Game of Challenges

From now on, I will (try to) write reports of the travels and learning experiences I am involved in. Training courses, seminars, exchanges or study visits… the hope is there that in this way more people will get inspiration from those stories, learn from what happened, maybe have an idea or two on how to realise their own. Or what to avoid, learning from our mistakes!

Of course some other people will just enjoy watching the pictures – and that’s allright too.

I want to start by  telling the tale of Game of Challenges, a training course realised in May 2015 in Skoulikaria, Greece. Which is here:

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located near Arta, in Epirus, probably the greenest (and rainiest) region of Greece

The course was organised by the brilliant and brave young professionals of Inter Alia and realised through the support of the European programme “Erasmus+“. I have met them several years ago in Italy, during another training course which was called “Domino Effect”. Now this meeting had a domino effect indeed, we met again a couple of times, and so here we were, finally, still working together and bringing a European training course into this village of rural Greece.

This was really important. To discuss Europe and education in a small village in northern Greece. Quite far from the normal touristic destinations. In a region that normally doesn’t see so many foreigners, never mind tourists. That is the first reason why I loved to be involved in that project: it was clear that for the people involved, it mattered.

Once again I want to give credit where it’s due: it really takes a lot of motivation and courage for a group of very competent young professionals and researchers, to decide to start their organisation in Greece, today. I admire the resolve and the determination of Inter Alia, and it’s a great inspiration to have the possibility to work with them.

the core staff of Inter Alia. From left, Nikos, Boyka and Nikos.
the core staff of Inter Alia. From left, Nikos, Boyka and Nikos. From right, too.

The village of Skoulikaria is connected to the family history of Nikos Papakostas, one of the founding members of Inter Alia. I could see their family pictures on the walls and learned that Niko’s grandfather was involved in the main political events of the region. The family is still very respected in town.

That’s why we were there. And that’s a choice to respect: when you decide to host an international group, it would certainly be easier to do it in a major touristic location, with plenty of accommodation possibilities, facilities, great logistics.

But the guys in Inter Alia wanted to take all the group to see a different part of Greece. Which took in the best case 4-5 hours of drive from Athen’s airport, or more for people who were travelling by bus.

Of course this was a beautiful journey in the journey, and we had the possibility to drive along the beautiful coast of Peloponnese, and see amazing places like the Rio-Antirrio bridge:

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the bridge at the sunset. In 2011, a Greek Major was arrested for bulldozing down the bridge toll booths. Now that’s representation!

that connects Peloponnese and the mainland Greece in the north, across the Gulf of Corinth. Very beautiful scenery, and the bridge is technically remarkable and holds a few engineering records (which I am not able to begin to understand, if you are curious you can check the facts here). I was more fascinated by the historical side of the story, as well as by the fact that the bridge has a quite steep pay toll of € 13.20 for a single car. Now, I know I have previously talked about the importance of paying tolls, but I found this maybe a bit too much. It’s actually so expensive that you can even find a warning on tripadvisor about it!

Another wonderful sight along the way was the Canal on the Isthmus of Corinth, completed in 1893, that allows small ships to go from one side to the other of Peloponnese without having to circumnavigate it. It’s 6.3 km wide and allows for quite a breathtaking view.

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the canal from the top. The Emperor Nero wanted to build it, but died before he could see the project starting.

So, we finally arrive to Skoulikaria. It was in a very inspiring mountain area. This is how the nature around the village looked like.

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with some proper mountain forest just across the street from us, rich with local fauna.

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the area is famous for its turtles, so much that a nearby village is called “Chelona”, actual Greek for “turtle”
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and of course, no account about Greece can be complete without a picture of sheep crossing a street. Talking about stereotypes.

We had one day to prepare the place for the incoming group, and we decided that our activities would be hosted in the local primary school. The room needed a bit of work but in the end, it was perfect for our needs.

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the valiant staff of Inter Alia at work preparing the space. Me, I was busy taking the picture.

The choice of the location was great in the end. The school was lovely, with a spacious room

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and a fantastic courtyard where we in fact hosted a lot of sessions.

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Boyka leading a good morning energiser!

But of course the kids were there! All the children of the town (they were 11 or 12, I am not sure now) were taking their classes next door to us. And as it turned out, they were very happy to meet us. This is the “surprise” we found on our door on the first day of our course.

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“Welcome our friends” sign made by the school kids. Adorable!

Then, the group arrived. We had participants from Italy, Greece, Sweden and Estonia. The trip to get there was in some case veeery long.

The course revolved around three topics: Crisis, Education and Community. Each day we worked on activities and “challenges” (some pretty tought ones) to inspire reflection and insight on each of these subjects, and their connections.

We had a lovely half-day adventure in the woods

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this is how the group looked like, at the beginning of the walk. I will not publish the picture of how people looked after.

inspired to a shorter version of an experiential “Hero’s Journey“, which brought to some very interesting discoveries.

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beware, travellers

We worked using theatre to represent “Crisis” in a wonderful garden setting

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even though I am not quite sure what kind of crisis we were trying to represent here, it worked
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Giancarlo trying to find his true self, without looking

and had a lovely social time together, sharing fabulous meals prepared in the local taverna

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which hosted also all our free time activities, and the parties. Oh, the parties!

