Monday, 27 December 2010

From More Innocent Times

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Wishes / Ευχές


Happy Christmas, everybody.

Καλά Χριστούγεννα σε όλους.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Shortest, Coldest Day

Yesterday at four o'clock in the afternoon I walked from the station to the town centre and thence home, through dusk, frost and freezing fog. It was wonderful. The meadows were bluish white, the frosty willows ghostly in the fading grey light, the windows of shops and houses glowing yellow. How lucky I am, I told myself, to be living in a town where every street corner is Christmas card material, and every street is a perfect location for 'A Christmas Carol'. I felt all Back-endish and Yule-tidy, and desired to hear the lonely, far-away sound of 'O Come, Emmanuel' borne on the drifting grey mist from one of our fifteen churches. There was only some old git with a squeeze-box, wheezing 'and we all like figgy pudding, and we all like figgy pudding...' on the High Street. I snuffed out his wretched life there and then. Tomorrow evening, I said, kicking the corpse aside, I'll take my camera and get a few shots of all this Christmasmatic Englishry. Then I heard that not only is today the shortest day of the year, tonight is also going to be the coldest these islands have experienced since the days of the woolly mammoth, so bugger that. I went out earlier while it was still a toasty minus two.


This tree is so perfectly proportioned, so neatly balanced, you'd think it was man-made. In summer it would make the perfect set for a production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' - look at those low-slung boughs and strong branches to deploy your mortals and spirits in. It might also do for 'The Winter's Tale' if anyone was daft enough to attend an outdoor performance in sub-zero temperatures. I dunno, though. In Cambridge, the end of the academic year is marked by loads of outdoor performances, and audiences endure some pretty dreadful weather with great stoicism. One year, when I was Corvino in 'Volpone', we were lucky and had balmy evenings throughout the run, and the only problem was the great mouthful of midges you got every time you had a speech to deliver. The following year I was in the ADC's May Week offering, 'The Country Wife' in Newnham gardens. It pissed with rain all day every day, puddles collected on the stage, and the wooden set swelled so that its doors were jammed. Drenched, shivering actors, supposed to exit smartish, were forced to ad lib: 'egad Sir, 'tis locked, stap me vitals. Demme me, this'n too!' before deciding that jumping off the stage was the only option. Costumes were sodden and rank, mine especially, as the table under which I had to hide for the space of a whole scene stood directly over one of the puddles. It was a thoroughly wretched week, but audiences simply produced golfing umbrellas, blankets and flasks of soup and sat and watched us suffer. No wonder foreign students think the English are barmy.



The town centre seen from the Meadows. Imagine Cambridge, remove every ill-conceived modern monstrosity, then shrink it to five or six streets and a few tiny passageways, and you have something like Stamford.


The cobbled street above apparently features in the film 'The Da Vinci Code'. I haven't seen it, so I can't swear that this is the one. It also features in the BBC adaptation of 'Middlemarch', with which I christened my first DVD player. I hired the series from the video shop in Kalamata. The Greek title, wouldn't you know it, was 'Απαγορευμένο Πάθος', 'Forbidden Passion', one of the stock of Greek all-purpose titles for imported films, and lead no doubt to much disappointment among punters. To be fair, if you just transliterate the English title, 'Μίντελμαρτς΄, it would be pronounced something like 'mindelmarts', some US DIY chain, maybe. I can't myself think of a suitable alternative title because I can't remember a thing about it.



Through the first of the arches is a conveniently placed and well-maintained public bog. Twenty pence a visit, whatever your purpose.


Just so you understand that Stamford does do naff when it tries. Christmas tat festooned across the High Street, outside a sorry building remarkable for its lack of remarkableness.


The George, allegedly the oldest inn in the country, practically on my doorstep. A sign on the door informs us that the Rotary Club meets here first Wednesday of every month, which should surprise nobody. 'Fine dining of the highest order' is offered, but I haven't sampled it, because this is an establishment that requires men to wear ties in the dining room, and I don't do ties for anybody. I did once press my nose to the dining room windows, which you see here, to see how ye Qualitie do eatte. I was soundly horse-whipped.


