Off the wall

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We went to the Hope Project today, a resource centre for refugees, based near Kara Tepe, one of the refugee camps on the island, a couple of miles out from Mytilini.  Since this also near the other projects I might be working at, and I need to know how to get there under my own steam, it also acted as a dummy run for the journey.  Luckily, it turned out to be very easy.

We were acting on a recommendation from one of the students at Gekko, and did not really know what to expect.  It turned out to be a set of three warehouses on a small industrial park, originally established by a man called Eric Kempson, an Englishman who has been involved with the refugee crisis from the very beginning, when hundreds, and then thousands of refugees turned up on the coast near his house on the north of the island. He showed us round the various warehouses: first an art studio where some 20 or so refugees were all working on their own paintings, sketches, whatever.  The walls were covered with art created by them and their predecessors: a vast array, all with different styles, sizes, forms, subject matter, and of a remarkable quality, worthy of gracing any professional gallery.  He showed us one piece, a large, collaborative piece, showing a modern Moses (in reality Eric’s wife) parting the waves, and allowing through a crowd of people.  This had already attracted great interest on Facebook, and is to be auctioned by Christies to raise money for the project.

Eric is an artist himself, but it was clear that he was equally proud of the other facilities on the site. The largest was a well-stocked resource centre, with equipment and sanitary goods available to those in need, but there was also a kitchen, a bakery, a woodwork shop, a sewing centre, and, about to open within weeks, a hairdressing and craft centre.  Awe-inspiring, and just plain inspiring.

On our return, we took pictures of some of the street art throughout Mytilini.  There is a lot there, some showing excellent technical expertise, and much witty and clever.  Far more ubiquitous, however, with examples covering just about every plain wall, shop shutter, street furniture, is street art’s ugly bastard cousin: graffiti. No wit here, but the sort of nasty, disfiguring vandalism produced by any idiot with a spray-can. It ranges from the political – smash Nazis – to the childishly obscene – “Boobs” is a particular favourite, but mostly it is badly scrawled Greek phrases.

It is the complete antithesis to the art we had seen in the morning.  In the struggle between the beautiful and the ugly, the talented and the talentless, the inspiring and the depressing, one just has to believe in hope.


posted in: Teaching in Lesvos | 0

Val and I were taken by Rachel, one of Better Days permanent staff, up to Moria to visit a couple of the projects there, with the aim of seeing if I might be able to do some work there.  I was introduced to Iman, who teaches Dari and Drama at the School for Peace there, and we discussed the possibilities of working together.

Then over to the Eco-hub, Better Days’ permaculture vegetable garden – a wonderful, peaceful, productive space – where we ran into Liam, a Canadian I had met in the Olive Grove when I came here in February.  At the time, he had been working on an amphitheatre / meeting place there, which he he says is now complete and would benefit from a performance to bring it alive.  There are lots of children in the Olive Grove, but their lives are chaotic, and the chances of them having the will or ability to show up regularly in order to put together any sort of show are remote.  It occurred to me that the way around this would be to contain the whole process, from warm-up to casting to rehearsal to performance, within one day, and everyone seemed to think it was an idea with potential.

Back to Gekko for the afternoon session, and Irene warned me that, with Eid fast approaching, I could expect very few in my class.  She had told me this before, but today it seemed likely to prove true.  The start of the lesson is always fractured, with individuals coming and going, but today proved an extreme version.  For a while it looked I might have three, and that would be tricky, but eventually enough – nine – arrived, and we were able to begin.

I started with the traditional mirror exercise, which morphed into scenarios involving a mirror with a mind of its own, and then tried out some ideas involving the whole group: a woodland glade becoming a sinister forest (why are all my ideas so dark?) with them as the trees, as well as providing a soundscape; then an enchanted castle, created using their bodies, making anyone who entered age and turn to dust (dark again).

Both ideas worked very well; what had started as a potential disaster emerged as a success.  There are the makings of a talented drama group, no doubt about it.  Will they fulfil their potential?  We shall see.


posted in: Life in Lesvos | 1

Today we took a day trip to Turkey (only six miles as the crow flies, but a two hour ferry trip along the coast to Küçükkuyu), then another hour by minibus to the famous city of Troy, or what remains of it. Our guide for the day, Aykut led us first round the museum: brand new, and an impressive building in its own right, a five-storey cube, clad in weathered, rusted steel.

