Friday, 30 May 2014

The Kitty Letter Chronicles: Mew Blues

Dear Diary,

Sorry it’s been so long since my last update, but I’ve been at a bit of a low ebb.

Not my fault, you understand. It’s the pesky humans that have caused it. Don’t they know how important a stable routine is for a growing cat?

Just as I’ve gotten used to having them around to serve me, pet me, entertain me and all round worship my magnificence, they disappear! Not like an entertaining magic act (“Now you see, now you don’t. Ta da!”) , oh no. Just long periods of DanglyMan’s absence over the past six weeks thanks to some human foolishness they call “elections”. It’s almost as bad as that “work” thing that takes Big Red away from her true calling (Me, obviously) five days out of the week.

And if that wasn’t enough, now they’ve decided to start changing my environment, without even a by your leave!

My beloved scratching mats laid tenderly across the living room and Noisy Kid’s bedroom floors have just been whipped up, rolled up and hidden in the corner, leaving nothing but cold, hard, slippery white tiles beneath my delicate furred tootsies.

And instead of sympathising and helping me adjust, they have the nerve to laugh when one of my daily training sprints up the corridor ends in me colliding whiskers-first with the living room wall because they’ve robbed me of the grip I need to put the brakes on. And yet, they have some kind of problem when I try to use their backs or laps for my oh-so-necessary manicures.

What do they expect me to do? Bite my nails?

Then there's the invading army of bugs, flies and other flying things all seemingly hell-bent on driving me insane with their buzzing, bleeping and random circling beneath the light fittings. You can't ignore something like that, can you now? And take it from me, all that constant vigilance, waggling of head and haunches, crouching and pouncing only to have the little buggers zip through your claw-tips is - frankly - exhausting.

I can’t even enjoy a relaxing session, sitting on one of the human's laps to allow them to luxuriate in my gorgeousness these days – for some reason they won’t tolerate my climb up their legs now that they’ve exposed their pallid flesh to the elements.

Summer sucks.

No wonder I’m on a downer.

Now, just leave me alone in my misery, human. Go on, scram. I’ve got some serious sulking to do.

Joker (da Kat).

Thursday, 29 May 2014

High school summer blues

It’s that time of year again.

Throughout Greece, coats and winter woollies have been washed and stowed away in the back of the cupboard. Knees, hairy or smoothly exfoliated, have been unleashed on the world in a flap of Bermuda shorts. The warm night air is filled with the scent of jasmine and the sound of people eating on their balconies. Toddlers are taken out for late night romps around the local park to wear them out before being put to bed. The sensitively-skinned start scratching as the mosquitoes launch their attack. And the less heat-resistant among us are already eyeing the Air Conditioning remote control.

Late spring or early summer is, in many ways, the best time of year to be living here.

Unless you’re a High School student. Or the parent of one.

Around the country, barrels of midnight oil are being burned by teenagers in a masochistic fury of last minute revision for end-of-year exams.

You can tell which ones are the 18-year-olds taking the all-important Πανελλήνιες - nationwide exams (more or less equivalent to A levels in the UK) whose results determine whether the will win a place at their University of choice.

They’re the ones with a vague look of disbelieving horror and shell-shock dancing round their dark-ringed eyes as they contemplate what the future holds for them (especially the boys, who still have compulsory military service ahead of them). The ones who occasionally stop and stare into space like a rabbit caught in the headlights of a car for no apparent reason.  Who can be heard shouting out equations and ancient Greek couplets as they grab a few hours of fitful sleep.

And in this land of vicarious living of our offspring’s lives, the parents aren’t in much better shape.

Education is a very big deal in Greece. The Hellenic equivalent of the French Revolution’s “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” rallying cry during the reign of the military ‘junta’ was Ψωμί, Παιδεία, Ελεύθερια ("Bread, Education, Freedom"). Beyond having food on the table, education is prized above freedom – and that’s saying something in a country where refusing to be told what to do is something of a national pastime.  

