I recently attended a summer school in Aegina, Greece. I covered the academic parts of the trip elsewhere, but here I give an account of the trip from a more personal perspective: the challenges, the rewards, and the costs.
I am not much of a traveller. Last year I went to Paris by train, and the last time I went abroad before that was… decades ago if Wales doesn’t count. Still, when it’s the middle of winter and a summer school1 shows up on your radar set on a Grecian island with an interdisciplinary bent and a topic custom-written for your thesis, well, even I have to conceed it’s probably a good opportunity to see if I still hate travelling.
I’m pretty sure I bored everyone I know with my concern about the upcoming trip for at least three months before it - from experiencing an ambivalent combination of gratitude and irritation at Nick’s hagiographic reference letter to wondering if I should get a puppy which would tie me to home at the appropriate time (=for the next 15 years).2 In the run up to the trip, especially the final week, I was frequently anxious and out-of-sorts.
In spite (or because) of the anxiety, my plans were tripletriple checked, so everything worked out smoothly in terms of travel. I woke up early on Saturday morning, strapped about 15kg of luggage on, and walked across Oxford to the railway station. I managed to navigate the short journey complete with two changes to Heathrow, and find my way through the airport. I learned a key lesson that the flight security rules about liquids use a broad definition of liquid which included the sunscreen I’d bought in Oxford the day before. Oh, well, on the other side of the security perimeter the same pharmacy sold me the same sunscreen for the same price. It just seemed like a waste to have to throw the first one away.
The flight itself was fun - airports are pretty grim, and even planes are rather dull and uncomfortable, but flying itself is lovely. The kick of acceleration as takeoff begins; the rollercoaster thrill of banking and turbulence; and, on this occasion, the absolutely magnificent views all the way to the ground from cruising altitude thanks to the incredibly clear skies during the European heat wave. I had a window seat and I could see Europe spread out beneath us like a map. The two people sitting next to me turned out to be summer school attendees themselves, so it was relatively easy to chat to them through the flight. We shared a taxi from the airport to the town driven with what I’m given to understand is an entirely normal lack of respect for road laws and basic safety.
The first night (Saturday) I stayed in Athens. My hotel was in an underwhelming part of town, and I had to meander through some pretty dirty and run-down streets to find the touristy part closer to the Acropolis. I did find that, though, and ended up walking up to the Acropolis, or as close as you can go after it’s closed for the evening. I had dinner at a restaurant where they served me ketchup in a little glass container but felt it appropriate to slather mayonnaise on the burger bun – the second valuable lesson learned about travelling. The hotel was noisy because it was located next to a club, which spent half the night blasting music, and may have been the cause of the other half the night being filled with sirens. Between that noise and the air conditioning I can’t have found more than a couple of hours’ sleep, but I felt spry enough in the morning to face the 11km trek from Athens to the port, baggage and all. I set off around 7 and arrived about 2 ½ hours later, a couple of hours prior to the ferry’s departure, which gave me plenty of time to chat to Sarah on the phone and find myself a ticket. I also discovered just how delicious cold drinking water can be.
My room in the hotel was quiet, definitely adequate for my needs, and I didn’t have to share it with anyone.3 If I didn’t have to share it with the mosquitos either, or if they’d kept to their own side of it, it would have been perfect. The mornings of each day were occupied with lectures, and the afternoons either with a workshop (2 nights in the week) or the opportunity to relax and explore the island or enjoy the hotel. In the evenings we regrouped for flash presentations by the students, followed by poster presentations on the veranda by the same students. When other things were not going on the days here were filled with swimming (and lots of chatting and eating and drinking, too, though I was less involved in each of those as you go through the list…).
Mad dogs and Englishmen
The first night’s keynote lecture was given by Paul Fletcher (a psychiatrist and researcher at Cambridge). We went running together in the mid-afternoon sun on Monday. We’d aimed to do around 8km, but we managed to get substantially lost and ended up doing 13km of running interspersed with 5km of walking. Some of the walking was through nigh-impassable terrain – thick desert scrubland for the most part and for one particularly memorable stretch some really impressive thorny bushes grown with a dispiriting density across what could only be considered a path by the most irrepressible optimist. But such optimists we proved ourselves, and we very much enjoyed our adventure; we discussed a great many things (most incongruently, the ill-fated Scott expedition to the South Pole) and saw parts of the island I doubt the others here have encountered, even those who come annually.
One thing we found on our expedition was a part of the beach where plastic bottles wash up from the sea – there were hundreds of them. Everyone here drinks bottled water, and tap water doesn’t even seem like an option. The recycling seems poor-to-non-existent, and it’s all a bit sad. The next day (Tuesday) we went for another run, up to the Sanctuary of Aphea, but we planned that rather better and it only took us 30 minutes or so. We even remembered to take some photos, although we did forget to bring any money to pay for entry to the Sanctuary.4
The day afterwards Paul had to leave, but the rest of us walked up to the Sanctuary where I managed to take some quasi-competent photographs of the rather pleasant ruins. At least judged as acceptable by my aunt Caroline, who is an excellent amateur photographer.
