Paris is like that first love that will always hold your heart. You two can fall easily back into each other’s arms, where everything comes quickly, lasts long, and feels right.
Canada is like that guy from your hometown that you paw around every once in a while just to feel alive, or to remember how it felt when you were sixteen and everything you did with him was new and dangerous. You may go back every once in a while, but honestly sometimes you get more out of not even bothering.
Egypt is like your first time: different for everyone. But no matter how you found it, it will always have a grip on you. It will always make your pulse quicken and give your stomach a jolt like an electric shock. You may wander back when you’re not sure what else to do, and while it may welcome you back, it could just as easily chew you up and spit you out. You will always wonder what if, and Egypt will always be there to remind you and tempt you.
Benin is like a bad fling: been there, done that, no regrets and no returning. Unless it was for a really good reason…
Greece was like finally getting with the most popular guy in school and not really getting it. What’s all the fuss about? I was too tired and busy from the pursuit to even enjoy it. And anyway, shouldn’t he come to me? Maybe someday it will be time for a reunion…
Cuba is that guy your mother wanted you about. Some call it abuse; others are jealous. Sometimes, those people are one and the same. He’s frustrating, mean, fickle and generally beyond human comprehension. He may depress you, confuse you, and even cheat on you, but he makes you feel like a queen. With him, you are a woman no one else ever see or creates in you. With him you are wild, free, fun, and young forever. You are powerful, flirtatious and just a wee bit dangerous. Anyone who tells you they’d rather be alone than by his side is lying or they don’t know what they’re missing.
The last thing to be touched by a foreign hand is the hair.”
Arian, our ACT liaison mentioned this during one of our pre-departure orientation sessions. While I don’t think this just applies to foreign countries, as many college students prefer to cut their hair back home over break, she certainly has a point. I know of very few people who have had their hair done while abroad for a semester or less. A definite exception is the DR spring break and dialogue crews, which included a bunch of people who had their hair done, but not cut.
Nevertheless, few people are willing to get their hair cut abroad. For some reason, the travelers I know are more likely to get a tattoo or piercing abroad than a hair cut. Does that seem strange to anyone else? Of course, a few months after Arian said this, Kathy and I died each other’s hair in the Hotel Metropolitan bathrooms, and a few students had their hair cut. But it was fewer than 15 of us out of 151, and I feel like an at home dye job is the same no matter where you are in the world, so I don’t really count.
Others have rules about dating abroad. Some won’t enter into a serious relationship, knowing it will likely fail when they return home, while others won’t even casually date. Some people won’t date other people on their trips, but locals are fine; most of the time I find that the reverse is the case.
While in third world countries, many have rules about internet usage, and television tends to be vetoed by most travelers regardless of where they are. While people often fail at their internet bans as soon as they are given the chance, many others refuse. While in Benin, a friend said it would feel like, “cheating on Africa” to go on the internet to email or use facebook. Of course, a quick glance in the local internet cafe would argue otherwise, as well as the prevalence of our Beninois counterparts on facebook.
In perhaps the strangest example, several people on our Benin trip would not drink the tap water in Paris. I’m pro-germ, and Cuba made me incredibly appreciative of clean tap water, so this just confounds me. It’s a G8 country for crying out loud! They have a permanent seat on the security council! The idea that Parisian tap water is somehow drastically different from the water in Boston sort of boggles my mind.
Why do we abstain from certain things while away from home? Does it make travel feel more “real”? Are we afraid of the outcome? Are there things you won’t do abroad that are normal for you at home?
If I think of it as just another in a chain of entertaining Family Dinners with NUin, it was a great night. If I think of it as Thanksgiving, it makes me a bit sad.
For the first time, our students realized that the people back home may be happier than they are. It’s also possible that this was the first time they were right. Many students’ families were able to come, but not all. I think this made it that much harder on those who had no visitors. Unlike a regular day, some students did have people to make them less homesick.
As for me, I couldn’t believe there was a Thanksgiving bigger than my dad’s side, which clocked in at 89 people this year (I would have been number 90!) But alas, around 200 people filled the hall on ACT’s high school campus. Of course, since it’s not a holiday in Greece, this came after a full day of work and school for Team Greece, which certainly added to the mood. Also, I know it sounds silly, but not being able to relax and enjoy a glass of wine or a beer with my Thanksgiving dinner was a pain. I understand why there are rules, but it was our job to spend all day and evening Wednesday and Thursday with our students, thereby disallowing us from a time to fully relax and enjoy the holiday.
Perhaps my favorite part was the contributions of our students. Armaan and Vitaly played piano while we ate, Ben sang “Home” and made half the room cry. There was going to be a prayer at dinner anyway (since when is Thanksgiving a Christian holiday?), so we went for the all-inclusive approach and opened the floor to our students. A few said a Jewish prayer intended for the first time a person does something–like the first time a person has Thanksgiving in Greece. We also had a few stripes of Christian prayer, and Sultan rounded things out with a spur of the moment Muslim contribution. I only wish he had slowed down and translated it for the rest of us.
