Friday, 24 February 2012

Dear So and So: The optimist’s edition

Dear weather,

Thank you for the glorious sunshine and clear blue skies that greeted me this morning. It was a timely reminder of why I fell in love with Greece more than 20 years ago. After a cold, wet winter full of grey clouds and gloomy forecasts on every front, a sparkling new day was just what I needed to reboot my Inner Optimist.

Now, if you can just nudge the mercury up towards the 20 degrees C that is considered spring-like here, we would be ever so grateful. So too would our bank balances, already straining under the weight of extra taxes, less income and heating bills.

All the best,
The daft-looking British bird grinning inanely at the sky from her balcony.

Dear daffodils,

Come on, you little darlings. I can see you poking your first swords of green through the dark soil in my window boxes. I planted your bulbs in good time this year (thanks to advice from my mum and the man at the garden centre), you’ve had a good dowsing of rain over the past few weeks, and the sun is now making its appearance more and more as we head towards March and the official end of the winter.

I’m a simple soul, and it doesn’t take much to make me smile. I can’t wait to see you burst into bloom and nod your yellow trumpets in the spring breeze. That’s why I come out to inspect you and stroke your green shoots ever so gently every day. 

And if there are any of your tulip friends lurking in the ground, give 'em a gentle nudge too, willya?

With promises to talk to you,
The Reluctant Gardener.

Dear People of Greece,

I know things are tough. Really tough. And for once, I’m not rolling my eyes at cries of ‘everyone’s against us’.
things can get better – we just have to believe it, and (importantly) do whatever we can to foster hope and faith in this wonderful country and its brilliant people.

Already, there is a growing groundswell of Greeks and non-Greeks living here, Greeks abroad and people with no connection whatsoever with the country, coming together to send a positive message and to try to kick-start a new ‘can do’ attitude.

The Ginetai workshop - - is one of the places where people who want to imagine a better tomorrow can come together as a community. ‘Ginetai’ is Greek for ‘do-able’ and that is the central tenet of the project – by imagining a dynamic future, Greece can emerge from the current quagmire. There are many other groups joining in the conversation and most of them have something interesting, engaging and optimistic to offer, but 'Ginetai' is a terrific starting point.

By the way, don't forget that there's an army of non-Greeks standing with you. We may not share your Hellenic DNA, but we’ve been bitten by the Greek bug, fallen in love with the country and its people, and want to play a part in a brighter tomorrow. 
We are NOT about to leave, despite inaccurate and alarmist reports in certain sections of the British press of evacuation plans being drawn up to empty Athens of people like me.

Every crisis is an opportunity. Now is the time to place our faith in people like us, not the rabble of 300 rich kids squabbling in Parliament. Now is the time to raise our gaze from the grubby pavement and look up at the glorious Attika sky.

Here’s to the future,
Your friendly neighbourhood Anglida.

Dear Politicians of Greece,

Get your fingers out, for pity's sake. 
OK, we know you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. But believe me, the hard place where most ordinary folk are living is much less hospitable than yours.

Along with the wage and service cuts and tax hikes, how about doing something to encourage growth? You know Greeks are born entrepreneurs, so how about doing something about the multiple hoops they have to jump through and obstacles to be overcome to start a new enterprise?

Whether it’s a local greengrocer having to wait 10 months for a license to sell fresh eggs or the unimaginable administrative acrobatics (reportedly including health checks and demands for stool samples!) just to set up an online business selling Greek olive oil products, the obstacles to enterprise are ridiculous.

Is it any wonder that some have sought to get around them? Or perhaps that’s the whole point? Perhaps you and your kind set things up that way to encourage the passing of suitably-filled envelopes under the table to ‘friendly’ officials?

And whilst I have your attention, why not consider taking a cut in MPs’ salaries and perks? If you cut them by 22% the minimum wage has been slashed by, you’ll all still be much, much better off than the vast majority of the people you claim to ‘serve’.

If you do, they might (and I stress ‘might’) be persuaded to trust you again.

But I wouldn’t count on it.

Annoyed but unbeaten.

Dear British Museum,

Don’t you think now would be a really good time to give back what Lord Elgin ripped from the Acropolis all those years ago? We’ve got just the place for them, and we promise not to damage the marbles with over-vigorous cleaning techniques.

Alternatively, maybe Greece should present you with a back-dated bill for their rental all these years?

Thank you,
Just your average culture vulture.

Dear friends & family,

You are all wonderful and I love you like mad. That is all.

Hugs and kisses,

Dear So and So...

Friday, 17 February 2012

I got those Greek Vegetarian Blues

Do you remember the scene from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” where Nia Vardalos’ character gives her Aunt Toula a heads-up ahead of a family gathering that her WASP fiancĂ© is a vegetarian, and her response (after a shocked “What? He don’t eat no meat?!”) was “No problem, I make lamb”

Well, that – and several other scenes form the movie - could have been lifted straight from the pages of my life.

