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Athens 2006. The ESF alter-clockwise blog

Monday 24 July 2006, by María B.

by María B.

What is the ESF? A colleague asked yesterday on the bus back to real-life Edinburgh, number 25 to Heriot-Watt. Wow, chica. Where could I start?

A Forum is this:


Welcome to Tijuana; tequila, sexo y marihuana.

Bienvenida a Tijuana, bienvenida mi amor...

I will raconte alter-clockwise if you don’t mind, so as to capture the "horizontal" spirit of the Forum, in the language I see fit to express each feeling, 278 seminars, conferences, workshops, 104 cultural events, every debate, demonstration, tent, fair-trade food stand, concert, cada momento y su olor.

Saturday, as I said.

Saturday night. Athens. Somewhere near the second stop of Aghios Cosmos. Pling. Suena Manu Chao.

Descuelgo two posters of Babels, first el multicolor, then the green one. I know exactly where they could hang in my living-room de Edimburgo. Les quito el cello tape slowly without rasgarlos y los enrollo carefully, reinforcing the rollo en las esquinas with two pieces of paper.

Ya está. Another Foro Over.

Los de ALIS (Alternative Interpretation System) have brought a mesa de mezclas of the size of a cocina de gas for the farewell party. Intérpretes Babelillos bounce al son de la música, o se menean junto a technicians and coordinators. La fiesta Babels-ALIS had started quite late, at about midnight, but is now en pleno apogeo, everyone wearing bright-coloured T-shirts with either the Babels or the all-new ALIS logo. Ooops, logo no. No Logo

The new ALIS Creative Commons design, then? Whatever you prefer calling it, it’s beautiful:

A very scary Alice wearing thunder-lit headphones interprets away To Make Wonderland Possible under the acronym ALIS, its letters entwined by audio cables conveying her relay into what could very Possibly be Another Looking Glass: us. Tik.You have to love it. It’s Gothic, Frankenstein, Edinburgh, Linux... it’s all it should be and, here’s the best: it works.
The consoles worked! Hurrah. The technicians rocked.

Enter ALIS of Wonderland, enter the first giant step towards quality in Social Forum Interpreting. Another Quality is not only Possible, but on her way . And if you listen carefully you can hear ALIS breathing, behind each and every word pronounced by a steaming Babelito.

We showed the documentary made in Ecos after a meeting so long it reached "horizontal" horizons. Yan chaired pretty unvertically too, all things considered, as our one and only linusero engineer (ALIS notwithstanding) has all the Babelian info by definition.

Still, we should have planned the first screening of Tik a bit better. In the end, este siempre es mi sino, Julia, Jeez et moi fuimos in Search of the Data Projector and Loudspeakers. Somehow my life is full of struggles and dramas regarding a data projector. My destino es ser a Data Projector Crusader. After much persuasion and lip pursing the non-BOFH (that is, the alter-operator from Limbo or geek , sorry, tech-nerd), said yes, not before having told him my boyfriend is also a nerdy Linux developer and that the ALIS team has done a great job.

Thursday morning in my alter-schedule. I’m still going alter-clockwise, con vuestro permiso.

I make my first round with Marta and we realise interpreters need more water in many of the seminars. Heriotwabelitos help out and we take more bottles to most booths. I start to get to grips with just how huge the event is. Marta, Julia and company have done a wonderful job as organisers. Chapeau.

My first session (3 hrs) is on Human Rights and Security Policies in Europe and around the Mediterranean. The second on European Citizenship and Migration. The third, on the privatisation of railway systems in France. Nine hours in total, taking turns with ma friends. Somewhere in between all the interpreting I managed to get my food coupons and went for lunch with Valentina. I was really glad to see her again. I also have to thank Anthanasios, Anastasia and Mariel for feeding me later that day when I was in need and in a hurry between sessions, and all the Heriotwabelitos, Ecositos and Babelitos who did a wonderful job, including Said, our one and only Arabic Heriotwabelito whom I saw only briefly a few times.

Saturday in the alter-calendar.

The most joyful moment of the day, without shadow of a doubt, was when we all had our names read out loud in Italian. This musical experience (for which we all gathered gaily around the prima donna and even joined in repeating the last line of the chorus for the sake of those unfortunate enough to have missed it the first time) was followed by the reimbursement of some 350 Euro in travel expenses, as promised by ESF organisers, all thanks to a considerable amount of stubbornness on the part of Babels coordinators, who had put their foot down on this one as they always do and simply refused in the name of all Babelitos to wait months for a bank transfer.

