Sunday, February 28, 2010

Disenchanted rants, Kolonaki, Jews/Crosses, and Dog Poop

Today while I was rifling through my Brandeis study abroad packet searching for a form I need to transfer credits, I came across a chart depicting a line graph that predicts the phases of a typical abroad student’s mood over the four month period of study. About a month in, one is expected to hit the lowest point of morale, which Brandeis euphemistically entitles, “The Stage of Disenchantment”. Sounds like an ironic fairy tale to me. Basically, about a month in, everyone is supposed to become extremely crabby, homesick, broke, bogged down with work, and generally dissatisfied and confused by the not-so-charming and exciting foreign culture into which they have thrown themselves. While I have definitely noticed this phase coming to fruition in some respects, I don’t think I am getting the worst of it by any means. Mostly, I am just angry at EasyJet airlines for causing a minor riff in our apartment (we’re over it) and tacking on a ridiculous array of fees to our credit cards (also all under control). By the way, we have just today booked our ferry tickets to island hop on the Greek islands of Naxos and Amorgos over spring break—more on that to come, for sure. But back to our disenchantment woes; I’ll admit I am a bit tired of our disgusting bathroom. Those really are my only complaints, though. Of course I miss certain things about being home, but I am soaking up every minute of Athenian life that I have left! More than feeling disenchanted by the foreign things around me that were new and exciting but a month ago, I find myself simply discovering new facets of this city through my everyday life here. Even after only a month, I can proudly say that I feel like I am in some way infiltrating a foreign and fascinating culture in a non-touristy way. I can navigate to Syntagma Square (not through out it, but who are we kidding here), I know how to order my coffee in Greek, and I recognize locals on my route to school in the mornings—the group of ladies sitting in Vernava Square drinking frappes, the mothers chasing their school-aged children down the slippery Athenian sidewalks (more, much more, on that later), and the old man with the eye patch who frequents the kiosk on the corner of the street with the fruit stand. While these routines do not replace the feeling associated with the newness of a place, they provide a more accomplished sense of gratification. The combination of this comfort with a daily routine and more plans to visit sites and experience cultural adventures is essentially the point of studying abroad. So, instead of feeling homesick or frustrated or “disenchanted”, I choose to focus in this blog entry and in my daily life for this part of the line graph on things in Europe that are so wildly foreign and weird that they simply don’t make any logical sense. This week’s entry will be less about once in a lifetime adventures and more about subtle observations of Greek culture that boggle the curious, American mind.

Rant #1: Life as a Pedestrian

Leaving the streets alone with the obvious recognition that European drivers are clinically insane, let us address the widespread dangers of the sidewalks.

The sidewalks here are nearly impossible to navigate. In addition to the normal bustling traffic of a big city, other eccentric qualities of Athens make asserting yourself as a pedestrian a task requiring the bravery of a Spartan. The first reason for this, I learned, is that municipalities do not regulate the sidewalks here; each household or storefront is responsible for its own maintenance and design of its section of sidewalk. This results in the planting of large poles and/or trees unmistakably rooted in the middle of the sidewalk and jutting staircases whose lowest step starts at sidewalk level and gradually ascends like a ramp (aka you don’t realize you aren’t actually on the sidewalk anymore until you trip off the end of the step--charming). The narrow, grooved rubber strip that runs down the center of the sidewalk provides an additional, albeit colorful, obstacle for the masses. My Contemporary Greek Society professor told us that these strips exist as a path for the visually impaired citizens of Athens to follow. That must be sick joke; I trip over these bumps at least twice a day, and no, it is not a personal problem. In fact, I broke an elderly Greek woman’s fall just this morning. Then I tried to ask her if I could interview her for a class paper and she said no. I think that good old Greek hospitality might have been overshadowed by my growing suspicion that I used the informal tense when addressing her. Oops.

The last comment to add to this category is that motorcycle traffic and the parking of various unidentified vehicles is not restricted to the street. I offer the claim that if you closed your eyes and attempted to traverse an Athenian block, you would probably wander unwelcomed onto someone’s front steps, almost get run over by two motorcycles, and probably purchase a chocolate croissant and 5 student metro tickets from one of the abundant corner kiosks without even trying.

