Greek temples, oracles & tombs

In my last two blog posts, I’ve been sharing some memories of a holiday my friends and I took in Greece years ago, just after we graduated.

Picture of a ruined Greek temple

Someone told us that there was an ancient temple dedicated to Artemis not far from the hotel where we were staying so, one day, we set off to find it. After a while, my friends spied it in the distance.

Then we seemed to enter some kind of space-time vortex.

Whichever path we took, we never got any closer. It was quite uncanny and, Greece being a country steeped in legend, we began to feel some supernatural force was at work. At one point we even started to walk across the fields but this was messy and the going was hard so we retreated back to the path.

I can’t even remember how we got there but, eventually, Artemis stopped playing with us and we arrived. It was like stepping back in time. The temple was amazingly well preserved and very quiet, not being on the usual tourist trail.

We also went on some organised trips, one being to Delphi. We went by road, which was certainly memorable…

Now, I’m going to say something about driving in Greece. I don’t mean to offend anyone. I loved both my holidays there – this one on the mainland and a later one on Corfu – but the Greek attitude to driving was certainly different from what I had been used to in the UK. All the drivers, whether cabbies, bus drivers or ordinary commuters, adorned their vehicles with crosses and religious icons. We soon got the impression, though, that their display of piety was in lieu of safe driving practices.

They trusted in God and ignored red lights.

At one point our bus stopped suddenly on a clifftop road and we all nearly fell out of our seats. When we were told that the many shrines along the cliff roads were in memory of people who had died in traffic accidents, we were hardly surprised but certainly more than a little concerned!

The shrine at Delphi, where the famous oracle used to prophesy, was up a steep hill. Despite my arthritis, I climbed the many, many steps but, by the time I had reached the top, I was definitely struggling. A nice young man in our party carried me down.

Another indication of how small I was then! No young man in his right mind would offer to carry me down a steep flight of steps these days, especially not in such heat.

My memory of whether I was allowed to touch buildings and artefacts is a bit blurry now, but I don’t remember anyone telling me not to. My general recollection is that everyone at the historic sites was friendly and helpful.

We struck out on our own on one occasion, taking the bus into Athens and going to watch the changing of the guard outside the parliament building. At least, we thought that was what was happening. My friend Kris described it to me as being more like a dance than a military manoeuvre.

I wonder if that says something about the gracefulness or perhaps just the liveliness and exuberance of the Greeks.

It was a great day. We browsed the market stalls and I still have the jewellery I bought. I also purchased a lovely embroidered blouse which I wore for many years as a reminder of a wonderful holiday. I’ve grown out of it now, but the memories still remain.

It’s still all Greek

I was telling you about the holiday my friends and I had years ago in Greece, just after we graduated.

Our hotel room had a balcony and we sometimes sat out there in the evening when we felt we needed a change from sitting in the bar. We always left the balcony door open to cool the room, but there were a lot of insects around and one night when we came back into our room, we found a large, leggy creature on the ceiling over my bed. I didn’t want it to fall on my head during the night so my friends hunted about for something to kill it with.

It was a high ceiling. Nothing would reach.

In the end they stood on my bed holding the table from the balcony between them and used it as  a giant fly swatter. I stood bravely out of the way.

We had a lovely chambermaid who not only made our beds each day but also folded my nightdress into pretty flower shapes for me to find.

I will never forget the day my friend Kris tried asking her to spray the room with fly-spray. She had no English and we had no Greek. Apart, that is, from the only phrase I recalled from school, which was “He hippe,” which means “Oh horse.”

This wasn’t very suitable for our needs so instead Kris tried a combination of words and actions. She made a buzzing sound, followed by a “psst” sound accompanied by a mime of pressing down a spray, followed by a clap of the hands. In other words: fly, spray, dead.

It worked!

Our chambermaid understood and started spraying our room vigorously each day.

While on the subject of the language: we noticed the word “catinos” by the lift. I may not have spelt this correctly. We speculated that it might mean there was a cat in the lift but presumably it has a more sensible meaning. (Editor’s note: maybe the sign read καντίνας, which means “canteen”?)

