Greece and loss

Despite a year of evening classes, and a love of the country and its people, I never quite make the same progress with Greek as with my other languages. My central London class is mainly middle-class arty types. One lady complains that she doesn’t want to learn how to say “bacon and eggs” in Greek, that she wants to learn about traditional Greek breakfasts. “What do YOU have, for instance?” she asks the teacher. “An espresso and a cigarette, while doing my make-up,” she replies.

Somehow, in quick succession, I resign from the European Commission, buy a flat in London, start teaching at the universities of Leeds, Bath and Westminster, and take on freelance assignments around Europe. Somehow it is when I am furthest from my roots that I most grieve for my mother.

Thessaloniki’s horizon starts with a dull dark blue band, beyond which the dying sun lurks, painfully orange. The sea is at rest, but orange hues glint through the blue like an hallucination, the trick of an over-strained iris.

I am right at the water’s edge, and look over my shoulder, afraid that at any moment they could be coming to take me away- away from this pastel ocean and freshly grilled squid and back to the rainy campsite, and Mum’s tinned soup. But then I realise what a fool I’m being- it is actually the other way round. While I sit here, the campsite and soup have been taken away, and beyond them the house to go back to, with its red-and-white pillars, the garden for pottering about in, the crossword and word puzzle book.

Under the first cluster of trees at Ormos Beach sit some cheerful, bare-chested, dark-skinned men, possibly labourers, with bottles of cold beer. Next are two fat olive-skinned men in shirt and cream jacket, with retsina, water, coke, ice and a just-started bottle of Ballantine’s. Beyond are the changing rooms, and a gaggle of dark beauties in bikinis, followed by the wallowing pale hulks of what I assume to be elderly German tourists, but also turn out to be locals.

Mum loved people-watching, and I can hear her say “They come in all shapes and sizes, the Greeks, don’t they?” Embarrassed by her lack of political correctness, I find myself mumbling something about the “Macedonian melting pot” in reply.

Then come the assorted families, all ages and sizes, frantically applying sun cream behind bushes. It is clearly a family-orientated beach, but not in the depressing, over-eating, end-of-the-pier way this means in England (or those foreign beaches we colonise), rather it is relaxed, sensual, and cheerful.

At the end of the tree-lined path is an improvised football pitch, and a periptero where I buy a drink, and sit in the shade to think.

Imagine two weeks, a month here. Freshly grilled fish every afternoon, casual friendliness on the verge of nudity with your family, friends and flirts, the feeling that all day long the sun is somehow worshipping your own tired, stressed, repressed frame, rejuvenating you and giving you release, the embrace of the warm sea, the tinkle of the ice in the ouzo, the zing of the lemon on the octopus tentacle… And beneath it all, the conviction that this is somehow your rightful place in the world.

On the walk back to the car, this timeless scene no longer has the same appeal, perhaps because of its very timelessness. The football continues (but must surely stop soon to let the players watch today’s Greece-Portugal European Cup Final on big screens?), families play, a hippo showers, pulling the skimpy bikini in all directions to cleanse every fold of flesh. It is an arresting sight; but a hippo is an animal of innate grace and beauty. It could never look out of place here; its place is the potamo, the streaming torrent. 

The delphine beauties are now in the sea, teasing each other, and shaking their long hair. I leave the idyllic sun-struck path of the seafront to head back under the trees towards my driver. The cream-jacketed men are still there. They have tiny beads of sweat just above their eyebrows, but the whisky has not gone down. The workmen are equally frozen- the same conversation appears to continue, before what must by now be warm beers. Two new groups have arrived- a family, all in white shorts, the paterfamilias triumphantly brandishing a pack of cards, and the teenage girl, with flashing eyes, and braces on her teeth, letting out a howl of laughter. Mum would like them. An elderly couple tuck into a block of aubergine and spinach.

Imagine being here two weeks, a month. I think of Daisy’s frantic words at a time of confrontation in The Great Gatsby: “What shall we do for the rest of the afternoon, tomorrow, until we die?” 

I’m glad I came, though- that patch of fertile grass and reeds, as you cut inland from the Thermaïkos Gulf to reach the south-facing beaches, that village with its tiny church and huge casino- I wouldn’t have seen any of that if I hadn’t come out here today. Of course I’d love to stay, I say; but my feet lead me back to the waiting car. 

The driver is sitting under a tree, staring into space and dust. He appears not to have moved for the hour I’ve been away. 

As we leave for the airport, he looks at me pityingly: “So now you know. Next time, you need more time.”

Milan revisited: a scam, a tram and some greasy lamb

At a loose end in Zurich one weekend between assignments, I jump on the new train through the Gotthard Base Tunnel, and along Lake Lugano, to spend a day in Milan. Mussolini’s Stazione Centrale is architecturally as majestic as ever, despite sprouting a pop-up Victoria’s Secret, and security checks.

Outside every newsagent’s in the labyrinthine passageways to the metro, there are snaking queues of heavily-laden passengers wanting tickets; the same is true at the automatic machines when one gets to them. Against one wall stands a row, with multilingual smiling helper next to each machine, ready to operate the buttons for you, but not officially employed- rather, expecting a tip, or saying “Here you go!” with a decisive nod of finality, so that you walk away without your change. A few metres around the dimly-lit corner stands another array of machines, barely used.

It’s 9pm on a Friday. Outside the station, police and hustle. Desperate people, some with suitcases, some in rags, are running to and fro, smoking, dropping bags, cursing in the rain. The tiny side-street to my hotel has 2 “Asian massage centers” and an Indian gin palace. Amidst the bustle and bright lights, I hear a spine-chilling, hopeful “Ciao?” from a solitary, stationary woman in the downpour. But this street, with its gaunt men blocking your path to flog you umbrellas, is genteel compared to the main thoroughfare south.

