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”

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New Habits

“Is it cold outside?”

“It’s 80 and raining.”

“I’ll take a jacket.”


 

These are the conversations I find myself having. As an Ohioan, I never imagined a day when 80ºF with rain would be jacket weather. But last night, as I was heading out to have dinner at the program president’s house, I found myself under those exact circumstances.  Before leaving home, I wondered what kinds of surprises Greece had in store for me.  I haven’t been disappointed so far.  While adapting to this new culture, I’ve found myself making changes that I could not have predicted at all.

Wearing a jacket in 80º weather

Wearing a jacket in 80º weather

Some changes are small: getting or making a coffee every morning has been a routine of mine since my senior year of high school.  But the Greeks do coffee differently: they have an obsession with instant coffee.  At first I was skeptical.  My skepticism did not last long.  If you’ve never tried a Greek frappé or cappuccino freddo, you’re missing out on life.  I quickly adapted my daily routine to enjoy a shaken, foamy frappé or a cold, refreshing cappuccino freddo.

Homemade cappuccino freddo

Frappé from one of my new favorites, Postocafé

Also concerning beverages, I’ve never been a huge juice person, but after picking up some unusual (for me) flavors at the supermarket on my first day, I’m hooked on peach juice and sour cherry juice.  Who knew that sour cherries made the most delicious flavor?  I consistently have 2-3 containers of juice in the fridge.

The Greeks live life at a slower pace, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get a workout: every day walking between school and my apartment requires me to climb over 100 stairs.  You would think that would deter me from going out to explore and therefore run into even more stairs, but you would be underestimating my curiosity.  Despite being an enemy to physical exercise, I love walking around my neighborhood and finding new corners.  The other day, Emily and I walked to the acropolis on a break between classes (because really, why not? It’s right there!) and, despite the heat and humidity, we started the climb to the top.  We didn’t quite make it–we took the road less traveled which, as it turns out, doesn’t go all the way to the top–but the view was well worth the climb.

While strengthening my legs has its benefits, it also means I usually come back to the apartment smelling like downtown Athens, which is not pleasant.  Our apartment requires that in order to take a hot shower, you flip a switch to heat the water for around 30 minutes before hopping in.  Usually, I can’t wait that long, so I’ve embraced the cold shower.  Trust me, if you come to Athens in the summer, you’ll get on board too.  It feels heavenly to wash the grime of the city off, and I’ve taken to daily or twice daily cold showers while I’ve been here.

As an introvert, I’ve sometimes struggled in situations where I don’t know anyone.  Luckily in Athens, there are lots of cats to keep me company when I don’t feel like talking. (But in seriousness, parents, don’t worry, I’ve met plenty of new people 🙂 ) The stray cats around the neighborhood are very friendly, most likely because the little old ladies in our apartment feed them.

 

I’ve also been getting a kick out of staring.  In the U.S., it’s considered rude to stare and one would look away if caught staring.  Here, that is not the case.  Staring is not only socially acceptable, most people will continue to make eye contact if you catch them.  It doesn’t feel threatening, and I’ve enjoyed the fact that if someone looks interesting to me, they won’t feel weird if I stare at them.

One of my favorite people-watching spots, Urban Cafe on Eratosthenous street.

One of my favorite people-watching spots, Urban Cafe on Eratosthenous street.

As I’m wrapping up my first week of classes (!) I’ll leave you with one more story.  I’ve really enjoyed my history class on the Hellenistic period so far, and found myself writing down the strangest stories told by my professor, a Greek who knows many legends about the Aegean.  If you find yourself on a boat in the Greek islands (and hopefully you will), you may be approached by a mermaid asking for news about Alexander the Great.  The correct response is that he is alive and well, unless you want your boat to capsize.  Getting used to classes here is an adjustment, but with stories like this, I think I’ll manage to enjoy myself.

First Week

I’ve been in Athens for 5 days now (so not quite a week, but orientation is officially over!) and I have been loving every moment. I live in the Pangrati (Παγκράτι) neighborhood on a pedestrian street and it is wonderful. My walk to the Academic Center takes about 10 minutes and looks like this:

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I have five roommates, who are so much fun to hang out with. We’ve been getting to know each other and we have all cried laughing together and shared several meals.

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We ate gyros for our first dinner at a restaurant called Smile in Plaka. It was obviously a very tourist-friendly area, so maybe it wasn’t super authentic, but it was fun.

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On Wednesday, we went to the Academic Center in the evening for souvlaki and traditional dancing. Also in the picture are our friend Carolyn and our director of housing and catering, Popi.