Although Greece’s wonderful fresh fruit and veg, and much of its celebrated cuisine, should make it a paradise for those who have sworn off meat (even rather lax semi-veggies like me who still eat fish and seafood), they are generally regarded as incomprehensible oddities.

Upon learning of my dietary 'eccentricity', most Greeks take a less than discreet appraising look at my solid Anglo-Saxon frame and sturdy thunder thighs, before telling me that a vegetarian lifestyle is less likely to help me lose weight than a daily diet of grilled meat and salad (yes, I know I'm fat but that's not why I don't eat meat). Others blanch at the thought and issue dire warnings of anaemia due to lack of animal protein (I've given up assuring them that I have never needed to take iron supplements - even when pregnant).

Many a Greek hostess has rolled her eyes and groaned “Ach! What am I going feed you?” despite my assurances that the average dinner table here usually groans under the weight of enough side dishes and salads to keep an entire army of vegetarians (or even li’l ole me) going for a week. They turn a deaf ear to my pleas not to worry and proudly present me with a specially-prepared dish. Trouble is, more often than not, it contains ham or chicken which doesn't really qualify as ‘meat’ in the Greek mindset. Cue clumsy attempts by Yours Truly to hide the fleshy bits under a stray lettuce leaf or discarded slice of bread, for fear of upsetting the chef’s good intentions (and believe me, they DO mean well).

Yesterday was one of the loneliest days of the Greek calendar for your average veggy.

‘Tsiknopemti’ (roughly translated as “Barbecue Thursday”) is Greece’s fuller-blooded answer to the UK’s Pancake Day or Shrove Tuesday. It comes ten days before the start of the Lenten Fast when observant Greeks escew not only meat, but also fish, eggs and dairy produce (but oddly enough, not shellfish or taramosalata made from fish roe). Ahead of 40 days of abstinence, the entire country fires up its grills and the evening air is filled with the scent of grilling steaks, pork or lamb chops and – for wimps and weight-watchers – the odd chicken breast or kebab. 

It’s definitely not a day for nut roasts or chickpea cutlets.

Even this year, in the midst of some of the toughest times many in the country have ever experienced, the ‘Tsiknopemti’ tradition was honoured. Traders at Athens’ central meat market gave away kilos of free grilled morsels of their wares, and housewives scoured the shops for the best cuts to slap on the grill to feed their protein-hungry families without crippling their budget.

Salads and side-dishes take a back seat on 'Tsiknopemti'. The most the lonely veggy can expect is a portion of chips to nibble on while their companions gnaw away at their steaks and suck the last tasty remnants of meaty goodness from their lamb chop bones.

So, here comes the confession.

I fell off the fruit and veg wagon.

Egged on by my carnivorous Ovver Arf and ManChild, I succumbed and had a chicken kebab to mark the day.

I wish I could say that every fibre of my being screamed in protest at the betrayal. That my teeth wouldn't chew the slightly charred flesh and my gullet refused entry to my stomach. But it didn’t. I ate it and it was OK. Just OK.

What it did was remind me that I really don’t miss meat that much.

So, if the Aunt Toulas of the world don’t mind, I think I’d rather stick to their luscious rice-filled dolmades, crispy fried courgette slices, bean stews and chickpea fritters with a serving of fresh wild greens drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil. 

Believe me, it’s no sacrifice.

Monday, 13 February 2012

The morning after the night before - Athens update: 13 February 2012

The sharp sting on my tongue, a reminder of last night's 'troubles', is the first thing to greet me as I emerge from  the bowels of the Athens Metro into Syntagma Square, in front of the country's Parliament, this morning.

Though an army of city workers is already out on the streets in face masks and high-visibility jackets clearing up the debris, the acrid remnants of tear gas and torched buildings still hang in the air. Commuters coming out of the station or heading for the bus stops clutch scarves, handkerchiefs or coat sleeves across their faces to prevent the stench of another night's anger and disappointment catching in their throats as they scurry across the square on their way to work.

A city worker hosing down debris in Syntagma Square
It's almost a dream-like scene - like a transplanted Lowrie painting - and most uncharacteristic of Greece. 

A damp mist is draped over everything as a man from the council hoses empty tear gas canisters, the apparent remains of Molotov cocktails and assorted rubble into neat piles dotted around the square. 

The place is strangely silent, an oddity in garrulous Greece, and people are going about their business (at least those still with some) with their eyes cast downwards and a look of grim resignation on their faces. 
Arsonists targeted several buildings, including the central Post Office

The weather is uncharacteristically sombre for country known best for its sunshine and good times, at least to foreigners who have enjoyed their two weeks  of holiday here. The mood too is subdued as folk try to carry on in the face of ever-increasing hardship and the sense of betrayal by the politicians they have honoured with their votes over the years. There's a sense too that ordinary Greeks are being punished for the sins of an elite group in charge, who will be the last to feel of vicious pinch of austerity already biting deep into most lives.