The colonnades now provide shelter to dozens of people who are bedding down for the night. All of human life is here: crying babies, ragged grey beards, smells of marijuana, urine, unwashed bedding- the scene is a medieval painting on the doorstep of the most expensive fashion stores in Europe. An inert body is curled out towards the traffic, and a squad car pulls over to investigate.

In the morning, it is still pouring, so to get a handle on this changed city, I take the no. 1 tram for the length of its route, from Greco to Roserio via the Duomo. This antique, with its wooden benches, rattles across busy junctions and threads through neo-classical arches, its passengers presenting a changing panorama too, no-one staying on board for more than a quarter of its hour-long meander. Smart cars, including at one point a military jeep, cut carelessly in front of us, overestimating our braking capacity, inches from crunchy disaster as the driver rings a century-old bell in impotent protest.

Around me, people speak Spanish, English, Chinese and Italian on the whole trip. Russian and German make an appearance near La Scala, and Bengali and Filipino in Roserio. I wonder whether the fur-coated Argentinians in Corso Sempione would have much in common with the track-suited Hondurans who replace them, or the Chinese with Prada bags in Piazza Cavour with their blank-eyed compatriots, transporting pak choi en masse, in Largo Boccioni. In my mother tongue, I receive an Antipodean lecture on art history, and, later, an East African tirade about rent rises.

Sensitised to the poverty gap, on the second night I eschew the generous flakes of black truffle on the risotto at Nabucco’s, and the plump capers and “slow-food” mozzarella (which, in a tribute to Miles Davis, is at once both solid and liquid) at the jazz club in Arco della Pace, and go for an “aperitivo”, hoping for an experience which is communal and good-value, as well as gastronomic.

It’s always a fine line between buffet and feeding frenzy, but there is something faintly unappetising about witnessing people shovel nachos, mortadella, Russian salad and greasy lamb stew onto one precarious plastic plate. The experience reminds me of something I can’t quite put my finger on.

After a bracing Negroni, the sense-memory has returned: it’s the morning after a student party. There’s a general dazed air of uninhibited bonhomie, tempered by a touch of Milanese reserve; and the food, which may once have been decent, is now stale. But we nonetheless return, out of a kind of compulsion, to those cold, spongey pizzette, with their congealed layer of cheese; and we scoop over-cooked luke-warm farfalle onto dainty but flimsy plates, splattering tepid green oil in all directions.

For what seems like hours, no-one dares make the first move to go home. When we do, just like in London, we “mind the gap”. We stand clear of the poor.

The Cradle of Chinese Communism: “A Glamorous City”

Changsha, Hunan Province

One of many Chinese cities where the streets are not designed for pedestrians- to walk downtown from the “downtown” Sheraton, there is no actual pavement- you have to walk first into the car park, and then out again through a side entrance. You aren’t expected to walk from A to A, let alone from A to B.

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The King of Portugal’s Coconuts

“The King was happy with his coconuts

Thought they would last for many moons

But when he went away, the Queen had a field day

And turned them into macaroons!”

The King of Portugal’s Coconuts, calypso, © no-one else to blame for this lyric, 1998

Bread hangs on door handles. A dirt track leads to an outdoor home, with a too-small tarpaulin. Very short people with moustaches go about their business, or stand stock still, in smart shirts at 7am, looking askance at me. Continue reading

The sometimes painful magic

By 1997, I had performed several comedy shows, mainly performance poetry, using different voices, and in recent years including a musical double-act with Jeremy Limb (known as “Bax” since he was the grandson of musician Arnold Bax). Our friends seemed to generally enjoy our whimsicality, but with the exception of a few showcase events and radio appearances, it wasn’t exactly the big time.

That year in Brussels I read a LRB review of a biography of recently deceased satirist Peter Cook, by comedy producer Harry Thompson. Continue reading

Our human colleagues

While I feel a growing political and social gap between my London existence and Brussels, the geographical distance appears to have shortened considerably: my arrival has coincided with the opening of the Channel Tunnel. I take it hundreds of times during my 6 years living there. Flights are still favoured by regular Euro-commuters for the first few years. The old-fashioned route is still possible, too, with boat trains and ferry to Ostende, including a night crossing, which I resort to once when I miss the last Eurostar due to floods in England.

But rushing back from a translation exam at London’s Institute of Linguists, a few days after moving to Brussels, there is a new option on that November Sunday that had not existed the previous week. Continue reading

Barmy Brussels bureaucrats


It’s rather bizarre hearing first hand about EU legislation, and then reading the UK media. The institutional structure can be complex, but my compatriots do their best to turn the opaque Brussels-speak into simple, colloquial English. What a great service they are doing to communicate complex matters to the British public. Continue reading

Helping straighten the bananas

As the date of our final exam approaches, we are increasingly exposed to “real life” meetings, in what is called the “dummy booth”. Here we are dropped in at the deep end, as if we were already professionals, but do not switch on the microphone. We are listened to by more experienced colleagues and given some final tips. A group of us are so alarmed by what “reality” means that we send a delegation to the course director to say that we are more afraid of passing than we are of failing. Continue reading

Sweet… but it can get sticky


One of the “jury” assessing my ability to understand short presentations in my languages, and render them in eloquent English, was Leopoldo Costa. A slight, unassuming, charming man, as I remember him, he was bilingual Italian-Spanish, interpreted into both from all 7 other official EU languages, and was studying Finnish, his first non-Indo-European language, to be ready for when Finland joined the EU the following year.

A prize for relaying idealistic platitudes about the future of Europe has since been named in his honour. Continue reading