Tuesday, 27 October 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Mirror, mirror

Human vanity never ceases to amaze me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 15 October 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Election Day blues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So much for "no taxation without representation".

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

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

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

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

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

I could be wrong. I HOPE I’m wrong.

Athens Portraits: The (Loud) Voice of the People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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