guaranteed way to produce something that is almost entirely, but not quite, undrinkable.

So, next time you hear me or one of my fellow ex-pats getting all misty-eyed at the thought of a decent cup of tea, drive from your mind that image of a thin, weak, insipid drink served in the afternoons with scones and cucumber sandwiches. Instead, give me a ring and let me show you what a REAL red-blooded Englishwoman can do with a teabag!

And it doesn’t even have to be 4 o’clock...

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

The continuing story of Bambi Fancipants

The story of the secret life of Bambi Fancipants - librarian and spinster of the parish in the sleepy village of Holthorne-by-Sea - continues. But your input will decide what happens next...

It had been a tiring day, so she said to Madrigal: “Cooking can wait, I need something to relax me. And welcome as your attentions are, it isn't you...”
She went to the kitchen and fed the cat, then remembered that there was some white wine left in the fridge from the previous evening. "Ah yes," she murmured. “That will do nicely. But relaxing is one thing you can't do in tweeds, least of all when there are tarts to make ...but later.”
She took a long sip of her wine, then went upstairs to change. Off came the twinset and skirt, discarded as a butterfly sheds its chrysalis. She paused, turning sideways to approve of her profile in the mirror, smiling to herself, thinking: “Red always suited me; yes, I like red.”
She dressed and came downstairs to settle with her wine, a good book and her cat for company. After about half an hour, Madrigal was fussing to be let out, so Bambi stretched and rose from the sofa. She was about to open the front door when there was a knock. There was no mistaking the silhouette of her visitor even though she hadn't seen him – at least in the flesh – for years...
'Dickie!' she breathed. Madrigal escaped as she opened the door...

A thousand thoughts tumbled through her head as she slowly, shyly, opened the door and lifted her eyes to the face she remembered oh-so-well. As her eyes travelled upwards, she took in the well-honed golden-tanned body and… was that the suspicion of a visible corset line she could see beneath the expensive fitted silk shirt? No matter, it was Dickie alright. That much she knew as she met his expectant gaze. The spark was still there, and she was relieved to see that he had not added the one-size-fits-all blue contact lenses to hide his unique set of unmatched khaki-green and mud-brown peepers.
Nervously fingering the fur trim of her basque through the flimsy fabric of her trousers, Bambi took a deep breath – which, to her horror, came out as a star-struck gasp – smiled awkwardly and said "Well, hello stranger!"
"Hello yourself," drawled Dickie arrogantly, his Sussex vowels flattened by Hollywood and now completely devoid of any character. "It doesn't get much stranger than this, does it darling?"

“Well? Aren’t you going to let me in, dahling?” Dickie asked.
Bambi looked him up and down as she continued to absently finger her trim.
“Of course!” she exclaimed after an awkward and seemingly eternal silence.
Dickie entered and stood in the middle of Bambi’s humble living room. He surveyed the room as Bambi surveyed him.“How deliciously cheap, dahling!” Dickie exclaimed at last “I always was impressed by your simple tastes.”
“And none simpler than you” thought Bambi tartly.
“Tea?” she asked.
“Darjeeling?” enquired Dickie.
Dickie let forth an over-loud raucous laugh that faded as he mopped the corner of his mouth with a silk handkerchief he had theatrically produced from inside his blouse.
"You'll be the death of me!" he said. "Forget the tea. Let’s sit! You’ll be wanting to hear all about my wonderful life, dahling. While you’ve been here tending the vicar’s blooms I’ve been on a magical journey.”
Bambi sat in the small armchair opposite Dickie and listened politely as he went on – and on, and on.
“It wasn’t all plain sailing, dahling, I can tell you” he continued. “You know of my humble beginnings at the local Am Dram society but I left so hastily and without a word to you! I had a calling you see. Kismet, if you will. For two years, I worked the cruise ships to open my passage to the Land of The Free.”
Bambi frowned. It was going to be a long night, she thought grimly.
Sensing he was losing her attention, Dickie raised his voice a notch.“DAHLING! Have you any idea how hard it is to work your passage with 200 sailors tossing about on the open sea? It really takes it out of a performer. Even one of my calibre.”
“Dickie, this is all extremely fascinating,” Bambi retorted. “But I really must ask why you chose to visit me after all these years? After all, you had so many other... erm... ‘good friends’ in the village, didn’t you?”

