Thursday, August 31, 2006
Blogger or something else?
Wednesday, August 30, 2006
The end of an era
It's back to the park for me with the winos and junkies who seems to have an strange affinity for wifi hotspots. Now that's an interesting demographic overlap.
A bit of light reading
The summer is coming to an end and I suppose in a sense that it has been productive as I had the chance to do something other than think about about work. One of the best things was having the time and energy to do some reading. Usually, during the winter I don’t have the time or appetite for literature. Anyway, I have read over the last few months;
Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner
The World is Flat by Thomas L. Friedman
Little Children by Tom Perrotta
War Reporting for Cowards by Chris Ayres
Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
Radical Chic, Mau Mauing the Flak Catchers by Tom Wolfe
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Samurai Williams by Giles Milton
Bloody Foreigners by Robert Winder
Tourism by Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal
Going to Wars by Max Hastings
Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
The Writer and the World - Essays by V.S. Naipul
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka
Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan
I also I had time to listen to the following audio books.
A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Infection by Scott Sigler
Neuromancer by William Gibson
Get in touch with your inner weirdness
I saw this meme over at Devious Diva's blog decided to add my own answers.
Ten things I've done that you probably haven't:
1: Taught myself to read and write modern Greek
2: Once helped fight a forest fire.
3: Drove from Athens to Rome on a Vespa.
4: Hitch-hiked 8000 km in five weeks.
5: Lived out of a one suitcase for a year.
6: Saw inside my own heart, live.
7: Was interviewed on Italian TV.
8: Was once held by Czech soldiers in Vaclav Havel's back garden.
9: Spent my first term away from home as a university student on crutches (as I had had a motorbike accident one week before term started).
10: Took my driving test in a foreign language.
Feel free to pick this up … It's amazing to read what wierd and wonderful things people have done in their lives.
Monday, August 28, 2006
Back to work
Blogging: EFL writing in the twenty-first century
Sunday, August 27, 2006
Shipbuilding by Elvis Costello
Somebody has gone to great lengths to create a video based on this Elvis Costello song. The results are stunning, if harrowing at times. Be warned.
The song was originally written in response to the Falklands (Malvinas) war between Britain and Argentina in 1982.
"Is it worth it?
A new winter coat and shoes for the wife
And a bicycle on the boy's birthday
It's just a rumour that was spread around town
By the women and children
Soon we'll be shipbuilding.......
Well I ask you
The boy said "Dad they're going to take me to task, but I'll be back by Christmas"
It's just a rumour that was spread around town
Somebody said that someone got filled in
For saying that people get killed in
The result of this shipbuilding
With all the will in the world
Diving for dear life
When we could be diving for pearls
It's just a rumour that was spread around town
A telegram or a picture postcard
Within weeks they'll be re-opening the shipyards
And notifying the next of kin
It's all we're skilled in
We will be shipbuilding........
With all the will in the world
Diving for dear life
When we could be diving for pearls".
However, what I found a little depressing was the selection of materials books on offer at the fair. It seems that at advanced levels teaching English seems to be little more than going through endless past papers or mock exams. Now that the number of examinations recognised by the Greek state has increased dramatically so have the number of books with practice papers. Of course, while students need to feel comfortable with the format of the examination they are going to take, doing a years worth of exam practice is not my idea of teaching. Not only is it deadly boring for student and teacher alike, it is also a very inefficient way of developing the skills that are required.
It seems to me most schools are falling victim to the English teaching's version of the Gambler's Fallacy. The basic idea is that if you throw a coin, for example, and have three heads in a row then the chances of throwing another head are 0.5x0.5x0.5x0.5= .0.0625 or one in sixteen, if you hate maths. The real answer is that the odds of throwing a head on the fourth throw are still one in two.
Well, it seems that schools here think that if you do ten past papers then the odds of doing well in the real exam are greatly increased. The problem is that the exams are never the same, the format may remain the same but the actual question are always different. The publishers are pandering to these prejudices and so produce stuff that has little or no educational value. The books are the educational equivalent of junk food; colourful, "filling" (i.e. hundreds of pages of exercises) and full of crap.
