Put to shame, and other postscripts

It’s amazing what can come up in conversation. When I visited good friends in Athens a month ago, we were talking about what we take with us when we travel. Do we travel light? Or do we take an outfit for every possible contingency? Naturally, I brought up my packing list, the one I’d so lavishly praised in a blog post just before I left for Greece. I praised its virtues exuberantly.

My friend said that he, too, had developed a packing list that the whole family uses when travelling, and brought it out for me to see.

What can I say? It was a long, comprehensive, laminated list that could be used multiple times: things that weren’t relevant could be crossed out; things to be packed could be ticked off. There were even blank lines for miscellaneous things only relevant to each specific trip to be added. Then you can wipe the whole lot clean and start again.

I was floored. “Oh my God” I stammered. “I’m so impressed. That is so impressive…”

I had been put to shame.

Later, over dinner, the conversation turned to food and I mentioned my favourite meal was a traditional Greek casserole of green beans and potatoes (known as φασολάκια με πατάτες – fasolakia me patates). My friends’ teenage daughters can’t stand this dish, I was told.

I turned to one daughter and said, “Aaah, that’s because you haven’t tried my fasolakia me patates!”

“Yeah”, she replied, “That’s what you said about your list, too.”

Gotta admit, she had a point.


When I wrote about the difficulties in conversing with my friends and family in Greece, little did I realise I had a secret weapon in my possession that would help me out.

This is the first time I’ve travelled to Greece with a smartphone, you see – not because I haven’t been to Greece in a long time (I was just there in 2013), but because I was a late adopter as far as smartphones are concerned.

In any case, I very quickly realised that, thanks to my iPhone, I could reach into my pocket and pull out my own instant translation service. Google Translate became my new best friend.

iPhone screen shot from Google Translate

Not only was it useful when I desperately needed help expressing myself, I also used it when reading about the political situation in Greece – in fact, I’m still using it for this purpose. I am able to copy words straight from news websites or from Twitter and paste them into Google Translate. Within seconds out spits a translation.

It has been incredibly helpful. I’m now pretty fluent in the language of the current political landscape in Greece. Unsurprisingly, given the timing of my visit to Greece, the first word I looked up was διαπραγματεύσης – diapragmatevsis. It was in every news report on TV and all the articles I read online.

It means ‘negotiation’.


Another word I learnt when in Greece was δημοψήφισμα – demopsifisma: ‘referendum’. In the last post I wrote, I said I was hoping for Greeks to vote ΟΧΙ – ‘NO’ – in the Greek referendum of 5 July 2015. Author Christos Tsiolkas recently wrote an article about the aftermath of the referendum for The Monthly (Greek Tragedy). In it he writes about experiencing “political hope” and “political optimism” in the immediate wake of the referendum. These were feelings that swept up an entire nation (or at least the 61.3 per cent that voted ‘NO’). Feelings that I experienced, too, when I was in Greece in the week preceding the referendum, as well as immediately after.

The tragedy of what followed and what continues to be played out is that the Greek prime minister’s tactic of using the referendum result as a means of strengthening his negotiation position spectacularly backfired. Greece’s people may have rejected austerity but Greece’s lenders had not.

Meanwhile, the flower of political optimism and hope that had begun to grow in the hearts of the Greek people was not only weeded out; the garden it grew in was completely concreted over.

On my last day in Athens I visited the Acropolis, which I hadn’t been to in over twenty years. It was a glorious day and the marble of the Parthenon and the other buildings glimmered in the sun. The Greek flag fluttered against the backdrop of the city and the blue sky.

Greek flag - fluttering in wind

Over more than two millennia, the Acropolis has withstood countless attacks by Greece’s enemies, including being bombed in World War II. It’s still there though, and, while it is obviously damaged and worn, it’s still breathtaking in its magnificence.

I’ve written before about the lessons of history regarding the strength of the Greek people, and when I look at my photos of the day I reflect on this again.

