Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Communication Breakdown III

I'm in Athens until Saturday.

I went to see an old friend yesterday evening. Artemis is intensely verbal and intensely intense, with strong opinions on absolutely everything. Within fifteen minutes of my arrival, she had given me a précis of all the books she has on the go, some observations on Mahler’s 4th Symphony which was playing on Mezzo TV, and brought me up to date on her daughter in Holland and her ex-husband in Colombia. It was like being confined in a box-room with a hurricane, and the language circuits of my brain were blown to buggery in no time. Damn it, I'm always going to need thinking time in Greek. If only everyone here communicated exclusively by Yahoo messenger, I'd have no problems. However, that would kill the Greek conversational habit, which has rubbed off on me to a certain extent, of reliving in front of one’s interlocutor those events one is relating, one’s tone of voice, intensity of delivery and choice of language reflecting their hilarity, tragedy or capacity to infuriate. Righteous indignation is especially apt to inspire the full range of Hellenic gesture and invective. By the time Artemis had got onto the subject of immigrants, her delivery was at gale force and anyone within earshot (most of the residents of the building) who saw me enter her flat must have been thinking, Christ, she’s not half tearing strips off that poor sod. In fact, she was entertaining me most decorously to tea and excellent home-made cake and preserves.


There has always been a shortage of public information in Greece: you have to ask. Street signs, house numbers, bus timetables, announcements – they are frequently absent, out of date or otherwise not to be trusted. The new train station at Corinth has electronic departure boards and signs asking us to listen out for station announcements, but none of the boards works, there are no anouncements ever, and the clocks are permanently at 12.00. Years ago I had to go to Koropi, a small town outside Athens. After a suspiciously long ride, the bus reached a terminus by the sea. Everybody got off except me.

‘Is this Koropi?’ I asked the driver, not holding out much hope.

‘Popopopopopo!’ he said, making a circular motion with an upright palm. This is Greek for ‘you what? You’re bloody miles out.’

‘It does say Koropi on the side of the bus,’ I pointed out.

‘So it does,’ he allowed, leaning out of the window. ‘But you should always ask.’

So yesterday at the Aegaleo metro station I asked a bloke if the train now standing went to Syntagma. He seemed offended by my ignorance.

‘Can’t you read? We’re here,’ he sneered, indicating a map I couldn’t see because I was wearing the wrong specs. ‘So ‘course it goes to Syntagma.’ Then ‘you’re not Greek are you?’


‘Are you sure?”

Of course I’m fucking sure, you stupid twat.

‘You’ve got the best metro system in the world in London and you can’t work out…’

By now I’d walked to the other end of the carriage to get away from the pillock. You should always ask, indeed.


I was once asked by OUP Greece to do a seminar at a big private school in Athens. The teachers were convened in a large room when I arrived but it turned out that none of them had been informed about why they were there, or that I was coming, or who I was or what I had been invited to rabbit on about. The director of studies simply hadn’t thought it necessary to fill them in, so they had no questions prepared, no issues to discuss, no reason they could see to be present at all, and I was initially perceived as nothing more than a time-waster. The last question on our end of course questionnaires in the nineties was ‘is there anything that you think we should change?’ Course participants would frequently answer this with ‘general things’ and leave it at that. It’s not so much suspiciousness and costiveness with information as an inability to see why it is being solicited or, solicited, how it might be of use. A colleague from Athens is leaving this Friday for a near- eastern country where she is doing a seminar about… well, there’s the thing. She had compiled and sent to the convener of the group of teachers a very detailed questionnaire to ascertain the level of awareness, needs and interests of the participants:

‘What kind of training have participants had? Please tick: Introductory methodology, publishers' seminars, TKT, CELTA, ICELT, DELTA, Trinity Certificate, Trinity Diploma, MA Applied Linguistics, MA TEFL...’

It should be obvious to someone experienced in the business of teaching communication that some pretty detailed info is being requested here, but the convener replied simply, uselessly, ‘mixed.’ To the question as to what content the teachers would most like in the seminar, the answer was ‘something about English language teaching methodology.’ It’s as if a chef had been invited to present ‘something to do with cooking.’

Why? Why this infuriating vagueness? Why did my Saudi and Libyan MA in TEFL teachers present me with lesson plans so non-committal and vague that they were completely opaque as to what the teacher was proposing to teach, and how or why? I suspect that it’s because people in this part of the world (Greece, Turkey, Near East and Middle East) simultaneously revere and ignore teachers. They are seen as, well, august windbags, people with degrees and doctorates in whose presence one is lucky to have dozed, whose signature on a certificate one may show off to one’s employers, and it really doesn’t matter a fart what they actually said. To be fair, many a teacher round these parts entirely lacks a sense of audience - give him (especially if it's a him) a platform, and he won't know when to stop pontificating. Those of us who do not lecture at people, but encourage participation and exchange, get so dispirited by students who expect to creep into the back row and snooze for an hour or so. It’s amazing how seminar participants here can be most deeply impressed by those seminar leaders whose lectures go right over their heads.

Works both ways, though. If you want to get a teaching contract with a company out here, interlard your proposal with abstruse terminology, e-mail your inscrutable attachment to the managing director and wait for the offer. A Greek man can’t admit to anybody that he hasn’t got a bloody clue what you are on about, and he’ll have to conclude that you must be quite the pointy-headed brainiac, so you’re in.

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