LITTLE SWEETIE AND THE MIXED FANCIES
This piece appears a little early as tomorrow is the start of the Orthodox Easter weekend, and, I as well as the whole of Greece, will be very busy celebrating. Otherwise, the blog normally posts every Monday and the next one will appear on Monday,9th May.
Note also that very soon indeed, I will be posting my new novel here, in 14 chapters over 14 consecutive days. It is called PASSION FOR BEGINNERS and is about the central character’s relationships with the women in his life over some 40 years. Full details of all my publications and how to get hold of them are at the end of this post
Towards the end of 2015, I had a long weekend in central Athens, and decided to spend a day at two seaside suburbs close to Glyfada, upmarket and fashionable Voula and Voulagmeni. I met up with an old Greek friend Maria who lives in Voula, and a friend of hers also Greek, but once married to an Englishman. She was called Zacharoula which delightfully means ‘Little Sweetie’ and which she had sensibly abbreviated to Roula. As she lived near Maria she could arguably have been called Roula of Voula, which is like being called Mame of Thame (the little Oxfordshire town in case you aren’t sure) or Millie of the Scillies, the latter being the Cornish islands where the late Labour premier Harold Wilson (1916-1995) always holidayed. We met in central Voula for lunch in a sushi restaurant, which might have had Japanese chefs, but was fronted by Greek waiters, friendly and confident lads in their 20s with flawless English and an expert knowledge of the menu.
Little Sweetie arrived late, and faithful to her name was dressed entirely in vivid pink. She sported a shocking pink suit, expensive pink shoes, a pink handbag, pink lipstick and pink eyeshadow. Had I been drunk and a boor, I might have told her she looked exactly like a little iced fancy cake such as they sold by the barrowload in West Cumbrian cake shops in the good old days. In those same legendary days if you bought an assortment of these garish small cakes you had purchased a bag of ‘mixed fancies’. Hence I might also, had I been appallingly bibulous and without a sense of proper adult boundaries, have been an impertinent oaf, who asked Roula of Voula if she was ‘one of a clutch of mixed fancies’ and if so where were the others.
But a pause to reflect on that exquisite term, mixed fancies. I don’t know about you but it describes me to a tee in my quiet moments. I am full to the brim of mixed fancies, some of them clean and some of them unbelievably disgraceful, and damn glad of it. One of the few things you cannot be done for in this appallingly authoritarian world in 2016, whether in Reykjavik or in Stow on the Wold or Wyre Piddle in the UK, is to have these mixed fancies peacefully circulating or rather floating inside your head, all of them invisible to the outside world and only divulged, if ever, to those you trust and probably love.
Roula disclosed she was both a writer and a real estate agent and it was in the first context she had told Maria she would like to meet me. She was a couple of years older than Maria who was the same age as me, 65, and had a likeably open and animated face, and indeed was the spitting image of a favourite little cousin of mine who I played with back in 1960 when I was 9 and she was 6. That cousin later became an adult alcoholic, and Roula it turned out also had an addiction, though in case to her job. She worked on average 100 hours a work in real estate, and far from resenting its encroachment on the literary life, relished the daily challenge. Regularly she had to do short notice overtime, incredible weeks of up to 120 hours. Such a mammoth routine meant 17 hours a day, which left 7 hours for sleep and everything else in life including the toilet, reading the poetry of George Seferis (1900-1971), perusing the online Guardian and paying her gas bills and doing the Grauniad cryptic crossword. She then confided that after her divorce of long ago she had had only one relationship, which had gone astray, alas, after only a few months. Hence she was now on a dating website specifically for Greek expats and single Greeks with good English. I didn’t say it, but it struck me that open as she was about herself, in adult terms it was surely an act of bad faith to advertise yourself as an available date when you worked between 14 and 17 hours a day. In addition, she took only 2 weeks holiday a year in August, a month which most people avoid spending in sweltering Athens. How and where would she snatch the time to date, I asked myself, unless she slept 3 hours a night, and should the pair of them indulge any bog-eyed amorous dalliance would sleep precisely none…
Voula has no less than 7 Japanese restaurants and with a population of 30,000 is an affluent and depressingly characterless place. It is where Little Sweetie’s real estate office is located and is all in grids and straight lines, rather like a posher and larger version of plug-ugly Kidlington near Oxford. Nearby coastal Glyfada, where the lovable old 2 site Athens A and Athens B airport once flourished, is also affluent and modern, but somehow retains its character. It might be full of Zaras and Nexts and Body Shops and all the rest, but nonetheless has a tang and a zing about it which are impossible not to enjoy after the manner of ozone or candy floss or one-armed bandits and oven ready chips.
