There was a link doing the rounds a few weeks ago with the headline: Scientists Link Selfies to Narcissism, Addiction, and Mental Illness. The article claimed that the growing trend of taking smartphone selfies is linked to mental health conditions that focus on a person’s obsession with looks.

Around the same time, another message went viral. This one claiming that the American Psychiatric Association had officially (yes, officially) classed the taking of selfies as a disorder it was calling ‘selfitis’. This, too, was a hoax.

IMG_4216 (800x600)I have no problem with selfies – I’ve been known to waste more than a few minutes in the privacy of my kitchen trying in vain to capture the beauty within on my smartphone. I’ve even set my camera on a timer in an attempt to rid my selfies of the tell-tale outstretched arm. And while I have had some luck, IMG_4202 (800x600) (800x600)it’s not the sort of luck I’d like to take to the racetrack. One winning photo for every 55 or so taken isn’t exactly great odds. With each dud photo I get, I find something to be critical of. It’s certainly not healthy or good for me but that doesn’t stop me IMG_4208 (800x600)indulging every six months or so when I need a new profile picture for something or other. That’s me; others with a better developed self-image don’t seem to be exposed at all.

What bothers me about selfies though, is that taking them when you’re out and about in public robs you of the moment. Instead of enjoying what you’re doing, where you are, who you’re with, you’re posing – focusing on yourself.

IMG_3853 (600x800)I was in Greece earlier this month and saw those new-fangled rod cameras for the first time. You know them? Tiny digital cameras on the end of a collapsible rod that you stretch out in front of you to take a selfie? Now, it’s hard to imagine anything competing with the Parthenon for attention, but the day I was there it had serious competition. I was standing in front of this fantastic testimony to man’s creativity and architectural genius, and instead of soaking it all in, I was distracted by seven different people posing for selfies in my immediate vicinity. They were so busy taking photos of themselves that I doubt very much if they saw anything of what was around them.

IMG_3917 (800x600)Over lunch later, I was highly amused by the antics of a couple sitting at the table below us. Both sat down and immediately she took out her phone and proceeded to take selfies (a chronic waste of a boyfriend/husband methinks). On the ferry to Aegina, I watched a dad take charge of the two kids while mum spent a good twenty minutes trying to get just the right selfie. I kid you not.

I had thought that this might have been a Greek thing, something that happens when you overdose on souvlaki and ouzo, but I was wrong. The rods have arrived in Budapest, too. Just last week, while out and about admiring the city in all its splendour (I might have my quibbles with the government, but hat’s off to Orban et al. for the facelift Budapest has received – she’s looking amazing) I saw many people so busy taking selfies that they didn’t seem to notice the glorious rebirth of the Castle Bazaar. The gleaming walls of Parlament were lost on them. And as for the night views across the Danube… wasted.

Selfies have their moments, true. But at what cost? Selfitis might not yet be a disorder, but is it already in the frame?

First published in the Budapest Times 29 August 2014

Customer service – Greek style

A cursory check of reviews on Trip Advisor will show that customer service, or the lack thereof, is something that ranks high on every traveller’s list of priorities. Budapest, despite the many things it has going for it as a city, isn’t exactly famous for how it treats its guests. Mind you, given how obnoxious some tourists can be, I wonder where the fault really lies. Suffice to say that good customer service is still something that makes conversational headlines here in the city, testimony in and of itself to its novelty factor.

When in Athens recently I had no clue that to expect or not to expect in the line of customer service. I’m not one easily impressed in that regard so I was open to the best they had to offer. I have been known to covet an entire wait staff, imagining the wonders I might achieve were I let loose on them on them for a couple of days. I have boycotted cafés and bars and restaurants (and badmouthed them, too) if the service has been rude or non-existent. Hell hath no fury like this particular customer scorned.

IMG_3939 (800x581)Here in Budapest, Kompót ranks No. 1 for customer service in my book. And in Athens it was the Taverna on Antinoros Str. From the outset, Eleni, the young woman whose job it is to direct the passing footfall to a table, was pleasant and not at all pushy. She struck the perfect balance with a subdued yet assertive style. Score No. 1. The Taverna is the second in a row of cafés/restaurants/bars near the Divani Caravel hotel and we were intent on checking out them all before committing to one. Both of us liked our food too much to rush the choice. But having done the tour, we ended back where we started and Eleni remembered us. Score No. 2.

