Monday, 20 December 2010

Slumbering scriptwriter

I think there must be a TV scriptwriter living in my head that only comes out to play when I am tucked up in the land of nod.

Not for the first time, this week my dreams have been extraordinarily vivid and structured, almost like whole episodes of TV drama series in my head.

Last Wednesday night, it was about a rock band living all together on a replica pirate ship and traveling across the seas to take part in some renowned music festival during the summer. I even had the soundtrack in mind as I was (literally) dreaming that one up.

And last night, it was an episode from one of those 'unlikely sleuth' detective series, with a genteel (but feisty, sharp witted and steely willed) lady of certain years (think Judi Dench or Maggie Smith) as the main protagonist. It's set against a cathedral, at which our lady sleuth is the curator or something, and she lives or works from quarters in a converted part of the church crypt. The title could even be something like "Other Tales from the Crypt".

The trouble is that when you wake up from such a dream, it is never as clear and vivid as it was when you were asleep. I could (and have in the past) kept a notebook and pen by the bed to jot down the basics when I wake. But, honestly, when you've got to drag yourself out of bed, rouse a sleepy teen, shower, change, prepare for the working day, misplace your keys, hunt the house from top to bottom, find keys in the freezer, spot toothpaste stain on top then change clothes and re-apply make-up – all in the space of 40 minutes – your first thought is not for writing down your dreams in detail.

Now what I could REALLY do with is one of those penseive thingies that JK Rowling came up with for Dumbledore to unload excess memories for future reference...

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Rules Britannia

OK, I’ll own up. I’m a criminal. In fact, I’m a multiple-offender. And yet, I’ve never spent a single night in a jail cell.

“But how could this travesty of justice have come about?" I hear you cry.

The answer is simple. If they locked me up, they have to imprison at least half the population of the UK, ‘cos I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only one guilty of having scoffed mince pies on Christmas Day.


Yes, folks. According to long-standing and never-repealed legislation introduced by England's very own revolutionary and arch-Puritan Oliver Cromwell back in the 17th Century, it is against the law to stuff your face with those tasty little (and misleadingly named) fruit pies on December 25.

But even if you can sanctimoniously resist a Yuletide mince pie-fest, stop before you condemn me and consider if you should be joining me in the dungeons, if English Law was to be followed to the letter.

Other ancient laws that have never been repealed say:

- anyone who sticks a postage stamp on a letter upside-down is guilty of treason;

- it's illegal to die while in the Houses of Parliament (prompting the plagiarised question of “How would they tell?” if certain excessively low profile Members of Parliament broke this particular law);

- in the UK, a pregnant woman is entitled to relieve herself anywhere she wants;

- the use of any kind of slide upon ice or snow is against the law;

- you cannot drive cattle through the streets of London (but I’ve love to see you try!);

- it is illegal to enter the Houses of Parliament wearing a suit of armour (and if you then sit down and die, you’re REALLY in trouble!);

- the head of any dead whale found on the British coast is automatically the property of the King, and the tail of the Queen (leaving the blubber for us plebs, presumably?);

and, finally, my favourite:

- it is illegal not to tell the tax man anything you don’t want him to know, but it is perfectly legal to not give him information you don’t mind him knowing (erm, yeah. I think I’ve got that).

In my adopted country, Greece, we have no such ridiculous quirks of legislation. As every Greek knows, “rules were made to be broken”.

So bring on the mince pies, give me that whale’s head and hand me my armour!

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

All I want for Christmas is...

...the chance to let out this breath I've been holding since January.

It's been a bit of year for us here at SMW Towers - just like it has been for so many round the world - and I'm trying very hard to be positive about 2011 (though I'll confess I struggle at times).

2010 started off well enough, with a New Year trip to the Mandi Mum in the UK, unexpectedly extended by a few days when Mother Nature decided to dump an unusual amount of snow on the south-east of England, closing Gatwick Airport. That meant we got to shovel snow, build snowmen and miss a few days of school and work. All in all, something we could deal with.

Unfortunately, as it turned out, that was the high point of the year.