The Greeks are a proud people. Proud of their legacy of culture to the world. Proud of their unique character and beautiful country. Proud of the resilience of their national character that has seen them through occupation and starvation during the Second World War, followed by civil war and a military dictatorship. They've been through a lot, and it looks like they've got a lot more to get through.

It's unlikely to that they will get through this latest 'punishment' with their dreams of a better life for their children intact. Right now, the most the majority aspire to is simply getting through this crisis with their heads just above water...

It's an scary and uncertain time for most Greeks.
Most are making superhuman efforts to 'carry on'.

The latest addition to Sytagma's graffitti collection.
Clearing the mess from the long night before.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The one where I embarrass my teenager

Let’s turn the clock back 15 years, shall we?

Things were a little different back then. We didn’t have a mobile phone to our name, and getting online was still a matter of a clunky dial-up connection, then counting the minutes for fear of running up a monster bill.

The Greek economy looked rather different back then. The country was on the rise, and we were enjoying the benefits that came with catching up with the rest of Europe, whilst still being cheap enough to be competitive.

I was a mere spring chicken of just 32, but I felt anything but sprightly. I felt….   HUGE!

I was nine months pregnant, and ready to pop. I’d enjoyed a largely trouble-free pregnancy, apart from constant heartburn since the moment of conception and my bump denying me the pleasure of sleeping on my tum. I had just stopped work in preparation for the Big Day, and was now bored out of my skull. I was definitely at the “OK, let’s get this kid out now” stage.

Two days before, I’d had a check-up and was told that if something hadn’t happened by 10 February, I’d be checking in to get the process started with a little help from the hospital. I felt a little more relaxed. One way or another, the end was in sight and I would soon come face-to-face with the little person who’d been listening to my bump-mumblings and kicking me in the bladder for the past few months.

It was Friday night, and we’d decided to chill out with a movie and something to eat. Little did I know that “The Fly” (good choice of pre-labour entertainment, eh?) and veggy lasagna would come just a few hours before my son decided to make his debut.

When the time came, all went well – apart from Hubby mistaking my “My waters have broken!” for news that the washing machine had flooded the bathroom again (that’s another story). Once the contraction pains kicked in, they came fast and furious, and Kiddo entered the world at the ungodly hour of 5.15 in the morning, just three hours after punching a hole in his amniotic sac.

My first thought – happily unaddled as I’d managed to come through the experience without any drugs – as I looked at the blood-streaked alien the midwife was triumphantly holding by his ankles was “How did we manage to make such a good-looking kid?”

HIS first action was to pee in a spectacular golden arc onto my wonderful midwife and the nurse assisting her.

Fast forward now to 2012…

Things have certainly changed. In some ways, they are a lot worse and a lot less certain. But in one very important way, they are much better – thanks to that little person I came face-to-face with very early one morning of February '97.

I am no longer mother to a scarily dependent new-born. Instead, I'm the proud parent of a young man who squares up to my 1.78 metres and looks me straight in the eye, before cracking a joke and reaching for his guitar.

Over the years in between then and now, I could match maternal moans blow-for-blow with other mums. But the truth is, he’s a great kid who’s given us very little heartache so far and has shown amazing maturity about some of the problems we have faced.

He’s not a star pupil, but he’s pretty good. He’s not the most diligent of swots, and needs to be told to make his bed or tidy his room. But amazingly, although he occasionally issues me with warnings not to embarrass him (I know, what a spoilsport!), he still seems to like spending some of his time with us.

Tomorrow, that beautiful bald bundle of joy that came rushing into the world turns 15. He’s got the bum-fluff, a girlfriend and some teenage boy habits better left unexamined to show for it.

He’s almost a man, and I couldn’t love him more.

But perhaps more surprising is the fact that I LIKE him enormously too. 
Just how lucky does that make me?

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Time to banish the blues

January's always a bit of a bummer, isn’t it? 
If you don’t believe me, just take a look at Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere over the past month. A veritable whine-fest of moaning, groaning and self-pity. Wintry weather, rheumy eyes, snuffly noses, the post-Christmas scar left on bank accounts, broken resolutions and general gloom dominate.

I’m as guilty as the next cyber Moaning Minny, having littered updates with complaints about the cold, money worries, loss of Mojo and general bleurgh. Though I promised myself I'd ease up on the blogging misery, half of January’s meager offering were my ‘snapshots of fear and uncertainty’ here in Greece. I don’t regret those posts, I wanted to try to give a portrait of what some of worst-off are going through - but I really do have to ease up on the downbeat stuff.

