Thursday, 28 July 2011

Surviving the strikes

Unless you’ve been living on the dark side of a small sub-planet in the quietest corner of Alpha Centauri, you can’t fail to have heard about Greece’s financial woes and the strikes in response to austerity measures being introduced. But, the country has not ground to a halt and residents and visitors alike can work around any disruption. In this latest of my Athens "Surviving" series, I give a few tips to visitors on how not to let the strikes ruin your stay...

So, you’ve made it to the city that gave birth to democracy more than 2,000 years ago. That in itself is a good start. It means that no air traffic controllers, port workers or other disgruntled group has conspired to prevent your arrival. Welcome!

Looking around, you may be a little surprised. The news headlines have prepared you for a city in uproar, pulsating with protestors and police, and a country crippled by constant strikes. Instead, the scents of souvlaki and jasmine on balconies are stronger than any residual whiff of tear gas. The trains, buses and trams are filled with Athenians on their way to work every morning. Folk in shops still smile and are as hospitable as ever.

Greek society has not imploded. Life goes on.

Industrial action and noisy protests have featured strongly on Greece’s political stage for months now. But strikes – be they for a few hours, a few days, or even weeks – have always been part of the way of life here. They’re as Greek as ouzo and summer sunshine. Even before the threat of radical changes and austerity measures in a bid to solve the country’s financial woes stirred up discontent, stoppages and downtown demos were a regular feature of city life.

Locals take it all in their stride, and use their wits to make a mere inconvenience from what some might consider a disaster. So, here are some tips on how to minimise the impact of any strikes during your visit.

Stay informed
A little bit of knowledge can save a whole day of heartache. Most strikes are announced in advance. In addition to TV and radio news, many Athenians rely on Greek-language websites like for regular updates, and reliable English information can also be found online. Check out or the English pages of Greek daily newspapers like
If you are staying at a hotel, just ask the front desk staff about any strikes that might disrupt your plans.

Avoid hot spots
The angry riots that have filled the world’s TV screens are the exception, not the rule, and are generally limited to a few key ignition points. The whole city is not in turmoil when BBC or CNN show protesters hurling stones and street furniture at riot police lined up in front of parliament. Just a few blocks away, it’s business as usual with people serenely sipping coffee and reading the paper in street cafes.
The main hot spot to avoid when outrage is in the air is Syntagma Square - the front yard of Greece’s Parliament, and where the ‘Indignados of Athens’ have gathered in mostly peaceful protest since late May. It has also been the scene of occasional clashes with police when a small minority gets physical.
Staff at your hotel should be able to give you an idea of what areas to avoid.

Plan B
Flexibility is key. When a strike scuppers your plans, consider the alternatives.
If you turn up at the Metro station to find the shutters rolled down, think about taking the bus or tram instead, as it is rare for the entire public transport network to be closed at the same time. The Athens Urban Transport Organisation (OASA) website – – has information in Greek and English.
If you do find yourself stuck in the centre, take to the streets. Athens is a city best seen by foot, and has a myriad of cafes and snack bars when you can stop to quench your thirst and consult your map. A day exploring the small back streets can reveal some delights that you would never discover on a planned tour.
If you arrive at Piraeus eager to board your ferry for a day on one of the islands in the Saronic Gulf, only to find they’re not operating, don’t despair. Just hop onto a tram heading along the coast road. You’ll get a stately ride in a classily-designed air-conditioned carriage, with charming views of Athens’ seaside suburbs, and you’re bound to find a beach worthy of your towel along the way.

But if you’re an adrenaline junkie who’s been lured to Athens by the scent of danger, just head for the nearest protest and start loudly expressing your views about lazy Greeks who want to carry on riding the gravy train at Europe’s expense.

That’s one sure-fire way to experience Greek passion first hand.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The seven ages of smell

Smell. It’s the poor relative of the five senses, yet perhaps the most evocative. Few of us think about it, but our lives would be so much poorer without it.

Just a whiff of tomato plants immediately transports me back to the greenhouses of my English childhood, where the glass panes entrapped the giddy scent of the vines and their rapidly ripening red fruits. The scent of fresh sawdust and wet mortar whips me down a wormhole to days spent playing around one of the building sites where my master-builder Grandad and his gang were hard at work. And the sweet smell of baby shampoo takes me back to the first days of my teenage son’s life, when I used to love to sniff the freshly-washed blonde fluff on his head after his evening bath.