Families sacrifice new cars, holidays and money in the kitty for the household bills to pay for extra lessons to supplement what is taught at the state schools. In most middle class homes, even in these desperately cash-strapped times, the thought of your little darling NOT going on to study at Uni, or at least a private college or vocational school, is virtually unthinkable.

Whilst it’s hardly surprising that about 84% of all Greeks aged between 15 and 19 are in full-time or part-time education (this IS Europe, after all), the figures for 20-29 year-olds is perhaps rather more telling. According to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development) report “Education at a Glance: 2012”, a little over 40% of all Greeks in their twenties are in full- or part-time education. That’s way above the OECD average of about 27%, the USA (approximately 26%) and the United Kingdom with around 18%.

About 15% of all Greeks hold a University degree – and that includes the toothless black-clad grannies you took snaps of in that quaint Cretan village you visited on holiday last year.

There’s an enormous burden on 18-year-olds to do well in exams and win a coveted place in one of the country’s Universities – even if they don’t know what to do with the degree once they get it. But only one in four get in. The others usually end up attending private, post-secondary educational institutions that are not recognised by the Government.

But….  a degree, is a degree, is a degree. Or so I’m told.

I know people with degrees in Agricultural Science keeping the accounts for small family firms, Computer Programming graduates trying to make ends meet with dubious pyramid selling schemes and Psychology majors working on supermarket check-outs. Greece 2014 is a little like a skewed version of Hollywood - instead of every waitress or bus boy being a starlet waiting to be discovered, here they’re highly qualified graduates waiting for the chance to put their hard-earned knowledge to good use as they clean out the cappuccino magazine or bring you’re your iced tea.

Yesterday, on the first day of the Πανελλήνιες, an 18-year-old in northern Greece left the family home to sit the first of this year’s exams. Just like thousands of others young men and women around the country. Unlike most of them, he never reached the examination hall. Instead, he went to the sixth floor of the building next to his school – and threw himself off.

(Just writing that makes me go cold, despite the fact that it’s nearly 30 degrees C outside.)

Presumably, the pressure of the exams was not the only thing he and his family were facing. Who knows what other demons he was fighting? But it seems that the prospect of the exams and an uncertain future were the cherry on the cake that the poor lad just couldn’t swallow.

It’s a chilling reminder to us all that no matter how important education is – and believe me, it IS - life itself is more precious than any exam result or first class degree.

And perhaps it’s also a wake-up call for all us parents, telling us to listen to our kids instead of expecting them to live the dreams we had but never made reality?

Saturday, 24 May 2014

“Better the devil you know”

An anguished cry rang out from the bedroom at the end of the hall. Brusque, sensibly-heeled footsteps echoed against the uncarpeted tiles as their owner scurried her way back to the kitchen.

Like a submarine coming to the surface, Gogo burst through the doorway and shrugged her way past her son to the sink. Pausing only to throw an arsenic- and accusation-laced look at her daughter-in-law, she filled a glass with water and swiped the bottle of olive oil from the worktop. Turning on her oh-so-respectable heels, she beat her speedy retreat.

Claire cast a meaningful glance at her husband. He refused to meet her eye and went back to meticulously carving the meat.

She sidled up against him and nudged him with her hip. “We’re in for it now,” she whispered. “Or rather, I am.”

Yiannis bent studiously over a troublesome bit of gristle and tried to wrestle it from the joint. He shot a look at his English wife and hissed: “Don’t start. And for God’s sake, don’t provoke her.”

Down the hall, moans of teenage protests could be heard over the soft staccato chanting of a generations-old ritual. Georgia stood obstinately barefoot in the middle of her room, rolling her eyes as her beloved but slightly batty grandmother dripped three drops oil into the water glass and studied them carefully, muttering maniacally under her breath all the while.

“A-pa-pa-pa!” she exclaimed. “Poly mati.”

Rising from the bed, she approached her wayward grandchild, making spitting motions as she continued her incantations and made the sign of the cross.

“Stop it, Yiayia,” said the exasperated teen. “You know I don’t believe in the Evil Eye.”