After a pleasant lunch, we moved to the site of the excavated ruins of the city itself.  The entrance was dominated by a huge wooden horse, with steps leading up into its belly.  “I’ll bet the original didn’t have that,” I thought, which summed up Aykut’s message throughout: the collision of myth and reality.  Not just no steps, but no horse, not mentioned in Homer’s Iliad, and apparently a conflation of other, later myths, used as a propaganda exercise to strengthen Greek resolve when threatened by the Persians.  There was not one city of Troy, but nine, each built on the ruins of those that had gone before.  In the Trojan War, the Greeks were not Greek, and the Trojans not Trojan.  Biggest myth of all, used even in the city’s own early history (and the same explanation man has always used to explain the inexplicable): the walls of Troy were built by the Gods.

Modern history told of tragic errors.  A German archaeologist in the late 19th century was so determined to discover the “true” Troy that he dug a deep hole, and finding a layer which had suffered a cataclysmic fire, assumed that he had found his prize… even though he was actually 1,900 years too early.  They excavated a huge trench, thirty metres wide, ninety metres long, clearing everything above his Troy out of the way, and destroying tons of evidence.  He looted thousands of gold artefacts, which were sent back to the archaeological museum in Germany… and which were subsequently stolen by the USSR with the fall of Berlin.  Some of these were acquired by the USA (probably via light-fingered Russian soldiers who traded them at Checkpoint Charlie), and eight have now been re-acquired by Turkey, and are on display in the museum.

With impressive story-telling, building to a powerful climax, Aykut made the case for the vital historical importance of Troy as the cradle of Greek, Roman, even Western civilisation, and as such a place of pilgrimage, by Alexander, Julius Caesar, Augustus…  And though one might regard him as an unreliable narrator, with his own “historical” account suffused by myth, he told an amazing tale well.  Troy is a fascinating ruin, with a remarkable story.  Despite the the long journey, we were very pleased to have seen it.

On the road again

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Eating on the balcony of the Women’s Cooperative Restaurant, Petra

With Val here, and a two-day break from school, we decided to hire a car and explore the island, as well as take the chance of a trip to Troy in Turkey. Val stayed up late to do the research, and planned a route which zig-zagged across the island, taking in just about every tourist attraction going.  Having heard that the castle at Molivos was particularly special, I managed to persuade her to limit her ambition.  As a result, we enjoyed a far more relaxed and leisurely drive, taking in some gorgeous, heady, herbal scents along the way, and breaking for coffee and lunch before arriving at the hotel in Petra. Then we got back in the car for the short trip to the castle.  Which is where things started to go wrong.
It began at the very gates of the hotel. Our route in had taken us along a very narrow, fear-inducing lane, which might (or not) have been a one-way street. To play safe, we went the other way, turned a corner… and found the (even narrower) street blocked by a parked van. Nothing for it but to find a way to turn round. I was reversing,  slowly and carefully, into a side alley, back and forth, making a few inches headway each time. And then a guy on a motor-bike arrived. We were in his way; he got off.
“Avis?” he asked, and pointed at his chest. “Avis” was written on his T-shirt. (Now that, I thought, was service.) He indicated I should get out, and he took over. Leave it to the professional, I thought. My slow and careful manoeuvres were replaced by fast and, as it turned out, careless driving, as he backed into the wall; not hard, but enough.  He leapt out, we both examined the damage, and (with the universal symbol of a phone) he indicated he would sort it out, before leaping on his motor-bike and riding off.
Feeling somewhat chastened, we drove to the castle…to discover a padlocked front door and a sign saying Closed – only on Tuesdays, it turned out, but still. For once, it was Val who was steaming out of both ears. But we returned to the hotel, and a swim, a beer, and a cocktail managed to restore some personal equilibrium.  And then, following a recommendation from the hotel, we went to the Women’s Co-operative Restaurant for dinner.
It was one of those special meals that linger long in the memory: a balcony table overlooking the sunset over the Med, superb food, superb service.  All’s well, and all that: Shakespeare had it right (as ever.)

Slow down (you’re moving too fast)

posted in: Teaching in Lesvos | 0
Student’s artwork in Gekko Kids foyer

Lesson again today, though it was a little touch and go: Irene informed me that no kids from the Safe Zone at Moria would be coming today.  Maybe the class would not run.  However, there was a small but committed group of about ten kids, all living in safe houses in Mytilini, looked after by the Greek teachers at the school.

We focused on the small but fun technique of slow motion, one more aspect of physical theatre.  I have taught this a hundred times, and it always takes a while to overcome certain aspects: moving too fast, really working their facial expressions, and the perennial challenge of walking with right arm and left leg (and vice versa) in sync, rather than looking like Spotty Dog from the Woodentops.  (If that reference means anything to you, you are showing your age.)

