Changing Seasons/Midterm Thoughts

The season changed very quickly in Athens: on Thursday morning I had class at the Ancient Agora at 8:45, and when I woke up, ominous clouds were gathering in the distance. The wind picked up throughout the hour and a half we spent at the Agora and just as I was returning to the Academic Center, rain started coming down in torrents and the temperature dropped several degrees. As I walked into my Modern Greek class, my teacher Marinetta announced that this is fall–gone are the sunny, 75º days in Athens, here to stay are chilly, rainy days.

Not all changes I have encountered here have taken place so suddenly. I find myself slipping into routines: going to the grocery store on Mondays to pick up the food I know I’ll like, picking up a gyro for dinner when I’m in a rush and want something filling, going to the friendly cafe down the road with good wifi and excellent choice in music. I realized the other day that I’m becoming accustomed to life here. Even though I face daily challenges, mostly having to do with my lack of fluency in the Greek language, I’ve settled into a pretty normal routine. This made me a little sad to realize; I studied abroad to challenge myself, to push myself out of my comfort zone, and yet here I am finding a comfort zone across the sea. I can’t pinpoint a moment when I stopped thinking of my semester in Athens as a scary challenge I would never get used to and started thinking of it as a routine I’ll go through for the next few months until I come home, but something has been changing inside of me very slowly.

IMG_0291I realized how bad it was getting a week and a half ago when we went to Delphi to see the oracle and I thought to myself, “Meh.” It’s an incredibly beautiful place, but after seeing Crete and Meteora it seemed small and less impressive in comparison.  I’ve been spoiled by all the travel here, so much so that seeing one of the most important sites of the Ancient Greek world hardly left an impression on me.

To some extent, I knew this would happen. Eventually, when the newness of a place wears off, everything seems less exciting and more normal. At the same time, I’m determined to battle this, because I’m having the most fun and feeling most fulfilled when I’m exploring something new and learning all I can. So I have a couple of plans: I bought a sketchbook last week and I’m determined to get out and explore the museums (especially since it seems the rain is here to stay); I’m planning a few trips coming up within the next few weeks (spoilers 😉 ) and I’ve been enjoying learning about my future destinations; and of course, I’ve been looking out for fun things to do here in Athens.

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Yesterday was OXI day and I was reminded of why I came here in the first place. Seeing children dressed up and carrying the Greek flag with pride reminded me that this country has such a rich and complex history and culture that I’ve barely begun to comprehend. I was frightened by the huge police presence, especially after being questioned several times and sent back from places I apparently wasn’t supposed to be; I was out of my element and I didn’t fully understand everything that was going on. But at the National History Museum, a friend and I were greeted with a smile and free admission, and encouraged to see and learn all we could. At the cafe, our friendly barista made us a warm cappuccino and brought us little chocolates after we’d been sitting in the cold for a while. And at dinner, I sat with friends I’ve made here and enjoyed delicious Greek food and wine and a night of conversation. I came to the realization that it’s alright if I’m finding routines and getting comfortable; something new and exciting to discover is always just around the corner.

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“Freedom or Death”

Discovering Another Side of Greece: A Weekend in Metsovo

We arrived in Metsovo in the early afternoon on Friday, and as we stepped off of the bus we noticed something unusual: the smell of a wood-burning fire, yellow-tinged leaves on the trees, and a distinct chill in the air. Those of us from the Midwest immediately broke into huge smiles, not realizing how much we had missed fall back home. Not that Metsovo is entirely similar to my home in Ohio–in fact, Metsovo was entirely different from what I expected and unlike any other place I’ve ever been.

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We started out by talking a little bit about the unique history of the town and learned that many residents still speak Vlach, an unwritten language completely unrelated to Greek, and consider themselves to be Vlach as well as Greek due to their isolated location and strong cultural heritage. The combination of this culture plus the geography made arriving in Metsovo quite the surprise.

