Thursday, 16 June 2011

The Gallery: Dad - my one-and-only

This week, in honour of Father's Day (at least in the UK), Tara at Sticky Fingers has given us "Dads" as the Gallery theme.

My contribution will be dedicated to my one-and-only and definitely one-a-million, who sadly has not been with us for the past five-and-a-half years. He died a few months after being diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus on 23 January 2006 - just a nine days before what would have been his 68th birthday.

He was a proper dad, though a complicated man. He was responsible for some of my happiest childhood memories. It was he who taught me to identify the sound of every instrument in the orchestra when listening to a piece of his beloved classical music. It was he who taught me the value of sheer silliness to chase away the black moods that chase us all (and plague some more than others).

He would have been stunned by the turn-out at his funeral. He was one of those people who never really understood how loved he was. Here's part of what I said on the unseasonably warm and sunny January day of his funeral:

"So, who – or what – was Dad, or John to those of you not lucky to have him as your father?

What a challenge! Try to sum up in mere words someone who was so many things to so many people. But, here goes.

First and foremost he was a devoted husband to Pauline, who he never stopped loving with all his heart and soul for all of the 43 years they were married. That love never waned, even when they were bickering about the best way to hang the fairy lights or who was the better (or worse) driver. They were living proof that opposites attract, and more to the point, they stuck together, complementing each other and growing stronger year on year.

Mum, know that such a love doesn’t die just because Dad has gone on ahead of you. It will always be with you, in the very air you breathe, for as long as you live.

Then, on a December evening in 1964 he got another role – being my Dad. Although he missed my “world debut” when I decided to make my appearance at the very moment he popped down the road to get some cigars, I have felt him by my side every single day since then. And when Deb joined us in March 1968, he became even more the proud doting father.

Of course, we had our run-ins with Dad. We always knew we were in trouble when he picked us up from somewhere in stony silence, and drove back breathing fiercely through his nostrils. At the time, it felt like torture, but looking back I realise that he was actually saving us the humiliation of the getting told off in front of our friends.

No matter how hard-done-by we sometimes thought we were as typical teenagers, we knew we were blessed. Mum and Dad gave us a home full of love, and tried to nurture our self-esteem and zest for life.

Dad was always there to read us a bed-time story when we were little, help explore the wonders of the universe with a huge atlas we used to spread out on the floor, introduce us to the joys of music or be our partner in crime in some piece of mischief. Or simply to be daft and have a laugh with us. It was no accident that many of our school friends called him 'Dad'. Even today, he is known to dozens of people of OUR children’s generation as 'Pops'.

I know that he was proud of both of us – I wonder if he knew just how proud, honoured and blessed we feel to have had him as our father? I hope so. And, Dad - if you’re listening – you’re the best and no-one could have done it better.

He used to joke that he was doomed in a house dominated by women. “Even the cat’s female!” he would say. But that changed in September 1985 when Peter was born. Along with Pete came another new role for Dad – that of 'Pops'.

Now, every grandfather is devoted. But he took it above and beyond the call of duty. He had a very special relationship with both Pete and of course with his little princess, Lauren. And even my son Konstantinos, growing up on the other side of Europe, has a very special bond with him – now and forever.

I’ve gone on too long – and there’s still so much to say. I have just touched on some of the many things he was to us all. Fantastic father-in-law, wonderful brother, loyal friend, trusted confidante, talented artist and musician, a brilliant mind, a sensitive heart.

I know that all of you here today have your own special memories of our Dad. I know that it hurts that he is no longer with us, but he is at rest now and that should be a comfort to us all. The hard part is now going to be living without him. But we have to – Dad says so, and as you all know, we always do as we’re told!"

I was lucky. I grew up with a devoted father, one who told me bedtime stories and shared silly jokes with me, one who loved me unconditionally and earned the love and respect of so many.

I'm sad that he's gone - but I'm so grateful that I had him for the first 41 years of my life.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Surviving: summer in the city

Despite being in the world's headlines for all the wrong reasons lately, Greece is a wonderful country - and summer is very much its season. But you need to act smart to get the most of it, especially in the hot gritty city.
So, in the latest of my (very) occasional "Surviving" series, here's a quick guide to enjoying Athens during the hot summer months, without paying for it with sunstroke, new markings like a blushing zebra or a raging thirst-driven headache...

Spring’s showers have melted away, the temperature’s rising and the outlook is bright (at least weather-wise). Summer’s here and the great Athenian outdoors is calling.

It’s not all pool bars and beach umbrellas. The heat can be merciless, even after dark. At night in residential areas, the chirrup of cicadas is accompanied by the murmuring of TVs dragged onto balconies for family viewing, the chink of ouzo glasses and the scrape of knife and fork across plate for a late-night meal.

From June to September, Athens can be a sweaty, gritty city and if you don’t take care, you risk ending your day dizzy, dehydrated and sporting a painful plumage of bright pink and white stripes.

For every tourist to arrive during the summer, at least one year-round resident leaves. As the schools close in mid-June, most Athenians are planning their escape to the hills, islands or grandparents’ villages. And by the time the 15 August holiday rolls around, the city is like a ghost town of sun-baked concrete and shimmering heat mists.

That exodus offers some relief to users of public transport. Fewer people pouring into the buses, trams and trains means there’s less chance of being jammed up against someone’s pungent armpit as they dangle from the strap.

And if you’re smart, summer in the city can be a real joy. Here are a few tips.

We’re not talking about a cup of tea, a couple of ouzos and a few litres of beer. Water is a must. It’s cheap too, as price is strictly controlled, so poverty is no excuse for not having a bottle to swig as you hit the tourist trail.

Dress right, dress light
Wear loose clothes made from natural fabrics. That skin-tight mini-dress might expose lots of luscious flesh to the Mediterranean sun, but you need a few molecules of space between your clothes and your skin to let a little air circulate if you want to avoid passing out. And unless you think a squint and lobster-red head is a good look, invest in a hat.

Protect yourself
Don’t even think of applying baby oil instead of high SPF sunscreen unless a special kind of masochism and doctors’ appointments are your thing.

Seek out shade
In any Greek café, the folk occupying the shadiest spots are the smart ones. Sipping your frappé is much less fun when you’re screwing your eyes up against the glare and the tingle of prickly heat is creeping along your arms.
If you don’t want to pay for your shade, grab a fresh bottle of water from the kiosk and head for the natural shade of the gardens around Zappeion.

Take your time
Summer’s not the season for pit-stop sightseeing, especially at midday when the sun is blazing down and the tarmac resembles warm toffee. Amble along, savour the sights, stop for a leisurely drink or ice-cream. Enjoy it.
Athens has a lot to see, but it’s really not worth rushing around like a manic mosquito just to tick things off your “Must See” list.

A/C relief
Most places are air-conditioned these days, so if the heat gets too much for you, just duck into a café or shop for a cool blast. But if you decide to take a taxi, don’t believe the driver if he tells there’s an extra charge for turning on the A/C.

And if the call of the Med gets too strong to resist, just jump on a tram and head for the beaches of the southern suburbs....