A Miscellany of Memories – Part 3
During the 15 years from 1974 to my appointment as Head of the Junior School in 1989 I think I organised and led between 15 and 20 overseas tours, including regular visits to Italy (usually Rome and the Bay of Naples to visit Pompeii and Herculaneum, sometimes Rome and Florence or Venice as an alternative), several to Greece (usually Athens and a few islands) and also to Crete, Morocco, Egypt, Turkey and Russia. I could usually find a connection with Classics which would justify the destination!
As time passed Lewis Tours became an annual feature and helped to ensure the number choosing to study Latin as one of their options was apparently the highest in the country. As well as the enticement of tours we also used to enjoy organising Roman-style parties, putting on unofficial Greek plays and introducing strange initiatives which boys seemed to enjoy. These included telling them they could get off their weekend homework if the Scotland rugby team won as long as they agreed to do double if they lost. Youthful optimism meant they were usually happy to accept the challenge and Scotland’s ability to lose most of their games usually led to extra work.
After Barrie Fleet retired I was appointed Head of Classics and appointed as my assistant Iain Crosbie and, some years later, Avril McInnes. I shared many adventures with both of them on our travels and Ian eventually succeeded me, proving to be a superb Head of Department and Pied Piper for Classics.
Although it is only right that what happens on tour normally stays on tour a few of the highlights which were not necessarily part of any official report might jog some memories. In no particular order ……
- One afternoon on the Greek island of Spetses we were waiting for the ferry back to Athens and boys being boys were pretending to push each other into the harbour. An American lady declared loudly, I think as a joke, that she would give the first boy who jumped fully-clothed into the water $20. The winner hit the water almost before she finished the sentence. To be fair to her she did hand over $20 to a very wet boy!
- Sunbathing on a beach in Crete one afternoon I became aware that a few of the senior boys seemed to be paying a lot of attention to two teenage girls sunbathing a few metres away. One of the boys decided in a fit of bravado to approach the girls, whom he assumed were locals who might be impressed by his Scottish charm. He decided it would be very impressive to introduce himself in Greek. He asked me what the Greek for ‘good afternoon’ was and, when I told him it was ‘kalimera’, he plucked up the courage to approach the girls. The short conversation was along the lines of:
‘Kalimera, I’m Joe and I’m from Edinburgh’
‘Hi Joe, I’m Aggie from Dalkeith
For reasons best known to himself Joe (not his real name but I can’t remember who it was!) blushed and scuttled back to his friends.
- On our first school visit to Florence I decided that I ought to find out something about the famous works of art we planned to visit so that I could enlighten the boys. I duly learned all about the carved panels on one of the four sides of a famous work of art (I don’t remember which!) which had been sculpted by Giotto, one of the great Renaissance masters. I planned only to ‘lecture’ the boys about the ‘famous’ side as the other three were the work of his pupils. Each panel represented an Old Testament scene and I duly began to explain the representations of Old Testament stories, beginning with Adam and Eve.
I soon became aware as I spoke that we were being joined by a growing number of random visitors, all presumably pleased they were benefiting from the expertise of an English-speaking guide! When I reached the fourth panel and told the boys to have a look at Noah’s Ark I realised to my horror that there was no ark visible, just a collection of saints. I kept talking even though it quickly dawned on me that we were looking at the wrong side of the Tower and that everything I had said to date was rubbish. Given the situation I decided to keep going and so I continued to explain the meaning of each panel using any visual clues I could see and trying to relate them to vaguely-remembered biblical events. The Americans took photos, the Germans nodded sagely, the Japanese smiled. And the Stewart’s Melville boys? I imagine that they continued to look into the distance and hope it would soon be time for pizza.
I ploughed on, having worked out that very few, perhaps none, of the boys would be paying sufficient attention to the panels to work out what had happened. When I finished I was greeted with a smattering of applause and I assume some of the Americans went home to share memories of Giotto’s wonderful carvings with their families, never knowing that their pictures were actually of the much less celebrated works of one of Giotto’s pupils.
- Visitors to Moscow in the 1980s were always ‘encouraged’ to visit the preserved body of Lenin (was it really him?) in an underground mausoleum in Red Square and we duly joined a long queue. As we shuffled closer to the tomb the guards became more officious, demanding that hats were removed and hands taken out of pockets (it was very cold!). As we finally reached the steps leading down into the mausoleum one of the boys told me he was feeling very unwell and was going to vomit. Telling him that he definitely could not do that had no effect and he duly vomited on the steps, even managing to splatter the highly-polished shoes of one of the motionless and expressionless guards. Cue panic as two trilby-wearing plain-clothes men quickly appeared and asked me and the offending boy to follow them.
I began to wonder how we would cope with 5 years in the Lubyanka as we were led into a small room. I was asked to explain ourselves by an official speaking perfect English. I thought quickly and decided that the best option would be to convince our interrogator that the boy had been so excited about visiting Lenin’s tomb that he had become overcome with emotion and involuntarily (and perhaps unbelievably!) vomited. My explanation was followed by a long silence, then a grin and handshakes all round. I am still not quite sure why my story was believed but it was, and we were able to rejoin the rest of the group and be suitably impressed by what we all decided was a wax impression. Perhaps it really was the preserved body of Lenin but we decided not to ask the guards!
- One day in Istanbul the boys were wandering in groups round the Grand Bazaar souk in Istanbul. A couple of boys came running to find me as they wanted to tell me that some of the senior boys seemed to be swapping a first-year boy for a giant Turkish carpet. I decided that I should probably intervene (true leadership!) and followed the boys to a stall where a spirited conversation was taking place between the shopkeeper and a group of boys. They explained that as a joke they had asked how much a small rug would be as they wanted to practise their bartering skills. They gradually raised the stakes by asking the price of bigger and bigger rugs until they reached a full-size carpet. When they heard how much it would cost they said that sadly they could not afford it but one of them joked that they would swap one of the youngest boys for the carpet. They became very concerned that the shop-keeper seemed to be interested in their offer and so I was summoned. It all finished with smiles and handshakes but I did fleetingly wonder how the boy’s parents would have reacted if we had presented them with a very large and beautiful carpet at Edinburgh Airport instead of their 12 year-old son!