Monthly Archives: April 2014

20 Things You’ll Never Hear an Athenian Say

  1. Look at this beautiful August afternoon! The perfect day for a trip to the Acropolis!
  2. I’m just going to walk to the store.
  3. Instead of coffee and cigarettes, I thought today was a good day to have a proper breakfast so I ate a bowl of muesli.
  4. The metro is on strike? Well, it’s been a while since I took the bus.
  5. So the city center has been shut down again because some hotshot is visiting. These security measures are necessary. Good job, Athens Police!
  6. You know, I’ve never actually taken part in a protest as a teenager.
  7. Omonia. Now there’s a great part of town.
  8. Opa! Let’s go smash some plates!
  9. A stop sign. I better stop.
  10. Wow look at this! These little lights actually let people know which direction your car is going to turn! Better use ’em.
  11. This yiayia in front of me is walking at the perfect speed.
  12. So I went to the city center, and there was a parking space right there in front of me.
  13. I don’t feel very well but my first thought isn’t that it’s the mati. 
  14. I had to go deal with the public sector today and it was a really pleasant experience.
  15. This brand new foot path, complete with trees growing out of it, is a brilliant design, because the disabled of Athens can just go get screwed! Thanks Mr Mayor!
  16. What’s a molotov cocktail?
  17. Great news, guys! This bar is actually imposing its no smoking rule!
  18. I’m so glad that we’ve got Germany to sort out this financial mess we’re in. Frau Merkel really knows her stuff.
  19. That coffee shop is all out of frappe? Never mind. I consume too much caffeine as it is.
  20. The Olympics were the best thing that could have happened to this city. Who needs new schools anyway.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Mother of all Battles

In a feature in the UK’s Guardian last week, Ayelet Waldman, author and mother of four, said that modern society has turned motherhood into an Olympic sport.

Waldman was unwittingly launched into the public eye in 2005 when an essay in which she stated she loved her husband more than her children went viral. Death threats and calls to take her children into care followed. Her biggest critics were fellow mothers.

Is Waldman right, though? Had Waldman been a man, it’s more likely that the reaction would have been more along the lines of “Dads, eh? They just don’t feel parenting the way mothers do. Ha ha.” Men quite readily admit the importance of their partner over their children, the theory being that you can always have more kids, but your partner is your soul mate, and there’s only one of those around if Bollywood movies are to be believed.

I don’t doubt that Waldman loves her children fiercely, she admits her own distress when her oldest leaves for university. I do wonder if she would feel a little more distraught in her ‘God Forbid’ exercise if she had a child that she was pretty much guaranteed to eventually lose, like I do. I don’t judge her, though. I even agree with her in as much as couples who take care of each other first are happier, and therefore make better parents.

I have witnessed the two extremes, parents who abandon each other when the child arrives and now exist as housemates rather than partners (particularly rife in Asian arranged marriage culture). Then there are parents who are mad for each other, had a child because it seemed like what they should do, and realized they didn’t love the child the same way they love each other, that the child was a disappointing appendage to their own intense relationship. Both models are damaging, but then any extreme is.

Reading the comments on Waldman’s article, I was shocked by two things. 1) the level of fury that was leveled at her for continuing to admit she loved her husband more than her children and 2) the stories from other mothers about their negative experiences at the hands of fellow parents.

Parenting. When the word parent turned from a noun to a verb, it brought with it an entire new set of challenges. From my own perspective, from the moment your pregnancy becomes obvious, you become the property of all other mothers out there. Perfect strangers will think nothing of asking you about the sex of your child, how you plan on giving birth, your proposed sleeping arrangements and that ultimate can of worms, whether you will offer the baby breast or bottle. All this before the child has even made its appearance in our world.

Once the baby arrives, you immediately feel like you are on a treadmill that someone keeps setting faster and faster, raising the incline while they’re at it.

I see friends in the final weeks of their pregnancies and I feel privy to a dirty secret I want to share with them but I know I can’t. I want to tell them that in a few weeks from now, I will visit them in their homes, their pregnancy glow replaced by the shell-shocked look of someone who has slept 8 hours in three days.