I think of the Acropolis and its buildings as symbols of the resilience of the Greek people, who may be down now, who may be worn and damaged, but who will never be out.

Parthenon of Athens

When in Greece – part 2: In the midst of a crisis

In January 2013 I visited Greece and was shocked to find how badly things had deteriorated because of the financial crisis.

The first thing that relatives asked me when I arrived in Greece four weeks ago was, “What do you think of our situation now? How do you find us?”

While they all told me that things were much, much worse, to my eyes things seemed to be about the same. I know unemployment has gone up, amenities seemed even more worn out and damaged than before, and there were slightly more shops closed in the heart of Athens. But otherwise life seemed to be going on much as it had before.

The main change I saw in Greece, or in Greeks, rather, was that many people seemed to be suffering from crisis fatigue. Whereas the crisis seemed to be on everyone’s lips in 2013, this time round I found that only about half the people I talked to spent their time obsessing about the financial crisis, while the rest had switched off. They avoided news and current affairs shows, newspapers and online news outlets – because they found the news too depressing and too distressing. For many, it was just too hard to continue with the crisis at the centre of their lives; they had become worn down to the point of emotional and mental exhaustion by it. So they were opting out.

Even as negotiations began in earnest ahead of Greece’s 30 June deadline for its first payment back to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), many people refused to keep abreast of what was going on. The rest, meanwhile, continued to obsessively scan the television for the latest reports.

Talking to people it seemed to me that they had gone through several of the stages of grief in relation to what had been happening to their country, Greece, including shock, anger, resentment, grief and, for many, acceptance.

The media reported that €3billion was withdrawn from banks by Greeks in the week ending Friday 19 June, with €1billion withdrawn on that particular Friday. But I saw no bank queues that week.

In fact, I only saw bank queues from Saturday 27 June onwards, once the Greek prime minister had called a referendum for 5 July on the question of whether the people accepted the bailout terms put in an ultimatum to the Greek government by the so-called Troika – the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the IMF.

Even still, while the media showed photos of the same long queues over and over, I only ever saw relatively short queues of between five and ten people. People who seemed calm and good natured, not panicked or desperate, as portrayed in the traditional media.

While much has been written about the limit of sixty euro a day that can be withdrawn by locals from ATMs, on social media OXI campaigners have pointed out that the capital controls don’t affect the thirty five per cent of the population living in poverty because they don’t even have the luxury of a bank account.

I can’t help think that if money is running out in banks, maybe it’s because the people who withdrew the billions of euros before the referendum was announced are hoarding it.

A lot has been written about the politics implicit in the referendum and the economic consequences of voting no or yes. In Greece, the traditional media is aggressively supporting the NAI or ‘yes’ campaign, while the OXI or ‘no’ campaign is running hot on social media.

People I know have expressed a variety of opinions. Some say that either way they’ll be hungry in the next few years, so they might as well vote ‘no’ and get the Troika off their backs. Others say they know that more pain awaits if they accept the bailout terms offered, but they fear Greece leaving the Eurozone and a return to the drachma. They say it’s better the devil you know, than uncertainty.

As a very wise woman once explained to me, people are only motivated by two emotions: fear and love. All other emotions can be traced back to these two.

I have no doubt that everyone voting in the referendum will think they are doing the right thing for their country and their future. I also have no doubt that for many the motivating emotions will be fear of what will come next mixed with love of their country.

I personally hope that Greeks vote a big fat ‘OXI’ – ‘no’. But it’s easy for me to have an opinion because I’m an outsider. I’m all care and no responsibility.

As I write this, the polling booths have closed and soon we will know the result. Either way, in the tradition of Greeks who pass on “good” wishes, I wish Greece and Greeks, Καλἠ μαχἠ και καλἠ συνἐχια – a good fight and a good continuation.

