LITTLE SWEETIE AND THE MIXED FANCIES

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)

Kin (1986)

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

 

BUMFREEZERS IN BOILING ATHENS

 

BUMFREEZERS IN BOILING ATHENS

 This post appears a few days early. They usually appear every Monday and the next one will be Monday 2nd May. You can always contact me about anything including Bargain Online Fiction Tuition at john@writinginkythnos,com

When people start talking about the world’s greatest cuisines they don’t normally place Greece at the top of the tree. It’s come on a long way from the couldn’t give a damn 1970s and 1980s when ladhera vegetables like gigantes and briam and sundry dried up meat dishes would stew all day in the same metal containers and often be served stone cold. Nevertheless, as is my wont, I would like to confound all ossified expectations, and tell you that the very best meal I’ve had in all my 65 years, was in central Athens at the start of the month. It was in Aiolou near Monastiraki and I’m going to advertise it for free and say the mezedopoleio where I gorged had the same name as the street. It was run by a tall and strikingly handsome bloke of about 55 who looked very English, so that I couldn’t resist asking him if he was Greek or not. He demurred amiably enough and we chatted in my hit and miss jazz improvisation model of his tongue. I ordered a pligouri/bulgur salad with dried fruits, finely chopped tomatoes, hazelnuts and mint. Needless to say it was delicious, but the other meze which I decided would either be ecstatic or appalling but worth the considered risk, was of another and far more glorious universe. It was whopping fresh mussels in their shells, a generous number, maybe 30, and under each one had been inserted a delicate shaving of fennel vegetable (finocchio to you). The shells had then been topped up with tsipuro = grape brandy, and the seafood dish had been steamed in the tin in which it was served.

Each mouthful was more heavenly than the last, and I did not wish the beautiful mountain of mussels ever to end. People talk about food being orgasmic and yes I’d agree, though personally I don’t think the carnal and gustatory joys should be made mutually exclusive. The ideal would be to combine this divine meze with rampant 5-star sex with someone you love, whilst tenderly spooning the mydia me tsipouro into their adorable lips. If all that sounds a bit messy I suggest you give yourself a kick up the arse, and think about taking an amorous and culinary risk, stepping out on a gourmet and erotic limb, an updated version of the Kamashastra in effect. Do not however whilst copulating and guzzling mussels do what I foolishly did, and once finished the seafood start lapping up the copious aniseed broth. It tastes wonderful but is full of incendiary raw spirit and most scalding to the tongue. It therefore makes you cough and splutter volcanically, so that you wouldn’t really know whether you’d had an orgasm or not. Up for hypothetical grabs, as it were.

The UK flight next day was 9pm so I had time to kill in Thiseio, the Plaka and Ermou. In lovely Thiseio, I chanced upon a riddle when I beheld a heap of graffiti in black paint along the side of a bus office portakabin, right next to the metro. It read as follows and take note it was in Roman letters not Greek.

ARBEIT RUZKO TANGO LOUIS LASH!

Ahem. A truly lavish once in a lifetime prize (a night out with me in Kythnos) for anyone who can work out what the defiant graffiteer was trying to tell the world. Arbeit is German for work, tango is tango, lash cannot be a surname surely, and Louis is definitely a name rather than an obsolete French coin, as the word was written separately down below. So a geezer called Louis (not a Greek name is it?) is saying something about work, tango and just possibly the Russians. Could it be that Louis works here in Athens for a stingy Russian boss and would like free tango lessons at his job. Fair enough request and the boss might like to twirl to the strains of the composer Astor Piazzolla himself (1921-1992), as well as strut his native troika or tropak. But why ‘lash’? A bit of Russian birch or knout S and M perhaps, as well as dancing the tango (qv mussels and brandy with steamy sex and with someone you love)?

