The Macedonia Experience
Danny Singh, born and raised in London, but now based in Rome, gives creative English language lessons and teacher training courses all over Italy and abroad. He also offers stimulating monthly presentations on language related issues at Rome’s biggest international bookshop and is visible on web TV, with a series of interactive English video lessons. He is author of two books, “I was a happy man...then one day I came across Laughter Yoga” and “Learning English through the mind and the body” and is currently working on his third book, “Life is full of surprises”. He regularly attends Pilgrims TT summer courses as a Guest Speaker. Website: www.laughnlearn.net, e-mail: email@example.com
In December 2017, I was invited to a conference in Skopje, Macedonia. At the time, I wasn’t even sure exactly where Macedonia was on the map, I was extremely tired from other work trips, my father was not in good health, Xmas was approaching and I couldn’t wait to have some time off to recharge my batteries for the new year. However, before I could refuse the invitation, I was told that I would be one of the main speakers and that all my costs would be funded! As one of the many people who normally fund myself when it comes to travelling to conferences, I thought I ought to take advantage of this. It showed that they really wanted me, at least! As I came through customs in Skopje, I saw a placard with my name on it and a man smiling at anyone who remotely resembled the name on the placard! The airport was amazing and its very name, Alexander the Great, made you realise that you were somewhere different.
I was chauffeured to the hotel, where I met one of the organisers and was shown to my room. The hotel was a fairly short walk to the conference location, an art café/cinema. That might give you an idea as to the nature of the conference. It was sponsored by MakeDox, an organisation which holds film festivals in Skopje, focusing primarily on creative documentaries. The subject was films in education and the speakers were a mix of film directors, teachers of all subjects who use films in their lessons and young students who made films, often with their mobile phones! One of the main organisers of that conference was Petra Seliskar, a Slovenian film director, whose film, Mama Europa, I had written an article on and even done a presentation of, at the IATEFL Slovenia in Topolsica in 2016. There were people from a wide range of ages, cultures and social backgrounds, which made it all the more interesting and after the conference, I even had a spare day to explore the city and sample the delights of Macedonian cuisine watered down with home-made rakija. The flight back to Rome was memorable to say the least, as a thick fog descended on Skopje, just as I was leaving. As a result, my flight was transferred to the smaller airport in Ohrid, which had a more down-to-earth name and which meant a long bus drive and a seven-hour delay before I eventually got home. On the whole, I had some great memories from both the conference and the place, so when a Croatian colleague mentioned that there was also a conference for teachers held in Macedonia, I decided to look it up.
The ELTAM conference is held in Struga every two years. The dates were good, I was free, so I sent my speakers proposal, which was accepted, then set about booking flights. There were no direct flights to Struga, so I would have to arrive in Skopje, then get a bus, similar to the journey made previously when my plane was diverted to another airport. However, the airline only flew two days a week to Skopje, Monday and Friday. As the conference began on a Friday, I could either fly on Friday and miss at least 50% of the conference, which would be a waste of time, or arrive four days early. Coming back was no problem, as the conference finished on Sunday and the flight was on Monday lunchtime from Skopje. I listened to those voices within me and my sixth sense, which told me to go ahead and book my tickets to arrive four days early.
Having booked my plane tickets, the next question was how I was going to pass those four spare days! Surely, four days was far too long to stay in what was supposed to be a very small place and more importantly, with no other colleagues around? I contacted a few friends I’d made at the previous conference and they expressed excitement about the fact that I was coming and the possibility to see me again, so at that point, I decided to stay a couple of nights in Skopje before moving onto Struga.
In October 2018 therefore, exactly ten months after my first visit to Macedonia, I found myself in Skopje again. Thankfully, there was no fog this time, indeed the temperatures were not much different from those in Rome, sunny and warm during the day and cooling off at night. I met up with some of my local Skopje friends, revisited the old town, the main square with its fountains, and wandered around munching on a wide range of bureks from various bakeries. Two weeks previously, I had been at the IATEFL Hungary conference in Budapest, when at the end of one of my workshops, I was approached by a participant, who said he had enjoyed the session and he’d be in contact. I asked him where he was from and he replied, Macedonia! As a result, Agim Poshka, a University Professor, had me at the SE European University performing in front of his young students, who were training to become teachers. This was not the only irony, as Agim actually lived in Struga, literally two minutes’ walk from the conference location.
On my journey from the airport to my hotel in Skopje, I had got chatting away to the taxi driver, as I often do and he gave me his card and told me that he could take me to Struga, Thessaloniki, Sofia, Pristina or any other long-distance location. I dismissed this idea as ridiculous, especially as he was not forthcoming in giving me a price estimate. The bus station in Skopje is located far enough away from the centre of Skopje, that you need a taxi to get there. I duly took a taxi and again got chatting to the driver. This time, he convinced me with his quality intonation to be driven all the way to Struga. Why would you want to spend 8 euro on a coach when you can spend 80 euro with me? Do you think it’s too much? Well actually, considering it cost 20 euro just to get from the airport to the centre of the city, while Struga is at least a three-hour journey from Skopje, I thought it wasn’t too bad and I had just about enough cash on me. In addition, my mind went back to that horrible journey I’d had the year before when my flight had been diverted to Ohrid. So I accepted and off we went. The views were interesting and we had plenty to talk about until we reached the final destination.
