Monthly Archives: June 2014

KTELing Tales

Retro Style KTEL Bus

This is the story of how I ended up sitting in a cafe, sniffling away my tears of indignation and drinking my first ever frappe.

I should interject here by telling you that I don’t drink coffee. So living in Greece for all these years without having ever had a frappe to call all my own makes me somewhat of a freak and this event was entirely out of the ordinary.

Greeks only drink tea when they’re ill, European style with no milk in it. I used to get asked all the time with concerned looks if I was sick whenever I would ask for tea. We would be in a group and the conversation would go something like this:

“What are you all having?”

“Frappe”

“Frappe”

“Frappe”

“Tea”

“What’s up? Not feeling well?”

I’ve already written about the world outside Athens, and it was my pleasure recently to experience it once more through a new medium when I took a trip to Volos using Greece’s intercity bus system, KTEL. Getting up bright and early at 5am, I jumped in a taxi and headed to the KTEL station to catch the 7am bus.

Early morning Athens has a funny way of inducing a strange sentimentality in me. Coasting past the empty streets in the blue early morning light, sun-flecked clouds dappling the sky overhead, I felt like I live in the best city in the world. Those few moments when Athens is gearing up for a brand new day are like watching a baby asleep.

KTEL buses are quite a convenient way to get from city to city, and if you’re a solo traveller, it works out cheaper than going by car counting the cost of tolls and petrol.

The night before, I had called the KTEL office and placed myself on the passenger list for the bus to Volos. I paid my return fee at the ticket counter, €47, and asked to go onto the return passenger list for the 6pm bus. The lady in the booking office tapped on her keyboard and assured me my place was booked.

Before long, we were on our way. Since my last trip, the rolling countryside outside Athens has changed. Summer in Greece makes the land absolutely burst at the seams with life, a rich tableau of the best of everything. The wheat had ripened and turned golden, most of it already harvested with tracks of straw marking where heavy heads had once swayed with the breeze.

Swathes of deep green marked where the corn was growing. This is where my favourite beach side treat of corn cobs roasted over coal comes from. Whenever I visit the beach, I always carry a little pot of salt and chilli powder to rub onto the hot, roasted corn with a lemon sliced in half.

This is how I was raised eating corn, South Asian style, and my husband has come to love my version of it. That tangy, spicy, sweet taste mingled with the creaminess of the corn and the charred aroma of the charcoal is one of the markers of summertime for me now.

As we ran along the route, weaving through villages, towns and highways, Golden Dawn graffiti competed with anti-fascist slogans scribbled along walls and streets. A common form of sabotage by the anti-fascist factions is to change the last letter on the end of the Greek for Golden Dawn, Χρυσή Αυγή, into Χρυσά Αυγά, Golden Eggs, the name of a popular Greek egg supplier.

The bus continued on its lumbering way, making various stops here and there. Until the first stop two hours into the journey, most of the bus was asleep. After that, having freshened up, stretched their legs and had the second or third frappe of the morning, lively chatter filled the air.

The woman behind me began to grumble to her travelling companion. “If I had known we were going to stop at every single little goat village on the way I would have driven!” she complained.

“The woman at the ticket office told me it was a direct bus, and they told me the same thing when I called the call centre to book my ticket.”

“Christ and Mother Mary, we’re stopping again? Don’t they have local buses here?”

“Who are we picking up now? Are we going to stop on each and every little donkey path?”

“We’ll never get to Volos at this rate.”

She said all this sat two rows behind the driver, for maximum effect, I’m sure. The bus braked suddenly, horn blaring, as a dark red pickup truck pulled out of a dusty olive grove and began reversing down the road towards us.

“Well of course,” snorted the woman “We’re in his God forsaken village, he can do whatever the hell he likes on this road and so what if he kills the rest of us.”

Having occupied a seat in the very first row, I was able to take in the route from nearly every angle and began to think of the nesting swallows I had seen on our pit stop. Swallows herald the arrival of Spring in Greece and they nest in the summer season. The roadside cafe where we had taken our break had been full of little black birds gliding and diving, searching for things to feed their precious offspring tucked cosily into their mud and straw nests.

