Thank God it's Friday

4th April 1997 at 01:00
Friday: It's 4.30am, and a colleague and I are en route to a conference in Italy with our European partner schools as part of the "Socrates" exchange initiative. Both Peter and I suffer from punctuality paranoia, and consequently we spend two hours at Manchester waiting for our flight. I've had no sleep at all.

Arriving at Naples airport at 1.00pm we are met by Professor Giovanni Trotta, the headteacher of one of our partner schools. He speaks no English. I speak almost-fluent ristorante Italian, but little else, so I sit back and smile while Peter makes conversation. Despite my protestations that I am vegetarian, Prof Trotta takes us to McDonald's, where we find a salad bar, no less.

Disembarking from the ferry to the island of Ischia, we are met by Crescenzo, a thoughtful teacher who speaks excellent English. I am just about to announce my intention to have a nap, when Crescenzo says the plan is to have a three-hour meeting about the project and he'll pick us up in half an hour. He isn't joking.

Saturday: The two teachers who have come from another partner school in Komotini, in northern Greece, are relieved to see me appear at breakfast dressed in a suit, looking like a proper headteacher. They must have been disconcerted by my jeans yesterday. Today we go to visit one of the Ischian schools, where photos are taken and books exchanged. I pull off a major coup by presenting Prof Trotta with an inscribed, Sheffield-silver tray to mark the beginning of the partnership.

After touring the school I find a TV film crew waiting to interview the Greek deputy head and myself. My ability to order food and drink is of no use here, so I participate in a bizarre, three-way interview which is curiously reminiscent of those interviews on Match of the Day when exotic footballers' banal statements assume gravitas for being spoken in a foreign tongue. Later the two Italian heads treat us to a splendid meal on the harbour and I am able to speak Italian at last, ordering wine, water, bread, the lot.

Sunday: A free day, so we join the Greek staff on a trip to Naples and Pompeii. I've never been before and am quite excited, but Peter has been there on 18 school trips and laughs manically when we are offered guides to the site. We ponder the rationale behind grassing over the Forum, which resembles a cricket pitch.

Any thoughts of catching up on sleep on the ferry back to Ischia are destroyed by a large group of Christian evangelists armed with guitars. I have evil thoughts about the arena at Pompeii.

Monday: We visit the other Ischian school, a technical high. This is full of big, bruising lads, and I feel quite at home. I'm surprised by a request to address 150 students on the subject of Socrates, Westfield School and the English education system, followed by questions from the floor. The students are thoughtful, asking, among other things, how often English school students go on strike. A final dinner is held in our honour. Crescenzo turns up again and has had a personality transplant, or else he's drunk. He doesn't stop singing all evening and forces the English contingent to respond; our feeble rendering of the school hymn (Jerusalem!) makes me cringe.

Tuesday: Boarding the ferry to Naples, Peter groans with relief that he won't have to answer any more questions. But before we've found a seat the deputy head of the technical school has appeared and is quizzing us again - in French. Peter opts out and I dig out my 20-year old French, which was never that good. "Deux cafes et deux croissants, s'il vous plait . . ."

Helen Freeborn is head of Westfield School in Sheffield.

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