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.

It’s a numbers game

The other day I went shopping for four birthday cards. A card for each of two friends who are turning 45, another for a friend turning 50, and the last a card for my mum who is 75 today.

With a few notable exceptions, the numbers are tending to be on the big side for everyone in my circle of friends and loved ones.

Of course, ‘big’ is a relative term. I remember one day when I was twenty-two and working at VicRoads, my mum came in to pay her car registration. Later that day she asked me who the ‘young good-looking man’ was that had served her. I racked my brain. As far as I knew, there were no hot guys my age working at VicRoads at the time. I asked for more details.

“The Indian man, with the moustache” she volunteered.

“Mum! He’s not young! He’s forty-four!”

“From where I’m standing, that’s young!”

She would have been fifty-three at the time.

Forty-four seemed positively ancient to me back then. But that’s the thing about these numbers. They all seem ancient until it’s your turn.

I remember being eighteen and working with a woman who was twenty-one. That seemed lightyears from where I was. When she turned twenty-two it was as if she’d declared she’d officially finished with her youth and joined the world of the adults. She was no longer one of “us” – she was one of “them”.

I also remember having a romantic fling with a nineteen year old in Florence when I was twenty-one. I considered him a “younger man”.

Eighteen, nineteen, twenty-one, twenty-two – they all seem incredibly small numbers now. As does twenty-seven. Though when I turned twenty-seven, I felt incredibly old because it suddenly dawned on me that I was only three years from thirty.

The irony is, I’ve discovered, as you do with age, that I’m actually getting better and better as I get older. I am more and more my true self, comfortable with who I am, and much less inclined to care what anyone else thinks about that. They say the majority of people get happier as they get older for that exact reason: you care less about faking it for the sake of what others will think about you.

One of my friends has confided that she is not at all happy with turning forty-five. “I have a real problem with that number,” she told me recently.

On the other hand, I’m not only comfortable with forty-five, I’ve projected ahead and I’m comfortable with all the numbers in my future.

Okay, it is true that, when I really think about it, I still can’t believe I’m actually going to be fifty in five years’ time. But I don’t feel fifty! And I don’t think I look fifty – whatever that looks like.

Which reminds me of a conversation I had with my mum when she turned sixty and I asked her what it felt like. She said, “Len, you know, sometimes I look in the mirror and I expect to see a twelve year old girl looking back at me. That’s how I feel on the inside!”

I always put that down to my mum being a very youthful person, full of energy and with a young-at-heart spirit. But as I’ve gotten older I can relate to her experience a lot more.

I’m stuck at nineteen. That’s how old I feel inside. And I know Mum and I aren’t alone in this phenomenon. A woman I worked with many years ago told me whenever people asked her how old she was she always answered “twenty-six” because that’s how old she felt. She was in her forties.

Funnily enough, just the other day my mum mentioned in passing that the time that her family lived in the heart of Thessaloniki held her happiest childhood memories. They lived there in 1952. When she was twelve.

Looking back to when I was nineteen, that year was hugely significant in my life. It was definitely the happiest year of my youth, if I had to pick one.

Mind you, I should’ve said ‘I used to be stuck at nineteen’, because as I’ve become happier and happier with my life these last few years, I feel less my nineteen year old self, and more like my very happy forty-something self. And loving it! – as Maxwell Smart used to say.

The other thing about turning fifty in five years’ time is that, the way I look at it, it’s kind of like the transition from being in primary school to being in high school. One minute, you’re top of the kids, the mature Grade 6-er. Next thing, you’re at the bottom of the ladder again. You’re the young newbie Year 7 kid, looking up at all the older kids who know so much more than you.

Fifty is like being the youngest of the oldies.

But I don’t want to get ahead of myself; I’ve got lots of days between then and now. And I plan to savour every single one of them, including all my birthdays. If life is a numbers game, I’d like to play them all.

Reading, writing and resolutions

Just over a year ago I wrote very enthusiastically in support of new year’s resolutions – how they’re an opportunity to reflect on the previous year and think about ways to improve yourself by resolving to change something, whether a habit, a lifestyle choice or even just an attitude.

So it’s somewhat ironic then that I didn’t go on to set any new year’s resolutions for 2014.

The truth is, when I’d looked back on 2013 I realised I’d had one of the best years of my life. So I took the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach and decided I didn’t need any resolutions for 2014.

Two points to note here:

Firstly, I didn’t look back critically enough. If I’d looked even a smidge harder, I would’ve found things.

Secondly, even if I hadn’t found anything obvious to change I should’ve at least set a few “continue goals”. (You’ll know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever had to do those God-awful performance plans for work; basically you identify what you’ve been doing well and set a goal to continue it.)

I took it for granted that things would continue as they were.

They didn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, last year was a good year, too. I’m not complaining. But as I’ve already written, I lost my way a bit with my writing.

Looking back I realise that was inevitable given I hadn’t started the year defining a direction, a focus.

So, given all that, you won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve set some resolutions for 2015, nor that they are all geared – directly or indirectly – towards reinvigorating me as a writer and helping me find my way again.

1) More writing. Firstly, this is stating the obvious so I don’t lose sight of the main goal. Secondly, the more writing you do, the better writer you’ll be. In theory, anyway.

