Mad world

posted in: Life in Ioannina | 0
An empty Athens airport

I might have mentioned before that I am a nervous traveller at the best of times, and these are far from that (though not – yet – the worst.)  The coronacrisis brings with it fears of border closures and cancelled flights, and added to the mix I discovered, in the fluster of booking my flights home, Val had entered the wrong birth date, knocking eight years off me, but still.  I did make a half-hearted effort to get it changed, but eventually reckoned I was more likely to get the flights cancelled, so decided to let it be and take my chances, figuring the chances of anyone spotting it in the small print were remote.

As it turned out, I was right, and in fact the whole journey, door to door, could not have gone smoother, what with empty roads, empty airports, half-empty planes., and an almost entirely empty final bus to Oxford, with just me and one other passenger.

Coronavirus awareness was apparent in other ways too, with announcements in the airport recommending a two metre gap, making for long but civilised queues.  And I was firmly ordered to “Stop!” by a masked airport official I was approaching for directions, a good four metres away.

Masks were the most obvious manifestation, worn by about two-thirds of the people I saw, including the woman in the seat in front of me for the final journey, who wore, in addition to her mask, a thick coat with the fur-trimmed hood pulled down low, so that only her eyes showed (no, me neither.)  She may well have escaped infection, but I reckon was in danger of expiring through hyper-ventilation.

The important thing is that I am now home and – touch wood, crossed fingers, inshallah – well.  My son Joe told me that he had been advised to stay home from the school where he works because of me.  I did think this a little over-cautious, but knew they did have to consider the health of the pupils.  When I finally realised that it was the other way round, and they were worried about the children, via Joe, infecting me, I laughed and laughed and laughed.  I won’t be laughing if I get sick, of course, but hope I will still appreciate the irony.

Homeward Bound

posted in: Life in Ioannina | 1
Ready and waiting

During one of yesterday’s meetings, I made the rash offer of a Drama workshop for the other volunteers on the team, an idea leapt upon with enthusiasm, and a venue was proposed: a small open-air amphitheatre down by the lake.  That, however, was yesterday, and in these desperately uncertain times, a day is enough to allow all sorts of things to happen.

With news of ever more draconian lockdowns, and growing advice/instruction/compulsion to stay indoors, something as essentially trivial as a drama workshop did not seem so sensible; it would not be a good example, it would not send the right message.  (So far as the actual risk was concerned, after spending so much time in close proximity, none of us thought that further exposure was any more dangerous, but that is not the point.)

So my stay in Ioannina ends with a whimper not a bang, a comparison first used when describing the end of the world.  Hmm…

My intention tomorrow, courtesy of some sterling arrangements by Val, is to fly from Ioannina to Athens, and then on to Heathrow, always assuming this does not fall foul of “events” – a pretty big assumption.  I am not sorry to be avoiding the route by bus to Thessaloniki and then on, so just have to hope I get home before the whole world shuts down.  Still, you know what they say about making God laugh?  Tell him your plans.

If all goes well, and I make it back to Little Ickford tomorrow, I’ll post a final blog entry to let you know.  Keep reading, and keep your fingers crossed for the bonnest of bon voyages.

Walking and talking

Ioannina lake

Having seen very little of Ioannina, on Sunday I decided to go for a walk, trying to avoid going stir crazy, and reckoning on being able to keep a metre distance from anyone I might meet.  At first, I did feel that I was in one of those dystopian movies where the city is deserted, but as I made my way closer to the lake, more and more people were also out and about.  There did seem to be more police about than usual – not that I know what usual is – but no-one questioned my right to be out and about.

Food shops and pharmacies are allowed to be open, but the nearby chemists were both closed, as was the supermarket, though the fishmongers was open (though I reckoned those fish on the slab would still be there at the end of the day – there was no-one about.)  Bars and restaurants were closed, but places selling takeaway food – kebabs, coffee, ice-cream – were open.  All the shops were shut, except for one place selling religious souvenirs and walking sticks, and another with phone cases and cheap earrings!

