Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Can it really have been four years already since the last Olympic games is the question I find myself asking frequently these days. You'll forgive me if I come over all nostalgic. I'm like a woman remembering the first flushes of being in love and watch the Athens 2004 Olympic ceremony as if it were my wedding video, with tears in my eyes, remembering how I felt at each moment. I begin to wonder, where will my life be by the time of the next Olympics if it's changed beyond recognition since the last one? Will I be an aunt? Will I be a mother? What will I look like? What will I be doing?

Life is all connected by a chain of events. My parents were both top athletes in their youth and used to take part regularly in athletic competitions. As a result of this, they worshipped the Olympics and watched it with great enthusiasm. Because of their ritual of watching the Olympics, all four of their highly unathletic, totally disinterested in sports offspring also marked the Olympics as landmark occasions. It was the only athletic event I watched with such dedication and the only one I ever wanted to go to.

Therefore, it follows that my parents are to blame for their own subsequent horror when I upped and left to live in Athens. If they had not been sporty, they would not have watched the Olympics and neither would their children. I would have not cultivated a lifelong desire to go to the Olympics and I would never have come to Athens.

The moral of the story is that if you want to keep your children close by, be a couch potato.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Olymics 2008 trailer - Bronze medal

The last few weeks you may have noticed the official Beijing Olympics advert running on TV. It was at this stage four years ago that I was watching the Athens 2004 trailers on TV and feeling sad about not having been picked to volunteer. Of course that was only because they took their own sweet time to get around to telling me that actually I was through.

Anyway, the Athens 2004 campaign captured what the Olympics were all about. For those of you who didn't catch it, this is what was running on the BBC in the build up and during the 2004 olympics. Nice, huh? Dignified, simple and to the point.

Contrast it to this which is running for the Beijing Olympics. Guys, I don't know who came up with this idea and who actually put it through, but I absolutely HATE it. For one thing, it's a shameless copy of 300 and furthermore, it's just so dark and miserable. And it's STUPID! Flying girl? Aquatic woman? I mean, what? Was this really the best they could do? The first time I saw it I thought it was a commercial for an energy drink. Bad, bad, bad. Does not capture the Olympic spirit at all. Whoever made this, go home and say 30,000 Hail Mary's.

You might think I am being harsh because I didn't get through to be a volunteer this year. That's not particularly true. There was a time when I felt put out by it - after you've volunteered once you kind of expect it as your right. But not any more, not at all. My spies on the ground, friends from 2004 who made it into the 2008 games and are in Beijing tell me that security is so tight that the fun has been sucked out of the events and these are being called the No Fun games.

Plus, no matter how spectacular the Beijing opening ceremony may be (and I've heard it will be the best ever), they don't have what Athens had. And I'm not talking about Mr Zeus. No Olympic event could be how it was in Athens. I'm talking about the life, the fun, the joy and the electric buzz. You know when you hear people talking about an electric atmosphere? I didn't really know what that was till I came to Athens for the 2004 Olympics. The whole place literally buzzed. It felt like the ground itself was oozing energy because it was happy that the Olympics were back where they started.

You can throw all the money you want at it, but nothing can recreate that magic. That's something that no amount of money can buy. And quite obviously from the Olympics trailer, no amount of money can buy good taste either. Sheesh.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny

We went to Agistri this weekend, a small island about an hour by ferry from Pireaus. It was the first time I took to the water with gusto. Not a hint of fear or mental preparation, in fact while Mr Zeus was complaining about the asset shrinking properties of the water, I has already waded out neck deep. God bless the extra 1 or 2 kilos I put on since last summer. My butt cheeks act like flotation devices now. It's wonderful. Swiming is fun when you don't have to feel like a stick being dragged under the currents.

It made me think about how dizzyingly far I've come in the last four years. Four years ago I couldn't swim and was terrified of the sea. I also wouldn't hear of going in public in a bikini. When the issue of a summer by the sea came up, I said I had to go shopping to get a bathing suit.

Mr Zeus: "You mean a bikini."

Me: "Ha! In the next life maybe. There is no way I'm showing my body on the beach like that."

"But everyone wears a bikini here, even the haggy old ladies who you wish wouldn't wear them."

"So what. I have my values. I'm not wearing a bikini"

And so on and so forth, toing and froing until finally I agreed.

"Okay. I will buy a bikini."


