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Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Last posting

Happy Nameday if your name is Ahmed (Ahmad/Ahmet). It's St Ahmed's today in teh Greek orthodox church calendar.

What has happened to my time as of late? It flies, perhaps too quickly for my liking. I don't use it up so leisurely any longer. I was hoping to get a quick post in before Christmas, but I also know that whatever I would have written two days ago would have become obsolete by now.

I was woken up not by carol singers today, like we usually are on Christmas Eve, but by the mourning toll of the church bells. Since last night, I knew that Christmas had been cancelled in my neighbourhood, after the area was swarmed by cars parked on every available spot in an area that does not even have a footpath. How easily we change our traditions after a tragedy. "Να τα πούμε;" (Shall we say them?), as the saying goes concerning the question traditionally asked by carol singers before they begin singing, was banished here this year. If anyone asked any question, it would have been along the lines of "Δεν τα είπαμε;" (Didn't we say them already?). The event could have been predicted, sooner or later. Or perhaps the question was "Δεν σου τό 'πα;" (Hadn't I told you so?), since it could also have been avoided. We all knew it was bound to happen. Even his parents had predicted the event when they got rid of the motorbike. They gave him a car instead.
Prepping Christmas lunch: A friend was asking me yesterday if she can find lamb shanks in Hania - as long as you know how to tell the butcher how to cut the meat, yes, you can find lamb shanks. Generally speaking, butchers hack it to pieces here, and the locals use it in this way. Forget about what you see in the Greek haute cuisine magazines: they show mainly urban cuisine, and what we aspire to, rather than what we really are. My contribution for Christmas Day lunch is: guacomole, roasted peppers and lettuce with kid avgolemono.
Now we can also make predictions for the summer. For instance, we can be quite sure that we will no longer be woken up at the same time in the middle of the siesta, and later on, in the middle of the night, by the garish sounds coming from the same car as it sped up and down the road, windows rolled down, car stereo full blast. The car is now scrap metal, and its driver buried under the earth, joining his young cousin who died under similar circumstances a few years ago. His young mother will wear black for the rest of her life, as will the mothers of the other two teens who died with him. The fourth one - who had just finished his teens a year earlier - is still fighting for his life. I predict he will make it, but he won't be the same person that he was.

Since the event, I have had to reorganise Christmas Day lunch. The mother's wails can still be heard. Tomorrow's lunch will now be pot luck, at a friend's house. Making as little effort as possible in order not to be seen or heard, we shall pack our pots and pans, and head out of the area. We'll be wearing our seatbelts, and only one of us will drink, to ensure that we can make it back home.

Life doesn't always go as planned, but that is no reason to get angry. Rearranging keeps you on your toes. You can't have everything you want all the time, but you can probably have everything you need. You may or may not be the perpetrator of all your own misery, but you can usually be the creator of all your own happiness.

Merry Christmas to all. I hope to be back in time for the New Year. Till then, more work to get through...

