Day 6 of 21: in London

in June 1995. I returned from living and working abroad and started teaching ESOL in my home town of Colchester; before becoming a student again myself. My first class was a group of Russian language teachers from the former East Germany, who were being ‘re-trained’ to teach English.

This three-week course will pass very quickly, I’ve a great team of colleagues and the students seem fine – though I’m not sure how happy I’d be if I were them, being ‘advised’ suddenly to switch from teaching Russian to teaching English. The first week passes in a sunny and breezy fashion; well, the weather does. Able to sit outside to finish re-reading ‘The Levant Trilogy’ while eating my lunch, I’m sometimes joined (silently) by students who feel lonely but don’t want to speak. We smile, nod at each other, then sit companionably awhile until it’s time to return to the classroom. Once there, I quickly find that seemingly innocuous grammar points can lead to instantaneous student catharsis.

For example, work on the third and mixed conditionals to express regret or nostalgia; well, I would take that back right now if I could. Truly. First student (after looking intently at her dictionary): ‘If I had known that my abortion would give me such sadness, I would never have listened to my husband’. Cue mini-group hug with friends and then tears. Lots. My emergency supply of tissues is quickly exhausted so I fall back on distributing my emergency supply of chocolate buttons. The last one of those eaten, another in the class volunteers: ‘I would have killed my sports coach if I had known he was doping me when I was a child. I’ve never been able to have children.’ Some students are visibly cheered at the thought of killing-any-random-piece-of-shit-who-ever-treated-me-badly, and smile with faraway looks in their eyes. Eerie silence descends and then the tears start again.

One of the women, realising that my emergency rations have been consumed, produces her own. She pulls a roll of toilet tissue and a tin of Quality Street from her bag. Chewing those toffees has a calming effect and definitely shuts us all up. We make a picture from the wrappers and I announce haughtily I don’t believe in having regrets, so let’s move on shall we? We do, just far enough. My ability to ‘make students cry’ becomes a badge colleagues make me wear for some time. Each course participant is asked to keep a diary; hopes that mine will use this document to keep trauma on the page are quickly dashed. They write about me. (1) If all teachers are like her, students must learn easily and with pleasure. (2) She is fantastic and humorous. (3) An energetic and lively woman with a sense of humour – very interesting. (4) Jane demands quite a lot, but we like this. (5) I’m sure she likes teaching and has good relations with all her students. (6) A charming, energetic young woman – her gestures and facial expressions are especially striking. In the meantime, classroom recollections of trauma become ones of pleasure, admittedly often illicit, but I feel we’re getting somewhere (and consuming less chocolate and fewer tissues).

I’ve signed up for a six-day working week, and on the sixth day we visit London as part of the group’s cultural orientation. Everyone boards the coach in good spirits; the day before we had the hottest June day for 20 years and we’re still talking about it as the temperature dips and the sky clouds over. Orientation over, we all go our separate ways to do our shopping-thing or our let’s-catch-up-with-old-friends-thing. Fun done, back at the coach I notice we’re one down. I ask her friends, who, initially, say they have no idea what’s happened but they’re sure she’s fine. We leave. By the time we’re back, I’ve been told that this woman has had a miscarriage in John Lewis on Oxford Street and that her ‘friends’ got her to St. Thomas. They were very reluctant to tell me anything, then almost blasé about the whole episode with no intention of staying with her overnight. I find this strange. I ring the relevant authorities to report the event and check all is well. Three days later, discharging herself from hospital, this woman has returned from London in a taxi and reappeared in class. Nothing is said. No catharsis needed here, move along please – oh, and by the way, say nothing to the husband who’s visiting next weekend. He didn’t know about the pregnancy. It’s day 9 of 21.


