My second first day at school


Mean Girls, basically a documentary about my first day at English school. Though I never got popular.

My very first day of school, I was excited. I couldn’t wait. I proudly put on my school uniform – white dress, white socks, white shoes , school badge – and went off. My mother hovered around the door waiting to see if I would join the chorus of sobs around me.

“Go home, no need to stand by the door. I’m alright Mum. Go home!” I said, and sent her on her way. I was five years old.

My second first day of school was a little different. I was 14 years old, wearing a tie and blazer for the first time in my life, my hair neatly tied back into a tight braid, like I always did at school in Pakistan. I sat outside the principal’s office, waiting. My mother asked if I wanted her to stay with me, and I said no, I would be alright. The truth is I desperately wanted my mother to stay.

But I knew that it wouldn’t make my life any easier if she did. I’d still have to go to a new school on my own tomorrow, so I cut to the chase and decided I might as well jump in the deep end. I remember thinking how cold it was for May. Just a week ago, I’d been in the blistering heat of a Pakistani May. The school uniform I was wearing now was a world away from my white cotton shalwar kameez. I liked it, though. I felt very smart in it.

The principal came and escorted me to my new class. I smiled expectantly at my new classmates. I was met with a sea of bored faces. No one smiled back. I was sent to shadow one of the other girls in my class until my own class schedule could be prepared. My teacher, Mr Yates, found me a free seat and sent me to sit down. Next to a boy. More details of my horrified reaction here.

Even though I spoke the language, I found that first day of school incredibly hard. I tried desperately to act like everything was fine. I asked a few times when school finished. “Twenty to.” came the reply. I’d never heard time told like that. Twenty to what? I felt I should know that, so I didn’t ask.

I was used to classes that began at 7:30 and finished at 12:30, with 40 minute lessons crammed in back to back and one 15 minute break. I couldn’t believe how long the school day was in England. It just went on and on. And you had to change classes. We didn’t do that in Pakistan either – there, the teacher came to us. It felt like a madhouse. So much noise, so much talking, such a big school, so many corridors. Just pure confusion.

And the kids – my peers were so rude, both to each other and to the teachers. I stared in shock as they answered back. They chewed gum in class. At my old school, we were not allowed to have our hair loose. Here, the girls wore it any way they liked, and in all sorts of colours – had my tight, frizzy braid been a mistake?

I spent most of my day with my cheeks burning red – the language! The profanity! And I didn’t know 14 year English boys were so burly. They were not kind or polite at all. They were crass, and rude, and HUGE! They stomped around like giants. Some of the meaner girls wanted to take a detailed history of my love life, and when I had absolutely nothing to report – no first kiss, no first anything – they looked at me like I had just arrived from the moon.


Which boy do I like? How about none of the above?

My brain was going into overdrive, trying to take notes for things that might be useful for me to settle in and find a place in the social order of the school. But by the afternoon, I’d given up. There was simply too much ‘new’ for my brain to register and file away.

I came home with a pounding migraine after that first day of school and burst into tears. I insisted my parents had made a mistake. This was all too much, we should go back to Pakistan. But after I calmed down, I got up the next day and went back to school again.

And eventually, it wasn’t so bad. Whereas under the Pakistani school system I was an average student, under the British system, where you were encouraged to think a little more freely and not just memorise texts, I was considered above average smart. This was a huge confidence boost for me, and I flourished academically.

I’m thinking of all this today because today refugees around Greece will start going to school. This will be a combination of special schools just for them and integrations into the Greek schooling system. I’m remembering my panicked, blushing, horrified, exhausted and tearful 14 year self, who could at least speak the language, and hadn’t come from the incredibly difficult backgrounds they do. I’m wishing them all good luck and this little message from me:

Stick at it. I hope it’ll get easier.


More good advice from Mean Girls

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With a little help from my friends (and pills)


I try to avoid writing these posts. Mostly because they scare my mother, who thinks I am utterly miserable, to which I wave my boxes of Xanax in her face and say “I’m okay, Mum!”

No, really, I’m okay, most of the time. Sometimes, I’m not though. Sometimes I just don’t know what to do with myself. My life feels like an impossible mountain I’ve been sent to climb with a spool of string instead of rope helpfully tucked into my pocket by the Universe. And as wonderful as it is to mark World Duchenne Awareness day each year because it brings us one step closer to the cure, it’s also involves me coming face to face with the fact that all is not right in my world. I’m not always up to that task.

Remember the movie Run Lola Run? Whenever the scenario doesn’t play out the way Lola wants, she goes back to the start of it to try again. This is the feeling I had the moment I was given Hermes’ diagnosis.

My brain just couldn’t process what I was hearing. My son has what? No, you’ve got it all wrong. That’s not what you were supposed to say. I came here today for you to tell me that the genetic test was normal, my husband isn’t even with me, that’s how ordinary this conversation was meant to be. You’re not supposed to be telling me my son has Duchenne. Go back to the start and tell me something different, tell me what you were meant to say, which is that everything is fine.