It’s all Greek to me

It’s summer here in England and raining hard. As the water pours incessantly down, I thought I would reminisce, once again, about sun-drenched holidays of the past…

When we finished our degree, my friends and I thought we deserved a break so we went to a travel agent to see if there were any last-minute cheap holidays in Greece. Lo and behold, there were, so, off we went.

We set off from Gatwick Airport at some ridiculous hour of the morning. In fact it was so ridiculous, we didn’t even go to bed the night before but sat up talking, packing, washing our hair and doing all the things you do when you go on holiday. The only thing I recall about the flight is breaking two plastic knives on something with pastry on it. Plastic knives, are, in my view, pointless pieces of cutlery.

Safely landed at our destination, we were met at the airport by a tour company rep and driven away in a minibus to start our Greek odyssey.

We had, quite by accident, hit pay dirt.

The accommodation was comfortable and the beach amazing. We were on the Aegean coast and our hotel was in a small bay that seemed to be frequented mainly by the three of us, apart from at weekends, when the locals took over. That was fine by us. We weren’t greedy.

The sand was soft and golden and the sea always calm. It was also fairly shallow, so you could easily sit in it and it was like sitting in a warm bath. You could swim if you went out a little further but, even then, it wasn’t very deep. Silver fish swam about and it couldn’t have been more idyllic. There was even a nearby taverna where we could purchase cool lager.

We mostly ate in the hotel. The food was delicious. The meat was always tender and we had a good variety of vegetables, mostly squashes and chips.

I don’t think there is anything particularly Greek about chips. When I went to Corfu some years later, the guide told us that chips were common on the island and were a legacy of British rule. I suspect they served them at our hotel to keep the Brits happy.

In those days I was very slim and, being very short as well, the impression was of a very small person. When the waiter serving our table had been round everybody else, he would return and give me whatever was left in the dish. He must have thought I needed feeding up.

Oh for those days when I could eat anything and everything and still fit into size 10 jeans!

The one item they could not produce to our satisfaction was tea. They used warm milk and it was disgusting. I stuck to coffee which was thick black, strong and delicious.

Hearing

I have just been listening to a blackbird in my garden. I don’t think I have heard one there before. Is it the lockdown which allows me to hear this one?

I have heard several people say that they are more aware of birdsong since the lockdown. There is less traffic noise, fewer planes and, for many of us, more time to pay attention to the world around us. It has made me think about the whole business of listening and hearing.

Every visually-impaired person will be asked at some point in their life, “Do you find that your other senses are sharpened to compensate for your lack of sight?”

I find this interesting. Does the question arise from some inbuilt desire that there should be some kind of natural justice or karma in the world that compensates people for what they lack in life?

If you do feel the universe should readjust matters so that there is some kind of cosmic fair-play, I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you.

Certainly I know people with little or no sight who have brilliant hearing, but I also know plenty who don’t, myself included. I also know sighted people with great hearing.

Another commonly held belief is that blind people are all musical. Sorry, again: not true! Obviously many are, but so then are many sighted people.

Despite all that, I do think something interesting is going on in relation to visually impaired people and hearing. I don’t think that we necessarily have more acute hearing, but it may be that we concentrate more.

I have written before about the problems of watching television with my parents before the days of audio-description. They would be so busy trying to work out who the actors were that they would often miss great chunks of dialogue. I would end up explaining the plot to them when the programme finished! The reason I could do this was that I had to concentrate on what was being said and any sound effects which I could identify.

Concentration also plays a large part in mobility if you can’t see. You have to think about where the steps are, how far it is to the end of such-and-such a wall, where potential obstacles might be, and so on. You don’t magically acquire super powers when you lose your sight, you just learn to put your brain to work to help you fill in the gaps.

Now it is true that, as a child, I lost all the sight in my right eye without anyone noticing. The hospital, who should have been checking, said my left eye must have taken over and compensated for this loss. The fact remains, though, that I did miss things. I found I couldn’t always read what was written on the blackboard but, at the age of six, it didn’t occur to me that this was because I couldn’t see. I thought I was being stupid and kept quiet about it.