The Joy of Text

I used to live on the island of Symi in Greece, where I taught the English language. Used to was back in the day before email and cell phones, when social media might have been defined as a party, gathering or lots of people all shouting down the same landline at once. Post was eagerly anticipated. In good weather, when the mail boat could make it in, the walk along the harbour was exciting. The subsequent trip to the post office could be, too. It could also be disappointing. On one particular occasion, I waited for what seemed forever for a letter I’d been promised. When it did arrive, it made my day. Here’s how…

The letter is lovely – I guess it should be as that’s how he makes a living. All the same, it goes into number one place for letter of the last three years, with Olga’s of February 1994 in at number two, and Maurizio’s of September 1991 at number three. In fact, the letter is so good that it’s intimidating, with its slightly too professional edge. I have to reply, of course. I have to reply having forgotten (it seems) any self-definition, let alone how to write a note, of any style, longer than four lines. Anyway, I have to, so that’s that.

The letter’s still intact, even after the Junior B class got the stamp and played with the pressed flowers inside the envelope. Even after my girlfriends have read through the text (thoroughly) and admired the English and admired the sentiments and admired the handwriting and identified the pressed flowers, the letter remains. In fact, it’s such a lovely letter that I carry it with me all day and am compelled to read it over, at regular intervals. It’s made my day.


Rock, Paper, Pen.

A letter written to a friend in July 1993, when I was working at The Meltemi Bar in Symi, Greece.

                                                                                                                                                                       Symi, 85600

Dear T,

It was great to speak to you on the phone yesterday. It seems strange now to be working in the bar without seeing you around, even just for five minutes. Anyway, as usual, I had so many things to say and said so few (I always remember them just as I replace the receiver). When you left the island on Tuesday, I really wanted to come down to the boat to say goodbye, but understood it was best not to. I just watched from a distance, walking around the headland to see the ship disappear from view. I’m sure there are many things you won’t miss about The Rock – petty jealousy, endless gossip (to name just two!) – but am also just as sure that there will be people and places you recall with fondness. You are a difficult person to know or to feel close to, but I do believe we are at the beginning of a strong friendship. I have you to thank for a sense of perspective, smiles, laughter and relaxation.

In other news, I went out with A, Y and E on Thursday – we had a great evening together up in the village and remembered to exchange contact details to keep in touch after they leave at the end of the month. Of course, I don’t need to tell you that the teachers are always good company and that I’ll miss them sorely at the end of term. I’m happily convinced, though, that A and Y will be back in September, and as a married couple. There was a schoolchildren’s dance on Saturday night at the large new bouzouki taverna – the party dragged on some (long past everyone’s bedtime!) but a good time was had by all. There have been the now usual fights between the bars because of noise. One particular confrontation, four nights ago, resulted in a couple of bar owners needing medical attention – they’re now wandering around with heavily bandaged faces. Rumours continue to circulate that the police are coming next week to check IKA and work papers; right now, I have filed this under gossip.

So, I’m writing this here in the bar. It’s very quiet in the day now – but I have my books and writing pad to keep me busy once I’ve opened up for business. There was a lot of cleaning to do this morning, for sure, as they didn’t close until 6 a.m. from the night before – hardly worth their while shutting up shop, really. Needless to say, once again, I’m the only one awake around here! Anyway, I’ll be finishing here next month, to help open the school in September. I move into the apartment ‘over the shop’ on Sunday, at last and I’m looking forward to it. The school passed its inspection on 13 July, so it’s now ‘official’ and there’s no more to do than sort out my work and IKA papers.

Every success on the family farm this summer – I hope you found everyone well and happy when you returned. All here send their best wishes (and a Ry Cooder tape, which is on its way as I write this).

Take care of yourself. I miss you and wish you well.


There are times I miss teaching…

Thank you to this Liceo G.B. Morgani class; co-taught with the wonderful Brian Cooke (08-10-09)


8 March 1994/ 8 March 1995

International Women’s Day recorded in two diaries – the first, when I was teaching English in Symi, Greece; the second, when I was teaching English in Rhodes, Greece.