The building over the bridge is Pizza Express. The company was sensitive enough to the location not to display garish signage. Pictures below of the Meadows. I'm fairly pleased with the birds on the third one down, although I wasn't quick enough to catch the full wheeling flock, and it was too bloody cold to wait for them to do it again.



The Meadows.




Saturday, 18 December 2010

The Thlipsi Hotel Ξενοδοχείο ,,Η Θλίψη''



R

Cambridge First Certificate in English is an international exam open to learners of English as a foreign language. Not too long ago in Greece everyone wanted to pass this exam, or at least possess a forged certificate claiming they had. Part of the exam is an oral test, and at one time ex-pats in Greece could earn good money with the British Council in June and December doing FCE oral examining. If you were dispatched to examine in the provinces for a week or so, you could be lucky and have a good time, for along with the hourly rate there was a generous daily allowance for food, drink, mobile phone cards and what not. The nicer provincial postings, such as Samos or Crete, were reserved for seasoned examiners, and rookies would be sent to less appealing places like Agrinion, Kozani and Ptolemaida. Also, if you were very unfortunate, you might be teamed up with some of the dread Dragon Ladies, a kind of Brit Council knitting circle of ex-pat matrons who had had their feet snugly under the table of Greek FCE oral examining for years, arriving in Athens biannually by broomstick from their various Greek islands. Despite virtual tenure, they had only the haziest notion of what oral assessment entailed, as their chief purpose was to get fatter in tavernas afterwards.

Oral examining was about the most boring thing I have ever done, and I have worked at an Unemployment Benefit Office and stacked shelves at Sainsbury’s. You sat in a hotel room, and interviewed a succession of mostly teenaged candidates, using a set of pictures and pro-forma questions as prompts. I would get so bleary and punch-drunk towards the end of the day that I would often ask the last few kids the same questions over and over in the one interview. The British Council have now reduced the hours examiners may do, maybe in part because the kids complained they were being tested by rambling, glassy-eyed zombies. I think also that the Dragon Ladies have been dropped. At the last briefing session I attended at the end of the nineties, they were all having kittens at the news that lateness would no longer be tolerated, and afraid that examining might therefore eat into shoe-buying time.

*****

‘Oh, Jesus Christ, they're sending you to Xanthi? Worst hotel in Greece, that one in Xanthi.’

The Xanthi posting was a hardship posting, a place new examiners were sent to test their mettle. In the depth of winter I left Athens and flew to Kavala, whence a taxi took me on to Xanthi and the glass-and-ticky-tacky fleabag that was the Hotel Thlipsi. It stood next to a main road, shuddering as lorries passed. The hotel was built for summer, all big windows, marble and high ceilings, but this was December in Northern Greece, where the raw cold can cut you in half. I went up to my room, showered and dressed at speed before hypothermia set in, then faffed briefly with the useless rabbit ears on top of the telly. No picture, only a blizzard on every channel.

My fellow examiners, Eva, who was Greek, and Jim, a Canadian resident in Crete, were sitting in the bar when I went down, wearing gloves and scarves and probably wishing they had brought duvets as well. Eva asked Sakis the simian barman for a tomato juice. He had never heard of it: ‘you want me to squash a tomato?’ There was no humour in this, just irritable incomprehension, which was the only emotion we were to see him evince in our ten-day stay. So we had beers just to chill us through completely, and then went out for dinner.

Breakfast at the Thlipsi was a dried-up turd of a croissant, a glass of orange squash, and tepid Nescafe. The croissants were displayed on a tray on the buffet table like the contents of a canopic jar, the insipid squash in big jugs alongside. Sakis poured left-over squash back into the jugs with no attempt to conceal the action, publicly adjusted the sit of his bollocks and sneezed over the croissants. One morning, unable to face this, I phoned reception and asked if I might have breakfast brought to my room. After an interval I answered my door to Sakis, who wordlessly thrust a tray at me and stomped off. I think I ate the croissant because I would have needed the carbs. Only now do I picture Sakis dropping it on the floor and picking it up several times on his way up the stairs, or gobbing into my coffee pot because it was the nearest handy receptacle.