Just as many people with hearing-loss learn to lip-read so, out of necessity, when you lose your eyesight, you have to learn tricks for getting round the problems life throws at you. You end up developing certain skills, but you don’t automatically acquire bat-like hearing (or, indeed, the ability to hang upside down from the ceiling, which is a pity!). Sadly, I think my hearing is actually pretty mediocre, and I can’t sing in tune to save my life.

I hope I haven’t just shattered all your illusions.

Just in case I have depressed you, let me lighten the mood.

I mentioned bats just now and have to confess that I have a particularly soft spot for these nocturnal flying mammals. It all started when I fell in love with Count Dracula in the person of Louis Jourdan in a 1977 BBC adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel and that led to a love of bats more generally.

Louis Jourdan in the BBC’s 1977 “Dracula”

Bats of all shapes and sizes and made of many materials now adorn my house. One of my lodgers thought this was part of an ironic take on my disability. I was amused by the suggestion and decided not to disabuse him!

Embarrassing adventures

In my last couple of blogs, I’ve been explaining the mobility training I received years ago when I was a young pupil at a boarding school for the visually impaired. We started with simple routes near the school and then learned to travel to such exotic destinations as the local corner shop and a random T-junction in the middle of nowhere.

Our next and longer walks were to Chorleywood station and the village beyond. In order to reach these destinations you had to take a walk across the common. My arthritis prevented me from achieving this, however, so I was driven to the village by a member of staff and a friend then taught me the various routes around the streets.

There were a few shops in the village but I don’t recall using them very much. I do recall embarrassing my friend on one shopping trip by accidentally knocking a box of soap powder with my elbow and thereby precipitating a cascade of boxes off the shelf.

“Baboom, baboom, baboom!” they went.

It didn’t take much to make me laugh and I giggled childishly while my friend hissed at me and dragged me hastily out of the shop.

Incidentally, she also objected to me eating an ice lolly as we walked along the road. To be fair, that probably was bad manners.

The last mobility test we had to undergo was to get the train one stop down the line to Rickmansworth. There was a great incentive to passing this test, because there was a record shop in “Ricky”. That was more or less the only place we went to there, apart from a Chinese restaurant which my friends and I visited one Saturday night. For a bunch of boarding school girls in the 1970s, this felt incredibly exotic.

Once we could get safely to Ricky and back, we were allowed to venture further afield. We would sometimes take the bus to Watford and visit the American ice-cream parlour there. They had twenty flavours of ice-cream which, at the time, seemed absolutely amazing!

The last adventure I recall was a trip to London. One of our form had left at the end of the fifth year to train as a typist at the RNIB vocational training college, which at that time was in Notting Hill.

Four of us set off on the Underground to visit her.

I was using crutches by this point due to my arthritis, so was unable to carry a long cane. Neither my friends nor I let this stand in our way, however. One of our group had quite a lot of sight and we relied on her to read the station signs on the Underground. At one point she said we had reached the right one and I got off the train. Almost immediately she changed her mind and another of my friends literally scooped me up and returned me to the carriage just in the nick of time.

Learning to get around was often a challenge, but it was rarely if ever dull!

The corner shop and beyond

I explained in last week’s blog how we were taught mobility when, as a young girl, I was a pupil at a boarding school for the visually impaired. We started with simple walks in the lanes around the school.

The next challenge involved walking further afield and included learning the route across the common to the parish church, where most of the school went to services on Sunday mornings. Being a Baptist, though, I got to go to Rickmansworth Baptist Church, and was privileged to get a lift.

Probably the most important route we had to learn, though, was the one that led to the corner shop. This included crossing a road by using a pedestrian crossing protected by traffic lights. You had to press a button to operate the lights, which emitted a loud beeping to let you know when it was safe to cross. It was the first time I had ever encountered one of these.   

The shop itself held a special place in our hearts. We could buy sweets, birthday cards and, for those of us who had pets at school, carrots for our rabbits. I wonder now if the staff were pleased to have our business or dreaded the onslaught of noisy teenagers descending on them most afternoons.

I remember one lovely guy who worked there who liked to joke with us. He was behind the counter the day I turned up and asked for, “Those little cheesy biscuits where you don’t get many in a packet.”