The conference hotel in Struga was even more overbearing than the airport in Skopje. There were several flights of stairs on each floor, so when you took one, you were never quite sure where you were going to end up. As there were still no other conference participants around, I popped over to Agim’s bar, where I met Mark Andrews, who I had often seen at various conferences, but never really had a chance to speak to. As I sipped my first rakija, I realized that this man was a wealth of information, particularly on three subjects that I enjoy; the history of the Balkans, football from a social point of view and music bands and “live” gigs. After starting my second rakija, Mark suggested taking a boat trip on the famous Ohrid lake the next day, as the weather forecast was for sunny weather and calm waters. As I had nothing to do the next day and the idea of increasing my knowledge on a variety of topics that I enjoyed beckoned, I agreed!
My first big shock the next morning was arriving at Ohrid and finding that the boat was not at all as I had expected. I had imagined a large boat, where I could put my feet up, relax and admire the views. Here, there was hardly room to put my feet in the boat, never mind up, there were about twelve of us in total and you could put your hands in the water, that’s how low the boat was. Wasn’t this supposed to be a lake? I’d been to Bled and Bohinj in Slovenia, to Bracciano and Como in Italy, but never had I seen anything like this! This seemed like an ocean and being in what I considered a small boat in the middle of this large lake did not make it seem any smaller. The driver told us to look to the left as there was an old church and to the right as there was an old school. I hardly dared move for fear of falling out of the boat, but what I could see in front of me was incredibly beautiful. We began talking to some of the other passengers or victims as I called them. This was one way of forgetting how close the water was to us. We made a couple of short stops at the bay of bones and at the Mother of God Zahumska Church. The views were breath-taking and the effect of coming off the boat and being able to stretch and move around clearly helped. Eventually we stopped at Sveti Naum.
The driver had recommended a restaurant where we could have a good lunch, which I was looking forward to. Mark however, had other ideas and insisted that we take a ride on another boat. Are you serious? This boat was even smaller, we had to get on one at a time and one on each side, otherwise the boat might topple over. Great, just what I need! Despite the size of the boat, this experience was far more pleasurable, as there was the sound of silence and the oars as they were gently stroked in the water. The views here were also amazing, incredibly clear and clean water which I didn’t mind touching.
Finally, after all the stress and anxiety, it was time for lunch, a bottle of good red wine and a large trout which tends to be the speciality around lakes with some potatoes for good measure. After this, we just about had time to visit the monastery before returning to the boat for our return trip. I have to say that the return trip was much easier, I even stood for a while, as my fear of falling into the water had almost disappeared. No doubt, the good red wine had been a contributory factor and I was almost sad when we arrived at port and had to leave.
On our way back to Struga, Mark invited me to join him, where we did a lesson together with some of Selpi’s (Agim’s wife) seven - and twelve-year-old students. Another interesting teaching experience and more rakija in the evening, I was exhausted, I had already been in Macedonia for four days, though it seemed like four weeks and the conference hadn’t even begun yet.
As the conference didn’t start until early afternoon, I had some time for a brief wander around the streets and over the bridges of Struga. I needed to change some more money, as I had given most of it to the taxi driver. Speaking of which, while wandering back to the hotel, another taxi driver approached me and despite telling him that I was just a few metres away from the hotel, so I could walk, he insisted on giving me his card, in case I needed him in the future. I was now building up quite a collection of business cards from taxi drivers. As it was the 10th conference, there was a celebratory atmosphere and some formal awards to a number of people who had helped to build the ELTAM conference up to what it is today. I had the opportunity to speak to and exchange ideas with Mike Harrison, a teacher from the UK who I often meet at the IATEFL Slovenia in Topolsica.
Once the formalities were over, we got down to business and kicked off with a plenary from Fiona Mauchline. This was ironic, because I’d met her at the IATEFL Hungary two weeks previously, but had been unable to attend her plenary which closed the conference, as I had had to leave slightly earlier. Her talk was fun and interactive, as she reminded us of some of the basics that we sometimes forget, when searching for new ideas. After this, I went to a workshop on “using mindfulness in the classroom”, given by two local teachers, Biljana Shoposka and Emilija Paunkoska. They had the additional difficulty of having to shorten their workshop, due to the formal presentations overrunning and what was coming up, but they managed it quite well. What was coming up you may well ask? An organised trip to Ohrid. That sounded interesting until I inquired for more details and was informed that it involved a boat trip. I had had just about as much water as I could stand, so instead I found a small group of local teachers who wanted to go to Ohrid for a coffee and a walk. This was extremely interesting, as I got to meet and understand a bit more about the education system in Macedonia, while devouring some local cakes recommended to me. I will never forget the stunning views of the lake, as the sun set before we made our way back to Struga.