"But only on the condition that there's no one else on the beach when I wear it."

"!!! Where am I supposed to find an empty beach in the summer just for you?"

"That's not my problem."

Anyway, Mr Zeus wouldn't tolerate my shenanigans and dragged me off to the beach where I soon realised how conceited it was of me to think that I would peel off my clothes and the whole beach would come to a standstill and point at me, "Bollybutton is wearing a bikini!!! For shame! For shame! Don't look, little Jimmy, her heathen skin will turn you to stone!" When I realised no one was watching my every move and also that without my glasses I couldn't see them even if they were, it didn't seem all that terrible.

Over four years the trousers have turned into capri pants and then to shorts. Shirts turned into T-shirts and then to vests. Gypsy skirts that brushed my ankles crept up and over my knees. One begrudgingly bought bikini turned into four.

And I learnt that it's not a sin to enjoy the sun and sea on your skin.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Road Tripping

I'm sitting here and typing with all the energy drained out of me. The reason is that this morning I had my first 1.5 hour driving lesson in Athens, in Athens traffic on a Monday morning, almost entirely in Greek.

The lesson itself wasn't all that bad. I just ran myself into the ground worrying about how the hell I was supposed to understand what to do in a Greek driving lesson. I went to bed with a migraine and woke up with my head pounding, terrified that the instructor would say left and, in my stressed state, I would go right and, well, you can fill in the gaps. You've all seen what Athens traffic is like. Let's just say I shave my legs every day only so that if the worst should happen the paramedics don't talk about my hairy legs in the ambulance.

But you know, it all turned out okay. I didn't stall once and the only time the instructor had to resort to English was when I kept hitting the gas on a turn while he was saying freno (brake). Finally he said, "Freno, brake re!"

Oh yeeeeaaaaaah, the lyric in Nikos Mixas's song goes Μα δεν πατάω το φρένο, not δεν πατάω το gas. By playing the song in my head, I didn't make that mistake again. We drove all the way out to Venillio, the kitchy clam-shaped nightclub where I'd partied till the break of dawn on Friday night.

I suppose I wasn't as terrible as I had predicted since the instructor turned up the radio and made a bunch of phone calls with me at the wheel, or rather on the wheel, stuck up against it as close as I could get as most anxious new drivers and little old ladies do. I noticed that people were significantly more tolerant of me in a car plastered with L plates than they were with me in a car with a N stuck on the back.

It was a whole other driving experience, especially the no rules roundabouts, not putting on the handbrake every time you stop the car and cross armed turning. I'm going to have to unlearn a few things I was taught in the UK. Actually I prefer the driving methods in Athens, it seems like I was being taught how to drive, not how to pass a test. Test driving in the UK is nothing like what people actually drive like.

I have two more morning sessions tomorrow and Wednesday, so I would advise you all to stay off the roads between 8.30 and 10 am. Now I am settled with a glass of red wine to try and soothe the stress headache that's been following me around all morning. Phew!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Foreign Territory

I was reading an article about life for Dubai's expat community after one of its members was arrested for public sex and it took me back to a conversation I had just before moving to Athens. I was having dinner and drinks with a friend who had spent six months working in Tokyo as an English teacher. "Let me give you a piece of advice for when you get to Athens," she said. I listened. "Whatever you do, avoid the expat community like the plague."

How interesting. Why exactly would one want to do that? Surely that's the first rule of moving to a new country? To seek out fellow country persons or at least people who speak English? "Trust me, it's a bad idea. You'll get stuck in this expat bubble, all they do is complain about the country they're posted in and not bother getting into the local culture because they know they'll leave again. And most importantly," she said, waving a fork in my direction "they are full of older men who live by the out of sight, out of mind policy and make a hobby out of cheating on their wives with young girls." Things got so dire for her on this front that she had to recruit a male friend to pose as her boyfriend.

I filed the advice away in the Moving to Athens part of my brain, not really thinking that life as a foreigner in Tokyo could be applied to Athens. The months passed, those lonely first months when I had few friends and those that I had were of the still-getting-to-know-you variety, and I was often very tempted to join in the expat community's events. But I resisted, and eventually the friends who did initially go to those events and then stopped told me exactly the same thing that my friend in London had, that the expat community generally looked down their noses at all things Greek, didn't bother learning the language since they'd be leaving in x amount of years anyway, and stuck within their own little bubble, rarely venturing beyond downtown Athens. The only people tended to know were other expats or self hating Greeks.

