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  1. 20170525_174410It's said that Odysseus managed to hike across Ithaka in a single day - from his arrival, loaded with Phaecian gifts, in a cave by the shore, to his arrival at the spring where Eumeaus the swineherd was watering his livestock. Well, Odysseus was a god-favoured superhero, and his upbringing on the slopes of Ithaka must have habituated him to their crazy gradients. For me, the slopes were hell - at least on the uphill. But hiring a bike meant that I always had something to look forward to - after the thigh-aching uphill stretches, the downhill plunge! Wind blasts in your face and chest, cool on the early morning rides, the heat pressing down on your shoulders in the afternoons, the road slides back behind you, like it's being pulled out from under your tyres. Far more than para-gliding or any of those knotty activities with all their safety measures, it's this - rolling down the precipitous slopes in which Ithaka specialises - that feels like the closest I've been to flying. 

    Ithaka is of course famous as the home of Odysseus - and that's why I'm here on the tip of a journey that's taken me from the Homeric battlegrounds of Troy. The epic tale is referenced in all sorts of ways here - from a jewellery store named after the Phaecian princess Nausicaa, to the Calypso Studios and Odyssaion Apartments, to a bust of Homer and a statue of a sea-wracked Odysseus on the waterfront of the island's main town, Vathy. The most fitting tribute to the Odyssey I've come across here wasn't on a pedestal or plinth, but moored on the waterfront - a Hungarian yacht, whose captain had sailed all the way from Troy, tracing Odysseus's sea journey according to his interpretation of the clues in the poem. 'It's a bit easier for us,' he admitted,  'as we have a modern ship and better navigational equipment.' Although like Odysseus, he had faced storms and volatile winds. A reminder of the best of Odysseus: a cipher for the adventuring spirit. 'Blessings from Odysseus,' as the local traveller's motto goes. It's amazing to think how many travellers this fascinating hero has inspired.20170526_215814

  2. A few years ago, travelling across Iran and Afghanistan, I was amazed by the social capital of poetry – its value outside the academic box it tends to get squeezed into in the west. I met farmers who could recite hundreds of verses while reaping their crops, former soldiers who had recited on the front-line to stir their comrades, political activists who had chanted medieval verses in demonstrations against their government. Now that spirit is coming to Europe.

      During workshops at the refugee education centre on Chios, BAAS, I worked with young Afghans, Syrians, Iraqis, Yemenis and students from many other countries, composing verses about a range of subjects. These included unrequited love, the desolation of losing family members, sexual betrayal, homesickness, surrealism. I've never been so convinced that poetry has value – listening to the verses as the students read them out, then teasing out translations, words batted back and forth across the table, we were digging inside each other's inner psyches, peeling back the skin, reaching towards each other. Sometimes it felt bruising, sometimes ecstatic, always human. The powerful feelings expressed by the students reinforced the depth and range of experiences so many of them have lived through. It's part of their struggle to find some kind of form, if not meaning, for what they have been through. Poetry is a powerful way of doing that.

      If you would like to see some examples of the refugees' poetry, take a look at the BAAS website: https://medium.com/chios-voices/en/home. And if you would like to support the work of BAAS (which provides free education for young refuges), please consider sending a donation through: https://www.gofundme.com/RefugeeEducationChios. I know from my experience on Chios that it would be well spent.