Then again, if the language schools wanted better material, the publishers would provide it.
Going to the seaside was never like this when I was a kid
I finally remembered to bring my digital camera with me when I drink coffee at Starbucks on Nikis St. I know I moan a lot about the place but it is the best wifi hotspot in the city and it has a great view of the sea and it's own built-in air conditioning. The breeze coming off the sea is better than any climate controlled environment.
Friday, August 25, 2006
And the Forrest Gump Business School award
for management excellence goes to.... (drum roll please, while I fumble with the envelope) Forthnet Hotspots.
For three euros an hour you have the privilege of using a Forthnet wifi connection whilst drinking your super priced coffee at Starbucks in Thessaloniki. Alternatively, you could go to an internet cafe and pay 1.5 to 2 euros and, hell, they'll even let you use one of their own PCs.
Imagine if you applied this kind of logic to the restaurant trade ? We will let you use our kitchen facilities but charge double the price of the place next door, even though they actually provide and cook the food for you.
If you read Greek, try taking part in their survey, it's on the left hand side of the page and basically asks you if you think their ADSL service is reasonably priced. I did so and the results say that over 80% of participants think that Forthnet is either extremely expensive or over-priced considering local wages. You'd think that Forthnet would get the message, wouldn't you? Still, their wifi access charges haven't changed in nearly two years, despite a general drop in broadband costs. By the way, I've yet to see anyone use these facilities in Starbucks or anywhere else.
NB If you want to get on the internet in the Starbucks on Nikis St, Thessaloniki, just sit outside and use the free connection that's available in the area.
Run, Forrest, run!!!!
Kalo Heimona (or Good Winter)
After 15th August people start saying "kalo heimona" or "have a good winter" which is a little strange to say the least when the temperature is in the mid 30s C and you are swimming in the sea trying to escape the heat.
As the month draws to a close I have to think about what I'm going to do over the winter months and more importantly, where the money is going to come from. This is the time of year when I have to figure out how much time I want to work in the school and what is going to happen as far as private lessons are concerned. Unfortunately, there is no way you can predict what's going to happen and so planning is next to impossible.
Most of the private lessons come through word of mouth and recommendations from the parents/students I have taught previously. Luckily, I have a good reputation and so I don't have to do much searching. Still, you worry about how you are going to pay the bills in the following months.
So I'm going to keep my fingers crossed and hope for the best. It's still a bit early for people to think about starting lessons, usually that happens in September after the schools start.
Thursday, August 24, 2006
forest fires in Greece
I'm reading more and more about what happened in Κassandra, Halkidiki in the Greek and foreign press. The strange thing was that I was just 20km away from where all this was happening and had no idea about how serious it was. Of course, we heard about what was happening on the radio but it didn't seem that urgent. It was only when I saw the news footage on TV last night that I got a sense of the scale of the disaster. The problem is that the TV stations treat even minor events as if they were the end of life on earth, and so you tend to ignore much of what they say as ratings-induced hysteria. For once they turned out to be telling the truth.
Still, forest fires are extremely scary as I saw for myself in 1996 when I volunteered to help fight the fire in Seix Sou (the woods that surrounded the northern part of Thessaloniki). The thing you don't really appreciate is how quickly this mass of flames can move. I remember being almost cut off by the fire as it had changed direction so quickly that we had literally seconds to get out of the place. It was only be running like crazy with the others that we avoided getting into real trouble.
Back in the city
I heard from other campers there that the neighbouring area had been badly damaged by a forest fire, (see here for the story) and it's a shame that so much of the countryside has been destroyed. However, all we saw of it was smoke blowing over from the west.
The problem is that at this time of year Greek forests are like a tinder box, very dry and subject to strong, dry winds.In such circumstances it doesn't take much to start a serious fire. In most situations like this people suspect arson as once the forests have been burnt down the land can be used to build holiday homes. However, given people's love of barbecues and cigarettes, carelessness on the part of some visitor is an equally likely explanation.