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One of our first stops was the church in Metsovo. This region is known for wood carving and icons painted in the Cretan style, that is with olive oil mixed into the paint. The colors are absolutely stunning and brighter than the typical orthodox church.IMG_9498

We also visited a folk art museum, which was a restored home of an aristocrat. Again, the interior was completely unexpected: the thick walls and cozy tapestries made me feel like I was visiting somewhere much further north, as opposed to the Greece we typically consider to be warm and Mediterranean. While the fireplaces weren’t lit and there was no food cooking on the stove, I can only imagine how snug families who lived in this house must have been in their furs and large communal beds.
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Before dinner, some friends and I wandered into a small park on a hill and saw a stunning sunset overlooking the valley. The weather got even chillier right away, and we hurried to a taverna our professors had recommended. The choices were limited: the taverna offered 2 types of meat (sausage and souvlaki), 2 types of cheese (feta and a traditional smoked cheese called Metsovone), bread and red wine. Naturally, we ordered everything and the owner brought out the fresh food on wax paper. We devoured it and then sleepily wandered back to our hotel to enjoy some hot chocolate and Greek delight next to the fire.IMG_9550 IMG_9562

On Saturday we took a trip to the college town of Ioannina. Ioannina is on a lake and, like Metsovo, has a unique history. During each period in Greek history, Ioannina has been able to absorb new cultural ideas and populations while also maintaining a surprising degree of autonomy. As a result, it has seen Muslims, Jews and Christians living together in peace throughout most of its history.  It’s easy to see why–this town is so peaceful I couldn’t imagine any conflict ruining its tranquility. At the same time, it has known its fair share of notorious characters, including the infamous Ali Pasha, who was known for beheadings and throwing dissenters off of cliffs, but also modernizing the town. He was killed in a monastery on the island in the center of the lake by a single bullet, which can still be seen at the monastery today.IMG_9629 IMG_9720

To round out the day, we stopped by the temple and theater of Dodona, the largest theater in Ancient Greece and the second most important oracle.  Although it has been destroyed and rebuilt many times (and is in the process of being restored now), this temple has been in use since neolithic times. At its peak, the theater could seat 18,000 people. I shivered a little bit when I stood at the center and thought about how thousands of years’ worth of people came here for advice and entertainment.
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Finally, on Sunday, we visited Meteora. Meteora literally means “suspended in midair” and it’s easy to see why. Monks and nuns have considered Meteora a holy space for hundreds of years, and although it is now a major tourist destination, the monasteries and nunneries still feel as though they are floating in an alien landscape, far removed from anything familiar. We visited two monasteries (Megalo Meteoro and Varlaam) as well as a nunnery (Roussanou). While each was stunning in its own respect, I particularly enjoyed the nunnery. I found the monasteries to be a bit more impersonal because the monks hide themselves away to avoid tourists. The nunnery was far less crowded, although it was smaller than the monasteries, and the nuns seemed to be happy to see us. They showed us the traditional food, drinks, and crafts they make at the nunnery and were happy to answer our questions, although their English was limited. Even though I’m not religious, I felt much more of a connection with Roussanou than I had at either of the monasteries. It was secluded (it was quite the hike to reach the nunnery from the road!) and quiet and much easier to reflect on our beautiful surroundings. I spent a few minutes by myself on a small balcony with this view and could have stayed there all day.IMG_9769

Hiking Mount Olympus

This weekend was quite the adventure, to say the least.

Hiking Mount Olympus has definitely been one of the most challenging experiences of my time in Greece so far.  It was an incredible experience and I bonded with the other students on the trip, but we were underprepared to say the least. We started the day in high spirits, expecting a short-ish bus ride, an easy hike, a spectacular view, and maybe even a quick swim.

