Friday, April 30, 2010

A tale of two cultures

I left Pelion very early on Wednesday, getting the bus from Volos at five o'clock in the morning. There was a full moon looking down on a calm sea, giving the water an extraordinary luminescence. I travelled up the peninsula to Volos in Yeorgos's taxi. Two pine martens crossed the road, looking over their shoulders at the headlights of the Mercedes, reflecting the beam back from their eyes. And so I left behind a village culture, difficult and warm in equal measure. I abandoned the need to struggle with my appalling grasp of the Greek language and passed the hospital where my friend was mounting a spirited fightback against a sudden illness. It is a hard place to leave.

As the bus reached Athens the driver cursed his way through the appalling traffic and the courageous and foolhardy driving of those trying to beat it, before reaching the narrow streets where the bus station sits and from where the express airport bus departs. Then there was the tedium of air travel enlivened by excited conversations about the long delays due to the volcano and someone recounting the tale of a Yorkshire fair with an entertainment that featured a man with exploding testicles.

So it was back to Manchester, a host of everyday hassles and the sixties night in my local pub when the landlord's band plays. They enjoy every minute of it. They have been playing cover versions of sixties classics since around the sixties and the audience is made up of people mainly in their sixties. Ageing women jived over the Victorian tiles by the bar. It was lovely in its own way.

And so there I was - two very different, and flawed, cultures. I love them both and I was born into neither. One day I will have to choose and I know what the choice will be. For now, I have the pleasure of both, though I long to be back in Greece and will return shortly. I am a very lucky man.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The blame game

My mind wanders to trivial matters today as I prepare to return to the UK for a marking marathon.

Hull City's Premiership days are over and their finances are a compete mess. Dutch midfielder, George Boateng, has no doubt who is to blame.
George Boateng: Phil Brown to blame for Hull City's relegation
This sounds familiar. Ah yes, last year.
Brown is reason Hull stayed up, insists Boateng
Memory is obviously not his strong point.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Life and debt

It has been a difficult few days here in Greece with a very good friend of mine suddenly becoming ill and being taken to hospital for an operation. The treatment was excellent despite the desperate shortage of staff and the signs on the wall saying, 'the doctor who is treating you has not been paid for three months'. Such is the Greek financial crisis.

Today, with the IMF bailout being agreed, I read this endorsement of economic orthodoxy:
Over the weekend, French and German leaders turned the screws on Greece, insisting that the €45bn international bailout would not go ahead without further austerity measures to slash the country's ballooning budget deficit.
And I couldn't help thinking that a people are about to be sacrificed in order to save a currency.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Spot the difference

The amount paid in bonuses to City workers is forecast to rise to £6.8bn this year, up from £6bn in 2009, according to figures published today.
IMF officials have already signalled that the ruling socialists will have to toughen their budget-reduction policies with more cuts and increased tax revenue, in addition to the €4.8bn worth of painful austerity measures already taken this year... The average Greek has suffered a 30% drop in income since the measures were announced.
As the old music hall song goes:

It's the same the whole world over,
It's the poor what gets the blame.
It's the rich what gets the pleasure.
Ain't it all a bleedin' shame?


Us Brits know how to behave in a crisis. No panicking, just stern-faced resolution in the face of peril. The Dunkirk spirit sees us through. Faced with the prospect of extended stays in hotels in warm climates paid for by airlines or insurance companies we know what to do. No five-star Stalag can hold us, we use every means at our disposal to flock to Calais to queue for many hours to get on a ferry back to dear old Blighty. The BBC News web site has been posting videos of stiff-lipped heroes arriving in the Northern French port. The most intrepid got there after a four-day coach trip filled with derring-do from Malta. And now they are a short sea crossing away from those magical White Cliffs.

Meanwhile, Malta International Airport has announced that there were no flight cancellations today and 66 extra flights had been laid on to clear the backlog of passengers.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Exile and return

Having a volcanic ash prolonged break has cut me off from a daily diet of election coverage. I only see it when I sneak a glimpse on the Internet. Lucky me, except when I do get back to Britain it will be like the awakening of Rip van Winkle. I went away with a vague awareness of the insignificant leader of a minority party called Nick Somebody-or-the-other, and will come back to headlines like this. Presumably this is all because of the curious introduction of the X Factor for party leaders, to my mind an anomaly for a parliamentary election in a representative democracy. It has certainly spawned some hysterical commentary.

The latest to go mad is Fay Weldon who combines a frisson of excitement at at the multi-lingual and "good looking" Clegg with a bleak dystopian picture of Britain under New Labour.
Common sense? Generosity? Forget it: "heathy (sic) and safety" rules. (It's the "lite" version now, but "health' and 'safety" are words that sound uncomfortable in the mouths of governments: Le Comité de Salut Public – guillotines, Sicherheitdienst – Gestapo, Staatssicherheit – Stasi).
Ah. Health and safety is the same as public execution and private torture then? Neither seem particularly safe or good for one's health to me. I gather it is nothing to do with this - or this - or even this?