I strolled a little along the path by the lake, and then found a bench to myself – keeping my distance – to sit and read for a while, and then I walked home.  I had thought it would be pleasant to stay in Ioannina for a while, to take the time to see the area’s attractions, but nothing is open, and the pressure is on to stay in.

On Monday, there were a series of meetings, formal and informal.  The main meeting of the teaching team, plus management, also had one person represented by laptop, (propped up on the arm of the settee) as she was joining us by skype.  This was Anna, a brand new volunteer from Germany, who had immediately gone into self-isolation when she arrived, having come from an infected area (where isn’t!?)  Giovanni gave an impressively calm and measured outline of the effect of coronavirus on Second Tree: that at least one person at the meeting was virtually certain to catch it, and therefore we all would, but that should not lead to stigma; that people should make their own decisions what to do based on their own circumstances; that nobody could know what might happen.

Other meetings were more chats: first impressions of the house, of the camps, of the kids; expectations of what might be achieved; organisational structures that might give enough time to make real progress…

But all of this is to be put into the category of the unknown.  Since there is little that I can do in terms of teaching, and since there is little for me to do as a tourist, I shall (inshallah) be flying home on Wednesday (with the intention of returning when the world returns to normal.)  Wish me luck.

(* – Walking and talking: my thumbnail description of that most basic of art-forms, Drama)


posted in: Life in Ioannina | 2
My own private isolation suite

So here I am, self-isolating in my little apartment.  No, no, I’m not sick, and don’t have it, so far as I know  (though every time one has a tickly cough, one does wonder.)  And, of course, I might.  After all, I have been staying in a crowded house, and there are people there who have had direct contact with Milan, and I have been hugged by a couple of refugee children – despite one’s best efforts, they do tend to hurl themselves at you – and I’m nowhere near as fastidious as I ought to be.  Like I’ve said before, just building up the old immunities.  Which is almost certainly counter to medical knowledge and advice, but it’s all I have to cling to.

And my isolation has not been so long, as this morning I did have to attend a meeting at Dodo, as the volunteers’ house is called.  (Nothing to do with being dead, it’s an abbreviation of the street it’s on.)  We were there to discuss what we were going to do, seeing as we can’t do the thing we are all here for.  Mostly, this seems to be catching forward with planning, sorting out, preparing, but even that is hampered by the fact that we’re not allowed into one of the camps, and ought to be limiting our presence in the other.

Plus there’s the fact that all the shops are shut, barring food shops and pharmacies (though the nearest chemist was also closed, preventing me from getting some paracetamol.)  After the meeting, I did call in at the supermarket to stock up a little, and all was calm and ordered; no sign of the panic buying and hoarding (hamstering, it’s called in Holland) which seems to be affecting other places.  And I felt no need to overbuy (unless you count a triple pack of tins of tuna) as everything there was reassuringly normal… except for those blue gloves.

And since then I have enjoyed a very relaxing day, reading my thriller, listening to the radio, and writing lots of emails.  As you’ve probably noticed, I am being pretty cavalier about the whole business.  If this is the beginning of the end of this crazy world, well, there’s not much I can do about it, beyond sitting tight and hoping for the best.  I’m probably here for at least another week or so, and there are plenty worse places.

And though I may sound pretty blasé about it all, I’ll no doubt be singing a different tune when I’m lying sweating in my bed, cut off from all those I care about.  Isolation is one thing, but keeping myself a couple of thousand miles away is probably overdoing it.


posted in: Teaching in Ioannina | 3
A neat and well-protected garden in Katsikas

Katsikas is the name of the other camp in which Second tree operates.  With the enforced cessation of all activities with children, four of us were sent today to both camps to tell the children and families in person of this closure, along with the reason and the anticipated date of re-opening (though of course nothing can be certain.)  Second Tree is rightly proud of the efforts they take to keep everyone informed of all of their procedures.  So the usual suspects – Abi, Ellie, Carolina and I – were sent off in the van.

I had been warned that, in comparison with Agia Eleni, Katsikas was far closer to a regular refugee camp.  I prepared myself for something rather grim – my only experience of camps so far has been to see (from the outside) the ramshackle camps in Lebanon, and the utterly horrendous Moria on Lesbos.  This time I was to be allowed in, so would get a fuller picture.  And actually, I was impressed.