In the evening, there was a Macedonian dinner offered for the teacher association representatives, which involved a fair amount of eating and drinking. Alexandra Popovski the ELTAM President, had informed me that she was getting calls from an insistent taxi driver, who wanted to speak to me. Yes, apparently, he (Miki) had called the hotel asking for me, as he was convinced I would be stupid enough to take a return journey with him from Struga to Skopje. The hotel was not willing to give out my name, so asked Aleksandra to deal with it, which she promptly did. As we staggered back to the hotel, I couldn’t resist asking the question, should we call Miki and ask him to take us on a three-minute ride to the hotel?
The next morning, we started with a plenary by Jon Hird on the subject of dyslexia. He originally got into this subject, as his son is dyslexic and he showed us some of the extensive research he has done on the subject. After a coffee break, I had a tough decision to make, as there were three speakers who I knew well, giving workshops at the same time. I decided to give all three a miss and take a gamble on going to a workshop given by a speaker that I didn’t know. The subject was one of my favourites, “creative writing”, and although I had attended a two-week workshop at Pilgrims with my mentor and good friend, Mario Rinvolucri back in 2007, I always believe that there is more to learn on any subject and indeed there was, as Rina Krasniqi from Kosovo gave us some entertaining and useful activities. After this, there was a half-an-hour slot, which I’d normally skip, as I feel that thirty minutes is rather short for a presentation, although I have been proved wrong a couple of times. In this case, I knew the speaker, Pero Sardzoski who was one of my translators at the MakeDox Skopje conference back in 2017. He runs his own school in Tetovo which is close to Skopje and one thing he has in common with me is that his lessons are paperless, however, his methodology is quite different as he focuses on technology, while I focus more on movement and using the body.
After his short presentation, it was my turn, as I gave my workshop on team building, which I had already done at several other conferences. I had a pretty good turnout and did all the usual activities, the name game, the circle game, some gibberish and laughter yoga. The gibberish went down very well and after chatting to several people at the end of my presentation and having photos taken, it was time for a late and much deserved lunch. Daniel Xerri, always immaculately well-dressed, gave a plenary on creativity. Daniel is one of the main organisers of the conference for teachers in Malta and naturally enough, he was promoting the many niceties of his country. I decided to skip the last two slots of workshops, as my energy levels were low, so I spent my time drinking coffee, rakija and chatting to other participants, until the evening agenda.
The evening consisted of a birthday party to celebrate the 10th ELTAM conference, so there was a buffet, a punch cocktail and a rock band which kept us moving into the early hours of the morning. It was another opportunity to socialise with other participants and the one theme of the evening although I have no idea why, was to wear something black. Sometime after midnight, though I’m not sure exactly when, I stumbled back to my room, mentally and physically exhausted.
Sunday morning was tough, after the late night before. After making my way downstairs for a late breakfast and having to leave the room by a certain time, I unfortunately had to miss Jen MacArthur’s early plenary on “using poetry in the classroom”. I did however, make up for it to some extent, by going to three of the four sessions remaining. The first one was about The Great Escape from the Classroom. It was not the first time I had attended a workshop on this subject, however, as the presenter was different, I decided to give it a go. The speaker was Magda Goraj, who came all the way from Barcelona and she gave us a good demonstration of how she uses it, which wasn’t easy, as the room had an enormous table in the centre of it and little room for manoeuvre.
After yet another coffee, I went to the toilet, as one does and while there, a man entered, looked at me and smiled. I looked back at him and smiled. He then said, hello. I politely replied, hello. His next words were utterly shocking; taxi? I couldn’t believe it! Taxi drivers approaching me in the hotel toilet to try to get business! I told him I was fine and sped along to Ereza Mehmeti’s workshop on Differentiated Instructions, which was extremely interesting, especially as in the first activity she gave us, we all interpreted her instructions in different ways, as if to illustrate the point. The final workshop of the conference was Mark Andrew’s Paddington Bear story and how he uses it in the classroom, highly amusing, as well as informative. Finally, there was the raffle, prizes for winners and the closing ceremony.
I said goodbye to as many people as I could and got a lift from my friend Pero Sardzoski, so no buses and more importantly, no taxis for this stage of the journey. The last evening was spent in the square that I love, with the water in the fountains changing colour continuously. I had one final burek. I had missed my bureks while in Struga, but I had experienced so many other pleasures. I went to bed early and slept well, having asked the hotel to provide me with a driver to take me to the airport. For the first time in Macedonia, I had a taxi driver who did not insist on taking me halfway around the world or leaving me his business card for future reference, but simply on taking me to my destination with a minimum of fuss and a pleasant chat to help pass away the time. An incredible week was coming to an end, with an endless list of unforgettable memories; a great conference, tasty food, kind and generous people, stunning views and overzealous taxi drivers. What more could one ask for?
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The Macedonia Experience
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