Less than a month later, we got the news that the Ovver Arf was out of a job (in possibly the worst time in the past half-century to be looking for work in Greece). Then, some kindly pickpocket decided to relieve me of my purse (containing passport, credit cards, etc.) on the crowded train home from work one rainy March evening (Lessons learned? Carry as little as possible. And trust no-one).

My beloved Nana died just before her 100th birthday in June, and my brilliant tough cookie of a mother was diagnosed with a form of lymphoma (which, thankfully, has stayed under control so far - largely due to her positive attitude, healthy lifestyle and sheer grit).

As the end of the year approaches, we have managed to stay afloat - just - thanks largely to the help and support of our families, both back in Blighty and here in Greece.

But the stress has never really gone away.
Even at our most light-hearted times, when we're laughing at some random silliness or bathing in the warmth of the love and affection from those we cherish, it's there in the background. It sits there like a heavy weight in the pit of our stomach, gnawing away at our sleep and fraying our nerves in our waking hours.

The possibility of losing everything we have worked so hard for all these years - despite me thankfully still having a pretty good job - just doesn't go away.

We have tried very hard to protect Kidling Grand from the immediate impact. Of course, he knows things are tough and that we have had to cut back severely, but we have tried to keep the worst of it from him.

Part of me has tried to work at everything extra hard, in the hope that I can save everything.
I log-in every evening, weekend and holiday to my email to make sure I'm not missing a trick for work or the possibility of earning a few extra Euros with some proof-reading or translation.
Not a single piece of veg languishing at the bottom of the fridge has gone in the bin where a soup pan could welcome it, and I've started baking our own bread each weekend.
There's a part of me that believes that if I try really, REALLY hard, I can save the world - or at least our little corner of it.

Meanwhile, life just keep getting more expensive here in Greece. A standard weekly shop for the basics from the supermarket, without meat, rarely comes in under 70 Euros. Petrol is now heading towards 1.60 a litre. And all the household bills are heading ever upwards. Things will get even worse in the months to come. Tickets for public transit are about to go up 30%, VAT on everything will rise 2% to 13% from 1 January, and 2011 will bring more measures which will force ordinary working bods to pay the price for the mess Greece got itself into after generations of mis-management and evasion by those who could get away with it.

I try hard not to be a Moaning Minnie - weeping and wailing about our fate achieves nothing. And I know that there are many others much worse-off than us. But there are times when I just have to let it all out.

This month, on top of all the usual expenses and winter extras, we have the cost of Christmas to meet (severely cut back this year), car tax for the entire year which have to be paid by the last day of the year (amounting to several hundreds) - and my vehicle insurance to cough up for.

And now we have to find the means to fix our tiled loungue floor, after it decided to rise up (literally) in revolt on Friday night, a few hours after we had finally given in and put the heating on for the first time.
The result was my poor Ovver Arf kneeling on the floor staring in tiles that had lifted up like a mini-tsunami, almost in tears of frustration, and me losing a few more nights' sleep and offering up a plea to the Universe to PLEASE just give us a break.

We'll muddle through - one way or another - and we'll make the sacrifices we have to. We know that compared to many, we still rank among the lucky ones. We appreciate the good things we have and - despite a few fraught moments - we have managed to keep our relationship on an even keel (if anything, it's stronger than ever). We know we're blessed with terrific family, friends and each other.

We have been good - really good - all year. I think we deserve a place on Santa's "Nice" list. But we don't want fancy wrapped gifts or glitter-filled festivities.

No, all I want for Christmas is a little peace of mind.


(Apologies to you all for the whinging nature of this post. Normal service with all its random witterings will return shortly.)

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Laughter, megaphone to the soul

I'm guest blogging over at again today, with a little meditation on the subject of laughter - something I'm convinced saves lives.

Here's a little taster.

You can tell a lot about someone from the way they laugh - probably a lot more than they'd like you to know.

A shy swallowed chuckle might betray the shrinking violet lurking beneath a brash and apparently fearless exterior; a Mutley-like snigger might surprise you coming from a seemingly respectable librarian; a roaring guffaw might shake you out of your boots if it comes from a mousey accountant; and as for that sweet little old lady - well you'd be surprised just what a filthy laugh she has!....