She looked at him - noting the tone of voice, the inclination of the head, so different from the image in her memory, yet there was still a vulnerability hiding in there somewhere, she was convinced.
“Well,” he said “I have this fan site on the internet, where all my friends and fans can keep up with what I'm doing.”
“Fascinating,” said Bambi stifling a yawn. “Do go on.”
Hardly pausing for breath, he added: “The vicar is a great one for correspondence, and has kept in touch since I left. He knew that I’m planning a movie memoire, and wanted to return to do some research, so he volunteered in his own little way....”
“Patronising arrogant... I need my wine!” thought Bambi. Her patience was beginning to wear thin.
“So when he asked me to open the village fete, well, who was I to refuse free publicity? I decided to combine business with pleasure and come down here for a few days, back to dear old Holthorne. So Bambi darling, here I your service!”
His voice trailed off as if he had just delivered a momentous and well rehearsed speech. He moved earnestly toward her along the sofa.
“Wine?” she asked, standing suddenly and moving out of arms reach, deciding that she didn't want to take part in his research project tonight. “White.”
Dickie looked stunned that his ploy had been so effortlessly out-manoeuvred.
“Thank you,” he replied meekly, remembering that Bambi Fancipants had never been a woman to trifle with, and that manners and decorum had always been demanded in his relationship with her. She had always been the soul of discretion, and his secrets had been safe with her. He watched at her pour his drink, he began to regret his sudden departure.
She returned with the drinks, curling up opposite him in an armchair, and as time passed, shades of the old Dickie she knew reappeared. The cruise ships and Hollywood certainly had not been nearly as glamourous as he had imagined they'd be, and his time there had taken its toll. But now he was back in England, and ready to relax a little in the company of old friends.
“Not so old!” scolded Bambi.
“Ahh!” he smiled slyly. “But old enough to remember the first strawberry flavoured lipstick!”
A sudden gasp. “I'd completely forgotten!”
Crestfallen, Dickie said: "But darling, how could you? After all, we..”
“No, not you. The tarts! I have to get to work on the tarts."
He looked deeply shocked: “You? You’re a? I thought you were still at the library!”
She snatched his glass, saying “If I don't get on with it, there’ll be no time, and I'll be in big trouble. You must go Dickie. At once. I'll see you tomorrow…”
And with his head whirling, Dickie found himself unceremoniously bundled out the door....

What happens in the next exciting episode - only you can tell...

Monday, 13 July 2009

Veggy heaven

Greece SHOULD be a vegetarian's paradise: cheap locally-produced fresh fruit and veg; gorgeous aromatic herbs growing wild on fragrant mountainsides; and traditional dishes that would meet the approval of the strictest of vegans. Trouble is, most Greeks just don't understand the concept of someone choosing not to eat meat.

Think back to that scene in the movie "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" when the heroine tells her mother her fiance is vegetarian. Mama's response was a hearty 'He don't eat meat?? ....No problem! I do lamb'.

That was no exaggeration. It happened to me. Many years ago, when I was still a relative newcomer to Athens, a well-meaning aunt who heard I didn't eat meat kindly prepared a separate dish especially for me at one of the family gatherings. Very proudly, she set down in front of me a lovingly prepared, carefully presented.... ham souffle ('Ham's not meat, is it? It's ham').

I could hardly tell her that ham was 'off the menu' when she'd gone to the trouble of making something specially for me so, I went through the motions of tucking in enthusiastically while trying to discreetly pick my through the dish and hide the bits of ham under a stray lettuce leaves.

I was in one of my veggy-kicks when I became pregnant with my son. As soon as we realised that I was carrying a passenger, the entire Greek clan automatically assumed that I'd turn carnivore again.
But I didn't.
Instead, I told my doctor I didn't eat meat and asked for his opinion. The Other Half was sitting next to me at the time, smug in the certainty that I would be told to start scoffing T-bones for the sake of our unborn child. But the smirk was quickly wiped from his face when dear old doc said: 'Good for you. It shouldn't be a problem - but if it is, I'll tell you what to do.'

As it turned out, it never was a problem - I'm one of the few mothers-to-be I know to go through the entire nine months without having to take a single iron tablet.
Some people just don't need meat, I guess.

The average Greek sees most vegetarians as harmless, but certifiably insane.