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the Italian group shows the best side of its culture: food, of course

Some parts of the programme were led by participants (it was part of the “challenges” of course), some of which had previous experience in facilitation or training, like Panagiotis who introduced a tool for personal development

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a very inspiring activity

and other moments that turned out to be – by far – some of the best parts of the training week

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Claire working her way to an introduction to “animal sounds in different languages”, done with the local school children
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and Nicholas showing a very effective example of anger management
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a graphic workshop on stereotypes showed that Muslim people are commonly represented as ninja turtles (?!?)
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this group simulation on politics and resource planning brought out the best and the worst from the group dynamics (my face says it all, really)

We also visited Arta, the local district capital. In the city we had activities to spread awareness on the European Union in the local populace, and to measure their opinions. Not an especially easy task, to talk about European matters in Greece these days. I observed that people have a wide mix of feelings about the topic. On one side it’s hard not to feel the pressure of the public blame and shame that some media are casting on the country. Which gives the feeling of having a somewhat undeserved bad reputation.

People in Greece feel they are depicted as the “black sheep of Europe”, which is surely a bit simplistic as a description. They are aware that the crazy public expenditure of the past has brought them to this situation but they say “we got the lesson. Can we move on now?”. Also, the average Greek can spend hours telling incredible horror stories about corruption and incompetence of their leaders (indeed, we spent hours on the matter, especially the long hours driving to Skoulikaria and back from Athens).  And to my mind the similarities with Italy were amazing: in Italy, too, the corruption is shameless and beyond measure. In Italy, too, incompetent people are regularly put in positions of big responsibility. In Italy, too, the idea of common good is often used for private, very private interests. But Greece now gets the blame for all, and is becoming the scapegoat to wash away all the sins in the Eurozone.

Anyway, despite all this, I didn’t find signs of victimism or denial. People seemed very realistic and reasonable. From the many conversations I had with persons from different backgrounds, the general feeling is of a general realisation of the mistakes made in the past, and the strong hope to be able to turn page soon, and try to move forward. People know that hard times are ahead, but first of all they want to keep their dignity.

I couldn’t  find traces of hard feelings against Germany (for example), or the European Bank. But the idea that so many honest working and decent people have their destinies depending on some obscure and distant burocracies, that was palpable and saddening. Anyway, somewhat heroicly we did our best to show that Europe has also a good side, and to claim a space in Arta’s main square.

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group picture with all the local people we were able to involve, in Arta

It was honestly shocking to learn that so many ordinary citizens in downtown Athens, for example, were not able to pay their heating bills last winter. So people went back to burning wood. But this is leading to an increase in deforestation in the rural areas, and to a higher than normal presence of toxic fumes in Athen’s local atmosphere: people were burning whatever wood they could find, including old furniture and painted woodwork. The fumes from the combustion of industrial paint is not exactly the best to breathe.

And all this is happening so close to our lives. Listening to people’s everyday stories, how families are affected, how companies get bankrupt ever so easily: this was really eye opening for me. And to realise how twisted my perception is of the situation, if I only rely on what I know from the media.

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picture from the “NGO market” we had in Arta. This is the Estonian table. As it happens, none of the people sitting there are Estonians.

Coming back to our course, I also want to mention shortly the cooperation with the local primary school, the teachers and the kids.

We started by sharing the work space and the garden. Soon we started to share the free time during our breaks, and then it was simply impossible to hold the kids back! Very soon they were establishing contact with us, using the English they knew, or any other form of communication. And we loved them completely.

By the end of the week they were totally part of the group, and they joined us also for the evenings and our social time. Some of them would dance all night long and were very happy to show us their best moves!

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familiarising was made easier by the superb hospitality in the local taverna

On the last day, we invited them to an activity prepared for them.

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which went well, and turned out to be a great exercise in improvisation and… flexible facilitation. It became soon evident that the kids, not our group, were in charge.

But as it turned out, they were also organising a “surprise” for us!
They invited us to the classroom and performed singing and dancing for our group. The moment was honestly so powerfully touching, I was blown away.

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I couldn’t stop laughing and clapping my hands. And I positive that more than one person had tears in their eyes.

Conclusions. It’s impossible to write a story about such an experience in less than 2000 words. But this is it. Reflecting on the learning outcomes was really powerful and it was interesting to see how much learning potential the group was able to recognise, and share. The week was defined “life changing” by some person, and I have no trouble accepting it.

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and this is me, trying to put learning in perspective through the European framework of competencies

I have been involved in learning mobility since 2003. Since then I have taken part to so many events, courses, seminars or youth exchanges than I can’t even keep track of them.

Some of them were average, so-and-so experiences. Some others have been truly memorable. Others fall in somewhere between the extremes. But one thing I know for sure, they all have had a great impact on my development and personal growth. Meeting people, visiting place often very far from the usual touristic areas, sharing stories, and facing challenges. So much empowerment and a true life changing potential.

If I started to somehow leave a diary of each of them since the beginning of my activity in non formal education, there would be enough material for nearly 200 blog pages (it’s reasonable: 15 experiences per year, times 12 years). Each of them as rich as this one, full with personal stories, pictures, insights…

Such a potential – and I decided not to let it go to waste anymore. So – thanks again, Inter Alia, all the group involved in Game of Challenges, and Skoulikaria! This journey will not be forgotten!

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group portrait courtesy of Daphne, incredibly talent artist and facilitator who is now involved in EVS in the Netherlands.
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