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Thursday, 18 December 2014

Experiential dining: Fancy burgers

Accompanied by our London host, we set off from the Charring Cross train station to Trafalgar Square where we saw chalk-writers expressing their political views peacefully while a kilt-clad lad played the bagpipes, as the blue cock watched over them all, moving on to Leicester Square with its erratic jet fountain and a 7-storey M&M building, and finally to Chinatown where I was hoping to enjoy some Asian cuisine.
"Are you sure about this?" my knowledgeable host asked me. We were browsing through the garish menu cards of the Asian restaurants. Some were pasted onto the doors and windows of the restaurants; one covered the front display to the point that you could barely see inside. Others had their menus posted on sandwich boards on the road, but they were usually accompanied by hawkers stationed right by them. Living in a tourist town myself, I know how plebeian that looks and feels.
"Look at the range of dishes they claim to serve you," my host continued. "Compare that with the number of customers seated in the restaurant. Can they really cook all those meals? Or are they just going to dig them out of the freezer for you?" He had a point: these places looked empty, while their menu cards would need a good quarter of an hour to be read in full. And who knows for just how long the crispy ducks had been on hanging on the window display? Feeling rather sheepish, I agreed to look elsewhere. It was our treat that night, and I didn't want to appear 'cheap'.
A few shortcuts later, the red lanterns and crispy duck displays gave way to standing-room-only bars, dessert restaurants, jamboneries (at least, that's what it looked like to me - instead of cupcakes on the display, they had cones full of cholesterol-laden treats) and upmarket tobacco stores, where I presume you could not smoke what you ordered if you take smoking bans seriously. Here, there were no hawkers; in fact, quite the opposite was happening: people were queuing up to get in.
That's how we ourselves ended up queuing at a place my host described to me as a 'fancy burger bar'. It feels a little weird admittedly to be queuing up for a burger. How good must that burger be? We don't have McDonalds in our town. We do have Goody's, but, the idea of going out for a burger among my family is not common, and it certainly isn't considered a must-have-before-you-die kind of meal. Having a burger sounds like having a souvlaki, not a sit-down restaurant meal.
So here we were, feeling like fish out of water, as we took part in a performance of what looked like the typical English habit of queuing. We gave our name to the informal-looking gent who spoke in a rather well-versed Cockney accent (this could have been part of the act for all I know) at the door of the restaurant (which he didn't come to immediately - we had to wait till he did), and then we joined the back of the queue, where we got bored. I asked if we could be excused from the queue and go for a little walk (we were told we'd need to wait about 25 minutes for the appropriate table to be found), where I had some time to take in the sights that surrounded us: the lights on the buildings were bold and brassy, the people bore smug smiles as they rushed by, the window displays were brimming with goods and the cars sped by as if they never stopped working. This was a very fast world.
We were eventually seated after waiting for about twenty minutes (about the time it would have taken us to find a McDonalds in the area, order a burger and eat it, I suppose, chit-chat time included). The place was full (as to be expected if you are queuing up to get in), mainly with young-looking people, but I also spotted a couple of middle-aged men sitting next to us, with an expensive looking bottle of wine (in an ice bucket) on the table. (Wine with burgers, another new one for us.) Some people must have been tourists (they had come with their suitcases), but most were 'locals' from the sound of their accents. The atmosphere in the restaurant was buzzing, with people nattering constantly over their meals, melodies of golden oldies playing softly in the background, and a silent black-and-white Porky Pig cartoon being screened on one of the walls, all reminiscent of the 50s American hamburger joint.

A very efficient looking waiter (with a non-native English accent) brought us a rather unassuming A4 menu card. The food choices were rather spartan but the prices of the burgers seemed reasonable, which is not surprising given the mass-produced food displayed around the seating area and the staircase leading to the basement (ie the toilets). The walls of the restaurant were stacked with boxes of canola oil and gherkin cans. The tables had a range of bottled sauces on them. Watching the waiters bringing food to other people's tables, it was obvious that the fries were προ-κατ (the Greek phrase for 'machine-processed and frozen'), as were the uniform and perfectly sized onion rings and the burger buns. At this point, the only thing that differentiated them from McDonalds was the plates: their burgers didn't come wrapped up in paper and cardboard, and you ate with metallic knives and forks.

It's the drinks where they 'grabbed your bum', as Greeks say (σου πιάνουν τον κώλο). A bottle of cider or an Oreos-flavoured milkshake cost almost as much as the burger itself. Paying 80 pounds for the five of us may not sound expensive when 'London prices' is taken into consideration, but translate 80 pounds into Greek-earned euros, and we just paid 100 euros for a burger meal. The waiters were all very friendly, but their politeness and helpfulness did not seem so heartfelt. Their efficiency came from the line that the management adhered to, not from the depths of their soul. Needless to say, I did not leave a tip. We still talk about it every now and then over our de facto organic, local, seasonal Cretan meals, where so little is προ-κατ, not even our mass-produced bakery bread which is hand-shaped and hand-sliced.