We took the beautiful coastal path to Voulagmeni where Zacharoula was conspicuously the only person dressed like an exquisite iced bun. For some reason the only people swimming in the sea in late December were women well over 70, all of them extremely overweight. No doubt they liked a refreshing dip more than most, and being old and fat, could not at this stage give a fuck what the world might think. In any case one of the many appealing things about Greeks is they genuinely don’t care how old nor what weight you are, and don’t even notice, they are such meaningless, banal and arguably bourgeois, unMediterranean indicators. Half way to our destination we stopped for coffee in a wonderfully ramshackle if enormous beach café. We went inside where there was a handsome and odorous log stove, and people were happily knocking back microwave junk snacks of burgers and cheese toasties. I ordered espresso then went to the toilet where the tap wobbled and indeed soon fell off in my hands, and where to my amazement the grubby hand-basin seemed to be pivoted on fresh air. Good old Greece! Bugger the Health and Safety bozos, eh, just a piffling Eurozone nonsense, and let’s just take it as we find it, eh Kostas, eh, my, kiss kiss, dear old malaka?
Voulagmeni is much more attractive than Voula, and has some of the richest people in Greece residing in splendid mansions the length of its straggling outskirts. It is an appealing little resort with a stretch of fine restaurants encircling the small bay. We dawdled there till early evening and all being devotees of foreign cuisine chose to eat Japanese a second time. Maria told us that though the waiters were Greek they had an oriental chef for sure, albeit he happened to be a strikingly good looking Korean. This time I chose a variety of sushi including sea bass presented fresh but cold in rolled and toothpicked fillets. The Greek for toothpicks is odontofiliyes which is a nice word and worth remembering next time you visit the country. Just roll the unadorned word on your tongue at any dinner party, and remember also to roll your eyes, and Greeks will guffaw and applaud and that’s all the Greek you will ever need.
As for the accompanying sauce it looked very much like avocado guacamole, but far from imitating my favourite hors d’oeuvre, tasted exactly like bitter almonds, the same you will recall, if you did A level Chemistry like I did, as the organic compounds known as cyanides. Cyanide though is as nothing compared to its heat quotient. Imagine those incandescent Indian dishes ‘phals’, much favoured by my fearless daughter Ione, which are hotter than vindaloos, and then add another 150% to get the measure of the thing. Roula and Maria were obliged to watch me knock back four glasses of water in rapid succession, before making the slightest impact on the lavish teaspoon I’d recklessly smeared on the bass, then swallowed in a single lunatic gulp.
And as I’ve written elsewhere on these pages, the only things I ever drink as a rule, and Ione would confirm it, are pungent red wine and savoury and flavoursome coffee. From that day forward, I decided that good old water, like money and like friendship and like recreation and like exercise and fresh air, are definitely not to be treated as optional much less dispensable.
PASSION FOR BEGINNERS, appearing here soon, will be John Murray’s 10th published work of fiction. The others are:
Samarkand (1985, broadcast BBC Radio 3)
Pleasure (1987, reissued 1996)
Radio Activity- a Cumbrian Tale in 5 Emissions (1993. Reissued 2004)
John Dory (2001)
Jazz Etc (Booker longlisted 2003)
Murphy’s Favourite Channels (2004, Telegraph novel of the month)
A Gentleman’s Relish (2006)
The Legend of Liz and Joe (2009)
THEY ARE ALL EASILY AVAILABLE on Amazon and Abebooks