(to read on, head over to )

Friday, 10 December 2010

Stuck in the middle of misconceptions

Being a True Brit but living in Greece for more than two decades, I usually find myself having to fend off a flurry of misconceptions about one nation or the other. And it's not just from one side - I'm usually stuck in the middle of the mistaken ideas of the Greeks about the English, and England's equally misplaced concepts of the Greeks. Oh the joys of living the Life Bilingual.

Whenever I reconnect with an old friend through Facebook and they discover I now live in Athens, their automatic reaction always seems to be "Ooh, lucky you!" (or at least it was until the Greek economy went officially down the toilet).

In their minds, I was the lucky escapee from Colditz Britain, having fled my homeland's soggy shores for sunnier climes, probably living next to a beachside taverna, sipping ouzo and playing backgammon, surrounded by colourful locals grinning through their moustaches as they randomly yell "Opa!" and smash the crockery.

And of course, don't forget that after a heaving plate of midday souvlaki we all hit our beds for an afternoon nap before heading out for more food, drink and complicated dancing some time after midnight. (Yeah, right. A swift sarny at my laptop followed by a train ride home to a pile of ironing is closer to my reality - if I'm lucky.)

These are my same countrymen who might look on in terror whenever they witness a couple of Greeks who spot each other on the London Underground, convinced that their loud rapid-fire speech and bristling facial hair are a sure sign of blood about to be spilled. It's not, it's just the thrill of spotting a fellow Ellinas in a foreign land - and the conversation nearly always starts with an enthusiastic "Yeia sou, Patrioti!" (Rough translation: Hello! A fellow Greek - thanks to God!).

And they may be the same Brits who are shocked to find that Athens' Syntagma Square is miles from the beach, and there are no sunbeds around the Acropolis.

But, to be fair, the Greeks more than make up for those misplaced misconceptions with a huge mountain of scurrulous stereotypes about the Brits.

For a start, one of the first things you'll hear when they learn you're from the UK is always: "Well, of course, it rains constantly there, doesn't it?". True, as any Brit will tell you, we do get more than our fair share of the wet stuff but now and again the clouds do clear and a strange yellow round thing can be spotted in the sky.

My own beloved Ovver Arf, being Samos-born and Athens-bred, was convinced that he would go rusty or grow mould when visiting my family for the first time. It was November, and he was heading for England, he was bound to spend the entire six weeks in a state of constant sogginess, wasn't he? (As it turned out, it rained on just one day - my birthday - during that first visit in 1989.)

Then there is the idea that everything stops for tea in England - at 4 o'clock in the afternoon (mind you, the cucumber sandwiches cliche seems have to passed by most Greeks' radar - I'm consider a madwoman for suggesting anything between two slices of bread beyond the ubiquitous ham and cheese). Some Greeks still expect us drink our brew out of dainty porcelain cups, poured from a silver teapot polished by 'Our Man Jeeves', as we elegantly stick our little fingers out. (It must come as a horrible disappointment to them to see me plonk a Tesco's teabag in a mug and throw the resulting brew down my throat with all the poise of a hippo in a hurry.)

Then there is the idea that the Brits are cold fish who throw their young out into the cruel world the minute they recover from the first squeaks and spots of puberty. This must be the one misconception that REALLY gets to me. I don't know how typical I am, but my family is a tight-knit one, oozing with emotion. Passions run high and hearts are warm in our little clan, despite the frosty weather, and I'm probably the nearest thing to a cold fish of the lot of us (please someone, tell me it ain't so).

Yes, we generally do encourage our children to move out and make a life for themselves before they hit 30 (though that looks set to change in light of the latest news from the homeland). However, on the other hand, we do usually manage to acknowledge that our offspring are no longer infants before we are actually dribbling away in our dotage.

Not so in Greece - and believe me, I know. My mother-in-law still sometimes refers to my 44-year-old Ovver Arf as "to paidi" (the child). And at least you get to choose your own furniture when you're not still firmly tied to your mother's apron (and purse) strings.

I have to admit, however, that it's sometimes fun to play up to those misconceptions.

So, bear with me as I nibble on a digestive, drink a dainty cuppa (with pinky duly raised) and utter "Oh, I say" and "Bloody hell, Nigel!" in my best cut-glass Rodean accent (not bad for a graduate of Balcombe Road Comprehensive, eh?).

