Friday, 30 September 2011

Dear So and So – The body and soul edition

Dear hormones,

We need to have a good old sit-down and have the dreaded ‘Where are we going?’ talk. You’ve been toying with me for long enough. A girl wants to know where she stands, you know.

It’s the uncertainty I can’t stand. And boy, are you sending me mixed messages!

Earlier this year, you stubbornly refused to make an appearance a couple of months, and then just turned up unannounced whenever the mood took you until you got the subtle message from my snarly looks and barking retorts and settled back into our good old routine.

One minute, I’m breaking out in zits that would make a teen testosterone machine flinch and the next I’m slapping enough salves, soothes and ointments to sink an oil slick onto a mysterious patch of reptilian skin that appeared on my jaw line.

And enough already with the Winnie the Pooh mood swings! While I love bouncy, manic Tigger and the melancholy philosophy of Eeyore in equal measure, I’d quite like to have a few days where I get to be level-headed Kanga, sensible Christopher Robin, or even eternally optimistic Winnie (though we can give needy Piglet a miss, if that’s OK with you).

I’m sick of being reduced to a soggy blubbering pile of tears… by a cereal ad.

I get the message. A change is coming. I’ll be 47 in a couple of months. But we’ve been fine as we are, haven’t we? Quite frankly, I don’t have time for an upheaval right now, so if you don’t
mind, can we just carry on as we were for a little while yet?

Go on. I’ll make it worth your while.

With love - or hate - or utter confusion,
Crazy-faced and sweat-bound of Athens.

Dear Boobs,

I love you guys. You are consistently ‘Best in Class’ in my bod.

OK, so you’ve grown (who hasn’t?), and maybe you’re not quite a firm and perky as you used to be, but you’re still luscious and reliable (and believe me, that’s a rare trick to pull off!).

I feel I need to reward you somehow, just to show you how much I appreciate you. But sadly now is not a time for satin and lace, so let’s just hang on in with the clean cotton old faithful undies for now, OK?

In appreciation,
Your loving owner.

Dear legs,

What is it with you and me? I know you’re strong, I know you’re dependable, but would it hurt you to make a little effort to look nice now and then?

Yours, in eager anticipation of smooth, toned calves,
Madame Thunder Thighs.

Dear brain,

You’re too hard on yourself, you know. I know you think you’re the one thing that keeps this whole shebang going (well, yes, actually you are) but that doesn’t mean you can’t take a wee break now and then.

It might even do you some good to switch off completely now and then – like when I'm desperately trying to get some shut-eye instead of staring into the darkness at 4am, or when we’re watching a Jennifer Aniston movie.

Really, your participation is not essential at times. Even Olympic athletes need a break now and then (and you’re no Math-lete, sunshine!).

Yawningly yours,

Dear psyche,

Now and again you just have to take the advice of some tried and tested comedy catch-phrases.

“Don’t panic!” would be a good one right now.

The end of the world is not nigh, yet. And there’s still stuff to be enjoyed and appreciated before you have to say “So long and thanks for all the fish”.

Oh, and something else…
….don't forget to breathe!

Desperately seeking serenity,
A very non-Ohm 40-something.

Dear Blogosphere,

You guys are awesome!

Whenever I start heading for meltdown, you’re there to listen to my silent screaming over the ether and to reach out with words of encouragement and optimism. I can almost feel the positive vibes flowing out of my laptop whenever I commit some of my angst to my blog.

This week, you came up trumps again. I had a moment where I flipped out, fearing the worst before it arrives at our doorstep. And yet, there you were, waiting to give me cyber cuddles and pats on the shoulder, boost my sagging ego and restore my default Pollyanna mode (without the annoying pigtails).

I've never met most of you, and probably never will, but I just want to reach my arms into the Internet and give you all a big, fat, grateful hug.

Thanks a zillion,

Dear So and So...

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Home: Much more than walls and a roof

Home is where the heart is. It’s where I hang my hat. It’s the people I love, not bricks and mortar.

All true…. BUT

When you are facing the very real possibility that the place you’ve scrimped, saved and sacrificed for may be wrenched from you, you can get seriously materialistic.

Our home is nice, but modest. It’s a two-bed flat with a spare room in a middle class suburb of Athens. It’s pleasant and airy and its décor reflects our characters and interests. And as a couple of educated professionals (though perhaps not quite Yuppies), we never thought that buying it 13 years ago was stretching beyond our means.