When in Greece – part 1: “Good” to be here

When I was learning Greek as a child, I was taught that there were three words that one could use as a greeting, or parting wish, at different times of the day: Καλημἐρα – kalimera – good morning, Καλησπἐρα – kalispera – good evening, and Καληνὐχτα – kalinichta – good night. That was it. Those three things.

As the years have passed, however, more “good” greetings and “good” wishes have been added to the Greek lexicon.

Now you have to understand that in Greek, notwithstanding a few variations, the standard seasons greetings all begin with “good”, for example, Καλὀ Πἀσχα – Kalo Pascha – Good Easter, Καλἀ Χριστοὐγεννα – Kala Christougenna – Good Christmas, Καλἠ Πρωτοχρονιἀ – Kali Protohronia – Good New Year.

But alongside these and the standard greetings I learnt as a child, there has been a steady increase in other wishes, so that you now regularly also hear:

– Καλὀ πρωϊ – kalo proee – good morning (this is different to the good morning above which is a greeting, whereas Kalo proee is said when you’re heading off and the morning is still ahead of you)

– Καλὀ μεσημἐρι – kalo mesimeri – good lunchtime (which is the period from about 2pm-5pm and takes in the siesta)

– Καλὀ απὀγεμα – kalo apogema – good afternoon (the period between about 5-9pm; different to Kalispera in the same way Kalimera and Kalo proee differ)

– Καλὀ βρἀδυ – kalo vradi – literally “good night time” but used in the sense of good evening (the period between 9 and whenever you go to bed)

– Καλὀ Σαββατοκὐριακο – kalo sabbatokiriako – good weekend

– Καλἠ εβδομἀδα – kali evdomada – good week

– Καλὀ μἠνα – kalo mina – good month

– Καλἠ χρονιἀ – kali chronia – good year

– Καλἐς γιορτἐς – kalles yiortes – literally “good holidays” used in the American sense of “seasons greetings” for either Easter or Christmas

– Καλἐς διακοπἐς – good diakopes – good holidays, in the Australian sense of good vacation

Then about seven or eight years ago I became aware of even more “good” wishes that had been added:

– Καλὀ ξημἐρωμα – good ximeroma – good day break (said the night before, either instead of or with Kalo Vradi and/or Kalinichta)

– Καλἠ ξεκοὐραση – kali xekourasi – good rest (usually said before the siesta)

Don’t you think that’s a lot of wishes? I mean, in comparison to what we say in English? And yet, on this trip I heard a new “good” wish which seems to have emerged between now and my last trip to Greece in January 2013.

People now say, Καλἠ συνἐχια – kali sinehia – good continuation.

You hear it everywhere: you’re at a shop, the teller puts through your things and wishes you a good continuation – i.e. of your shopping. Or you wish them a good continuation – of their working day. You’re travelling on a long haul coach or train, the conductor checks your ticket and then wishes you a good continuation – of your travels. Basically whenever you’re in the middle of something, any person you interact with can wish you a good continuation – of whatever it is you’re doing.

I often joke with a Greek-Australian friend who lives in Greece about all the “good” wishes that people pass on in Greece. Where will it end? we wonder. What will they come up with next?

My friend called me when I was at the first “OXI” rally about a week ago (that is, a rally supporting a ‘no’ vote in the Greek referendum held on 5 July). I told her that one of the speakers at the rally had just announced the long list of artists who would be performing at the rally concert. At the end she signed off by saying, Καλἠ συναυλἰα, καλὀ ΟΧΙ και καλἠ συνἐχια – Kali sinavlia, kalo OHI kai kali sinehia – Good concert, good ‘NO’ and good continuation.

“Did she really say “Good ‘NO’?” she asked incredulously, and we both laughed.

The next night I told the same story to another Greek-Australian friend who has lived in Greece since his teens. He also saw the funny side. As I ended the call I wished him, Καλἠ τηλεὀρασι – Kali tileorasi – good television!

I truly am amazed – sometimes hilariously so – at the way the Greek people are constantly finding new ways to wish each other well.