I think of that moment still, though not as often as I used to, because it represents the moment my life was cleanly cut from the path it was following and set on another one. For the first year or so after Hermes’ diagnosis, I obsessed over that moment. It played out in my head again and again, as if I was trying to retrace a terrible mistake I’d made and trying to work out all the various things I could have done to make it right. It was if my brain felt it was missing something, some small clue or detail.

Where was it? Where was the one thing I had missed that would unravel all of this mistake and put it right? Was it how the doctor’s assistant didn’t look me in the eye when she came into the room? Was it the two spots she pointed to on the paper in her hand she showed him, saying quietly “Here, and here”? What did that mean? What did “here and here” mean? Where was the clue? Was it in the way the geneticist clasped his hands in the seconds before he changed my life? Where was the clue?

If I could just find it, I’d unlock what had gone wrong and be able to set it right. That would be my Eureka moment. But even my frantic brain knew somewhere that that wouldn’t happen.

In my weak moments, I’m resentful of being reminded of Duchenne in my lives. Hermes is starting to struggle a bit more, and when I hear the impatient kids on the stairs of the slide behind him stomping their feet and yelling at him to move faster, I really want to let rip at them. Very, very rarely, I am angry with everyone else for being able to walk away from my life, when I have to shut the door behind them and go back to living it every day.

I don’t mind telling people about Hermes, but there are times when I’ve got so used to this reality that I forget the impact it might have. I’ll flippantly mention life expectancy, and the next thing I know the person I’m talking to is sobbing. Whoops! “It’s okay!” I say cheerfully “It’s not so bad!” Cue more sobs.

The truth is that often, life is okay. It’s fine. It really, truly is not so bad. We’re happier than a lot of people. Having such a shadow cast over our lives has made us appreciate the light much more. Eating a delicious slice of melon turns into this year’s landmark event – “remember the summer of 2016 when we ate that really delicious melon? Those were the days!” We save the seeds for planting later, knowing exactly that we’re much too neglectful of our plants for them to ever bear fruit. We’ll ignore that, and plant them anyway.

Our joy is in our life as a family and the friends who rally around us – even a small gesture like changing your profile picture to a Duchenne balloon means so much. So, despite it all, somehow we do find a way to be happy in our new reality, and for everything else, there’s Xanax.

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A year since Aylan Kurdi’s death, Europe has gone back to not caring

web-refugee-crisis-7-twitterIt was one year ago today when an image raced around the globe, an image which broke hearts and enraged sentiments. It was an image that made us question ourselves as human beings and wonder with how much shame we’d look back on 2015 and the way in which we failed the child in the picture, and so many like him.

A picture of a little boy whose name meant ‘exalted’, lying face down and lifeless on a Turkish beach. In the early hours of 2 September 2015, three year old Aylan Kurdi lost his life. His picture shook many of us to the core, and like so many mothers, I saw my children in him. I saw the curve of my younger son’s cheek, the way he sleeps with his bottom raised in the air. I saw his little shirt, his shorts and his shoes, and I thought about the mother who had dressed him before they got onto that boat.

Were the clothes warm enough? Should he wear open or closed shoes? Would he need socks? Maybe not. But what if the wind picked up? Finally she must have decided no socks, it was a warm night. How do you even decide what to dress your child in for a journey like that, I kept wondering as I looked at the little shoes that were supposed to have stepped onto the shores of Greece, but never did.

I saw in my mind’s eye the sleepy child protesting against being lifted from his rest by his frightened parents, nestling in his mother’s arms and starting to fret as water splashed against him. And then the rest. The screams, the shock of the cold water, the eyes squeezed shut, the little mouth calling for his mother in complete terror and answered only with the salty water of the Aegean.

By early morning, it was all over. By an act of pure luck, a photographer at the right place at the right time, Aylan Kurdi escaped the anonymous fate of so many thousands like him, people whose names and stories we’ll never know. The name his parents had thoughtfully picked for him, smiling joyfully at their younger son as they held him for the first time, was now on everyone’s lips.

For those of us who had been following the refugee crisis in Greece, our timelines and inboxes filled with such stories and images of countless small children washed up dead on beaches, their nappies swollen with sea water, the wave of outrage that Aylan Kurdi’s death brought a tiny glimmer at hope that maybe now the rest of the world would feel the sense of urgency we did. Something had to change, didn’t it? For a little while, this did happen. But it didn’t last. It rarely does.

After a brief period of hand-wringing, Europe went right back to business as usual. They built fences and continued their swing to the right. They shut their doors and hearts. When Greece’s northern border shut, tens of thousands became trapped in Greece, and the flow stopped. In Greece, people who had been through indignity after indignity found themselves squelching through the mud and filth of Idomeni, wondering why Europe was working so hard to keep them out.