To get onto the Greek property ladder, we lived with my In-Laws for three years so we could save up the deposit (no 100% mortgages from Greek banks). So, when we finally moved in, it was with a feeling of excitement, satisfaction and belonging that we gradually furnished, painted and primped it to our taste.

We didn’t go for excesses. The house still has just one TV. Most of the furniture is from our friendly neighbourhood IKEA store. And most of the jobs in the place have been given the DIY treatment. Fancy brand-name clothes have been scorned, holidays not taken and left-overs have become a regular feature on our weekly family menu.

And yet, there is a real possibility that we might lose our home.

The Ovver Arf lost his job in February 2010, just as the Greek Economy was falling into a maelstrom leading to a black hole. Jobs are being cut, not created. My man swallowed his not inconsiderable Mediterranean male pride and tried to reconcile himself to swapping his Sales Director persona for an existence as a reluctant house husband – at least until he found another job.

At least I was still working, we told ourselves. Something will come up.

So far, it hasn’t. And as the Ovver Arf is now out of work for more than a year, he gets no welfare benefits from the State.

Meanwhile, our few savings and some help from generous family members helped us keep up with our mortgage payments for a while. But when your family income is slashed by more than half at a time when prices are rising and the Government imposes new taxes every day in a bid to appease the IMF and European Finance Ministers, the gap between ‘have’ and ‘need’ soon becomes a gaping chasm.

And now we face yet more ‘emergency taxes’ on my income and our home. The unemployed are not exempt, though the Church is.

With news of the Greek economy getting grimmer every day, we are facing the real possibility that we might lose our humble home. And that makes me want to sit tight, stroking the walls and hugging the furniture.

I’ve always been a home bunny, preferring to have friends round for a meal accompanied by a bottle of plonk and few laughs to a fancy night out at a swank nightclub. But now, I just want to stay snuggled up on our (slightly worn) sofa.

If the worst does come to the worse, we WILL manage somehow – even if it means moving back in with the In-Laws.
Our family will stay together.
Our heart will find a home with each other.

Our home has always been full of love and laughter, food and friends, and it’s become a regular haunt for our teenage son’s army of friends. It can be noisy and is often messy. But I’m proud of it. I love it. I don’t want to lose it.

So, if there is someone or something out there that can talk the Universe into giving us a break just big enough to keep it, I would really REALLY appreciate it.

[This post was inspired by The Gallery - for more home-inspired blogs, click below]

Friday, 16 September 2011

Back to school - (ish)

So this week, they’re finally back where they should be.
After THREE WHOLE MONTHS off (you hear that, Brit Mums who tear their hair out at the thought of 6 weeks of summer hols?), Greek schoolkids returned to their classrooms this week.
Well, sort of.

Sure, they’re turning up at the school gate at 8am and reporting for registration. But that’s about the size of it. Some lessons have started – the ManChild has had homework for Maths, Ancient Greek and Biology so far – but it’s without the benefit of text books.

Yes, dear reader, you heard me right.

For, as the Ministry of Education announced when the long Greek summer drew to a close, the school books are not ready to be distributed to pupils in September. And if what the school told our son this week is true, they won’t be until Christmas.

So, that means three months of lessons without text books then?
Alrighty. Cue a load of grinning kids. And an army of anxious adults.

The good news is that the material IS available on a CD which the kids have been given to upload to their computers. But even if every Greek household had a PC (they don’t), the success of this Plan B depends largely on the ability and willingness of the teaching staff to use virtual teaching materials.

I, for one, have my doubts.

Much as I revere and admire the best of the teaching profession (and I really do, believe me), the truth is that it contains at least as many lumps of coal as it does diamonds. And in Greece, many are conditioned to resist change no matter what.

Two years ago, amid much glorious fanfare, it was announced that all children entering their first year of Lower High School would be given a notebook PC, which would be loaded up with the teaching materials for the three years to see them through to the start of Upper High School. My son was one of those to benefit from this Brave New World initiative.

Great! You might say (as indeed, did I). Now, that’s progress.

Only it wasn’t. Most teachers spurned the online teaching material and just carried on doing what they’d always done. I think the only lesson my son used the virtual textbook for was…. (wait for it)….. History. Everything else was taught from the book, in the old school fashion - including Technology.

In the end, a year of High School students were given a free PC on which to play online games and up-date their FaceBook status. OK, as a result they’re all much more Internet-savvy – an essential for whatever future awaits them, I suppose – but not much cop in terms of schoolwork.