They were very fast learners, and were quickly producing sharp, imaginative, very funny scenes.  No–one was scared of performing, and there were touches of detail, too: a raised eyebrow (less is more), and real physicality, including from the three girls in the group.

Talking of whom (and I know I should not get too excited too soon), two of them may well be the two leads in the Chalk Circle play: Grusha the heroine, and her rival (Natella Abashvili in the original, re-named the Queen in my version.)  The iconic image of the play is the two of them struggling to pull a small child out of the Circle, and they would be great.  But let’s see.

Election day

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Election day today; I had thought it would be the same here as back in England, but it seems we are more like India, with the election staggered across the EU (and at 500 million plus, almost as big.  It seems though, according to the map above, seen outside a currency exchange in Mytilini, Britain has already left.

I can only give the most superficial impression of the impact here, as without any knowledge of the language, I can only guess at the meaning of the posters and political literature.  There is a decidedly parochial feel, however.  There is apparently a large number of parties, and though some have shops acting as party offices, there are also impromptu ones: two garden sheds and a gazebo, set up on Sappho Square, as well as numerous tables set up on the pavement in various parts of the town, each with some plastic garden chairs around it, and a handful of party activists, their activity being chiefly checking their phones and stuffing leaflets into envelopes.  I am sure it is no different at home; it is just that the weather allows this to happen out in the sunshine, rather than in some dingy office.  I am sure I am misrepresenting the nature of the struggle, and that they represent a broad spectrum of strong political opinion; it just doesn’t look like that.

Not that the debate is always so cosy here; it can’t be with the refugee crisis literally on its doorstep, inevitably provoking a passionate reaction.  Just over a year ago, there was violence and bloodshed in the centre of this pretty tourist town.  Over the course of some two weeks, there was a march from the refugee camp at Moria (yes, really) to the centre of town to protest the conditions there, and the occupation of Sappho Square; a violent reaction, called a pogrom by some, by a crowd of right-wingers; and a subsequent response by antifa forces, resulting in a pitched battle.

Now, thankfully, Mytilini appears a quiet tourist centre once again, but that does not mean the tensions have gone away.

Concert party

posted in: Life in Lesvos | 1


A couple of days ago, as I was passing one of the larger and grander cafes on the harbour front, I saw a bunch of posters advertising a concert.  It looked intriguing: a shaggy-bearded and rather elderly man at a keyboard. I imagined some Vangelis-like techno-pop, so asked inside where it was taking place, imagining a concert hall nearby.  “Here!” I was told, so I put my name down – “Chris” was enough, it seemed.

It was advertised to start at 10.30, so I turned up at 10 to bag a good seat.  I needn’t have bothered, as there was impressive organisation.  The whole place was laid-out cabaret-style, with tables and chairs around a low stage and dance floor, and each table laid out with bottles of water, crisps, nuts… and a small piece of paper with the names of the customers.  The guy on the door knew exactly where my seat was, which might have had something to do with me being English, and the only person on his own in the entire place.

I was sat at the bar, and right in front of the stage.  Which would have been perfect if it hadn’t been for the large pillar right in the way.

Psarantonis was the name of the artist, and he is apparently very famous in Greece, though someone further removed from rock star chic it would be hard to imagine.  Not techno-pop either, but a sort of growly folk rock, a cross between Tom Waits and Seth Lakeman.  Check him out on You Tube, especially “Tigris” at the Passionkirche in Berlin.  That was four years ago, and though the beard is even more unkempt, I swear he is wearing exactly the same clothes.  It was an amazing concert, and his backing band, with an additional percussionist to the ones in the clip, were all pretty special too, all of them contributing vocal solos.

Adding to the entertainment value were members of the audience getting onto the dancefloor when the music inspired them to.  Chiefly, it was the sort of stepping circle dance one knows of from movies, but every so often one of them would break into the middle to execute some athletic, exhilarating moves.

The concert didn’t actually start until 11.30, and I bailed out at 2.15, when it was still going, but I almost wasn’t.  As someone from Better Days said, when I told them about it, “Welcome to Greece!”

Electric blue

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Mytilini in blue

Those who have been following this blog for some time – actually, anyone – might have noticed a deterioration in the quality of the technical input: no bursts of video, a distinctively blue tinge to the photos.  This is largely explained by the long distance nature of my technical support, ie my wife Val, back in England.  Nonetheless, I struggle on, though to be honest it is something of a miracle that the blog gets posted at all, given the dismal level of my technical knowledge (allied to a certain wilful, stubborn denial.)  I have arrived here armed with a scribbled idiot sheet, and mostly that does seem to do the job, but should anything slightly different be required – or, worse, should something go wrong – I am helpless (as well as hapless and hopeless.)  Val can and does supply some post-production editing, but some things just can’t be done remotely.