Gogo shot her a look that could have stopped a rogue bull elephant at forty paces, yawned theatrically and ordered her to walk around the room.

“You only say that because you’re young,” she snapped as the girl dutifully paced past her Twilight posters and piles of books.”You don’t know. Now stop talking back and drink.”

Georgia wrinkled her nose at the glass of oil-coated water thrust in her face, but dutifully took it and sipped. She pulled a grimace of disgust as the gold-green oil hit her taste buds, then gave her grandmother a hard stare.

“Still haven’t changed my mind,” she said, defiantly, and stomped out into the hall.

Gogo cast her eyes to the ceiling, yawned once more and crossed herself in the way her grandfather, the village priest, had taught her all those years ago. He wondered what she had done to deserve yet another test of her character, and her faith.

It wasn’t as if she was intolerant, after all. Did she have a problem that her son rejected all those nice girls from good families she tried to nudge in his direction? Did she object when he got mixed up with a “zeni”, a foreigner? Had she been anything less than a mother away from home to Claire? Did she even protest at her daughter-in-law’s obstinate refusal to adopt the religious ways she'd married into?

She sighed, crossed herself once more for good measure, and headed back to the dining room.

Claire was putting the salad on the table in that awful yellow bowl she liked so much (Gogo doubted the heavy crystal salatiera her mother had given her ever left the dark recesses of the cupboard in this house). The table was laid with placemats, cutlery and glasses – but no tablecloth. The bare wood of the dining table stared out from between the settings like a challenge. Gogo pursed her lips and looked around the room. Not a single crocheted doily in sight.

“Ela mama,” said Yianni with the forced cheeriness of someone who was trying to ignore the storm he knew was coming. “We’re about to serve up. Come, sit.”

Michalis senior and his 12-year-old namesake were dragged away from the TV where one had been trying to explain the intricacies of “Uncharted” to his grandfather. Deafened by years in ship enginerooms, the old mariner had missed the domestic drama unfolding as he waited for his share of the lamb and roast potatoes. But he didn’t miss his wife’s unmistakable frostiness as he slid into the chair next to her – after all, he’d been on the receiving end plenty of times.

No reply answered his enquiring glance, so he shrugged as tore himself a piece of bread from the loaf on the table and dipped it into the oily juices gathering at the bottom of the salad bowl.

Yiannis emerged triumphantly from the kitchen carrying a platter piled high with succulent meat. His wife followed, making less of an entrance with plate of roast vegetables.

Gogo caught the younger woman’s eye. “You know something, Claire?”

Across the table Georgia’s eyes grew to the size of dinner plates and she threw her arms out. “Yiayia! Don’t.” she pleaded.

Gogo ignored her. “I think it’s very important that when people choose to live somewhere, they adapt to the ways of that place. Don’t you think?”

Before her mother could swallow the potato she’d stolen from the dish at the end of the table and answer, her daughter leapt to her defence.

“If you MUST know, Yiayia, Mum was the one who told me NOT to give up Religious Studies at school!” she gushed, spots of crimson forming on her cheeks.
“It was DAD who said go ahead, if I thought it was best to concentrate on my other lessons!”

She flopped down into her seat and stared sullenly at her plate. Gogo put her hand to her chest, just below her pearls, and took a sharp intake of breath.

No-one moved. No-one said a word. Frozen by the fear yet fascinated by thought of what was to come, they waited.

Gogo raised her eyes and looked straight at Yiannis. She dabbed her lips on her napkin (a cheap no-name.paper one, she noted), then smiled – a little too brightly.

“You know, darling,” she chirruped, beaming at her only son. “Georgia’s right. She doesn’t need to take those classes on top of all that other work she has to do.”

This is the 3rd in a series about Georgia and her Yiayia Gogo. I posted the 1st - "The girl who said no" - on 17 April, and the next one ("Expectations")  on 30 April.
I hope we'll be hearing more from these two...   watch this space and watch out for anything posted with the label 'Two Georgias'.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Listen to your kids (it’s frightening how important it could be)

Middle England. Some time around the mid-1970s. 