Tuesday 8 March 1994 – I start the day on painkillers, lack of sleep has left me with a blinding headache and work to do means there’s no chance of a lie-in. The sun is hot and the wind only light, so I spend as much time as I can outdoors. I walk to Nimborios and back for much-needed exercise; the experience is tranquil, breezy and restorative. Yet, once back in Gialos, for a reason I can’t fathom, everything seems to me to happen stupidly and in slow-motion until 6pm, when, out of the blue, V comes to school to give me wild crocuses – their beautiful scent permeates the classroom. I’d forgotten it was International Women’s Day – he reminded me. Other gifts include an octopus and the unsolicited loan of three books from a young man’s ‘philosophy’ (his definition may work with his mother, but is vastly different from mine. Let’s just leave it at that, shall we?) collection. This last donation to the cause arrives in a battered supermarket bag with a large bar of chocolate, which I am told I can keep and eat. I do. I don’t touch the books. One student, who prides himself on rarely even attempting assignments, has decided his gift to me will be all work set since January finally completed and submitted. That’s my reading sorted for the next week, then. After school, I collect a cassette of music from M, take it back to my apartment, and cook, drink and sleep while listening to it.

Wednesday 8 March 1995 – Extremely strange dreams overnight, but still wake feeling rested. A soaking wet start to the day has meant that the screaming schoolchildren normally outside my window from early in the morning are all indoors. The rain soon stops and the day becomes sunnier, hotter and breezier. I head out to visit private students, before coming back for lunch, then going in to school. It’s a quiet day, the boss’s mother-in-law died yesterday, so he’s out. This delays being paid yet again. Feel fed up, am owed money by my private students, too. I resent having to ask for my earnings, as though they’re charitable donations. In a fit of pique, decide to spend my remaining drachmas on a movie ticket. At 21.15, meet up with three friends to go see ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’. The cinema is almost empty. Looking around, there are 11 other people in the auditorium – all of whom I realize I know. Six of the audience are my students, two are bar staff from the ‘in’ place round the corner, and the other three are a colleague and her sisters. We all sit together and chat through the less-than-inspiring show. I head home, broke, and spend 40 minutes on the phone to my sister having a moan. That done, I decide to read myself to sleep with a book I haven’t picked up in two months. Inside the back cover, tucked away for safe keeping, is 35,000 drachmas. I love a happy ending.


On the Third Day…

of December 1993. Taken from my diary when I was teaching English on the island of Symi, Greece.

Can’t write well, was up to 4 a.m. thanks to a party and am forgetting how a good night’s sleep feels. I’m stale and my throat is sore. The school owner is visiting from Rhodes, so I take myself to a quiet corner of the classroom and prep there. That done, I go out to buy bread, biscuits and veg. Take coffee with K at her very quiet cafe, after collecting D’s music centre. Bigger! Louder! Better! (Well it will be when this fug clears…). A walk around the harbour reveals the pack of male teachers at Elpida’s, talking in a hearty-blokey way. Not in the mood for that at all, I go to visit MA. She’s miles better company and we chat about constructive use of time – y’know, making it matter. I eat too many biscuits because they’re warm from the bakery opposite and she tells me I’m too small. I’m easily persuaded! The weather’s fine, the laundry’s done and I’m back on the bicycle enjoying the scenery. Return from my ride in time to take a ‘phone call from my sister – she’s just landed a new, permanent job at County Hall. So happy for her! That conversation had, (my former employer) Mr J rings to discuss getting me back to work in Rhodes. He’s lined-up a group of civil servants as students to start after Christmas and has found a teacher who’s willing to come over here to ‘replace’ me (who is this mad person, I ask myself?). Anyway, no time to ponder as DS (fresh from his male-bonding at Elpida’s) is outside, at the bottom of the steps, waiting to walk me up to a teachers’ party at Dolares. It’s a Salonikan celebration and we stay until 03.15, when we walk back down – smiling and laughing all the way. Bed by 4 a.m. Again.

of December 1994. Taken from my diary when I was teaching English on the island of Rhodes, Greece.