I have since had a few scattered run ins with expats at gatherings and events, and they left me exhausted. By and large I found them to have a what-can-you-do-for-me attitude, whereby they can't be bothered to get to know you because they like you, they will first try to guage how useful you might potentially be to them. They gush enthusiasm on meeting you but it was usually fake. There would always be that nudge nudge wink wink question "So... what do you think of Athens?" and they'd hiss "Really?" as if I'd said I like giving myself brazilian bikini waxes using nothing but tweezers when I'd say "I love my life here."

There's the "We simply have to meet up sometime" type who takes your number and never calls and the bored expat wife type who has made bitching about the place she lives her hobby. Her life revolves around tea parties with other bored expat housewives where they probably cry over the inavailability of baked beans or something.
I'm generalising here and I know it's mean to do so, but if you've met expats anywhere in the world, this will sound familiar. The Athens expats are so caught up in their little foreign downtown Athens bubble that ask one where in Glyfada they like to hang out and you'll see that most haven't even been that far out of the city centre.

The litmus test is that amongst the expats, I feel like a stranger, an oddity, looked down upon. I know that the moment Cassandra gets back to her all expenses paid apartment, she's only going to delete my number straight off her phone. When I go to the James Joyce pub, a nice place and expat watering hole, I usually feel like an apple in a crate of oranges.

I decided that yes indeed, if you want to get anything meaningful out of your life in Athens, or even just your time in Athens, expat groups are to be avoided. My foreign friends are people who like me came to make futures in Greece and used expat groups as a crutch until they established their own social circle, which is perfectly healthy. In the end it's up to each person to do whatever they think will ease their path into settling down, but sometimes the slower, harder option yields better results, nicer friends and a richer social life.

If you are an expat upset about what I wrote, I apologise. You're probably one of the nice expats I've never met anywhere, probably because you too were avoiding the other expats.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Nothings on a Monday

I have nothing in particular to talk about today so this is going to be one of those 'filler' posts. On Saturday I went to the laiki and it really helped me to get over my week in London. It was like therapy for the soul, all those beautiful and fragrant fruits and vegetables and gleaming fish.

We got home and I said to Mr Zeus that we are millionaires. Look, here are all our jewels - fat plums, shiny nectarines, juicy red grapes, fragrant green peppers and sweet melons - and here is our gold and silver - two beautiful ears of sweet yellow corn and glimmering sardines fresh from the sea.

You know what I could never understand in the UK? Why do they shrink-wrap corn cobs? It already comes in the most perfectly designed, biodegradable packing of its own.

Last night we went to the marina to watch a bartending competition. I like watching that sort of thing, you know, where they throw the bottles around and do tricks. It really impresses me that people can be that good at doing something. I don't know who won, we didn't stay long enough.

Also yesterday afternoon with no mood to do anything I was sprawled on the sofa watching a food programme on Mexico. Oh God, it was like food pornography. All that chilli and fresh coriander. And then they talked about Mexico's famous mole sauce, a sauce made of a host of delicious spices, chocolate and chilli. Chocolate. And chilli. Two of my favourite flavours at once. If I ever get to eat real mole, I might very well die of sensory overload, or at least faint like that woman who wore vibrating underwear to the supermarket. Mole is traditionally only supposed to be prepared by women. But of course! Who would better understand the pleasure-pain balance of chocolate and chilli than a woman?

Finally, I have bitten off more than I can chew and decided that instead of roaming around in the dark with my day job I should try to get a basic qualification that would help me understand the world of finance more. The home study kit arrived last week. I began unpacking and out came a calculator. Quelle horreur! Okay, it was pretty stupid of me to expect to get a financial qualification with no maths involved, but I am the worst person when it comes to numbers.

I dropped the box as if it were full of dead kittens. It's been sitting in a corner for a week and I know there's a time limit on this thing so I'll have to get started at some point.

If you're good at numbers, congratulations. We live in a world where intelligence and numeracy are very tightly linked. People will fawn over you if you can work out square roots without a calculator, but ain't no one going to be impressed if you can spell fancy words. Human calculator is a party trick. Human dictionary is not.