We ate our chocolate pastries within the first hour–“They’re good for hiking!” trip coordinator Nadia told us before leaving us with two guides who have hiked this trial several times before.  We laughed at their pep talk, thinking most of it was a joke.  I wrote parts of it down to remember some of the details I found so amusing at the time:

“Good morning! We have five hours left until we reach Mount Olympus [note: we thought the bus ride was 4 hours long total. We had already been on the bus for 2 hours at this point].  This is an extremely steep and narrow hike.  It will be quite difficult.  You must have a sandwich, fruit, and chocolate with you.  If you don’t have these things you can buy them in town before we leave.  People have died on this hike–but not with us.  Yannis has carried bodies out [note: we had been told that the hike was a pleasant and relatively quick].  We will push you to your limits and beyond.  There are wolves and bears here.  Also three-foot-long lizards [note: he meant inches, but we didn’t know that at the time] which are black and orange.  They are poisonous.  Don’t touch them because we don’t have the antidote.  As Robin Williams said in Dead Poets Society, ‘carpe diem!'”

Naturally, we thought our guide was a jokester who wanted to freak us out before the hike.  Five hours later, when we reached the mountain, we were less sure.

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A small shrine for libations to Zeus (or something)

So we stocked up on snacks chocolate and tried to ignore the ominous clouds and fog that had been gathering all afternoon.  Around five, we set out on our hike.  We also ignored the fact that sunset would be around 7:30.

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37 hikers (not so) ready to go!

Immediately after beginning the hike, I started to feel slightly nauseous and realized that the trip would not be as easy as I had anticipated, especially since I wasn’t feeling my best.  So I hung back with Yannis and some of the other hikers who weren’t feeling great and we made our way up, slowly but surely.  Despite our guides’ best efforts to push us along quickly, we needed a break about halfway up.  After refueling and taking some deep breaths, I was feeling better and ready to move on.

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The views were pretty stunning on the way up, and after I had re-energized, I moved to the middle of the group where we sang songs and laughed and also kind of felt like we were dying a little bit.  We were about a half an hour away from the shelter when darkness started to fall.  This was the most frightening part of the hike for me–I could barely see two feet in front of me and deliberately avoided shining light to the side so that I wouldn’t be able to see how steep the cliff we were walking along was.  We continued singing, a little bit more nervously, suddenly remembering the bears and wolves our guides had mentioned.

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We made it to the refuge around 8 and threw down our backpacks, changed into rubber “slippers”, and downed the most delicious plate of pasta and mugs of mountain tea of our lives.  We were told that lights-out would be at 10, but as I looked around at my friends’ faces I knew we would all be in bed before then and asleep shortly afterwards.

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Our accommodations were the next surprise: instead of bunk beds or individual twin beds as we had expected, 20 of us would be rooming in an attic with two huge beds, a pillow each, and a pile of wool blankets.  By the time we dragged ourselves upstairs, we were too tired to care about the lack of space or the fact that no one had showered (no hot water+freezing weather+no heating in our room=no showers for us!) We giddily swapped stories for a while, hyped up on excitement that we had made it to the refuge and a burst of energy from dinner before we cuddled up and fell asleep.  It was probably the coziest I’ve ever been, and one of the best nights’ sleep I’ve gotten since I’ve been in Greece.

Some friends and I woke up early to see the sunrise, only to find…

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…there would be no sunrise.

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Some in the group went on to hike to one of the peaks, but those of us who had felt the altitude sickness stayed behind by the fire and drank tea with honey.

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On the way back down, we met a couple of friends.  While us Americans found the mules we passed to be cute and friendly, our guides were unamused and urged us on, yelling, “Run!  Run!  Pass them quickly quickly!” At this point I slipped and fell in the mud and laughed because I was already filthy and we were almost to the bottom of the mountain and a shower was waiting for me soon.

IMG_9398We celebrated reaching the bottom by rinsing off and drinking from the spring water of Mount Olympus.  Despite all that had gone unexpectedly, I had an incredible adventure this weekend and I would do it all over again.