I was never allowed to forget this!

The next set of walks were invented to take us further afield but, as there wasn’t anywhere obvious for us to go to, our teachers had to dream up routes to some entirely arbitrary destinations just for the sake of the exercise. This meant that we got a walk, but we didn’t actually go anywhere very interesting.

And this is where the T-junction I mentioned last week finally comes in. One of our regular walks was to and from a T-junction in the middle of nowhere.

It was all very Samuel Beckett!

It was while I was on one of these walks to nowhere that I accidentally became a living cliché.

I had recently had an operation on my left eye which had improved my sight slightly. I also had new glasses and was keen to find out what I could see with them. I was walking with my friend when I spied a road sign.

This, I thought, was a golden opportunity.

I started to read the road sign to her. I took a step back and found that I could still read it. Brilliant!

I took yet another step back.

“I can even read it from here”! I cried – and promptly stepped backwards into a hole.

Pride definitely came before  a fall!

Mobility

I felt I had hit a bit of a low when I experienced a prick of jealousy when my brother told me he and my sister-in-law were going to the vet to get flea powder for their cats!

Some visually-impaired people are having to go out to work or shop, or to walk their guide dogs, but I am effectively stuck at home. You can’t safely distance from others when you can’t see, and I feel that it would be antisocial to put someone else at risk by asking them to act as my guide. In consequence, apart from my mini-adventure going to the doctor’s surgery a few weeks ago, the furthest I have been from my property since the start of lockdown was to step outside my front gate with a bag of recycling.

I can’t tell you how grateful I am that I have a garden, so that I can at least get some fresh air.

It’s all very different from my schooldays, when I used to grumble heartily at being forced to go outdoors for exercise every day, whatever the weather. What was I thinking of?

Well, I know why really. No schoolgirl wants to pointlessly walk to a T-junction in the rain. The irony is that I would take that now, certainly if the rain wasn’t too heavy!

“What T-junction?” I hear you ask.

Let me explain, though you’ll have to wait till next week before I get to the T-junction!

When you go to boarding school like I did, you don’t have to travel to and from school each day. How, then, do the teachers ensure that their pupils get regular fresh air and exercise?

My school’s answer was to throw them out of the building every weekday morning between breakfast and assembly on what we all used to refer to as “garden ex,” “ex” in this case being short for “exercise.”

In practice, this meant wandering round the school grounds for half-an-hour. On cold days, we used to lurk in the boiler house or summerhouse but at least we got some fresh air on the way to and from these hidey-holes.

On weekday afternoons, we went on “walk” for an hour between lunch and the recommencement of lessons at ten-to-three.

This was also how we learnt mobility.

At the start of our first year, we went on “croc”, which was our abbreviation for “crocodile”. This involved pairing up and following a teacher for a short walk around the lanes near school.

We soon, however, embarked on learning different routes. We were each allocated to a senior pupil, who would teach us the way, and we would then be tested by a member of staff.

The first test involved walking down the back drive, following the grass verge (there were no pavements in our immediate vicinity), and then walking up the front drive of the school. We then had to do the route in reverse.

This is where I got into trouble.

This version of the route involved the additional challenge of crossing a road. We had to go to a certain point and then cross over and walk up to the entrance to the back drive. Back then, I could still see a little and when I spotted the opening to the drive I started to cross over to it.

I was summarily summoned back.

Crossing over as soon as I saw the entrance, I had walked diagonally across the road, meaning that I spent longer than necessary exposing myself to the potential danger of being knocked down. That was when I learned the important lesson of safety first.

The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

Colour illustration of the Mad Hatter's Tea Party by Sir John Tenniel, from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland".

Another week in lockdown. Another week in this strange new reality.

Perhaps it is fitting that my PA and I have been proofreading a braille transcription of Alice in Wonderland. There are no hookah-smoking caterpillars in my garden (as far as I know), but as I sit in different chairs around my table drinking tea, coffee or wine, depending on the time of day, I could easily be at the Mad Hatter’s tea party!