That view is strongest in those who grew up during and just after the war. And that it is where that the roots of that attitude must lie. Times were very hard in occupied Greece (and the years of internal turmoil that followed the war). Those living in remote mountain villages or islands had the advantage of relative self-sufficiency, but it was particularly tough for people in the greater Athens and Piraeus area.

According to the stories my father-in-law tells us, there wasn't a green leaf, stalk or stem to be found in the city by 1944 - it had all been eaten. Just as in occupied Holland where people resorted to eating tulip bulbs, hungry Athenians ate (or tried to eat) anything that grew. Many died of starvation, including three of my father-in-law's aunts and uncles.

The stories of the tricks he and the other local youngsters played on the German soldiers guarding the potato sheds near the port hide a darker reality. A plateful of boiled potatoes or a bowl of cracked wheat meant a "good day" in the working class neighbourhoods of Piraeus. Meat was an almost unheard-of luxury for those kids.

So, put into context, I guess it's understandable that my in-laws' generation view vegetarians as eccentrics at best.

But it's their offspring that are now paying the price for their parents' deprivation. Once the hardship eased, those who remembered the aching of their empty stomachs were determined that their sons and daughters would never know what it meant to go to bed hungry. Meat was once again on the menu, and it was served up with great delight and relish.

The post-war baby boomers of Greece grew up a well-fed lot. As long as they lived at home, they got their fair share of yemista (vegetables stuffed with rice), fasolakia (green beans in tomato sauce), fasolada (a rich butter bean and vegetable soup), horta (wild greens), lentils, dolmades (rice-filled vineleaves), chickpeas, briam (a medley of baked vegetables) etc., along with the lashings of succulent meat their mothers proudly served up.

The problem came when they left home and embarked on a busy career that left no time to prepare food from the wild array of colourful produce from the local laiki (open air market). The easy solution was that good old Greek stand-by - souvlaki or gyros - grilled meat (usually pork) on a skewer or sliced and wrapped up in a fat slice of greasy pitta bread with onion, tomato and tzatziki. Cheap, quick and tasty.

All very well now and then - but when the souvlaki shop or the pizza parlour become your main source of nutrition, something is bound to give. The result is, in the space of a couple of generations, the Greeks have changed from those pinch-cheeked youngsters who survived the hardships of 1940s to a nation with the one of the highest rates of obesity in Europe and a rapidly increasing cholesterol count.

Against the backdrop of that new reality, maybe I'm not the loony after all?

Friday, 10 July 2009

The Secret Life of Bambi Fancipants - A Resurrection Story?

A couple of years ago, I launched a small experiment on MySpace inviting others to contribute to the story of a certain Miss Bambi Fancipants. Sadly, after an encouraging start, she died of neglect (but in a most spectacular and tabloid-worthy way).

Now, ever the optimist, I am trying again in the hope that she will have a better fate at the hands of my friends at Facebook, Twitter and

It's easy to be part of Bambi's story - just send your suggestions for the next episode following on from the ones given below (the authors of any contributions will be - of course - be given due credit, as they were below):

The Secret Life of Ms. B. Fancipants

As she closed the church door after tweaking the flowers for the Sunday morning service, Bambi Fancipants - spinster of the parish - smoothed out the wrinkles in her tweed skirt and straightened her twin-set as she prepared to face the world.

As she did, her hand brushed against the outline of the suspender belt of the black & scarlet feather-trimmed basque beneath her schoolmarmish apparel. She smiled secretly to herself as she considered how very different she was to the meek and modest librarian that everyone in Holthorne-by-Sea thought they knew...

As she turned to leave, a shout startled her.
"Tart!" cried the vicar.
Bambi pulled herself upright, perfectly still. A thousand thoughts tumbled through her head.
"For the fete tomorrow," he continued. "Don't forget to bring one of your fabulous tarts."
Bambi relaxed and smiled.
"Of course, Reverend" she replied.
"I feat Mrs Miggins' baps will take a lot of beating this year," said the Reverend. "But your tarts should give her a run for thier money in the cooking contest."
As he mounted his bike, he gave her a heavy wink and added: "You provide a wonderful service to the village folk" and peddled off.
Bambi took motionless for a few seconds. A pensive look flitted across her face.
"Could he know?" she wondered.
She shook her head, dismissing the thought.
"No!" she said aloud. "How could he?"

