Saturday, December 31, 2011


New Year’s Eve – this year in particular it feels rather like this

Where do we go from here? Well  we cannot go back, we can only go forward. But it does feel rather like being poised over the abyss. We just have to make that leap of faith.

Many of us are looking into a future that holds none of the certainties we have come to take for granted. For the first time in many, many years, I am without paid employment to look forward to.  Being told that my services are no longer required has been a huge shock.
My first instinct, as always, was to put pen to paper, though of course that is now an anachronism, and in fact I simply switched on the computer and opened a Word Document.
I started ‘scribbling’, as I have done on so many occasions in my life. I find that writing is therapeutic. The result is this blog.

As I am sure you know, the verb ‘to scribble’ comes down to us from Latin – scribere, meaning to write. Somewhere along the way, scribbling came to mean hasty and careless writing or drawing. Now that I have reached a certain age, I can’t even read my own scribble, and I recently threw away reams of paper on which I had written down thoughts and feelings and plot outlines for stories, articles and novels. I felt that if I can’t read them, no-one else will ever try. What a waste - or was it?

 I ‘did’ Latin at school by the way, was very good at it, and I have found it echoing through any subsequent acquisition of language skills. Now that I am going to have so much time on my hands, I could take it up again.
‘Why’ I hear you asking. Why not, I reply. Keeps the brain healthy, like doing crosswords and playing Mahjong, and completing those fiendish puzzles that look like crosswords but have three letters displayed (usually j, x and w) and leave you to fill in the rest. I've thought about learning calculus too. Or car maintenance.

Today’s blog is an example of what happens when you have an active brain, time on your hands and nothing pressing to do. In my case, I scribble.

My first serious scribble was a novel. Perhaps we should call it The Novel. It covered pages and pages of scrawl and scribble, and was stored in an old black suitcase under my bed. I was writing the novel together with my two best friends from grammar school, Gill and Roz, and we spent many hours on it. The hero was a divinely handsome Greek slave called Dimitri. He was the much mistreated slave of a high-born Roman matron, and was constantly falling foul of events from which we had to invent dramatic rescues. He had black curls, was lithe but muscular, had golden limbs and green eyes.

I must have had a crush on Victor Mature at the time.

This teenage dream actually materialized once during my life – too late I fear, but this teenage fascination with a Greek slave clearly influenced the outcome of the rest of my life.
I continued to write; won a competition run by the great Art Buchwald and had a piece published in the New York Times. I wrote an article about Corfu that was published in The Lady. As you can see, I have been a real high-flier in the journalistic field.
I used to entertain my work colleagues with rhymes, written to order for birthdays and special events, often accompanied by a little cartoon.
Later still, living in Corfu, I started a monthly column for our English-language magazine, The Corfiot, in which I adopted the persona of Auntie Nora, a harridan employed in the travel business with few good words to say about anyone or anything. I suspect she was my alter ego.

Enough of the rambling reminiscences. We must look forward, not back
But standing, or, in my case, sitting, at the threshold of a new year always makes me introspective.
Many people have pronounced words of wisdom on the New Year, amongst them Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde, Ben Jonson, Ben Franklin, Benjamin Disraeli, T.S. Eliot and Oprah Winfrey. Oprah?
Oprah said: “Cheers to New Year and another chance to get it right”
That’s good enough for me. I wish you all a Happy New Year.

You could do as the Greeks do, and pin a sea-squill up on the front door for luck!

Two would be better - every little helps, as that irritating Tesco ad says!

Blogs away - we're taking off now for 2012!


Wednesday, December 28, 2011


So Christmas Day has been and gone, and the festivities are over for another year.
Or are they?
There is a saying that has always amused me: 'It ain't over till the Fat Lady sings'.
Opinion is divided on the origin of this colourful saying. There are those who attribute it to American sports journalism, but where did it originally come from? On that, everyone seems to agree. It refers to the final, ten minute-long aria that comes at the close of the fourteen hour-long Ring Cycle by Richard Wagner, an aria which is delivered by the massively buxom Brunnhilde.

Here in Greece, the Fat Lady doesn't sing until 7th January, having begun her aria on 4th December - a whole month of festivals and celebrations.

Saint Barbara opens the ceremonies on 4th December, while  6th December is the day associated with Saint Nicholas, an early-Christian saint born in what was then part of Greece but is now in  Turkey. He is the patron saint of a surprisingly motley group of people - children, sailors, fishermen, merchants, broadcasters, the falsely accused, prostitutes, repentant thieves, archers, pharmacists and pawnbrokers. In the Balkans and some parts of Western Europe, his connection with children and his reputation for leaving gifts for people, led to him becoming the original Santa Claus - the name being derived from the Dutch Sinterklaas.In  the depiction below, it is easy to see the connection.