After each day’s oral tests we repaired to the glacial bar, where there would be a number of parents and teachers of the kids we’d examined. A large lady in a leopard skin two-piece and much clanking dangly jewelry accosted me, and in an American accent gushed ‘are YOU Steve?!?! Oh! You SO impressed my stoodent! Do you remember Costas?’ Half the male population of Greece answers to Costas, so I had to admit I did not. It turned out that Costas was a wannabe actor, and we had digressed a while from the set questions to discuss his ambitions, which I had shared at his age. ‘Oh, he was so impressed! You are sure to get an invitation to dinner!’ I didn’t hang around in the bar, just in case this actually came to pass, but I was vain enough to feel flattered anyway. Later, when I related the incident to an old hand, he said the woman buttered up examiners like this every year, in the hope it might sway them into awarding her student higher marks. In fact, the grade was irrevocably fixed at the end of each interview, so the lady had gushed in vain for years.

The catering at the Thlipsi was not at all representative of Xanthi. Northern Greece is much better fed than central and southern Greece, in my view at least, and most evenings we dined in splendour. Only two items did not please. In one taverna I asked if they had ameletita. This means ‘not studied’ and is a quaint euphemism for testicles, which I had eaten and found surprisingly good in Kavala ten years before. (A less euphemistic term for the same part of the amimal is αρχιδάκια [archidakia] the diminutive form of the crude αρχίδια [archidia], 'bollocks', which I suppose you could translate as 'bollocklets'.) Anyway, the waiter said they had none that evening, but he would see to it that there would be some the following night. And there were. They were not like the ones I remembered from Kavala, unfortunately. Either my tastes had changed, or these were the big spongy nads of some unfortunate member of a different species. The other occasion was when Jim decided we were spending too much on food and should go down-market a bit. We ended up in a dive that turned out to be a pick-up joint for prostitutes. Ladies who could not be mistaken for other than what they were on a dark night at a hundred paces came and went with their punters. We were served a great cowpat of fava, which is a puree of yellow peas, and dish of chicken livers in a yellowish stock, each bowl resembling an unemptied chamber pot.

I was taken back to Athens by taxi. The driver was a bit worried that there was a problem with the car and said we needed to get it checked before we set off. We stopped opposite a garage in front of which three blokes were smoking and scratching their balls. ‘You got an electrician there?’ my driver called. They did not respond, but instead inspected the sky, scuffed their boots in the dust, and ostentatiously ignored us. At length one ambled over to ask what the problem was, and then tell us there was nothing they could do about it. ‘Bloody provinces’ muttered the Athenian cabbie. ‘Mam, skatá, náni*, all they know about.’

(*‘grub, crap, kip’)

That is not fair, of course. As well as the Neanderthal Sakis at the Thlipsi, I remember the cheerful waiters at the taverna we frequented and their concern for our comfort and stomachs, and their generosity with the wine. There is a very strong Turkish presence in Xanthi, and I also remember the open friendliness of the Turkish kids I interviewed, and the kind old man who showed Eva and me round a tiny mosque and gave us prayer beads as a memento of our visit. So all in all, I’m glad I went.