I really only started to appreciate my sense of smell when I quit smoking five years ago. Along with the frayed nerves and flu-like symptoms of the first month of withdrawal from the devil weed, I noticed something much nicer…

It was as if the tiny hairs and receptors in my nostrils had been plunged into the deep freeze for a couple of decades, only to be slowly awoken in the ‘bain Marie’ of my newly smoke-free status. Within the first fortnight, I knew the minute I walked into the house that we had left an overnight mosquito-repellent tablet plugged in all day. I became an aroma junkie, obsessively breathing in the scent of fruit and veg at the grocers before selecting them – and summarily rejecting anything that smelt of nothing. I was even caught on a couple of occasions sniffing close friends and family.

The stages of most lives can be characterised by distinctive scents. So here are my seven ages of smell:

Fresh-mown grass, bicycle chain grease, mud after a downpour, Dad’s aftershave, Sunday roasts, the cloud of hairspray and perfume at Mum’s dressing table, allergy cream, a sponge cake cooling in the kitchen, the delicate aroma of Nana’s rouge and lipstick when I gave her a kiss, orange squash lollies from the cavernous freezer, Matey bubble bath, the earthy scent of a cuddle with Grandad after a day in the garden, freshly-baked shortbread, the summer stink that wafted across the fields when farmers sprayed with fertilizer, pencil shavings, blood, Dettol and apples.

“Charlie” perfume, Indian ink, the chemical sharp edge of Sun-In hair lightener, greasy lipsticks left on the windowsill, wet schoolbooks, stale cigarette smoke on friends’ clothes, joss sticks, that ‘old man’ smell that refused to leave the army coats we bought from charity shops, second-hand books, Juicy Fruit chewing gum, dried watercolours, a new sketchpad, stinky hair-removing cream and far too much deodorant.

Single adulthood:
Carbon paper, alcohol, the first whiff of a lit cigarette, hot metal and ink from a printing press, paper dust, the marigold-reminiscent scent of petrol, facemasks, hair mousse, my first culinary experiments with soy sauce or oregano, garlic bread, wet hair, the summer reminder of that bottle of milk that spilled in my first car, vodka & orange and “Rive Gauche”.

Married life:
Scented candles, pretentious dinner party menus, newsprint in bed, ground coffee, the musky scent at the nape of his neck, red wine, sausages burning on the barby, his aftershave, fry-up breakfasts on Sunday mornings, someone else’s sweat, the comforting scent of his favourite t-shirt (the one you wear to bed when he’s away) and his & hers “Bulgari”.

The unbeatable aroma of a new-born’s tummy, heavy nappies, washing powder, regurgitated milk, Sudocream, boiling water to sterilize bottles and dummies, that unmistakable “I’m cooking up something in my nappy” scent wafting from the cot (usually accompanied by a knowing grin), infant’s hair, Johnson’s baby powder, Dettol, burps and pureed carrot.

Middle age:
Home baked bread, the whiff of over-heated electric cables, anti-acid tablets, moisturising cream, herbal tea, jam, eye gel for those pesky bags, tiger balm, saffron rice, damp laundry under a hot iron, foot lotion, the smell of fellow passengers on public transport and lavender plants.

Who knows? It’s yet to come… ...but I supect it will include scents from all the previous ages. Not least Dettol, old books, favourite t-shirts, baby powder, moisturizing cream and anti-acid. But hopefully there will also be the scents of newborn grandchildren, fresh baked shortbread and tea too.

Tea, after all, is the scent for all ages.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Dear So and So: The working from home edition

Dear Greek countryside,

Whoever said you were quiet and peaceful? Well, whoever it was, they were wrong.

Isn’t enough that I was rudely awoken by the rattling cry of a hooligan magpie and the sclatter of battling cats outside my bedroom door at 6 this morning?

But I’m an optimist and try to be philosophical about things, so I got up, grabbed my laptop and headed for the balcony to make an early start on work, surrounded by your early morning bounty.

All was well…. ‘til I settled down with my cup of Greek coffee (the type you have to sip slowly over a couple of hours if you don’t want a choking mouthful of coffee grounds) and starting reading my first emails. Serenity reigned (due in part to assorted family members we share this country hide-away with still snoozing gently) and I was ready for my morning productivity surge.

But then, just as I started going through with the latest magazine proof with a proverbial nit-comb, all hell broke loose!

