Run and run through

I flew in late on Saturday night, already acclimatised to the hot weather after the recent UK heatwave. My role this week in Mytilini is to organise costumes for the performance. In theory, it should have been just ‘organising’ as Chris had pulled together most of them from the local Chinese shop, the Women’s Centre and a local tailor. Plus I arrived (bizarrely distinct from my fellow Thomas Cook package holiday-makers) with a suitcase of shawls, scarves and old shirts (a few quick snips to cut off the collar produces a peasant shirt, remove the sleeves and you have a country jerkin). Oh and also (how many times have I seen it on stage as teacher or preacher?) Chris’s black graduation gown.

Perfect. Well not quite perfect, as unfortunately, the costumes from the Women’s Centre were far from production ready, so together with two volunteer English teachers, Pam and Ciara, we set about hand-sewing the soldier’s tabards. I am no seamstress (as my school needlework teacher regularly reminded me), but I am quite good at pulling together easily donned/shed character costumes that will stand the test of a week’s production run.

The costumes are relatively simple – black trousers/skirts and t-shirt (the latter showing Jaime’s fist/circle logo) as a base. Each character then dons a shawl, shirt, scarf, apron, jerkin, tabard or whatever to signify their character. It’s amazing how costumes lift not only the audience’s perception of a play, but also give the performer confidence and the finishing touch to their characterisation. An old peasant man comes to life in a raggedy jerkin, a servant girl is easily recognisable in an apron. With the production mostly spoken in Farsi interspersed with bits of English, it will be important the (predominantly?) English/Greek speaking audience understand who’s who. Predictably, the kids pushed back strongly on wearing the unfashionable trousers (‘no, you can’t wear your designer ripped jeans onstage’), but they soon acquiesced. I’m impressed with the professional attitude they have taken towards the performance – it was a good dress rehearsal run through.

The second run is of a completely different nature. I’m training, along with our eldest Lucy, for the Great North Run (half-marathon) in just over a months’ time. This is a crucial time, building up distance week-by-week, my current target being 14km. Which just happens to be the return distance to the airport along the shore of the Med from the apartment.

Greece wakes up quite late, so early morning in Mytilini is a very different experience to the usual hustle of Ermou or the harbour front. Heading out of town, I spent the first 2km passing a multitude of street cleaners (mostly well-dressed young women, in ordinary day clothes), plus a couple of men strimming weeds growing out of the pavement cracks. Past the marina, taking care over kerbs, around and under trees, I felt the heat as I climbed over the hill to the road along the coast. At regular intervals, there were small groups of people in sleeping bags on the beach or in the back of their cars, hatch-back open for air, their children already up playing on the stony beach or riding their bicycles (I’m guessing possibly Roma people). Plus a handful of fellow joggers, all enjoying the view over the perfectly calm sea.

Both run and run through have provided a very satisfying start to my week in Lesvos. A feeling of achievement and anticipation for myself (running) and for the kids (performing).

He who would valiant be

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Ever since I arrived in Mytilini, there has been a prominent presence in the harbour – HMS Valiant, a Royal Navy warship (apologies if I am misusing a technical description) with Border Force painted on the hull. When I mentioned this some time ago, a friend commented that it was a long way from the border, but of course, while we remain a member of the EU, this is our European border.  And if/when we leave, HMS Valiant will return to the UK.

Every time I walk past the ship, I have been hoping that there might be someone on deck to whom I might put a few questions.  And today, as Val and I were on our way to Mytilini’s Statue of Liberty to go for a swim, there was.  I called across, and asked him if he was allowed to talk to me.  “Of course,” he said, and came over to the side.