But how much does it say about the spirit of a people that has been going through so much hardship in the last five to eight years that they continue to find the positivity required to give these upbeat good wishes to each other?

It’s like people know that together they can give each other strength to carry on, in spite of what life is throwing at them. Every “good” wish implies that the person saying it to you cares for your wellbeing. They want life to be good for you. So they keep coming up with new and innovative ways of giving each other that strength and support.

The truth is, notwithstanding all my laughter, I actually find something profoundly beautiful and admirable in that.

Return of the travel curse

Years ago I thought I was cursed with a travel curse. I’m not sure by whom, how or why I’d been cursed but every time I went overseas some drama would occur, so I was pretty sure the curse was real.

One time on a Greek island, my bed and breakfast host (who in those days would collect guests’ passports and hold them at the front desk), inadvertently gave my passport to another Australian on check-out. By the time they notified me the other Australian had left the island. To add a bit of urgency to the situation, I was due to leave Greece myself in four days’ time – so I needed that passport. (In case you’re the kind of person that needs to know how a story ends, yes, I managed to obtain an emergency passport on the morning of my flight out.)

Another time, when travelling to Vancouver, I lost my luggage. Or rather, it was delayed by a couple of days. Not too big a deal, except that I didn’t have any carry-on luggage with me because one of my friends had suggested I didn’t need any, saying, “What can go wrong? How many people do you know who have lost their luggage?” As it turns out, the moment I arrived in Vancouver after twenty hours in transit, desperately needing a shower and a change of outfit, but with no toiletries or clothes, I remembered I do, in fact, know someone who lost their luggage. Funny that.

I’ve also missed an international flight, though that was perhaps less due to a curse and more to my own problems with punctuality (but for the sake of the argument I’ll include it here). I was travelling from Madrid to Thessaloniki and arrived at the Olympic Airways check-in counter to find a drawn shutter and no sign of staff anywhere. Do you know the scene in The Graduate where Dustin Hoffman is banging on the glass as he watches Katherine Ross prepare to marry another man? That was me, banging on the glass in the airport, watching my plane roll away along the tarmac.

(And yes, I learnt my lesson and have only ever been early for all flights since then.)

Then the curse seemed to disappear. For eight years I’ve had trips without anything remotely going wrong. In fact, everything has gone to schedule so smoothly that I’d actually forgot about the curse. As I was leaving for Greece last Wednesday, however, I remembered it.

Firstly, as I finished packing my suitcase I clipped the zip tags into the suitcase’s built in lock. I immediately tried to open it again, entering what I believed to be the three digit code. It didn’t work. I tried it again. Nothing. I tried it repeatedly for about ten minutes. Nothing doing. I only have one three digit number that I use when I need a three number PIN. If it wasn’t going to work here, then I had no idea what the number could possibly be.

I actually tried to break into my suitcase but didn’t have the right tools. After twenty minutes I had to leave it and trust that I would be able to sort it out later. Otherwise I’d be in jeopardy of not being early for my flight (see point above).

We packed the car and I returned to lock the front door. The main door locked fine. The security door, on the other hand, which had been working just fine all day, decided to spontaneously combust at that precise moment. Not only would it not lock, it wouldn’t even stay closed. I couldn’t believe it!

At the airport I called my brother and told him about the door. He assured me he would look at it, so I knew, thankfully, that the issue would be resolved pretty quickly. But still I wondered: what would be the third thing? Because we all know these things come in threes.

My flight to Athens stopped at Dubai, where I had a four hour wait. I went to a cafe to get something to eat and pulled out my wallet to pay. Normally I carry my usual credit cards and ATM card when I travel but this time I organised a debit card that I’d loaded up with euro. I pulled it out to pay with it and immediately realised I couldn’t remember my PIN. It’s a long story but I also knew there was no way I was going to remember it. And I had no back up plan to access money. This was the third thing. The curse was most definitely back.