Like the camera, for example.  Why it should suddenly have decided to apply a blue wash to every shot, I have no idea.  I just have to hope that it’s because I have inadvertently pressed a button I ought not have pressed, rather than it actually being broken.  (Unlikely, I know – what sort of broken turns everything blue?)

There is another reason why the photography is not as interesting as it was at the beginning of the blog’s existence (ie Johannesburg).  The same policies regarding putting the faces of young refugees up on the internet apply here as did in Lebanon, and for the same good reasons.  Partly it is a matter of an individual’s rights to one’s own image, which should not be trampled upon by the photographer’s desire to add some cute local colour to their social media profile.  And partly it is a matter of genuine concerns regarding security, particularly when it applies to vulnerable young people.

Val arrives on Saturday, and with her a possible answer to technical problems (especially the blue tinge.)  It will also be good to see her, of course.

Food, and associated observations

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(Yes, I did think of naming this post “Food Glorious Food”, but decided that was a step too far.  Maybe I’m growing up.)

Apologies to those anticipating a paean to Greek food.  Not my favourite cuisine, I’m afraid, but it’s not as though I’ve really given it a chance; my first three meals here were burger, pizza and pasta (and none were very good.)  I’m prepared to be convinced, however, and did enjoy the various dips, salads and platters at Miki’s birthday meal.

Except when going there to watch the football, I tend to avoid the large cafes which ring the harbour.  My favourite two haunts are those that Joel (previous Better Days administrator) took me to when I visited in February.  The first is the Mousiko Kaferieio, though it did take me some time to find it again, as it has changed beyond recognition in the intervening months, the dark but cosy coffee house throwing open its doors to light and air with the approach of summer, and spilling out (as all the cafes here do) onto the pavement.  Absolutely my favourite place for breakfast.

The other is Pi (as in the Greek letter) close to Sappho Square on the harbourfront.  Joel told me that, during a pitched and bloody battle between local fascists and antifa sometime last year, (I am guessing not in the tourist season), it became an impromptu field hospital, and so earned his loyalty.  By osmosis, mine too.

I do like the way that all restaurants and cafes here present you with a glass of water as soon as you sit down, and often a plate of biscuits too (as opposed to the one that appears with coffee back home.)  Not that I eat them, in either place.  I also like the way the bill arrives with your order – taped to the table, or attached to a clothes peg, or scrunched up in a liqueur glass.

However, especially after that rather dispiriting first few days, I tend to cook and eat at home, and avoid sitting alone in the restaurant.  Student food mostly: spag bol, chili, scrambled egg.  All delicious.

Another brick in the wall

posted in: Teaching in Lesvos | 3
The noticeboard in Gekko Kids reception

I am not really intending to deliver a move by move account of each and every lesson.  On the other hand, there probably won’t be too many.  I am slightly underused at present, partly because there are other demands on the space – Drama alongside yoga is probably a no-no – but also because there are other demands on the students’ time.

This does also mean that I can stretch my repertoire of ideas suitable for students with very little English that much further.  My good friend Sue (aka wife #2) introduced me to the Dutch phrase “shaking it out of my sleeve”, meaning making it up as I go along, and there’s no question that my sleeve will be emptied soon enough.  A slightly slower pace, until we get to actual rehearsals, is fine.

Anyway, today’s lesson.  Mime again, and this time focused upon that good old Marceau favourite, the imaginary wall. It’s not that I am trying to train mime artists; it is more that such simple concepts are a way in to improvisation, something they can use to jump-start their own ideas.

Started today with just eight students.  That’s nice, I thought – a small, focused group.  I should have known: within ten minutes, another sixteen or so had joined us, stretching the capacity of the room to the limit.  So much for focus.

Some nice work, though.  In a simple exercise of finding different ways of getting from one side of the wall to the other, ideas included: using a bomb to blow it up, prising it apart brick by brick, and a spell to magic it away.  My favourite?  The boy who became a bull-fighter, tricking the (imaginary) bull into doing the job for him.

I ran into Magda, Gekko Kids headteacher, as I left, and she was most complimentary about the smiles on the students’ faces.  Which was cheering. To quote Melric the Magician, “Remember the power of laughter.”