I have to file this column on a Friday so that it can make it into your inboxes by Saturday morning. There’s a set routine. I get up incredibly early, hoping that neither the other half nor even the dog stirs before I have at least got a first draft down. To start the writing engine there is coffee -- lots of coffee. And my other trick is to not think about what I will write in advance. OK, a couple of times this has failed me. But on the whole it turns out that my brain is pretty good at having stored a couple of starting points during the week in the mental filing cabinet and those jolts of coffee are enough to open its lock.
But this week that has not been possible. It might be Friday but I am in Athens for the Monocle Quality of Life Conference and today is the big day: some 25 speakers on stage, over 100 delegates in the audience. And, to make sure all went to plan, we had to get to the venue, the Benaki Museum, very early -- just a few hours after I had put down my unwise second glass of mastika at the dinner we hosted for the speakers the previous night. But after the past 24 hours, I am also wondering whether my routine is good for me anyway.
The first trip-up came last night when I got to sit next to Katerina Gregos, the charismatic artistic director of Athens’ National Museum of Contemporary Art -- a role that she has had for just a few months and which she took on after her return from Brussels. We got talking about what quality of life means for her and why she had felt the tug to return to her home nation. She said something that during the night my brain decided to slip into the "could be helpful for column" folder.
In Athens, Gregos said, “You don’t always have to be on an agenda. You can just phone a friend and say, ‘What are you doing tonight? Do you want to go the cinema’” She talked about the value of allowing things to happen and of not being controlled by your electronic diary. She stressed that this was nothing to do with people being lazy. "We work really hard but we just don’t follow an agenda all the time." (Although she did warn me that Greek restaurants were now trying to squeeze in two dinner sittings rather than allow the quality of conversation to determine how long people stay drinking and eating.)
Back in London there are people I really like, people I am close to, that I would still be cautious of phoning on a Saturday evening to check on their last-minute availability. There are friends who it can take weeks to see -- or perhaps they just can’t stand me. I can understand that. But I realise that I would like a bit more of this off-agenda living.
Especially because I have also learned today that it’s actually bad for your health to have too many unwavering routines. Dr Philippe Schucht is a leading neurosurgeon and we asked him to talk at the conference about the brain and how to keep it fit and healthy. It turns out that parts of your brain will slowly shut down if they are not used. One way to flex its abilities is to regularly change your routine -- even something as simple as how you walk to work. Giving your brain time to retrieve information rather than jumping on Google to find the answer is also highly recommended if you want to ward off mental decline.
But if there is one routine I’ve realised it would be good to acquire then it’s a comedy one. Today’s final pre-lunch spot went to Katerina Vrana and Monocle’s Rob Bound. Vrana is a comedian who in 2017 fell critically ill with sepsis. She survived but now uses a wheelchair and at one point was totally blind. Now, go and park any preconceptions. We had tasked her with teaching the audience some Greek, which soon turned into a performance about her people, her bushy locks, sex and what people may or may not do with Rob. I stood by the side of the auditorium and watched a crowd united in laughter. She had them. It was perhaps the first time -- and maybe will be the last -- that anyone has told our delegates, "Don’t pucker your arseholes." It was a routine that was anything but -- and it showed the power of laughing in unison, of being nicely in on the joke.