Thankfully I was given some fantastic travel advice some years ago by a lovely friend called Lil that has proved invaluable for dealing with situations like these:

“Remember: even when you’re having a shit time, you’re actually having a good time.”

When I missed my flight in Madrid, I was freaking out at first and then, remembering Lil’s advice, realised I’d rather be missing a flight in Madrid than be stressing out at work.

I’ve also learnt from experience that issues resolve themselves. When I arrived in Athens last Thursday I got airport staff to cut through the zip tags so I could open my case. I’ve also managed to obtain my debit card PIN through the miracle of the internet. Obviously there are real tragedies that can occur when travelling, but for the lightweight dramas I’m talking about, it helps to keep some perspective.

suitcase lock with tags cut

So. I’ve been in Thessaloniki a week now and there have been no more dramas. Perhaps it’s all over – the curse has gone again. On the other hand, I just visited at a cousin’s holiday house by the beach and she spent about half her time there trying to fix her toilet which seemed to break down upon our arrival. Which leads me to wonder: are curses transferable?

Travel habits – part 2: Little miracles

I’d like to let you in on a secret: a little miracle is about to occur in humble suburban Melbourne this evening. Yes, for the first time EVER, I will be packing my suitcase a full 24 hours ahead of my trip.

I’ll just pause here to let you recover because I realise I’ve probably thrown you into shock.

What’s that? You’re not in shock?

Aaah that will be because you’re not aware of my “only ever pack on the day of the flight” motto which has countless times served to trip me up because the packing took longer than expected and caused me to run late.

Hence the decision to pack early. Normally early is a concept that makes no sense to me, but in this case I think it’s warranted.

Now, earlier today I was telling my osteopath Nigel about this, and he wondered whether or not it was a good idea to pack early as there is, he suggested, something to be said for packing under pressure. And I agree to an extent because I know from experience that packing at the last minute definitely gets you to focus.

On the other hand, my packing methodology is so foolproof that I don’t need that last minute pressure to focus the mind. You see, as you might have expected given my love of lists, I have created a packing list. In fact, that doesn’t do it justice. It’s more accurate to call it The Greatest Packing List of All Time.

Thank you. Thank you very much.

*bows with flourish of arms*

What’s so special about it, you ask? I’ll tell you. It’s detailed. It doesn’t say “toiletries” for example, it says:

“shower stuff
body stuff (deodorant, moisturiser)
make up
hair stuff
eye stuff
teeth stuff
face & body SPF stuff”

And so on. We are talking about an appropriately detailed yet suitably generic uber-list.

Everything you could possibly need is on the list. You don’t need to pack everything on the list, mind you, but as long as you go through it and use it as a checklist you’ll pack everything you need.

That’s actually the reason I came up with the idea of the uber-list. Before the list I’d arrive overseas to discover I’d forgotten something critical (my phone charger one time, pyjamas another). After this happened one too many times I came up with the idea of the list. Needless to say, since the emergence of The Greatest Packing List of All Time, I’ve never forgotten to pack anything.

So, with the mother of all packing lists in hand, tonight I’ll be conjuring a little miracle by packing a day early. Because I’ve decided: old travel habits don’t have to die hard.

packing list sitting in empty suitcase

Travel habits – part 1: Express yourself

It’s about to happen again. Tomorrow I fly out to Greece to visit family and friends. I last saw everyone in early 2013 and a lot has happened in everyone’s respective lives since then so there will be a lot to talk about. Which is why it’s going to happen again.

I speak Greek fluently, or I like to think I do. Whenever I go to Greece, however, I become painfully aware of how poorly I speak the language. Don’t get me wrong, I can order a meal in a restaurant like a native, give instructions to the taxi-driver like a local, and enjoy all the small talk in the world.

My limitations become glaring, however, in two circumstances. Firstly, when I attempt to watch the news broadcasts. There’ll be a report on the economy, for example, and after a detailed three minute report, this is what I’ll have gleaned: “Something about money and the euro and the economy and that man disagrees with that other man but that woman had something to say about it.”