Tuesday, August 15, 2006
On the Beach
Not literally, unfortunately, commitments have kept me in the city. However, I was thinking of the movie of the same name and especially the final scenes where the streets of Sidney are uncannily empty.
Most of the people here in the neighbourhood have fled the city for the nearest beaches or else to visit family in their village of origin, leaving the place with a very eerie feel. Today everyone is celebrating The feast of the Assumption, at least that what I think it is in English, which is also a national holiday.
Even here in the centre there is a strange absence of crowds. It is almost as if someone has dropped a weird variation on the neutron bomb which has wiped out the local population, leaving behind just tourists.
In the past the city was like this for the whole of August, virtually every shop, cafe, bar etc, shut up and the owners and employees went off to the beach for the best part of the month. The only people left were parties of bemused foreign tourists wandering around aimlessly trying to figure out where everyone had disappeared to.
Monday, August 14, 2006
Clash of the Titans
Me and Mr Megaphone just went head to head again. I swear the guy cannot speak at anything less than 100 decibels. There he was in his yard screaming his head off on his mobile phone,
Hey, moron - Newsflash - it's a phone you don't neeed to shout at them!
He went absolutely mental, theatening to tear my head off and the like, whilst I said that I was calling the police, all manner of choice Greek insults being employed by both sides. I tell you, my Greek is never as fluent or colloquial as when I'm angry.
I'm off to the town council on Wednesday to report the a##hole for the chickens, geese, dogs etc that he keeps illegally.
It must be my lucky day
I just got this in my inbox,
COCA-COLA ONLINE PROMOTIONS!!!
THE COCA COLA COMPANY Hong Kong office is Giving Away 1 cars For "FREE"!! And cash bonus of $800,000.00
The Company is trying e-mail to e-mail advertising to introduce its products.
The reward you received for advertising for them is a Mercedes-Benz, ML class jeep convertible free of cost! Including cash prize of $800,000,00
To receive your free car all you need to do is send us your
1. Full name
2. Address / contact number
3. Country of origin
Within 1 month you will receive a free car. a draw has just been concluded in Hong Kong last weekend
(we contacted you via your email address).
You must send your contact information to,
email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Sales /Marketing Manager
coca cola Asia
Here's my reply
"Mr Ioannnis Florakos
The Economic Crime Unit (northern Greece)
Vasilisis Olgas St 188
0030 2310 403170
We will be getting in touch very soon."
When I was 20 Big Black was about the best band on the planet as far I was concerned. I couldn't believe that three nerdy guys could make so much noise. This was recorded in 1987 in London, just before they broke up. You've just got to love YouTube.
I'm back at Starbucks this time I think I ordered a white mocca chocolate something. I'm not sure what it is exactly but it tastes delicious. I read somewhere (in Freakonomics, I think) that there are literally thousands of ways you can order your coffee in a Starbucks. This is a huge step up from the way things used to be when I first came to Thessaloniki in 19.... well, lets just say it was AD.
In those days there were basically two choices to be had in virtually any cafe you went to. In winter it was either Greek coffee or Nescafe instant coffee. Whereas in summer you had a choice of either Greek coffee or Frappe (Nescafe instant coffee served ice cold).
For those wanting to live on the wild side you could, if you searched hard enough, find a place that served filter coffee; the height of urban sophistication. Then again, this was an era when spaghetti Bolognese was considered the last word in culinary adventurousness.
Still, the gorgeous view hasn't changed. As blogging spots go this has to be one of the nicest. I'm outside on the pavement watching the sun reflected off the Aegean which is about 15 metres away.
As it is a public holiday most of the inhabitants of the city have headed out of town to spend the long weekend on the beach, which is why I'm still here. I'll go when things have calmed down a bit.
