Thursday, 26 January 2012

Snapshots of fear and uncertainty: 21st Century gargoyles

There is an air of the medieval lurking in some corners of the Greek capital these days, and I’m not talking about flagons of mead, twanging lutes or court jesters (though we do have our share of fools, particularly in Parliament).

A strange triptych of modern misery and consumer mania greets commuters emerging from the bowels of the Metro into the daylight at Syntagma.

Heralds of the Age of Buy! Buy! Buy! stand at the head of the steps leading to the Square overlooked by the imposing Parliament building, waiting to thrust flyers from supermarkets and electronics chain stores into unwilling hands.

They are flanked, in almost perfect triangular symmetry, by the slumped figures of the desperate. Sitting on the steps, curled semi foetally into themselves, heads bowed with eyes staring unseeingly at the cold marble beneath them, they hold their arms up offering a plastic cup in supplication and hope of some loose change from passers by.

Their angular limbs and grimy hands are reminiscent of the grotesque figures that were carved into the walls of European cathedrals hundreds of years ago to ward off evil spirits or remind sinners of the torment that awaited them in the afterlife. But these 21st Century gargoyles bring no warning for the afterlife, just a reminder of the worst of the here and now.

They’re the ultimate in the disenfranchised.
Many, though not all, are illegal immigrants, who gave their all for a chance to escape extreme poverty or prosecution in their home countries. The grass would surely be greener, they were told by the traffickers, in Europe. Even in Greece. But while the grass may be green, their future looks black. Desperation has driven some to crime, drugs and debasement of all kinds. Others simply have given up and planted their bony bodies on the hard station steps, waiting for oblivion.

Discarded flyers litter the Square beyond them, punctuated by knots of protesters, the homeless roused from a night in a nearby doorway and the tide of working folk looking resolutely past it all as they rush to get to their job on time and try desperately to maintain their version of normality.

Meanwhile, in the Big House that looks down on the early morning scene, preparations are being made for yet another day of bluff and bluster by the privileged pontificators who created this new face of the country they laughingly claim to serve.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Snapshots of fear and uncertainty: Stefanos, supermarket trolley jockey

Standing in the metallic glare of the supermarket strip lighting, he stamps his feet to ward off the biting chill and buries his hands in the pockets off his heavy, hand-me-down jacket.

As he tries to shrink into his layers of mismatched clothes, he spots a familiar face coming out. He doesn’t know her name, but she knows his. Everyone who shops regularly at the store knows Stefanos – the friendly wreck of a man on trolley duty in the hope of a few spare coins.

He cracks a toothless smile and greets her “Good evening”, he slurs. “Hello Stefanos, how are you doing?” she replies, immediately feeling foolish for such an inane response. How is he? How does she think he is? It’s freezing cold and this poor man is standing outside the supermarket for more than 12 hours every day to preserve what scrap of dignity he can by helping shoppers with their trolleys in exchange for some spare change. At least it’s not begging.

She waves away his help but puts some coins into his raw cracked palm. “Don’t you have any gloves?” she says. “It’s freezing tonight”. Stefanos dismisses her worries and maintains his pride with the assertion that gloves bother him when he’s working. But his rheumy eyes thank her for still seeing a human being when she looks at him.

The trolleys he helps shoppers with these days are getting lighter. They carry much less meat and gourmet goodies and much more budget food like dried beans or lentils (what he wouldn’t do for a nice hot bowl of lentil soup right now – maybe they’ll have some left over at the supermarket deli when they shut up shop for the night?). The spare change too is getting lighter. People pity him and give what they can, but the austerity measures to get the country back into the international financial world’s good books are tightening purse strings to breaking point.

Most of the time, Stefanos just focuses on getting through each day… each hour… each minute.

He counts himself lucky to have a small room to return to when the day ends, to be tolerated and even protected by the supermarket staff, and that - most days - he manages to avoid a beating from the small group of neighbourhood bullies who love nothing more than to kick a man when he’s down.

But there are times when his thoughts stray to what went wrong. How did he end up here, at the age of 56 but looking more like 80 and feeling older than time itself, standing outside a supermarket in the hope of a little human kindness? Though he never expected riches, he had started out with hopes of a decent life. His parents worked hard to keep a roof over his head and that was all he wanted. But a combination of bad luck, booze and gambling debts started the downward spiral. He hasn’t seen his family for years, and whenever he thinks of them, his eyes well up with tears of shame, regret and loss.

It was his Name Day last month. Around Greece, his namesakes gathered in their homes to accept the wishes of his friends and family, and offered them a drink, a sweet, a coffee or even just a smile to mark the day. Not him. He spent St Stephen’s Day, like every other day, standing alone outside the supermarket waiting for shoppers in need of a helping hand with their groceries. 