Yep. That’ll be everything I understand.

The second, and most painful for me, is when conversation with family and friends turns to anything other than the most superficial of topics. I’m the kind of person who loves a good d&m (that’s “deep and meaningful” for the uninitiated). I love to get into the heart of matters and don’t shy away from difficult topics. But when I try to do this with family and friends in Greece, I’m hamstrung by my poor vocabulary and hit-and-miss application of grammar and syntax.

For someone who makes a living stringing sentences together and helping other people express themselves, I can’t tell you how incredibly frustrating it is not to be able to express myself properly in these discussions.

Sometimes I’m sure they all think I’m an idiot as I stumble along in broken Greek, struggling to find the right word, knowing it won’t actually come because I don’t know it to begin with.

And yet, somehow we manage to get through to each other. In fact, my mother told me the other day that my cousins are looking forward to seeing me and “discussing things” with me, so perhaps they’re getting something out of the conversation, no matter how limited I think my contribution is.

The positive for me is that for all my limitations when I speak Greek, I’m pretty good at the non-verbal stuff – and I don’t mean waving my arms about in typical Greek gestures (though I’m pretty good at that, too). I’m talking about one of the oldest ways of communicating love and affection between humans, which transcends all verbal boundaries. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt with all my visits to Greece it’s to never underestimate the power of a good hug.

Finally facing my Waterloo

When I was a little girl in the 1970s, ABBA was big. In fact, they were bigger than big, they were huge.

It’s fair to say that like most girls my age at the time, I was in love with ABBA. Specifically I was in love with Agnetha and Frida.

Four ABBA albums and three corresponding fridge magnets

Georgina from across the road would come over and the two of us would put my ABBA albums on and sing into our hairbrushes, pretending to be the two Swedish singers, who in our eyes were more beautiful and glamorous than anyone we could possibly imagine. Georgina would be Agnetha and I was always Frida.

After my friend Rachael and I left Denmark following Eurovision a few weeks ago, we made a beeline for Stockholm. The purpose: to visit ABBA The Museum.

Building with lights spelling out "ABBA The Museum"

What can I tell you? It’s not a huge space at all but ABBA The Museum is one of the best museums I’ve ever visited. It comprehensively covers its subject in every way imaginable.

There were stories: who they were, when they met, when they won Eurovision in 1974, what happened next, and how they broke up.

Waterloo costumes

Fernando and Australia

There were mocked up sewing rooms full of fabrics, offices with memos, holiday houses that they worked in and dressing rooms in a mess.

There was memorabilia: costumes, a complete display of all records released, a display of many of the gold and platinum albums, and much, much more.

ABBA discography

ABBA gold and platinum records

ABBA the museum - costume gallery

cats costumes

But that’s not even the best bit. The absolute best thing about ABBA The Museum is that it understands and caters for its visitors. Throughout the museum there are interactive activities that allow visitors to participate in the ABBA dream.

You can be the producer that has a go at mixing a song to achieve the ABBA sound (turns out I’m no Quincy Jones).

You can sing and dance on stage as the 5th member of ABBA (I danced completely out of time but didn’t care).

You can ‘audition’ in a recording booth which scores your karaoke performance (Rachael and I sang together, and I use the term ‘sang’ loosely as we actually laughed till we wept at how bad our Australian accents sounded put together with ABBA’s music; we didn’t score well).

And you can have your photo taken and avatars created of all four ABBA members (but with your face) which you then dance as (I busted moves Bjorn would’ve been proud of).

Avatar Len

Basically ABBA The Museum gives the little kid in us the opportunity to go back in time and relive singing ABBA songs into a hairbrush and dancing like Agnetha and Bjorn, Frida and Benny, on a pretend stage in our living rooms.

In short, it was ABBA fan heaven.

I felt perfectly at home.

Four cut out figures of ABBA with Frida's face swapped for the writer's face