He told us that HMS Valiant had been based there for two years, and when I asked him its purpose, he was unequivocal: search and rescue.  Did they ever send boats back?  No.  What happened in Turkish territorial waters might be another matter, but they didn’t go there.  They do night patrols, two weeks on, two weeks off, and when they came across a rubber boat, they invited the occupants aboard, and brought them to shore, to a reception centre at the harbour entrance.  He had been in Mytilini, on and off, throughout its deployment.  Was it regarded as an easy gig?  No, a tough one, because of the other aspect of the job, fishing bodies out of the water.  It was necessary, he said, to harden his heart to such things, so far as he could, when it came to adults, for the sake of his mental well-being, but that was impossible when it came to children. 

I have to say I was impressed with his relatively well-balanced view.  He acknowledged that in many cases the boats might not be in immediate danger, but even so liked to think that he and his colleagues were saving lives.  For my part, I assured him that this was undoubtedly true, what with leaky boats, inadequate life-jackets, and a dangerous landing to come.

He concluded, however, with an unsettling anecdote.  The previous night they had picked up two boats, one filled with Afghans, the other with Syrians, but when they were both on board, a fight broke out between them.  He expressed his disappointment that two groups who were literally and metaphorically in the same boat should still find conflict between them.  It is dangerous to draw a general conclusion from a specific example – who knows what provoked it – but it was depressing all the same.  Dangerous too to rely too much on a single testimony, but I’ve always been a credulous soul, and I liked him.

When you’re smiling…

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Walking back and forth between my apartment and Gekko – something I do with monotonous regularity, sometimes three times a day – is a challenge.  It does not help that generally I am going at twice the speed of my fellow travellers.  The narrow pavement bordered by railings on Kavetsou, the first part of my journey, presents its own difficulties.  As I have somewhere to get to, I need to overtake, and this is not easy when the person in front ambles diagonally, or decides to stop, or is with a friend or two.  A muttered paloniko or excuse me generally gets zero response.

When I reach Ermou, the main shopping street (though the width of a country lane) there are other difficulties.  For much of the day (though not all) it is “pedestrianised”, but only if you count bicycles, motor-bikes, delivery vans, even occasional rubbish lorries, as pedestrians.  But the people are just as difficult to navigate past.  At home, my experience is that people have an awareness of each other, will look to see if they are in someone else’s way, might apologise if they inadvertently block someone’s path.  Here, there appears a total absence of such awareness.  If someone suddenly turns and walks across you, it is as though you did not exist.

I am determined to retain my English politeness in such matters: giving way, holding back, watching out.  And I am, by and large, ignored.  Occasionally, if I am sufficiently theatrical in my gesture, I can provoke a reaction, the ghost of a smile, but mostly their faces are stony.  It is not as though they are unfriendly in all their relationships; friends across the street are acknowledged with demonstrative affability.  But I had not registered before how used I am to people registering each other with a smile, a nod, a gesture (and not a rude one.)  And I really do believe that such things are important, that human interaction, even (or even especially) with strangers, is the glue that holds society together.

“When you’re smiling, keep on smiling, the whole world smiles with you.”

Cinema Paradiso

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One of the more extraordinary cultural events that takes place in Mytilini is a programme of old. Classic movies, put on by an elderly Greek fan, in the grounds of one of the many old ruined mansions here, just outside town.  There is a large screen, and rows of chairs, and it is free.  It really is like a step into another time, another place.

I went to the opening night on Monday: Once Upon A Time In The West – a 62 western, very corny, but still a classic, with a remarkable cast:  James Stewart, Gregory Peck, Debbie Reynolds, Karl Malden, and cameos from John Wayne, Slim Pickens, etc, etc., and some amazing action sequences.  But it was not the movie so much as the atmosphere: sitting within a stone’s throw of the Med, a balmy breeze, a crackly soundtrack, a large audience.  And all for free.

Last night, as soon as the evening rehearsal was done, I raced down there again – probably my last opportunity, what with the show next week.  This time it was Great Expectations – as some of you will know, a story that has particular resonance for me.  Even more so, as it was the David Lean version, with Felix Hayes’ grandfather playing the “other” convict.  And the fact that we were sitting in the shadow of a building that could have been Satis House was an additional bonus.