Keeping refugees out (or benefit-scrounging migrants, as some have labelled all of them) became such a political flash point that the UK decided to leave the European Union altogether thanks in part to this one point. If those voters only knew the full horror of what these people go through before they even get on those boats, they would change their minds in an instant.

A completely fractured European Union was unable to find a solution to the refugee crisis (helpful hint: safe passage would be a good start, as would reasonably speedy relocation) involved Turkey in their deal and as borders closed and numbers fell, everyone congratulated themselves on a job well done.

I think it’s time we can stop pretending the Europe has achieved anything meaningful when it comes to this crisis. The relocation programme is so slow it might as well not exist. The asylum process has been split into two steps, which rather than streamlining the process, has confused a lot of people who think the first step is the only one they need to complete.

“You’re a journalist? Do you know how long it will take? Is there any news from Europe?” are questions I get asked all the time from the women stuck in Greece trying to reach husbands, fathers and brothers who made the journey to Europe ahead of them. And I have nothing to tell them.

A year on from Aylan Kurdi’s death, people are still coming and they are dying in record numbers. Last week, the Italian coastguard reported its busiest day in years off the Libyan coast when they rescued 6,500 people.

In Greece, mayors on the front line islands have spent the summer making increasingly desperate pleas to the Greek government and Europe to speed up the asylum and relocation processes as their islands continue to see refugee flows, especially after the failed Turkish coup in July.

For the time being, we seem content with doing nothing in the face of a situation that is in my mind one of the most shameful in Europe’s history. The shame we should be feeling is something that doesn’t seem to bother us any more. We’ve grown immune to it. In 20 years’ time, when the pain from the refugee crisis has begun to fade, I don’t know how I will answer my children when they ask me “What did you do about it?”. Few of us do, and even fewer of us are bothered by this fact.

A fickle media and a public suffering from compassion fatigue went in search of the next story. They found Omran Daqneesh and once more hands were wrung. How awful! We must stop all this!

But be honest, we won’t. We’ll click a few links, share a few posts and think that’s enough, just like we did with Aylan Kurdi, and just like we’ll carry on doing, until we decide once and for all that the thousands risking the Mediterranean this year are human beings like you and me, with the same dreams and ambitions, and that they deserve a bit of dignity. Right now, I really don’t know what can make that happen.

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Why Game of Thrones is basically about Pakistani Family Politics



Like practically no one else in the world, the whole Game of Thrones phenomenon passed me by over the last few years. My ignorance of it wasn’t down to some hipster-y preference (“I only watch silent French arthouse films from 1923, so much more substantial.”) and eventually, even I got curious.

I started to watch. I watched and I watched. I squeezed in watching before going to bed and during late-night ironing. I soldiered on through all the guts and violence (motherhood has rendering me unable to watch this sort of stuff any more), I stuck through the dull, convoluted plot lines. Seeing as Game of Thrones has turned into such a cultural benchmark, I really tried to get into it.

But I’m now on the third series of the show and ready to admit defeat. I just am not captivated by it at all. The only character I like and care what happens to is Tyrion Lannister. If they just made a show of his biting little comments I’d watch it all day. Everything else just has not appealed to me at all, and now I’m bored of it. It’s like those Indian soap operas my mother likes to watch. The plot is flimsy, not much really happens and each show is padded out with pretty costumes, lots of shots of agonised faces, dramatic music and a cliffhanger ending. If you spliced Sasural Simar Ka with Saw you’d get Game of Thrones.


Same thing.

And then I realised why. Cut out the filler violence and copious nakedness and Game of Thrones is basically about Pakistanis and Pakistani family politics, and who the hell would find a show about their own life interesting? This is why it’s failed to engage me. You don’t believe me? Observe:

Cersei Lannister

cersei-coverShe is the archetypal neurotic Pakistani mother, and not the nice sort. Sweet on the surface, horribly conniving on the inside. She is completely, utterly and totally obsessed with her son and spends her days plotting all kinds of complicated unions, family politics and such shenanigans. She was shoved into an arranged marriage that made sense purely in terms of solidifying her family’s relationships. She can see nothing beyond how perfect her horrible beta ji is, and is the only one in the world who thinks the idiot she produced is a genuis. She would probably try your biryani and smile while she backhandedly told you how shit it was: “You used ready-ground spices didn’t you dear? I can tell. I had a biryani like this once at a roadside shack a few years ago. It made me sick as a dog for weeks. I was sooo sick. Must have been typhoid. Remember that beta? Remember how sick I was and I said I hoped I’d never eat a biryani like that again? Yours tastes just like it.” *smile*

And she would totally not let you marry her son if your rotis were not perfectly round. Which would be a lucky escape for you.

Joffrey Baratheon joffrey-baratheon-7A horrible male child who has been spoilt rotten by his mother into thinking he is the most perfect specimen of man on the planet. Looks like a toad and expects to marry an absolutely first rate babe, preferably a doctor or whatever else was a big deal in those days, but she should never hurt his fragile ego by daring to be his equal. Sound familiar? Ami ji has never said no to him, and the result is that he’s acting like a self-entitled egomaniac after taking over Daddy ji’s business even though he knows nothing about how to run it.