A young girl, about ten years old, is excited. She’s started synchronised swimming and is loving it. But she’s younger and a lot less experienced than the other girls in the squad. She has a lot of catching up to do. She’s excited because the coach says she's got talent and with some hard work and extra coaching she will soon catch up.

All goes well at first. A few extra lessons in the pool and a series of exercises to strengthen her arms, legs and tummy muscles. Every week, her mum takes her to the coach’s house and has coffee with his wife while she is put through the motions. In the next room.

Until one evening, something changes. 

As she’s doing her sit-ups she notices she’s not the only one breathing heavily. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees he him semi-slumped in his seat with something fleshy and flaccid in his lap. His flies are open. Her pre-teen brain registers something’s not ‘right’ but this was the '70s, a time when ten-year-olds were still innocent and authority figures weren't questioned, just obeyed. She know what it must be – the bathroom door is never locked in a family of four with just one loo. But any accidentally-seen nudity is a simple matter of fact of family life. Just another body part on a family member, like an elbow or shoulder blade, and in an appropriate setting. Alarm bells are ringing at the back of her mind, telling her this is not the same, that something is very wrong.

He catches her eye and she realises that she’s stopped her stomach crunches and is staring. “Does this bother you?” he asks. “If it does, I’ll stop.” She nods mutely. Yes, it bothers her. True to his word, he packs up his tackle and the session is over. No harm done.

In the car on the way home, she tells her mother she’s changed her mind about synchro. She doesn’t want to do it, after all. Her Mum is puzzled and asks if she’s sure, but accepts it.

Decades pass. One day, the no-longer-young girl confides to her mother the reason for her sudden change of heart. Mum is shocked but relieved that her daughter felt she could say she wasn’t happy about something, even if she didn’t yet have the words or the experience to say why.

More years pass. One day, in the comfortable intimacy of the family kitchen, over a cup of tea, her mother hands her daughter a newspaper cutting. A local man has been convicted and imprisoned for child molestation. His name is familiar to them both. The two women engage a meaningful look, and hug. “Thanks for listening,” the younger one whispers through their tight embrace.

But they both can’t help wondering about those who hadn’t find the courage to speak up, or who were dismissed as "just being silly".

Friday, 16 May 2014

A very civilised revolt (or how an Army of the Ordinary might just change things)

There’s something not quite ‘right’ going on in a quiet, respectable northern suburb of Athens. As Sunday’s local elections draw closer, a group of people in Papagou-Holargos are refusing to play by the rules. They’re not toeing the line (not even the party one). They’re kicking against the expected and doing things their way - not the way it’s “always been done” simply because – well – that’s the way it’s always been done.

They’re an unlikely band of rebels: teachers, accountants, scout leaders, small businessmen, cyclists, lawyers, insurance salesmen, amateur photographers, bank workers, the occasional artiste thrown in for good measure, housewives, even well-behaved students who listen to their mum when she tells them not to wear that unironed shirt. They don’t want to get mixed up in politics – they want to lead a quiet life, not to rock the boat.

They’re certainly not the type you’d expect to challenge the status quo. Let’s face it, they ARE the status quo – or at least the foot soldiers of the system.

And that’s precisely why they stand a chance of changing things.

Their rivals are gleefully plastering anything that stands still (including poor old Uncle Mitsos who’s not as fast on his feet as he was back in his 1950s heyday) with posters bearing giant leering heads assuring you that they are the best man for the Mayor’s chair. They’re creating interesting new landscapes of leaflets stacked up like snowdrifts against every front door, fluttering gently on car windscreens and being kicked along the street by unseeing feet.

Their rivals are investing bucketloads of dosh to ensure their election with slick, polished brochures filled with images of perfect people sitting in perfect settings. They’ve invited paid stars to perform to a packed open air theatre and boost their headcount for their main speech. And the Photoshoppers’ fingers have been rubbed raw by all the work to make the candidates look like the perfect people in the pamphlets.