Walking down the High Street, Bambi paused at Barnabas' greengrocers. A prodigious grower, Barnabas was renowned thorughout the country for his massive cucumbers and juicy plums.
"Ah, Miss Fancipants," his eyes twinkled as she entered the shop. "You'll be after my prize fruit again, I'll warrant."
She hesitated a little, chewing on her bottom lip.
"Sunday's fete'll be a good'un" continued the grocer, licking his lips. "I've always been partial to your cherry offerings."
"Actually, I was thinking of strawberries this year," Bambi shyly ventured.
"Even better!" cried Barnabas with a whoop of delight. "There's nothing I like better than a pouty red fruit atop a tart!"
Bambi left the shop puzzled, her pace less brisk than usual. Was it her imagination, or were all the villagers beginning to sound like Sid James on an off day?
No matter. She patted her basket and sighed, absently fingering the punnet of strawberries and Barnanas' carrots and cauliflowers. It was true, the man was a magician with the soil - many was the time she had watched him getting stuck in at his allotment.

As she opened the fornt door to the ivy-clad cottage she shared with her one-eyed cat madrigal, Bambi could barely contain her excitement at the thought of the coming village fete - the event of the decade as far as she was concerned. This year, there would be more than the usual array of home-baked goodies and tombolas to look forward to. This year would see the return of Holthorne-by-Sea's prodigal son - and her first love.
After years carving out a distinguished career in Tinsel Town, Rick River (a.k.a. little Dickie Pond) was returning to open the fete in true Hollywood style. And Bambi Fancipants would be there to welcome him home.
She sighed at the thought of their stolen kisses behind the bike-sheads all those years ago. They had sent a thrill through her that she had never experienced since - try as she might.
If only Dickie's lipstick hadn't clashed so violently with her own modest shade...

There was more, but I think I'll stop it there and see where you will take the saga. Over to you!

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Eggs is eggs - or is they?

Today I stumbled across a piece of news that must be proof positive that is truly is time to 'get real'. You know that we've taken our worship at the altar of convenience too far when plans are announced to sell us pre-boiled, ready-shelled eggs.

Apparently, they are aimed at people who "don't have the time or knack" to boil an egg....

I'll say that again - they don't have the time or knack to boil an egg.

Apparently, there are people out there who's lives are so full with watching reality TV, texting badly spelled and ungrammatical messages, and following the antics of the latest celebrity nonentities to get off their backsides and waddle to the kitchen, put some water in a saucepan, wait for it to boil, drop an egg in it and wait for ANOTHER THREE WHOLE MINUTES. And then, they have to peel the darned thing!

Is it any wonder the marketing gurus spotted a gap in the market? And they're Free Range too, so I expect they'll be flogged as healthy eating.

Writing in today's Guardian, Oliver Thring of 'Thring for Your Supper' thinks it's the beginning of the end, and I'm inclined to agree.

The rot set in with the appearance of the first ready soup mixes and jars of pasta sauce (most of which are still largely inedible) on our supermarket shelves. Despite the fact that soups and sauces are among some of this quickest, easiest, cheapest and tastiest things to rustle up in the kitchen, there are legions of folk who have never experienced the real thing.

I wonder if their lives come pre-packaged too?

It didn't take long for fruit and veg to come in convenient sanitised form: string beans topped and tailed; salad greens cut, washed (how well I wonder?) and ready to chuck in a bowl with a splash of ready-made monosodium glutomate dressing; apples peeled, cored and quartered; grapefruit cut into bite-sized portions; ready-chopped garlic and onions. Do people realise that the food they eat actually originally came from the ground, caked in mud, fed by horse manure and not cut the size of our gobs?

No, it seems that we prefer the ready-to-eat version which has about as much to do with the vegetable garden as a saveloy does with a thoroughbred racehorse.

And the food industry happily obliges with an array of convenience foods for us to hoover up into our digestive tracts - so long as we have had our taste buds surgically removed (maybe at the same time as that lobotomy and tummy tuck) and don't mind paying through the nose for the priviledge of not wasting ten minutes of our precious time to boil, cut, wash or chop something real....

The ready-boiled egg is currently at the top of my list of ridiculous foodstuffs, but I'm sure there are plenty more - answers on a postcard please, folks.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Confessions of a Mercedist mind

(This has appeared elsewhere before, but a close encounter with a missing link moron between the wheel of a Kompressor this morning re-awoke my Mercedist sentiments....)

I have a confession to make – I am guilty of Mercedism.