Later near Ermou, I sat outside a café with the interesting name of Thesis 7. Inside it was full of books, a whole library of choice volumes on elegant wooden shelves. Opposite those, as wall hangings were some extremely torrid erotic paintings, one of which had a couple happily copulating. Great eh? Bring it on! That’s the style! Meanwhile outside in the boiling heat was the café’s ice cream machine whose brand name was Arz Freezer. I guffawed at once and thought of Victorian bumfreezer jackets, and suddenly realised, that author notwithstanding, I had no idea what they looked like…not even a clue at the ripe old age of 65.

By way of hot and cold motifs, right next to the machine was an ornamental plaque with a piquant message from a famous artist. It quoted Verdi (1813-1901) who said that ‘coffee is the balm of the heart and the spirit’. Good old Giuseppe Verdi, who wrote the first Requiem I ever heard (the second was Mozart’s which runs all the way through Bunuel’s matchless 1961 Viridiana). I agree entirely with Giuseppe who needless to say wasn’t brought up like I was on Maxwell House, Mellow Birds and Camp Chicory in bloody old subterranean West Cumbria.

Bumfreezers and Louis the Lash’s weird messages in black paint, brings us back to Kythnos where about 10 days ago the sensitive area of the backside and a mysterious paint inscription were harmoniously united on the body of Tatiana the Rumanian waitress, aged 35. Tatiana works at the Delfini on the opposite side of the bay, and had been ordered to get up there on the outside canopy to do a bit of spring cleaning, it being close to Easter (Greek Easter Sunday is the 1st of May). It entailed climbing up a rickety ladder which she did with a fearless alacrity, then clearing all the debris of twigs and dust that had accumulated over months. Understandably the tidy waitress was wearing old clothes, a grimy shirt and a ragged and faded pair of jeans. The jeans were covered in random daubs of dried paint but most strikingly there on her upturned behind as she stooped and swept, evenly spaced from left cheek to right cheek, was a mystifying insignia. And it spoke a single word:

M-Y-L-O-S

Rum eh? Nothing to do with the fabled island of Milos (qv Venus de Milo) but the Greek word for windmill. And where does that take us? Tatiana’s innocent bottom looks nothing like an Amsterdam windmill, yet I scrutinised it keenly, not to say chastely, to see if I could detect any correspondences. Her arms had no resemblance to vanes, no chance her insides were anything akin to a millstone. A day later and before I could solve the puzzle of the windmill, the Bucharest gal had another surprise in store, and again it concerned a curious message on her person, although in this case it was printed on a brand new and fashionable t-shirt. The site where it was displayed had moved from her Bucharest backside to her Bucharest bosom, a kind of rear window, front window symmetry, if you know what I mean. This is the strident exhortation, at least as forthright as anything composed by querulous Louis Lash, that was displayed in Queen’s English across her splendid Rumanian chest.

FUCK LOVE, GIVE ME DIAMONDS!

Aha. No arguing with that, is there. It sounds like something Mae West or Groucho Marx might have said off screen, and meant it. The only problem was that Tatiana herself could not possibly have subscribed to that sour and cynical aphorism, as she is as legendarily gentle and kind as the day is long. She has no boyfriend that I know of, but I doubt she would demand a string of diamonds as a non-returnable deposit on their assignations. The solution to the enigma is much easier than working out what ruzko, lash and tango really signify. Tatiana beams as she trots about in her posh and pricey t-shirt because like all East European Kythniots, though they usually have perfect Greek, they invariably know rather less than 10 words of English. For all she is aware it might be saying Look Before You Leap or Where There’s a Will There’s a Bloody Old Way…

Postscript. It took me a whole week to work out why Tatiana had the word MYLOS tattooed on her handsome behind. One morning I dimly recalled that the Delfini proprietress had a cousin who ran another kafeneion at the far end of Loutra. That place is called The Windmill, but I had only been in it once and had not been impressed. Over the years I had forgotten it even existed.

One other mystery remains. Given that any self-respecting tramp would have refused Tatiana’s ragged and paint-smeared jeans, why would The Mylos wish to claim it as their property, hence not to be purloined and flagrantly besported by someone outside the chosen few, the family business. Some mysteries of course are beyond solution, and when it comes to possessiveness, petty avarice and meum tuum as they used to say in Just William books, some of them defy all logic.