We keep in mind that we did not go to the fancy burger place for the food. We did it for the experience, which I suppose we could gauge as a very positive one overall. It's interesting to see how the other half live.

Bonus photos: To complete the experience, our host suggested a dessert restaurant to sweeten our palates. 25 pounds later, we took a long walk back to our train station, almost missing the very last train home. It was all just another part of the London experience.

Away from the madding crowds of Soho, the streets of central London were empty. We had Waterloo bridge to ourselves.

More bonus photos: Real food for real people - I cooked beef burgers (with layers of roast veges), zucchini fries (a menu item at the burger bar) and onion rings at home a week later. Like filo pastry, the home-made stuff does not compare to anything store-bought.

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Monday, 15 December 2014

Brockwell Park honey (Μέλι από το Λονδίνο)

My household is a great consumer of honey. When I think of the amount of honey we get through in a year, even I am amazed - we buy about 15-20 kilograms of honey every year, which is consumed among the 5 of us. Yes! 15-20 kg per year! Is this too much? I don't know what to say... I just know that we do in fact get through that much and it feels about as normal as going through 150 kg of olive oil per year (again, among the 5 of us). What's more, I rarely (if ever) use honey in my cooking - honey is used in very limited ways in my household's food preparation:
  1. a teaspoon in tea or milky coffee 
  2. as a spread on bread and butter
  3. a tablespoon poured over each individual sfakiani pita, a traditional Cretan dessert 
  4. a couple of tablespoons slathered on top of pan-fried cheese-based kalitsounia, another traditional Cretan dessert (occasionally, mainly when I'm in the mood to make them)
  5. making syrup (for Greek-style syrup desserts, eg karidopita, galaktoboureko - very occasionally, mainly for a party)
  6. as a yoghurt topping
Lately, I've also used it in some savoury meals like fried chicken wings, and I've also tried it in biscuit batters. But generally speaking, we consume honey as a raw product, and rarely as an ingredient in our family recipes. 

All the honey we consume comes from one source: I have a cousin who is a beekeeper. He refills my jars year after year. He keeps beehives in forested area in Sfakia, and produces fresh honey in the summer. So it is fair to call honey a seasonal product. Cretan honey is said to be among the best in the world. But like any overly good product, it can also be prone to fraud. At the same time, it is almost impossible to tell at first glance whether a honey variety is very good or not - colour, smell, density and crystallisation do not indicate this. Beekeepers may also feed their bees sugar in the colder months of the year or when there is a lack of flora, which is 'against' international rules for honey production. But we can't ever know this - such information can only be obtained by a laboratory analysis.

During a recent trip to London, a friend presented me with some honey that he had helped to produce. Apparently bees find London a better place to produce honey than other parts of England because London is where more flowers are grown, at least this is what we were told. The honey we were presented with certainly did look and taste different to our regular Cretan supplies. For a start, it was very runny (ours is very dense), it smelt of mint (ours smelt of thyme), it had a very clear colour (ours is quite dark), and we were told it was prone to natural cystalisation, which we found quite interesting, because we've never seen honey crystallise in our house (it gets eaten too quickly).

The honey came from Brockwell Park, where there are community gardens and a group of beekeepers who strive to produce fresh natural produce in a city where most food is imported into the general area. Apart from honey, my friend also collects beeswax and makes candles, and he is also learning to make mead. My friend also showed us some older honey, which had crystalised, so that it looked like butter in a jar. It's still good honey, he reassured us, which we found amusing, because he still hadn't opened the jar, which contained only a quarter of the amount that are own jars usually contain!