As we checked the menu, Maïa came and brought us water, set out the cutlery, and told us someone would be out to take our order shortly. And all with a smile. Score No. 3.

IMG_3940 (800x600)Mr Titus took our drinks order and then he and Xphɛtoɛ (Kristos) kept an eye on us all evening. The food was fantastic, the drinks cold and served to order, the service attentive without being intrusive. It was no wonder that plans to go home at midnight were completely forgotten. When Xphɛtoɛ heard it was my birthday, he planted a birthday candle in my watermelon with the comedic timing of the best that comic talent has to offer. It was a great start to my year. I’m easily pleased. We had a ball. So much so that we went back again, a second time, a couple of days later. Two out of three nights at the same place? Unheard of for me. And interestingly, we recognised some of the other diners, as well.

Some lessons to be learned from the Taverna:

  • Smiling staff who enjoy their work will infect the customers with their good humour. I defy anyone to be in a bad mood for long at the Taverna when these guys are working.
  • Good, uncomplicated food served hot is a perfect complement to local beer and wine served cold. Mix them up and you have a disaster. Get them right and you have it sussed. Simple.
  • Everyone having a watchful eye out for a customer who might just even be thinking about asking for something and then giving the nod to whomever is waiting that particular table makes for seamless service.
  • Take your cue from the customers – If they’re chatty, chat back. If they’re celebrating, pull out all the stops. And if they’re being fussy – remember  – they’re always right. Kill them with kindness and a smile.

Kudos to you all – thanks for a fabulous couple of nights, great food, excellent service, and memories that are worth sharing.

If you’re in Athens, be sure to check it out.

2014 Grateful 19

‘We learn something new every day, and lots of times it’s that what we learned yesterday was wrong’ – I’m with you there, Bill Vaughan. But there’s some stuff I have learned and there’s other stuff I just know. And I often I don’t know which is which. But when I find out that the stuff I just know is wrong, that tilts my world a little for a nanosecond or three.

IMG_3851 (800x600)The Acropolis is not a building – ruined or otherwise – it’s a hill. I never knew that. And on this hill sits the Parthenon, a temple completed in 438 BC, which has variously served  as  a temple, a church, and a mosque, even a munitions depot during the Turkish Occupation of Greece. An explosion in 1687, in a fight with the Venetians, pretty much ruined it, yet in its way, it’s still rather magnificent.

IMG_3876 (800x600)Another lesser known temple, the Erechteion, with its famous Porch of the Caryatids, is even more interesting. I thought I was looking at the real thing in these six maidens, but they’re replicas. Apparently, back in 1801, a certain Lord Elgin took one home to his mansion in Scotland. It was later sold to the British Museum. Legend has it that at night, the other five could be heard crying for their lost sister. The same Lord Elgin then tried to remove a second one – but ended up smashing it (it was later reconstructed). In the mid-1970s, the temple was somewhat restored and in 1979 the five ladies were moved to the Acropolis Museum, where they’re currently undergoing major cleaning. They were replaced by replicas (and very good ones at that… I wonder how many people notice that they’re not the real thing). While at the museum, one of them – a footless lady – was matched with a sandalled foot found in the rubble – reunited and in one piece again.

IMG_3836 (800x600)IMG_3839 (800x600)The Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a renovated amphitheatre, is very impressive. The juxtaposing of old and new creates a magic that is mesmerising.  Home to the Athens Festival each year, world greats such as Maria Callas, Frank Sinatra, Elton John, Plácido Domingo, the Bolshoi Ballet, Diana Ross, Liza Minelli… have performed on its stage. I’ve added yet another item to my bucket list and am debating about whom I’d like to see at the Odeon. Imelda May – definitely Imelda May.

