“Ear shredding hail
Inside out brollies
Can’t wait for Sales
Mum said wear layers
Slip on your arse
And a partridge in a pear tree!”
Ah Christmas is upon us once again and for the second year in a row my December is being spent in the Mediterranean! Wait! Wait! I can sense the wrathful thoughts searing through synapses and sinews and directed at the “lucky *expletive*” writing, but I can tell you with a clear conscience, your anger is unfounded! I’m not as lucky as you might think!
Firstly, though I am in the Mediterranean, I’m also in Athens. So before you picture me reclining on a beach with some beautiful brunette it would be prudent to re-paint that mental picture of yours a different shade of grey! Secondly, I love Athens, you’d have to, to put up with the strikes, civil unrest and overall sense of impending economic doom but, as a colleague once told me “Italy isn’t Italy in the winter” and this can easily be said of anywhere in the Mediterranean.
Athens has been cold for about two months now and by “cold” I don’t mean the atmospheric, biting freeze we expect at Christmas. The kind of cold which inspires even the most conservative of people to rush out and buy an enormous Russian ushanka or an outrageously coloured bobble-hat. No, it’s the cold just before that. The cold where you catch flu easily, shiver and shake but produces only rain as its accompanying precipitation. You might call it an entirely “unrewarding cold.”
In tandem with this are the buildings. Designed (thankfully when the time comes) with one ambition in mind: to repel heat! Their white and pastel hues brighten the landscape, uplift the spirit and encourage the sun to pass on by and leave no toasty treats behind it! The result of which is that Greeks use carpets the same way Brits would a winter coat. That fateful day when you reach to the back of your cupboard and pull out “Ol’ Reliable” with six-month-old receipts and bus tickets in pocketed tow, is mirrored by a Greek dragging up a meticulously rolled carpet from some basement. This is subsequently rolled onto those marble ice-blocks on the floor. The catch is, though, that these are more like rugs than actual fitted carpets so you end up reverting back to pre-pubescence by playing “sharks in the water” and jumping from carpet to carpet all day. Particularly tricky with a cup of coffee in your hand!
In this resplendent cloudless cold, Christmas decorations somehow seem misplaced. The festive spirit feels like an unachievable goal when every Christmas tree you see looks incongruous with the settings around it. A lost boy in the middle of the London stock exchange. A cauliflower in the middle of any dish. Nick Clegg in the middle of a “Most Powerful Leaders In The World” Line up. You get the idea. This is what I feel like in the Mediterranean at Christmas.
Just nostalgia? Perhaps! I’m always the first to admit my own short-comings and the last to choose a 9-5 well-paid job over random teaching jobs while travelling. But there’s definitely more to it than just that. Talking about Christmas traditions with my Greek friends I get onto a particular tradition my friends and I have every Christmas Eve. The house I grew up in is part of a housing estate built at the bottom of a large hill. Every year we pad the hour-long path up and over this hill to a pub in the next town over … and back again, ever so slightly more wobbly. The journey, however, is strewn with stone houses and huge trees which arch over the snow-clad path and endeavour to meet in the middle in a macabre canopy. Telling this story made me realise how much my home is like a H.P. Lovecraft story in winter but also how lucky we are back home in Britain and in North Europe generally, at Christmas.
In any country in the world the vernacular imagery of Christmas is warm clothes and freezing weather. Nobody could argue with that. This isn’t to say that no other country gets this kind of weather. In fact, even Athens gets its fair share of snow too. The difference is that Athens gets its snow in February when the festive spirit, which enables you to forgive the elements’ inclemency, is all but completely sapped! “What about the bloody trains?!” I hear commuters clamour from the platforms! That’s true, train delays are ridiculous and, what’s worse, is putting on too few trains for the plethora passengers who have to stand up for an hour or more on their way into work and again on their way home! But, once again, other countries have us pipped in this respect. In Greece you buy a train ticket at a kiosk and slip it into a machine yourself to ‘validate’ it for the next 1.5. hours. I always wondered, however, why the passengers would wait until the absolute last minute to do so. Frantic jamming of card into a machine as the train prepares to grumble away is way too stressful for me so I always validated it as soon as I could. Until I realised why they don’t. The hard way. Trains are so unreliable in any weather that they don’t risk losing their fare until they can guarantee it will arrive. The only sure fire way to do that is to feel its hot breath on your heels. Should you validate it and the thing doesn’t come you have 1.5 hours to find a train somewhere, anywhere; otherwise you’ve just wasted your money.
“This is just some nostalgic ex-pat looking pining for home” you say? That may be a little true but I stopped living in denial by calling myself an ‘ex-pat’ a long time ago; I’m a fully fledged immigrant who loves to travel but also appreciates home after being away. Simple! My revised version of “A Partridge in a Pear Tree” features just a handful of things we love to complain about during winter and let’s face it we do love to complain! I’ll not doubt fall in line with the genome as soon as I get home! But we should also embrace it! Don’t drive unless you have to! Get a bus when you can. Otherwise be extra careful on the roads and, when you get home, throw all the salt/sand/purpose made “grit” you have to hand on the roads leading to yours and your neighbours! And if you have any spare, throw it over the airport runways too because I want to come home and I’ll be singing my merry complaint all the way there!