Petyr Baelish 


Smarmy Uncle. Hangs around in his sherwani, hiding his true motivese behind that smug smile of his. Finds various ways to make you feel like an insect. “How did you do in your exams, beta?” is the loaded question you dread from Smarmy Uncle. Also cheek pinching. Or his presence in general.

Catelyn Stark


Not Pakistani, because she’s had five children and still looks svelte.

Brienne of Tarth 


Butch Baji. We all knew at least one Butch Baji growing up. She was cool, and her mother was obsessed and permanently stressed out about who the hell will marry her. She would tell your own mother this over shami kebabs and tea “I keep telling her to grow her hair and stop playing sports but she won’t listen!”

Crap for girls to pass the time with


When they’re not being chased to rape or kill, the unmarried girls in Game of Thrones pass their time in mindless pursuits like embroidery. Good embroidery is a really big deal in the GoT world, and at least when I was a girl and there was no internet, it was a really big  deal in actual Pakistani teenage girl world too. My friends and I spent hours perfect various stitches. I punched the air in jubilation when I got a french knot right for the first time. If someone had insulted my satin stitch, I probably would have burst into tears and decided to become a nun. Who the would marry me with my sub-standard crooked stitches anyway?

Plotting, backstabbing and elaborate family politics


Game of Thrones is full of this. See the internal bickering of any land-owning Pakistani family, trying to decide who owns what plot of land, who should marry who in order to keep/gain more family land and why so and so’s khala built a hedge that encroaches on your phupo’s plot etc etc etc ad nauseam.

The Dragons150420-news-game-of-thronesPakistani Mothers in Law. No further elaboration needed.

(Disclaimer: as always, no offence intended to anyone, this is just for fun)

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Greek Kamaki in the Digital Age


The 1989 movie Shirley Valentine, a tribute to the phenomenon of Greek kamaki

There’s no denying it – Greece is a very sexy place in the summer. The pace of life slows right down and the air hums with the buzz of thousands of cicadas. And like so many others here in the summertime, those noisy little bugs have just one thing on their mind.

But while amorous insects and balmy summer nights have remained a quintessential part of the Greek summer, there is one element of summer in Greece which seems to have disappeared, that of the traditional Greek art of flirting, known affectionately as ‘kamaki’.

It used to be that once upon a time, the art of kamaki was as inseparable from summer holidays as ouzo or souvlaki.

The word kamaki literally translates to harpoon. It’s about “fishing” for a summer romance with a foreign woman, and when you go fishing, you have to be patient and just keep at it until you catch something. Such was the case with kamaki. Talk to anyone who came of age in the 70s and 80s and they’ll tell you tale after tale of women from colder climes who flocked to Greece to get an annual fix of that famous Greek kamaki.

But these days, a little bit of quick research online and I found that women of the older generation, those who lived through the height of it, will tell you that even though it irritated them in their younger days, kamaki is a dying art, and one that they miss.

When I first aired the idea for this piece in my office, Maria, one of my colleagues and one of the youngest members of our team swung her chair around to give me a live demo of kamaki.

“Wow! What a doll! Hey hey! What a woman! Hi baby!” she crooned.

We all laughed. This was her crude take on the vintage kamaki of days gone by, but connoisseurs will tell you that it wasn’t like that. Authentic kamaki was an art of flirting that was practically kabuki-esque in nature.

Back in the day, kamaki, specifically Greek men flirting with foreign women on holiday, was personified by the myth of the Greek lover: persistent, dressed entirely in white with a gold medallion drowning in the hair of his chest, with broken English and drenched in aftershave. It was as cheesy as it was cheesily charming.

I speak to some foreign women living in Greece for several decades and they share their stories of how these types would hover around airports and ferries when “hunting season” opened, trying relentlessly to harpoon girls.

There’s the story of “Kamaki Nick” from Crete who used to go to the beach early, place towels all over the beach and then wait for an unsuspecting tourist to place hers next to one of his so he couldn’t be accused to chasing her. Or the guy who used the same pick up line of wanting to practice his English on the same woman many times, sometimes even during the same day, having forgotten that he already tried to hit on her once.

“I absolutely loved kamaki, particularly if both parties enjoyed the verbal exchange, but it is dying today. In fact, men here today remind me of men in other countries of western Europe about two decades ago.” lamented one friend. Another shared a poem from a kamaki in the 90s: “You and me, under the tree, making love while the birds go tsiou tsiou.” Who said romance is dead?

Greek men are too shy now, they tell me. They said that kamaki of days gone by, which was at its finest in the 80s and 90s, was a sweet interjection in daily life, a particularly Greek way of flirting which they used to enjoy but which has since vanished. It made you feel good, womanly, they said. They miss the boldness and the flattery of it. The men now just don’t flirt any more. “Especially if they’re under 45 or those hipster types with beards? You can forget it. They don’t do kamaki.” said one of the women I spoke to.