Sunday, August 13, 2006
A small taste of Gulag Orkestar by Beirut
Going global with Starbucks
Starbucks has opened a second cafe here in Thessaloniki, on the seafront, near the White Tower, so I thought I too would fork a small fortune to drink coffee. Also I thought I'd try out my ibook to see if there was a wi-fi hotspot. And as you can see, yes there is (though it's not theirs). Now all we need is 200 - odd days of rain and I can pretend I'm in Seattle. Alas, the weather has remained stubbornly warm and the sun is out, so there goes that fantasy.
Actually, this is one of the tech-geeky fantasies I have wanted to indulge for a long time, you know, the one in which you sit in a comfortable, air-conditioned cafe (as opposed to squatting in the park with the junkies), sipping your double latte, whatdidjamacallit while effortlessly surfing the net on your laptop.
Still haven't figured out the ordering part yet. I asked for what I thought was a large filter coffee and got a pint of cappuccino instead.
Friday, August 11, 2006
I finally got the chance to do some shopping in the centre, having found someone to babysit Lydia for a few hours. So after getting what I wanted, basically the ingredients for an Indian meal from Kosmas, I decided to grab a beer and a toasted sandwich from Navarino Square.
After watching the junkies book return tickets to Happyville with their "travel agents" for a while I decided to do a bit of window shopping on Tsimiski St. There I bumped into one of the students I taught last year and he told me that he and the others have passed their CAE exam. That's really great news as they all worked very hard and when I saw them just after the test they were all looking very down in the mouth, convinced that they had failed.
Of course I can't take credit for their success as I wasn't their only teacher and, as I said before, they made an enormous effort to make the grade. I'll just bask in the reflected glory. LOL
Spreading the word
The summer holidays are drawing to an end and I suppose that I'll have to start thinking about school again. The good news is that I'll get to try out the ideas I've picked up from the internet in the classroom. Also I get the chance to refine and improve upon some of the materials I've been blogging about over the last year. I think that mobile phones are going to enormously helpful to me in the following years.
On the other hand the old battles over access to the internet at shool and the endless debates over whether the internet is anything other than a modish fad will continue to take up my time just as before. Still, the best way to persuade doubters is to just go ahead and do this stufff anyway and let the results speak for themselves.
I think I'm slowly winning the battle for acceptance of these ideas in students' minds, now all I have to do is convince parents and fellow teachers
Wednesday, August 09, 2006
On eloquent discourse in the modern age
Mr Megaphone is on holiday which mean he is free to rant at his family from morning to night. An example of the rich bounty that issues from his lips (freely translated from the original Greek).
Mr Megaphone - When are going to f##king finish painting the wall?
Megaphone junior - I'm f##king doing it, damn it.
Mr Megaphone -Well, the missed a f##king bit, you stupid a##hole. Can't you do anything right, lazy a##hole?
Megaphone junior - What bit? I f##king painted everything.
Mrs Megaphone - Damn it, why the f##k is everyone shouting ?
Mr Megaphone - How come he can't do one stupid, damn thing right? Moron.
And so on and so forth at full volume so that the whole neighbourhood gets to share in the experience. The language of Socrates, Plato and Seferis lies safe in their hands.
I'd like to offer Mr Megaphone another tip. As a bone fide representative of the master race ( in addition to being a orator of note he is an out - and - out racist), you really need to get a better job than pizza delivery boy.
Yet more pictures
A few photos from the party
The party went off well, and as you can see there was a much better turn out than I had expected (usually, most people are not in the city at this time of the year). The kids also enjoyed themselves, eating e numbers, and anything with sugar in it. I'd like to say thanks to Lambrini for making a delicious cheese cake and everyone else for turning up. Lydia and I had a wonderful time.
All I have to do now is clean up. Yikes!!!!
Tuesday, August 08, 2006
I'd forgotten how much of a hassle organising a kid's party was. I'm whizzing around the city shopping for crisps, soft drinks, pop corn, plastic cups, frozen pizza and the like. So much for the healthy eating I was talking about earlier. When it comes to parties then what Lydia and her friends really need are E numbers, anything with a list of additives shorter than the Yellow Pages is simply not on. Forget Jamie Oliver's delicately flvoured Thai dishes with fresh salad and balsamic vinegar dressing, they want SALT and SUGAR in massive doses. Never get between a junkie and their next hit. LOL.