Oh, and one more brief traffic related anecdote: the man who drove the bus for our field trip to Thebes tried to make an absurdly unrealistic turn, hit the curb, fell into a weird pot hole, and managed to shock the back bumper off the bus and into the street. Didn’t seem to faze any of the Athenians. I learned what I expect are Greek curse words from the driver’s ensuing conversation with his boss. Then we got off the bus and observed the largest statue of a lion that I have ever seen. I guess I haven’t seen that many, but it was a hefty animal.

Mini Rant #2: Vegetables growing in the bathtub

This is so disconcerting to me that I don’t think I can write about it too extensively--not that anyone will find a need additional details:

We have mushrooms growing out of the molding (no fungus jokes, please—that ship has sailed) of our shower. Mushrooms. And not the delicious kind. This is disturbing to me on so many levels, including the reverberating horror that I feel simply from being the sister of Richard Lopatin. Some Greek guy came to look at it this morning and gave it a new paint job. Somehow, I feel like this story isn’t over yet. Stay tuned.

Rants over.

So, culturally sophisticated life is back in swing despite the constant looming threat of shower fungus. Yesterday I went with Maria on a Jewish-themed walk around different areas of the city to fulfill an “independent walk” component of my Greek Key Seminar. We managed to get insanely lost of course, but I blame that almost exclusively on the fact that the museum is not a labeled building and in no way beholds any characteristics of a museum from the outside. It looks like a typical apartment building (which, I assume it once was) and one must walk through the gate and then ring the doorbell before a taciturn Greek Jew will grant you entrance. We were the only ones in the museum except for one other wandering man, so it was nice and quiet. Although Jewish history here does not echo through daily life as much say, Israel, I found it intriguing to hear about the quieter past of Greek Jews. The museum housed relics from different Jewish quarters through out the mainland of Greece and some of the islands. Personal details of families interspersed with the greater picture of community life gave this museum a distinct vibe. I spent a while reading about the Jewish history of Thessaloniki in Northern Greece, a location I look forward to visiting on a weekend class trip.

From there we took a leisurely walk back in the direction of Pagrati to visit a massive Athenian cemetery. I have never seen anything like this place; with its picturesque pastoral scenes and brilliantly sculpted statues and altars, it reminded me more of a garden or a museum than a cemetery. Colorful flower arrangements (included this detail for you, Mom) and overgrown vines lined the rows and the soft mid-afternoon sunshine fell perfectly on the thousands of sculpted statues. Candles, photographs, and fresh flowers made the place look alive and well tended to, and possibly offered a comment on the Greek’s frequent visits. I noticed more than a handful of visitors as we walked around taking pictures, including a woman who seemed to be doing shots of whiskey off of a grave. Not sure if this was Greek tradition, a personal tribute to a loved one, or if she was psychotic. I probably have to accept that I will never know for sure. But anyway, this cemetery is a must see in my opinion whether the whiskey woman decides to show up or not.

Now onto a slightly different perspective on Greek culture—protests and demonstrations! The Greeks really do capitalize on their human right to protest. The state of their economic crisis, the need to work two jobs because of the ridiculously low salaries, and the fact that some claim that Greece is single-handedly shattering the value of the euro probably propel this desire. The protests here are always extremely organized, creating a weird combination of control and chaos. The news always mentions the protests in advance, including what times the various types of public transportation will close down. We stopped by Syntagma square to observe the latest demonstration, a public sector strike protesting a myriad of proposed changes to the rules around payment and bonuses. The paradoxical nature of these protests was extremely visible as we watched a large mob of enthusiastic Greek public sector workers march through the square as the riot police (armed with shields and gasmasks) drank their coffee and texted on their cell phones. One of the cops mentioned that he liked his job because it pays OK and he doesn’t have to do much. What? Also, tear gas is disgusting. The picture below is from some unidentifiable hubbub on our street the next day.

I headed back to Syntagma later that night to meet my “Greek Literature as Culture” class for an evening of gallery hopping and a stop at a café in the posh Athenian neighborhood of Kolonaki. My professor explains to us the diversity of the over one hundred galleries sprinkled through out Athens’ neighborhoods in terms of their wealth and style. We visited two galleries, one spacious and presumably wealthier, and the other more cramped and underground. Both were very cool and gave us all free books detailing the artists’ work. The richer of the two galleries houses a new collection every three weeks. That’s a lot of art. Kolonaki seems like the neighborhood that everyone visits to be seen sitting at its fashionable cafes and shops.