Another highlight of the was how classy and respectful our students were. I’m totally impressed by the way they handled some disputes playing football, not having enough room on the bus, and a few non-NUin people giving them a hard time. Any woman who can handle being called the C-word (for absolutely no reason, not that that even matters) by calmly removing herself from the situation is a mature person in my book. We also had tons of our students calmly, respectfully, voluntarily leave the bus so other students could have their seats, even though many of those who offered up their seats had guaranteed spots on the bus and gave them to those who shouldn’t have been on it in the first place.ACT Staff, study abroad students, NUin kids and us.
To end on a good note, one of the very best parts of our Thanksgiving was that Danny Tierney, one of our students, organized an 8-team football tournament. He had cones, a med kit and a well-lit field. At least 63 people played, and easily that many people came just to watch, ranging from ACT and NUin staff to student families and Greek students.
While the food certainly left something to be desired (food should never be mistaken for both cranberry sauce AND gravy), the company and our hosts did everything they could to make a dreary day a lot more fun. The bottom line for me, though, was that I really hate missing holidays back home, and a fun workday is still a workday.
When our Athens trip was cancelled (at the last minute, without warning or consultation), we were all disappointed. Some students immediately booked flights to Rome for the weekend, while others had to stop drinking and start doing homework.
On Saturday we went to a boutique downtown, but it wasn’t really our speed. So after a massive, delicious lunch, Em, Rox and I shopped in the open-air markets. I bought a few scarves, and got to wander through a meat and fish market. While definitely smelly, it was cool to see such a pedestrian part of Greek life that is so different from my own back home.
On Sunday we went scuba diving. I’ve never been before and absolutely loved it. I had a brief moment of thinking I really needed to breathe, but then I remembered I was wearing several pounds of oxygen on my back. The next day my jaw was killing me from clenching the mouthpiece, but I can’t wait to go again someday.
Sunday evening I topped off my day with a soccer game between PAOK and Aris, the two teams of Thessaloniki. I had been warned that games can get violent, and that this particular one would be intense because of their rivalry. But it was also the last game in Thess while I’m here, so I’m glad I was pushed to go in spite of my fatigue. I went with Vinny, one of our students, although there were others there as well. Everyone was in Aris black and yellow, and we were careful not to wear any PAOK paranalia.
We scalped some tickets and found our way inside. Luckily, we strolled right into section 3, the craziest, most intense part of the entire stadium. No one was wearing anything other than Aris colors. It became immediately clear that we would NOT be finding any other NUin folks in this crowd. People climbed fences and parking structures, everyone was singing and I saw road flares sticking out of pockets everywhere. This was also the first time I felt like we were in Eastern Europe. Either that or the early British punk scene. Mullets, shaved heads and mohawks were everywhere, as well as military boots, acid-washed jeans and 1990s style sweatpants with the cuffs around the ankles.
To see a video of the madness that was the game, click here–it’ll take you to my tumblr. There was no real violence, just a lot of shoving when Aris scored a goal. No one seemed overly concerned that the flags or smoke were blocking their view of the game. And I have never heard such sustained, constant support. From the songs that went on repeat for twenty minutes at a time to the screams, chants and constant use of the curse word “malaka” the place only approached quiet during the one PAOK goal to tie the game. The smoke from fireworks, road flares and marijuana did a number on my throat, but I don’t think I’ve had a better weekend yet in Thessaloniki.
Before we ever put on hiking boots, we had heard the worst. “If your students have asthma, or weight problems, or smoke, or aren’t fit, or complain, or have ever had injuries, they should just stay home.” Uh, what? “If you even have a cold, stay home.” In the pre-trip meeting, students were asked to raise their hands in front of the group if they have any health problems, something that would never be asked of them in America. Even after all this scaring, we were then told that children make the climb in flip-flops.
My day started out pretty rough and rushed, since there was an incident the night before and I found out just before leaving that I needed to write it up and turn in an incident report. That meant no time to buy tall socks, which meant I didn’t wear my hiking boots. Despite that, my flat feet did alright, and didn’t ache until Day 2. I didn’t even have sore joints on the hike down. I didn’t eat breakfast that morning, either, and we couldn’t eat lunch until we arrived at the lodge, some time around 5pm.
The “fast time” for Day 1 (the Easy, Everbody-Can-Do-This Day) was 4 hours. We didn’t even climb the first third of Day 1 before I was wheezing and couldn’t catch my breath. I felt like my throat was closing, but mostly I felt like an idiot. I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to make it to the first lodge, that I would slow the entire group down, and that I would have to somehow get home even though the bus was gone. Of course that only made me panic more. Roxanne was awesome and kept offering to stay back with me, but I didn’t want to hold her back. I could tell she was loving the rustic setting and the chance to expend some energy, and I had to pretty much beg her to go forward. My fellow “slow” companion, however, had no such offers, and little to no concern from her groupmates. Just some comments about how can she not be in shape when she’s so skinny (meaningful glance at me, disgusted look at her).