Oh well, April 28th is the International Labour Organisation's World Day for Safety and Heath at Work. Perhaps it could be a point when campaigners could recover the term from tabloid tales and the scorn of the literati. But then again, such useful mythology is rarely discarded, even if the protection of real lives may be an election winner against the spectre of red tape.

So, on the whole, I am happy to be here, dozing in a Greek spring, and I can't help thinking to myself on occasions, "blow volcano, blow".

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Did the earth move for you too?

The evil absurdity of theocracy is on full display again.
Many women who do not dress modestly ... lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which increases earthquakes
At the same time, its sinister side shows itself with more threats being made against the film maker Maziar Bahari, even though an international campaign led to his release from prison. His campaign on behalf of others continues here.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Citizen journalism

As I am caught up in a major international crisis I thought I would try this live blogging lark.

Check NATS web site - no change to cloud
Go and sit outside
Check web site again - air space still closed
Have lunch
Check airline web site - flight still operational
Pour glass of retsina
Check web site again - flight cancelled
Pour another glass of retsina
Reschedule flight
Sit outside again
Recheck NATS web site - no change to cloud
Go to taverna - drink a kilo of retsina
Check web site - air space closure extended
Pour glass of tsipouro
Check web site - no change
Go to bed ...

Cor. Exciting isn't it?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Holiday reading

It's a genre. Unable to turn my mind to anything significant when I am out here, I often dip into the sort of travel books that are all you seem to find about Greece. They are mostly the same. How I bought this amazing place, how difficult it was to do the repairs employing the colourful locals and my, oh so hilarious, silly mistakes, all enlivened with a faintly patronising view of Greek culture as a source of amusement. I know all the faults, and yet I still can't stop myself reading them.

This visit has been much more practical, learning how to use a chainsaw, amongst other things, and cooking. Yes, lots of cooking, plenty of eating and luxuriating in the one-and-a-half-litre plastic bottles of local Retsina for two Euros (and yes Mike it is nice - really, really nice). This turned my mind to the best thing that I have ever read about the Mediterranean diet; beautifully praised here, in yet another of those books, though one of the better ones.

Here I should make the distinction between the Mediterranean Diet, which is an invention of Californian hypochondriacs, and the Mediterranean diet, which keeps Mediterraneans alive into their nineties. The real Mediterranean diet consists of a cup of strong black coffee in the morning, a quarter of a pound of cheese and a couple of beers for elevenses, stews or a fry-up for lunch with eggs and chips and cheese, more meat and cheese at night and the odd cheese pie during the day when you feel peckish. Plenty of salad but also plenty of fried vegetables, a litre or so of wine, a few beers and a couple of ouzos along with whisky when you can get it. And don't forget a couple of packs of cigarettes a day.

No fags for me, though it's not too far off the mark, and the tsipouro is now about to slip down nicely.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Things to do

...instead of reading pointless election guff,

plant a tree,

cut firewood,

or just enjoy the cherry blossom whilst ignoring the crisis.

Then again, maybe the cat has the best idea.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Catching up

In some ways the Easter celebrations in Greece are a suitable metaphor for the Greek spring. In England, the new season seems to wake up with a smoker's cough and takes two or three cups of coffee to get going. Here, spring leaps out of bed with enthusiasm in an explosion of colour. The sun wakes up plants and wildlife. The air is filled with birdsong and the buzzing of insects, especially the bees from all the hives that are kept nearby. And the nightingales have arrived. Unlike the summer, when a hot sun means siesta, at this time of year it gets people going and the sounds of strimmers and chainsaws are everywhere, set to the backdrop of young men showing off on their motorbikes.

Easter has the same feel to it, it is the most important festival in Greece. The weekend starts with a doleful procession on Good Friday, whilst people fast in the local restuarants by eating vast quantities of luxurious and expensive seafood. Then, at midnight on Saturday, the resurrection is declared and firecrackers and thunderflashes are let off; I like the ones that are dropped down the drains, giving a loud, hollow clang. The fast is broken and the meat eating begins. Sunday is the time for whole roast lamb on the spit and noisy outdoor partying. With all that food the hangover is not prodigious, but the brain is vacant, especially as I found a litre plastic bottle of the local tsipouro desperate to be liberated from our host's kitchen.

For the last two days the weather cooled as if it had sympathy for everyone's need for a rest from over indulgence. The sun is still warm and the days bright and so, earlier today, it was perfect to walk up the old donkey path to the village of Lafkos, a steady climb with stunning views.

A profusion of wild flowers.

And the chapel by the spring half way up.

Despite being a night person, I will take the early morning exuberance of the Greek spring any day. It is the nearest you can get to perfection.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Easter greetings

After finding a shop that sold one and a half litre bottles of absolutely delicious Retsina for two Euros each, the resurrection was particularly gratifying tonight.