What a long sentence, but then it was such a long day...

Tania, Vasilis the ex-Heriotwabelito et moi had taken the wrong bus in Syntagma Square. We ended up in the middle of nowhere and had to share a taxi with one of the speakers at the Forum who categorically refused to accept any money from us for the ride.

Greek hospitality is flabbergasting.

Havela, my Greek host, an alter-journalist and activist, was impeccable. I inhabited her living-room for four nights, or the equivalent to two nights by eight-hour night standards. I could have been a serial killer, a death-eater, a Christian ecologist, a sexist trade unionist or a fake volunteer wanting a free flight to Athens. I could have been a shower stainer, a cookie monster, an mp3 snatcher, a picky eater or an alter-abortionist Muslim. I could have been any of these things or all of them simultaneously while a volunteer at the Forum, and yet she trusted me with her flat and gave me a copy of her keys. I can’t get over it.

Her flat had a stunning view of Athens from a sixth floor in Alexandras Avenue. I brought her some shortbread and a fridge magnet featuring a smiling bagpiper in his kilt, Edinburgh Castle in the background. I barely got to know her, but if it hadn’t been for her help the road to the ESF in Athens would have been a lot bumpier. Poor Ellen wasn’t as lucky. She had to change hotels twice, apparently.

Sunday, alter-chronologically.

Woke up early again to see the Acropolis before taking the plane back to Edinburgh, with that ecstatic feeling of having done things, well or not, of having finished essential business.

All in Athens was as impeccable as Havela’s flat, except for one taxi driver who ranted about there being a non-existent demonstration as an excuse not to take me back to Alexandras, until a policeman passed by and made him change his mind. He then drove the taxi a few blocks further calling me all things Greek not nice, stopped the car and told me to get off.

I said to him: ¡¡¡El perro de San Roque no tiene rabo!!! and he glared at me as though I’d killed his mother. I almost gave him the finger, but I thought the peace sign would be more appropriate. I was right: it infuriated the man to Achillean extent.

"Rage- sing, goddess, the rage of Achilles, the son of Peleos, the destructive rage that brought countless griefs upon the Achaeans."

But if the griefs are countless, wouldn’t it be just one grief, then?

He left before I could gather my wits and sing Welcome to Tijuana.

It’s Saturday again in my alter-structured diary of the ESF.

We, the Ecositos from Granada, come back to the venue, exhausted from "trailing ghost demonstrations". The tram is packed but we push our way in before the doors close. Marina finds herself squished against the chest of an alter-globalist Adonis.

¡Hala! I say to her. Ya te has echado un noviete. She replied something I’d rather not repeat and we all burst into laughter. It wasn’t until after we had made a few more rollicking comments of the sort that we realised Adonis was in fact Spanish and was having the time of his life.

Hysterical laughter followed, as we knew we would be all trapped in that tram crushed against one another like sardinas en lata for 40 minutes before reaching the Forum. There was not much else we could do given the situation except singing Welcome to Tijuana, Hasta Siempre Comandante, Guantanamera, del barco de Chanquete No Nos Moverán and other such felicitous tunes. Indeed, we could not move or be moved. It was so packed Mari Nieves couldn’t even scratch her forehead and someone had to do it for her.

Our trip to the alterglobalist demonstration had been a bummer. Some asshole had decided to burn a bin and the Greek police had overreacted by throwing tear gas canisters. Three young Ecositas from Granada had been unlucky enough to have been right there when it happened and the tear gas caused them a lot of crying and irritation in the eyes.

No worries about our Heriotwabelitos- they were elsewhere sightseeing in Athens at the time.

Our three brave Ecositas rushed into the first building they encountered asking for water to splash their eyes with. Then the owner of the hotel, thinking they were being followed by the police, beckoned them into a living room and closed the curtains behind them. From there they phoned Jesús, the Ecosito teacher, and we summoned a rescue team of teachers, Spanish coordinators and older Babelitos.

It took us a while to get there, what with streets closed off and the Metro not working in that station. We even had to ask the police for directions! When we finally got there, all was OK, the itching had ceased, but the demonstration was long past and gone. We tried shortcutting towards the US Embassy, but it turned out not to be such a good idea, as it was literally enfolded by policemen and all the surrounding streets had been shut off. Then, we saw a cloud of tear gas in the distance and, of course, we fled.