All of the accommodation was in the form of containers, but not just regular shipping containers such as they have in Moria, each one housing three or four families, but purpose-built units, with doors and windows, and equipped with basic cooking facilities and furniture, one family to each one.  They were laid out in neat rows, each one numbered, and with wide spaces between them, resembling the sort of holiday camp that Britain used to have.  Some had even been customised, with small gardens, porches, lean-to storage spaces…  I was impressed with the home-made fence around one neat and green garden, made out of reclaimed bedsprings.

Actually, what they most resembled was the first house I had ever lived in, the post-war prefabs that had been my parents’ first home, and which my mother had loved.  The atmosphere was calm and peaceful, and there was even some light manufacture, one man squatting on the ground, hammering a piece of iron into shape over a stone block.  However, there was also a sense of purposelessness; these people’s lives are on hold, while they wait for something to happen.  I was also told that it was a very different place at night, with fights and drunkenness, though I think boredom and lack of purpose might be a contributing factor to that.

We split into two pairs, Carolina and I visiting the Arabic families, while the others took on the Farsi and French-speakers, each pair accompanied by a senior student to act as interpreter.  There were delicious cooking smells coming from several of the cabins, and we were invited in for tea a couple of times, but really we did not have time; we were there for about three hours, and we walked a considerable distance, in the baking sunshine.

We then went to Agia Eleni to do the same thing, but the security guard there would not open the gate to let us in.  After some lengthy negotiations by phone (some at a pretty high level), eventually it was agreed that one person could enter, later adjusted to two for security reasons.  Since Abi and Ellie knew them best, they drew the short straw, while Carolina and I went home on the bus.  Just as well, really, since I was shattered.  It had been an exhausting, but fascinating, day.

A room with a view

posted in: Life in Ioannina | 2
The view from my apartment

It was never intended that I would stay long in the volunteers’ house; apart from anything else, someone else is booked into my bed on Friday.  But it did what was intended, providing somewhere for me to stay immediately I arrived, and giving me the chance to meet everyone.  But the intention was that it would also give me time to use local knowledge to find somewhere else. Somewhere a little more… private.

Actually, that proved something of a washout. Carolina, one of the volunteers with some administrative responsibilities, has been looking for local accommodation for the volunteers for ages, with no success.  So it was just as well that Val was able to find an AirBnB apartment that, at least on paper, seemed just the ticket.

I moved in today (with the help of Leah and Adrienne driving me here in the van), and have to say that, for almost the first time since I arrived, I was able to breathe.  The apartment is wonderful.  In many ways it is similar to the place I had in Mytilini, being a studio apartment – everything in one room. One big difference is that this version is much more modern and high-tech, with a real sense of style (while the Mytilini equivalent had a sort of faded charm.)  Secondly, this place comes with an amazing view over the nearby lake and mountains (though the disadvantage is that this means it is at the top of a steep hill.)

One big change in my plans is that, with everything so uncertain, we have only booked it for a week in the first instance.  The reality of coronavirus has finally come home to Second Tree, and in a big way, with the enforced closure of all schools and educational establishments (including NGOs running classes in refugee camps.)  A week – or maybe two – might be enough time for a clearer picture to emerge, and for me to decide whether there is much point in my staying here.

The other noticeable impacts of the virus in Ioannina?  The streets, shops and restaurants are definitely quieter, and the supermarket cashier pulled on gloves before serving me.  But it was fun to see a group of middle-aged men take over the empty schoolyard to play a lively and clearly enjoyable game of basketball.  It is, as they say, an ill wind…

Agia Eleni

posted in: Teaching in Ioannina | 0
Abi asking for quiet

Today was my first encounter with some of the children I will be working with.  Second tree provides educational services to two camps near Ioannina, teaching English and Greek as well as a pot pourri of other topics and approaches (including, when my time comes, theatre.)  Today, four of us volunteers went to Agia Eleni, driving there in a battered minibus-cum-van belonging to Second Tree.  It is about four miles away, and can be found, unsurprisingly, very close to a huge Lidl supermarket; so far as I can see, catering to the refugee market is a large part of its business model.

