Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Giants in the Oven and Kitchen with Potatoes

I bought a packet of rocket from Marks and Sparks yesterday, one of those little inflatable cushions stuffed with leaves. They are weedy affairs, the leaves, thin and soft and tasting of not an awful lot. A week ago in Athens I had a salad of tomatoes and rocket, the latter brought over from Dida’s garden in Corinth. Each leaf was dark, crisp and punchy, each an athlete next to the bunch of drippy nerds from M&S. Greece is not a gastronome’s paradise, but I’m convinced that almost all food out there tastes of more than most food does here. Sailland’s aphorism ‘la cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le goût de ce qu'elles sont’ is taken for granted in Greece. Here, unless you search hard and pay transnasally, most food tastes of bugger all.

Gigantes, pronounced (more or less) YEE-gan-dess, are fat white beans frequently on the menu in tavernas as part of a meze, a selection of little appetizers presented all at once for your picking and nibbling pleasure. I’m very partial to gigantes plaki, a recipe for which is provided below. Eaten with salads and bread and dips such as tsatsiki and taramosalata, they make you feel replete and healthy and with all that fibre, they fairly plummet through the system. I’ve brought some back with me to cook for myself. You can buy them in tins, and they are not so bad, but you miss out on the virtuous glow to be had from taking something bubbling, aromatic and garlicky from the oven.

You must soak your gigantes overnight before you even think of cooking them. Someone I knew in Kalamata, dragged over to Greece from Australia by her parents to marry a man from the old country, decided one day to show willing and cook Sunday lunch for her extended family. She planned to serve gigantes, but omitted the soaking. Thus the assembled in-laws and cousins were presented with a tureen of aromatically sauced marbles which, stabbed at with forks, pinged and ricocheted off the walls and light fittings, smashing people's dentures and spectacles. So mind you bloody well soak them. You also need to watch them as they cook, and catch them at the point after they turn soft but before they disintegrate. Insufficiently-cooked gigantes are murder on the digestion and will turn your gut into a fizzing, bubbling Kipp’s apparatus.

So, take your gigantes, or butterbeans if you can’t find any, and soak them. I suspect butterbeans would need less soaking than gigantes. Fry some onions and garlic in olive oil, and when these are soft, add some chopped tomatoes, some oregano and bay leaves, and your beans. Barely cover with water and simmer until the beans begin to soften. The skins will split: what matter? Be unperturbed. Back in the nineties, the Greek supermarket chain Vassilopoulos sold boil-in-the-bag gigantes which carried this reassuring notice in English: 'the swelling of the package after warming does not inspire any uneasiness'. When your beans begin to soften, you can add salt and pepper, a little dried mint and some lemon juice, then finally a teaspoon of sugar. Transfer the pot to the oven where you finish the beans off. The sugar will caramelize and form little bits of crisp crust on top of the sauce. Serve at room temperature, with a little chopped parsley scattered over. Eat alone, or with someone whose bodily functions you are prepared to put up with afterwards.

My own efforts coming along nicely.

Kitchen with Potatoes

If I asked the kids I taught in Kalamata what they had been doing before the lesson, the stock response was 'I go my school, after I go my house, I eat kitchen with potatoes, and I read.' 'I read' is usually to be understood as 'I did my homework', and 'kitchen' is of course chicken, a favourite metathesis among foreign learners. Greek-style Kitchen with Potatoes is easy, cheap and cheerful, which explains its lunchtime ubiquity, and you make it in this wise, or at least I do:

Get yourself a chicken, or if eating alone, a chicken's leg, or such other parts of its anatomy as excite your desire. Do not even think of removing the skin. Peel some spuds and cut them into chunks or thick chips. Combine some olive oil, a teaspoon of mustard, some freshly squeezed lemon and orange juice and some Aromat or Marigold Swiss Bouillon powder. Your spuds are then tossed in this mixture, and thus anointed, disposed around your chicken. Cook the assemblage until you are really quite utterly delighted. Strew with chopped parsley or dill, if desired. I actually prefer the potatoes to the kitchen.