The following year, the programme was discontinued and no more notebooks were issued to the nation’s 12 & 13-year-olds.

OK, so the credit crunch and the agonising bite of the crisis probably would have put paid to it anyway. BUT even the kids who got their free notebooks haven’t seen the educational benefit – cos most teachers simply didn’t put it into action...
...and now it’s just a matter of time before the strikes start.

Things are better in the paid education sector – hardly surprising, when there’s a profit to be made. In Greece, like it or not, every family pays for at least part of their kids’ education, even if they attend State school, for the frontistirio (evening school) is as much a part of Greek life as ouzo and the Acropolis.

This week, after-hours English lessons started with a vengeance, rapidly draining parents’ pockets of hard-earned dosh to pay annual registration fees, monthly tutorage and the cost of the hugely over-priced text books (75 Euros for two books? Are you kidding me? One is less than a quarter-inch thick and a state curriculum tome of the same size would cost a tenth of the price. Gee, don’t you just love a monopoly?).

We also have to cough up for music lessons, any extra-curricular sports the ManChild will dive into - and now he’s asking about Spanish lessons.

So, yes, school’s in. But don’t worry. The kids are alright.

It’s the parents I worry about.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Mid-Life Lessons: Acting your age

You know how it is.

You're in your 'Fabulous Forties' (that Samantha from 'Sex and the City' has a LOT to answer for!), full of vim and vigour, comfortable in your own (slightly saggy) skin and as sure of yourself as you're ever likely to get...
...and then your offspring will trample all over your ego with a reality check.

They don't necessarily mean to, but they do it nonetheless.

That "you're middle-aged, woman!" wake-up call can come in a variety of forms - anything from a "Did they have electricity in the olden days, Mum?" to the sight of the rapidly sharpening features and sprouting whiskers on what was once your baby boy's oh-so-sweet and chubby face.

You try to take it in your stride - but the truth is it hurts as much as being whacked around the chops with a prize trout, fresh from the freezer.

It takes your breath away and squeezes a barely audible whimper between your thinning (and to date un-Botoxed) lips as you fight the urge not to burst into floods of hormonal tears.

No-one else may hear it, but it echoes loudly as it clatters around your psyche over and over and over again. "Admit defeat and start acting your age."

Now, this is where I have a bit of a problem.
At 46 and three-quarters, I can no longer claim to be in my mid-40s, so I suppose I should at least START to think about acting appropriately for an old dear hurtling headlong towards the Big 5-0, shouldn't I?

Thing is, I don't really know what exactly constitutes that 'appropriate behaviour'.

Should I burn my lived-in jeans and invest in a range of sensible trouser-suits in muted neutrals as prescribed by my "Colour Me Beautiful" consultant at Debenhams?

Do I have to choose between a sensible but severe bob, or a weekly set at the local salon?

Should I grimace like I've just sucked a lemon and shake my head sadly at loud music while longing for the soporific snooze of middle-of-the-road muzak as wallpaper for my ears?

Must I start looking askance and muttering under my breath about "The Youth of Today!" every time I see someone with a nose stud or a neck tattoo?

Do I have to (sob) surrender my beloved bare feet to the sweaty security of a pair of fluffy mule slippers?

Should I stop laughing at dirty jokes and start tutting at things that don't fit neatly into the little compartments I have arranged my mind into?

Do I have to hand in my preferred sci-fi and thriller reading and reach for the more suitable and escapist pages of the 21st century answer to Mills & Boon - or simply give up on books and start studying knitting patterns in "Woman's Own"?

(Maybe I should just do a Charlie Sheen and run screaming and whooping into the sunset, instead?)

OK, so maybe that's what it takes.
But if I do any of those things - with the possible exception of the last - I suspect I shall simply blink out of existence.
Mandi, as we know her, will cease to be.
I will be an ex-Mandi.

Throughout every stage of my life - from carefree childhood, through early adulthood, to responsible grown-up who-really-should-know-better-by-now - I have basically been the same. A little loud, a little quirky, tinged with a touch of 'bolshy', a little too exuberant for my own good at times, occasionally dancing to a totally different tune to everyone else. It's as if I've coloured myself in, in a hurry, without worrying too much about going over the lines, though the end result is reasonably pleasing (if you like that sort of thing) - in a kind of Jackson Pollockesque fashion.

