Where did we stop in my July update? Oh yes, last spring.
March. When I told my friends I was planning to go to Iraq to run an inservice course, they said I was a complete idiot. “Why risk your life? Have you thought of your family?” So I turned to my wife with begging eyes: “Hm?” And she said: “Go!” Oh no, not because she wanted to get rid of me once and for all, but because she knew Iraq would be one more country for me to tick off: “Been to.”
The venue of the course was Erbil, the capital city of Iraqi Kurdistan. On arrival I had to pass several check-points to leave the airport, but no big hassle. Accommodation in a student hostel, shoes off in the corridor, pristine conditions. The group of primary teachers, all men, was the most rambunctious one I’d ever met. In and out of the classroom in the middle of the class, flying paper planes, eating, drinking, shouting, singing – you name it. However, when on the last day I was saying farewell to them, their gratitude came from the heart.
Erbil was a very pleasant surprise. No traces of war, a beautiful citadel with a lovely bazaar. One evening I was invited by a Jordanian-Hungarian couple with three daughters, with whom I’d made friends when we lived in Damascus. Since then, they’ve moved to live and work in Erbil, a much safer place. They took me out to a genuine Syrian restaurant where I had the pleasure of having mezze, the typical starter from the Levant, consisting of a dozen small dishes substantial enough not to ask for a main course. And a hubble-bubble after so many years of craving for it. (My wife won’t let me smoke one.)
Speaking of safety, one morning as I opened an online newspaper in the hostel, I read about the explosion at Brussels Airport. Now which is more dangerous to visit: Erbil or Brussels? No safe haven these days.
Next on my spring schedule was the pretty town of Graz. I love driving, so 400 kilometres can’t be an obstacle. I picked up the Andrews family in Budapest: Mark, Magdi and their son, Ronan, who is not only a charming boy, but a very well-behaved one as well. Or was it the chips that kept him so quiet and contented throughout the journey? Meanwhile, his dad entertained us by singing silly songs from my old book Linda and the Greenies. Mark may well be the last person who still remembers those songs – I was touched by his kindness.
The conference itself was not only intimate but a bit sad too after I’d learnt that it was to be the last TEA (Teachers of English in Austria) event. When I asked why, the organisers said that teachers were losing interest in live (and costly) conferences what with so many other opportunities available such as webinars. If you want my opinion, nothing can substitute for face-to-face encounters. But I’m a dinosaur, which happened to be the title of my plenary lecture too. Oh, before I forget, Lindsay Clanfield’s “Why teachers should love lists” was one of the funniest plenaries I’d attended for a long time.
The following week I flew to Birmingham to participate in the 50th IATEFL conference. Not quite, because I was present only at the pre-conference event hosted jointly by the Global Issues Special Interest Group and the Creativity Group. A series of TED-like talks with a maximum duration of 15 minutes was followed by reflection time and an open space for the participants to exchange views. As one of the speakers, I put forward the idea of the Youth Networking Scheme to prevent or overcome prejudices through channels of ICT. YNS would aim to encourage school-aged learners of English to contact peers from faraway countries and collaboratively seek answers to problems of mutual interest. I’m aware that this scheme is idealistic and cumbersome to realise, but it’s so nice to have a dream, isn’t it?
Upon arrival at Birmingham International I took a taxi. If it hadn’t been Sunday, the 45-minute ride would have taken three times that much. It cost me £37 (oh boy!). I learnt at the conference that there were trains between the city centre and the airport every ten minutes for £3.60. How do you think I found my way back to the airport two days later? Bingo! By the way, were you to consider a visit to Birmingham, better wait another couple of years, because the whole town is “closed for renovation” at present.
Recently I’ve had the good fortune to turn up in Spain several times. In quick succession: Madrid, Barcelona, Salamanca, Alcalá, Seville. Now, Valencia is just as beautiful. My impression is that there is no such thing in Spain as a not-so-beautiful place. The hotel I stayed at was just a few minutes’ walk from the City of Arts and Sciences. Still in the process of enlargement, this futuristic cultural and architectural complex is one of the “12 Treasures of Spain”. The EICE conference dinner was served in the Oceanographic Aquarium, the largest of its kind in Europe. All around the dinner tables, the huge acquariums (acquaria) were full of fish swimming anti-clockwise at rocket speed. After half an hour the world was spinning around in my head. Stop, fish, or I’ll throw up!
As usual, I skipped the conference for half a day to see the Old City of Valencia. I asked the receptionist how far it was. “About half an hour’s walk in the river,” he explained. “You mean along the river?” asked the English teacher. “Yes, sir, or in the river,” the receptionist insisted. “It should be fun to walk in a river,” I chuckled to myself. And, lo and behold, a few minutes later I was walking in the river. In explanation, after the terrible flood of 1957 the Turia was deflected, and the old course was turned into a green area called the “Garden of the Turia”. A relaxing three kilometre walk leading to the Old City, full of cyclists, joggers, footballers and children. Happy faces all around.