Monday, 29 November 2010

An All-Time Low for Heights

I’m scared to death of heights. I’m queasy standing on a chair to change a light-bulb, so you can forget about asking me to get on a ladder to wash your bedroom windows, and you can fiddle with your own television aerial, because I’m not bloody going near it. I have these dreams where I’m ascending a fixed ladder on a bell tower or industrial chimney, and towards the top, either the distance between the rungs increases, or they turn to warm plasticine as I grasp at them, and I end up a hundred feet above the ground, paralysed with terror. You know that famous photo, 'Lunch Atop a Skyscraper'? You can have a look at it here. I don’t want to, even though the link suggests a certain amount of trickery was used, and producing it wasn’t actually as dangerous as it looks. Merely thinking about it makes my palms sweat. I think it’s a good job I’m not very tall.

I stayed last week in a fifth floor flat in Athens. A narrow balcony overlooks the street and at the back there is a large terrace. I did not venture out in either direction and wouldn’t have looked over the railings without considerable financial inducement. Irritatingly and rather worryingly, a fantasy, or rather a waking dream, stole unbidden into my head: the walls of the building began to soften, causing the floor of the flat to tilt and everything in it to slide slowly across the slippery marble floor until furniture, books, cats and people were tipped out of the French windows to plummet into the street. As this vision unfolded, I sat at my laptop in the dining room, involuntarily tensing my buttocks as if to… well, I don’t know. If the building were indeed softening like hot plastic, how would clenching your bum help?

This intrusion of fantasy into waking life is something that bugs me. Melting flat-blocks belong in dreams along with the useless plasticine ladders. They seem real there, for everything in a dream seems real. They should not be oozing through into daytime consciousness and demonstrating their power to disquiet me as I sit in a solid dining room that I know cannot melt.

On the plane home, I booked a seat by an exit, because some five feet separate that row from the one in front, and thus people cannot recline their seats into your book-holding zone. It occurred to me mid-flight that the door looked rather flimsy, an assemblage of squares and lozenges with a thin-looking porthole through which you could see the cloud cover over Switzerland stretch to the horizon like a vast trifle. What if some loony took it into his head to try to open it? We’d all get sucked out and splattered over an Alp like raspberry vinegar on an ice-cream. Again I got this sensation: the aircraft walls were softening and thinning, and I leaned across my two seats as if bracing myself for a very long fall. Dammit, I had to give myself a very stiff talking-to. I am a seasoned air traveller who knows you can’t open the plug-door of an emergency exit at 30.000 feet. I have flown perhaps a hundred times without a daunt, so why this irrationality now? I don’t know. I do know that I don’t want a seat by the exit again, and that this new crackpot fear will resurface when I go back to Greece in January. What a bleeding nuisance.


Surreal moment from 1995 or so. I was examining for the Cambridge FCE oral tests at the Park Hotel in Athens. My room was on the second floor, commanding a view of Areos Park. With my back to the view, I was sorting out my papers when there came a knock on the window. This is the second floor, I thought: nobody can possibly be knocking on the window. But I turned, and sure enough, a young man of stunning good looks was standing in the narrow window-box, two storeys above the street and inches away from a horrible death. Notwithstanding, he smiled and indicated cheerfully that he wanted me to open the window. He had the body of Michelangelo’s David – I could tell, because he was wearing only a pair of tiny red shorts. I slid open the window and he jumped into the room with a lithe, muscular, masculine grace not hitherto brought to the vacating of a second-storey window-box. He said ‘ευχαριστώ’, thanks, and loped off into the corridor. I followed, transfixed by those flowing muscles and the perfection of his proportions, almost expecting that he would not take the stairs or the lift, but dematerialise or be assumed into Heaven instead. When he disappeared unmiraculously round a corner, I went back into the room and looked out at the window-box. It appeared to run the length of the building under the window sills, and was perhaps three feet deep. Nothing would have induced me to walk its length – not even if I had had a body like his and could entertain myself by appearing like an angel on gobsmacked poufters’ window-boxes to flabbergast them with my daring and beauty. My palms are sweating now at the thought.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

See me!