Despite my good intentions and efforts to live a life of tolerance and political correctness, the word “dickhead” automatically pops into my head every time I’m cut up in traffic by some fat cat driving a Merc. Especially if it’s a Mercedes Kompressor and the driver is a cigar-chomping despot in his late middle-age.

I can’t help it – it's a gut reaction to the sight of these sleek sharks lurking in the seas of traffic of Greece.

They cruise through the congestion in search of minnows to chew up and spit out. Mere Fiats, Fords, and even VWs don’t even register on their radars. Like the sleek predators they are, the Mercs are disdainful of anything less than a fellow shark, or at least a Hummer (even a Merc has to respect the brute force of a Hummer).

Regardless of whether they weave in and out of the traffic at breakneck speed, or sedately tootle along at a pace that would frustrate a tortoise, all Mercedes Kompressor drivers seem to have attended the “Out of my way, peasant!” school of motoring.

It’s that same arrogance that declares to us mere mortals that they own the road - and we’d better not forget it. And, considering the prevalence of Mercedes Kompressors among Greek business moguls and politicians, maybe they DO own the road but – hey! – I pay road tax, sunshine, so gimme a break! You can kiss my lily white backside if you think I’m going to bow down and pay homage just because you’ve got me whipped in terms of horsepower and purchase price.

Anyway, haven’t you ever heard of a little thing called the environment?

Another thing - have you noticed that, almost without exception, the Mercs are driven by men? Usually self-important blokes caught up in the fray of a mid-life crisis and an ever-expanding waistline to match their rapidly receding hairline.

When will men wake up and realise that we girls are not fooled? We have never made the “big car = big willy” equation. In fact, many of us came to the conclusion that “big car = (huge inferiority complex + massive fuel bill)” years ago.
(Point me in the direction of a bloke in a Mini!).

So, Your Honour, that’s why I decorated the motors in the Ministry car park in a variety of pastel shades and psychadelic patterns.

I can't help it. It’s not my fault I’m a Mercedist. I’m a victim of society, honest. Maybe I need a little state-sponsored therapy to help me embrace the Mercedes-owner lurking within me?

Honest, Your Honour! It wasn’t me that sorted your Merc this morning. I know the colours are the same and my hands are smeared with paint, but it must have been a copy-cat vandal!

But, you know how it is when you spot a Kompressor, and your spray-can finger starts getting itchy…

…and I love the smell of spray paint in the morning!

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

The "We Hate Polyanna" Club

I have, on occasion, been accused of having a Polyanna Complex. It shouldn’t really bother me, bearing in mind that my accuser is usually my Other Half when he’s wearing his Grumpy Old Man hat. But it does…

My Grump usually makes this complaint when I’m trying to look on the bright side. Apparently, my determination to find something good in everything and to think positive wherever I can is irritating to the extreme.

The irony is that I have always had an abiding dislike for Polyanna, Little Orphan Annie, the girls from Little Women and their ilk.

I mean, really, no-one’s REALLY like that, are they?

And don’t even get me started on The Little House On The Prairie and the Ingles girls (I always wanted to give bloody Laura – complete with her flailing pigtails – a right royal slap as she came bounding down that hillside).

Why is it that the central characters in ‘girls’ books’ are all simpering morons, while the boys got all the good heroes to aspire to? I mean, honestly, given the choice between Huckleberry Finn and Laura Ingles, who would you choose?

I spent much more of my childhood up trees than I did cooing over dolls (though I was known to bury some in the garden and flush a few down the loo). And the thought of camping out overnight was far more exciting than a trip to the shops for a new dress (actually, that still applies). So, why did society expect me to plough through piles of books whose main characters delighted in all the things I couldn’t be bothered with?

I suspect it was a subtle (or not so subtle) form of brain-washing in preparation for a teenage era of devotion to ‘Jackie’ magazine (something else I never 'got'). But, I’m glad to say, my brain stayed stubbornly stained with the indelible marks of tomboyhood.

Luckily for me, my parents had no set ideas about what girls should or should not read, do, think or say (within reason). And apart from a few passionate arguments over a certain dark blue velvet party dress with a lace collar (the thought of which still makes me shudder), I was pretty much allowed to be myself rather than conforming to a predestined idea of what little girls with big blue eyes and long blonde hair should be. They let me be me.