They will tell me that motherhood looks nothing like what the catalogues said it would and they will ask me why I didn’t tell them it would be this hard. I will probably say that I would have told them, but the chances of them actually believing me were minute.

They say in Africa that it takes a village to raise a child, and it’s true. The Western world has created a model of motherhood, one where we are expected to do it all alone, without complaint, and usually while working full-time, that constantly threatens to turn motherhood into a misery rather than a joy.

It often succeeds. When you are always stressed, tired, overworked and rushing through your children’s childhoods because there are bills to be paid, both parents putting in 40 hours a week or more to scrape together a few weeks in the year when you can actually be a family, something has gone very wrong.

There is a lot wrong with the Eastern model of family life, with interfering family members, the joint family system and menacing mothers-in-law brandishing cans of kerosene at the drop of a hat, but the one area that this model of family life excels in is raising children.

When family is around to help, the new mother can at least take a break. Sleep deprivation is not a torture technique by accident. In the East, families rally around new mothers with offers to take existing children off her hands, pitch in with the housework and cook meals.

Significantly, the concept of making your baby sleep in a separate room to you is still a largely alien, almost cruel one in the East. Babies and small children usually sleep in the same room if not the same bed, and since this is how I was raised I follow the same line. The criticism this move has attracted in the Western world merits a blog all of its own.

Without the village to help, let’s be honest – motherhood is a grind and those cute little finger painted cards do help, but sometimes you wish you could exchange them for some sleep. There are days when you wake up counting the hours until bed time. There are moments when your toddler is having a tantrum and throws up all over you, the baby refuses to let you put her down to clean up and lunch is on the stove burning, when you feel like you will snap, and some mothers indeed do.

Human babies are incredibly demanding, more so than any other mammal, and it’s a handy trick of evolution that they are so cute that we forge an emotional bond strong enough to override the relentless work that raising them involves. On paper laid out as a job description, no one in their right mind would choose the Western way of parenting, where you have to do it all on your own, with little or no relief.

The nuclear family is a wonderful model for everything except raising small children. But since nothing comes for free, the downside of extended family to help is that you risk raising children with a confused set of boundaries, brats, for want of a better word, and your own authority is diluted. Why listen to Mum when Grandma lets me get away with murder?

In the West, new mothers are largely left to cope on their own and cross a minefield of criticism from other mothers. The West loves to pick fault with the barbaric East. But I think it’s particularly barbaric that a society like the USA, for example, still has no official paid maternity leave.

At the end of last year, I was on a flight on my own with my toddler and baby. As we drew to landing time, a man across the aisle started to chat to me. I had had a hard day and the trip had been a difficult one. He commented on how well my children were travelling. “They’re good kids” I said. “You’re a good mother” he replied, and tears sprang to my eyes because hearing that from a stranger was such a rare thing.

The truth is that motherhood is exceptionally hard as it is, and even more so in Western societies. We as mothers know that, and instead of supporting each other we relish the chance to find fault in each other. Whether you vaccinate or not, co-sleep or don’t, bottle or breast feed, there will always be another mother waiting in the wings to tell you that you are doing it wrong. In being so judgmental, maybe we manage to cover up our own misdeeds, that time we dropped little Johnny out of the pram or when Lizzie need stitches because you left the scissors on the table.

It would be so nice if once in a while we could look over in the midst of the battle, recognise a fellow comrade in arms and say to her “You’re doing a great job”.

A version of this post appeared in the Khaleej Times on the 26th of April 2014.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Lost in Translation

Greek is a highly expressive language. Many is the time now when I reach for an expression in conversation with non-Greek speakers only to realise that it doesn’t exist in English.

This is what they don’t teach you in language class. Language classes, by and large, teach you a nuts and bolts version of speaking a language. They don’t really teach you what you need for street survival, the way that people really speak a language. For example, in every Greek class I have ever taken, one phrase repeatedly drummed into our heads was “Excuse me, do you know if there is a bakery nearby?”