Wake early, plagued by thoughts of no pay (again). The temperature is colder than in London, there’s an icy wind. It’s overcast, so there’ll be no hot water – nothing like a cold shower to dowse self-pity. I have an odd rash on my body – standing in front of the mirror, it appears to be a fire starting from the big toe on my left foot and spreading upwards with its flames licking my thighs, abdomen and chest. I itch. A lot. Calls from S & H to meet by Agios Athanasios church at 8 p.m. for a night out. Next, I reserve a seat to Cairo for the new year with Ethiopian Airlines at the closest travel agent. Visit M to tell her the good news and she goes to check ferry times for the trip. Nervously excited! Especially as I don’t know how I’m going to pay for it. Meet D at Academia, where we wait for our students to emerge from their FCE papers. We’re definitely far more nervous than them. KL passes and invites me over to Koskinou for a ‘final’ dinner before he leaves for Australia on Tuesday. In the afternoon, I try to nap, but it’s too cold, the girl next door is shrieking again (having forgotten being ‘shot at’ by J as a warning the last time – where’s a firearm when you need one?) and the ‘phone keeps ringing. My private lesson is OK, though my concentration is poor. I pass my bill to the student, it is not paid (of course). In the evening, D comes round to take a call from her mother in the States, the rest of the gang come round, we go to meet S & H and all go to eat at ‘Vrachos’ in Ialyssos (lovely setting and place). Back to ‘ νυν και άει’ in the Old Town, with a great DJ, before going on to a very crowded ‘Melrose’ at 1 a.m. Well, dear reader, I danced, I drank, I smoked, I sang. All with no thought of tomorrow. That can wait.


21 October

1994. Rhodes, Greece.

Two days of thunderstorms. And the rain, the rain! The streets become rivers, the air so drenched it is hard to breathe. Nothing feels dry, indoors or out. Dreadful road accidents leave a trail of casualties – four British tourists drowned in Archangelos. Concerned colleagues make sure I have lifts to and from work, and students keep advising me to be careful (especially after the tourist accident – the British obviously can’t handle rainy weather). On a dash into town I manage to reach the bank and withdraw my rent money for the Cretan florist. By chance, I bump into a couple I know who are leaving Greece to go and live in Sweden. We make time for coffee in a café full of the sound of dripping. I wish them well, they are good people. By the time I hand the rent over, the brown paper envelope containing my hard-earned drachmas is, just like everything else, completely sodden. The landlord nods, smiles and spreads the notes out on the shop counter to dry. I leave. My Level 1 class is calling (not very loudly, mind you). My beginning students learn many weather-words as we watch the drama of the storm unfold outside, safe in our (almost-dry) room. There are unlimited ways to describe rain. I’d not realized this before. 50 minutes with Level 1 in a downpour will teach you this. In the break, splash across the road to the main building to receive phone calls, trying not to be jealous of those who have landlines at home. By the way, I fail miserably at the not-being-jealous thing. Once in the main building, I have to queue for the bathroom. After five minutes, I’m in and I try to dry off. Don’t know why, but I do try. Then, I hang around, feigning casual disinterest, in the office. I circle the phones, to no avail. One of the secretaries has a worried mother in Athens who needs to know her middle-aged daughter hasn’t drowned/ been swept out to sea/had lots of other bad stuff happen because of rain that only distant mothers can imagine. That’s that, then. Break over, I swim back to spend two fun hours teaching one-to-one (there are few times I am able to use that phrase; those words, in that order) with the student known to other staff only as ‘Jane’s Albanian’. My callers get through while I’m in class. The not-drowned secretary leaves me notes, all of which say the person will phone back. If they can, of course. My lift home from work on Friday night, sparing me from the rain, is on a scooter – seriously. Wetter than walking – how is that possible? Forget the wet for a while at a birthday party. One of my colleagues is celebrating her 22nd, and a large group of us squelch noisily into a nearby pizzeria where a good time and many beers are had by all. Diving back into the rain on the Vespa gone midnight, I reflect that tomorrow I will have a sore head and wonder if I will ever feel dry again.

(Taken from the diary I kept at the time)


Say Do You Remember?

