Tag Archives: Greece

The Urgency of Travel

I came across an article recently about the growing phenomenon of students who spend almost every weekend of their semester abroad traveling somewhere outside of their host city, and often outside of their host country.  I immediately thought of my students last fall in Greece, many of whom spent exorbitant sums of their (or more often, their parents’ money) to leave Thessaloniki as often as possible.  I know they did this because I was responsible for knowing their general whereabouts.  I know about the exorbitant sums they spent because so many of them told me, almost proud, about all the last minute flights they booked.  

The article details this extreme sense of urgency, the idea that this is a once in a lifetime experience.  On most of my trips leading study abroad students or being on myself, I have heard this urgency expressed in a variety of ways.  Some students spend little time sleeping in order to see it all and do it all, and inevitable crash or become ill or get sun sickness.  Others never get to know their host country or host city because they only see it in Monday-Friday terms.  Face it, if you never spent weekends in the place where you live, it would seem to be a very different place.  Then there are those who are so busy cramming in all the “right” “must-see” sites that they never see the best stuff.  The everyday things, the regular people who aren’t in the service industry, the places that no one writing for Lonely Planet noticed because they were on deadline and quite frankly weren’t being paid to linger and discover.  

For me, the lingering and the discovering is the thing.  That’s where the nature of a place is hiding, where the most worthwhile friendships have cropped up, and where I’ve seen the kind of beauty that makes a permanent spot in my heart for that place.  

I certainly do go to many if not all of the places on the must-see list, but that’s for the first day or week or month, not for your settled-in stay.  The people you meet there will likely be fellow tourists, so judging a place based on those crowds is unfair.  Often, those landmarks are old.  There’s nothing wrong with old, but I find something perverse in worshiping a place only for its past, while ignoring all the amazing things that are happening in the here and now, ignoring all the people and innovation and art and history, ignoring the current identity of a place.  Basically, if all I did in Egypt was go to the pyramids and king tut’s tomb, I would have missed out on thousands of years worth of Egypt to fall in love with.  

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with people who work in the service industry (in fact, they almost never let me down with friendliness, patience, and recommendations, at home or abroad), but it’s no accident that Americans have a reputation for “befriending” every cab driver and bar tender, and no one else.  If the only time you see a person is when they are paid to not only do something for you, but do it with a smile and inviting personality, perhaps this is not actually friendship.  

There is nothing wrong with traveling while you’re abroad, and I understand that many people see it as cost-effective since they have already paid for the “big flight,” which in these conversations is almost always to Europe.  Because let’s face it, even though other sites are gaining popularity, most study abroad participants are still going to Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.  But for those who want to travel, I recommend getting to know other parts of the same country.  See something beyond a capital city, because good lord a country is so much more than that.  Go to the country, go where residents of your city go on vacation, go to the secondary cities that matter a great deal to locals but outsiders seem to ignore.  Your time in your host city and your time studying your host country has created an outline.  Let your time traveling around familiarizing yourself with the nooks and crannies fill in the picture, slowly.  

I feel that urgency too, and I try to fight it.  That urgency makes a person look to the next thing on the list instead of noticing what’s happening around you in the present.  That urgency makes you competitively compare at hostels, instead of just happily share.  That urgency will always leave you feeling you missed out, even as you were doing or seeing something amazing, or meeting someone amazing.  

When I feel that urgency hit, I think of something a professor said to us toward the end of our time in Egypt: Do not think of this as goodbye.  Don’t think of this as leaving Egypt forever.  You can always come back, and you will come back, if it means that much to you.  There is nothing to stop you from coming back here, if you want.  

And to be honest, almost all of us have gone back.  And it was exactly what I needed, and it will be again when I return.  So when I get to feeling frantic, I tell that urgent, Fear of Missing Out voice to shut up.  I hold onto the feeling knowledge that I will be back, and try to do what makes sense in the moment.  Sometimes that means going to a foreign city.  Sometimes it means staying in to get some rest.  Sometimes it means reading a good book in the sunshine.  And sometimes it just means lingering and discovering a new side to the same old place I’ve seen a thousand times before.  