Which in Greece, where there is a bakery on nearly every street corner, might elicit the response “Are you blind or something?” Incidentally, the one and only time I did need to use that phrase, the guy didn’t know if there was a bakery nearby. Go figure.

The true variety and creativity of Greek phrases becomes apparent once you learn enough of the language to start speaking it with any level of competence and start throwing colloquial phrases around.

Some of them make no sense when translated, some are impossible to explain even by the Greeks. Most of them are hilarious, but simultaneously too filthy to be printable, so I give you a family-friendly selection below lest you find yourself in Greece and feel like making conversation.

Your eyes fourteen:

A Greek phrase that instructs you to have your eyes fourteen. It means to pay close attention, keep your eyes peeled which if you think about it, doesn’t make sense either.

You’ll eat wood:

A common threat brandished by mothers and grannies to errant little children, telling them they’ll eat wood means they’ll get a smack. Used mostly as a threat, at least in the cities, where smacking children in public is rapidly going out of fashion.

A three blanket party:

A party that was really good, a lot of fun.

I ate the world to find you:

Used when you’ve spent a long time looking for someone or something, meaning I searched high and low for you.

It’s in the devil of the mother:

Meaning when somewhere is very hard or complicated to get to. As in, “I looked up that restaurant and I’m not going all the way to the devil of the mother just to eat souvlaki when I can get it around the corner.”

Grab an egg and shave it:

Not even the Greeks know the origins of this phrase. Used to describe a Catch 22 situation, or something you can’t make sense of.

You drown yourself in a teaspoon of water:

Used to describe someone who is melodramatic or makes a big deal out of nothing.

I’ll sniff my nails:

Originally meaning I have a premonition, now this phrase has come to be used in a sarcastic way, in place of how should I know.

Just the tail is left, we ate the donkey:

Meaning we’ve done most of the hard work, now just a few details are left.

It doesn’t exist:

This one used to confuse me, because a lot of Greeks directly translate it from Greek to English. It means something is really fantastic. So it might be used like this “You have to see this show. It’s brilliant. I’m telling you, it doesn’t exist.” You see how this could be confusing to a language learner.

It didn’t sit on us:

Meaning it didn’t work out for us.

I ate a door:

Meaning my efforts didn’t work out, I was rejected.

You made it a sea:

Meaning you ruined it, you made a mess of it.

It’s raining chairs:

In Greece, it never rains cats and dogs, it rains chairs.

I wrote it on my old shoes:

A much more polite form of the original and more commonly used expression, which describes writing something on a certain part of the male anatomy. It means I gave it no importance.

It looks a little pale to me:

When something doesn’t look likely.

Every bitter man will laugh:

Meaning it will be so bad it’ll be good.

I didn’t have any intestines left.

Used to explain when you found something particularly hilarious and couldn’t stop laughing.

And three Turkish eggs.

And we’re back to the eggs again. Once more not a person I know can explain to me what this is supposed to mean. It’s usually tagged onto the end of a phrase to denote how little you care about something. I really can’t illustrate it without crossing the line so I’ll leave that to the powers of the internet.

For those of you who are not easily offended, I direct you this fabulous collection of Greek slang, directly translated to English. It’s hilarious. I’m telling you, it doesn’t exist. I had no intestines left after reading it.

1 Comment

Filed under Greece, thoughts

Go Fly a Kite

A worker prepares glass-coated kite string, or manja

Winter in Greece are short. They sweep in late, starting to make their presence felt around mid October and into November, making it possible even to go swimming in December. January and February are the coldest months, and then by mid March, the first warm fingers of Spring start running their fingers through your hair.

The streets are humming at the moment with the promise of new life and already the orange trees that line every street intermittently with olive trees are bursting with blooms. The result is gloriously sunshine soaked Spring mornings with the perpetual heady scent of orange blossom.

There is an added buzz to this time of year. We are drawing ever closer to Easter in Greece.

The start of Lent in Greece is marked with a variety of rituals, the first and most important being food. Since the start of Lent, or Clean Monday as it’s called here, is also considered the start of Spring, it’s tradition to cook a grand seafood-based meal and consume it with friends and family.