Meanwhile, down at ‘8 Proposals’ Central, it’s the assorted volunteered expertise of the candidates and their supporters that have produced their brochure which spells out each of the central proposals. And the musical support for their main speech came from talented, but unpaid, young bands from the neighbourhood.

The central image of their campaign is NOT their main man, but a rainbow of eight colours, each representing a way in which they plan to change things for the better.

They’re talking about their set of clearly defined policies they plan to put in action to make their everyday lives easier, and help everyone in the neighbourhood in the process.
They’re talking about Electronic Governance & Democracy to sidestep the tortuous bureaucracy for which Greece is notorious.
They’re talking about Studies backed up with real facts before starting any new projects, to make sure the plans won’t have to be torn up and work go back to the drawing board after half the funds have already gone.
They’re talking about Public Transport and viable mobility for residents.
They’re talking about Open Schools to support students, offer lifetime learning opportunities and make full use of school facilities.
They’re talking about Social Policy and Health to make sure that no resident, old or young, is left alone and helpless.
They’re talking about Local Development and Place Branding, so they can share with the world what they love most about their neighbourhood and invite them in to enjoy it with them.
They’re talking about supporting the Arts to add another dimension to lives that might otherwise be nothing beyond the work-home-work-home vicious circle.
And they’re talking about Sport for All.

They’ve even worked out where they’re going to get the money for all that.

No wonder their rivals aren’t happy.

“What a load of weirdoes!”, I hear you say. But that’s precisely why I’m on their side. They’re a ‘can do’ team, determined to overcome the pessimism of Greece’s harsh recent reality with the optimism of “Yes, we CAN do this!”. After all, it’s the crazy ones who believe in their vision and back it up with common sense and a solid plan that can make the difference.

Ever since I arrived in Greece a quarter of a century ago, I have been seeing things I didn’t like. Not the people, nor the place – they’re what brought me here and, more importantly, what made me stay. I’m talking about the way things are done – creaking systems that mean you have to take a full day off work to get up at the crack of dawn, stand in line for four hours, only to be told you’re in the wrong place and you need to go to the third floor where the Department head will ink his official stamp and grace your piece of paper with it, in order to come back down to stand in queue again for the scrap of paper you’ve been told you need to get something done.

Perhaps I was spoiled by my UK upbringing, but I couldn’t resist saying “This is nuts! Why don’t they do it THIS way?”. The answer was always  Τι να κάνουμε, κορίτσι μου?“ (Rough translation: “What can we do, my girl?”) with an unmistakably Mediterranean shrug and eyes raised to the ceiling. “This is Greece. That’s the way it is here.”

It made me want to bash my head against the wall in frustration (I still have the scar just above my left eyebrow to show for it).

That’s why the '8 Proposals' crew caught my attention. They’re everyday, low profile, just-want-to-get-on-with-our-lives, respectable people – neither rich nor poor – making a stand to challenge the “That’s just the way it is” stance that has led to stagnation, and worse, in most aspects of Greek public life.

They have no political party allegiance. In fact when one of the major parties approached offering to lend their support they were firmly, but politely, told “No thank you”.

They are not headed by a quasi-Messianic figure promising to lead them into the Promised Land. Instead, there’s the undoubtedly charismatic but far from God-like local newspaper editor – a man who knows the workings of the local administration inside and out. His picture is not photoshopped – unlike some of his rivals who appear (at least in their election literature) to have the perfect skin of untouched virgins who bathe every day in asses’ milk, despite their five decades or more of hard living. Haris Kouyioumtzopolous smokes like a chimney, could stand to lose 20 kg, often shouts too much and usually laughs too hard. But he’s real. And he knows his stuff. He’s flawed, and he knows it. But he cares about things – perhaps a little too much sometimes.

They have no dogma or manifesto. This Army of the Ordinary is not united by a common ideal drawn up by a Victorian with a starched collar and flowing locks 150 years ago, or by the cogs that drive the wheels of capitalism. They have all benefited in their own small way from the market economy, just as they have from some aspects of socialism. No party line, or ideological anthem, brings them together. Just the desire to make the place where they live better.

