Lessons in a by­gone way of life

Sub­sti­tute teacher as­signed to re­mote Aegean is­land of Arki, with just two pupils

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY LINA GIANNAROU

“Where are you go­ing? What will you eat?” The re­ac­tion of her mother when she learnt the news last Septem­ber was so ex­treme that Silia Dim­i­trakopoulou al­most laughed. But there were other, more ur­gent prob­lems. First, she had to find Arki on the map. Ac­cord­ing to the pa­per she had in her hands, in two days she was go­ing to be start­ing there as a teacher for two el­e­men­tary school pupils.

“This is how it is with sub­sti­tute teach­ers: We get two days’ no­tice be­fore our next ap­point­ment,” says Dim­i­trakopoulou. “The joke is that last year I was serv­ing in Ekali! I had never even heard of Arki. That pro­tected me in a way, although the look on the face of my col­leagues when they heard where I’d be go­ing said it all.”

The sparsely pop­u­lated eastern Aegean is­land harks to a by­gone era in Greece. The first shock came when she got off the boat on the small eastern Aegean is­land. “There were 20 peo­ple at the port say­ing, ‘Wel­come, teacher.’”

“Since that day, I’ve for­got­ten my name. Here, I’m ‘the teacher.’ On the street I’m greeted with ‘Good morn­ing, teacher.’ It was like I was sud­denly in the 1950s. I’ve felt that very strongly since then. We city folk don’t un­der­stand how peo­ple live in such places, de­pend­ing en­tirely on a sin­gle ferry ser­vice for ev­ery­thing.”

Ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent cen­sus, 44 res­i­dents live on Arki, but Silia es­ti­mates there are no more than 36. “Many of the el­derly res­i­dents don’t leave their homes. I have never seen them. There are no young peo­ple apart from my stu­dents. Others never come down from the moun­tain; they think it’s too far. For most, Pat­mos is like a transat­lantic jour­ney.” On the is­land there is noth­ing, no kiosk, gro­cery store, bak­ery or cafe. There are no police, no priest and no doc­tor. “We call Pat­mos for ev­ery­thing. ‘Gerasi­mos, send a packet of spaghetti.’” Nat­u­rally, the area is not con­nected to the in­ter­net. Get­ting on­line in­volves us­ing a wire­less adapter.

But Arki is home to Chris­tos and Panayi­o­tis, sib­lings and the is­land’s only school­child­ren. “Of­fi­cially the only stu­dent is Chris­tos. Panayi­o­tis fin­ished el­e­men­tary school last year, but since there is no mid­dle school and he can’t come and go from Pat­mos (Arki falls un­der the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Pat­mos) I give him some classes in or­der to be able to send him there next year.”

They are the only chil­dren of the is­land and their par­ents are the youngest in­hab­i­tants, cat­tle farm­ers who live in a re­mote spot on the moun­tain. Their two older broth­ers dropped out af­ter el­e­men­tary school so they could help with the live­stock (there are no girls on Arki).

“It is very hum­bling to think that the same fu­ture awaits them. The hard­est thing is that they are two very smart kids. Here, I re­al­ized that pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion ul­ti­mately doesn’t serve ev­ery­one,” she says. To­gether they have done amaz­ing things, from a pa­rade with just the three of them on the Oc­to­ber 28 na­tional hol­i­day to Car­ni­val dances.

In the 24 weeks that Silia Dimi- trakopoulou has spent on the is­land, there have been mo­ments when rock fever got the bet­ter of her. “But I get over it. I have found un­lim­ited love, a sec­ond fam­ily here. The peo­ple give me so many things: greens, eggs, roost­ers, meat. They have wel­comed me in a way that I never ex­pected to ex­pe­ri­ence. I have also learned that there is a so­lu­tion for ev­ery prob­lem. Some­times you feel smoth­ered, but there is a great deal of sol­i­dar­ity. One of us goes to Pat­mos and runs er­rands for ev­ery­one else. The is­land is also very beau­ti­ful. We are iso­lated – I read all the time, and I’ve gone through my en­tire movie col­lec­tion – but I can tell you that I would stay here another year – most of all to see how the chil­dren get on.”

Broth­ers Chris­tos and Panayi­o­tis are the only chil­dren on the sparsely pop­u­lated eastern Aegean is­land of Arki.

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