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Monday, May 21, 2012

Evelyn's travel review

Time before and after Comenius  project meetings has always given more work chores because some lessons need to be given beforehand and some afterwards, in addition to preparing independent tasks, creating the presentation, rehearsing it together with students and so on. It was similar to that again before going to Sicily. On Monday I left work at 5.30pm knowing that the night would be spent very much on school work. So the trip to Sicily seemed like a surreal event far away in the future. When it was 2am, I decided to show some character and leave marking the rest of the students' tests for future. I could also postpone packing my suitcase for a few hours more and went to sleep. 

Tuesday, 6.15am. Rise and shine. Now it was time to switch myself off for next 5 days and concentrate on the trip. I was excited mostly because of my students rather than myself, knowing how many times  such new (travel) experiences have given more confidence for young people. To see and sense the world in its different colours and faces, to notice the differences and similarities in order to understand and appreciate your own home, own culture, opportunities and personality more. By encouraging students to make smaller or bigger steps to overcome their fears, we, teachers get a sort of feedback from it which shows that at least once in a while we do the right thing. How often can we sense that we make a difference in a young person's life while we are standing in front of the whole classroom? For that reason Comenius project has always  made  sense to me. 

Most of all I was excited for a student in my own class - Marten, who has been one of the most enthusiastic members in our Comenius team throughout the first project year. It would have been very disappointing if the trip he had been waiting for so much, had totally failed and had been utterly boring. At Sicily's case that was too false to expect. 

I tried not to create any personal expectations about the trip, which is something I am normally very good at because when I travel my internal anxiety tends to grow as if a voice behind my neck told me "Be active, wake up early, go to bed late, try to see as much as possible even in short period of time - perhaps you never have a chance to see that place or country again", instead of choosing to sit still without rush or bitter regrets. True, I was excited about the potential hiking at Etna, but as Katre and I didn't manage to find enough relevant information beforehand and as we couldn't be too sure either we or the students have enough stamina to walk all the way up, or whether we'd be lucky with the weather and Etna's mood, I tried to be ready for all outcomes and not to be disappointed when seeing Etna would have happened only by the act of purchasing a tourist postcard. 

So due to the lack of time and me being quite tired by the end of this school-year, I didn't manage to over-organize the trip with all "possibly needed" quantities of information and scenarios. I hadn't browsed through websites to find exact sums of bus tickets, the distances between point A and B, I hadn't printed out pages with information about the local sights .... As to kill the curiousity of the students, I answered in such style "I don't know exactly. Let's see what happens, I'm sure we'll manage somehow." Or as an Indian man said in a movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in India:  "Everything will be alright in the end and if it's not alright now, it means it's not the end yet." More reference to Indians in a minute. After all, we couldn't have used all the information anyway, because the Etna bus departed when it wanted, but not when it was scheduled to, the distance from the railway station to the hostel was far longer than the owner had advertised in his email and so on. :-) However, at the beginning of our trip I felt that the misfortune we had at the airport was the result of my poor preparation, but then I realised I had told the students and teachers about the luggage requirements and it didn't make sense to cry over spilled milk any longer. After all, no matter how well you plan a trip, a good journey always has surprises on its sleeve.  

Catania Airport was about the same size as Tallinn´s, the towns being similar in size, too. I could sense the different temperament of the Sicilians already on the airport bus - I gave quite an effort not to fall over on the bus floor due to its frequent unexpected braking. Speaking about the same bus line, the next day though, another memory comes alive. All seats were taken when a couple of Indian origin got on, the man having a small baby sleeping heavenly on his shoulder. Without thinking twice I stood up and offered him my seat. He looked at me with an amazement and didn't dare to sit. I told him in English in a quite imperative tone: "I insist, you must sit. It is dangerous to stand with such a small baby." He looked at me again, his eyes full of surprise, gave me a shy smile at last and sat. His wife at the same time gave me the warmest eye contact and sweetest smile I have received from anybody in past years. We shouldn't underestimate the impact of noticing people around us. 