My final anecdote for now came out of my Byzantine History class and our visit to the Islamic museum. We woke up early on Thursday morning to meet Stavros, clad in his buttery leather jacket, at the metro stop near the museum. After a couple blocks of zombie-like pre nine AM trudging, we situated ourselves in the museum’s lovely courtyard to hear Stavros’ lecture before we entered the museum. As we listened to Stavros regale us with the delights of Islamic culture in centuries past, a small and energetic dog proceeded to cover the surface area of the courtyard with its own shit. I swear, the amount of droppings that came out of this dog surpassed its body weight. We all tried to ignore this ridiculous distraction until the little “skilo” (dog) began to bark incessantly. Stavros continued to lecture, inserting a strategic “boo boo, boo boo”—which is apparently what people say to dogs here. But then, a member of the museum’s maintenance crew came out to join us, giant shovel in hand, and loudly started to scrap the dog’s large mess off the concrete. I lifted my feet up to allow to cleaning process to continue while Stavros compared and contrasted Islamic and Jewish traditions in the 7th century. Unbelievable. When the dog once again began to bark wildly, Stavros offered, “I think it is about time that we now go inside”.

Today our apartment will head over to school to check out hostels and such for our spring break island hop. I’m going to try to get a head start on work also so that I don’t have to study any verb conjugations in Santorini next weekend!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Cokehead Express to Meteora

OK. Let me begin this entry with the assuring (while slightly uneasy) assertion that the four ladies of Eftihidou 16 are home safe and sound—and slightly more worldly.

Kaite, Maria, Emily, and I packed up during the day on Thursday for our weekend excursion to the breathtaking Μετέωρα (Meteora)—home to the famous, mountainous monasteries of northern Greece. After spending around an hour at a strange and forgettable Carnivale party at school, complete with costumes, Greek music, and an awkward mix of Arcadia students, staff, and the pre-teen Greek hooligans that decorate the neighborhood square, we hopped on the bus in Vernava Square to Syntagma. From there, we caught the metro to Larissa train station. A man on the metro with the tightest pleather (yes, pleather) pants I have ever seen and rusty spikes on the tips of his boots should have been recognized as a mild precursor of things to come. Hooked, aren’t you?

Practical realization: taking the midnight train—even if it is infinitely cheaper and adventurous—is a blatantly horrible idea. After several conversations in broken English and even more broken Greek (with distracted people we are pretty sure worked at the station, but just had zero interest in dealing with us), we nearly missed our first train even though we had been sitting in front of it for thirty-five minutes. So, we found our seats on this god-forsaken vehicle and examined our fellow travelers. If I had to divide them into three all encompassing groups, I would probably go with cokeheads, sex fiends, and the ambiguously unconscious. Before anyone yells at me for irresponsible travel plans, I will have you know that the entire Arcadia staff was aware of our travel plans and we were not adequately warned.

Scared yet? Me too.