A dull thud interrupted my thoughts as one of these unfortunate little birds ended its life journey on the bus’s windscreen, a small, liquid streak the last remaining mark of its existence on this earth. Poor little thing. How quickly life can change.

Arriving in Volos had been straightforward enough. Getting back? Not so much.

I’ve never travelled by bus between cities in Greece before. I made the gravest mistake one can make when living in a foreign country and that’s to take things for granted. Had I just moved here, I would have scrupulously checked every detail of my trip. Too many years down the line have given me a false sense of security.

Seeing that my ticket had RETURN written across it, plus the full return fare and the morning’s assurance that my seat on the return bus was booked, I assumed that this was my return ticket. So I waited with the other passengers in the sweltering heat, looking forward to being back home by bed time. When I handed my ticket over, the inspector told me to go get a return ticket issued from the booking office.

Say what? Wasn’t this the return ticket? No. So I walked over to the ticket counter and presented my ticket, asking for the return half. “The 6pm bus is fully booked.” snapped the man behind the desk.

Impossible, I told him, I had booked a place just this morning.

“All reservations are cancelled 25 minutes before departure.” he replied, indifferent.

Here’s a note: if you have any Northern European traits about how practical issues should work, abandon them all when it comes to Greece. My mind suddenly went into Northern Europe mode, a throwback after 10 years of living in the UK and an utterly useless mental state in Greece. I remained adamant. I had booked a place, so there must be a seat for me.

“It doesn’t matter if you booked a place, all reservations are cancelled 25 minutes before departure time.” he said, clearly annoyed that I was still badgering him. Where did I think I was, Sweden?

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, so I begged and pleaded to be let onto the bus, but they must get this all the time, dummies like me who didn’t know how the system worked, so they really couldn’t care less that I was stranded there for another three hours.

“There must be some way!” I cried “I have a baby at home! I need to get back on this bus!” There. I had played my last ace, the Holy Mother card. Surely my status as the mother and the fact that there was a 10 month old baby in Athens that I was still nursing would move them.

“What do you want me to do about it?” he grumbled.

So there went my seat.

I’ve been having a hard time lately dealing with Hermes’ condition, so little blips like this completely floor me. I burst into tears, completely panicked at being stranded all of a sudden so far away from home. I don’t like being away from home at the moment, and the thought of the cosy lights of my little flat burning like a lighthouse while I was stranded out to sea made me cry even more. But more than anything, my pride was hurt that I had made such a rookie mistake.

The harder I cried, the worse I felt, until the tiny voice of reason handed me a crumpled tissue and said “Well, you’re always complaining how you have no time to yourself, so now’s your chance! You can surf the net for 3 hours uninterrupted! You can go through as many pages of LOLCats as you like and no one can do a damn thing about it! The internet and all its time wasting treasures are yours for the taking!”

And so, blubbering and sniffling, mascara streaking my face, I found a café close by with internet access to write this and decided what the hell, every single time I have travelled in the last month, it’s gone completely wrong, so why not just start over and get a frappe, maybe there’s something to be said for Greece’s obsession with it.

We are all doomed to make the same mistakes again and again until we learn our lesson and try something different, so this was my way of saying “Look, Universe, things could not be any more different. Have you ever seen me drinking frappe before?”

That’s how it came to be that I sipped on my first frappe and frittered away three more hours until the next bus departed at 9pm. This time, I made sure I was first in line and pounced on my seat for the four hour trip back to Athens and home, an eerie blue light bathing my fellow passengers’ faces the whole way.

At 1.30am I stumbled into a taxi to go home. “What happened?” asked the taxi driver, “The bus got in pretty late, we thought you had broken down or something.”

I slumped into the back of the taxi. It had been 20 hours since I had stepped out of my front door.

“We stopped at every little goat village on the way.” I replied.

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June 28, 2014 · 9:28 am

10 Things not to say to someone from Pakistan

Road in Pakistan. Not photoshopped

Highway in Pakistan. Not photoshopped

I grew up in Pakistan. In my travels across the world, I have encountered many a misconception about my home-country. We’re everyone’s favourite friendly neighbourhood failed state if Fox News is to believed, and I was amazed at how shocked people were that an actual living, breathing product of the dark side of the moon was stood there talking to them. Here are some of the weirdest things people have said when they learn where I come from.