But if you look carefully, you’ll discover that kamaki is alive and well. If the streetside kamaki of shouting out “Hey doll” or “What a smile” is fading today, it’s only because it’s moved online to more sophisticated mediums in the hands of more sophisticated users. Clued up, modern, technology rich and time poor, Greece’s millennials are giving the art of kamaki a new lease of life.

On a warm May afternoon, I meet with Adonis (not his real name) at Flisvos Marina. He’s 31 and a fitness instructor (not his real job either, but close enough to what he does and you’ll soon see why he needs the physical stamina). In his lovelife, he specialises in selling the myth of the perfect Greek lover, the ideal summer romance. I soon learn that he is digital-era kamaki in the flesh.

He tells me how it works. Modern kamaki has moved online onto a host of apps like Tinder which make instantly meeting someone easier than ever. “I don’t live downtown, so it saves me time.” he explains in breathtakingly simple terms. Apps have opened a whole new world to guys like Adonis. Through apps, it’s not been than unusual for him to spend a different night with a different female tourist every day of the week.

So what’s it all about for him? Sex, company, friendship? A little bit of all three. Adonis says Greek girls hold no interest for him, he finds them “snobbish” in his own words, and he’s never been with one. He likes meeting women from other cultures, and presents them with the illusion of the perfect summer romance which they are seemingly happy to buy into. We scroll through his phone: “She was from Columbia, this one here, she’s from Korea. This girl was from Brazil. Tunisia. Japan.”

And so on and so on, through an endless stream of pictures with different girls where Adonis is playing the role of temporary boyfriend to perfection. He really goes for it. “Do you tell them you love them?” I ask. “I do, and I really insist on that even if they think I’m just saying that, which to tell you the truth, I am.” he replies. At least he’s honest, just maybe not with the girls he sees. But perhaps they know that anyway and choose to ignore it. 

“So do you want to tell me a number?” I ask, digging into the cake that he won’t eat because he’s on a diet. “Sure” he says. “I’d say it’s about 200 women from around 50 countries.” I nod, faking cool journalistic professionalism, but I’m gobsmacked. How did someone so young get to that many women that quickly? His record was 17 girls during a four and a half day trip to Barcelona. “They weren’t one at a time.” he clarifies. “Got it!” I say. That’s plenty of detail for me.

It doesn’t always go smoothly. There is the girl who got “Adonis, I love you forever” tattooed on her arm, and the drunk Canadian tourist who went berserk when he refused to sleep with her. Not all his flirting takes place online ‒ if he sees someone who interests him, he’ll strike up a conversation. 

He says that his ultimate goal is for the girls to have a good time. “If they’re happy, then I’m happy.” Adonis is very open about his dating life. He had told me he had no problem with me using his real name and details. But I decided not to, because he was just so darn nice. Adonis is polite and charming. He takes care with his personal appearance, not a medallion or hairy chest in sight. He speaks perfect English and four other languages. I can see why girls find his illusion of the dream summer romance so beguiling. 

So far I have one consensus that kamaki is dead, another that’s it’s alive but online, so I go to speak to the one person I know could set me straight about whether face-to-face kamaki really has bitten the dust in Greece. On a Friday night, I drop by one of Athens most famous vintage nightlife institutions, the Boom Boom Discotheque. This place has been going since the 80s and is one of those very rare venues that has crossed the thin boundary between being so kitsch it’s terrible and has reached the level of being so kitsch it’s amazing. There are helium balloons and little chintzy LED lamps with Disney characters on each table. I love it.

Sitting on leopard-print seats as disco lights and lava lamps swirl around us, the proprietor DJ Soulis, the authentic breed of the Greek kamaki of days gone by, looks offended when I suggest that kamaki is dead. “Of course it’s not dead! How else do you think people get married?” he says.

“It all depends on the woman. If the woman isn’t interested, nothing can possibly happen.” he says. At 71, he’s seen decades of flirting on his venue’s dance floor, and he insists that people still flirt.

“The problem today is that everyone today is waiting for Monica Bellucci to walk by. It won’t happen! In my opinion there is no such thing as an ugly woman. Make sure you write that down” he says, waving his cigarette at my notepad. “Every single woman has something special about her. You just have to look for it.”

“Sometimes I’ll see a truck driver or something hanging out of his truck shouting ‘Oh my God what a woman!’ That’s moronic. That’s not kamaki. You can’t take this tacky way of flirting and baptize it as kamaki.”

So where did the kamaki go? He looks at me. “You’re really obsessed with this, aren’t you?” he asks. I can’t help it, I reply, the health status of kamaki is the central premise of my article. DJ Soulis draws on his cigarette again. “Maybe people are doing kamaki online now, but the real deal is actual interaction. It’s all in the eyes. She looks at you, you look at her. The man might decide whether he wants her for an hour, a night, or more, but the woman is the one who chooses the man.