We stayed huddled in our American circle of fear and the ride remained essentially uneventful until Maria came back from her epic trip to the bathroom. I woke up from a twenty minute nap during which I dreamed that I won Jeopardy because I was able to identify a very obscure piece of Greek pottery (the subconscious is a strange thing) and innocently asked Maria which way to the bathroom. “Just don’t go,” she replied in a fervent whisper. “Hold it. Seriously.” After looking at the time—3:12 A.M., three hours into our five hour ride—and accessing the urgency of my bladder situation, I realize that the untold wonders of the midnight train’s bathroom were about to become increasingly real to me. Taking Kaite along with me (don’t worry (Grand)Mom, buddy system), we began what would turn into a twenty minute journey through the sea of passed out Greeks in the aisle (the fact that having your face on the floor of a public train is completely foul paled in comparison to the remainder of the experience) to reach the first of six bathroom location attempts. The door is unlocked. Good sign (I was still naïve at this point). As I walk in, I am instantly startled by the scowling face of what I can only describe as a half man half Tazmanian devil. In the split second between that moment and my hurried and clumsy swim back against the crowd of middle aged men who stood smoking in a giant circle on the floor, I noticed the contents of at least three pharmacies strewn out in the sink of the bathroom. Again, I realize that this could not be further from the point, but who is taking those after they have touched a train bathroom??! Without unnecessarily detailing our horror, I can only offer you a brief list of the remaining highlights, including but certainly not limited to a toilet completely clogged with cigarettes that were still smoking (I briefly considered using that one—I blame the lack of sleep), a sink ornately decorated with various drug paraphernalia that I had never seen before and plan never to see again, and a Greek woman who seemed very confused at the prospect that I wanted to get passed her so that I could use the bathroom to empty my bladder as opposing to using it to smoke. Yes, I am certainly the weird one in this situation. Jesus H. We eventually found an acceptable (standards were understandably low) toilet and returned back to our seats more worldly individuals. With the exception of bloody nose guy and incoherent, ranting mumbler, the rest of the train ride passed peacefully. We arrived into Kalambaka station as the sun peaked over the horizon—a beacon of light to four weary travelers. We called a taxi (not an easy feat—people speak a lot less English outside of the big cities), checked into our beautiful hotel, and collapsed in the truest sense of the word onto the cleanest, most glorious beds. After a 5-hour nap, we awoke refreshed and only slightly traumatized. We made it into the center of the small town to walk around and grab lunch at a local taverna. As off-season travelers, I think we got a pretty rare view of the town and the sites; the owner of the taverna fawned over us and gave us free sweats, an act of sharing/offering that the Greeks call kerasma. We went back to the hotel to shower and figure out what would become of our evening. After four ice cold showers (I am beginning to understand a bit more about the non-routine nature of European shower habits) and a look out of our window at what had become a veritable monsoon, we decided that getting into the four hotel-provided robes, ordering pizza, and getting into bed to watch strange Greek TV was probably necessary. The most noteworthy aspect of our night in was a strange weather show called “Sexy Weather” which features an obese woman and her stick-skinny counter-part who use inaccurate weather related vocabulary and flounce around.

We jumped out of bed, ditched the ropes, and got to the hotel’s breakfast buffet around 7:30 (yes, apparently there is one of those in the morning.) Homemade jam and tiropita (a Greek staple, cheese pie) do wonders. As we lounged and enjoyed our breakfast (in Greece every meal has to last at least two hours) the large glass window offering a grand view of the monasteries in the background also offered us a close-up of the beginnings of a huge torrential storm. To the front desk’s utter confusion, we eventually procured four turquoise-green trash bags with giant letters in Greek decorating the front (they could have said “stupid Americans” and we would have had no idea). Into these bags we ripped armholes and head holes (and yes, we did take a picture to mimic the scene from “Garden State” for those of you who were thinking about that), grabbed some money, and waddled shamelessly into a taxi, already soaking wet from the 10 foot gap between the hotel door and the big yellow taxi. We must have been quite a sight.

Our taxi driver introduced himself as Timo and offered to escort us around to the his favorite monasteries for a very reasonable fee. Unsure of whether this offer was out of pity or pride, we gladly accepted his offer. The next three hours were a beautiful, cultural blur of some of the most beautiful natural scenes I have ever witnessed. Timo stopped by the side of the road a multitude of times so that we could crowd under our umbrellas and snap the most picturesque photographs, some of which I have included here. We visited Megalo, Agias Triados, and Agiou Stefanou. As we hiked up the mountains, we stopped periodically to visit the tiny churches, peruse the museum-like historical displays, and marvel at the naturally spectacular views. As we trotted up the mountain-side at Agiou Stefanou—the monastery which boasts a nunnery at its peak—we experienced an intense sleet storm that gave way to a completely blue sky full of sunshine as we reached the top.