It has been a long, but surprising and rewarding summer.  And this was just one more cherry on the cake.

Boat people

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I suppose it is a mark of my own stupidity that it has taken a while for the reality to sink in that Lesvos is an island.  Of course it is.  It has also been at least a temporary home for getting on for a million refugees, first from Syria and Iraq, more recently from Afghanistan, and now increasing numbers from various parts of Africa.  None of them did what I did, which was to fly in; none took the ferry.  Every one has arrived in Lesvos by climbing aboard a big rubber boat, 60, 70, 90 at a time, and made the six mile or so trip across from Turkey.  Short enough, but terrifying enough at the same time, packed in like sardines, often in the dark, over half women and children.

So every refugee I have met here – the people in my comedy class at Mosaik, the kids in the Gekko school and the School for Peace, those from the “Safe Zone” at Moria, the people in the Olive Grove – came here that way, scrambling out onto the rocky shore of northern Lesvos.  Not all of them made it of course, not so very many in percentage terms, but hundreds, thousands.  Men, women, children.

Why has it taken so long for me to realise this?  Partly because, I guess, on the outside at least, you wouldn’t know.  They are ordinary people – friendly, funny, nice, ordinary people, not obviously suffering from the trauma they endured.  But it must still be with them.  It must be.

For the most part, they couldn’t swim.  The smugglers sold them life jackets, it’s true.  If they were lucky, these were real.  Or real enough.  If they were unlucky, they were sold fakes, which became water-logged, and sank.  And like a particularly nasty form of Russian roulette, there was no way of knowing in advance which was which.  One European manufacturer became concerned by the large number of fake jackets with their branding on them, because of the damage to their reputation.  Like fake Rolexes, or fake Lacoste t-shirts.  Except nobody dies because they are wearing a dodgy watch.

For some, there were no life jackets at all.  They were given a pair of empty two-litre juice containers.  To save their lives.  In the dark.  When they couldn’t swim.

But like I say, mostly you wouldn’t know; people are resilient.  The cast of my play are minors.  One sixteen year old has a baby, so was pregnant when she climbed aboard.  Two of them have two-year olds, so they each climbed in, children themselves, a small baby in their arms.  You can see for yourselves: there are plenty of videos on You Tube.  But be careful, you could end up like me, with tears streaming down my face.  But this isn’t about stupid old me.


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First of all, it is just such a terrific poster, an exuberant mish-mash of what is good about Africa. I know that One Happy Family, which was where it was taking place, are not blessed with resources – the predominant style feature is the wooden pallet – so it is even more remarkable that someone should have come up with such a quality design, and that it had been produced so well, in four different prime languages – English, French, Farsi and Arabic – and with the details in English, French or Greek, which makes for mind-boggling possible configurations.

I was teaching at Mosaik during the afternoon, so headed out as soon as I could. Problem number one was that I had, as usual, forgotten to bring water. A blazingly, blindingly, blisteringly hot day made it worse – a long wait for a ride in a hot bus, followed by a trudge up the hill to OHF, and I was simultaneously drenched and parched, so not in the best frame of mind. I was hoping for something to drink and a mellow vibe, but instead found just a water fountain and a pounding, head-banging beat from a sound system. In front of the stage was a gang of jumping, screaming young men; around them was a cheering crowd holding up phones to take pictures; and around that a second ring of mostly European volunteers with cameras.

This was not my scene, so I headed over to the Ecohub, to see if anyone was there, but that was all shut up, so I decided to cut my losses. I trudged back down the hill, rather wearily, and after waiting in the heat for a bus that didn’t come, I was offered a ride back into town by an air-con minibus that was ferrying volunteers from one of the NGOs.

It turned out that there had been some cool live music earlier in the day, when I had been teaching. And it was clear that it had been a success, injecting some welcome excitement and vitality into what must be pretty tedious, difficult lives; the fact that I hadn’t had a good time was neither here nor there.