So how, pray tell me, am I expected to change all that and suddenly 'act my age'?

It could be worse, I s'pose. I could throw myself into mid-life denial and try every trick in the book (and make a truckload of sacrifices my Inner Hedonist simply won't allow) to pull, cut, freeze, nip, paralyse, trim and sandblast evidence of the years away?

But I don't think so.
Sounds like WAY too much work for me - and, in its extreme, it smacks slightly of desperation.

So, you may ask, how do I plan to age gracefully?

Answer: I don't.

I'm planning on growing old thoroughly disgracefully.

I'm going to carry on wearing my scruffy old jeans (and not just inside the house).
I'm gonna keep my hair short, red and spiky (when the Gods of gel are on my side).
I'm going keep on reading books with rude words in them.

I'm gonna carry on singing VERY LOUDLY in the car, with the windows wound all the way down. Even when I have to stop at traffic lights.

I'm going keep on arguing loudly when someone offends my sense of right and wrong.

I may even continue to screech like a demented she-gorilla on speed at rock concerts - especially when it's the fruit of my own loins is up there on stage looking all moody and giving it his all on his white guitar.

I may even give him a big sweaty kiss when he comes off stage to show how proud I am of him.

After all, if there's an up-side to the march of the years, it's the fact that I've now earned the right to embarrass my teenager in public, haven't I?

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Write! said Fred

It's been way, way too long.

This summer, I gave myself permission for a small hiatus from blogging, but it ended up as an extended period of stagnation fueled by sweaty weather, general stress and strain, the joys of living as a multi-generational family in a smallish summer house (with just one TV - shock! horror!) and simply not enough hours in the day.

But you'll be pleased to hear (won't you?) that I'm about to kick-start myself back into action once and for all.

That resolution to climb back on the blogging wagon has made me stop and think why exactly I do it.
Is it vanity?
Is it therapy?
Is it delusion?

The truth probably lies slap in the middle of all three. But it's also something else. For me - even before the Internet was a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee's brain cells - writing always served a similar purpose to dreaming: a safety valve for my hopes and fears, and a way to empty out all the dross that gathers in my sub-conscious every day and try to make sense of it all.
And for a life-long on-and-off insomniac that can only be a good thing.

Whenever I have found myself facing a dilemma, standing helplessly in front of a tough decision, or utterly bewildered by the maelstrom of thoughts doing the fandango round my head, I turned to words.

Words were my friends, they helped me order those rampant thoughts and finally reach some kind of conclusion about what I want. They even helped me say a proper goodbye to my father, even though the 'plane I jumped on when I heard he'd collapsed didn't get me to his bedside in time to say it in person.

And when I've been unable to say out loud what I really feel in the midst of a blazing row, putting it down on paper, handing it over and then disappearing for an hour's walk usually does the job.

Blogging is just an extension of the same.
Yes, I want to be read, commented on, admired and adulated (hey, who doesn't?), but more than anything, it's a way of sharing myself with people, airing my cobwebby grey matter, and occasionally sourcing the wisdom of the (admittedly small) crowd of people who might read it.

Of course, not all those who read what I write are anonymous. Some of them are my nearest and dearest and - if I'm honest - that does sometimes inhibit me in what I write about. So there are some things I never have blogged about - and probably never will. But that's OK, isn't it?

I mostly blog to share my world with people I've never met, but wish I had or will some day.

Someone once said Twitter can make you love those you've never met - and it's true.
I've connected with some real diamonds out their in the good old Interwebby thing - some of whom I now truly consider my cyber soul sistahs (and bruvvers, of course, it just lacks the same pleasing alliteration).

I think I have built up a small but friendly group of readers and I hope I haven't alienated them with my recent radio silence.

The problem is that unlike your classic tortured artist toiling away in a garret, stress and emotional turmoil does not oil the cogs of my creative process. Oh no, it chucks a whole sackful of spanners into it.

This summer has been a tough one. Despite our best efforts and economy drives, money worries persist and anxiety about the future never goes away, no matter how brightly the sun sparkles on the Mediterranean waves.

We're trying to bring a little of the good old English "Stay calm and keep going" phlegm to the Greek reality we live in, but it takes a lot of effort - and sometimes that effort steals from my blogging reserves.

So, dear readers, I hope you'll forgive me.
But now that the school year is underway, I know that I 'must do better' and that's just what I plan to do.

Just watch this space...