In Corfu, we have the name-day of our own Saint Spyridon on 12 December. It's a day when the whole of Corfu takes to the road from early morning, in order to squeeze in as many house-calls as possible, to visit their friends called Spyros or Spyridoula, to deliver gifts of sweet cakes and liquor and flowers, to be forced in turn to consume cakes and spirits at each house. Meanwhile, the pharmacists are giving thanks to St Nicholas, their own patron saint, and checking their stocks of Maalox and Gaviscon in preparation for the massive pan-Hellenic attack of indigestion that is about to commence.
Joking apart, St Spyridon was a beautiful man, known for his compassion to others, so pure in heart that more than 1700 years after his death his body remains incorrupt and is believed to have miraculous powers.

The pantheon of saints-days continues throughout December and well into January, its highlight being Christmas, when we celebrate the Birth of Christ. St Stephen, the first  Christian martyr and well-known to  the British for his mention in the second line of the carol 'Good King Wenceslas' is commemorated on 26th December -  though in the Orthodox church his name day falls on 27th. Don't ask me why - it's all to do with Julian and Gregorian calendars. Here is a suitably jolly karaoke version of the much-loved carol!

New Year's Day sees the celebration of the name day of St. Vassilis (Basil), one of the founders of the Christian church. In Greece, many people still give  presents to their children on this day rather than at Christmas, which, traditionally,. has always been a quiet and simple religious celebration. Things get rowdier at New Year however, with parties and dancing and, for a reason too complicated to go into here, gambling. It is considered lucky to see the New Year in with gambling, and entire families, old  and young, play cards and cut the Vassilopita together according to a strict protocol of who gets which piece - one of which contains a coin. Preferably gold, but hey - who's complaining? Agios Vassilis also provides us with several fine examples of the merging of pagan and Christian belief.
The crammed calendar of name days begins to thin out after early January, with the Epiphany  on 6th January  and on 7th January, St. John the Baptist's day.

These are the great winter festivals, each with its own colourful and impressive rituals that have come down to us in some cases from pre-Christian times..
Epiphany, for example, is celebrated by Greek Orthodox communities all over the world with the tradition whereby young males leap into a body of water to retrieve a crucifix. Here the frontiers between pagan and Christian practices blur, for while Epiphany represents the time when Jesus was baptised in the River Jordan, and the Great Blessing of the Waters took place, it marks the end of the traditional ban on sailing, as the wild winter seas are cleansed of the mischief-prone "kalikántzaroi", the goblins that try to torment God-fearing Christians through the festive season. In many countries, of course, 6th January represents Twelfth Night.

But WHO is Father Christmas? Saint Nicholas hands out gifts but so too does Saint Vassilis. Although modern cynics remind us that the Coca-Cola Company is responsible, since the nineteen-thirties, for the image of an overweight, alarmingly red-cheeked (did anyone check his blood pressure?) old man in a startling red suit, both saints have been depicted wearing robes of great opulence and colour, including crimson. Both distribute gifts to the poor and the needy as well as to children. They are Christian saints but they came from a part of the world not noted for Christianity. They are known by many names, some of them similar to Santa Claus.
Father Christmas seems to represent a universal need for love, kindness and charity.
He may not be politically correct in some countries where the edicts of cold-hearted bureaucrats, do-gooders and killjoys prevail over good sense. He may be an advertising agency's dream. But he is also the dream of children and the young at heart, everywhere.

Back, for a moment, to The Fat Lady, courtesy of that remarkable artist Beryl Cook.


As you can see, she wears purple and is kind to her cat. Any other resemblance between her and the author of this blog is purely wishful-thinking.


Friday, December 23, 2011


I'm looking forward to seeing family and friends at my house tomorrow evening, Christmas Eve, but I have one request.
Leave the crisis outside the front door please!
Long faces are banned.
No politics, please, we are taking a Christmas break.
The only mention of EU allowed is :'Ee-yoo, look at that lovely food!'

So come on, everyone, make an effort - SMILE!


Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Do you know what the Christmas Truce was? You can of course Google it and believe me the results are very interesting, but, in brief, it was an unofficial truce called at Christmas 1914, during which British and German soldiers, as well as some Belgian and French troops, literally laid down their rifles, hauled themselves out of the mud of the trenches, and exchanged, greetings and seasonal wishes.
It makes you think - about the spirit of Man, about the futility of War, about the power of the Christmas message.
I'm declaring a Christmas Truce of my own, though I cannot pretend to match the courage of the men of the Great War, the 'War to end all Wars'....
I'm calling a truce on the media war, on the barrage of gloomy, pessimistic articles, blogs, posts and tweets about the state of the economy, until well into the New Year. It doesn't look as if there is anything I can do about it anyway.
I'm going to be thankful for what I do have and stop moaning about what I do not have.
I'm going to stop trying to make sense of those split-screen TV discussions where everyone talks at once.
I'm going to watch every film that features a Santa though.
This is probably not going to be the kind of Christmas we have become used to. There are so many people out of work with little or no chance of finding any, and there are so many who have jobs but are not getting paid.
We shall have presents for the children, but not the adults - just as well that I was given a Christmas mug a few years ago because I am not expecting one this year.
We shall have a lovely meal to which everyone will contribute.
And we have out beautiful Christmas tree, glittering with lights, symbolising the hope we must hold on to.
So, join me, climb out of the trenches of gloom and depression, shake a few hands, exchange good wishes, and be of good cheer.
Happy Christmas to all my family, friends and blog followers!