*****

This morning I looked up the hotel on the net. It's been refurbished, and guests' comments on the website where it appears all commend the staff, who everyone says are friendly and obliging. Sakis has obviously been put out to grass.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Old Hiems



It was so bloody cold yesterday that I decided I could not get from the station to the university without suffering freezer-burn to the ears, so I went by Marks and Sparks to buy a beanie. This is the first piece of head-joy I have ever purchased, as I've always thought hats make me look a twat. I can just about carry off a beret, but they always look so self-consciously arty on blokes, so their twat factor is high, I feel. And the thing about beanies is that while they look very good on boys and young men, they somehow make middle-aged males look more emphatically middle-aged. Oh, this is such a pain. I mean, fuck it, middle age already feels like an unsuitable, ill-fitting outfit that you find yourself forced to wear, so you really don’t want accessories that abet the impression. I keep muttering about it, this outfit: ‘look, it just doesn't suit me, OK? I’m still thirty-five inside.’ But there’s no retailer to take it back to, so you are stuck with it. Anyway, I jammed my new purchase on my head as I left the store, and was immediately grateful for the warmer ears. However, I found I was walking fast with my head down, as one who does not want to be recognised. If I hurriedly doff the thing in your presence, do not flatter yourself that this is a mark of respect; it’s pure vanity. I've still got a bit left.

I don’t mind the cold, though, so long as I'm well insulated. I get SAD in reverse – summer makes me feel lethargic, and I sometimes feel alone in thoroughly disliking the insipid lingering light of British summer evenings. No, for me, winter, and the cosiness of winter. The door is bolted (why do I only think to bolt it in winter???) the curtains are closed on the world and the candles are lit. There’s chicken roasting, and wine to open soon. What’s not to like? Perfect introvert's weather. The temperature can stay below freezing forever.




Sunday, 5 December 2010

The Girly Question

If you don’t teach languages, you may not have heard of the approach to this activity known as ‘dogme’. Put simply, this is a ‘materials light’ approach to language instruction where the topic of the lesson is allowed to arise from the students instead of from some text or unit in a coursebook, and the teacher, leading from behind, decides what language work to slip in and when. It’s ‘lessons from the learner’, and seasoned teachers who are fed up with the dreary predictability of so much published material have been doing it for years. The other day, I let a good opportunity slip by.

How many times have young male students put to me variations on the theme of ‘what kind of girls you like?’ The question usually came from the kind of boys I find rather tiresome; vain young Mediterranean coxcombs, all motorbikes and basketball, convinced of their irresistibility to women. I remember the first time. I was eighteen and ‘working’ as an assistant d’anglais in France. ‘What kind of girls you like?’ a lad in my Saturday morning class asked. He was not a vain young coxcomb, not yet, but a dark-eyed, raven-haired little faun, bung full of testosterone. I was unable to give him an answer, as I had no idea what he meant. Somehow I managed to turn it round and put the question to him. Part of his answer was ‘pas trop fardées’, not too made-up. The fact that I remember his criterion thirty-odd years on suggests that I might have been squirreling away answers to trot out for future occasions. If someone at the time had asked me ‘what kind of boys do you like?’ I would have been equally nonplussed, but if the questioner had persisted and said, ‘come on now, think of so-and-so, and what’s-his-name, and this lithe little spunk-factory here, asking you what kind of girls you like…’ I’d have known what I liked much sooner than I did. Thereafter to the girly question I learned to reply ‘intelligent ones’, which usually shut the questioner up pretty sharpish.

Alexandros in my present group talks a lot about ‘the Greece women’, whom he likes to portray to the Saudi men in the class as permanently gagging for it, in marked contrast with their own invisible and unattainable females. For their part, the Saudi blokes seem to enjoy hearing about ‘the Greece women’, perhaps because they may thereby know arousal and moral superiority at the same time. Alexandros is appalled by the Muslim segregation of the sexes, and often quizzes the other men about it. Sanad is thirty-eight and was married only last year. Lifting a book to cover both their faces, Alexandros rasps in a stage whisper audible rooms away: ‘you no make sex before you are thirty-seven???’

This is the way in Muslim society, Sanad explains, with resigned piety.

‘Βρε, γαμώτο!!!** ' Alex hoots, stage whisper abandoned. 'Thirty-seven! In Cyprus, everybody, FIFTEEN!’

