Another Day, A Different View

“But that’s the glory of foreign travel, as far as I am concerned. I don’t want to know what people are talking about. I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.”

– Bill Bryson, Neither Here Nor there: Travels in Europe

The Walls of Thessaloniki
The Walls of Thessaloniki; photo credit: Michele Smoot

It is easy to feel lost when traveling in another country. Greek doesn’t make much sense to me, the letters are unfamiliar and strange. I squint when I read signs and am constantly puzzled when I make a turn on a block, always losing my way–the beauty of traveling to a new place, you never know what to expect or where you’re going to end up.

Take an hour to examine the walls, notice the cracks, the history and soak up the view. The walls reminded me of Fort San Cristóbal in San Juan, Puerto Rico and a feeling of familiarity and protection overwhelmed me.

I wake up everyday and I make it my mission to explore. Instead of getting off at the correct bus stop I stay on, enjoying the ride for a few more stops, hoping I might see another jewel from Thessaloniki. Sometimes getting lost is intentional but most of the time it’s not (and that’s okay too).

After thirteen days of being in Greece I no longer feel worried, scared or alone. Before, it felt like my anxiety was going to swallow me whole.

I don’t feel like a tourist invading the country for a few week and then jetting back home, barely letting the city reveal it’s secrets. I feel changed but I am still the same person. I’m undergoing an experience that has just started but in the blink of an eye will be–unfortunately, regrettably (insert another synonym here)–over.

Take a peek over the edge and this is what you'll see.
Take a peek over the edge and this is what you’ll see.

Wine Gets You Off Your Feet

In a previous post I wrote about my surprise that Greeks don’t dance. They dance, they just don’t dance like Americans do. They aren’t doing the Harlem Shake, Cha-Cha-Slide, Cupid Shuffle or dropping it down low (even though I can’t drop it down low either or shake anything without looking like Big Bird).  Once they have a few drinks, whether it’s wine or ouzo, the dance moves start to come out. One by one, Greeks will get up and loop their arms with another, kicking their feet, having the time of their life.

*I apologize for the low quality pictures. My camera decided to spontaneously stop working so I’ve been using my camera phone.

Survival Greek and A Campus Tour

Kalimera! Good morning! After our short introduction to Greece it was easy to forget the main reason we were here was to learn.

Our introduction to the American College of Thessaloniki started bright and early with a full day of orientation. There was a lot of grumbling because the day was jam packed with things we had to do. We had breaks only for meals, other than that we had to sit in uncomfortable chairs and force ourselves not to drift off, dreaming about the outside and what we wanted to see next.

In reality, orientation was not that bad. We had a necessary but short thirty minute introduction to the Greek language in order to survive during our six weeks here.

My advice is to learn as much as you can, even if the result is a blank stare at you and your mispronunciation because taxi drivers, regular people on the street and employees in restaurants will correct you to help you learn and teach you a few words of your own.

Here’s what’s important to know, broken down phonetically:

  • Jia sas – Hello
  • Kalimera – Good morning
  • Signomi – Excuse me
  • Ne – Yes
  • Efharisto – Thank You

You can get around any country by just knowing hello, goodbye, thank you and yes (remember, we don’t use the word no because no allows us to stay in our comfort zone).

Besides those words, here are a few things we learned during orientation:

  • Greeks are friendly and happy people. They smile even when they’re angry. (I don’t necessary know if this is true because I’ve yet to witness it. However, I can say they are very friendly people. Don’t be surprised if you’re on the bus and one starts talking to you, asking you about home, where you’re from, what you do and how much money you earn.)
  • Girls go on dates supervised by their brother or cousin. Brothers even go out with their sisters or cousins to clubs to make sure no one disrespects them. (True and strange coming from a New Yorker who is used to seeing men and hearing them whistling at women and pressing themselves against them in a club).
  • Greeks don’t dance. I didn’t learn this in orientation but this is an observation that has puzzled a few of us. You know how you go to a club in New York or anywhere else in the United States and people head straight to the dance floor? Yeah, it’s not like that in Greece. We visited a few clubs and for the most part they stand around with a drink in their hand and talk. They’ll be provoked to dance when Americans start and will compliment you on your dance moves, no matter how bad they are (shopping cart anyone?).

After sitting around for a few hours our final task for orientation was a campus tour.

Like most journeys ours began on a road. I think the big question is are we following the one less traveled?
Bissell Library is the place to go for research. Unlike the library at my home campus, The College of Staten Island, this one is inviting and spacious. They have comfortable cushioned seats for you to relax on and light fills the entire library during the day thanks to large glass windows. The library glows. No, this is not an exaggeration.
A close-up of Bissell Library.
I wasn’t joking about the glow. No, this isn’t a filter from Instagram or Photoshop. It’s literally glowing in Greece. What more can you ask for?
“Sphere,” located in Bissell Library.