If I Wrote for Thought Catalogue, this is what it would look like

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.

For reference, this is Thought Catalogue.

Book of Jubilations

It was a Saturday night and  was wandering around Berlin alone, soaked through in rain.  Canvas shoes were a poor choice.  The wind was inverting umbrellas, in spite of the German engineering that undoubtedly went into them.

So I turned up my music, pulled my scarf over my head and wandered back toward Alexanderplats Station.  Josh Ritter‘s latest album took me out of the cold, and kept me from hearing the solicitors on the street.  “Lantern” led me home and re-lit the streets so faces looked warm, the wind seemed gentle, and every minute in Berlin became precious again.

If there’s a Book of Jubilations we’ll have to write it for ourselves.”

It’s amazing the things that we see when we’re not staring at the ground, muttering angrily as we curl our bodies in against the cold.  I saw 15 year olds having a water fight, even though it was near freezing out.  I passed by the Dunkin Donuts that had given me so much joy earlier.

There are so many things to be happy about on a cold night alone in Berlin.  I was, after all, alone by choice.  That meant I was conquering all the million little fears that come along with traveling fully alone.  I may have picked up and gone to Cairo in a sudden, solitary fashion, but once I got their I was surrounded by love.  I had conquered the German metro, for the most part, even though I don’t speak a lick of German. My accommodations turned out well, even though I totally left that to the last minute.  I was able to catch up on sleep, and there was even good internet!  And every time I logged on, students were emailing or facebooking or chatting and saying they missed me.  Coworkers were leaving me messages, and the thought of returning to Salonica actually felt comforting and like home.  And in a few days, I would be greeted by hugs and the standard, “Hey, where the hell have you been?” from   floor boys I live with and watch over.

And then there’s the part where I was in Germany, a country most of the world, most of my world, will never see.  I got to see everything I wanted, without anyone giving me crap for taking a million pictures or wanting to spend three hours in a museum or not wanting to get hammered and make out with a stranger.  I even had my classes picked for next semester, and would graduate soon.  And at that moment in time, that was still a happy thought.  Which reminded me: I would be home in a week, with my own bed and a shower head that doesn’t require holding.

So I remembered my full meal, and the absurd “American” restaurant I had just left, and the great new tote bag I bought myself, and all the Christmas shopping I had got done, and wandered through yet another Christmas Village.  As “Long Shadows” picked up, I danced my way home, taking in my last moments of Germany with a soundtrack that is oh-so-preferable over whipping wind and stressed out shoppers.

The Climb

Jennifer and Octomom goofing around pre-climb

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.

Group shot at our starting point.

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.

Lodge Map of our trails

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.

Sunrise

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.

Mt. Olympus

Smiling pre-climb faces
On the way up
morning mist
Sunrise

Group Travel: Recognition

In light of my upcoming time in Greece with a group of 145 students, 11 other staff and myself, I’ve been thinking about what has made my past travel groups some of the best communities of which I have ever been a part. 

The way we recognize the members of our community shows a lot about ourselves, and what we value.

A fraction of the students, posing above the city

I’ve had some truly beautiful communities, like the Egypt and DR summer experiences, as well as the past spring’s Model NATO/Model Arab League travel teams.  I’m trying to draw from these good examples when I plan the activities and traditions I want to embed in this year’s N.U.in Greece program.

At the end of our Benin trip, during our wonderful Memorial Day at a Lebanese hotel (read: a pool and American food) we had two great forms of recognition: superlatives and speeches.  The superlatives covered everything, from most afraid of bugs to to most prepared to most likely to eat cous cous again.  With write-ins and multiple winners, it was a laid-back way to reminisce.  After, we gave our speeches.  The day before, each of us had drawn a name out of a hat of someone else on the trip.  That night at dinner, starting randomly and following the chain of speeches back around, we each took a turn to rise and recognize the singular, spectacular achievements and contribution that person made to the group.  While this can be uncomfortable if the group stays sectioned off, it’s a nice way leave everyone feeling good about their time.