The journey from the airport to the town centre gave quite a gloomy scenery at first: old abandoned industrial buildings, army barrack walls topped with barbed wire (or was it a prison?). Eventually houses with balconies, flowers, palm trees came to sight and I was slowly bewitched by the charm of  such Southern regions where decadent-romantic scenery is abundant. Would I like to permanently live in one of those houses? Honestly, hell no, I'd  start yearning for often-hated Estonia's four seasons, its nature, and to be honest, the loud extrovert side of most Sicilian people and everybody's huge need to communicate all the time would eventually make me dial 911. Despite knowing it, the temptation to prove myself wrong always becomes live in such regions. So, by looking at the old balconies, my yearn to stop the clock and my own aging,  grew bigger and bigger, forcing me lazily and slowly start my day by wringing my hands on a sunny morning on one of those balconies where plaster is gnawing away from the walls and the rusty barrier tells its own history. On that occasion I'd drink my coffee sip by sip and kill my whole day valuably by talking about the world matters, passionately arguing so that white becomes black if needed,  instead of doing the household chores and dashing around all day. 
 The distance from the train station to our hostel was about 2 kilometres, but as we had to juggle with our suitcases on an uneven paths, at the same time trying not to get run over by temperamental Italian drivers and trying to avoid stepping into dogs' poo, we felt our walk was a true pre-Etna test marathon. Luckily our travelling group helped each other when somebody's shoulder needed a rest or hand calloused from pulling heavy suitcases and carrying bags. By the road there were two chocolate-tanned vendors selling strawberries and cherries. We bought the whole tray of strawberries. To me it seemed to be a sign from destiny, so I offered them a package of Estonian sweets, assuming after their long day in the street, there must have been raisen-eyed bambinos and bambinas waiting for their fathers and perhaps they appreciated a surprise in the form of Estonian sweets.
Regardless our pretty low energy level, Catania lured with its smells and warm air, and we decided not to call it a night yet and went for a stroll, ignoring that Sara had advised us not to. However, we took a precaution measures for an account and made our female students change their shorts for long trousers and  told them to avoid eye contact with local men. The girls took our advice and so we were sitting in a cafe at Piazza Duomo without problems, enjoying ourselves by eating some snacks and drinking cappuccino. We witnessed how in front of our own eyes how more litter was thrown on the square when the hour went by. Back in the hostel teachers stayed up for a while chatting and laughing at rather personal and peculiar matters. 

On Wednesday we started our day at 6am. At 8.15 Etna bus was suppoused to depart and by missing the bus we would have missed also 2 valuable hours at Etna. So we found ourselves galloping again on Emmanuelle Street, making short stops only to take snapshots or give a glimpse at a local fish market. From town centre to Rifugio Sapienza, which is 2,000 metres above sea, it was 40km by road but considering the traffic and curvy roads it took 2 hours for the bus to reach our destination. Katre suggested to take the first 500 metres by cable car in order to save more time and energy for higher areas and for descending.  We couldn't forget the fact we had to be back exactly by 4.30pm. The views were stunning - I could see and sense the massive power of our nature everywhere. Petrified heaps of lava were a few metres high at times - it looked as if an Estonian epic giant Kalevipoeg had cultivated the earth in his rage. To see people's houses and tourism centres being built so near to craters was rather scary to me. I was thinking, what a courage those local people must have! The first steps we made after we had reached 2,500m by the cable car were rather difficult, but then I got used to it and the rest of the walk was very pleasant. Our walk offered plenty of great views, thrill, different colours and surface. I was surprised by the way students put up with the walk, how everybody's sense of humour and positive attitude didn't vanish by the evening. I couldn't wish to have better companions. Together with Marten and Hans I went to the bottom of the crater that had last erupted in 2001. It was something people are advised not to do, but as there were footprints of lots of people who had walked there and no signs of smoke yet, we dared to do it. My heart missed a few beats. Nothing got to do with going to the crater,  though. It was then when we were sliding down the snow. Marten and Hans were quite ahead of the rest of the group. When the snowy patch finished, they kept running on until I noticed Hans stopped and Marten was out of sight. I yelled:              "Maaarrrrtttteeeennnn!" Hans looked at me without understanding why I had shouted. Marten disappeared because he had fallen but luckily it happened on an even ground, not in a deep hole and without getting hurt. 
  Before getting on that Etna bus again, we could rest our legs in a cafe at Rifugio Sapienza. How tired I felt out of a  sudden!  After I had washed my face and hands I had to admit I had never seen such a dirty sink before, even if I had harvested potatoes on a very dirty field for the whole day. Later, I came to life when we had reached almost the centre of Catania and we could see the true essence of the local traffic - scooters maneuvered so closely through cars and buses, some drivers left their cars in the middle of the street and went to a shop, others waiting and tooting a horn. Cars seemed to stop in front of pedestrians at the very last minute. Katre characterised it with a word "jambolaya“ and it was just like that. 