Monday, August 07, 2006
Do you want to party!!!
Thanks, I don't mind if I do. Another little difference that took me by surprise here in Greece was the way people celebrate their kid's birthday. I remember the first birthday party I was invited to years ago. Thinking that the guest of honour was just five years old I took it for granted that there wouldn't be much of a dress code. Imagine my surprise when everyone there was dressed up as if they were going to a job interview. I realised from the hostess's slightly aghast look that jeans and a t-shirt were not what was expected of me.
Everyone sat around sipping their coffee or fruit juice making polite small talk whilst explaining in mind - numbing detail to anyone who would listen the latest achievements of little Kostas or Maria. Not being a parent myself at the time it seemed like I had been assigned to one of the milder circles of Hell.
Sartre was wrong, Hell is not other people, it's other people's kids. LOL.
Anyhow, Lydia's party is not going to be anything of the sort. It's just pizza, cola, crisps and beer (for the grown - ups, may I hasten to add). The party will be tomorrow at 8pm - ish and if you want to come send me an email and I'll let you know where we are and how to get here
Dress: Well, wear something at least, it's a conservative neighbourhood
Attitude: Anything, short of Mel Gibson - style antics, will be fine.
Presents: Lydia is particularly fond of Amstel and fine single malt whisky. Just kidding, come as you are.
We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto
Sometimes it's the little things that bring home to you the fact that you're living a completely different life when you live abroad. For instance, I asked my daughter what she wanted to have when I took her out to eat. As quick as a flash she replied, "octopus and fish (meaning grilled sardines)".
I just try to imagine my seven - year old self saying such a thing. No, it just doesn't come. Fish fingers were about as exotic as it got.
Sunday, August 06, 2006
Well, the place does seem like a nut house at times, so there is a kind of logic to this.
"what kind of difficulties do efl/esl students come across?"
Lack of focus, especially when formulating questions, perhaps?
"tourists bitten by snakes in corfu"
Hey, that's not my fault. I've never even been there.
We're definitely not a fussy eater, are we.
Happy birthday Lydia
It's Lydia's birthday today and now she is the grand old age of seven (although she insists that while she is seven in English, she's eight in Greek - they count age differently in Greek). It's scary how quickly the years pass. It seems like only yesterday that I was holding this tiny doll - like creature in my arms at the maternity hospital. And there she is now, tall, smart and confident, soon to enter her second year of primary school.
There is a scene in Lost in Translation in which Bob, an older, jaded Hollywood actor is explaining to Charlotte, a twenty - something would-be photographer about being a parent,
BOB - It's the most terrifying day of your lifeWhich just about sums up what being a parent feels like.
the day the first one is born.
CHARLOTTE - Yeah. Nobody ever tells you that.
BOB - Your life,
as you know it,
Never to return.
But they learn how to walk,
and they learn how to talk, and...
and you want to be with them.
And they turn out to be the most...
you will ever meet in your life.
Friday, August 04, 2006
I read today in the BBC website that 54% of Britons want to move abroad. I just wonder how many of those people have actually considered what such a move would involve? I remember seeing programmes on British TV about couples and families seeking the good life in a foreign country. What struck me most was how little they had thought through their decision.
It was if they were an eight-year old talking about running away to join the circus, or a teenager saying that they were off to Hollywood to become a movie star. The mundanities of everyday life such as getting a job (without knowing the language,?), their children's education, etc seemed to be distant abstractions.
Speaking from personal experience, I would say that it takes a particularly tough - minded kind of person to live outside their own culture/language/country.
The 1-2-3-4 recipe
Lydia has been asking if we could make halvas for the last couple of days and today we finally got round to doing it. I call it the 1-2-3-4 recipe as you need,
1 cup of olive oil
2 cups of semolina
3 cups of sugar
4 cups of water
and a tablespoon of cinnamon
Combine the sugar with water and bring it to a boil. Add the cinnamon. At the same time, brown the semolina in the oil on high heat, constantly stirring. When the semolina is a golden brown, add the syrup, turn down heat and keep stirring until you get a kind of thick mixture. Pour into mould.