Despite that weirdness, we slowed to a livable pace with two guides who treated us great. We listened to some Nordic death metal, took in the breathtaking scenery, and climbed steadily. The last 20 minutes made me feel like I would die, but in spite of it all we made it to the lodge in 4 hours. Hmm, wasn’t that the “fast” time? Why yes, yes it was. The main group had made it up in 3:20, with many a radio call back to us to see if we couldn’t hurry it up a bit. I’m still unsure as to why time was so important that day, since daylight lasted for several more hours after we reached the lodge, and especially since we still made it in the previously-allotted time.
Once we got there, I was more than happy to snuggle into all my dry layers and eat some food by the fire. We made forts out of the beds, wrapped ourselves in blankets, and got up to all the usual camping shenanigans. Hot cocoa, hot lists and talking about our lives before NUin. There were some ACT high schoolers who showed up, and I was so glad our kids didn’t behave like them. Dancing on tables, breaking glasses, getting drunk, and taking pictures with strangers when they weren’t paying attention. We, on the other hand, listened to someone play guitar, enjoyed the view, and took nose-dives off of bunk beds. There’s something relaxing (and freezing) about high altitudes, long days and early bedtimes.
On the second day, despite my previous misgivings, I got ready to go. I was then told that I would lead the group, so that everyone else could go, “as slow as [me].” Great. Another, more forgiving staff member said, “it was a nice sentiment, but it felt a little awkward in action.” But it wasn’t even nice in theory. The idea was that myself and another girl were the weak links, and if we insisted on joining them, we would be at the front and the course of the day would be our fault. After ten minutes of climbing an unclear path (I was ahead of even the guides, and one seemed so annoyed at my confusion over the barely-marked trail), I had had enough. I felt like an idiot for stopping, but I knew I couldn’t take it. The sad part was, it wasn’t the climb that was getting to me. It was the clicking noises, like one makes at a horse, that a guide made to encourage me to go faster. It was when they tapped my heels with hiking poles if I paused to catch my breath. It was the groans and eye-rolling from the impossibly skinny girl (a stranger) who kept calling me Sweety. The idea of spending so many hours that day feeling like a fat, slow weight around their neck was more than I could take. While the other “slow” girl and I conferred, the group started cheering and clapping for us, a misguided attempt to encourage us. Instead it felt condescending and put me even more in the spotlight than I wanted.
On the one hand, I’m the kind of person who hates to admit defeat, who hates to be anything less than hardcore. But I also don’t think it was a failure. I climbed Mt Olympus, or at least part of it. I really dislike the attitude that if you’re going to be slow, you should just stay home. Or that if you can’t do the entire hike, you shouldn’t bother to even do half. That idea that failing, or not being outstanding, is worse than not trying at all is terrible. The discouragement of all people who are not thin from exercise, and the oft-expressed need to lose 5 kilos, even the disparaging, “well by your American standards I’m thin,” all sent my body-privilege sensors into overload, in a way I haven’t encountered face to face in a while. I’m just glad that none of my students were treated the way I was.
I know some of my fellow climbers felt bad for me, but in the end I got what I wanted. I spent one day hiking, and another in a warm lodge playing backgammon and reading a good book. I listened to music, got closer with some students, and had a break from the city. When it came time for work on Monday, I was able to walk up and down the stairs without a problem, and my cold, though worse than before, was not as bad as it would have been if I had stayed outside the second day. I got some beautiful pictures and saw a great sunrise. I completed a grueling climb, even if some people see it as incomplete, and I’d like to think I helped make the weekend bearable for my fellow climber.
…is that it has drinkable water and hot showers and everything you could want to buy. There are crepes
and high prices, wi-fi and western food. And still, it is not enough for some.
But then, it is still Greece, the modern-day Sick Man of Europe. And as one econ professor always reminded us, Greece is only considered European as long as it suits the Great White West. I feel funny just calling it Europe. Now that Greece has become inconvenient (yet again), there are rumblings of amending the Schengen Agreement to allow the “temporary” removal of states, for the “protection of the integrity” of the alliance. Sounds an awful lot like the precursor to Children of Men to me, especially the quotes in the FT article. But still, I can’t wait to see what this means for all things NATO, EU, Eurozone and Schengen. Not to mention to study abroad ramifications!
So there is that other part of Greece. That part that has me missing Zamalek every day. I see Cairo everywhere, and when I look out on my balcony I search for the minarets and nautical nightclubs that punctuate the Nile. My room and hotel even look like el fondoq flamenco, the hotel I called home for most of my six weeks there.
Stray cats and dogs wander freely, though not in such great numbers (or as such a great nuisance) as in al Qahira. But there is that dustiness that settles over everything, and the heft to most of the infrastructure that gives one the feeling that anything thin or aesthetically appealing would simply take too much time. I find the same type of pasta that populates koshery, and (at least in our group) one never has to go far to find an Arab or hear in’shallah.
Unlike Cairo, I garner no one’s attention, the streets are not so overwhelmingly full by all demographics until 5am, and there is a general lack of worry for one’s safety. Of course, the late-night crowds (and their chronological breadth) are still impressive compared to the states, and meals are still late, it’s just nothing compared to Cairo.
For now, I’m, content to explore this city so reminiscent of Alexandria. Little wonder: it is named for The Great’s half-sister, and this Ottoman/Roman mix was no doubt an inspiration for Iskandriyya’s ambience.