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?


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I had already recruited James, a Better Days volunteer at the Ecohub garden, as musical director for the production, and he invited me to see him and a friend of his from One Happy Family perform at an informal concert.  This was to be held at Pikpa, another of Lesvos’s network of refugee camps.  I was joined by Jaime (who was more interested in seeing Pikpa than attending the concert) as well as Laura and Ciara, newly arrived volunteers from Ireland.

Pikpa is indeed an interesting place.  It is a former holiday camp, situated close to the airport, which had first been occupied and squatted by refugees and volunteers in 2015.  It now has semi-official status, and is run by Lesvos Solidarity, an umbrella NGO, also responsible for Mosaik.  A holiday camp in many ways provides the ideal infrastructure for a refugee camp, having chalets, administrative offices, communal areas and facilities (including a modern, well-equipped kitchen.)  We only got the most superficial view of the site, as to wander and gawk would have been intrusive, but it appeared to be a very civilised environment.  The chalets have often been extended with canvas awnings, and I am guessing that this is to provide individual cooking facilities.  But I don’t know for sure that these housed families; James told me that the site is for the most vulnerable of the refugee population.  I can’t be certain what this means exactly, but presumably includes disabled people.

Our timing was excellent, as we arrived just as the concert was about to begin.  It was informally arranged: some benches in what appeared to be the camp reception area.  James’ friend Iman is a guitar teacher at One Happy Family, and it was him and his students, about a dozen young men and women with acoustic guitars, who were the main act, though they were supported by James on a keyboard, a bass guitarist, and a refugee man with a home-made harmonium.  Various of the group contributed vocals, my favourite being two beautiful Afghan girls with equally beautiful voices.

However, there were also a number of other acts contributing to the entertainment: some break dancers, a very talented juggler, the harmonium player performing some solos, a Farsi rapper, an African man singing a pop song.  Best of all to my mind was one of the guitar group who revealed himself as a magnificent Spanish/classical style guitarist, playing two beautiful pieces that would have graced any concert anywhere.

The evening was completed by everyone sharing a huge pot of Afghan stew, which was delicious.  In all, a splendid way to pass an evening.

Greek theatre

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Mytilini’s ancient theatre is not easy to find, situated at the top of the largest of the hills which ring the town, with no direct route up, but I managed to make it even harder.  I had seen signs pointing to it down by the ferry terminal, so that was where I headed, but of course, they were intended for travel by car.  If I had looked at the map before setting out, I would have realised that the far more direct route was to head into town and then work my way up through the higgledy-piggledy maze of streets that lie above.  But I daresay the additional exercise did me good, and eventually, with the help of some local shopkeepers with very limited English, I found myself at the entrance to the site.  I was told the entrance fee was one euro, but when I proffered a five euro note, I was waved through.

It took me a few minutes to understand what I was looking at.  Many people will know the layout of a traditional Greek theatre: a half-circle of marble terraces (the theatron) looking down onto a flat circle (the orkestra) with a raised stage (the skene) behind.  Of these three components, at Mytilini only the orkestra is still entirely clear, having been excavated by archaeologists in 1958.  The terraces are covered in earth and grass, even a tree or two, and little remains of the skene or the tall building which would have stood behind it (presumably the large stones which lie around the site are what it was built of.)

Nonetheless, it is still possible to imagine an impressive site.  The orkestra is 24 metres across, and the terraces which stretched up away from it would have held about 15,000 people.  Apparently, it was so impressive that it became the model of the theatre at Pompeii.  One interesting, slightly more modern adaptation is that the Romans built a six foot high wall around the orkestra, replacing the first few rows.  As the high culture of Greek theatre gave way to low Roman spectacle, the audience needed to be protected from the wild animals used in such events.  An early and physical demonstration of dumbing-down.

I have been involved in theatre for virtually all of my adult life.  Coming to Greece for the first time gives me the chance to perform my own pilgrimage.  In that way, visiting the theatre at Mytilini is, I suppose, my own personal journey to the holy land, the roots of the culture that has threaded its way through my life.  But let’s not get too pompous about it.