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Do as the Greeks Do, Eat at a ταβέρνα and Haggle, Haggle, Haggle

My first night in Greece consisted of dinner. When I arrived it was three in the afternoon and I had had my first international meal at the airport in Turkey. I ate Burger King because they had mostly American fast food in the food court and I didn’t want to try any Turkish cuisine. I was determined to have Greek food, authentic Greek food.

I didn’t have to scour the streets at night by myself to find what I wanted. A group of other study abroad students decided to have dinner and everyone was invited. What I learned early on was that Greeks eat dinner later than Americans. I’m used to having dinner at 5 PM, maybe 6 PM but no later. We left our apartment around nine and followed Elizabeth, one of the girls who happened to be Greek and used to study at ACT.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. At home the only Greek food I can find is from Trader Joe’s in the frozen section (if you haven’t tried their spanakopita I suggest you do, it’s delicious).

This is the first taverna we visited.

We walked a few blocks in the dark until Elizabeth stopped abruptly, signaling for us to sit down while she went inside to speak in Greek with the owner. Apparently Greeks like to haggle and when you go to a taverna or ταβέρνα, haggling is expected. It isn’t a sign of disrespect but something culturally accepted that I don’t fully understand.

I can’t imagine haggling back home at my local diner or Applebee’s (give me free fries and a discount on ribs—yum). The waitress or waiter would probably spit in my food and I’d end up on the 10 o’clock news with a headline like, “College Girl Goes Crazy at Applebee’s! Demands Price Cut on Food!” There would be a long discussion on what’s wrong with my generation, who is to blame, some figures about unemployment and since everyone has a phone now I’m sure I’d be on YouTube, remixed with some awful background music, crazily haggling with the waitress and twerking would somehow be involved.

That scenario aside, it isn’t like that in Greece. Elizabeth came back, sat down at the head of our long wooden table and simply said she had ordered for us and we were getting a discounted price, along with–wait for it–free wine.

Here’s our bread and free white wine. The wine was very strong but delicious and the bread was soft and went well with olive oil and vinegar.

For a country currently going through a financial crisis, free wine is not as uncommon as you’d think.

We cheered to everyone’s first official night in Greece, excited for orientation the next day.

If you try to learn basic Greek hard enough or just have a small conversation with restaurant owners, kiosk workers or employees, you may get a discount, a Greek lesson or a free meal (this is rare but happened to my roommate on her second day here).

What’s not to like about Greece?

We started dinner off with Greek salad. Traditional Greek salad doesn’t have lettuce in it but since the owner knew we were American he added the lettuce for us. Dinner also included roasted chicken, fried feta cheese with tomato, cheese balls and dessert (Greek flan, ice cream and chocolate cake).
Center Dish: Potatoes with crumbled feta cheese.
Center dish: Fried feta cheese in oil and tomato.

Walking Around the Neighborhood: Art in Greece

Coming from New York I’m used to seeing graffiti on the side of buildings, in train stations and on the side of buses and taxis. Sometimes you see amazing portraits but most of the time it’s curses, names of people or random words that mean something only to the person who sprayed it for the world to see.

Imagine my surprise when I came to Greece and saw graffiti on some of the buildings as I walked throughout the street. However, what I’ve learned is they consider the scribbled words and images works of art.

I found this when I got lost going home one day. Punk’s not dead? I thought it was funny because I see this in New York all the time. I guess it’s a message that is important abroad too.
Oops? Looking at this artistically I appreciated the effort the artist took to duplicate their work three times.
This was on the side of a store called, ‘fenafresh.’ Homer Simpson seems to be pretty popular in Thessaloniki. I’ve seen other portraits of him too.
I found this in a park when I was searching for some food. This reminded me more of home than anything else. I’m not entirely convinced it’s art but I don’t think it’s ugly to the eye either. I guess Greeks appreciate everything they see around them and maybe I need to use their viewpoint when it comes to small things like graffiti. Everything has meaning, beauty and a purpose.

Welcome to Alexandrias! Your Home Away From Home

Since my roommate arrived two days before me, my bed was the one on the right, without sheets and a welcome packet filled with information about the city, rules for the apartment and what to expect for the next few weeks.

The moment I arrived in Greece I didn’t have much time to process what was going on. I felt a whirlwind of emotions, mostly happiness, because I had finally made it. This was where I was supposed to be. After I got my luggage I was greeted by Efi and another coordinator from the study abroad program. We waited for one more student and then they rushed us off towards a taxi driver so we could go to our apartment.