My new classroom persona

Alexandros has just e-mailed me his homework. The set task, after four hours in class of reading, language work and analysis of several model paragraphs, was for each student to produce a paragraph - paragraph, mind, not essay - of their own, introducing their country, mentioning the location, main attractions, natural resources and language or languages spoken. This is what seventeen year-old Alexandros took a weekend to come up with:

Greece is a small country in Europe. It has borders many countries, including Bulgaria, Turkey, and Albania . Greece has good natural resources marble .The capital of Greece is Athens . Many tourists stay in the city to see the Parthenon. There are also lots of other things to do outside Athens . You can go for swimming in the very good beach! Although the official languages is Greek.
As he was preparing a first draft and cawing 'I dunno! I dunno!' as if this were my fault, I went to help him get some facts together. Thus the info about marble and which countries border on Greece came from me, after I told him that he couldn't include souvlaki as a natural resource. I thought I might excuse his ignorance of which countries border on Greece on the grounds that he lives in Cyprus, but then I though, no, the hell with that. If at ten years old I could locate any country on a world map, having lived nowhere other than Huddersfield, he ought to bloody well know at seventeen which countries share borders with the country he visits most often. Once, when I was teaching kids of twelve in Kalamata, I devised a general knowledge quiz for one of my classes. It was intended as a bit of a laugh for a Friday evening. I had chucked in what I remember from childhood as the staple of kiddie-wink general knowledge: biggest this, smallest that, location of this river or that mountain, where you find such and such an animal, that sort of thing. Well, they knew sweet bugger-all about anything. They offered wild guesses: the Amazon runs through London, the capital of Spain is Paris, Canada is a town in the USA. It was not a laugh at all, it was sphincter-squeezingly embarrassing, and I had to put the proceedings out of their misery after two rounds. The kids were not stupid, far from it, but they were quite extraordinarily incurious. The same must apply to Alexandros, who after all had the internet at his disposal and forty-eight hours in which to check his facts.

Although the official language is Greek. Eh? Although the official language is Greek, what? The thought is dangling there unfinished because Alexandros has remembered he is supposed to chuck in a few althoughs and howevers, but he can’t remember what they mean. I had demonstrated the use of these linkers and found then that the entire class was starting and ending sentences in their drafts with one or the other, as if they were perhaps rest-points for the eye, or like selah in the Psalms. We went back to the whiteboard to sort them out. The sorting-out may have coincided with Alexandros’s visit to the bathroom or disappearance for a fag, but he has a dictionary, writing a hundred words is hardly an onerous task, and he could have checked the bloody meaning. Ρε Αλέξαντρε, πολλά ζητάω; Am I asking too much?

When I was seventeen and a sixth-former, I wrote three essays and three or more prose translations each week in French, German and Spanish, each task taking up about two sides of foolscap. We ‘ad no internet i’ them days, us, and none o’ them fancy e-lectronic dictionaries. Ours were Cassell’s bilingual dictionaries hefty enough to stun a swaledale. I can’t pretend I was a hugely conscientious student at that age, because I relied far too heavily on a good ear for idiom, a capacious memory for vocabulary and on Sprachgefühl generally rather than on solid graft, but I mean even so, kids these days, eh? Get away with murder.

‘This is adult education,’ I say to my Algerian pilots when they complain that they cannot write self-assessments and should not be expected to, as assessment is my cabbage patch, not theirs. ‘Self assessment is exactly what you need to be able to do.’ Still, adult education or not, I feel like giving Alexandros some demeaning punishment such as lines:

I must not submit half-arsed, unedited twaddle to Steve’ x 200

But this would not inconvenience him much – he’d simply copy and paste it then e-mail the result off to me.