“Kamaki can change your life. It could lead to just a few minutes conversation, or it could lead to a marriage and a family. Mark my words, it’s not dead.” he says, with a wink. The disco is about to start and I make my move to leave. As I do so he hands me a little souvenir from my visit. It’s a pink bag with Barbie on the outside, and one of those little LED lamps with a “I love Boom Boom” sticker on it. This might just be the best perk of the job I’ve ever received.

As I drive home, the seafront avenue on is jam-packed with cars. Summer has officially arrived and the night is warm. Everyone is out, heading to beachfront cafes and clubs. The air buzzes with the promise of the possibility that every Friday night holds for someone free and single out on the town. “It’s raining men” is playing on the radio of one of the cars crawling along the traffic with me.

Tonight in the bars and clubs of Athens, people will meet, either after catching each other’s eyes or after whipping out their smartphones. Girls on holiday will go looking for the myth of the flirtatious Greek lover, and they might just find him. They’ll chat, flirt and get to know each other and the practised art of kamaki will come alive once more.

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Why I love the Olympic Games


The Olympic flame is lit at Ancient Olympia (source: Getty Images)

My very first impression of Greece, my very first thought as my plane came in to land on a hot August day in 2004 was this: “They have mountains!”

If, at this point, you’re imagining what an imbecile I was, you wouldn’t be far from the truth. My first glimpse of Greece had happened thanks to a series of events which I could never have imagined, and since Greece was not at that time anywhere on my list of places to visit, I had done no research whatsoever about the country I was arriving in. Looking out of an airplane window, I had no idea then that I was getting the first look at the country that would one day be my home, the country that I fell in love with, by way of falling in love with one of its children, the soil where my own children would take their first steps.

What I was doing when I first stepped off that plane was that I was making my way, at my own expense and in my own time, to volunteer at Athens 2004. Ordinary Greeks I would later meet on my trips to and from the Marcopolo shooting centre were very curious about this. Why, if I had absolutely no connection to Greece, had I shelled out for a high-season plane ticket to come all this way and ensure the smooth running of the Games which I had no personal connection to?

“They pay your hotel though, right?” Nope. We got no expenses covered, apart from free food and drink at our venues and free travel in the city. I was lucky enough to stay with a friend from university (she’s now the godmother of my younger son). And my answer to the bewildered question of why was this: Because I love the Olympics.

I’ve always loved the Olympics. Seoul 1988 are the first games I remember. The Games were a big deal in my house. Both my parents had been athletic but somehow gave birth to four couch potatoes. They never missed watching the Olympics. After that it was Barcelona in 1992, where that summer my cousins and I would give each other stirring renditions of Freddie Mercury’s (“Indian!” my Indian mother proudly pointed out) Barcelona sung into hairbrushes, sometimes with paper mustaches stuck on our faces.

Then came Atlanta in 1996, when I was old enough to appreciate the significance of Muhammad Ali lighting the torch. What a moment. I watched the opening ceremony of Sydney 2000 at my parent’s house, and the closing ceremony sitting on the carpet of a family friend’s house in Cardiff, days before I started university, because in typical Asian parent style, my parents were horrified that I had applied for university at a non commutable distance from home and so had immediately located someone they knew in the city.

Sandwiched in between it all was sporting greatness. I knew I would never reach those heights, for a start, I was much too lazy and unathletic. So the next best thing was to go to the Olympics. I dreamed of going to the opening ceremony, any opening ceremony, thinking of the years of Olympic opening and closing ceremonies I had watched, envious of the noise and the crowds and the people lucky enough to be there, and I would think “One day, I’ll be there too.”

And so, at the end of a bad 2003, I went online to look for tickets to attend Athens 2004. The Olympics were finally swinging close enough to home to make attending them something that wouldn’t bankrupt me entirely, and I wanted to go. But then, once on the site, something else caught my eye.

A big button, emblazoned with the word “Volunteer”.

I had no idea you could do that. That sounded amazing! I’d get to be inside the Games without needing any athletic prowess whatsoever! And so I applied. And that’s how I ended up stepping off a plane into the blinding heat of August 2004, to mixed reactions of Athenians who told me what a bad idea the games were, to others who were more enthusiastic.

But none of it mattered as I sat in the stalls during the final dress rehearsal of the opening ceremony, which my Greek friend had wrangled for me after hours of belligerence on various telephone lines, her argument being that a foreigner who comes all that way to support the Greek games deserves a ticket to the final dress rehearsal. I was so overcome at fulfilling a lifelong ambition that I spent much of the ceremony wiping away my tears of happiness. In fact, I still cry whenever I watch the Athens 2004 opening ceremony, because I still consider it the best of them all.

As for me, nothing could dampen my spirit. Apart from the friends I made during those days, my destiny was set on a course I could never have dreamed of. The shooting centre venue manager ended up becoming my husband, and here I am today, 12 years later, now calling Athens my home.