They’re selfish. They’re not standing for office because of their deep desire to serve the community, or their need to offer something, or because of their “deep seated passion for the place of their birth”. They’re doing it – quite simply – because they’re sick and tired of others making a pig’s ear of the ways things are done.

In England and in the States, we call this ‘grass roots politics’. Greece has no such tradition. Politics, local and national, is dominated by dogmas and dynasties, vested interests and promised or expected favours. And it has survived because people have let it. After all “This is Greece”.

But maybe, with the ‘8 Proposals for Papagou-Holargos’, the time might just have come for those grass roots to start sprouting here?

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Paper chase

We’re now well and truly in the final countdown for local elections here in Greece, and with every day that passes the mountain of pamphlets, posters, polling slips and more grows.

A thousand faces of wannabe Mayors stare at us from lampposts, walls, empty shop windows and the occasional grandpa who couldn’t move out the way of the overenthusiastic bill posters fast enough.

(Whoever said politics is showbiz for ugly people had a point. I wouldn’t mind my neighbourhood being wallpapered with life-sized shots of George Clooney, but sadly the main men - and they’re nearly all men - vying for that coveted seat in the local Town Hall are really not what you would usually want to slap on a poster.)

The local landscape is changing shape day by day as new hills and valleys are formed along the pavements by discarded leaflets, flapping forlornly in the breeze and dragged along the street by passing feet.

Every household is deluged with flyers and campaign leaflets.
At one end of the scale there’s the well-meaning but flimsy black and white sheet of the kind of paper your gran might have taken to the littlest room back in the days when soft toilet tissue was a rare luxury.
At the other end, there are polished, professionally produced brochures that wouldn’t look out of place on some of the world’s biggest Corporate Board Room tables, filled with aspirational photos drawn from the world’s best Image Banks (including a shot of what looks like a green meadow in Surrey that made me a tiny bit homesick, emblazoned across a double page spread talking about the local environment and – in particular – our own little section of a small but very Greek mountain).

As the pre-election race reaches fever pitch, anyone with a paper dust allergy would be best advised to hibernate until it’s all over.

But that’s the way elections have always been fought here. And all too many think it’s still the way it should be done, even in this age of online enlightenment, interaction and cute kitten videos on YouTube. 

I know that I’m never going to get my nearly octogenarian father-in-law to board the Twitter train, but…

...Oh well, one thing’s for sure. On Monday, when the polls have closed and the results are in (at least in areas where there’s a clear result without having to go to a second round) there’s going to be an awful lot of rubbish to clear up.

I’ll be interested to see how many are willing to help clean up the mess they’ve made.

I’d like to think that they all will. After all, every single player in the political paper chase keeps telling us just how important the environment is to them - don't they? 

Friday, 9 May 2014

Pre-election works: too much, too late, too bad

It’s May, and streets throughout Greece are filled with spring sunshine, the scent of flowers, the twitter of swifts arriving from Africa – and the dust and rumble of dozens of cement mixers and pneumatic drills.

For this is not just any old May, folks. It’s the weeks leading up to local elections. 

A time where traditionally, all the municipal work to lay new pavements, widen streets, install parking bays and more that has been ignored over the past three or four years are crammed into a pinhole-sized window of opportunity to impress and persuade the voters.

If you ask me, the PR honchos down at my local town hall need to be handed their cards and sent on their way. In most cases, so do the politicos they serve. And they all need a hefty dose of reality, hopefully delivered in the form of a strong message from the voters (or at least those who will make the effort to get up on a Sunday morning and haul themselves to the polling station in a couple of weeks’ time).

I have news for them: 

The people you want to stick an “X” next to your name are not idiots – or at least not all of them.

They realise that all this frantic activity immediately before the election is an illusion, like a beauty queen having a last minute manicure, Brazilian wax and touch-up to her dark roots the night before a pageant.   