Back home, no warm wishes or Name Day cake from loved ones awaited him – just a battered old book, a small stove on which to warm the food scavenged from the supermarket bins and a pile of worn blankets to wrap himself in.

But he can’t afford to dwell on such things. It takes all his energy to survive. There’s no state help for him and anything he gets from the supermarket is purely under the counter and written off as petty cash. His social security number failed to pack a punch long ago, and if he ever needs to go to hospital he will have to rely on the kindness of doctors willing to turn a blind eye to bureaucracy. Officially, he doesn’t exist.

All that matters, is getting through this day. And then the next.

So, he banishes self-pity, raises his gaze to the shoppers coming out of the store and offers a defeated “Hello, can I help you with your trolley?”

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Isn't it ironic?

Life has a truly warped sense of humour, doesn’t it?

If you don’t believe me, just consider some of these home truths…

  • Most kids hit the hormonal joys of adolescence just as Mum is dipping a reluctant toe into the menopausal maelstrom and Dad is wondering if a comb-over, a goatee or a convertible will be best for his Mid-Life Crisis (most dream of the car, settle for a goatee and eventually end up with the comb-over).
  • Brain cells die, but fat cells are immortal.
  • The phone ALWAYS rings when you can’t wait a moment longer for that important call, and you’re sat on the loo with your knickers round your ankles.
  • Time is a great healer, but it’s a lousy beautician.
  • Comfort food is precisely the type of nosh that will land us in a black pool of self-loathing later on.
  • There are still people that think that exposing as much flesh as possible on a sub-zero night out, and the resulting purple marbling of pasty white thighs, is the path to true love.
  • Just when you have all the answers, they stop asking the questions.
  • Wikileaks was hailed as a champion of free speech while the News of the World was (rightly) condemned for phone hacking.
  • Just as you start to appreciate your parents, you have to come to terms with the reality that they won’t always be there.
  • The people we most want to see at school reunions are the very ones we spent most of our High School years hiding from in the toilets.
  • At the precise moment that boys stop saying “Euw! Girls are yuck!” and trying to come across as the answer to every young lady’s dream, the testosterone fairy kicks in and gives them a face like a pepperoni pizza.
  • Red wine has proven health benefits, and is one of the most common triggers for migraines.
  • Alzheimer’s has no respect for intellect.
  • Availability is a turn-off.
  • Tights only love lithe teenage legs – precisely the ones that need them least. The rest of us have to deal with a crotches round our knees or waistbands you can tuck into your bra.

So, don’t tell me life doesn’t have a sense of humour. It’s just a twisted one which likes its laughs served up with a hefty swig of acid.

Blogging Re-Boot

It’s time for a kick-start.

It’s been two months to the day since I blogged anything here.
Two. Whole. Months.

In that time, I’ve become a year older, celebrated a fun but frugal Christmas with the people I love, and tried to get my head around the everyday challenge of being a grown-up.

You'd think that something from the past 60 days would have given me food for thought to share online - especially when I've been moved to words in the past by the likes of apostrophe abuse and the humble chickpea.

But no. Not a dicky bird.

That’s not what I had in mind when I started burbling away online. Though I doubted I’d be able to produce something every day like some of the more prolific folk out there, I thought I might make it on a weekly basis. Sometimes it dwindled to one or two a month, but never before had I simply dropped off the radar for two whole months.

Shame on me.

I could churn out a series of excuses ranging from general lack of inspiration, the dampening effect on whatever creativity I may have of the gloom surrounding the daily reality of many folk in Greece, pressure of work (the stuff I actually get paid for), or even the prospect of the menopause and all its joys kicking in now I’ve entered my 48
th year (flippin’ ‘eck, how did THAT happen?).

You’d have thought that the situation in Greece would give me plenty of material, but I've largely steered clear, 'cos (a) I hate blogs that go on and on about the woes of the world - they're boring and depressing after a while, and solve nothing, (b) there are already too many bloggers out there chatting about the crisis, and (c) I’m avoiding dwelling too much on it all, for the sake of my own sanity.

But excuses aside, the simple truth is that I have fallen into a rut, and I need to dig myself out of it pronto.

So, I’m setting myself the task of writing at least one post per week. And when I simply can't think of anything to burble about, I’ll dip into the pages of Fred White’s
“The Daily Writer” for a starting point.

I warn you, this may mean that I might start churning out a load of turgid rubbish, but if I do, please forgive me. It’s all for a good cause (I hope) – to try to get me back into the habit of posting regular blogs and back in synch with the groovy rhythm of the online community it connects me to.

So, please, bear with me. And stayed tuned...