From 7 to 11 in the evening we spent at the airport waiting for the Turkish and Spanish group  until we were transferred to Augusta. Our boys' anxiety grew and so was mine when I started to feel perhaps the challenge to stay in a host family was too huge for them. I was joking and told Marten: "If your family turns out to be cannibals, send me SMS even at 2 am and I'll come to rescue you."Of course it was not necessary as the families were without exception very caring and friendly. On our way to Augusta I noticed going through long tunnels. Our bus driver who seemingly had exceeded his middle age, played very loud underground dance music. Considering the hour at night and our level of  exhaustion, the scene seemed more and more comic. As I didn't manage to talk Edda and Katre into going to a local discoteque, I followed them to our hotel and got about  five hours of sleep.
Teachers were accommodated in the old town, a ten-minute-walk from the school. It was a very old building, but its interior expressed very little of its old history. In the middle of the room there was a cupboard which turned out to be a kitchen when we had opened its doors.

On Thursday morning we decided to sleep longer and skip breakfast. It was a mistake as we felt unwell till we were given lunch. Our presentation went well. The other presentations were interesting too. Most of all I remember the humourously "scary" video shown by the Turkish group, slideshow of photos with water animals and plants which was presented by Italians and how Spanish team presented life in the Bellele River. Their works always have impressed me by showing a good  cooperation between chemistry and biology teachers and students.

Excursion to ex-salterns in Augusta started off with a slight disappointment because besides seeing a few interesting plants, I couldn't understand at first why we had been taken there and why such area, covered with motor tracks and rubbish, was declared to be protected as a nature reserve. So instead of carefully listening to student-guides I found myself thinking about our guide Luka/Luca. It always entertains me in a way to create an impression of a person on the first meeting and to kill that impression later by getting to know him/her. Or even when I really tried to concentrate on what the guides were talking about, I was still distracted by their nice facial characteristics or flawless skin. Nevertheless  the more we were there, the more interesting the area turned out to be. Fat frogs were croaking in the pond, their double chins flickering; unknown birds were singing and Mediterranean  sun caressing our untanned skin.  Then I started to smell different plants: subtly, modestly, but when we had reached the orange tree plantation, the scent  became strong and dominant killing all previous odours. I fully understood students who rushed under the trees to find an orange and taste one. I had a kind of adrenaline rush too. At last the reminder about harsh local farmers and their weapons brought students back to our walking route. Every hike has its surprises, so did ours. The cliff had a hole which took us to see ancient catacombs. I realised that strangely several sights which had history more than 2,000 years were quite grown in, little acknowledged by locals and foreigners. From one side I took it as a privilege to see a sight where tourist crowds had not left many footprints yet, but on the other hand they seemed too neglected and their value underestimated.
During the day I'd had several chances to talk to an English teacher Louisa who seemed to be a very extrovert and interesting character. Later at dinner she impressed me more with her outgoing personality. Probably me and her would never manage to establish a close friendship, but I liked her a lot. What an impressive gestures, sense of humour, ability to laugh about herself, style .... What a psychological puzzle! Can the first impression tell what the person truely is like or it's just a mere  illusion? The Italian (Sicilian) women gave every reason to talk more about them, but I'll just add a few more observation notes. I noticed they behaved differently when being among themselves and when with husbands. Their expressive way of talking was still there, but by sitting beside a husband it was more timid, respectful, charming. I think Italian men in general have to be strong to tame them. :-)  I also enjoyed seeing how teenage girls wore 15-cm heeled shoes and how they were dressed up when they were hanging out at midnight. I do not suggest all 14-year olds should do that, but in all respect, the Italian girls in general had grace and style and confidence. I also sensed alcohol didn't play that important role among teenagers as it still does in Estonia. At least such impression I got while I found myself sitting at the main square and watching local young people having a good time.