So - any complaints to the manufacturers, please.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Athens Portraits: Beggar My Neighbour

They wait patiently at every traffic light, every shopping centre and every coffee shop.

Wearing their misfortune like a badge, they look at us with weary eyes and appeal to our kinder nature to help someone who's been dealt a much rawer deal than us. Some try to sell us goods we don't want or need, some try to clean our windscreens, some try to convince us that God will smile on us for helping them, and some blatantly accuse us for our inhumanity as they thrust their misery in our face and challenge us to respond.

They're that motley crew of beggars that have always populated the streets of Athens, but whose numbers have swelled considerably in the past few years. And with that surge has come a broadening of their diversity.

In the past couple of decades, the face of your average Athenian panhandler has changed from the cheeky yet pitiful gypsy children or the pathetic old hags that bemoan their fate as they rock back and forth on the pavement and offer you their blessing if you favour them with a few coins.

These days, they have been joined by a veritable United Nations of poverty and desperation in the shape of war-shattered refugees from the all-too-recent wars in the Balkans, some displaying horrific injuries in a bid to gain your sympathy, and a regular flotilla of hopefuls who have landed up in Greece after fleeing their homelands in Africa or Asia to escape tyranny or grinding poverty. Add to that an influx of new Athenians from the old Eastern Bloc and you will see that the face of the city's poor has witnessed some major changes in the space of two short decades.

When I first arrived in this bustling metropolis it was a huge culture shock to come face to face with such open misery and shameless begging (remember, I left the UK before the explosion of homeless on the city streets found a voice through "The Big Issue"). My finely-honed conscience made me want to empty my pockets for every beggar I came across, impossible though that was.
And it must have shown in my face, as I seemed to attract hopeful unfortunates like flies to a left-over lollipop on a hot day.

Even now, when you would have expected me to have toughened up, I'm still a soft touch. If I have spare change, I will usually cough up. But now and again, all I have on me is a 50 Euro note, which I can little afford to hand over, so I have to say "No". Unfortunately, the more insistent of the army of the unfortunate (and suspect the least needy) take one look my face, ignore my refusal, and start cleaning my windscreen or throwing little packs of tissues in my window.

Either I simply lack authority, or the bleeding heart hiding not too far from the surface is clearly visible to the trained eye.

Beggars of all shapes and sizes can be found everywhere you go in Athens , but there is one who stands out in my mind.I see him most mornings at the junction where I turn off from the main road to my office. There he stands, rain or shine, at the traffic lights, looking remarkably like a character from a Tolkein story. He's tall, thin to the point of emaciation, has a shock of wild greying hair and is dressed in rags. His left leg is misshapen and withered and he walks from car to car with the aid of battered old crutch. His slight accent brings me to the conclusion that he may be one of the legion of ordinary people who fled war-torn parts of the Balkans during the conflicts there in the 90s.

Yet, the most remarkable thing about him is the fact that he greets us all with a cheery "Kalimera!" (Good morning!) rather than the standard pathetic plea for help that most of his fellow panhandlers employ. And even on the days when I have nothing to give him, he responds with a smile and "Na'ste kala" (Be well) rather than a black glare of resentment and accusation. And for that reason alone, I am happy to hand over my paltry 50 cents whenever I can.

I know that he may well be a con artist, as many are, but - as a good friend once said when faced with a old-eyed child begging from table to table in a kafenion (coffee shop) - what if he's not?

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Athens Portraits: Escape to Attica

Every Sunday from June to September, herds of seal-like heads can be seen bobbing up and down in the waters off the beaches around Attica.

But it's not an encouraging sign of a surge in the numbers of the protected Mediterranean Monk Seal. No, it's the legions of Athens shop assistants and other workers who have just one day a week to escape the scorching concrete and merciless steel-and-glass of the capital. They're not lucky enough to have a country base where they can retreat from the shimmering heat of the city and many don't have a car to make their escape easier.

So, bright and early every Sunday morning, Plateia Egyptou (Egypt Square) in downtown Athens sees a gathering of the clans with a difference.

Athenians of all shapes, sizes and nationalities form little groups of friends, families and assorted hangers-on loaded up with swimsuits, mats, parasols, beach balls and packed lunches, waiting for the coaches that represent an escape to the seaside and a few hours respite from the summer's heat.