Street life

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Pictured above is the most regular of the buskers who plies his trade on Ermou, Mytilini’s main shopping street.  He varies his location from time to time (though not by much), and his music is a pleasant and welcome addition to my regular walk to work.  There are also other musicians who appear for a short while.  When I first arrived, there was a trio – accordion, guitar, and middle-eastern drum – whom I would swear used to follow me about.  I would walk past them on the harbour front and make my way to some obscure tavern within the old town, and within five minutes there they were again.  They were competent enough, though their repertoire was limited (though I never had to put up with it for long, as they moved on quickly.)  But they have now disappeared, so I assume they have moved on to islands new.  More recently, a young guitarist appeared on Ermou, strumming his stuff inconsequentially, and largely ignored, so far as I could tell, and he too has now disappeared.  (This sounds far more sinister that it actually is, I suspect.  And hope.)

There are more actual beggars here than I had expected.  There are various elderly women who sit on the pavement, some waving a plastic cup at people passing, others remaining stoically silent.  There is one old gentleman who occupies one particular spot, who tugs at his forelock as one passes; I do tend to acknowledge his presence with a nod, but don’t give him any money (and I don’t know whether this makes me more or less irritating, from his point of view.) 

Then there are the numerous children.  I at first made the lazy assumption that they were refugee children, but actually they are roma.  They spend all of their time approaching people sitting in cafes for money, using the international symbol of hunger by raising their hands to their mouths, using a hangdog expression which presumably looks for sympathy.  They usually operate in a group, and are the most persistent, sometimes borderline aggressive, beggars.  There is no doubt that they are in need, for they are filthy, and undoubtedly hungry, for they will accept food when it is offered, either by customers or waitresses clearing tables.  But while I am sympathetic to their situation, I never give them money.  If they are ever to escape the lives they lead, they need to find a role (or have a role found for them) that offers them something else.

Festival time

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This evening, a small group of us volunteers trudged up the hill to the Castle to attend a music concert, arranged by Connect By Music, an NGO which provides music education for refugee children on Lesvos.  It was impressively organised, with a large stage, sound and lighting equipment, and (to my relief) a seated auditorium, all within the outer grounds of the castle.

There was a huge number of young people involved, mostly guitarists, strumming and gently picking, about fifty at a time, though it was a pity that they were effectively drowned out by the adult leaders, all amplified – a couple of violins, a clarinet, a guitar. Notably, the quality of the guitar-playing improved as the evening progressed; sensible programming.    Other acts were interspersed: a children’s choir, a flamenco dancer and singer, one or two vocalists coming forward from the other musicians.  The highlight of the evening was a group of drummers and an Afghan man playing a traditional instrument – something like a long-necked lute – which really got the crowd jumping.  A gang of Afghan young men, including the male half of my cast, had a sort of mosh pit in front of the stage, and they clearly enjoyed themselves hugely.

Afterwards, Jaime and a Dutch/Singapore volunteer called Sin joined me in a pizza and some pleasant conversation, before I made my way home. But en route I encountered the Lesvos Ouzo festival in a park near the theatre on the waterfront.  I was attracted by the lights and live music, but quickly discovered that the purchase of a two euro glass entitled one to as much ouzo as you wanted, from about a dozen stalls, all operated by different distilleries. My amazement was why everyone was not completely legless, and said as much to a group of three guys who were sitting down at my table, just as they promptly fell of their chairs.  They were pleasant, if inebriated, company, and pointed out the best ouzos (as ever with such things, they all tasted the same to me.)  We also shared a couple of rounds of shots of pomegranate liqueur.

Lesvos Ouzo festival

I then fell into conversation with a couple of ladies next to me; appropriately enough, they were lesbians (though not Lesbians – they came from Athens.)  We chatted about Brexit, Grexit, the state of the world.  I headed home as things began to pack up at about 1.30, drunk but not too drunk, at the end of a pleasant evening.