He also showed us a large plastic tub of honey which he explained was not good for eating because it contained too much moisture and tiny droplets of wax. In fact, it did taste a little waxy to us, and it was not very sweet, mainly due to the excess moisture content, we were told. He intended to use it to make mead - this supposedly sub-standard honey could be used as an ingredient, he told us, but it could not be sold as fresh honey. He also gave us some buttery looking manuka honey to try, which as a beekeeper, he thought he should try. As there was no other honey in his house where we were staying, except the buttery honey varieties, we preferred to use the waxy sub-standard honey which was still runny. I used it to make a pear pie with pears I had bought from Crete, and a cheese pie using mizithra I had also bought along with me. In both cases, I used this waxy honey in the batter as well as a topping. We liked the results very much. 

My friend also gave us some Brockwell Park honey to take home with us as a present. When I went to the store room to place it together with our honey jars, I was surprised to find a jar of Cretan honey lurking in a dark corner of the shelf, which I had not used in due time. It wasn't runny, and it hadn't lost its colour or its texture, but I could tell that this honey had undergone some transformation form its taste - it did not taste sweet and it seemed to lack the thyme aroma that I was used to. That's when I got the idea to take some samples of each honey type - fresh London honey (FL), old Cretan honey (OC), fresh Cretan honey (FC) - into the MAICh laboratories at work to have them checked.

Honey is influenced by very many factors: the flower species, temperature, environmental conditions, age and storage conditions are just a few things that make or break a good honey variety. The floral species used in the honey give honey its colour and aroma, as well as its texture. Crystallisation is also a feature in honey of certain floral species (eg citrus). Honey is like olive oil - their properties undergo a negative change as they age. So honey is not like wine, whose taste could improve with age. Apiculturalists check for moisture content, diastase activity and hydroxy-methyl-furfural (HMF) content.

Water content crystallises honey more quickly, which explains why the London honey crystallised whereas the Cretan honey didn't. The environmental conditions of London are damper than in Crete. This in fact was proven in the laboratory analyses: of the three samples, FL contained the highest moisture levels (17.6, while the two Cretan samples (OC and FC) contained  the same moisture content (14.3-14.6). But FL was still within the limits set by international regulations, which state that moisture content in honey must be less than 20.

Diastase activity tells us whether the honey has been subjected to high temperature, which makes it runnier. This is a trick that honey sellers may use if their honey crystalises. Honey production does involve heating but only at appropriate temperatures. Diastase activity is lower in honey that have been subjected to very high temperatures. Of my three honey samples, LH had the highest diastate activity (19.9) while FC had 13.8. Both honey were within international limits, which state that diastate acitivity must be higher than 8. But OC was not within the limit: it had a diastase activity of just 6.7. Since I know my honey source well, and both OC and FC come from the same source, what could have gone wrong? Most likely, the storage conditions of OC were inappropriate: I had left the honey in a space which gets overheated in summer, whcih most likely affected it, since I had forgotten it there for over a year, something I rarely do with honey, given our high consumption levels.

Finally, the HMF content also tells us about whether a honey variety has been heated inappropriately. This should be lower than 40, and all my honey samples fell well within the limit - FL: 3.4, OC: 5.8 and FC: 3. So I am able to conclude that the storage conditions for OC were what reduced the quality of my old Cretan honey sample.