In some ways life hasn’t changed that much. I get up and start work at the usual time and keep to my daily work routines. On the days when I don’t have much work to do I try to spend the time constructively, keeping abreast of emails, talking to friends and family on the phone, and dealing with any church business that needs to be done now.

On the other hand, as I sit in my office, I am aware of how quiet my street is. I no longer hear the children arriving and departing from the pre-school across the road. I don’t hear the older children coming down this way at around three o’clock in the afternoon every weekday. The occasional family strolls past, no doubt out for their Boris walk, and I occasionally hear pedestrians exchange a word or two as they pass by.

On the other hand, if I sit in my back garden, everything sounds much the same. Families are outside enjoying the sunshine. I chat to my neighbours over the fence. I hear the odd car come and go. I have even noticed a few more birds singing joyfully, which lifts my spirits.

I am very fortunate. I got a grocery delivery from Tesco this week. I still have people assisting me with important domestic tasks.

Many visually-impaired people aren’t so lucky.

I have heard of shops refusing to allow visually impaired people to enter because we can’t see the markers on the floor intended to keep us six feet apart. In fact, keeping a set distance from others is well-nigh impossible if you can’t see where the other person is.

Many visually impaired people are still finding it difficult to get delivery slots with the major supermarket chains. Whilst it is great that some of these shops are offering allotted times to key workers and vulnerable people, these times are often early in the morning, when many of those vulnerable people couldn’t possibly get to the shops. Many of them have to wait for carers who might not arrive until lunchtime, and who are themselves dependent on public transport which no longer runs with the same frequency or reliability as before.

There will be a lot of visually impaired people who never leave their homes throughout this entire lockdown because no one can get close enough to guide them and they can’t practice social distancing without help.

I’m not blaming anybody. This is a new situation for all of us and we are having to learn how to cope as we go along.

Next time you applaud the NHS – who certainly deserve our praise – just spare a thought for the kind friends and family members who are taking the time and taking the risks in queueing patiently outside shops in order to help their disabled friends and relations to survive.

Lockdown

Are you reading this in lockdown?

Wherever you are, it is likely your movements have been curtailed to some extent.

It all happened so quickly. Two Mondays ago I had a meeting here with two of my fellow church trustees. We started to discuss this new virus and declared that we wouldn’t rush to close the church down.

The next day people who had booked rooms at our building started to cancel. Next, speakers for our midweek meetings started cancelling.

I sent an email round the trustees with some options for when we would hold our next meeting. Within two hours of this, all the participating denominations in our ecumenical partnership – the Baptists, Methodists and United Reformed Church – all contacted us to tell us to shut everything down.

And so we did.

All the groups I am involved in and all the meetings I was due to attend, all gone, gone, gone.

It felt surreal.

So how is it in lockdown for a visually-impaired person?

In some ways I am lucky. I work from home and, at present, still have work, so my daily routine hasn’t changed that much. As you might guess from my last three blog posts, I spent the first eight days of the crisis trying to get all my specialist software working properly on my new computer and learning how to use the latest version of Microsoft Office. I didn’t have time to think very much about the virus.

Since then, life has fallen into a pattern of sorts. The big difference, of course, is that I’m seeing fewer people. My PA is still getting my shopping but rather than coming in to work with me in my office, she has taken home with her some print copies of children’s books that I am checking so we can proofread them over the phone or via Messenger.

My cleaner, who, I suspect, can’t afford not to work, is still turning up once a week. We make sure that we are hardly ever in the same room and she wears gloves the whole time she is here. At the end of her work, I hand her her cash in a money bag, to minimise the contact between us.

I did have an “interesting” visit to the doctor’s surgery, though. It happened like this.

I have to have regular blood tests. I received two text messages on my mobile phone the week before my latest appointment. One was a reminder and the other said, “Ring before attending.”

I tried calling the surgery the day before the appointment. I couldn’t get through, but I did manage to speak to someone first thing the next day. She told me that if I hadn’t been contacted by the nurse, I should come in. I duly called a taxi. The driver had spent part of the morning taking key workers to their places of employment around the town. Apart from that, he said, there was little trade.

We arrived at the surgery.

The driver kindly helped me in. There was a barrier of chairs preventing patients from getting too close to the reception desk. I called my name across the no-man’s-land. I was told to go upstairs.