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Waging war on wimpish words

That’s it, I've had enough.

I am now officially declaring war on the ubiquitous and gratuitous use of euphemisms. If I hear the death of one more well-known worthy announced on Greek TV as “today, so-and-so left their final breath…” I shall scream blue murder!

It’s not just the fact that the newsreaders don't simply say “so-and-so died today”, it’s the fact that they ALWAYS churn out to the same tired old cliché!

At least have the imagination to find a new cliché, please! (?)

If they need inspiration, they need look no further than the famous Monty Python Parrot sketch. Admittedly, “he’s f****** snuffed it” is a tad on the insensitive side, but there are plenty more there including “gone to meet his Maker” or the wonderfully Shakespearian “shuffled off this mortal coil”. And beyond Python and the famous Norwegian Blue, there are still plenty of options. I have even heard of someone dearly departed being referred to as having been “astrally gathered”.

But when it comes right down to it, what's wrong with simply saying they died? Dressing up the news doesn't make the loss any less painful nor the departure any more dignified.

There's simply too much potential for horrific embarrassment due to innocent misinterpretation of phrases like “he’s left us” or “he moved on” (the most painful response – for all concerned – must be “Oh really? So where’s the old bugger living these days then?”).

It seems that the human race is addicted to euphemisms – not just for death but also for other great fundamentals of life, like going to the toilet or having sex.

I mean, do we really have to talk about No.1s and No.2s (on which my Other Half and I are in complete disagreement about which is which), or doing the horizontal tango instead of just saying what we mean?

Let’s face it, euphemisms are just way out for wimps, aren’t they? Why not call a spade a spade? Unless you’re a character from an Oscar Wilde play, in which case you'll probably be glad to report - in your best Lady Bracknell voice - that you have “never seen a spade”.

I know euphemisms are meant to spare the embarrassment of others. Fair enough, I guess. That’s why we use words like "willy" and talk about dog "do" and "you-know-what" around the faint-hearted.

Really, if it embarrasses you so, why not simply shut up?

Now, I could go on (and on, and on), but I have to nip off to the "little girls’ room" to - ahem - "powder my nose"...

Monday, 6 December 2010

Sinful cinnamon rolls

Nothing can compare to the scent of homemade cinnamon rolls wafting out of the kitchen as you hang up you pinny, reapply your lipstick and slip on your high heels to serve the men in your life a plate of fresh pastries with their mid-morning coffee, right?

OK, I admit it. Those of you who know me will already know that I'm no Stepford Wife (nor do I have any desire to be one), but lately I have been gripped by the desire to make my own cinnamon rolls (and to scoff them with my own morning cuppa).

This weekend, as if the utter chaos of our flat in mid-festive decorating blitz wasn't enough, I decided to add to the mayhem by trying out my cinnamon roll recipe for the first time.

I was a little apprehensive, as I don't have much experience of cooking with yeast (nor the necessary patience). But they turned out to be much simpler, and tastier, than I expected.

If you want to try for yourself, here's the recipe.

First of all, for the dough you will need:
400 grammes of strong white flour
2.5 ml (half a teaspoon) salt
30 ml (2 tablespoons) sugar, plus 1 teaspoon of sugar to mix with yeast
5ml (1 teaspoon) fast-acting dried yeast
45 ml (3 tablespoons) olive oil
1 egg
100-120 ml warm water
100-120 ml warm milk

and for the filling:
50 grammes melted butter
50 grammes dark brown sugar
20 grammes ground cinnamon
1-2 tablespoons sultanas (optional - alternatively you could use choc chips. Personally I prefer them with sugar and cinnamon alone)

Dissolve the teaspoon of sugar in the warm milk and warm water, then add the dried yeast. Mix and leave for about 5 minutes to forth up slightly.

Sift the flour, salt and 2 tablespoons of sugar into a large bowl.

Add the oil and egg to the milk/yeast mixture and stir gently. Add to the flour mix.

Mix to a dough, then knead til smooth, adding more flour if necessary. Knead for a couple of minutes then leave in the bowl, covered with a clean tea towel, in a warm place to rise.