IMG_3893 (800x600)The Temple of Athena Nike is another one with a story behind it. The first of the temples on the Acropolis, it was completely dismantled in the seventeenth century when its stone was used to build a Turkish wall around the hill.  In or about 1836, an anastylosis (my word for the day – an archaeological term for a reconstruction technique whereby a ruined building or monument is restored using the original architectural elements to the greatest degree possible) helped rebuild the temple from the parts remaining.

IMG_3858 (800x600)Many years ago, when I was visiting the Colosseum in Rome, I was with an architect friend who patiently explained the various pillars and columns to me. Needless to say, with the limited amount of space in my brain, that information has long since been replaced by something far more important, like the price of first class postage in South Africa. But I didn’t need to know what I was looking at to appreciate the majesty of it all. The detail, the hidden men (can you see the chap reclining underneath the roof?), the artistry – and with the tools available back then? It’s almost impossible to comprehend.

IMG_3863 (800x600)IMG_3846 (800x600)The views from the Acropolis are magnificent. To see the entire city of Athens laid out before you is quite impressive. Mind you, it was difficult to find any comfort in it, as thousands of people jostled for a vantage point. The place was teeming. More than 10 000 visit each day, apparently, making for a less than comfortable experience. Although I was one of those tourists, I couldn’t help but wish everyone else had stayed at home. One long moving line passed in through the pillars and another passed out, reminiscent of a human conveyor belt, with staff on site urging everyone to keep moving and not to stop.

IMG_3841 (800x600)Was it worth it? Definitely. Despite the heat, the crowds, and my lack of interest in old temples generally, it was impressive. Very impressive. I’m grateful that someone, somewhere along the way, didn’t decide to bulldoze it to make way for high-priced condominiums or luxury villas. I’ve often wondered what makes people revere some ruins and erase others. To conservationists and the preservationists everywhere, a massive thank you for doing your bit to keep the past intact.

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It's all Greek to me

There is nothing that decompresses as much as physically transitioning from one pace of life to another, slower one. We were up at the crack of dawn this morning to taxi to Piraus to catch the ferry to Aegina – an island about 70 minutes boat time from Athens (and apparently the first capital of modern Greece). As we pulled away from the dock, we left a city settling in under a blanket of smog, created in part by the black smoke coming from the speedboats that were carrying those in too much of a hurry to take the puddle-jumpers to wherever it was they were going. Mammoth cruise ships carrying enough passengers to populate an average Irish town had yet to waken while incoming ferries disgorged hundreds of commuters heading to work.

IMG_3620 (800x600)IMG_3629 (800x600)We landed in Athens last night with enough time to check in to the lovely Palmyra Beach Hotel at Glyfada, drop our bags, and head out to dinner on the beach. As you do. Some decent Greek wine for me and some ouzo for the inimitable Ms G helped wind down what for both of us had been a stressful week. We sat by the shore until they closed the place down around us and then made our way back to the hotel for just a few hours of sleep before heading to the island.

IMG_3613 (800x600)I’ve never been to Greece before. It’s not a country that was high on my list of places to go, if it featured at all. Athens isn’t a city I’ve ever been particularly curious about and yet when he told me to be in Athens at 9.04 pm on Wednesday, 6th August, I immediately booked a flight. My last date with fate on 2 February 2013 marked many changes – good changes – so who knows what this one will bring.

IMG_3640 (800x600)It might well be the effects of the sun, but I think I can see the changes already. I am so calm I don’t know myself. I’ve only logged on once today and haven’t checked my phone at all. I’ve finished one book and have two more in reserve. We docked at Aegina early morning and couldn’t immediately see our hotel. So we did what any self-respecting Irish/Hungarian duo would do – we checked with the first bartender we saw. Nothing like taking advantage of local talent. .. but such information comes at a price.

Pulling wheelies behind us, we wended our way up the hill to our hotel and got to check in early. The Klonos is lovely – really lovely. That makes two in a row. We spent the day at the beach decompressing and feel as if Budapest is somewhere in the distant past. I’m keeping a watchful eye out for Tom Conti look-alikes (there’s a plethora of Shirley Valentines), and half expect to hear Pierce Brosnan singing his heart out in some little ouzeri tonight. But even if both fail me, I won’t be disappointed.