On the news, the next day, there was nothing at all about the seminars and conferences we had attended, interpreted at and worked in for five days dusk to dawn. There was nothing about the NGOs, the rights of indigenous peoples and campesinos to farm their own lands, nothing about fair trade, public health care or climate change.

The only photo they showed about the ESF depicted a bunch of assholes burning that freaking bin.

Friday, still going alter-clockwise.

My alter-schedule included "A democracy for Colombia: War, Movements, Towards a Resolution of the Conflict", starring Mariel and Sarah-Jane in the English Heriotwabelito booth, producing an excellent relay for the enjoyment of all the other cabinas. I have to thank Guillermo and Bea for their debriefing on Colombia that morning before the conference started. They know what team work is all about!

Then I did "Dialogues between theory and practice: researchers, activists and activist researchers" where I had the pleasure of sharing a booth with Tania, a professional interpreter who had decided to turn down a job at a conference in The Hague last week because she thought the Forum was more important and didn’t want to betray her priorities in life. I can but take my hat off to her. In the booth, too. I learned loads from her that day. Also, the seminar was beautiful, about action research and related activist ways of empowering the subjects of your research!!! ;-)

Friday night and someone rushes into the Babels lounge in desperate need of an English booth. Ross et moi go to the rescue. I was so exhausted by then I don’t even remember what the conference was about. I do remember a long conversation with Ross about the Spanish Civil War while one of the speakers did his thing in English. Then, the Spanish interpreters realised they could use our booth instead of doing chuchotage and kicked us out, and rightly so.

Lucky Stuart got to interpret with Luis, a professional who is just awesome. He said Stuart had done well, too! Thursday night Luis took a few of us to a tavern where we savoured the most delicious Greek traditional dishes. We were all burnt out, but no matter how tired we were, it was impossible not to have a good laugh with the stories he tells. And Paca!! Mi Paca, qué habríamos hecho sin ti. ¡Y cómo hemos echado de menos a los que no han venido! Belén, Bego, Jose, Quique, Juan, Pedro y todos los que me faltan, perdonadme.

On Friday night I went to Amparanoia’s concert with the Ecositos and some Babelitos. I thought exhaustion would get the most of me and that I would have to leave pretty early, but I’d forgotten interpreting exhaustion is mostly mental ;-) The Babelitos welcomed the opportunity to dance and sing and bounce like Raul up and down for a couple of hours to get rid of all that adrenaline lurking in their systems.

Next thing I knew, it was all over.

Sunday de madrugada, the farewell party goes on.

It must be like four-thirty. I manage to say goodbye to a few Babelitos, but not all. I’ve met so many people in four days, some of them for the first time, I’m sure I’m forgetting many names. Please forgive me. Rodrigo y el comité de Welcome Babels at the airport, Martita, Estefanía y David, Anni, María, Raúl, Lorraine, Paula the ex-Heriotwabelita who took the bus with me into Athens, the Babelita from Almería who was half Indian and had such beautiful eyes, the Canadian Babelito, the Gay Babelitos who found other Gay Babelitos, the Israeli Babelito, the Czech Babelitas who-interpreted-few, the Babelito in shorts who told us to buy cookies, our two wonderful Blind Babelitos, the French Babelito who went to the toilet and left me for five minutes alone in the French booth cagadilla, our Private-Uni or Public-Uni Babelitos, Martita’s niñas from Alicante whose host had the funniest way of arranging her mantelpiece with Orthodox Saints (send me those pictures, please), the Babelitos who danced rock, the Babelitos who wore penis-like balloons on their heads during the party, the Babelito-ligón cuatreca in the orange T-shirt who had a girlfriend in Madrid, whatever your name is, and all the rest of you.

Thank you all for a unique experience. No tengo palabras.

I took the bus back to the airport, alone this time, reflecting upon the wonders and drawbacks of "horizontal" coordination and what Marta had said the day before, ruminating all the philosophical content of her words. There will have to be enough people with the time and energy to volunteer for the next ESF coordination. Crucemos los dedos.

I check my luggage and take my time at sipping a cappuccino and eating a piece of delicious Greek cheesecake. I pass the security control, find my gate and sit down with a sigh.

It’s over. No one else in this room knows the alterglobe I’ve been residing in the last few days.

I look up and the person sitting next to me is Chris, a colleague and Heriotwabelito, who happens to have booked exactly the same flight via Prague.

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