1)   Wow! Your English is really good?

This is the commonest comment anyone from Pakistan will hear the first time they have a conversation with someone. People are astonished that anyone from Pakistan, let alone a woman, can speak, read and write completely fluent English. The world expects us to either be the frothy-mouthed zealots or mini mart owners they see on TV.

English schooling systems are the main setup in Pakistan where almost the entire curriculum is taught in English and this has created generations of Pakistanis who navigate English with complete ease.

I’ll level with you, my first language is English, but I have Pakistani friends whose English is so dazzlingly competent that they make my musings sound like the workings of an epileptic monkey at a typewriter.

2)   Do you guys have TV/the internet/cell phones over there?

Even I ended up guilty of this one when I went over on a trip last year after a 6 year gap and left my smartphone behind thinking there was no point taking it.

Cue all of my cousins constantly uploading selfies on Facebook and updating their Twitter accounts like there’s no tomorrow. Meanwhile I felt like a total idiot with my trusty old regular cell phone that didn’t even have a camera. And I’m not even talking the big cities either. This was in my good old dusty village.

So yes, shocking as it may seem, we do have TV, cell phones and the internet over there. We have roads too, as well as high rise buildings and highways.

3)    Pakistani girls are so innocent.

I hate to burst your bubble but this one isn’t true either. What with all the TV, magazines, fluent English and books, life in the West isn’t a total shock. As for innocent, we get Cosmo there too, you know, and just because there is officially no dating doesn’t mean there aren’t ways around that. Go to any Pakistani university and you’ll find a dating culture to rival anything in the West.

And we have some pretty kick-ass sex education in places you’d least expect it.

4)   Did you come over in a boat?

When I’d tell people I had actually flown to the UK, their next question was what it felt like to fly for the first time, at which point I’d gently break it to them that I’ve been flying since I was little. That’s not because I’m ridiculously rich. It’s because Pakistan is quite a big country and flying, especially these days, is quite affordable and often the most trouble-free option for travel.

5)   You’re from Pakistan? I love palak paneer!

A Pakistani friend who studied in America shared this one with me. When did palak paneer become Pakistan’s official culinary mascot? That’s like meeting someone from the UK and saying “I love jellied eels!” Firstly, you’d have to be out of your mind to love jellied eels, and secondly it’s not a dish that actually features in regular daily British dining.

Pakistani cuisine is hugely diverse because the country is so diverse. Go find your local Pakistani restaurant, it probably has a name like Lahore This or Karachi Something or the Other and try a few things there. I recommend haleem and nihari as starting points.

6)   Did you parents disown you for marrying of your own choice?

I married outside of my culture, and my parents didn’t simultaneously combust into balls of fiery wrath. You’d be surprised how many of my peers back in Pakistan are now marrying of their own choice with the support of their parents.

7)   Did you ever see Osama Bin Ladin?

When you come from a crackpot nuclear nation and hot-bed of terrorism, you get asked this more often than you’d realize. The answer is no. We have a huge home-grown terrorism problem in Pakistan, that’s true, but Taliban heads don’t go on whistle-stop tours of the country like some sort of jihad loving Mick Jagger.

8)   Did you used to live in a mud hut/shanty town?

No. I used to live in an actual house made of bricks and cement. A lot of people in Pakistan do, and if you happen to know the upper Middle classes, their houses are absolutely palatial. In fact, a lot of people moving from Pakistan to the UK take one look at that country’s row upon row of cramped, badly lit cookie cutter houses and wail “How can these poor people live like this!”

9)   How come you don’t wear that dot on your forehead?

That little dot is called a bindi and you’re thinking of India, pal. Pakistani girls do wear these at weddings and parties, but for their decorative value rather than any association with chakras or the sacred third eye.

10)I’d love to visit Pakistan, but I’m too scared.

Let me be honest here. You should be scared. Because trying to get a visa from the Pakistani embassy is such a Kafkaesque nightmare that even I left the building screaming “I’m not doing this again!” after trying to arrange paperwork for my foreign husband and child.