More important than the taste of a particular dish, the whole eating process mattered, where people enjoy the food, eat slowly, chat at the same time, laugh. I couldn't help picturing what I sometimes see in Estonian restaurants and pubs: people eating in a rush, sitting almost silently and being fidgety when they have to wait for the food more than 10 minutes. Yes, Estonians aren't food-centered nation and don't have to become as one, but we could still learn how to take time to enjoy without rushing. Therefore lunches and dinners in Sicily were my kind of thing. I liked our lunches and dinners even so much, that on Friday when we enjoyed the chat and food in the restaurant and didn't notice how the others had left, we stood up at last and started walking to the hotel to get changed for a walk in the nature. On the way I received a phone call: "Teacher Evelyn, you forgot to pay for the restaurant." Marten's voice was very serious. The most I enjoyed Saturday's lunch in Siracusa where we had octopus and squid and fish as for a starter, then antipasta (spaghetti with capers, raisens and pinia seeds), grilled swordfish with watercress and a cannoli for dessert.

We didn't see the whole school building as it was too big and had different sections, but it was enough to tell the interior was much better than it seemed outside. Classrooms were quite empty though, blinders were on windows to get protection from the hot sun. We learned that students go to school 6 days a week and that they normally finish by 1pm. Many over 14-year-olds come to school by scooter or motorbike. On Friday we were shown student films and I was constantly pondering when do we reach such level at our school? Concerning the IT, Estonia boasts about being ahead of many countries in our Internet era, but as far as IT is concerned in a regular school, we seem to live in stone age. I also noticed and felt students did such projects with more passion than they have here. I saw so many bright eyes, whether the students had a role in the film, recited a poem or danced on stage - they enjoyed showing what they had learned. The way a curly-haired young man recited Petrarca, gave me literally goose bumps. Rarely a teacher can teach a student such needed animateness, you either were born with it or you learn to do things on OK-level. Talking about the show, I was stunned by Italian teenagers for their enthusiasm, free spirit, not worrying about their looks or body or clothes....
Friday afternoon was spent in Brucoli - a small fishing village. Estonian students rushed into water as real children of nature. It was good to watch them having fun. Houses in Brucoli were simplier and lower, their walls were decorated by beautiful paintings. Next to the ice cream shop there were a bunch of older men playing cards. I asked their permission  to take a photo of them and watched their game. Old Sicilian men got my admiration all the time - I couldn't watch enough the way they wore a bit out-of-date suits as if going to an old-school business meeting, sat under a palm tree on the bench, one hand leaning on a walking cane, at the same time impressively discussing the matters. Were they talking about old friends, neighbours, children, Sicily, Berlusconi?  Who knows, but it was an important talk.
 In Brucoli we had dinner in a pizzeria named Miramare, if I remember correctly. In the middle of the room there was a real stove and fire, so the pizza tasted very authentic too. I shared a table with 3 Turkish teachers and used my chance to get a bit more educated about the religion and culture. It has been told several times, but it's true - in this project we are very lucky with the Turkish school. They are all so simpatico.  I was touched by the way Gazi recalled their first Comenius trip to Estonia. When talking to him, I get a feeling as if he was my second brother, somebody who can handle my honesty and can be talked to about everything without a barrier.
On Saturday we were taken to Siracusa - an ancient Greek colony. The day promised to become hot and so it did. Our visit to ancient Greek amphitheatre remained as a moderate experience for me, but by saying so it has nothing got to do with the others or the place itself. I find it difficult to concentrate on group tours and prefer to explore sights at my own pace. Luckily, Sara later gave me a private tour which I appreciated. I liked the Ear of Dionysos most. As impressive churches or cathedrals generally manage to make me feel, so did I feel there that a human being is such a small creature in the whole universe. I felt my own insignificance.
