Cambridge First Certificate in English is an international exam open to learners of English as a foreign language. Not too long ago in Greece everyone wanted to pass this exam, or at least possess a forged certificate claiming they had. Part of the exam is an oral test, and at one time ex-pats in Greece could earn good money with the British Council in June and December doing FCE oral examining. If you were dispatched to examine in the provinces for a week or so, you could be lucky and have a good time, for along with the hourly rate there was a generous daily allowance for food, drink, mobile phone cards and what not. The nicer provincial postings, such as Samos or Crete, were reserved for seasoned examiners, and rookies would be sent to less appealing places like Agrinion, Kozani and Ptolemaida. Also, if you were very unfortunate, you might be teamed up with some of the dread Dragon Ladies, a kind of Brit Council knitting circle of ex-pat matrons who had had their feet snugly under the table of Greek FCE oral examining for years, arriving in Athens biannually by broomstick from their various Greek islands. Despite virtual tenure, they had only the haziest notion of what oral assessment entailed, as their chief purpose was to get fatter in tavernas afterwards.
Oral examining was about the most boring thing I have ever done, and I have worked at an Unemployment Benefit Office and stacked shelves at Sainsbury’s. You sat in a hotel room, and interviewed a succession of mostly teenaged candidates, using a set of pictures and pro-forma questions as prompts. I would get so bleary and punch-drunk towards the end of the day that I would often ask the last few kids the same questions over and over in the one interview. The British Council have now reduced the hours examiners may do, maybe in part because the kids complained they were being tested by rambling, glassy-eyed zombies. I think also that the Dragon Ladies have been dropped. At the last briefing session I attended at the end of the nineties, they were all having kittens at the news that lateness would no longer be tolerated, and afraid that examining might therefore eat into shoe-buying time.
‘Oh, Jesus Christ, they're sending you to Xanthi? Worst hotel in Greece, that one in Xanthi.’
The Xanthi posting was a hardship posting, a place new examiners were sent to test their mettle. In the depth of winter I left Athens and flew to Kavala, whence a taxi took me on to Xanthi and the glass-and-ticky-tacky fleabag that was the Hotel Thlipsi. It stood next to a main road, shuddering as lorries passed. The hotel was built for summer, all big windows, marble and high ceilings, but this was December in Northern Greece, where the raw cold can cut you in half. I went up to my room, showered and dressed at speed before hypothermia set in, then faffed briefly with the useless rabbit ears on top of the telly. No picture, only a blizzard on every channel.
My fellow examiners, Eva, who was Greek, and Jim, a Canadian resident in Crete, were sitting in the bar when I went down, wearing gloves and scarves and probably wishing they had brought duvets as well. Eva asked Sakis the simian barman for a tomato juice. He had never heard of it: ‘you want me to squash a tomato?’ There was no humour in this, just irritable incomprehension, which was the only emotion we were to see him evince in our ten-day stay. So we had beers just to chill us through completely, and then went out for dinner.
Breakfast at the Thlipsi was a dried-up turd of a croissant, a glass of orange squash, and tepid Nescafe. The croissants were displayed on a tray on the buffet table like the contents of a canopic jar, the insipid squash in big jugs alongside. Sakis poured left-over squash back into the jugs with no attempt to conceal the action, publicly adjusted the sit of his bollocks and sneezed over the croissants. One morning, unable to face this, I phoned reception and asked if I might have breakfast brought to my room. After an interval I answered my door to Sakis, who wordlessly thrust a tray at me and stomped off. I think I ate the croissant because I would have needed the carbs. Only now do I picture Sakis dropping it on the floor and picking it up several times on his way up the stairs, or gobbing into my coffee pot because it was the nearest handy receptacle.
After each day’s oral tests we repaired to the glacial bar, where there would be a number of parents and teachers of the kids we’d examined. A large lady in a leopard skin two-piece and much clanking dangly jewelry accosted me, and in an American accent gushed ‘are YOU Steve?!?! Oh! You SO impressed my stoodent! Do you remember Costas?’ Half the male population of Greece answers to Costas, so I had to admit I did not. It turned out that Costas was a wannabe actor, and we had digressed a while from the set questions to discuss his ambitions, which I had shared at his age. ‘Oh, he was so impressed! You are sure to get an invitation to dinner!’ I didn’t hang around in the bar, just in case this actually came to pass, but I was vain enough to feel flattered anyway. Later, when I related the incident to an old hand, he said the woman buttered up examiners like this every year, in the hope it might sway them into awarding her student higher marks. In fact, the grade was irrevocably fixed at the end of each interview, so the lady had gushed in vain for years.
The catering at the Thlipsi was not at all representative of Xanthi. Northern Greece is much better fed than central and southern Greece, in my view at least, and most evenings we dined in splendour. Only two items did not please. In one taverna I asked if they had ameletita. This means ‘not studied’ and is a quaint euphemism for testicles, which I had eaten and found surprisingly good in Kavala ten years before. (A less euphemistic term for the same part of the amimal is αρχιδάκια [archidakia] the diminutive form of the crude αρχίδια [archidia], 'bollocks', which I suppose you could translate as 'bollocklets'.) Anyway, the waiter said they had none that evening, but he would see to it that there would be some the following night. And there were. They were not like the ones I remembered from Kavala, unfortunately. Either my tastes had changed, or these were the big spongy nads of some unfortunate member of a different species. The other occasion was when Jim decided we were spending too much on food and should go down-market a bit. We ended up in a dive that turned out to be a pick-up joint for prostitutes. Ladies who could not be mistaken for other than what they were on a dark night at a hundred paces came and went with their punters. We were served a great cowpat of fava, which is a puree of yellow peas, and dish of chicken livers in a yellowish stock, each bowl resembling an unemptied chamber pot.
I was taken back to Athens by taxi. The driver was a bit worried that there was a problem with the car and said we needed to get it checked before we set off. We stopped opposite a garage in front of which three blokes were smoking and scratching their balls. ‘You got an electrician there?’ my driver called. They did not respond, but instead inspected the sky, scuffed their boots in the dust, and ostentatiously ignored us. At length one ambled over to ask what the problem was, and then tell us there was nothing they could do about it. ‘Bloody provinces’ muttered the Athenian cabbie. ‘Mam, skatá, náni*, all they know about.’
(*‘grub, crap, kip’)
That is not fair, of course. As well as the Neanderthal Sakis at the Thlipsi, I remember the cheerful waiters at the taverna we frequented and their concern for our comfort and stomachs, and their generosity with the wine. There is a very strong Turkish presence in Xanthi, and I also remember the open friendliness of the Turkish kids I interviewed, and the kind old man who showed Eva and me round a tiny mosque and gave us prayer beads as a memento of our visit. So all in all, I’m glad I went.