The line of questioning involved such valuable information towards my application as whether my husband had converted to Islam or not, and what sort of religious environment my child was exposed to at home, the answer to which is of course “None of your God damned business”.They made it so hard and complicated that you’d think Pakistan was the world’s premier holiday destination and therefore only the truly dedicated should be allowed to go.

Then once we got there, because we had foreigners in our party, my family got daily phone calls from the local police to make sure said foreigners were still in our possession and weren’t being given an impromptu tour of Waziristan courtesy of our good friends in the Taliban.

But seriously, if you can get past the hellish ordeal of actually securing yourself a visa, tourists in Pakistan are such a rarity that they are treated like royalty. If you keep a low key and observe the customs, you’ll experience a beautiful country as yet untouched by mass tourism.

UPDATE: I’ve changed the pic to one which I own since this post is soon to be featured in Freshly Pressed!

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June 19, 2014 · 2:37 pm

Trichonomics

When bonds get haircuts, women don’t

Trichonomics. I’m quite proud of this term. In the modern age, when you think of a concept the very first thing to do is to Google it and see if anyone has come up with it already. And so when I coined the term trichonomics, that’s the first thing that I did. So far and much to my delight, I am the first to use it.

The idea behind trichonomics was born out of a throwaway comment by my husband one afternoon. We were out and about, driving around Athens (him behind the wheel, not me) and he said “Have you noticed there are less blondes around since the crisis hit?” I remarked that I had.

Since the crisis first sank its claws into Greece back in 2008, there has been a noticeable decline in the number of blondes in circulation, along with an increase in the length of the female population’s hair.

This is where the idea of trichonomics comes in, combining the Greek word for hair, tricha, with economics. The concept is as follows — the state of a country’s economy can be gauged by the length and colour variations of its female population’s hair. The shorter and more chromatically diverse the hair, the better the economy.

Being a Mediterranean country, natural blondes are a rarity in Greece. On my very first trip here during the Athens Olympics and staying with a dear friend of mine, she smirked wryly at the sea of flaxen heads around us as we rode around Athens by bus.

She herself had just returned to her home country after a rain-sodden hiatus in Cardiff, where we had been students together. “I don’t remember these many blondes when I left. You’d think this was Sweden.” These bottle blondes were locally referred to as Duracell batteries, for reasons that I can’t go into on a blog that my mother reads. Let’s just say the curtains don’t match the carpet and leave it at that.

Greek women take great pride in their appearance. Competition in the aesthetics industry is fierce and as a result, prices for haircuts, colour treatments, manicures and pedicures are quite reasonable. Since the crisis hit, however, Greek women have opted for the more affordable option of letting their hair grow out (pixie cuts are difficult to maintain without regular trims) and reverting to their natural hair colour, also cheaper than having your roots retouched every six weeks.

Pre-crisis, my husband’s niece worked at one of the most exclusive hair salons in Athens. She used to relay stories of the rich trophy wives of Athens who thought nothing of getting a full head of extensions at EUR1000 plus at a time that would need to be done all over again in a few months when they started to grow out. These days, there is far less of that sort of extravagance. She could tell how bad the crisis had got by the free time she suddenly had in the salon on Saturday afternoons.

The effect of my trichonomics theory on the female population of Athens is a notable absence of blonde heads in the general population. I’m also seeing much more long hair than I was before. Among Asian women, a head of long hair is a source of great pride. Various oils and potions are lavished on the tresses and tips swapped over how to make the hair grow stronger, faster, darker. I know of friends whose mothers wept when they chopped their long hair off.

The power of hair, especially female hair, is well documented throughout history into today. Samson lost his powers when Delilah cut his hair off, and there are religions and sects extending well beyond Islam that require a woman’s hair to be covered. When women experience personal tragedy, they most often take it out on their hair. Good hair days make us feel invincible and bad hair days make us wish we were invisible.

So it seems only natural then that a woman’s hair be an indication of so many things — how she feels, whether she’s having a good or bad day, and in Greece’s case, the state of the economy she is living in. When Greece’s bonds got a haircut, the female population started cutting back on their own haircuts.