The MAICh laboratory was also able to give us information on the pollen sources of each variety of honey, by checking for the frequency of pollen grains from nectar giving plants found in the honey. More importantly, the pollen information can tell us whether chemicals or artificial feeding have been used in the honey-making process. Bees travel a lot, so they are most likely picking pollen from a wide variety of sources. Here is what we found for my honey samples:
LH: Eucalyptus occidentalis type (29%), chestnut tree (Castanea sativa) (17%), with 3-15% traces of Pyrus-Prunus type (e.g. almond tree), Malus type (apple tree), Trifolium repens type, Robinia sp. (locust tree), sporadic traces of Salix sp., Brassicaceae, Centaurea sp., Boraginaceae, Liliaceae, and pollen grains of nectarless plants: Quercus sp., Graminae, Hypericum sp., Cyperaceae, Pinaceae.
OC: Eucalyptus camaldulensis (40%), with 3-15% traces of thyme (Thymbra capitata) (14%), dandelion (Taraxacum sp.), heather (Erica sp.), Trifolium repens type, sporadic traces of Cirsium type, Urginea maritima, Parthenocissus sp., Satureja thymbra, Citrus sp., avocado tree (Persea americana), Brassicaceae, and pollen grains of nectarless plants: Verbascum sp., Olea sp., Cistaceae, Graminae, Hypericum sp., Vitis vinifera, Ephedra sp.
FC: Chestnut tree (Castanea sativa) (32%), with 3-15% traces of thyme (Thymbra capitata) (12%), heather (Erica sp.), Trifolium repens type, myrtle (Myrtus communis), Eucalyptus sp., Satureja thymbra, sporadic traces of dandelion (Taraxacum sp.), Cirsium type, Apiaceae, Urginea maritima, Oxalis pes-caprae, Centaurea solstitialis type, Parthenocissus sp.and pollen grains of nectarless plants: Verbascum sp., Olea sp., Hypericum sp., Cistaceae, Pistacia lentiscus.

Based on the pollen examination, the London honey was classified as multi-floral while the Cretan samples were honey blends because they contained honeydew elements from pine trees, whereas the London honey contained no honeydew. This tells us a little about the insects that survive in the general area where the honey is produced. Honeydew, a honey blend of flower nectar and pine honeydew, also gives the darker colour of Cretan honey, which is highly prized in for its reputed medicinal value: in Greek mythology, méli, "honey", drips from the Manna–ash, (Fraxinus ornus), with which the Meliae, or "ash tree nymphs", nursed the infant god Zeus on the island of Crete.

However, the diastase activity of OC was below the honey legislation limit, so that particular honey sample can only be characterized as 'baker's honey'. Although I don't use honey in my baking, I am now using this honey in my cake batters and syrup making, instead of sugar to use it up without wasting it. Even my friend's high-moisture waxy London honey was still edible - it just wasn't marketable. Another interesting point is that the famous thyme honey of Crete can only be called 'thyme honey' when the thyme pollent content is at least 18%. Therefore, my thyme honey samples, while smelling unmistakably of thyme, cannot be called thyme honeys in the market sense because they contained only 14.6% (OC) and 13.4% (FH) thyme pollen.

I passed on the tests to my London friend who took them to his apiculturalist's club, who were very pleased to get them. Such tests are not available to small producers in London, mainly due to the cots involved. They were very pleased to read that their honey was of the highest quality that could be produced anywhere in their country. As for my own honey samples, I couldn't have been more pleased - and next time, I'll be more careful of where I store my honey jars.

Many thanks to Slim Blidi, whose thesis on the topic of "Effect of thermal treatment on the quality of Cretan honeys" I had the pleasure to read, whcih helped me to better understand the magic of honey, and enabled me to write this post.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki. 

Friday, 5 December 2014

Choices and decisions (Επιλογές και αποφάσεις)

It was getting rather late. Late for Londoners, that is. Most Greeks would be arriving at a restaurant after half-past nine (it was something like a quarter to ten) on a warm September evening, even if it were mid-week. The kebab house was typical of the style of London kebaberies: photos of Turkey, Aladdin's lamps hanging from the ceiling, arabesque red hues covering the walls, with a row of Tunisian wall tiles dividing them, and Greek music playing softly, all alluding to an exotic Mediterranean melange, which in reality does not exist.

"A table for five," I said to the black-garbed staff member who greeted us at the door. Black is the colour of service workers in London. The kebab house staff wore black shirts and black trousers, the staff at Primark where we would go shopping the next day also wore black, as did the staff at the Italian restaurant where we would have a quick lunch in between visiting exhibitions. Only the Muslim women staffing the museums and clothes stores weren't wearing black shirts and trousers - they wore black floor-length chadors instead, covering their whole body except their hands and faces.