Back to the other day. ‘You like the Greece women?’ Alexandros asked me on my return from Athens. I think he imagines that I maintain my long association with Greece simply because of the nooky he claims is more readily available there. Even thirty-two years after I was first asked the ‘girls’ question, I did not answer truthfully. Had I done so, I would have said:

‘Well actually, Alexandré*, I do like Greek women, but if it’s rumpo we’re on about, and I assume we are, then I have to say that I go exclusively for blokes. I like lean lads up to about thirty, smelling of citrussy perfumes, with a whiff of cigarette smoke and warm male packet. No taller than me, dark hair, dark eyes, a day’s worth of scruff, a dusting of hair on the sternum and a little fleur de lys round each nipple. I like the tactile contrast of smooth buttock and hairy thigh. A sturdy pair of bollocks is always nice to get your hands round, especially if the lad shaves his sack, and although I don’t go for huge dicks, I do find thin ones something of a let-down. Well, that’s me. Have you met anyone nice lately?’

Instead I just muttered ‘yeah’ and changed the subject.

Pity. We could have had a long discussion about sex, morality and religion, leading to a bit of work on modal verbs and a whole swathe of very interesting vocabulary. I would almost certainly have been fired, but answering the girly question truthfully for the first time would have been worth getting the boot for.

*****

A bit of him would do me nicely.

* Vocative form of the name.
**'vre gamoto' = fuckinelle!

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Psalm and Hymn



Jan Garbarek sax, Agnes Buen Garnås vocals, from the album 'Twelve Moons', which I was given as a birthday present about seven years ago, and pulled out to replay last night. I wanted to hear this particular track again. It's a hymn that is still, cold and eerie, suggestive of vast and unexplored spaces, of a piece with the icy night and the glassy, impacted snow all around the house and as far as you can see, glowing bluish in the moonlight. The perfect antidote to the worm's eye view of mankind and God presented in the post below this one.





While we're 'Guhkkin davvin, dávggáid vuolde' ('Way up north, under the Great Bear' - first line of the Sámi national anthem) here's the hymn 'Mu Vaibmu Vadjol Doppe', sung by Mari Boine. This is the Sámi version of the Norwegian hymn Mitt Hjerte alltid Vanker i Jesu Fødte rom, 'My heart always wanders where Jesus once was born.' Boine finishes the hymn with wordless Sámi joik singing, the singing that the Christian missionaries said was of the devil, and banned from church and god-fearing company. I don't know if the inclusion of joik is intended as reconciliation or defiance, but I do hope it's the latter.

What a feeling it'd be, to stand alone on a frozen tundra and belt that out to the dying light.



Thursday, 2 December 2010

That's you lot told

Align Left

This is Jay, husband of Paula, a kind lady who engaged patiently with my anti-evangelical rants on You Tube, but failed to bring me back to Jesus. Paula was 'rescued' by Jesus from Wicca - draw from that whatever inferences you will. Mine would include extreme credulity along with a heavy dose of control freakery. Jay and Paula and their fellow evangelicals think the world outside their particular interpretation of Christianity is peopled solely by junkies and sexual insatiates who merely use others, imposing their lustful desires on them and chucking the resultant foetuses into the flames or, if they have not succeded in conceiving a child for Satan, at least passing on a very nasty bug or two. This imagined imposition of the will on others is of a piece with the hectoring street preaching to which Jay and Paula are called.

Imagine being told all your life that eating is disgusting. Food is greasy and gross and foul, yet you cannot avoid it; by your nature you desire it, and must needs ingest it, slurping and farting and rotting your teeth and loathing yourself for satisfying the persistent urge. Curse your nature, therefore. Vomiting is a virtue. You do not suspect, and nobody around will tell you, that there are cuisines and commensalities, techniques, arts and refinements, that have long been cultivated beyond your limited horizons.

Then you discover the Jesus Diet. It doesn't open your eyes to the delights of food, but it does allow you to turn all that self-loathing outward.

*****

Repent, for the end is nigh.

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