2) More reading. This should not only help me reconnect with my love of reading, but also be a practical tool to improve my writing. Just about every list of tips for emerging writers includes an edict to read, read, read and then read some more.

3) Less social media. Especially looking at you here, Twitter. I think most of you will know what I’m talking about (even if for most people, the enormous time-sucking beast is Facebook). Enough said.

4) More yoga. I took up yoga in September and October when I wasn’t working much; guided by a really good yoga app I was doing 45-70 minute yoga routines about three times a week. I absolutely loved it.

Then I started working more frequently and had less time for yoga and eventually stopped it altogether.

I need to bring it back into my life. It’s a great way of maintaining and improving strength and flexibility, and it makes me feel confident, happy and up for writing. It’s no coincidence I wrote more blog posts last October than in the four months either side of it.

5) Get to bed earlier, get up earlier*. I have a tendency to be a night owl, which, if the time were used productively, wouldn’t be an issue. But it isn’t, and the next day I’m exhausted and moody because I haven’t had enough sleep. So exhausted and moody that I don’t want to write. This has to change.

The resolutions are only one tool to help me get back on track with writing. The other tool I’ve invested in is a Writer’s Diary.

I’m not sure if there are lots of writer’s diaries out there on the market, but mine’s by Pilot Press and it’s fantastic. There’s lots of information to encourage and inspire, there are weekly exercises and a space for monthly goals.

Writer's Diary by pilot press (closed)

All of it has been very helpful in a practical way and it’s already responsible for increasing my creative output exponentially in comparison to last year. I love it and I can’t recommend it highly enough for any emerging writers out there.

Thanks to my writer’s diary and the changes inspired by my resolutions, I’m writing more frequently, thinking more creatively about my writing, exploring different styles and genres and generally challenging myself in ways I never have before.

I’m finding my way again. I have the lantern; it illuminates the path. I feel excited and positive as I start to follow it. I can’t wait to see where it will lead.

* Everything’s relative. Lest anyone think I’m trying to become a morning-person (as if!), I’m just aiming to get to bed by midnight and be up by 9:00am.

Vale Gough Whitlam

In 1972 my mother was a member of the Dandenong Greek Community’s Women’s Committee when Gough Whitlam was campaigning for the federal election under the banner “It’s time.” As part of that campaign he visited the Dandeong Greek community on the feast day of its patron saint, St Pantaleimon.

The celebration was typical of such events: lots of food, music and people everywhere. The Dandenong Greek Community president introduced Whitlam to the ladies of the Women’s Committee. What impressed my mother the most about the man was that after hearing each woman’s name he greeted her formally pronouncing her surname, no matter how long, in flawless Greek. “How do you do, Mrs Lambrellis?” and so on, down the line of women. Each one addressed personally.

It wasn’t just the sort of campaign hand-pressing and photo-opportunism that we’re used to seeing now. Whitlam made it clear in his behaviour not only that day but in the policy of multiculturalism that he championed, which was groundbreaking at the time, that he understood and valued the migrant communities of Australia. He understood and valued their history and what had driven them to leave their homes and come to Australia. He understood and valued what they offered Australia both in enriching the culture and in building the nation. In championing multiculturalism, he championed them. And they loved him for it.

Three decades later when my brother was working as a contractor in IT, he would impress and awe his much younger colleagues by telling them that he’d gone to university for free. No, he hadn’t received a scholarship; university was free for all back then, a legacy of another Gough Whitlam policy to abolish tertiary education fees.

I enjoyed a year and a half of free university education myself, before the policy changed and fees were re-introduced. The policy had been in place for 17 years. An entire generation had been afforded the opportunity for a higher education irrespective of their financial position. With his “free university education for all” policy he had democratised education and truly paved the way for Australia to become the clever country.

These are just two examples of personal touch-points for my family in relation to the incredible, iconic and visionary Gough Whitlam, who passed away today. Prime Minister from 1972 to 1975, Whitlam’s vision for Australia was transformative and nothing short of revolutionary.

You can read elsewhere the long, long list of achievements of his government, and you can read about his life in his obituary, including the political mistakes he made and the flaws of the man.

More telling is the outpouring of respect evident in the speeches made by both sides of politics in Parliament today, and the outpouring of love evident in the comments left by readers in online forums, a lot of which begin with an expression of thanks for the ways in which the writers’ lives were enriched by Whitlam’s policies.

He was visionary and brave and a man of intellect and great ideas. What I admire most about him is that he was an egalitarian who appealed to people’s better nature. He reached out to the “men and women of Australia” and asked them to build with him a modern Australia that was fairer for all.

One of the The Age’s online forums includes my own comment on Gough Whitlam’s passing:

“I was only a small child when Gough Whitlam enacted his vision for a modern Australia, however I have been a beneficiary ever since. There was never anyone like him, nor, in these risk-averse, over-spun political times, are we likely to ever see anyone truly like him again. A visionary who believed in a better Australia and had faith in Australians. What a lucky country we are to have had him; can’t even imagine where we’d be without him. Thank you Gough Whitlam, and may you rest in peace.”

Portrait of Gough Whitlam