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Generation XYZ

Gen Y is coming of age

I caught up with a good friend this week. Sitting in a fancy, budget un-friendly restaurant in London, we reminisced about our time together at university. She’s taken the brave step of a complete career overhaul, not something many people are willing to do. Exam time, it seems, is a lot harder 10 years down the line. Surrounded by a sea of 18 year olds, she regularly interjected our conversation with “I’m so old now.”

Being over 30 and catching up with someone you have known since your late teens it’s easy to fall into this trap. There was a time when I would stand outside photo booths feeling smugly pleased with myself at how nicely my dreaded passport photos turned out.

This week, those same photo booths spat out an image of me that looked washed out and exhausted. No, I looked like a crackhead that hadn’t slept in two weeks to be exact, which is part true. I would like to think that it’s the photo booths to blame, they must have changed something, reconfigured the microchips or whatever it is that they do to these things. In an effort to prove this theory I promptly walked over to a different photo booth and tried again.

I suppose you finally feel like you have matured as opposed to aged when you begin to notice the generation coming up behind you, and in time honoured fashion, think they are complete idiots. Generation Y is the first generation for whom the internet has just always been there. They are constantly connected, communicating 24/7 in a relentless barrage of tweets, emails and status updates. They engage in crazily dangerous relationship behaviour, seemingly forgetting that HIV is still a thing.

They have to contend with your usual garden variety bullying as well as cyber bullying. Personally I can’t imagine a more nightmarish combination than Facebook and the high school years. They are hyper aware of their appearance and unlike Generation X who smile like fools at any camera, Generation Y have perfected smiling with their eyes, meaningful looks and pouts. They have taken so many selfies that they know exactly which their best angles are.

Take my picture on this blog for example. When I started out, I put up a friendly looking picture of me smiling in a “Hi! Read my blog!” kind of way. When I recently decided to see who my competition was, I was confronted with an array of serious, brooding 20 somethings, looking casually off to the side, staring into the distance, not smiling, saying “Look how serious I am, look at all the important things I have to say.”

Thankfully, a photographer friend had years ago taken some professional looking pictures of me so I trawled through his online portfolio and grabbed whatever looked suitably moody and serious looking with an “I am too busy writing to smile” air about it.

Until very recently, Generation Y were something like a background noise in my life until the penny dropped. It started with small things. I went shopping for clothes and over the last two or three years, I began to feel like the clothes in my favorite stores were being designed by LSD taking toddlers. I would flick through rail after rail of clothes, going increasingly frustrated at the awful cuts, the unflattering colours and ridiculously schizophrenic hemlines, thinking “I would never wear this rubbish.”

Then it was the advertising. So many of the ‘youth’ products’ advertising suddenly stopped making sense and began seeming lazy and uncreative in the extreme. “Who falls for this nonsense?” I’d wonder, thinking I would never buy whatever it was being advertised.

It was when I was asking my sisters if it was just me or were all the clothes in the stores hideous lately when it hit me. I would never wear this rubbish, because I no longer belonged to the target consumer group that my favourite stores were interested in. Those clothes were no longer being designed with me in mind.

That target group was standing behind me tapping on their smartphones, wearing their patterned leggings and drop-hem shirts, rolling their eyes in frustration as I called my youngest sister from the till to ask her if bodycon was a good designer or not because there’s this bodycon dress here that I am thinking of buying.

Generation Y is the homeworking, startup launching, tweeting and twerking voice of tomorrow. In the UK, a recent survey showed that around 30% of the population is prejudiced in some way. The highest level of prejudice against foreigners was recorded amongst manual labourers such as builders, the working class in the UK’s class-obsessed terms. The lowest prejudice against foreigners was reported amongst Generation Y.

So I suppose you could say that in the UK at least the makeup of society is being decided by the working class against the twerking class. Generation Y is a force to be reckoned with. The problem is that they don’t know it, and peeling them away from their social media feeds long enough to get them to engage responsibly in political processes like voting is harder than getting a Kardashian on the news for doing something meaningful for society.

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