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On our first full day in Athens, my roommate Rachel and I explored the neighborhood a little and bought an orange pepper plant (because we wanted flowers but don’t have any vases) and found a coffee shop. We were happy to find that everyone in our neighborhood seems to be friendly and genuinely wants to make our experience in Greece a good one. At the coffee shop, our waiter gave us half price (and has continued to do so every time we’ve ordered from him, which is to say every day) and has helped us with vocabulary. When we walk in with food from other bakeries or the grocery store, he always teaches us the word for what we’re eating. I’ve also learned to order a frappé with one sugar, which is my new favorite drink. It’s instant coffee mixed with sugar in hot water and then shaken with ice. A layer of foam rises to the top while the cold coffee sinks to the bottom. It’s the perfect treat for hot days in Athens and our waiter only charges us one euro for what I estimate to be a coffee the size of a Starbucks grande.

The man in the flower shop where we bought the peppers was also very friendly. We wanted something bright for our apartment, so he wrapped up our plant in bright pink paper and tied it with a silver bow. We told him we’re students from America and he only charged us 3 euros for the plant, taught us some numbers, and pointed out a restaurant for us to try. Similarly, in a bakery down the road, roommate Emily and I picked up breakfast for our apartment, and the lady behind the counter taught us the names of the pastries and tossed in a τυρόπιτα (cheese pie) for free.

We found people who work at stores and restaurants in touristy areas to be a little more pushy and aggressive, but generally Greeks seem to want to share their culture and are happy to talk with us students for a few minutes and give us deals if we ask. We’ve also been taking survival Greek courses throughout orientation, and it’s nice to be able to wake up in the morning and order breakfast and coffee and Greek before even going to class. The Athenians have been very patient with us!

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Our neighborhood is very quiet and, as I mentioned before our apartment is on a pedestrian street. I’d heard about stray dogs in Athens, but our little corner is very popular with cats. This might have something to do with the fact that the little old ladies in our apartment leave out cat food and dishes of water on the steps. The cats are friendly and well-fed, and in the afternoon when it gets really hot, they all lounge around on the cool stone and let us pet them as much as we want.

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This is our street, θεοφραστου. Sometimes motorcycles or scooters park at the bottom of the stairs, but it’s really nice to live in a quiet area with no traffic. Another really cute Greek custom I’ve noticed is that young children (under 3 or 4) seem to spend the day with their grandfathers, so all over the neighborhood, grandpas walk around hand-in-hand with toddlers, often with an ice cream or pastry in their hand.

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Speaking of food. Oh my god. Besides pastries, souvlaki and gyros, which are amazing, we’ve been eating good. We all went to a taverna dinner on Wednesday with professors and other students in the program and ate mostly appetizers: bread and fava beans and tzatziki sauce and Greek salad with feta and fried zucchini. When the waiter brought out the meat and watermelon, I had to loosen my belt a little to make room.

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We’ve been walking around a lot too, so hopefully that will balance out the amount of food we’ve been eating. (The 100+ stairs between the apartment and the Academic Center won’t hurt either.) This is the Zappeion, where the Greek congress convenes. My roommate and Emily and I walked here through the National Garden yesterday after orientation. It is stunning. We thought this was Syntagma Square, but apparently the building there is even bigger and more stunning, so we’ll hunt that out later this week.

We wandered inside the building to look around and somehow ended up in the central courtyard. It was so beautiful, but we only got to look for about 10 seconds before a woman came up to us and started speaking Greek, to which I replied, “Yes,” because I’ve heard that’s a good response to some things. Then she asked me in English if I worked in congress and I said no, so she said we had to leave because we weren’t actually allowed inside, and especially not when congress is in session (which apparently it was). Oops.

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Finally, we went to see the Temple of Zeus, a short walk away from the Zappeion. We showed our ICOMOS cards and got in for free, which was wonderful. I love living in a place where I can explore not only a new culture, but a rich history within a few blocks of where I’m living. This weekend my roommates and I are thinking about going to an island and next week I’ll be in Andros. I’m very excited to explore these areas that are easy to access now and continue to learn about this beautiful country.

 

 

 

 

Arrived!

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Just a quick update to say I’m here! My apartment is pretty nice and my room is looking somewhat room-like now that I’ve unpacked. I’ve slept 1.5 hours in the past day and a half and it’s just past noon (naps are happening soon). My neighborhood looks really fun and walkable, but I will of course report back once I’ve actually walked in it.

I sat next to a really nice Athenian man on the plane, and he was very excited to share some of his favorite places with me. He was happy to hear I’m a history student and we talked about the benefits of a liberal arts education. As a former philosophy major now working as a doctor for the U.S. Department of Health, he encouraged studying broadly and made me feel better about future job prospects!

Now to finish the check-in process and collapse for a while before dinner 🙂