The camp itself is relatively civilised, having been an orphanage in a previous existence, and therefore equipped with the right permanent infrastructure, including a reasonably-sized school hall, complete with stage.  (Notably, when I asked one of the senior girls if she knew what theatre is, she replied immediately, “Of course!  It’s here!”)

One volunteer, Ellie, took the four classes in rotation for English, while Abi, a new graduate from the UK, assisted by Carolina from Milan, taught the same groups something called “Activity”, which takes a particular theme, and looks at that in a variety of ways.  The current theme is The Natural World, and this week’s lesson, slightly differentiated for the four ability levels, involved various games involving pictures of animals.  My role was to observe and make comments, via some written crib sheets I had been given.

Most striking – even slightly alarming from my point of view – was the chaotic nature of much of the lessons, with children running around the space, and barely in control of their own emotions, one moment shouting and screaming, the next in a ferocious sulk.  There were moments of focus, sometimes lasting for a few minutes, depending upon the particular class, and whether they were momentarily engaged by a particular activity.  Not that I am blaming the teachers; nor do I think that I would have fared any better.  My time will come, and then we will see.

Second Tree are aware that classroom management is an issue, and they have some strategies to address this: a five down to one countdown to enforce silence when things get too noisy, and a three strikes and you’re out policy for consistent misbehaviour (backed up by some rigorous record-keeping.)  But these are not answers in themselves, and can cause difficulties in themselves.  For example, those excluded during a lesson roam around outside, and add to the general mayhem at the door.

As to whether these children will (ever) be ready to perform, the answer is absolutely not.  Except regular readers of this blog will remember that I have said this before, and that, sometimes, miracles happen.  It’s just that this particular miracle is more on the level of divine resurrection than turning some water into wine.


posted in: Life in Ioannina | 1
The work area

Home in Ioannina – at least for the time being – is at the Second tree volunteers’ house (though it’s a flat, not a house.)  It is on the fourth floor, and though there is a lift, this was completely filled last night when I arrived with my bags and some additional stationery that needed to be delivered – it is a very small lift – and we had to walk up.

It might best be compared to a student house.  Not the modern purpose-built ones with ensuites etc, but a regular house converted for multiple occupation.  This usually means the loss of the living room, in order to squeeze in an extra student, but in this case the huge living area has been preserved, and serves as a joint social area-cum-workspace, with sofas at one end, and a table for computers etc at the other.  The downside of this arrangement is that people still have to have room to sleep, and this means dorm-style bedrooms with a couple of sets of bunk beds.  All the cosier, though somehow less comfortable, is the fact that they are mixed-sex.

In some ways, more stressful are the other communal areas: the two bathrooms and the kitchen, which have to cater (no pun intended) for the needs of twelve occupants.  The kitchen is a nightmare, with one small and rather battered cooker, and one fridge (and not even a kettle, since it kept tripping the electrics.)  Cooking looks stressful – not that I’ve done any yet – and storage is worse.  I’m not usually bothered by such things, but the fridge is a hygiene disaster zone, with cooked and raw, new and old, mine and everyone else’s all jockeying for position and threatening to throw themselves out every time the door opens.

And with everyone sharing the one place, it’s all a bit… messy (and I am not tidy.)  I’ve seen plenty worse student houses, but I gave up living in them a long time ago, and don’t fancy re-living those days.  I rush to explain that it is not the people – everyone has been extremely friendly and pleasant – but the challenge to my own powers of tolerance, organisation, sociability…

I need to move out (not least because my bed is earmarked for someone else) by the end of the week, and to somewhere which suits me better (such as my little apartment in Mytilini).  I have been nudged in the direction of Carolina, who is an administrative volunteer who is already engaged on a similar task for someone else.  So, with luck, Home will not be home for very long.

Travelling man

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Thessaloniki bus station

I am not the most confident of travellers.  Some may be surprised by this, for I have travelled a lot – in recent years even more so.  A large part of this is that I have got out of practice of managing on my own, having relied for so many years on Val.  When there is someone there who seems happy to take on the role of, say, passport carrier, it is all too easy to hand over one’s passport without even thinking about it.  Which is a long-winded and rather convoluted way of saying that this trip has been hanging over me for some time, casting its own dampener upon my forthcoming adventure.

Val also takes care of the planning and admin – the research, the booking, all the rest – and of course she has taken that on for this trip as much as ever.  Though in this case her responsibility has gone as far as booking me as far as Thessaloniki airport, and even I can manage that comfortably enough: get to the airport, get on a plane (though I did have to negotiate what described itself as “the biggest automated check-in system in the world!”)

Giovanni, who is (I think) the founder of Second Tree, had assured me that it would be too difficult to get from the airport all the way to the other side of the city to the bus station in time to get the afternoon bus, but various things made this relatively easy: I was among the first into the terminal, through immigration, re-united with my bag, and out again: fifteen minutes, tops.  I then swiftly circumvented the problem of getting across the city by taking a taxi.  Easy-peasy.

The bus station was a pretty impressive circular building, though somewhat gone to seed, but it worked efficiently, and I was booked, with plenty of time, onto the next bus to Ioannina.  It’s true I did have to be told off for the crime of trying to take my kit bag onto the bus with me, and the bus turned out to have even more cramped seating that the Easyjet plane – so more bruised knees – but I was nearly done.

Nearly done except a three hour bus ride, past some pretty astonishing snow-capped mountains (who’d’ve thought?) and through masses of impressively built tunnels.  But then Ioannina.  I had kept in touch through the magic of WhatsApp with various Second Tree contacts, but there was still a lot of confusion that I might really be arriving so early.

But, to my surprise and relief, it was done, and the black cloud that had been hanging over me lifted.  There was a flurry of introductions – most of which I have forgotten – and I was in the volunteer’s house.  Of which more later.

And not a mention, you might have noticed, of Coronavirus, the topic which seems to have occupied the whole world.  For myself, a bit of avoidance of the occasional cougher, a bit more hand-washing, and the occasional squirt of one of those anti-viral foams (which in itself is noteworthy, as my usual response is that I am building up my immunity).  And very few masks, apart from some at the bus station, but that might have been as much against the diesel fumes as anything else.

And everyone here is pretty dismissive.  Which is either sensible or insane.  Time will tell.

Telling tales

posted in: Teaching in Ioannina | 1

For each of my previous projects, I have arrived with either a fixed script or at least a clear idea of which idea to take to performance.  This time, as I need to meet the children before assessing what they are capable of achieving, I have to be more flexible.

It is not their experience of or ability in drama that concerns me, as I do not expect them to have encountered it at all necessarily (reference my early encounter with the relatively sophisticated young Afghans at the Gekko School on Mytilini: “Please, what is theatre?)  This is not a problem; rather, it is part of the fun, for them and me, when I see them encountering the magic of theatre.

It is far more the level of English that I meet that will prove the determining factor, as this is almost my only way of communicating with them (and though I know that body language and tone of voice are important aspects, but you try communicating basic instructions with gestures.)  Nor, as usual, can I expect any assistance with translation.  So I shall just have to manage.  Presumably, that is what all the other teachers have to do – I don’t suppose they have any more Arabic (or Farsi, or whatever) than I do.

There are four classes in each camp, graded by level of English, and I believe I am teaching all eight, with each one expected to put on a performance.  That means eight short plays, at different levels of difficulty.  It also anticipates every child performing, yet I am sure there will be some reluctance somewhere.  We shall see.

As for the plays themselves, all of them are based on folk tales. They come from different parts of the world, but share certain qualities: they have a large number of characters, including some crowd scenes, they have action scenes rather than lots of words, and most are imbued with a sense of humour.  Half the ones I have were performed before – two in South Africa, two in Lebanon – and three more are new, that I have never used before.

I know, that leaves me one short, but I will have more time, as we do not start rehearsing until May.  So, if I need to write more, or to edit those I have, or drop them altogether and find something new, I have time to do so.  And there are other stories to tell; the world is full of tales, it is just a case of finding the right ones.