Roll out to a large rectangle, then cut in half lengthwise and brush with butter.
Mix the dark brown sugar and cinnamon together well, and sprinkle on the buttered dough. If using sultanas or choc chips, sprinkle these as well. Roll into a sausage shape to enclose the filling .

Cut the roll into slices about 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick and place the pinwheels on a greased baking tray. Brush with a little melted butter, and leave to prove for half an hour.

Bake in a pre-heated over (180-200 degrees C, depending on how 'hot' your oven burns) for 15-20 minutes, until golden.

When cooked, mix some icing sugar and cinnamon with some water to my a fairly liquid glaze and drizzle over the hot buns. Allow to cool, so the glaze will sink into the pastry a little and harden a little on the outside.

Then all you need is a willing volunteer to savour your wares.

(Word of warning: If you have a teenage boy in the house, hide half the cinnamon rolls from him - that is, if you want to enjoy one to yourself with a well-deserved cup of coffee once you've done the washing up.)


My cinnamon roll adventure was inspired by Oui Chef at, where the theme for December was "Cinnamon and wine".

These deliciously sinful buns take care of the cinnamon side of things, and I'll just have to rely on my friendly household wine waiter to provide the rest!

Perfect, for me

Today, the Ovver Arf and all the other Nikos, Nikolauses, Nikolettas et al in Greece (and that's a lot, believe me!) celebrate their Name Day.

So do sailors, as in Greek tradition Saint Nick is the patron saint of sailors. The chap that bring the prezzies to good children is Saint Basil (which always brings to my mind images of a manic red & white-clad John Cleese doing silly walks across festive hearths to fill the waiting stockings... but that's another story).

It is the 21st time we have celebrated his Name Day together. Mind-boggling, but kinda marvellous too.

At the risk of sounding cheesy and gloopy, I have to say that my particular Nikos is the one who completes me. Cue Renee whatersface looking all tearful and blurting out "You had me at Hello".

I know, it's horribly corny, but he really did have me at that first (very Greek) "Hhhhhello" back in April 1989, when he looked across the lobby of the hotel where he was working, gave me a cheeky grin, and suggested the perfect place to hang my Holiday Rep notice board. A quick peek at us, the way we were then, probably tells you all you need to know.

Since then, we've both changed quite a bit. Fluctuating fashions and haircuts, expanding waistlines, a few more wrinkles, some adjusted priorities and a good few revised preconceptions.

We've been through quite a bit too - the thrill of buying our own home (along with the scary mortgage payments), the deaths of dearly-loved and greatly-missed family members, a heart attack (fortunately minor) when he was away on a business trip on the other side of the world in Singapore, periods of bleak depression and anxiety, the constant flow of my 'does my bum look big in this' insecurities, and - of course - the birth of our very own Kidling Grand.

But one thing that has remained constant, throughout all those years, is our ability to make each other laugh.

Nikos is a natural born comic, with a phenomenal memory for jokes and the way to tell 'em, enormous personal magnetism, a brain as sharp as a razor and a heart as big and warm as the sun.

It is laughter that has gone us this far - and I'm sure that it will take us much, much further.

Nikos is not perfect, though there's plenty of things he is: smart; funny; frustrating; creative; demanding; laid-back; confusing; inventive; complicated; generous; cynical; excitable; cool; infuriating; ingenious; original; kind-hearted; quick-tempered; borderline manic depressive; idealistic; fun; warm; sexy; cuddly; charismatic; abrupt; neurotic; clever; charming; hard work; a challenge.

No, my Ovver Arf aint perfect - but he's perfect for me.

Happy Name Day, Niko!

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Glögg! (or "Mandi lets her Swedish Chef out to play")

Meet Lars. You may not know his name, but I'm sure you all know him.

He's the Swedish Chef, usually seen burbling incomprehensively (but enthusiastically) around The Muppet Show kitchen, often with a chicken looking on in horror.

I don't really know his name, but after 18 years of working for a company with Swedish management, he is definitely a Lars to me.
When Becca and CheffyDaddy announced Cinnamon & Wine as the theme(s) for December's "Oui Chef!" ( ) I just knew that it was time to let my Swedish Chef out to play and introduce you to a peculiarly Scandiniavian way of beating the winter chill and welcoming the Festive Season.