Perhaps it’s because, in spite of the world we live in, I really want to believe that it’s not such a terrible place. Every Olympic year, we get blanket coverage of how terrible it all is, that the games are a waste of money, a beacon of corruption and so overflowing with drugs that it would make Colombian cocaine baron blush. The host city receives such scrutiny and, often, derision, that the Olympics now face a new problem in that no one really wants to host them any more. To this end, it’s been argued that Greece should host them permanently, and I would love that.

In Athens, the coverage was about how the country was not ready. And, even if you put aside what an economic disaster they turned out to be, Athens was not ready. On our first training day, we toured the shooting centre in tight-jawed shock as our superiors waved us around what was supposed to be the shooting centre in two days’ times. It wasn’t finished. Workers welded and hammered around us and we gulped in polite terror – shooting was going to happen here? But when we rolled up for the first shift two days later, it was all ready.

For Beijing, coverage circled around the awful air quality, the corruption and violation of rights and poor water quality of the open swimming venues. Sound familiar? Brazil has been put through the same battery of misery mongering – they’re not ready, bad water, it’s not safe, gentrification etc. London was about how the games had cost way too much and caused the gentrification of East London, making it unaffordable to those who used to live there.

I’m not going to argue with any of that coverage, because the fact is that it’s true. But there’s also another aspect that gets ignored. I know because I was there, I was part of that face of the Olympics which so few wrote about. The human side of the games is the ultimate feel-good story.

The Olympics, stripped of the misery and scandal, are the ultimate gathering of the tribes of the world. They are the place where hope triumphs over adversity (and, sometimes hope triumphs over the reality that you’re so bad you’re good). The Olympics are where people from around the world travel to one point at their own expense for no other reason than that they love the games. Lifelong friendships are formed and, sometimes as in my case, lifelong partnerships.

I know what it felt like to be inside the Olympics, and I’ll never forget that feeling. When I recall that feeling, I don’t feel any of the negativity which persistently surrounds the Olympics, the world’s media bah-humbugging their way to the opening ceremony and then gleefully recording every failure. I just feel the glory and the magic, shaking hands with people who were the best in the world at what they did and hoping that some of their brilliance rubbed off onto you. I remember high-fiving friends from all around the world and sharing stories with other volunteers who had previous games under their belt. I remember happiness and the sense of wonder that got to be a part of something so big.

I loved the Olympics long before they permanently changed the course of my life, and I continue to love for the original reasons I loved them. For the human element, the winning athlete running their nation’s flag around the track, the message of hope they bring in the form of a flame lit in Ancient Olympia (again, in Greece this ceremony is widely mocked, though I love it, and would love to see it live one day), the volunteer who goes home proudly wearing their uniform on the flight, and now that Greece is home, the pride I feel when Greece leads the Parade of Nations at the opening ceremony. It’s the story I’ll bore my own grandkids with: I was there. I felt the Olympic magic. It’s something you can’t capture or explain unless you’ve felt it yourself. That’s why I will always love the Olympics.

Rio 2016, good luck!

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An EU immigrant twice over


It’s been a bad few days for Europe.

From the moment the referendum was announced, I had a feeling that Britain would leave the EU. Every time the issue came up on the Greek evening news, I’d tell my husband “They’ll do it. They’ll leave.” Of course, my language was a little more colourful than that.

Almost no one else I know thought the same thing, though. Especially other journalists living and working in Greece, some of them from London. So what was different? For a start, none of them come from the West Midlands. I was born in Kidderminster, and even though I grew up in Pakistan, at age 14 we returned to my city of birth.

Secondly, none of the other journalists I know in Athens are ethnic minorities. You could argue that this plays no role in perception when you are all receiving the same information. I’d argue that it does. As an ethnic minority, you hear the same narrative in a different way. It’s one thing to hear Brexiters demand their country back from foreigners. It’s another thing to have experienced that. I am one of the immigrants that they want their country back from. You can argue all day that it doesn’t apply to ‘people like me’ but you know full well they’re not talking about French bankers or Russian millionaires in London.

So let’s go into how I ended up being British. My father is from Pakistan. He studied medicine in the UK and worked there for 8 years, meeting my Indian mother in the process. Back then, his work and time spent in the UK was enough for him to gain British citizenship.

I, like my sisters, acquired this citizenship at birth. Even though I have joint Pakistani citizenship, I’m afraid I don’t have a dramatic immigration story to tell you about when I moved to the UK. We got on a plane and got off it. We went through passport control with our British passports. That’s it. Much to my schoolmates’ disappointment, there were no shanty towns from where I originated, no donkey cart which I rode to school and no rickety boat which I came to the UK on.

I went to school in England and university in Wales. I worked consistently since I was 17 years old. My father went back to working as a surgeon on the NHS and my mother as a theater nurse. I claimed job seeker’s allowance once for a total of two weeks before becoming employed again.