Sunday, December 18, 2011


'Christmas' came early for those of us who live in Corfu, Greece, with a totally unforeseen hailstorm a few days ago that turned the centre of town into a winter wonderland, with the streets, cars, trees and in fact everything covered in what looked like deep snow but was actually a thick layer of tightly packed hailstones, some the size of golf balls.
Today, Sunday, weather forecasters on TV and online, not to mention the local soothsayers, are warning us of 'extreme' weather conditions - it sounds even more dramatic in Greek -'akraia kairika phenomena'. I don't know what counts as extreme anymore - all weather seems to fall into that category now.
A white Christmas would be lovely, but remains unlikely, though snow can already be seen coating the hills and mountains of the  mainland opposite our shores.
It looks something like this: This was taken a few years ago, from a viewpoint above Kalami, looking towards Albania.

In 2006, the whole of Corfu was covered in snow, and parents took their kids out of school for the day to drive up Mt. Pantocrator to see it and to make little snowmen with which  to adorn the car bonnet. That is something I have always loved about Greeks - their ability to enjoy simple pleasures.

The snow made the view of Barbati look positively alpine, as you can see from the next photo:

Last year, we spent Christmas as a family on the Greek mainland, in the region called Zagoria. We crossed by ferry-boat from Corfu to Igoumenitsa and then drove on the stunning new Egnatia Highway to the town of Ioannina and on, up into the high mountains, to Zagoria. We stayed in an inn that reminded me of the great old film, 'The Inn of the Sixth Happiness - the buildings could easily have been located in China or Tibet, or indeed in any isolated mountain area - I was reminded too of the remote villages of the Engadin in Switzerland - and, yes, I will tell you about that trip too one day.
This year money is short for all of us and Christmas will be a more frugal affair, but there will still be some presents for the kids, some delicious food on the table, and some good company.
The beautiful Christmas tree, two metres tall now that we live in a house big enough to accommodate it, will be our symbol of hope for better days to come, a reminder of memorable past Christmases, and a testimony to the joy we feel as a united family.
In Greece, shops open on the last Sunday before Christmas (and New Year) to facilitate shopping. This year it is more like a desperate hope that it will encourage people to actually shop.One of my grand-daughters has just popped in to show me the results of her Christmas shopping with her mother - two pairs of pants (black of course) and no less than five books. Nice to see she is following in the family footsteps and turning into a bookworm!
More Christmas thoughts later this week!

Friday, December 16, 2011

I hope the water isn't too cold.

Writing and posting on a newly-created blog for the first time is, I feel, rather like edging your way slowly, step by step, along a diving board. At the end of the board there is no turning back - you have to jump.
Will you make a big splash, or one that nobody even notices?
Will you remember on the way down that you can't actually swim very well?
Will the water be cold, tepid or warm?
Will that hunky lifeguard be there, waiting with open arms?
Get a grip, Grandma. It;s only a blog.
Here goes.....

I always told myself that when I finally became - it's hard to say this - old - I would not turn into an old crone. Some things are unavoidable - cataracts, skirts and pants with elastic waistbands, shoes with Velcro fastenings, losing things, text that has unaccountably become fainter and smaller than it used to be. Some amazing people seem to keep their shapes and their looks far longer than Nature intended, but the day comes when everything crumbles and collapses at once and you realise that it is probably better to let things change gradually.

Ever since my hair gradually became a rather fetching shade of white, I have loved the colour purple - as you can see.

And the following poem just about sums up my feelings on ageing outrageously -

When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple
with a red hat that doesn't go, and doesn't suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
and satin candles, and say we've no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I am tired
and gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
and run my stick along the public railings
and make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
and pick the flowers in other people's gardens
and learn to spit.

You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
and eat three pounds of sausages at a go
or only bread and pickles for a week
and hoard pens and pencils and beer nuts and things in boxes.

But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
and pay our rent and not swear in the street
and set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

This lovely poem was written in 1961 by Jenny Joseph. I haven't yet learned to spit, but I have embarrassed my daughter often enough by singing along to the Muzak in supermarkets and department stores...

16th December 2011