The waiter waved his arm around the room and told us in his accented English (another London service worker's characteristic) to sit anywhere we wanted. The place seemed empty, save one occupied table. I felt embarrassed entering the restaurant so late, as if I would be keeping the waiters past their knock-off hour, but our host had warned us that some of the takeaways in the area might have already closed down by the time we got there, and he had chosen the closest eaterie to home. (I suppose we could have come earlier, but our previous view was rather exciting and we lost track of time.)

The table was already set, and the menu cars were brought to the table for our perusal. The word 'meze' featured prominently on the card, as it did on the paper placemat. Meze is used in many languages to mean the same thing. But when a Greek sees the word meze, it will be all Greek to him. And our Greek was at that point exploding from our mouths. We sounded just like a Greek TV news broadcast, where the news reader sits in the middle of the screen, with four little open windows on each corner with different people all speaking all at once. Our Greek chatter was immediately picked up by the waiter who came to take our orders.

Έλληνες είστε? he asked, with a big smile on his face. Standing before us was the epitome of Adonis (let's call him Adonis in this post): a tall, handsome, muscular young man, with an unmistakable fluent not-Cypriot Greek accent. He possessed the perfect proportions of a Greek statue, and in our eyes, his especially good looks and hospitable demeanour represented, precisely and unarguably, the archetype beauty of our country and people. Whatever trepidation I may have expressed initially about the restaurant before we entered it ('it's our first night in London and we're having a souvlaki?'), standing in front of us was proof that we could not have chosen a better place to dine. We felt, in our minds, as if we were in the home of a fellow Greek.

We got talking, in that Greek διασπορά way, where we all ask each other how we ended up in the non-Greek world. Indeed, everyone could tell a different story in answer to this question, even if they are from the same family. Most of us were born in Greece, some were born as Greeks in a faraway land, and one of us was a Greek who wasn't born Greek. Adonis was a Persian Greek. I recall a group of Persians of the Baha'i faith living in New Zealand; they spoke perfect Greek, having lived a few years in Athens after being granted refugee status there. I don't know how they arrived in Greece, but Adonis probably does, according to the stories his parents might have told them about how they came to Greece. Eventually some of the people Adonis' parents arrived with were given the right to travel and live and work in New Zealand. I am guessing that Adonis was born to refugees from the same stock as the people I had met in New Zealand, who never called themselves Iranians. They called themselves Persians.

Adonis had never been to Iran, and had only been in London for two years, as he explained:

"I was born in Athens. I lived in Greece all my life. My parents ran a small shop in an Athens suburb, selling car accessories and sound systems. And then the crisis came. So you can imagine how quickly we went out of business. No one was buying anything any longer. There were no jobs for any of us, my parents and my sister. My brother was still at school.
"Paying the rent suddenly became difficult. We were always worrying about being evicted. We were also worrying about the lack of food. If you live in the centre of Athens and you don't have any money, you won't have any food, either. We had put a little bit of money aside from our business. We never thought of savings as something you spend or fritter away on daily living expenses. So when things got really tough, we had to think of a plan. Staying in Athens was not an option. Staying in Greece wasn't an option either. We were urban people, and we couldn't make the transition to the rural parts. At any rate, jobs in the rural areas are always seasonal. We'd still have problems paying rent and bills.
Potato soup (with leek)
"Eventually, we made a decision to leave Greece. We had friends in London, and they told us that there were plenty of jobs there for anyone who wanted to work. We left as a family, the five of us. The most important thing for us was that we could remain together. We miss Athens, but we couldn't live there the way things were. We are all working now, and life isn't easy anywhere these days, but we are all working, we have a roof over our head, we aren't hungry.

Boiled potatoes
"For some time before we left Athens, we didn't have much food in the house, and we didn't want to spend our savings on daily living expenses, so we ate whatever we had in the house. At one point, all we had was potatoes. My mother cooked the potatoes in different ways. One day, we'd eat them boiled, the next day we'd eat them mashed, the next fried if we got hold of some oil. We had food, but we knew we were eating the same food all the time. We just got so sick of eating potatoes, but we could not do anything else about our predicament at the time. We just waited patiently for a better moment to come..."