When Esther was in Zambia, they passed a baton that had been all over the world.  The idea is to recognize those who have been excellent (diligent, polite, optimistic, helpful, kind) but who have been lacking in attention thus far.  This original baton continues on, and you can track it at The Baton Lives Free.  In order to recreate the awesome of the baton but not have to continually hijack it, SEI has opted to create a new baton or set of batons for every trip.  They are passed from Professor and Esther, and from there they are awarded to students, by students.  Each student adds or alters the baton in some way.  For example, with our capstone baton, Kevin added a star to DR on the globe.  The baton can be anything–for our Dialogue, it was a star wand and a crown.  It’s interesting to see the meandering path of the baton, and the speeches for the next recipient are thoughtful and heartfelt.  People tend to pay more attention to their behavior, too, when they know they could be publicly awarded for it (or not).

Superlatives are a great way of ending your time in any type of group.  It’s important to make sure someone is in charge of it, although I would say not a student, as people sometimes vote for cruel or thoughtless superlatives.  We did these in Benin as well as the DR, and people got pretty rabid in the DR when we delayed announcements in an effort to add photos.  I noticed that the superlatives that mean the most are more creative than “best smile” or “best laugh”, and less obvious than whatever running jokes have been present from day one.

I’m looking forward to adapting these to our large group of 145 in Greece.  We’re going to need a lot of batons.  What methods of recognition have you seen in the past?  Do you have any ideas for how to recognize good behavior and create a strong sense of community in such a large group?

The Value of Greek

I am such a linguaphile, I can’t even help it.  Too young to attend school under the French Immersion program like my older brother, I made up my own language to compensate.  Obviously, I refused to ever let my brother in on its secrets, which annoyed him to no end.  In seventh grade, I attacked French with gusto.  In ninth grade, I traded all my high school electives and part of my summer for the chance to take Spanish.  In college, instead of just testing out of both languages, I let my scores stagnate and struggled through Arabic.  And oh, have I struggled.

So when I found out I was going to Greece, learning the language seemed like a no-brainer.  I got a phrasebook, I signed up for language-learning software via Odysseus, and I started trying to re-learn the Greek alphabet (with correct pronunciation, no thanks to the Greek system of American Universities.) I know from my experience with Arabic that truly knowing the alphabet through and through makes a huge difference, and I intend to have it fully mastered, along with basic phrases, before I leave in September.  When I’m in Greece, I fully plan on auditing one of the Greek 101 classes that my students take.

Since then, however, conversations with several people have caused me to question my resolve.  How realistic is it for me to become conversational between now and December, when I return?  How often will I used Greek after this trip?

I suppose this really gets at the question of why do I study languages?  When people ask why Arabic (no one ever asks Why Spanish? or Why French?) I sometimes answer, “because I wanted to read the Qu’ran.”  That’s true, but I have no intention of reading it in its entirety in Arabic (I’ve read passages in class, but lack the stamina and vocabulary to do the whole thing), and it is widely available in English.  When I started learning French, I had no thoughts on going to France.  It isn’t that I didn’t want to go; it simply wasn’t on my radar or in my mental conception of the possibilities of life.  I did, however, start Spanish with a clear head.  I knew two things: First, speaking three languages instead of two would be both challenging and a feather in my cap.  When it comes to education, I am equally seduced by the challenge and the accolades.  Second, I knew that a person who speaks English, French and Spanish can talk to the majority of the world’s population.  Adding Arabic to that list definitely reduced the number of people in the world with whom I cannot communicate.

So going by this criteria, learning Greek will definitely fire me up with the challenge of it all.  Plus, it’s a different alphabet (which ups my linguistic cred) and if I ever want to catch up with Theresa Hines-Kerry I need to get a move-on.  (She speaks seven languages at my last count.)  Greek will definitely add a lot of people to my can-communicate list, however it has nowhere near the numbers of my other three languages.  While Greek will be super-relevant for three months, it likely won’t be much use after that, unless I apply to work for a study abroad provider in Greece after I graduate, which is not out of the question.

I’ll keep you posted on my trials and tribulations, and in the end work may keep me too busy, but I think what it boils down to is this: I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t try.