To the attention of language teachers, the language spoken by the citizens of Valencia is Valencian, which is a dialect of Catalan. Or if you prefer, Catalan is a dialect of Valencian. But of course everybody speaks Spanish as well. Except me. I don’t speak Spanish, Catalan or Valencian, which is pretty embarrassing, especially in the conference breaks when both presenters and participants happily chat away in Spanish and I’m just standing by speechless.
Kosovo was one of the few countries in Europe which I hadn’t visited before. I’d begged Grenville Yeo, the director of SOL, to get me invited to the Ketnet conference. Two kind ladies from the conference committee collected me at Prishtina Airport, drove along Bulevard Clinton, then turned left into Bulevard Bush (senior or junior, I wondered). They dropped me at the Hotel Ambassador (very stylish for a former ambassador to stay there). After dumping my stuff in the room, I asked the receptionist how far the city centre was. She said, just walk down the street across as far as Bulevard Maria Theresa and there you are. Why name their high street after the Habsburg monarch, I asked myself. Arriving there I read the street sign: “Mother Teresa.” But of course, she was Albanian by birth. Just like military leader Skanderbeg from the 15th century and Ibrahim Rugova from the 21st, who became the first president of the newly independent state of Kosovo. While adults were sitting in open-air cafes, hundreds of schoolchildren were lining up at one end of the bulevard, all of them wearing yellow t-shirts. It was Olympic Day and they were participating in a race. Ready, steady, go!
I don’t know why, but I take a liking to conferences held in our region. Is it my Central-Eastern European self calling? Be that as it may, the one in Prishtina was the loveliest audience you could ask for, young and even younger participants full of oomph and optimism. Interestingly, the most fascinating presentations had to do less with ELT than with Albanian folklore. I particularly liked the report on “sworn virgins”. These women take a vow of chastity, wear male clothing and live like men. A custom dying out, for better or for worse.
Spring was over, summer began with an inservice training course run by SOL (“Sharing One Language”). The venue was Barnstaple in North Devon, my co-trainers were Mark Andrews and Uwe Pohl, the participants came from Central and Eastern Europe. Mark was absolutely phenomenal: an ELT specialist cum tour guide. Performed with a huge amount of expertise and enthusiasm, his double-act was assisted by Uwe, who would stop Mark whenever he got a bit carried away.
What was my role in this spiel? Well, as patron of SOL I was there mostly as an understudy or extra.
The course took place a couple of weeks after Brexit, so it was only obvious to ask our host families (“if it’s not too personal”) about their choice. It turned out that almost all of them had voted for Brexit. When asked why, they referred to the incompetence of European leaders and their fear of immigrants. What immigrants? All I could see in the streets of Barnstaple were white faces – and white legs sticking out from under the pop-up shelters on the beach. Isn’t it paradoxical that every large city, populated with a vast array of colours, religions and languages, voted for “stay”, whereas small towns with zero foreigners chose “leave”? Could you explain why? However, what I mustn’t leave unmentioned is North Devon itself. It is undoubtedly the most beautiful part of England. See for yourself!
That’s all about my conferences. Now let me count how many countries I’ve been to so far. With Kosovo, it comes to 94. Which European states are still missing? San Marino, Monaco, Malta and Armenia. (Is Armenia a European country?) The first two are easy to cover in one drive. So my family hopped into the car and we drove straight to San Marino. (OK, we stopped en route at Venice for a day or two.) The enclaved microstate of the “Most Serene Republic of San Marino”, says Wikipedia, “claims to be the oldest surviving sovereign state and constitutional republic in the world.” However, a Hungarian online paper recently claimed that San Marino is also the most boring place in the world. Rubbish! It’s stunningly beautiful! We drove halfway up Monte Titano and then took the aerial tramway to the top. We’d have stayed longer to enjoy the fantastic view if we hadn’t left our jumpers in the hotel. Who would have thought that while it was 35 degrees down in Ravenna, it would be 15 degrees up on the mountain – with gale force wind?
In my humble opinion, the title of the most boring place should rather go to the Principality of Monaco, the second smallest state in the world (after the Vatican). Why boring? Well, there’re two types of people there: the super-rich and the tourists gawking with cameras ready to take snapshots of a wide variety of Ferraris, Bentleys, Jags and old-timers. Or selfies in front of the cars. My wife said that Monaco is like a safari, but maybe I’m being malicious simply because I’m green with envy…
Yesterday it was like summer, today the weather has turned nasty. Autumn is hitting us with rain and cold. I’d better get prepared for the trips awaiting me come October. Stirling, Kaposvár, Minsk, Paris, says my calendar.