They won’t forget how many times they’ve stumbled over that broken paving stone in the past two years; that time they got a lovely puncture after landing with a jolt in that pothole late one night; the fact that Great Auntie Soula can't take a walk to the corner shop because the poorly parked cars mounting the pavement like over-eager mongrels make a stroll in the sun with her cane a new form of extreme sport.

Dear Mr Mayor and your cronies, even if you DO persuade the public to forget all that, don’t go thinking that they look at all this municipal hyperactivity and smile in approval at your industriousness. 

The rattle, hum and inescapable drone of the road crews force us indoors, closing all the windows, right at the time when we should be flinging them open to let in the spring air. 
Finding a parking spot on the street less than five minutes’ walk form your home becomes a daily challenge. 
Local businesses bemoan the loss of trade. My hairdresser claims passing trade has dropped 80% since they started digging up the street in front of her salon a week ago – and I believe her, after having to use rock climbing skills I never knew I had to get to her for my monthly trim yesterday. 

So a word of friendly advice to the candidates out there (if any of them are willing to listen): splurging on public works a month before you ask for our vote is like a wayward child cleaning their room and doing the washing up, without being asked, right before asking their mum for an advance on their pocket money for the next year.

And as for the voters? Well, how about changing the habit of a lifetime and not awarding your X to the party your family’s always blindly followed, or that relative of a friend who you hope will then owe you a favour? 

Instead, consider giving it to someone who looks like they might just deliver on their pretty promises, throughout their time in office rather than just its final weeks. 

And if they get in, hold them to that promise.

Cereal killers (and other causes of mummy guilt)

A broken-voiced bass greets me as I rub the sleep out of my eyes and try to focus on the day ahead: “Mum, gimme money.”


“Cos there’s nothing to eat for breakfast in the house, and I’ll have to get something from the canteen at school.”

Cue cartoon double-take from middle-aged woman in a purple bath robe in the direction of the top of the fridge where there should be a selection of cereal boxes lined up like guards on parade. 
Where the hell have they gone? I only bought them last week.

There must be something in the hormones that kick in to sprout hairs, pimples and raging urges never spoken of when mother is around, that drives teenage boys to devour cereals like a flock of piranhas in a feeding frenzy when an unfortunate heifer falls into the river.

With just one teen mouth to feed, a Family Sized box of supermarket cereal will last 4-5 days, maybe a week if I manage to distract him with promises of morning fry-ups or slices of homemade cake. But if we happen to play host to one or more of his friends, as we seem to do most weekends, an entire box can disappear in a day – especially if a certain young dude who happily chomps through three or four bowls in the space of 24 hours period is in residence.

And let's be clear, folks. We're not talking muesli with a dash of almond milk (c'mon, get real, these are 17-year-olds here, not macrame-weaving yoga instructors), we're talking about full-on processed, chocolate-flavoured, sugar-crusted, E-number packed boxes of crunchiness. Not a goji berry in sight.

Unfortunately, my inner Domestic Goddess has been on a sabbatical lately, so there are no tempting bacon smells or slices of homemade goodness on offer. The past two weeks have delivered a particularly heavy dose of ‘women’s issues’, a three-day migraine, the constant clatter of public works being conducted ahead of local elections (pure coincidence of course!), an incident with a cat's claw and a contact lens, and all-round knackeredness - all of which has conspired to curb any over-enthusiasm on the ‘She does it all, folks!’ working mum front.

I am a bad mummy.

So, I fish out whatever spare coins I have from my bag and dutifully hand them over to my seemingly starving offspring. As I do so, I feel all the requisite pangs of guilt and inadequacy, just as society and women’s magazines have taught me. Looking at my hands, I feel even more hopeless – not only am I a Supermum failure, my manicure (ha!) is in a shocking state. Chipped metallic grey nails is not the look the fashion pages tell me I should be aiming for this season.

Trying to redeem myself, I grab a notepad and start making a list for the supermarket. Two items shout out in bold capitals – CEREAL (3 boxes) and WASHING CAPSULES – and get me thinking. 