He's a nice kid, I must point out. He's lively and quite a handful in class because of his energy, and because he's a good decade younger than almost everyone else in the group. But the total helplessness some students display when it comes to working independently drives me round the bleeding twist.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Careful with the Chandelier*

I’m only writing this as a delay tactic, so ignore me. When I have a teacher training session to prepare, I arse about interminably before getting down to it. The flat is never cleaner and the cupboards never more orderly. Today, the place gleams. Then again, I tend not to wear my glasses around the house and thus I miss detail. To the clear-sighted, the bathroom may look as if a horse has been stalled in it.

On the twentieth of the month I’m off back to Athens to do a few lesson observations and a couple of teacher training seminars. Last month out there I did a long session on teaching pronunciation. I am so far into my comfort zone with ‘How to Do Phonology’ that it was like teaching in jim-jams and slippers with a snoozing cat on my lap. I asked my friend out there who runs the show what subjects she’d like me to address this time round. ‘You could do something about metaphor and idiom,’ she suggested. I immediately agreed, not because I was bursting with ideas on the topic, but because November 21st seemed a long way off, and I can usually manage to cobble something together eventually, whatever the brief. Now I'm wishing I had iffed and butted a bit, because I am – temporarily, I hope – stumped. It’s not a lack of ideas that’s hobbling me now that I’ve done a bit of reading and thinking on the subject, but how I’m going to turn this into a deftly stage-managed five-hour session involving discussion, discovery and stacks of practical teaching ideas.

The course participants are a sharp and enthusiastic bunch, and their energy put me, who late am fallen to jadedness and grumpery, to shame. They love teaching, and they love finding out more about methodology and language. ‘This,’ said one lady fiercely, in reference to the stuff we did on intonation, ‘is really interesting.’ My initial reaction was something like ‘ ‘tis new to thee’, but then I felt suddenly as pleased and proud as if I were the inventor of English intonation patterns rather than merely the passer-on of stuff I’ve read and observed. Anyway, the Athens group gave me a good kick up the butt and a shot in the arm, and shored up my sagging ego with their feedback. Ευχαριστώ, παιδιά.

What the bloody hell are we going to do about metaphor and figurative language for five hours, then? Well, first off, we tend to think of metaphor as the concern only of writers and poets and them as is bookish, but everyday speech is chock-full of metaphors and figurative language. In the preceding paragraph, I waffled on about 'bursting' with ideas, 'cobbling ideas together', 'kicks up the butt' and 'shots in the arm', all of which might make intermediate learners of English wonder just what the hell we get up to when I sod off to Athens for the odd (probably very odd) week. Every-day metaphors, then, are ten a penny and can be classified. Take ‘argument is war’, for example:

Your claims are indefensible.
He attacked everything I said.
The criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his arguments.
He shot me down in flames.
She marshals her arguments well.

Almost any word that collocates with money will collocate with time, wherefore truly is it said that ‘time is money’:

You’re wasting your time / you’re wasting your money.
This gadget will save you hours / this gadget will save you pounds.
I spent a year in London / I spent a fortune in London.
'Hey, Big Spender, spend a little time with me...'

Then, ‘anger is a hot fluid held under pressure’:

She got all steamed up.
He just exploded!
I blew my top.
I flipped my lid.
She blew up at him.

Up is good and down is bad:

He’s in top condition.
He’s at the peak of his game.
He’s sinking fast.
She's on top of the world.
He’s down in the dumps.
'The only way is up, baby, for you and me now...'
'How can you laugh, when you know I'm down...'