Tuesday night everyone was dispatched to the nearby town for dinner. I wasn’t feeling the appeal of a sit-down dinner with the hustle and bustle and din of the crowd, so I explored the town a little. I eventually opted for take-away pizza, but when I went into the restaurant to await the production of the (delicious) repast, I noticed they were showing on TV the beginnings of the USA-England Women’s Football World Cup Semi-final. I thought I’d watch for a bit, and ended up sitting with an English lady who used to play football professionally for Australia (where she and her partner live). The two of them were on holiday/joint maternity leave with their newborn, staying with the partner’s family on Aegina. Not quite the quiet and secluded dinner I’d had in mind, but it was a really fantastic match to watch and I enjoyed it.
On Friday we had the end-of-trip dinner and party, at a restaurant/bar near on the beach in the nearby town. Again, I declined the dinner and went to forage for myself in the town. While doing so I found someone to play basketball with for a bit, so that was a pleasant surprise (a 17-year-old Serbian with a dead-eye 3-point shot). I met up with the others after dinner, but rather than joining the party I sat just across the road by the beach, and people came up to talk to me when they’d had too much of the noise and bustle and music and mayhem. It was a particularly genius strategy, because not only did I get to have the kinds of personal conversations with people I’d not had the opportunity of having during the summer school itself, I also mostly got the introverts coming over (because the extroverts couldn’t get enough of the aforesaid noise and bustle and music and mayhem). There were a handful of people over the course of the several hours the party went on who came to talk to me about varied and interesting things (there were varied and interesting conversations with people throughout the week, but almost exclusively focussed on academic topics).
Although I don’t do well in groups, I did end up playing Codenames on a couple of nights, and also a progressively-more-charades-like guessing game which I think I handled quite well. In general, I feel that I did really well with handling the whole experience; managing to talk to people about their work, and to be around and not overly withdrawn or anything throughout the whole week. The people I spoke to on Friday were quite encouraging about that, too. I think I made an impression on some people, potentially have a project to collaborate on, and have lots of contacts who I can reach out to for thoughts on diverse scientific issues or who I may be able to help with learning particular skills. In other words, I hopefully made a positive contribution to the whole affair.5
Return and aftermath
Friday evening ended around 4:15am, and I woke up at 8, just in time to swim out round one of the anchored yachts, have breakfast, and finish packing up. A ferry, a taxi-ride, a long wait in an airport followed by an equally long flight, a surprisingly simple two-change train journey, and a bit of a walk brought me back to my flat. The week was exhausting: between the warm evenings and the general din of the desert insects I didn’t average enough sleep, and I put in a lot of exercise and brain work and people-work.
I do think it was worth going, particularly having reflected on the lectures in the course of writing about the academic side of the trip. Perhaps Socrates would be proud that I’m now a little more aware of my capabilities and limits.6 I don’t think I’ll go again next year, partly because the marginal increase in knowledge will be lower, and partly because (lovely as the weather and location etc. are) all-in-all I’m as happy (or happier) in Oxford as on Aegina. There were definitely adjustments and strategies which made the week manageable – having my own room rather than sharing was extremely important (without it I would have been exhausted within a couple of days), as was having the confidence and ability to get away from people when necessary (either by swimming, etc. or by taking time to myself to explore/hide/read/whatever). I did well with pushing myself to engage with people a lot of the time, though.
I have had a few lovely emails from attendees, and I’ve made several genuine offers7 to host people for short visits to Oxford, in part because everyone should see the Pitt Rivers Museum at least twelve times in their life.
Sadly 15 years was a massive overstatement for Kaylee’s lifespan. She was put down yesterday following a high fall. We’re all understandably deeply sad; she was enthusiastic, attentive, troublesome as anything, and full of love from nose to tail.
Yes, my non-academic friends: academics who spend their working lives at teaching and learning also go to school on their holidays. ↩
Okay, I didn’t actually think about this last one, but a) it’s a great way never to have to leave home again and b) it’s a great excuse to include pictures of my brother’s puppy, Kaylee. ↩
Sharing a room for three nights in Paris last year left me utterly exhausted and I took nearly a week to recover. ↩
One rather forgets that the idea of having cultural resources exhibited for free is a peculiarly British thing: perhaps our continental cousins feel they have a high enough respect for culture to think it worth paying for? There was an enjoyable irony in the idea of a sanctuary barred to the (situationally) impoverished. ↩
Making a positive contribution can quite dramatically alter the scales concerning whether the whole trip was worthwhile; even if it was about break-even for me, if I managed to make it better for others (over and above the opportunity cost of not having someone else), then it was certainly worth my going. ↩
At least Sun Tzu would approve. ↩
I like to think I’m generous, honest, and cautious enough not to make offers that aren’t genuine, although I’m not sure if other people can identify that. ↩