Easy for you to say!

After I had explained that I was visually impaired, the receptionist came out from behind her desk and made her way around the barricade. She then guided me upstairs. I made sure I didn’t touch her skin when I took her arm, but she assured me she was wearing gloves.

The surgery was eerily quiet. The nurse called me in and tried to guide me in such a way that I hardly touched anything.

Afterwards, the nurse put a pair of gloves on me so that I was protected in the taxi home. She was concerned that I didn’t know what I might be picking up. She also kindly gave me two spare pairs to take home.

One of my regular drivers picked me up. I hastened to reassure him that I wasn’t wearing gloves because I was infectious and that it was simply a precaution. He took it in his stride but, like the other driver, told me how little work there was at the moment.

Apart from that, I’m home every day, grateful that I have a garden to walk out into to get fresh air and a change of scene. My heart goes out to those who don’t have this facility.

Given that we are all now so isolated, I am profoundly glad to be living in a time when technology allows us to still keep in contact. WhatsApp, the phone, email and Messenger are all helping me to keep in touch with friends and family. I also enjoy my niece’s weekly pub quiz, live from her lounge on Facebook on Monday nights. (The link is here. You’ll have to send her a Friend request, but make sure you mention that you’re a friend of her Auntie Judy!)

Our poetry group is going to meet on Zoom and I was able to participate in a church-related meeting on that platform yesterday.

What of the future?

Among other things, I am concerned that I will miss my chiropractic appointment, which is due next week but, as my grandmother used to say, “Worse things happen at sea.” (Why a woman who lived in Buckinghamshire, which is nowhere near the sea, was so fond of this saying, I simply can’t imagine!)

I hope that, wherever you are, and whatever your circumstances you are remaining well and keeping sane. If you get really bored, you can always read all my past blog posts!

No internet!

When we installed Windows 10 on my PC, my copy of Windows Live Mail stopped working properly.

My brother suggested Mozilla Thunderbird as an alternative email program, and kindly installed it for me remotely using TeamViewer.

Needless to say, Thunderbird looks completely different to Live Mail, so I am having to learn how to use it from scratch. Fortunately, a friend who is visually-impaired uses this program, so she was able to help me learn my way around it. My brother also found a list of keystrokes for me, which has proved very handy.

At last, everything was working.

Then I lost the internet.

Well, my PC did. I could still converse with Alexa and use my phone, and my lodger was able to use her laptop, but my desktop machine just wouldn’t play ball. My lodger kindly spent a chunk of one evening trying everything she could think of to get it working again, but to no avail.

The following day I phoned my internet provider. They tried to be helpful but we kept coming up against problems.

“Is your router black?” they asked.

I replied, “Sorry, I’m visually-impaired. I think it is.”

“Is there a yellow wire coming out the back of it?”

“Sorry, I don’t know.”

“Can you trace the wire from your router to the computer?”

“If you could only see the mound of wires I have here! No, I don’t think I can do that.”

And so on.

In the end I thanked them for their time and rang off.

My next step was to call my local computer shop, who have looked after my IT hardware for many years now. My trusty local man came out and tried to sort out the problem.

Eventually, he said that my PC seemed to be connected to a public network. He changed it over to our own private connection and, for a few precious minutes, I got the internet back.

Then it went again.

Apart from those few minutes, I had been without the internet for three days by this point and I was getting anxious. Not only is it vital for work but it is also something of a lifeline.

On Saturday morning, lo and behold, the internet came back from wherever it had been sulking and all was well. My brother accessed my computer remotely for me and found how to change the connection from the useless public network to our own private one. Wonder of wonders, after he’d shown me how, I could even do it for myself.

Until today, that is, when I found myself lacking a connection again and tried to follow the instructions we had compiled at the weekend. Different messages were coming up to those we’d encountered previously and I couldn’t work out how to get to where I needed to be.

If you are reading this, then you’ll know that I did finally manage to get a connection for long enough to email this blog post to my brother-in-law so that he could publish it on my website. And if that all happened, then I can’t even begin to tell you just how relieved I am!