Wednesday, July 09, 2008

This Is How We Do It

You are looking at a picture of plates of henna decorated by my sisters with glitter and candles. This is what awaited me when I got to my parents' house last Friday and began my journey to respectability. In the Home Country, women from the groom's side bring candle lit plates of henna to the henna party as a gift. Five year old Bollybutton used to throw terrible tantrums if denied this honour, and the older girls would each scrape up a bit of henna from their plates and stick a birthday candle in the middle to shut me up.

The night before the wedding is traditionally the night of the henna party. In the Home Country, the bride to be dresses in traditional henna colours like yellow or green, sometimes pink with a bit of yellow. I wore a green outfit the same exact colour as powdered henna. For me the henna party is the most fun part because traditionally it's all women and girls. In such an atmosphere, women tend to let their hair down, dance, relax and sing songs and do henna for the bride. It's really nice.

Mine was a mixed henna party since I couldn't exactly kick Mr Zeus out and I wanted him to witness the ceremony. One by one, everyone comes up and places a little bit of henna paste onto a leaf or a banknote on the bride's hand. They each feed her something sweet and in the Home Country, small denomination bank notes are circled over the bride's head to remove the evil eye and placed in a pot. That money will later go to charity.

The henna and the sweets are to wish you a long and happy marriage. Also henna on a bride's hand serves as a nannycam for her parents. They say that the darker your henna is, the more your mother-in-law will love you. My Dad says this is because in a traditional set up, the bride would go to live with her husband in his home with his parents. A few days after the wedding the bride traditionally returns to visit her parent, and they could guage whether she was being put to work in the house or treated well by how quickly or slowly the henna on her hands faded.

After this ceremony comes all the singing and the dancing. Someone plays a little drum called a dholki and the rest clap to keep the rhythm (listen here for an example). We didn't sing a lot of songs because there were so few of us and unusually for the bride at a henna party I sang songs too. I love this part of the henna party because it usually ends with everyone collapsing with laughter as they try to remember the lyrics to songs that have been sung since anyone can be bothered to remember. My grandmother probably sang the same songs at henna parties when she was a girl.

Henna party songs tend to be fun, fiesty and a little bit risque, but that's characteristic of the part of the Home Country I'm from, we're famous for being the most musical and charismatic people. Here are some of the songs we sang, translated of course:

1. (In answer to Asia's obsession with fair skin)

Black, blackety black,
My sweetheart is dark so the whities can all get lost (we stopped after realising we were being racist towards my English brother-in-law)

2. (famous movie song that became inexlicably connected to henna parties, which you can watch here if you can bothered)

What business do you have in my courtyard?
Even those with a reputation are disgraced

If your wife's tall, you have a good reputation
Lean her against your house, what do you need a staircase for?

What business do you have in my courtyard? (chorus)
If your wife's fat, you have a good reputation
If your wife's fat, oh fatty, oh fatty fatty fatty
Lay her on the bed, what do you need a mattress for?

If your wife's black, you have a good reputation
Put her in your eyes, what do you need eyeliner for?

And so on and so on about the various shapes and sizes your wife could be and what they're useful for.

The henna will darken on your hands
The drum will play all night
When you leave with your beloved
Don't forget these days and nights

His land waits for you
He sings songs in your name
Here comes a procession of happiness
Bringing a shower of colours

They sound pretty lame in English. There are so many more, and the sad thing is I sing them all without knowing what half the words mean because they're in a dialect I can semi speak. It drives my father mad, but we only ever spoke it when we went to the village so it got rusty. There are happy songs and sad songs because back in the day when the girl got married and left, her family didn't know when they would see her again if she moved far away.

The next morning we both got dressed in our wedding finery and took lots of pictures and then waiting for the man who was doing the ceremony to arrive. It's quite nice and simple, really. As part of the deal in countries where my religion is the main one, both parties make marriage contracts which are signed at the ceremony.

At this stage, the bride can request a payment from the groom which then belongs entirely to her. I suppose it was a way of providing the bride with some financial security in case she needed it or got divorced, because she can keep that money if they get divorced. This money, or mahr can be whatever amount or form the bride requests it in. One Iranian bride asked for 124,000 roses as her mahr and took her husband to court to get it when he didn't deliver!

I was far more lenient and set my mahr at EUR 150, an amount so low that the guy doing the ceremony called me back into the room to make sure I had actually requested that much and whether I accepted Mr Zeus as my husband. I said "Yes" and went back into the next room.

