Monday, 31 August 2009

Changing gear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Hello, goodbye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sadly, it was just that which was her downfall.

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

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

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

Friday, 7 August 2009

I'm outta here...

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

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

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

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

Happy now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

My woes are really not so bad. They're just what life is all about. But what I'm trying to say is that we all can find reasons to be miserable. Indeed, some make it their life's work (see

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what have you got to lose? It's worth a try. It doesn't have to be much, but just thinking about some of the things that make me smile did for me when I put together my own list ( a while ago.

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

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

So, make the effort and get happy.

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

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Farewell to 'Grassmead'

The deliciously velvety feel of grass between my toes as I turned clumsy somersaults on the lawn. Hunting for frogs in the flower beds. Fighting my sister for the bolster in the double bed in the back room. These are just some of the flashbacks to my grandparents' house during my 1970s childhood that I have been having over the past week or so.

I've never considered myself someone who forms emotional attachments to things or places, so I've been shocked by my reaction to the news of the house I know better than the back of my hand is on the market.

Built by my grandfather for his new bride in 1935, "Grassmead" has simply always been there. My mother and her younger brother were born there. They lived through the Second World War there, with Grandad away goodness knows where (he ended up in Greece, strangely enough). As Doodlebugs buzzed overhead (or worse, stopped and came whistling down) and the Battle of Britain raged in the Sussex skies, Nana and her two young children took shelter in the bunker in the garden. When the war ended, it was there that Grandad returned to, and struggled to forget the horrors he had seen by getting back to his life as a good ole countryman, gardener, occasional angler and master builder. The air-raid shelter was covered over, and a proper brick Wendy House built atop of it.

It was in Grassmead's lounge that my Dad proposed to Mum just days after they met (her response was "I'll put the kettle on, shall I?"). And it was from its snow-covered driveway that she left as a white-clad bride with drop-dead red hair, siren-scarlet lipstick and a matching bouquet of carnations in February 1962.

Faded family photos show me and my cousins posed in Grassmead's trim front garden after being baptised at the local church. I was the first grandchild, and every successive christening portrait witnesses my progress: from white lace-clad babe in arms; to a bouncy toddler flashing her knickers as she dashed around adults' ankles; to an Alice-banded schoolgirl doing handstands on the lawn despite being told not to dirty her best dress. The grown-ups parade a series of mini-skirts, Dame Edna spectacles, dodgy looking hats and geometric prints that held sway in middle England during the '60s & '70s.

Whenever we were there, I would go and stand in the greenhouse to breathe in the smell of the prize tomato plants - or sneak into the garage, aromatic with the scent of freshly-sawn wood from Grandad's bird boxes.

Every autumn, we would beg our Mum to let us stay over at Nana & Grandad's on a Saturday night, so we could get up at the crack of dawn and head for the fields to gather mushrooms, which we would fry up for the best breakfast ever. And as the acrid smell of bonfires filled the air we would head for the lanes to gather blackberries (which we smeared over our hands, face & t-shirts) or scale the trees then in the back garden to collect apples for our Sunday treat (apple pie, blackberry & apple crumble, toast with jam).

It sounds like something out of Enid Blyton, and in many ways it was. An idyllic rural childhood with plenty of adventures - thanks to a mischevious grandfather - and a reliable supply of sponge cakes from Nana. Only the lashings of ginger beer were missing.

Even after Grandad died on Christmas Eve '89, it remained a magical place for me. A haven of homemade shortbread and tea served in porcelain cups and saucers. With a narrow staircase we had all taken a tumble down at least once. With a special scent of Nana's pink Rimmel rouge and the matching bathroom. With the little spare room where Grandad used to make his flies for trout fishing (one dubbed 'Moggler' after his nickname for me).

And now, nearly 75 years later, it's on the market. Nana, through still brilliant at 99, has had to move into a home and "Grassmead" is to be sold to help pay the fees.

I just hope that any children in its future - and I hope there WILL be children - will have as much fun, adventure and love as we did there.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Ocean's 65+

From the way they huddle together in confidential little all-male groups, they could be planning a daring bank raid – or how to rob an unscrupulous casino-owner of the ill-gotten gains that rightfully belong to the little guy.

In other words, the very stuff that light-hearted, good-natured Hollywood block buster serials are made of.

Trouble is, most of them bear a much stronger resemblance to Elliott Gould than they do to George Clooney or Brad Pitt. They're those gangs of granddads you see at parks or beaches, keeping a wary eye on their grandchildren cavorting around. Silver-haired and sporting proud pot bellies, but mostly hale and hearty despite the occasional elevated cholesterol or teetering blood sugar levels, they are the appointed guardians of the future generation when Mum & Dad are at work and the kids are shooed out of the house so granny can prepare the midday meal.

In the summer, they’re easiest to spot at the seaside. As the youngsters splash about like rampant dolphins in the surf, a gaggle of grandfathers forms a few feet away, chest-high in the waves, to catch up with the latest gossip and moan about “her indoors”.

Throughout the other seasons of the year they can be found at parks and playgrounds - so long as the weather is fine enough to let the offspring out for their ration of fresh air - gathered in intimate knots by the swings, keeping half an eye on the sprogs as they get caught up in a passionate debate about the merits of rival football teams or political parties.

They go through all the motions of being less than happy about their role as senior bodyguards for the youngest generation. But the truth is that, though they carry a few centuries of experience on their collective backs and have more than their fair share of aches and pains, they would gladly walk through fire and gargle razorblades for the grandchildren they moan about and bark orders to.

Despite their carefully cultivated tough image, they’re biggest push-overs out - classic soft-centres with a deceptively crusty exterior. And their grandkids know it. It’s no coincidence that most children follow the mantra of “If Dad says no, I ask Grandpa”.

Now, the way that Clooney & Co have been churning out Ocean sequels over the past few years, we may be treated to the sight of a gang of granddads on the silver screen in ‘Ocean’s 65+’ in a couple of decades. And it’s a movie I would gladly see (especially if reminiscent of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in ‘Grumpy Old Men’).

Monday, 3 August 2009

It's the way I tell 'em

You can forget the quotable quotes of the celebs that bombard us through the press.
"I feel so pure and happy", "Jesus is the only guy for me" and (my personal favourite) "I'm attracted to dolphins" are nothing on me....

Who needs the likes of Gwyneth, Miley and Drew when you can enjoy gems like "How can I discretely fish salad out of my bra?" from me?

It's all go in my world.