So, though February is arguably little better than January, I've decided to re-awaken my Inner Pollyana.

I’m not going to commit a classic Cosmo blunder and suggest you can bake your way out of depression (more likely to bake your way into a new and previously unexplored dress size, especially if you’re battling the charming weight gain side-effect of many anti-depressants). Sadly, depression is not such an easy beast to tame.

My visits from the ‘black dog’ are usually short-lived and rarely severe, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be a moody cow at times. I proudly claim my right to give in to it now and again. Just ask the Ovver Arf – he’ll vouch for the fact that I let the old boot out to play now and again (considering he can be the King of Moody Buggers, I make no apologies).

But now that February is here, I’m gonna make an effort to be annoyingly up-beat (if nothing else, it’s fun to annoy the misery-bugs it worms out of the woodwork).

There are many things that can help banish the perfectly normal blues that we are all subject to as a result of shifting circumstances, chaotic hormones and ballsed-up biorhythms. Self-medication – whether carbs, cigarettes or a nice glass of Shiraz - can help, at least until you next check your bank statement or step on the bathroom scalesBelow are a few of my own fail-safe ways to kick my inner moody cow back into her stable:

Chopping vegetables: 
The repetitive action has a strangely soothing effect on me ('Waddya mean, I’m a nuthouse? At least I don’t claim to ENJOY ironing!'). The saintly feeling that chopping veg for a nutritious family meal adds a smug note of super-healthy, local-economy friendly and environmentally-sound piety that makes me feels all empowered and Domestic Goddessy.

Making bread: 
More DG smugness, with the added bonus of having an outlet for all my frustrations during the kneading (some loaves looked in need of a visit to the local Casualty Department before hitting the hot oven).

Reality TV: 
When it’s bad, it’s great. Participants in Greek reality shows seem to have missed the point and are all at great pains to show just how 'nice' they are. All the bloody time. 
On the local version of “Come Dine With Me”, they all claim immediate chemistry and deep affection for one another from the very first time they sit down to eat, even though they look as at ease as a gaggle of middle-aged women in the gynaecologist’s waiting room office about to abandon their dignity for their over-due smear tests.
There’s always a good smattering of know-alls revealing themselves as utter imbeciles through their moronic proclamations. That gives grist for the mill of my acerbic side, prompting a running commentary of vitriol and bitchery that even gets the Ovver Arf giggling as he bashes away at he laptop.

Music, played inappropriately loud for a women in her late 40s: 
No need to explain this one. We’ve all startled innocent pedestrians by belting it out with Aretha as we pull up to the traffic lights, haven’t we? I once made a cyclist in skintight lycra shorts fall off his state-of-the-art bike. Yummy mummies (God! I hate that phrase) tend to glare disapprovingly at me, but little old ladies grin and give me a "You go girl!" wink (and no, I don't think their hearing aids have anything to do with that).

Cruising for comedy: 
As a Brit in Greece, I’m rather starved of British humour (believe me, outside of our Green and Pleasant Land, most folk just don’t get it). Quality stand-up is particularly missed. So surfing the funnies on YouTube can do wonders for my mood at the end of a rather ‘meh’ day.

My cyber-buddies: 
When times get tough, I have received as massive boost from people I’ve never met (and in all likelihood never will). We live worlds away from each other, and yet the wonder that is the web has created a wonderful cyber sisterhood (OK boys, brotherhood too) that can give me a lift on the bleakest of days. Their very anonymity frees me to say things I might never confide to my nearest and dearest for fear of consequences, hurting feelings or provoking anger. Just having that sounding board is a huge release when you just have to vent, and sometimes it bounces back with advice, support and – occasionally - real wisdom.

Life’s simple pleasures: 
Despite having more than his own share of demons to fight, dear old Ian Dury knew what he was talking about when he penned “Reason to be cheerful: Part 3”. Here’s my rather poor version, which appeared on my blog a few millennia ago:

    Freshly brewed Darjeeling,
    tanning without peeling,
    finding you appealing
    to touch.

    Spending pocket money, 

    hot crumpets with honey,
    feeling rather funny,
    and toast.

    Singing in the shower,
    turning up the power,
    the smell of a fresh flower
    in March. 

    Acting rather silly,
    gilding up the lily,
    laughing willy-nilly
    at jokes

    A bunch of yellow tulips, 
    a dash of mint julep,
    thinking about your lips
    to kiss.

Not exactly art, I know. But if nothing else, all the above - and many more - are great incentives to get out of bed and face the world every day. I hope that my sister and Ffynella The Fragrant (she know who she is) will share some of their reasons too, as they both have a talent for verse that I lack.

So, what do YOU do to banish the blues when miseryguts threatens to take over?