Friday, 17 April 2009

Life after Bedtime




Louise is the seven year-old adopted daughter of friends I have known since schooldays. My visits to their house are relatively infrequent, so I retain a certain novelty value in Louise’s eyes, my presence eliciting a bit of mild showing off and some low-level defiance of parental authority. Nothing very serious, you understand - just a little cheating at board games (well, a lot, actually) stretching out the putting away of toys, and dawdling over night-time ablutions to delay the inevitable bedtime.

I first met her when she was three. She took me into the sitting room where she had a vast dolls’ house, introduced me to its inhabitants and explained that they were about to start cooking tea. I tried to get into the spirit of the thing, and moving ‘daddy’ about the kitchen, I pointed out that there was nothing in the cupboards and no washing-up liquid under the kitchen sink. She looked at me mystified for a moment and then said kindly ‘you ‘ave to pretend’. Right. Got it.

In those days I was useful for getting Louise to bed pretty quickly. Her mum could get her bathed and tucked up in no time flat with the promise that it would be me who would read her bedtime story if she complied to the letter with every parental injunction. This she did. I did not understand on the first few occasions that bedtime stories were usually read to her in a dull, soporific monotone. I hammed them up, did all the voices, animal noises and sound effects, asked her to tell me what was going to happen next and encouraged joining in when the punch lines came. Oh, for God’s sake, man, this sort of thing is afternoon story telling! Your gin and tonic is going warm down in the sitting room while you are performing and encouraging requests for an encore. Cut it out. So I did. The three-or-four-story bedtime could be reduced to a one-story bedtime if you simply bored her to sleep.

This idea of kiddie bedtime is culture specific, isn’t it? Thirty odd years ago I was sitting in a café in the old city in Carcassonne at ten or so at night. A little French boy was playing by the fountain and a group of middle aged Americans sat at a nearby table. ‘Now that,’ growled one of the American men ‘is a typical European child. Spoiled.’ (Yep, the whole lot of us – British, French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian…) As far as I remember, the kid was doing nothing objectionable. He was ‘spoiled’ simply because he was up and about after the Anglo-Saxon cut off point of eight in the evening. Likewise most Greek kids I knew would be up and playing late into the evening and adult conversation continued alongside kiddie whooping. No doubt mothers especially longed for some ‘me time’, but I still think they would find the British and American middle-class habit of banishing kids to their beds utterly bizarre.

Louise soon began to suspect that after she had been tucked up, life went on. Now, of course, she knows this for a fact. It really is rotten from the point of view of a seven year old. Grown-ups bundle you off to bed and once you are exiled upstairs for the night, they light the dining room candles, pull out the cheese and red wine and start talking and laughing, and it sounds so much more fun than lying in bed waiting for sleep while daylight is still lingering around the bedroom curtains. On Tuesday, Louise had several shots at muscling in:

  1. ‘Can I have a grape?’ ('Go on, then. Take another for the journey.')
  2. ‘My back hurts, can you rub it?’
  3. ‘Can you rub my arm as well?’

Her parents’ tactic is to greet these intrusions rather coldly so as not to encourage them, but on their own admission it doesn’t always work. I mentioned about Greek kids being up so much later and then wished I hadn’t - it sounded like advice from a backseat driver, which I didn’t intend it to be. I’m enough of an uptight Englishman to approve of kids being removed from adult company after you have spent three hours playing ‘Coppit’ (it’s a board game, ‘6 years and above’: I got slaughtered.) and reading stories.

Several times in Greece I was asked why British parents ‘abandoned’ their children. I found the question mystifying at first. Then I realised that many Greeks are under the impression that the British kick their kids out of the house when they reach eighteen, and withdraw all financial support from that point on. A British colleague of mine, then in her mid twenties, lived alone in the Athenian suburb of Glyfada. Her neighbours assumed that her parents had booted her out for some dreadful crime against family honour. I tried to point out that kids in Britain tend to want independence as soon as possible, and that they would be flabbergasted at the number of Greeks their age and above who still live with their parents as eternal students. (‘Studying psychology’ – why are Europe’s eternal students always ‘studying psychology’?) They would not understand the horror evinced by some people I knew when they learned that a Greek writer and TV personality, the late Malvina Karali, had actually required her son to get a job or get out of the house.

I only met one man who approved of the ‘British system’. ‘Damn good idea’ he said. ‘Here, you have a son and from the minute he’s born, you never stop worrying – how’s he going to go into the army*? How’s he going to go to university? Ενώ στην Αγγλία...’ …while in England, he gets to eighteen and that’s that, he’s on his own. Brilliant!

Of course it isn’t true, any more than the other widespread Greek belief that all Englishmen are gay. (Μακάρι!) I didn’t argue with him. No point. I’ll be prepared to revise this particular prejudice if I ever get sufficient evidence, but it is my experience that Greek men cannot be wrong about anything.

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* Conscripts are unsalaried and receive only nominal financial support during their service.

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