This is the first time in a long time that I’ve felt so relaxed. It’s going to be a good week. And yes, Wayne Brett – I’ll be back in BP by Friday 🙂

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Redefining kitsch

I’m old enough to fess up to a number of obsessions, one of which is statues. They fascinate me on two levels: what they represent and what they’re supposed to represent. In this regard, spending a few days in Skopje was like spending a few days touring with Dara O’Briain – it was one jaw-dropping surprise after another.

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I was particularly amused by the statue of Prometheus that sits in a park across from the Parliament building. It’s part of a ‘statue complex‘ that has three parts representing the world of the living and a passage to the world of the gods. Prometheus, the god who brought us fire, stands in the middle of an agora representing heroic sacrifice. On top of the doorway to eternity stand four horses. And atop a marble pillar stands a winged goddess of victory.  Somewhere in there is what was intended to be an eternal flame, but it was doused when the park’s young visitors started to use it to barbeque their sausages. What amused me was the fact that Prometheus was first erected in all his glory but politicians caved to public indignation and had him clothed. Mind you, the story I heard was that the politicians themselves didn’t like looking out the windows of Parliament at a god in all his golden glory. Whether it was unidentified women’s organisations that lobbied for the loin cloth, or the politicians themselves that had the god clothed, the mind boggles at such inanity.
Next on my liIMG_1844 (600x800)st is a statue of someone whose name escapes me. It caught my attention because of the controversy the project has ignited. The public is a tad upset at the millions of euro  being spent on these statues and there are murmurs that not all the money might be going where it should have gone. This chap, putting away what might be a wallet, screamed corruption at me. Apparently, the night of the mayoral election in the Centar municipality, the incumbent was defeated. At 3am he got to work. By 8 am the next morning, the two boys had taken up their positions on either side of the Porta Macedonia, a triumphal arch that stands 21 meters tall and itself cost €4.4 million. Apparently, the defeated Mayor promptly sent the bill to his successor. Payback’s a bitch alright.

IMG_1985 (600x800) (2)IMG_1983 (800x600)Across the Stone Bridge sits Karpoš’s Rebellion Square. In one of three fountains sit four statues of four women in various stages of motherhood. Titled the Fountain of the Mothers of Macedonia, it depicts a pregnant woman, a woman breastfeeding,  a woman playing with her son, and another of what seems to be her protecting him. In the background stands the Warrior monument, generally believed to be a statue of Philip II of Macedon – Alexander the Great’s father. At this stage, the penny dropped. Macedonia is really hammering it home to Greece that its claim on the name Macedonia is greater – but subtly, of course. Not surprisingly, the mothers of Macedonia are thought by some to depict one mother – and represent the early stages of Alexander’s life.

IMG_1776 (800x600) Sitting in the centre of Macedonia Square is the statue of the Warrior on a Horse, generally believed to be that of Alexander the Great. The relatively unknown sculptor is said to have received €650 000 while the whole fountain cost about €9 million. It lights up at night and it plays music, too. Apparently the people cried with joy when it was raised… but the tears I heard were more of despair. It would seem that this statue frenzy has divided the city more so that the River Vardar already does.

IMG_1915 (600x800)IMG_1987 (600x800)While I was thinking of this despair, I happened across this sculpture which at first I took to be a lifesaving in motion. But then I realised it was a diving platform. I liked it. Clever I thought. And a break from the greatness of the other monuments with their innocuous titles and their subtle implications.

And then I found some light relief down by the National Theatre. Not unlike Budapest’s National Theatre, it too has a series of statues of great actors but even they seem to be enjoying a certain amount of self-deprecation. This one was my favourite. Sass and style and a dare-to-be-different attitude that might well sum up Skopje. The jury is out.

Is Macedonia’s capital being turned in to a theme park, as the CNN article ran? Or it is a ploy to distract the nation from its real problems: high unemployment, poverty and stalled progress towards EU and NATO membership.  New-York-based Macedonian architect Robert Dandarov reckons that Skopje has turned into ‘an encyclopedia of kitsch’. Me, I’m just glad I got to see it all and marvel.