Now, if I can just get her interested in doing the washing - up, then the day is complete. LOL.
Sanity? Who needs it ?
I haven't been there for at last five years and I was pleasantly surprised by the makeover the place has had, walking around the marina and the immaculately kept grounds of the hotel you could easily imagine that you were in some swanky resort in the south of France.
Alas, today it's back to the sounds of the city. Like I said, sanity, who needs it?
Thursday, August 03, 2006
Going out on a limb
Ok, what I'm about to say may sound strange, even heretical to some teachers but I believe it to be true. Within the next couple of years the most important thing a student will need to bring into the classroom (pen and paper aside) will not be their text book but rather their mobile phone!
To more traditionally minded teachers, who make up the vast majority of educators here in Greece, such an idea is just plain crazy. How could a phone possibly replace a well-crafted and thought-out book? What could our students possibly learn from a mobile except for linguistically stunted text messaging of the kind, "m8 u at skl."?
I argue my case based on two main ideas.
Text books are rubbish
1 Most of the books I use, at least at more advanced levels, are dire in the sense that they are designed to appeal to educators' pre-existing prejudices (grammar - good, activities suspect etc. etc.) rather than incorporating the latest advances in learning theory.
2 As they are written for a global market the subject matter is designed not to offend anyone. Not a bad thing in itself. However, the result is material that is tedious in the extreme and usually lacking in any kind of interest to my students, who, believe it or not, are not interested in bee keeping Shropshire or the state of national parks in Bolivia.
3 On purely linguistic grounds, such books assume that all foreign learners of English face exactly the same linguistic challenges when preparing for exams such as CPE or ECPE. This is ridiculous as each L1 (mother tongue) has its own differences to English and produces its own difficulties for a person learning, not to mention individual needs.
4 Text books focus disproportionately on the written rather than the spoken word. It's cheaper to produce a book with lots of vocabulary exercises than one rich in audio or visual material. The problem is that exams test all the different skills (listening, speaking, reading etc.) . As a result you have a course book that spends 80% of its time preparing students for just 40% of the exam.
Mobile phones are wicked
So what can a mobile phone offer us that a text book can't?
The latest generation of mobile phone incorporate mp3 players, audio and video recording capability, a camera and most importantly compatibility with a PC as standard. This mean that they can be used in literally hundreds of different ways in the classroom. More importantly this technology offers students the possibility of creating their own material and practicing language skills in ways that are far more interesting
These are all ideas that I have used successfully with my students over the last year.
1 Use your mobile phone to take five photos from your everyday routine. Write a short description of each and post it on your blog.
2 Use your mobile phone to listen to the latest audio book chapter (in mp3 format) I gave you and write a summary.
3 Do the listening exercise in the book, then use the transcript at the back to say it yourself. Repeat this till you are happy with your performance.
4 Get somebody to video you and your friend doing the FCE interview. Listen to it and transcribe what you said. What mistakes are you making ? What can you do to improve your exam performance ?
5 Download a four minute CNN podcast , listen to it and tell your partner the main ideas
6 Listen to a speech from American Rhetoric, use the transcript to perform it yourself. Try to sound as much like the actor as possible.
7 Students create their own 30 second TV spot. They then post it on YouTube
8 Students create their own CNN podcast.
9 Students create their own music video using Windows Movie maker. Students post it on YouTube.
10 Students take five random pictures of their neighbourhood and write a story that incorporates all of them. Post it on your blog.
Of course, other skills such as reading and writing are not really covered in such exercises, but there are many other sources of up-to-date material on the net which are students will find relevant to their lives.
Wednesday, August 02, 2006
Sea or mountain
So here is my dilemma Me and Lydia can either spend our next break on Mt Olympus camping next to stream with friends or spend it on the beach back in Platinitsi. Both choices are wonderful and I'm not sure what to do. Decisions, decisions.