In the ceremony the bride and groom are kept in separate rooms and the theory is that this was to protect the bride. During the ceremony, each party is asked three times whether they accept the marriage or not. Maybe due to cultural reasons the bride might feel shy to say she accepts the marriage while her husband is there. Also, she may be being coerced into a marriage she doesn't want. By being out of sight of the groom, she might feel a little bolder to say no to the marriage, and in the true form of my religion, not the Al Qaeda form, a marriage is void if the bride or the groom is being forced into it.

Anyway, ceremony over we were reunited and got a little talk about how we must be kind to each other and take care of each other. I was reminded to take care of my spirituality because heaven is under the feet of a mother and one day I might be a mother.

We took a break and changed our clothes into something more relaxed, then we went out and had dinner. And that was that! I have my cousins as witnesses and a scrappy piece of paper with both our names and the amount of mahr on it as proof, and now I can say "I'm a married woman, you can't tell me what to do!" to my critics.

Image: My own

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Land that Sense Forgot

I got a comment today asking me why I haven't posted in so many days and I am touched that someone noticed! I have been recovering from a nerve shattering trip to the UK. On Sunday at the airport I bought a book which I settled down to read on the flight to discover that I have not only already read this book, I already own it. So you can understand my frame of mind after a week of rain and grey in the UK. I need to take a week off with my head buried inside a giant watermelon.

On Sunday I sat in an Olympic airways flight stuck at the hell hole that is Heathrow, in pouring rain, one hour delayed, in 14C in July and waited for the golden moment the plane took off and took me away from my increasingly despised birthplace. When the captain gave a speech in Greek over the intercom about how hard they are trying to keep Olympic going despite fines and bans on chartering flights and thanked us for helping their fight by flying Olympic, we all clapped. When the flight touched down in Athens to a July night of 25C, we clapped. I swear, I have tears in my eyes thinking about how happy I was when we landed and left the airport to the warm embrace of summer and the scent of life.

I was right about moving to Greece and on this trip I felt it more keenly than ever before. I feel like a stranger in London being swept along the anonymous faces, the constant rushing, the mind-your-own-business attitude which leaves me scared to get caught up in any trouble because I know people are less likely to help me than they would if I were in Athens. In my one week in London, five young people were fatally stabbed. The sixth died the day I landed. Six young people dead for no good reason - the nation should be on the streets in disgust and yet they do nothing.

When I got a humiliating dressing down from a bank clerk for being in possession of my father's card because my own had stopped working, this in spite of the fact that I was at the counter to replace the money I had used during the week and not to withdraw funds, I boiled with frustration.

"Do you expect a father to leave his daughter without any money for a week? He was trying to help me and you can call him now to check, I have his permission to use the card."

"No one except your father should have the card or the pin number, it's breach of contract."

"But do you understand what I'm telling you, it was an emergency situation and anyway I am putting money into his account not taking it out."

"If we catch you using this card again we will have to remove it from you. Your father is in breach of his terms and conditions by you having the card and the pin number."

"But I'm his daughter and he knows I have his card! Why is it such an issue for a father to lend his daughter his card?"

"Next time get him to write a letter or add you onto the card or we will have to cancel it."

"Why should he write a letter, I'm only here for one week! Can't you understand that I have my own bank card but it has stopped working so I needed this in an emergency till I get the replacement?"

"You shouldn't have his card."

What I see in the UK is the slow death of common sense and mental flexibility as everyone tries to cover their own backsides and screw you if you get in the way. Morons are slowly taking over the country. I fired off an email to Mr Zeus saying I hoped the UK got global warmed into oblivion and sank into the sea, which I admit is a little harsh and I do take back, but I don't apologise for how my one week in London made me feel like I was constantly banging my head against a wall.

So yes, it feels terrific that I was right to leave the UK. I took a gamble and I hit the jackpot. I always hated life in the UK and I am eternally grateful that I took up the opportunity to leave. Otherwise, what would I be doing? Turning green from the lack of sun, doing my nine-to-five and eating my watery tomatoes, sobbing onto my Prozac in front of a light box as a I tried to fend off my annual four month winter depression. If you are a young person living in the UK, reading this and thinking of leaving, let me tell you: Leave. Do it now by whatever means. There's nothing left in the UK any more.

And also, now I am part of respectable Home Country society since I had my religious marriage over the weekend. It feels great that now I can give out my number to friends in the Home Country and not have to worry about Mr Zeus picking up when they ring. More on the ceremony in another post.