Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A Tunnel in Epirus

It was the first time that I had ever gone anywhere alone, in Greece.  Completely on my own, pursuing something that felt revolutionary.

And nothing compared to that feeling of sitting at the steering wheel, pulling away from the village, the music at a volume that rocked the car and the brown landscape a blur in the side windows.

It was 2009 and it was the completion of the Egnatia Highway as well as the shipping of our family car (automatic transmission) from the U.S., that made this escape possible.

I was driving alone to the historic city of Ioannina in Northern Epirus, a trip that previously had taken hours to get to on the narrow serpentine roads that had been worn into the side of the mountains by previous generations.

 In fact, when I went there for the first time back in 1983, there was a point during the bus ride where the passengers had to get out and stand at the side of the road because the turn was so
sharp, the driver feared that the bus might plunge to the ravine below.  So we evacuated and watched while someone nonchalantly gave him directions from outside the bus, as if they were parallel parking on a city street and the consequence of any error might be the bus tires bumping the curb.

It was so incredible to me, I had to snap a photo.  Below, is that photo which depicts the moments after the empty bus had successfully made the hairpin turn and the passengers were reentering.  I always wondered what we would have been expected to do if the driver had plunged over the cliff and left all the passengers standing in the middle of nowhere on that road to Ioannina.

And that was only one of the hundreds of sharp winding turns.  It was a trip that had me reeling with severe nausea from beginning to end so it was one I often avoided . . . until 2009.

That year, I had heard about the Greek-language and cultural program at the University of Ioannina.  It was only 40 minutes door to door. And there was a magical tunnel -- the Dodoni-Ioannina tunnel -- at the end of the journey in which a complete transformation took place every morning.  The hidden mountain villages and the sea lay on one side of the tunnel, the city of Ioannina on the other.

On my side of the tunnel (the village side) the sky was blue and the sun was shining, but on the other side the car drove into fog, or rain or just cloudy skies. Ioannina lays in a valley with a large lake and with high mountains all around it.

Furthermore, there seemed to be two completely different ways of life on either side of the tunnel.

Life on the Margariti-side of the tunnel was extremely slow paced.  Communication was accomplished by yelling across the street (or across a ravine). And the days were filled with endless floating on the sea, long-winded conversations in the cafes--about nothing, drinking ouzo in the shade with a different chair for each foot to rest on and staring into space under the mulberry tree.

On the Ioannina-side of the tunnel, I parked my car in a parking lot, sat at a table with other students, used books and pens and paper, logged into my email account, studied at the library and shopped at places that resembled Costco and Loews.
The classes were made up of young college-age students from around the world.  I was something of an enigma as the old lady in the class, but also as someone who drove every day from the coast. People were fascinated by that idea, yet, at home in New York, a 40 minute commute would be a reasonable distance for school or work.

The first time I saw my instructor, I was less than enthusiastic. "Oh, great!" I thought, "she's a child. How could such a young girl have any idea how to teach?"

How would she teach us Greek when she didn't speak English, English being the most common language among her students -- it was the language we students were all speaking to communicate with each other? It didn't dawn on me that back home in my classroom full of Spanish-speaking students, I was doing the same. Ms. Kapsali turned out to be a naturally gifted teacher and quite possibly one of the best I've ever met. I would remember many of our interactions when I returned to my own students in the U.S.

By far, one of the greatest treasures I found on the other side of that magical tunnel, was my dear friend, Yisca Harami, a student my age (the other old lady in the class). She was staying with friends in Ioannina and going to classes. We hit it off immediately and became good friends. And when the Bird Flu scare closed the school for a week, Yisca came through that tunnel  with me and spent some days in Margariti.

We had so much fun together.  
We thought we were going to make up those cancelled classes by studying on the balcony, but we were entranced by the sunset and anesthetized by the village culture.  It was beyond our control. 
Instead, we went sightseeing and Yisca, a Scholar of Religions in Tel-Aviv, enjoyed the diverse culture that our area had to offer.  And I enjoyed her enthusiasm which never wavered.

If you cannot make it through that magical tunnel of Epirus, that's okay.  

You can read more about it  in an Amazon copy of the Nifi  

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