Boating on the River Ciane was a pleasure: sea breeze made such hot day especially nice. I don't think I had seen papyrus plants before with my own eyes. This 8-kilometres long river appeared to be a mystical one. I totally agreed with Sara when she said so. It had mystically formed  bare roots on the banks washed by the water flow, high eucalyptus trees on the other bank, strange birds singing and local people picking golden lemons nearby  high above in the sky. So it seemed because we were down in the river bed.
Our afternoon in Siracuse was great. It was funny how at one point Estonian teachers were strolling around the narrow streets together with our pupils and how we noticed they had become Italians in just 3 days - they spoke Estonian with Italian intonation, their gestures were nothing like Estonians would have, they were loud and joyful. Did anybody give them wine, we were thinking? They were talking all at the same time, trying to tell everything in a few minutes about what had happened during the day. I realised then perhaps  Marten would not have got such remarks from teachers for his typical behaviour if he was at school in Italy. Who knows, but he suited well into the scenery.
I was touched by Anu's emotions. It was obvious that everybody felt sad when it was about time to say good-bye. But it was good to reach home, too. When normally it takes a day or two to get adjusted with my life and work here again, then last two trips have required more effort. I took lots of photos, but a few of them carry the real meaning and will make my memories very vivid in the future too. When I think about this trip, I can recall so many funny situations where we or our students or our hosting teachers and students played a part, but it would be a  useless effort trying to describe them for those who weren't there at that time and in that particular place. On those occasions I felt being 100% alive. Thank you, everybody! Thank You too for reading such a long blabbering. Most people gave up reading long time before  you. :-)

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Partner schools

ESTONIA: Kehtna Primary School is situated in the village of 1,200. There are no big towns nearby, although the capital Tallinn is just 60km to the north. We are surrounded by forests, bogs, farmland and therefore paying extra attention to nature studies and the environment is important to us. We are a school of the Green Flag and a Health-Concious school. There are 155 students and 20 teachers in our school. Students are aged 7-17.

ITALY: Liceo Classico "Megara" con sezione scientifica annessa is a secondary school for students aged 14-19. It mainly offers three different courses for classical, scientific and social science studies. The school mainly serves students from Augusta. Our school is located in a very important area for its nature, history, archaeology and tourism. Our suburban town of Augusta is very near to Siracusa, one of the oldest and most important Greek colonies in Sicily. Our students are all members of "Legambiente" which is a national leading environmental organization which offers educational programs in schools. We live by the sea and our area is very rich in waterways, rivers and ponds.

FRANCE: College Claude Bernard is in a suburban city (Grand-Quevilly) with about 30,000 inhabitants. A town with 400,000 people called Rouen is near to us. The area has little industry nowadays following the closure of the chemical factories and the Renault car plant.

TURKEY: Tepeköy Ilkögretim Okulu is a public school serving children aged 7-15, starting from pre-school till the 8th grade. It is a rural school and caters for 226 students and 18 teachers. Our school is in Nevsehir (Cappadocia Region), being situated in agricultural region. Our region does not have sufficient water resources and we need to focus on environmentally-friendly options.

SPAIN: IES Concepcion Arenal is a secondary education centre located in Ferrol, a town with 70,000 inhabitants in the region of Galicia (north-west of Spain). There are 85 teachers and 700 students in compulsory (12-16 years old), post-compulsory (16-18 years) part and in vocational training.