Moving on up

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Working on the new fountain in the park

The only thing I know about the political situation in Greece is that economically they have been (and may remain) in a pretty bad way, and that the EU in general, and Germany in particular, have imposed a pretty austere budget in an attempt to get their economy under control.  My apologies if that is an oversimplification;  as I say, my knowledge is patchy at best.  I do know that Grexit was a thing before Brexit was.  Not that Grexit happened (but then, as yet, neither has Brexit.)

There is physical evidence of decline.  There are some areas of town with clusters of derelict shops, and plenty of abandoned factories in the industrial estates outside town.  On the other hand, the main shopping street looks pretty healthy, better than its British equivalent, though it probably isn’t fair to use a tourist town as an example; if there is one time people put aside their laptops and shop in actual shops, it is when they are on holiday.

There are also lots of large houses which at one time must have been magnificent, but which are now empty, derelict, and “beyond economic repair.”  But Mytilini is actually better off in this respect than other places I have seen which once had a proud history: Havana, Myanmar, Johannesburg.  The specific causes of decline are different in each case, but in each case it is sad to see the sorry state to which they have been reduced.

But there are also positive signs in Mytilini.  Modern shops on Ermou are undergoing rapid refurbishment, even in the short time I have been here.  And one particular project is the nearby park.  An elaborate guided pathway for the blind has just been laid, new decorative walls and flower-beds built, and a large central fountain is under construction.  The children’s playground is as yet in a sorry state, with broken slides and roundabouts, and for now it is surrounded by a high security fence (though I was amused to see one father helping his young children to scramble over.) A contractor told me the whole project would be complete in two months.  The cost? Nearly half a million euros.  Paid for by the EU.


Barber shop quartet

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I needed a haircut, so took myself to Vintage Cuts, a modern salon right next to the Mousiko café.  I had spotted another barbers’ in town, but it was small, dark and unprepossessing, tucked away down a side street, and I wasn’t sure I could even find it again.  Vintage Cuts, in comparison, was bright, modern, airy and stylish.  When I arrived, the barber was at work on another customer, so I waited and watched.

He was obviously both skilled and meticulous, taking great care and plenty of time to create a look that was too extreme for my taste, shaven at the sides and back, and a diminishing top-knot.  Meanwhile, a slim and very pretty young woman was working on another customer, a huge, overly muscled guy covered in tattoos.  She had put a rubber cap like a swimming cap on his head, and was teasing tufts of his hair through holes in it with something like a crochet hook.  He looked ridiculous, but I daren’t show my amusement.  Besides, I was getting rather nervous at what I had let myself in for. 

A motorbike roared up to immediately outside the shop, and another man came in; evidently another barber, for he was a slightly taller version of his colleague – same cut-off jeans and t-shirt, same stylish hair and beard.  Once he had deposited his helmet, washed his hands, and checked I was there for a haircut, he indicated that I should sit in a low chair next to a sink.  “Oh no,” I replied, “I’m not here to have my hair washed, just a haircut.”  “It is the system,” he replied, but by now I was in total panic, stammered my apologies, and fled.  I felt a complete fool, realised how ridiculous I must have appeared, even thought of seeking out the other barbers’. But once I had calmed myself, I resolved to return the next morning – I still needed a haircut.

The next day I tried to explain that at home, I went in, sat down, had my hair cut, paid, and left – five minutes.  They were all charming, and if they thought me a silly old fool (and they must) they didn’t show it.  I had my hair washed – “is better for me” he explained – by the young woman, which was extraordinarily pleasant, and once it had been dried, I was in the chair.  “A grade 4 all over,” I said.  He understood, but looked doubtful.  “I think, on top, yes, but here, and here…”  I decided to go with it; in for a cent, in for a euro.  “You’re the professional.”

And professional he undoubtedly was: careful, thorough, meticulous. He told me I was shaving my sideboards too short, snipped and clipped with dexterity.  Eventually I was ushered back to the sink, where the girl washed my hair – again! – and then he applied various gels and powders.  It was quite an experience, and cost me eight euros.