Fast forward a few years and I got on another plane and left to live in Greece to join the man who was and remains the love of my life. I now work and live in Greece, paying my taxes fair and square. I was unemployed for a while last year, but claimed no benefits from the system.

I have two children who were born in Greece. They are half Greek, part Pakistani and part Indian. They are entitled to British nationality and travel on Greek passports.

So my story is one of an immigrant twice over, and one of a European citizen. I have always believed in the EU, even if, lately, living in Greece has put me at the sharp end of much of the EU’s flawed policies.

But having lived in Britain, and having spent my formative years out in the sticks of the West Midlands, I had some inkling of how the average Briton thinks. And I knew that, far from the glittering lights of London, they were more likely to accept a narrative that immigration and the EU were to blame for everything from zero hour contracts to lack of housing to the collapsing NHS.

That’s not because I believe they are stupid. It’s because I believe they were misinformed and given easy answers to questions that are much too complicated to be condensed into a Yes or No referendum.

And, let’s face it. There is also the issue of racism, which I myself have been at the receiving end of, like every other ethnic minority I know who lives in the UK. Whether you like it or not, your ethnicity influences the prism through which you view the world. Unfortunately in the case of the referendum, for me it amplified the voices that wanted nothing more to do with foreigners coming into their countries and taking their jobs. They were by no means the majority, but they were loud and obnoxious enough to mean that the very next day, my youngest sister experienced this in my hometown:

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In answer to that argument, I put forward only the Greek case. Some 200,000 qualified Greek professionals have left Greece since the start of the economic crisis. Taking advantage of the EU’s free movement policy, many of them settled in the UK. The majority of them are doctors, lawyers and engineers. If they attended Greece’s free state university system, this means that the Greek state shelled out for them to become qualified, but now reaps none of the benefits. Those benefits go to the UK. Which is why scaremongering flyers about English potholes and the Greeks laughing at the Brits from atop fancy bridges were ridiculous.

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But this was a referendum in which the non ridiculous and cool-minded decision making didn’t manage to find a place. It was a referendum of utter nonsense, one with Boris Johnson preparing to sell the entire country down the river by sailing down the Thames in a Brexit convoy that would have been Monty Python-esque funny if it wasn’t so completely appalling at the same time.

So far, I have lived and worked in Greece without any problems. Employers asked what nationality I was, I said British, they said OK. Unlike American friends, I needed no residence permit to live in Greece. I went to the local police department once, registered the district I lived in, got a little card to prove that I had done this, and that was it. I needed to do nothing else as a citizen of the EU. I know that this won’t change immediately, and it might not change at all, but it’s an extra consideration that I didn’t have last Thursday morning.

And when it comes to what a Brexit means for medical research and the kind of innovative medicine that involves a cohesive EU, it’s a subject that has hit so close to the bone that I can’t even bring myself to look at it. A gamble was taken on the futures of my child and every person with a rare or complicated condition who is hoping for a medical breakthrough. One mother whose son also has Duchenne posted a picture of his sleeping face on Friday morning on Facebook, describing how she was stood by his bed in tears, about to wake him for school, and heartbroken that our fight for a cure just got harder.

My husband, who advocates for our son and the Duchenne community in Greece full-time (and no, apart from the occasional flight expense for a medical conference within Europe, before you start talking about free loaders and NGOs, he doesn’t make a single penny from what he does as an often 60 hour a week occupation) spent all of Friday on the phone to British patient advocate and medical research groups. They were utterly devastated and didn’t know what to do next.

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The morning after the night before, with my left hand wrapped in a pressure bandage after having typed and Tweeted myself into the land of sprained tendons, you would never realise that Briton’s economy is crashing and taking down the world’s stock markets if you looked at the pages of the Daily Mail or the Sun. I don’t want to believe that Brexiters live so much in their own world that they actually believe this jolly line. But since they bought the moronic colonialism, racism, small minded and isolationist mindset and the talk of an independence day from Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and co, I’m not sure what to believe any more.

Now that it’s all over, I am disappointed in so many ways. Every morning brings new considerations for me as British citizen living in Europe. I reached Friday night after the referendum feeling completely exhausted and, I won’t lie, a little traumatised. For one thing, living in Greece means my brain has reached saturation point when it comes to political drama and collapsing economies. The Greek economy is as fragile as a house of cards right now. It cannot afford any knocks, but the waves from the fallout are heading our way and were immediately felt on the Athens Stock Market when it opened on Friday.

The EU gave me a home. It gave me an education and several jobs. It offered me the chance to follow the man I loved without the heartbreak and indignity of the authorities keeping us apart or poking their noses into our relationship to validate its authenticity.

When the other shoe finally drops for the Brexit voters, it will be too late for them, and too late for Europe’s economy. In nearly every other political process, I have made predictions that were off the mark. This was the one time I hoped my losing streak would hold. It didn’t. I was right, and I really wish I hadn’t been.


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