The local cicadas woke up, en masse, with a sudden onslaught of synchronised chirping from the pine trees all around. We’re not talking a gentle chirruping here, we’re talking high octane, high decibel rhythmic waves of noise. Though weird looking, cicadas are harmless and strangely wonderful – especially when you learn the story of their life – but boy do they make a racket! They must be the metal heads of the insect world.

And if that wasn’t enough, the panic-stricken wood doves then decided to join in the cacophony. We’re not talking the gentle cooing that punctuated the more idyllic summer days of my English childhood – these are pigeons with attitude. Their cry is an aggressive reminder of their presence, probably tinged with the angst about Greece’s uncertain future that’s infected us all.

And another thing, how’s a girl to concentrate of the finer details of document when there’s the sight of a pine-covered hillside rolling down to the sea to distract her?

But you know me. I’m a trooper and I’ll battle through, despite your attempts to lure me away from my Protestant Work Ethic.

Until, at least, our date on the beach at the end of the day.

In eager anticipation – cos you know I love ya!

Dearest Mother-in-Law,

Thanks so much for the cup of coffee. I appreciate it, I really do.

But please understand that when I'm trying to work, I can’t sit and chat about the latest exploits of Kyria Mina’s daughter’s next-door-neighbour or the intricacies of the best pasta flora recipe.

I know you’re pleased to see me after so many days. I’m delighted that we get on just fine, but please try to understand that although I am physically in front of you on your balcony, in every other sense I am somewhere else.

The last thing I need when I’m trying to argue my case with a colleague in Singapore is you faffing around trying to straighten my collar and making disapproving faces at my shameless bare feet.

With love,
Your (mostly) dutiful but slightly off-centre English Daughter-in-Law.

Dear Battling Neighbours,

You really need to chill out.
Don't you know that so much anger is bad for you?

I've been listening to your screeched exchanges of "Go to hell", "Get out of my face", and much worse since the early hours - and I'm pretty sure that all the houses within a square kilometre know that you are definitely not the best of pals.

But please, can't you just put your border disputes and screaming matches to one side, and simply enjoy being here?

Don't make me come down there, alright?
You may not know this, but hell hath no fury like a middle-aged Englishwoman whose peace has been shattered by someone else's all-too-public arguments.

The "Anglida nyfi ths Kyrias Renas".

Dear kids,

I really don’t have time for this, you know. You’re old enough to work things out for yourselves and I really shouldn’t have to play referee to your cousinly squabbles.

And for the last time, switch off the ******* Play Station and get outside to get some fresh air!

Your loving mother and auntie.

Dear seaside,

If I called you a beach, I hope you won’t be offended.

I know I haven’t been round to see you enough – it’s been WAY too long. But I’ll be there soon. Just save a spot in the shade for me to hide my pallid, puffed-up bod after a much-deserved dip in the briny.


Dear Boss,

I know I'm not at the office today, but believe me I'm hard at work. In fact I bet I sent my first email before you had your breakfast. Honest!

Your humble servant - remotely but nonetheless professionally.

Dear So and So...

Friday, 1 July 2011

Dear So and So: The Greek Edition

Dear World,

I know your TV screens and newspapers have been full of images of violent clashes in Athens as the Greek Parliament voted on austerity measures, but please don't write the country off.
It's true that the current mess is the direct result of mismanagement and corruption (and even the following of some seriously dodgy advice from certain non-Greek financial giants) by a series of Governments stretching back over decades, but the people are hurting, they're angry and they're supremely frustrated.
Yes, the public sector has been bloated for years.
Yes, many of those with the means have avoided paying their dues to the State, and more than a few public officials have accepted envelopes stuffed with cash to turn a blind eye.

many of the peaceful protestors in Syntagma Square (those who demonstrated without incident for weeks before a few trouble-makers turned things toxic with stone-throwing and Molotov cocktails, and before the police responded with tear-gas and baton bashing) are hurting like never before. Many are wage-slaves in the private sector, so have not benefited from the public sector cash cow and have never had the opportunity to cheat the tax man - even if they were inclined to do so. They're hard-working people who are trying to give their children a better life. With record unemployment, hikes in taxes, closures of schools and many of the young people who manage to find work earning a paltry minimum monthly wage of 740 Euros before deductions, that dream seems unlikely now for thousands of working and middle class families.