The both of us were staying in Alexandrias. I don’t think it registered in our heads to look out the window and get our first close-up of Greece. We were both sweaty and exhausted and nervously got to know each other on the short ride to our new home away from home.

After a short drive, we ended up at our apartment. Outside, our resident advisor (RA) greeted us. A young woman of medium height with blonde hair and a big smile on her face. She helped us with our bags and directed us to the elevator to bring us to our separate rooms.

Even though I share a room with someone I was surprised by how big it was because in America the dorm rooms remind me of closets. They are very cramped and I consider them barely livable but then again Harry Potter lived in the cupboard under the stairs so I suppose students survive just fine.

We were the lucky ones though. Michele and I had cups, utensils, a pot and a pan so we could start cooking right away. They don’t give you those things when you come. You’re expected to buy them in a market close by, during a trip to IKEA (man, they have IKEA everywhere, don’t they?) or shove them in your luggage between your socks and shirts from home.

If you can't cook I advise you to learn some simple dishes. My roommate and I were amused because in American dorms a hot plate isn't allowed. Do Greeks trust their students more? Hm, you decide.
If you can’t cook I advise you to learn some simple dishes. My roommate and I were amused because in American dorms a hot plate isn’t allowed. Do Greeks trust their students more? Hm, you decide.

The only thing you might have trouble getting used to are the washing machines and their symbols. According to my friend, the cheery maintenance man of the building, the numbers (30, 40, 60, etc) do not tell you the time of the cycle for your clothing but the temperature. In his words, “It’s not like your home. It’s not like US.” The quickest cycle? 1 hour and 15 minutes.

These two washing machines may seem simple to use but they can be slightly confusing. They're also smaller than the machines I'm used to in the United States. Another thing to remember? Greeks don't use a machine to dry their clothes. You can hang your clothes out on the balcony to dry but no worries, they dry quickly.
These two washing machines may seem simple to use but they can be slightly confusing. They’re also smaller than the machines I’m used to in the United States. Another thing to remember? Greeks don’t use a machine to dry their clothes. You can hang your clothes out on the balcony to dry but no worries, they dry quickly.
See what I mean about the symbols? It’s easy to understand why most people think the numbers actually tell you the time.
A sign in English breaks down the washing machine symbols.
The same sign that’s in English, is naturally in Greek as well.

He broke the news to me with a big grin and a slight chuckle.

High Expectations While Up in The Air

Lunch on the airplane while flying from Turkey to Greece. The meal also included a turkey sandwich which was consumed quickly and messily.
Lunch on the airplane while flying from Turkey to Greece. The meal also included a turkey sandwich which was consumed quickly and messily, as if I was a rabid animal.

It’s funny how much our minds can wander, we’re used to multi-tasking, thinking of what’s next instead of living in the now. While up in the air I wasn’t thinking about meeting my roommate, seeing my dorm room for the first time or what my first view of Greece would look like (hopefully similar to the one seen in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants). As I stared at the clouds I thought about a person (who shall remain nameless) and the conversation we had two months before I left for Greece.

When I told him I was going to Greece he scoffed at me. Seeing as he wasn’t from the United States and someone who encouraged plenty of others to study abroad and explore other countries I was taken back, surprised.

He looked at me, the way only a person with higher authority can, glasses pushed slightly down the brim of his nose, eyes boring into mine and accused me of not knowing about the ‘Greek crisis.’

He asked me, after a long lecture of why I shouldn’t be going to Greece and how ridiculous I was being, why I was going?

What did I expect to experience? What was my intent? What was I going to learn?

I stared at him, flabbergasted, and couldn’t think of an answer because I didn’t have one. I wanted to study political science. I wanted to go to Greece. Neither were good answers and as I sat on the plane, land slowly becoming visible, his voice entered my head again.

What did I expect to experience?

Everything. I wanted to grow but you cannot explain growth to a person who doesn’t know the inner workings of your mind. I’m shy. I always have been an observer, a people watcher. I wanted to go to Greece and let go of this fear I have about everything in my life. A journalist should be able to adapt wherever they are, from country to country, from town to town. I came to Greece to prove to myself one day I might be able to move away from New York, somewhere the language is foreign and the land is unfamiliar.

My night in Turkey was a hiccup, a test of my strength to survive and thrive on my own. As the plane landed, the seat belt sign sounded off and the flight attendants said goodbye, the nervousness and off-kilter feeling I felt from yesterday washed away.

I was in Greece. My feet were firmly planted in another country. I was by myself but I had never felt so safe and excited before. Six weeks would be a challenge but one I was willing to take.