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: 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.

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.

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.