They usually travel in family groups - sometimes spanning several generations - and they stake their claim on their patch as soon as they set foot on the sea-bleached pebbles. Beach mats are laid, folding chairs erected, towels spread, rubber rings and arm bands inflated for excited toddlers, and the air is filled with the scents of a thousand brands of sun cream (coconut, almond, carrot, fruit - even biscuit) as protection from the fierce sun is a must.

As the kids rush into the sea with a splash of impatience, anxious grandparents keep a wary eye out while many a mum and dad stretch out to work on their tans. Ancient, fragile aunts are led to their beach chairs and ever-so-gently sat down where they can enjoy the sight of their extended family splashing in the shallows for the next eight hours. A helpful uncle makes the trip across the road to the nearest shops to stock up on ridiculously over-priced cheese pies, bottles of water and cans of sugary pop.

By midday, harrassed mothers that have tried to think of everything start carefully unwrapping tin foil packages and opening up Tupperware holding anything from hastily assembled cheese and ham sandwiches to yesterday's left-over meatballs or moussaka. Fathers try (usually in vain) to persuade their offspring to come out of the water to sit in the shade and have a bite to eat.

Lunch over, and the air fills with a medley of sounds including Auntie's gentle snoring as the waves lap her ankles, the wailing of pre-schoolers worn out by too much sun and excitement, the soothing of parents trying to hush them (punctuated by occasional staccato screaches or slaps as they reach the end of their tether), and the tock-tock-tock of teenaged boys' after-lunch bout of beach tennis to show off their sun-kissed bods to any girls that that might be watching surreptiously from beneath their sunhats.

By the time the sun starts sinking towards the horizon and the coaches have arrived for the return trip, parasols and beach mats are gathered up, inflatables delated and rubbish discarded. Kids are dragged from the waves at the last minute to make the two-hour trip back to the sweaty city in their soggy, salty swimwear. And parents heave a sigh of relief that they at least managed to escape for a few brief hours before gathering their strength for the coming week of work.

For those of us lucky enough to have a country refuge - no matter how humble - and the means to escape to it, it's easy to moan and groan at the sight of the coaches arriving on Sunday mornings to spew out the hoardes of city-dwellers onto 'our' beach.

We lament the loss of our companionable solitude. We moan about the flotillas of bubbles floating on the surface of the sea by the end of the day (all that sun screen has to go somewhere). We whine about the noise of the intrusive hoardes that invade our peace and nab 'our' spot on the beach. We whinge about the rubbish overflowing from the bins. And we rant about the general disruption of our priviledged summer routine.

But we do it quietly.

For deep down, we know what it's like to be trapped in the city with only a weekly bus-strip promising any relief. After all, it wasn't so very long ago that most of the owners of seaside homes were themselves part of that breed of day trippers seeking an escape to Attica.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009


The Other Half and I have an ongoing semi-serious spat about my use of the phrase "Football Widow" which he seems to take rather personally. No matter how much I try to explain that this is a phrase in common use (also for golf, rugby, pubs, etc.) and not one of my digs at "the beautiful game", he's adamant that I'm talking rubbish (again).

Bless 'im, I know he doesn't mean it. At least, I think so.

I just remind myself of the first rule of a peaceful marriage: some things are sacred - politics, religion, mothers, football (not necessarily in that order) - so hands off!

But the truth is that the thought of a bunch of men kicking a ball round an often muddy pitch just leaves me cold, despite the fact that the game has captured the hearts and minds of 99.9% of the population of Planet Earth. I just don't get why it excites such passion and devotion. It is - after all - just a game, isn't it?

I don't mind being in a minority - I'm used it actually, and it's OK (I'm also in the minority for my constant use of the word "actually"). But I do object when 'certain people' imply that I'm a freak and a traitor to my homeland. How is it possible, they wonder, to grow up in the land of Danny Blanchflower, Bobby Charlton and David Beckham and not bow down to the mighty ball? It's like an English woman not liking beer, they say. (Yep, that would be me again folks).

And now I can't even have a good natured moan about the game, 'cos my Dearly Beloved's job deals directly with it. So shtum is the order of the day if I value the source of half our family income.

Just don't expect me to get excited about it. There are some things I might fake, but many I won't and enthusiasm is one of them. If there's footy in the box when I get home tonight (and there always seems to be), I'll just zip my lip and retire with a nice cuppa to catch up on my reading.

But of course, I'm always delighted when the Other Half's favoured side wins... Life is so much easier when he's in a good mood!