They know things had to change - they've known it for years now. But successive Governments have failed to grasp the nettle and make the changes that could have averted the disaster (primarily because it would have been political suicide). But that doesn't mean that they can stand by and see their hard-earned lives whittled away while those with power and influence continue to enjoy their (undeclared) swimming pools or sailing their yachts around the jet set's favourite summer spots.
It's hard to understand why you have to eat lentils three times a week, instead of having a Sunday roast, when you know those responsible are entertaining cronies at some of the best (and most exclusive) seafood restaurants in the Eastern Mediterranean.
It's hard to be philosophical when we all know that self-proclaimed men or women 'of the people' in Parliament have luxury villas and send their precious offspring to expensive private schools while you wonder if you will be able to afford new shoes for little Yianni's ever-growing feet when school starts again in September.

Of course Greek people are frustrated and angry. Wouldn't you be?

And remember, the rioters you've seen on your TV screens represent just a tiny fraction of a percentage of the people that live, work and pay taxes in this (still) lovely country. Most are just focusing on work (or trying to find it) to keep a roof over their heads, food on the table and some semblance of hope for the future for their children.

Despite the current troubles and woes Greece is going through, it remains a wonderful country with a great deal to offer: warm friendly people (honestly), amazing natural beauty, fantastic food, incomparable culture and history, a great climate.

But don't take my word for it - come and see for yourself (just avoid Syntagma Square for a while).


Dear People of Greece,

Hold on, hang on, never give up. I know it seems like the whole world is against Greece right now, but things can get better. I may be a 'xeni' (foreigner) but I've been living, working and paying taxes here since 1989 (more years than some of you have been alive), I'm married to a Greek, have a child at a Greek state school and am facing the same problems as many of you.

Now is the time to unite, to really work together, and to finally show those in power how it should be done. There is still so much great about this country - let's start showing the world the shiny side of the coin (whether it's a Euro or a Drachma, who knows?) and not just the filthy, smoke-stained side.

Greece still has so much to offer the world, not least the vision, passion, drive and warmth of its people. Let's show THAT side to the world.


Dear Greek MPs,

OK, so you voted for the austerity measures. You probably feel there was no other option. Fine, OK.

But now, more than ever, it is time for you to finally start leading by example and to jump off the gravy train once and for all. The people out there in the streets around Syntagma (and millions more desperately trying to balance their household budgets around the country) are sick of you all. It doesn't matter whether you're left, right or central, whether you're blue, green, red, or sky-blue pink, most people blame you. You're the ones that have allowed the state system to fall into unforgivable disarray whilst milking the benefits of your power and influence.
Little wonder some of you have been the target of yoghurt pots.

Now is the time to really show the country that you deserve to be in your privileged position. And if you do not step up and prove your worth, you will never be forgiven. Even if it means taking steps that could end your political career, surely it's worth it if you really mean it when you say you have "the good of the country" at heart.

And in the name of all things you hold dear, slash through the choking red tape that stands in the way of innovative Greek entrepreneurs easily starting new enterprises without having to circumvent the system! New growth can only happen if seeds are sown.

As an-EU citizen who has not, and does not plan to, changed my citizenship, I cannot vote for any of you in Parliament, but as someone who has been honestly paying my dues to the state for more than two decades, I think I have some right to speak out.

Come on, sort out this mess. It's now or never.

Yours in desperate (and maybe deluded?) hope,
Angry of Aghia Paraskevi.

Dear IMF/EU/assorted rating agencies,

Enough already. Even convicted criminals are given the chance to redeem themselves after they've served their time. Give Greece a break, for goodness sake!

It's a country with an ambitious, highly-educated and fundamentally up-beat people. Given the chance, they can move the world in a positive way. But your constant undermining of the country means that the only earth-moving Greece is likely to do is the worst possible kind.

I think it's about time to stop punishing the 'upstart' Greeks who aspire to something more than the cliched image of a sun-baked fisherman mending his nets by hand or a black-clad granny sorting beans on her doorstep, isn't it?

One of the little people.

Dear Husband,

I know everything looks bleak now, but we WILL get through this. And no matter what, I shall always be at your side - holding your hand, feeling your pain, laughing at your jokes, sharing your dreams and - yes - nagging you to do the things that have to be done.

I'm not going anywhere, sunshine. Σ'αγαπώ.

Always yours,

Dear So and So...