I first came across it as an innocent 28-year-old, as I approached my first Christmas in my new job. Though based in Greece, many of the managers were Swedes - and they were keen as mustard to bring a little taste of the Baltic to the Eastern Mediterranean. I had already reluctantly sampled reindeer (I know, I know - but actually Rudolph and his ilk are surprisingly tasty) and had managed to avoid Rotten Herring (don't ask - it IS what it sounds like), but the smells coming from the lunchroom that December morning were infinitely more enouraging.

Curiosity got the better of me and I was soon to found hanging my head over a gently seething cauldron of ruby red liquor bubbling with almonds, orange peel and sultanas, with my boss stirring away merrily. It smelt orgasmic. (The booze, not my boss!).

Before I knew it, I had a little glass of the stuff in my hand and was taking my first tentative sip. Then a bolder slurp. Then another glass or two - or four.

I don't remember much after that... except a mental note that this Yuletide concoction was lethal enough to fell a whole longship of Vikings. And that I got the bus home that evening. I think.

So, if you're feeling bold, here is a recipe, including the extras my boss liked to throw into the mix. It will certainly keep the cold at bay - but you may not feel your nose after a glass or two.

You will need:
3 sticks cinnamon
2-3 pieces dried Seville orange peel (use fresh if dried not available
2-3 pieces dried or fresh ginger (not ground)
some 10 cardamom seeds (whole)
some 10 cloves (whole)
1 cup (2.5dl) water

1 bottle of red wine

(added extras: a few good slugs of vodka or brandy, or both!)
Blanched almonds and sultanas for serving

What to do:
- Put the spices and water in a small pan and bring to the boil. Then turn off heat and let it stand overnight
- Pass the mixture through a sieve to filter out the 'bits' from the spices

- Pour in the wine and gently heat (don't boil!)
- Add sugar to taste (about half a cup) and stir til it dissolves
- Heat but do not bring it to the boil. Alcohol evaporates when boiled and that sort of defeats the object!

- If you're feeling naughty, spike the whole thing with a splash or three of vodka or brandy
- Serve hot with raisins and blanched almonds (dropped into the cups after serving).


Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Surprise Celebration

I entered uncharted territory today. For the first time, I set foot into the 46-55 demographic, my late-forties, or the pre-SAGA generation as a helpful friend suggested (gee, thanks Fran!).

Considering that I have blown out candles on 45 birthday cakes to date, the fact that it was a normal working day, and our general financial situation, I wasn't expecting much of a fuss to be made of my birthday - or me.

I was pleasantly surprised.

Most of my 'working day' was spent thanking colleagues from (literally) all around the world for their birthday wishes. And then there were the dozens of brilliant friends clamouring to wish me Many Happy Returns and put a smile on my face (yes, even 'dear George' who reminded me that I am now "just under 50").

I was in a pretty good mood as I made my way home, but I thought the highlight of my evening would be a glass of plonk and maybe a favourite DVD, having issued instructions for "no gifts or birthday cake" to the hubby.

For some strange reason I thought he'd break the habit of a lifetime and do as he was told.

I was wrong.

As I opened the front door, I was greeted by darkness, and the faint glow of flickering candlelight on the dining room, surrounded by the Ovver Arf, Kidling Grand, my in-laws and neices singing a uniquely Greek version of "Happy Birthday"!

Despite my protests that I didn't want a fuss, they decided to pamper me - complete with a homemade cake and prezzies to open.

Though I could have perhaps done without the reminder of my antiquity in the glaring "46" candles (the Ovver Arf said if he had got one for each year, the candles would have cost more than the cake!), I was blushing furiously with pleasure as I huffed and I puffed and I blew out my birthday flame.

And there was more to come, with a special birthday supper lovingly prepared by hubby so we could have the sustenance essential for a typical (noisy) Greek family celebration - and I was the one being celebrated!

It was a reminder that it's not the fancy gifts that make a real celebration.

It's the little touches: a homemade cake; a favourite dish; or a cardboard & glitter birthday brooch crafted by an 11-year-old.

They're what makes you feel like you matter.

And that is certainly worth celebrating.