Meat is not consumed in keeping with the tradition of Lent, whereby meat, dairy products and certain types of oils are not eaten for 40 days. It should be pointed out here that it is widely acknowledged that Greek Orthodox priests fancying a bit of steak have been known to publicly baptize pieces of meat as vegetables to get around the No Meat clause that their position of keepers of the religion requires.

Baptisms are enormously important, life-defining occasions in Greek life. So if the priest says you are a cabbage when you are in fact a goat, you are a cabbage, no questions asked.

Another tradition is to fly a kite. It is said that in doing so evil is dispelled and the Devil is kept away. I remember watching this for the first time after moving to Greece. Greek kites are traditionally hexagon shaped, with decent, first world nylon strings wound onto handy reels. I watched these kites take flight and dance in the air, happy children tugging merrily at the strings.

It was so civilized and proper, almost jarringly peaceful compared to my own childhood memories of kite flying. I racked my brain for what was missing from the scene. And then I found it.

It’s the things that my life in Pakistan has in common with my life in Greece that I always find fascinating. This time of year is also kite season in my home country. But there, kite flying is nothing short of a blood sport. People actually lose their lives over it, falling off rooftops as they try to keep their kite in the air or fatally electrocuting themselves as they try to retrieve their precious kites from power cables.

First, children will swap tips on who is making the best kites at the moment, what the best design is and other little quirks like whether a tail helps or hinders flight. They’ll then either make their own by building frames from bamboo reeds stolen from their mothers’ brooms, or venture into the bazaar to pick up a prize kite. Our kites seem very delicate and they are certainly much lighter than Greek kites, but they’re very tough. Next, they will purchase the best type of kite string they can get, and this is where things get truly psychotic.

Around this time of year a few decades ago, I could be found with my sisters and friends wandering the streets and back alleys of my neighbourhood looking for broken glass. The more unhygienic and dangerous the source, the better. We’d collect up these broken piece of glass and sit on a step pounding them into powder with a brick. This clandestine activity was usually done in a place where our parents couldn’t see us, and you’ll soon understand why.

The glass powder was then mixed with glue and applied along the length of the kite string to make a razor sharp string called manja. Two friends standing at a distance holding the loops of string taut are particularly good for this, as are appropriately spaced trees or street lights. Having been turned from harmless kite string into a dangerous piece of equipment, we’d leave the string to dry before winding it up into innocent looking spools.

That’s what I realized was wrong with the image when I stared up into the sky on my first Greek Clean Monday. I wasn’t used to seeing kites flying like this in peace, dancing on the breeze without another kite moving in like a stealth bomber to assassinate it.

The point of the glass powder coating, you see, is to turn the kite string into a razor sharp cutting implement. My childhood kite memories are filled with furious kite battles, defeated kites sailing to the ground, teams of scouts checking in our garden for their prize and fingers sliced to ribbons from handling the glassy kite strings.

Whereas in Greece a session of kite flying might generate some disappoint at the most when your kite won’t take off or gets stuck in a tree, in Pakistan we’d bite our lips in pain as the wind carried our kites up and away, taking the string with it which would merrily slice across our fingers. Later that day, we’d sheepishly reveal our war wounds to our irate mothers – fingers and hands criss-crossed with cuts of all types where the glass string had got the better of us.

This was not what Mary Poppins meant when she sang “Let’s go Fly a Kite”. Flying a kite is supposed to be a relaxing activity. It must be nice for a child to see their kite suspended mid-air without constantly worrying if the kite next to it is going to move in for the kill. In witnessing the true childhood pastime of kite flying without the rivalry, the bloodshed and the vendettas, I finally see what she meant.

But it did also make me miss the madness and chaos of a Pakistani kite flying season, and the way in which my childhood self’s dreams lived and died on stealing enough bamboo slivers from the broom to make kite frames, and how finely we could grind pieces of broken glass for the string.

A version of this article was published in the Khaleej Times on 29 March 2014

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized