Bits and pieces

posted in: Lesvos | 1

Some day I ought to put together a compilation tape (or playlist, I suppose) of all the songs I have used as titles for these posts.  Even though some (including this one) are not really songs.

I have decided to follow a familiar pattern, to break from the daily diary format at the weekend, and offer something more reflective.  No particular theme springs to mind as yet – certainly no observations on the refugee crisis – just a few random observations.  Hence bits and pieces.

It is one week since my arrival. Haven’t exactly hit the ground running so far as the work is concerned – I have taught just three lessons.  But it’s clear that my first task is to spread the word.  And there are signs of success, with some return customers, young people who have chosen to be with me, as opposed to simply stumbling into the lesson almost by accident.

Socially and culturally I am, inevitably, a little isolated, and spending a fair bit of time in my little apartment.  Which suits me very well; I have all I need to hand: beer in the fridge, wi-fi on tap, somewhere comfortable to sit and read (five novels devoured so far). And I prefer cooking and eating here, rather than sitting alone in a restaurant.

However, I am no hermit, and attended my first social occasion last night – a birthday meal in honour of Miki, fellow volunteer, Barcelonan, musician and all-round great guy.  It was a civilised, amiable and entirely enjoyable evening.

And this morning my first exploration of the local cultural landscape, with a hike up the hill to Mytilini Castle, the medieval ruins on the cliff overlooking the city.  I had the entire place to myself, and pottered around for an hour or two, the vaults and the water tank both proving quite astonishing.

A post-script.  The street on which I live is called Papanikoli.  If it isn’t a reference to Father Christmas, it certainly ought to be… and that’s the way I choose to think of it.

This old heart of mime

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…which may be the worst pun I’ve employed as a title yet.  Though there are other contenders.

Mime, then.  A useful theatrical skill, all the more so when the class has very little English (though kids with excellent English do keep popping out of the woodwork to act as interpreters; in this case, the wonderful Ali.

For some of you, mime will immediately conjure an image of a white-faced man in a stripey T-shirt, battling against the wind.  And that kind of stylised, illusory mime has its place.  But for me, mime has always been but one component of a style of physical theatre, together with sound effects, slow-motion, and much else. And, usually, speech – just not on this occasion.

Actually, it was only at the very last minute that I chose to teach this lesson.  My timetable is random at best, and until things settle I have no idea who, or how many, or whether at all, I’ll be teaching.  As it turned out, about twenty again, including about five I’d seen before, which scuppered Plan A – teaching yesterday’s lesson again.  Just as well I had Plan B, the mime lesson, ready.

Same old stuff I usually produce: the cup, the ball, the magic object, the rope. But interesting dilemmas presented themselves.  I had never really thought about how violent much of what I use is.  And who knows what these kids might have seen or experienced.  An example: when developing ideas for a scene with a mime rope, I had always used the example of hanging.  And suddenly it seemed desperately inappropriate.  I did refer to Tom and Jerry – which thankfully remains even now a universal reference point – as an example of fantasy violence. And as it happened, they cheerfully included as much of that sort of stuff as any group I’ve ever taught.

The lesson had the same pattern as yesterday: at first, no-one would perform; by the end, just about everyone did.  My favourite?  Ali, as a sort of Robin Hood figure, firing an arrow with a rope attached into the walls of a castle, then shinning along it to rescue Amina (the only girl in the class, and already a regular.)  Thirty years of teaching drama, and you can still be surprised.  Wonderful.

Gekko X

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…which is the name of the new space Better Days has acquired and fitted out, originally intended as a non-classroom space for STEM teaching (that’s Science, Technology Engineering and Maths for the uninitiated among you) but more recently with Arts added as well (STEAM?) since it has already hosted a photo exhibition and is my main teaching space as well.

And it is, beyond doubt, one of the best Drama studios I have ever taught in.  Light and airy – no black box this – but with the necessary privacy, and with a mezzanine gallery, accessed by a metal staircase.  Not spiral, like the studios at Lord Bills and Stowe, but all the more dramatic for that.  By some remarkable good fortune, it is just 15 metres up the hill from Gekko Kids, so almost part of the same mini-campus.

Today was my first actual lesson.  Not the signed-up group I had expected, more a random collection of students from all three of the constituent groups, and more or less herded along because they were there, and so was I, so it seemed sensible for us to work together.

I used a lesson I often employ as an introduction for a new group, based on the idea of tableau (though without using that actual word.)  Standing still, really, and including some work on the idea of “freeze!”, grandma’s footsteps (again), statues coming alive, creating stories from a series of pictures.  If you understand any of that, I have probably taught you; if not, fear not.

And generally speaking, it was a success.  A couple opted out, and returned to the main school, a couple more chose to sit and watch, but by and large they all participated, seemed to enjoy it, and visibly grew in confidence. At one stage of the lesson, very few could be persuaded to perform; by the end, they were doing so without any worries.  And that’s acceptable progress in a single lesson, in my book.

My little home

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This is my third year of writing this blog, and (inevitably, I suppose) I find the same old topics and subjects coming around each time – just in a different location.  One of these is the place where I am living, and on this trip I have my own mini-apartment.  A bed-sit, they used to be called, which is a cosy title, and really I am quite cosy here, with everything I need conveniently to hand.

This particular bed-sit is actually more of a granny flat, being a small annexe (perhaps once a garage) to a rather grander family home, belonging to a couple whose children have flown the nest, leaving them with space on their hands.  It is all arranged through Air B&B (which I know has its supporters and detractors).

The Eleftherios family have replaced their children with three cats and a dog (who also have their supporters and detractors) who roam the courtyard.  This does mean that my apartment can either have light (with the shutters open and the windows closed) or air (vice versa) but not both, or it gets the cats as well.

Having just been directed to the local supermarket, I celebrated last night by cooking spaghetti bolognese in my tiny kitchen. It was thoroughly delicious, and made a welcome change after the three frankly disappointing meals I had eaten in local restaurants. But I can only blame myself: if I will go to Greece and eat burger, pizza and pasta, what can I expect?

At present, I have no social life, at least until I get to know my fellow workers.  I tend to spend my evenings reading and listening to the BBC (both courtesy of my trusty iPad) and I am happy with this. I am sure my somewhat hermit-like existence will come to an end in time.

Games without frontiers

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Games without frontiers

Mural in Mytilini

My first working day today, though various factors meant it wasn’t the smoothest of starts.

  1. The paid teaching staff, all Greek, had a training day today, so I was asked to cover the first hour and a half. Covering for the entire school sounds more daunting than it actually was, as only about a dozen turned up.
  2. It is Ramadan at the moment, which has an impact upon the attendance (good, from my point of view) and the energy levels (not so much).
  3. The school ethos is respectful but intentionally relaxed. Students are not compelled to attend, and there are all sorts of reasons why they might not. It also means there is a certain coming and going even during lessons, so I suppose I should feel grateful I ended with more than I started with.
  4. Language.  I always knew this was going to be an issue, but it is something I am going to have to manage, as there are no interpreters available.  Some students speak English (and a few speak it very well); all are learning it, but for many their understanding is limited, veering towards non-existent.  One tries to use the more fluent to translate for the less, but when you are not sure that even the fluent understand you, it does demand a lot of faith.

The twelve of us squeezed into one of the four small classrooms, and, as ever with Drama, we began with games.  Some of you will know them: the name game, throwing a cushion around the circle and saying the name of the recipient; the chair game, in which one person in the middle of the circle calls out a category, and all those to whom it applies have to change seats (difficult with limited English, but surprisingly successful); grandma’s footsteps – remarkable but not entirely surprising that young people who have made it all the way from their home to Lesvos can be so involved in getting from one side of the room to the other, without being seen to move; and, of course, zip zap boing (at which they were remarkably good.)

There was plenty of laughter throughout, so that’s objective number one achieved.

Gekko Kids

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The school’s main entrance

Gekko Kids is the name of the school for unaccompanied refugee minors (and more) in Mytilini. It is the place where I am likely to be working for the next three months.

It does not sound, or even look, like a school, which is one reason I walked past it twice this morning, and putting myself in a mild panic as a result.  From the outside, it is just a doorway on a narrow, crowded street, just like all the others.  Nicer than most it’s true and with an arresting artwork painted on the wall, which I shouldn’t have missed (but – obviously – did).

But it is the inside that matters.  It is just one building, seriously hemmed in by its neighbours, but Better Days (the NGO which set it up) has taken care to create a clean, orderly, welcoming environment.  There are four small classrooms (the two I visited called Gandhi and Malala), each in theory adapted to a different teaching style, but all flexible and adaptable. The furniture is basic, but modern and in good condition.  Not the largest of schools, by any means. They maximise their impact by having four separate shifts for different groups (including the latest in the day for adults.)  Even so, there is a constant pressure for them to do more, because there is more that needs doing.

This was my first day, and I was struck by how calm and welcoming it was. I had the chance to meet up with some important people: Romane, the co-ordinator from Better Days; Deborah, in charge of the volunteers, and Irene, the school receptionist – as in all schools, she was the person in charge.

Best of all, I sat in on Deborah’s English class, meeting five young refugees, and watching them being led through a discussion of a newspaper article. We were visited by another girl who called in to say goodbye, as she had just received permission to go to Germany.  She had arrived at the school with no English at all, but was now entirely fluent, despite also now tackling German as well. It was clear she would be an asset to any country, and was a reminder of what the school is all about: preparing children who had gone through so much for an exciting and fulfilling future, wherever that might be.

Mytilini, Yourtilini

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Welcome to Greece.  More specifically, welcome to Mytilini.  Not that I feel it is mine yet, exactly, but I am sure we will get to know one another in time. Already, I like it; love may take longer.

Mytilini is the largest town on Lesvos, and is clustered around a horse-shoe-shaped harbour.  At first, this seems to make it easy to navigate – get lost, and you head downhill until you reach the harbour.  But this simplicity is deceptive.  For example, my simple route to town takes me in on a street which is parallel to and just one block over from the harbour.  But only for a short while.  Go just a block or two too far, and the harbour itself sweeps away on your right.  So the harbour which you thought – no, knew! – was just a block away, is nowhere to be found, with a warren of streets between you and it.

And those streets are a warren.  They are all very narrow, with sometimes the merest suggestion of a footpath and sometimes no footpath at all, forcing mere pedestrians into the road, where they have to contend with cars, motorbikes, scooters…  What is more, they all look the same.  You try to remember a particular shop-front, or piece of graffiti, to act as a landmark, but holding, let alone using, that information?  Well!  But these are very early days.

Previously, when attempting to describe Mytilini, I have compared it to Bude in Cornwall, chiefly because a) it is a fishing harbour, b) it is also a tourist destination, and c) it is quite small with not a great deal to do.  But this has had the effect of annoying Bude-lovers, of which there are a surprising number, and is not more than superficially accurate.  Bude does not attract cruise liners; the weather is only occasionally comparable; and Bude is not so blessed with thousands of places to while away the day, drinking coffee. Nor did Bude have the experience of thousands of refugees suddenly descending upon it.  But more of that later…

Abroad thoughts from home.

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A blogpost unlike any other in this series: less a reflection on what has happened, more a contemplation of what is to come. A punctuation point, certainly, marking the beginning of a new adventure. Tomorrow I fly to the Greek island of Lesvos, with the aim of setting up a Drama project at Gecko School, a school for unaccompanied refugee children.

Also, a confession. This is my third such project in as many years, but the first in which I will not be accompanied by my wife Val (at least on a permanent basis – she does plan to visit.) Coping with the technical challenges of posting a daily blog will fall upon my own, all too fallible shoulders. No great shakes, I hear you cry mockingly, but you underestimate my fluster factor when managing such things. This is, therefore, a test run. (Wish me luck.)

Number three, I also have to deal with the greatest number of unknowns. As before, it takes place in a school, which provides a structure and a measure of support. But the unknown factors mount up all the same: how many young people (if any!)? Boys and girls?  Will any/enough speak English?  Any performance experience? Or even willingness to perform?  I remind myself that I have been through this entire process many times, and that dealing with it is part of the fun.  All the same…

Not that there’s NO plan. If all goes as well as I hope, we will start to work towards a production, to be performed (at least once), in front of a live audience. Because I genuinely believe that this is the experience that every young person, wherever they come from, should have the opportunity to undergo.  That it is a part, and an exciting part, of an education.

At the moment, I am thinking of a play based upon Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle.  It has a story-telling structure, which should help, in the likely absence of costumes, set, etc.  It has plenty of room within it – for lots of characters, for different stories, for songs, for physical theatre. And it is, in its own way, about a refugee.

One thing and another

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Something of a transition to report, with one project coming to a conclusion, and another one in the planning stage.

Not, I hasten to add, that Jusoor – the charity working for Syrian refugees, chiefly in Lebanon – is in any way fading. Quite the reverse, so far as I can tell from the reports of activity on its website. Plus the fact that the Hall project at Jeb Jannine school, for which Val and I have been raising money, is now underway, starting with the construction of vitally needed built-in cupboards, as well as staging units; we hope to be able to publish photos soon.  Thanks, from Jusoor, the pupils and teachers at Jeb Jannine, and indeed from Val and me, to all of you who have contributed funds to make this happen.

But while neither of us are cutting our links to Jusoor, I have been seeking opportunities for another venture, finding an organisation that which would give me the opportunity to work on a theatre project with a group of young people. Some time ago, I visited Better Days, an NGO operating on Lesvos, one of the Greek islands, and involved in various projects to help deal with the ongoing refugee crisis there.

This was a brief reconnaissance trip, to give me the opportunity to meet some of the people involved in Better Days and other projects there, to see for myself the conditions at the camps there. And, to work out how I might be able to contribute.  The trip was a mixture of the inspiring and the depressing, best summed up by one particular event. It began with a feast, cooked by a group of refugees in huge dustbin-sized saucepans on open fires, organised by a Somalian refugee called Ali, and with lots of people working together, chopping industrial quantities of onions, carrots, rice (and slightly less chicken) – and offered to all and sundry. A truly inspiring example of co-operation and cohesion.

Unfortunately, by the time it was ready, the crowd attracted by the prospect of good, home-cooked food, was beyond manageable, and though queues were formed, divided between women and children and the far larger crowd  of young men, these soon broke down into a dangerous, each man for himself scrum, some people bearing multiple plates, even washing-up bowls, and words, shoves and blows were traded. Ali was disconsolate – on the other hand, a large number of people were fed, and fed well.

I will be back in just a few days, and will be hoping to put together a Drama project for the pupils at Gecko School, a place for unaccompanied minors.  Watch this space.