But when I left, I realised that though I had enjoyed the experience, I didn’t appreciate the result.  My hair was hard and stiff, my neck exposed.  It occurred to me that I had been given the haircut of my childhood, fifty years before: a short back and sides.  My dad would have approved…  but I am not my dad.

Commedia dell’arte

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In terms of seeing live theatre, Val and I went from the feast of South Africa, where we saw lots of wonderful productions, to the famine of Lebanon, where we saw nothing.  So when I saw a poster advertising a commedia dell’arte performance, I was very interested.  The poster was entirely written in Greek, except for just two words in English – Hope Project – so I knew where to discover further information.

I went with Jaime, a newly arrived volunteer from Madrid, here to teach English, and arriving at the Hope Project we discovered a stage set up in front of the warehouse.  Since we were punctual, and the cast and audience were operating under Greek time, it was easy to claim a prime spot, and we took our seats in the second row.

For the benefit of those who do not know anything about commedia dell’arte, it is a theatrical style and tradition which began in Italy, played by companies of travelling players, and has been an important influence upon theatre since the 16th century.  It has a number of characteristic aspects – largely based upon improvisation, it features traditional costumes and distinctive, caricatured half-masks, and includes music and acrobatic movement.  It also includes famous stock characters, such as Punchinello and Arlecchino, which are the originals of Mr Punch and Harlequin.  Despite knowing all of this in theory, it was the first time I had ever seen it in action.

I loved the beginning, a mimed prologue which involved a pair of bumbling fools stealing some sacred bones from a church, and I laughed lots.  From then on, I did not enjoy it anything like as much as I thought I would.  It is hard to pin down why.  The live band was excellent; the costumes and masks were authentic, colourful and most effective; the players were skilled, acrobatic, energetic, and with all of the required exaggeration.  I think the real problem was that there was also a great deal of language, and apart from some occasional (and welcome) modern references in English, it was all in Greek and really quite hard going.  Of course, I am not suggesting that the performance should have been tailored to the very small number of English speakers in the audience, but although there was some laughter from the audience at some of the references, I think there ought to have been more.  There was much to enjoy, but the scenes did seem to go on more than they needed to.

I am pleased to have had such a unique opportunity, but it did remind me of the advice that it is better to leave the audience wanting more, rather than hoping it had been just a little bit shorter.

Cafe culture

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Alea cafe

Neither Val nor I have ever been much for the lazy, take it easy sort of holiday, where one spends the morning relaxing over a leisurely breakfast, and the rest of the day strolling, reading, lazing in the sun  and plotting where to go for dinner.  We are both too driven, with too low a boredom threshold, for any of that. (And I still recall the look of incredulity on my sister-in-law’s face when, joining her for a few day’s holiday in Spain, I told her that this was the first time I had ever spent time lounging on one of those pool inflatables with a holder for your beer.)  But having said all that, I am rather enjoying that sort of lifestyle here… though only on the condition that, for the rest of the time, I have plenty of work to do.

And there are plenty of places to sample such a way of life.  I have never seen a town with so many places to sit and while away the time, all of them spilling out onto the street, and most of them with plenty of customers.  If Mytilini is overstocked with taxis (and bakeries, butchers, fishmongers…) that goes ten times over for cafes and bars.  I am something of a creature of habit, but do now spread my custom over a wider range of establishments – morning coffee at Alea in the nearby park, refreshing iced lemonade with mint at Frames in the middle of town, Diavolos for beer and backgammon on the fashionable side of the harbour, the unnamed bar on the unfashionable side where I have beer and nuts while watching the football.

Everywhere has free wifi (and a stronger signal than I get at my apartment, so I often take advantage of it to write something, read the Guardian, catch up on correspondence.)  Because, provided you buy something when you arrive, you can pretty much stay for as long as you want.  You know, I could get used to this sort of life… though I am also looking forward to getting back to the very different attractions of home.