Mashed potatoes
Adonis asked us where we were from. "Crete... oh, you're all better down there. There is tourism, there are jobs, you have food at your doorstep." We could not disagree. I asked him Adonis if he had been back, and he told us he had:

Potato cakes (with some leftover corn)
"I go back periodically for a visit. All my friends are there, I left a whole life behind in Athens. Sometimes the weather gets you down here. But it's hard everywhere and all places have their good sides and bad sides. It's hard... But it's also scary. Whenever I am returning to the UK, I get stopped at border control. My passport is Greek, but my name isn't, so I'm always asked to stay behind while they conduct their searches. I get delayed by about two hours before I get through..."

Fried potatoes
Adonis told us his story while simultaneously serving our meze (or more correctly, mezedes, in the Greek plural). "I told the chef to give you the works," he assured us, "I hope I haven't forgotten anything!" His smile was never absent while he spoke to us. Our appetite had of course diminished somewhat on hearing his story, but we did our best to eat everything up, to give a good impression, which was not really that hard, since the mezedes were very tasty.

I don't think we will ever forget Adonis. If we travel again to London, I intend to look him up. If I find him at the same place, that's a good sign. If he's left, that's even better. It means he will have advanced in his life and not remained stagnant.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki. 

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

The privilege of advanced studies

Having understood the stress that the students were under when we told them that they would not last longer than Christmas at our institute if they did not show signs of improvement in their English tests grades, Omar from Syria (a second-year student) came to find me, to tell me about how he went from scoring a very low grade to obtaining not just a passing grade, but something higher than that, in just two months. He asked me to tell the first-year students to find him and he would tell them what he did. I asked that, instead of students going to find him (which they wouldn't do anyway, mainly out of neglect and - dare I say it - laziness), Omar should come to my class and tell them what he did. He agreed.
What did Omar do to attain such a grade? Here is his story:
"I would go to bed every night at 9.30. I didn't attend any of the social events that the students organised. Then I'd get up at 4am, splash cold water on my face to wake me up and take my laptop and notebook downstairs to the computer study room (so that I didn't disturb my roommate). I would start studying at 5am, never before, because I wanted to treat myself to waking up slowly, so I didn't tire myself out. I studied English systematically for 3 hours every morning, never less, never more, for two months. I used the teaching materials provided (ie my materials), and a book of exercises, all on the computer, nothing on paper. If I didn't understand any words, I'd write them in my notebook and look them up. I made an effort to learn three new skills every day. In the first few days it was hard. After the first few weeks, it got easy. By the end of the two months, I was simply practicing - and answering successfully - everything I learnt."
At the end of the 20-minute seminar, Omar pointed out that this was his way to improve his English skills, and it won't work for everyone, but everyone should be able to tweak the program to find one that suits them. While Omar was speaking, I would interrupt him (we had agreed on how to do this) to reinforce some of his points, eg you don't really need paper tests, you can work on the computer; you don't need to learn things off by heart, you need to study at the RIGHT time, with the RIGHT materials and in the RIGHT way; you don't need to spend hours in a classroom studying English with a teacher, you need to know what questions to ask your teacher when you see her, or better still email her with your query. Teaching and learning is not like in the past when we had a teacher, and books, pens and paper: it's more dynamic now - and much much faster.
At the same time, I had to ask some of other students to stop talking amongst themselves while Omar was speaking. I also had to remind them (while they laughed, especially on hearing 'no socialising' and 'wake up at 4am') that, actually, they have their meals cooked, their rooms cleaned, and their expenses paid while they are here, so there is no excuse for not being a hard-working student. 

Studying is a privilege these days. You need to show some good results to those who give you that privilege. Otherwise, we can bestow the privilege on other more deserving people.

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