Why is it that no matter how many boxes of cereal you buy, they're empty before you have the chance to look for the plastic toy?
Why is the dirty linen basket always full, regardless of how many washes you put on? 
And more to the point, how can I reverse that magic so the cereal is never-ending and the washing non-existent?

Or perhaps I should stop worrying and learn to love the cereal killers in my life?

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Politics: bringing out the worst verse

It’s election time in Greece again (oh, joy!) – and that means an explosion of bad poetry.

Let me explain. Or try to, as well as anyone who grew up and cut their political teeth in a country where politics and poetry had about as much in common as a McDonalds Happy Meal and foie gras with shaved black truffles.

Unlike in the UK, where most political party names pretty much describe what they’re about (or at least where they’ve come from), there’s a growing trend in Greece to get lyrical in a bid to woo the voters. Disenchantment with the old guard parties is almost certainly behind this but, seriously, do they REALLY think that slapping a pretty name on an old box of horse manure will make it stink any less?

This month will see voters trotting off to the polling booths for both local council and Euro-elections. And they will be faced with a list of party names that would look more at home on the contents page of an anthology of 19th century verse (and I’m talking about the worst kind of sentimental Victorian verse here) than on the list of candidates shouting “Pick me! Pick me!” when you head for that little curtained booth to make your choice.

We’re talking about the kind of names and awful imagery that would have even my inner pathetic poet squirming in her seat. Tell a lie, it would have her 15-year-old self (complete with literary pretensions and dreadful allegories) wincing in embarrassment.

For the Euro elections, Greek voters will get to choose candidates from 46 different parties. Take your pick from (among others): Society; the Equality, Pace & Friendship Party; National Dawn; The River; Golden Dawn;  Bridges Creation Again; Freedom; The Olive Tree; The Youth Party; Drachma; European Free Alliance-Rainbow; Plan B; Greek European Citizens; New Greece; and more….

Some of them sound lovely, don’t they? Even idyllic. Trouble is, most give no indication of what they’re actually all about.

If I didn’t know better, I’d  be lured by the glowing new tomorrow promised by the name ‘Golden Dawn’. Fortunately, I DO know that it is a far right wing, ultra-nationalist movement that stands for pretty much everything I abhor.

Likewise, you’d never guess from the rural imagery summoned up by the name 'The Olive Tree' that it’s actually a pseudonym of the old PASOK party, not so long ago the ruling party but now struggling with a measly 3-4% support from the most die-hard supporters.

And as for 'The River', I’m still trying to work out what they’re trying to tell us with that name, let alone what they’re actually all about…

Politics is a product and the rules of marketing apply to it just as they do to soap powder that washes your smalls “Whiter than white!” (whatever that means) or miracle creams that erase wrinkles and cellulite from middle-aged eyes and thighs (they don’t, believe me. I’ve checked). And just like the supermarket or the cosmetic counter, the political arena applies more than its fair share of alluring but ultimately cynical ploys to get us to buy their particular product. 

Claims of “NEW!” and ‘IMPROVED!!” versions of what we know from way back simply don’t cut it in these days of mass disillusionment and disappointment at the political mainstream’s failure to deliver in its promises and help ordinary people in tough times. So, the political hypesters and spin doctors have turned to their High School poetry books for inspiration.

I really wish they hadn’t.

I like a bit of good poetry. But even more, when I’m being asked to buy something, I really like to know that the product does what it says on the box. I don’t want a would-be politico vying for my X to woo me with lyrical images of sun-kissed daybreaks and bubbling streams. I want them to tell me what they stand for, what they propose and how they plan to deliver on their promises.

If your poetry’s really good - even better if it’s raw, real and in-your-face like the very best slam poetry performances - I will probably sit up and pay attention. But if I have to take a seminar to analyse “what is the poet trying to tell us?”, please don’t expect me to vote for you. 

Just remember what the American poet Robert Frost (himself a great one for waxing lyrical about nature) said:
"Poetry is about the grief.
Politics is about the grievance."