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…also known as backgammon, and ubiquitous throughout the middle-east.  It is also immensely popular here, and just one more example of how Greece, despite being European, Christian, etc, is closer to its near neighbours than it cares to admit.  The food here has many equivalents in Turkey, and both are very fond of their national spirit, Ouzo/Raki.  The game is largely a male preserve, though there are isolated examples in the hipper bars of couples asking for one of the sets which is kept behind the bar.  Far more common are the bars which have many tables outside, occupied by men playing, watching, offering advice.

I am currently engaged in an ongoing series of games against Andrew, which he is winning 5-3, though he does have a distinct advantage, having introduced me to two radical variations of the standard game.  I am struggling to get a handle upon the tactics; actually I barely understand the rules.

This evening I met up with Iman, the Drama teacher from the School for Peace, for a few games.  We met at Pi’s, the café I had had such difficulty locating back in February, half a year away, and the polar opposite of conditions today.  Then it had offered a cosy sanctuary; now we are outside, sweltering in the summer heat, enjoying frozen lemonade.  I managed to hold my own respectably, though it was clear Iman was far more at home.  He knew almost automatically what moves to make, while I had to give mine a lot of thought.

When we finished – an honourable draw – we chatted for a while about his life in Iran.  He had been a keen footballer, but had been prevented by his father from pursuing the sport, and had more recently fallen out of love with the game there because women were banned from even attending matches. It seemed that he was that rarest of creatures, an Iranian feminist. He did make me realise how fortunate I am to be able to be able to follow my love for theatre.  He had been an actor, but had had limited opportunities to perform.  Despite this, and a certain regret at the hand he had been dealt, he considered himself fortunate to be living and working in Mytilini. A splendid, humbling man.

Greek myths

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Inside the Stage 2 transit centre for refugees in north Lesvos

Generally speaking, I tend to avoid politics in these posts for the same reasons one was always urged to avoid politics and religion at the dinner table, because it causes arguments.  Except, of course, my very presence here is its own kind of political statement: I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think that young people forced out of their war-torn homeland have a right to the same liberal educational opportunities as everyone else.

I do understand that people have fears of “the other”, that many people are worried about the preservation of their own culture.  But I also believe that a strong culture is able to absorb other influences and grow as a result.  Britain has always done so, from the Normans and Huguenots down to West Indians and the peoples of south Asia, who have enriched and renewed the Britain we know today.  Especially as climate change takes its toll, the pressures caused by people forced to flee their land for very survival can only increase.  Building ever higher and stronger walls is no answer.  Where they have been constructed – in Berlin, Palestine, Northern Ireland, and maybe yet on the southern border of Trump’s America, the result has not been peace and security, but ever-growing human misery.  Groups of people who were themselves migrants now decide it is time to pull up the ladder on future generations, amid claims that their country is now full are demonstrably false, such as in Britain when we do not have the people to run our NHS, pick our fruit, care for our elderly.

I have been reading a very coherent and well-argued book – Persistent Myths About Migration in Greece, published by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, which backs up its arguments with well-sourced statistics.  I know, of course, that people read material which already chimes with their own opinions, and it is difficult to counter this, since it is something we all do to a greater or lesser degree.  However, I find that the arguments in the book correspond with my own learnt experience.  The young people that I have met and taught here would be a tremendous asset to any society; their religion is irrelevant, for they are kind, funny and intelligent, and I am proud to call them my friends as well as my students.

One particular myth that the book addresses is the “pull” factor, the notion that by offering common humanity (let alone warmth), we are somehow encouraging people to come.  In my own case, the idea that young people are risking their lives in order to be directed by me in a production is sort of flattering but also idiotic.  Instead, people who do good are demonised, even criminalised. Instead of lauding people who leave water in the Mexican desert, or who rescue the drowning at sea, they are cast as criminals.  What would Jesus do?