I put it to you, then, ladies and gentlemen, that metaphor is not the icing on the cake of language, but one of the organising principles. You wouldn’t think so from much of the commercially available teaching material, so I am probably going to be chucking into my session another diatribe against the bland literalness of so much of the language presented in EFL course books. If so much of the choice of words in language is dictated by metaphors and imagery shared by members of a given culture, ignorance of those metaphors is going to exclude learners from a hell of a lot of what’s being said. That’s one strand of the session at least, and might take us all of twenty minutes to cover. I have to sort the implications of all this into a coherent five hours both profitable and entertaining. Suggestions welcome, especially from people whose first language uses different similes and metaphors from English. For instance, for English speakers, ‘love is insanity’, and you are crazy about someone, madly in love, delirious with passion, head over heels, absolutely nuts about somebody:

'Im feeling quite insane and young again / And all because I'm mad about the boy'

I have read that in Arabic, though, ‘love is thirst’. Can anyone confirm that or put me right?


I’ve been a collector of figurative and fruity language since I was a kid, and used to piss myself laughing at the way my grandparents talked. (No, no, of course I didn’t really piss myself, this is the bloody point I'm making.) Back in my grandparents’ childhoods in Yorkshire, if someone was especially defensive or sharp of tongue, people would mutter ‘by ‘eck, she’s more edge ner a dozen brokken piss pots, has yond.’ I tried this nice simile out on Spanish colleagues in France back in 1978 and it translated perfectly into Spanish, with no loss of meaning, rhythm or conciseness: ‘más borde que una docena de orinales rotos’ if I remember correctly, where ‘borde’ means literally ‘edge’ and figuratively ‘strop’. I don’t remember if we successfully translated the phrase my grandma always used about her wealthy but miserly allrightnik of a brother when she said that ‘he wun’t part wit reek off ‘is shite’ or the related ‘he wun’t give yert steam off ‘is piss’, but I do remember we tried. If my mum or aunts were sulky as kids, my grandma would accuse them of having ‘a face as long as t’ gas man’s Mac’, which I find much more apt than the more conventional comparison with a fiddle. (The gas man, for those born later into more prosperous circumstances, was the man from the gas board who used to come each week and empty the shillings and half crowns from your pay-as-you-go gas meter. The uniform consisted of a peaked cap and a calf-length macintosh, then a species of raincoat, not a computer.) We describe two good friends in English as ‘thick as thieves’ but for me, it’s not as knapp as the Greek simile that has two such as ‘κώλος και βρακί’ [kólos ke vrakí] ‘arse and knickers’. My grandma’s stock of phrases for characterising her brother also included ‘tight as a mackerel’s arse’, (i.e., water tight) which is quite nice, and I really sniggered over the Greek description of someone either very mean or forced into frugality: ‘κάνει το σκατό του παξιμάδι’ [káni to skató tou paximádi] ‘he makes his turds into rusks.’

The Greek supermarket chain Vassilopoulos has the slogan ‘…και του πουλιού το γάλα!’ [ke tou poulioú to gála] which translates somewhat enigmatically as ‘…and the milk of the bird!’ I discovered there’s a related idiom to do with ‘bird milk’ in Arabic, which I speculate may be the origin of the Greek idiom, slipped in via Turkish**. I leave you to decide what you think it means.


* The post title is a translation of 'σιγά το πολυέλαιο', [siga to polyelaio] a verbal shrug, meaning something like 'big deal'. My thanks to Theialina who put me right. I thought it was a deliberate non-sequitur in response to an apparently pointless remark, and I was basing this on an addled memory of a book of Greek idioms I had back in nineteen ninety-splunge. The real non-sequitur-in-response-to-a-pointless-remark is 'από την πόλη έρχομαι και στην κορυφή κανέλλα' [apo tin poli erchomai kai stin koryfi kanella] 'I'm coming from town with cinnamon on top'. Moral: with foreign languages the same holds as for your post office and the potency of your penis: use it or lose it.

** This sort of speculation gets you into deep dung in Greece, the source, after all, of every language, as many a Greek erroneously believes. The other day I got this comment an old post, Πας μη Έλλην βάρβαρος: ‘You just wish you were Greek. Apart from being a nationality, being Greek means much more than you think.’ No elucidation was forthcoming.


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