September 1993, that is… Back from visiting my parents in Rhodes over the weekend, I feel quite distant. Always takes me time to readjust to The Rock. Start the day by filling the well for an hour, delivering my laundry, going for a swim (really more of a ‘bob’ as there’s a swell), then to Elpida’s for coffee and OJ. Back in the classroom, am worn out by Junior A. They are distracted by a passing funeral procession; the route passes the classroom window, the kids always want to see the corpse and compete with the keening mourners. I manage to stay calm, while encouraging them down from the furniture they’ve climbed onto to get a better view, and debating bringing ear plugs to work. Expelled a student for the first time (hopefully last). This causes excitement across the harbor and, at least, gives people something ‘real’ to chat about. Competition hots up for the ‘vacant’ desk as mothers petition for their children to enrol. Indefinite wait, as none of us know when the owner will be visiting. The wind is still high, so the boat timetable is upended. There’s been no sign of the Rodos ferry, which eventually arrives 24 hours late. Two hydrofoils make it into and out of the harbor, though. Comfort comes in many forms. I picked up a BBC World Service signal again. Found five good reads in a local tourist book exchange, which I unashamedly swapped for some trashers. An invitation to birthday cake and drinks is followed by a surprise dinner at Tholos. Cycled to the restaurant, but the food was so good I ate too much. I had to walk back very slowly. Thankfully, at the school room in time to take my parents’ phone call – they’ve arrived safely in Athens. Upstairs to bed with the BBC. Much depressing talk of Russia but, more happily, Sydney’s won the bid for the 2000 Olympic Games. Taken from the diary I kept while teaching in Symi, Greece


Tuesday 23 November 1993

(This is taken from the journal I kept when I was the English teacher on Symi aka ‘The Rock’. To afford privacy, I have removed people’s names).

Bright skies give way to thunder, hail and rainstorms. The street by the school becomes a river and the side stairs to my apartment a stream, as hail bounces then floats away. Just in time, I rescue a cassette of music left for me at the gate – miraculously, it is undamaged and I listen to it while waiting for the storm to abate. A phone call – do I like the music? Yes, I do. There’s a funeral for a fisherman’s mother and the dark, somber day, with threads of light and patches of sunshine, seems appropriate somehow. She died on his name day, yesterday. I choose not to go to the funeral and instead, in a brief dry spell after lunch, go for a thoughtful, quiet walk with a good friend and her dog. The Nissos Kalymnos made it in this morning and there’s almost a party atmosphere as people emerge from winter hiding into the sunshine, while it lasts. Over-confident, I outstay the sunshine and the heavens open while I’m out. I take refuge in the doorway of the Ionian Bank. There’s a group of us, sheltering in different doorways, all caught out by the rain – we shout to each other and laugh. Oddly, we’re able to shout things we wouldn’t normally even say to each other – careless of others and convention. It’s cathartic. We agree, loudly, that we’re mavericks, before one of the men shouts over that I look like a cowgirl and that’s why he and his wife entrusted their children into my care at the school. In the absence of an alternative, I take this as a compliment (being a cowgirl was, after all, my second choice of what-I-wanted-to-do-when-I-grew-up, after being a Lost Boy was ruled out by my kind, but insistent, father). I do make a mental note to watch his children more carefully in future, though. Back at school, teaching was OK, though early turnout was low because of the weather. During the afternoon, various people jump in through the door to dodge rain and hailstones. The children take it all in their stride and classes continue uninterrupted, though in a slightly giddy Noah’s Ark-type way. Various phone calls in the breaks between classes to check I’m OK – the weather reports having traveled beyond The Rock. After school, I walk to Elpida’s for company, a drink and something to eat. There’s a female Greek teacher on the island; tall, slim and pretty – she’s flavour of the year. She’s not at the cafe, a group of her admirers are. I become an agony aunt as they all clamour for advice on how to win her over. I give it my best shot, but this wears me out by 11pm, so I leave. On the way back, I stare into the now clear night sky and see a shooting star.

Weather report: sun, warm, torrential rain, hail, bright, rain, storm, (funeral), rainbow, clear, damp, dark. Good night.

Published on axrhodes on 23/11/2013