After basking in our sunlight, we stopped into the gift shop—half gift shop half display cases filled with more ancient, historical paraphernalia—to look around. We had an extremely elementary and confusing conversation with the nun working the cashier as she continued to refuse the money we offered to pay for some post cards. We figured that this was because we didn’t have correct change (although the ATM only dispenses 50 euro bills, one is apparently always expected to have exact change—another instance of “welcome to Europe where nothing makes sense. Ever.), but eventually realized that she was trying to give us the postcards as a gift. “Ahh Ameriki Ameriki, poli kala” (Ah, America America, very good). She instructed us to wait “half a second” and came back to hand us a bag full of sweet treats and weird Greek juice boxes for our trip back to the city of Athens. Thanks, nun Maria! Not much else to add about the monasteries themselves except just to emphasis how incredibly beautiful and unique they are. The intricate, manmade monasteries situated grandly atop natural sandstone pillars proved to be an inspiring combination. And the insides of the churches, carved in unbelievably detailed woodwork, added yet another layer on to an already aesthetically overwhelming experience. It pains me thoroughly that I wasn't allowed to take pictures inside. The monasteries were originally inhabited in the 9th century by a group of reclusive monks who lived in the cutouts and caves of the cliffs. The monks used ropes and baskets, kind of like a pulley system, in order to transport goods up and down the sides of the cliffs. Hearing the ancient history of these places and walking along the same paths as others have done for years and years before me provides an uncanny sense of connection to the landscape.

We spent Sunday walking around town and sitting in a café for many hours talking and watching the parade and scavenger hunt taking place on the streets, presumably part of the Carnivale celebration which has dominated public behavior for the past couple of weeks. The Greeks really know how to prolong their holidays! Taking our last sips of hot chocolate, we made our way over to the train back to Athens.

It turns out, thankfully, that the 5:30 train passengers are far less…colorful than those of the midnight train to hell. And as I relaxed on the family-friendly ride home reflecting on the weekend’s events listening most appropriately to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound”, I couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of our trip (but only, of course, after I looked up and memorized how to say “Get away from me, please!” in emphatic Greek).

Lastly, the man across the aisle from us on the train looked like Gerard Butler.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Eleusis, Nightlife Exploration, Go Saints! (?), and Philopappou Hill

So, I successfully made it to Apostolos’ favorite café in Syntagma square (with the assistance of a map-capable friend/classmate). We sat for two hours drinking cappuccino (that we ordered in Greek of course—“Ena cappuccino, parakolo”) and chatting with Apostolos about great travel destinations in Greece. While it will be great to plan a spring break trip outside of Greece, I want to focus on getting a taste of as many faces of Greek culture as possible while I am here studying and experiencing. I love that you can order a coffee and sit at a café forever without being bothered. The coffee addiction here operates differently than in the States, but it is definitely an essential aspect of Greek culture—one that I enjoy and one that I will be studying through a sociological lens for class while I am here.

On Friday Stavros took our Byzantine History class to Eleusis, the site of ancient cult worshipping for the goddess Demeter. We learned snipits of its background history as we sat in front of the ruins of the famous temple. Not a bad backdrop. Surveying what would become my first panoramic view of these famous Greek ruins while listening to Stavros’ poetic recounting of its story made the early morning wake up infinitely more tolerable. As the myth goes, goddess Demeter traveled to Eleusis as she frantically searched for her daughter Persephone, a victim of Pluto’s kidnapping to the underworld. She asserted that a sanctuary should be built in her honor so that she could teach the people her secret rituals and continue to mourn and pray for her helpless daughter. After the building of the temple she locked herself in this sanctuary, consumed by these secret rituals as a tribute to her missing daughter. She refused to let any seeds grow from the earth until she saw her daughter again. Zeus formed a compromise that holds Persephone is the underworld for one third of the year before she returns to her mother for the rest of the year. It is out of this myth that the barren, cold months of winter and the rebirth and flowering of spirit of spring—the creation of the seasons—was born. The myth’s richness and detail in conjunction with the visual grandness of the site itself created an overwhelming sense of history and tradition. Walking around the grounds and browsing through its museum only magnified this feeling. In less academic terms, WOW this place is very very old and very very stunning. And I have a distinct inkling that this country is just crawling with opportunities for similar experiences.

This weekend was not without cultural experiences of its own kind. Highlights include a viewing of the Greek classic film, “Stella”, at the Arcadia Center (reminds me that I want to check out one of the many open-air movie theatres peppered around Athens) and hawking out some cool lounges/bars on a main drag near our apartment called “Imitou” street. We chatted with some local Pangrati residents who told us about some cool clubs nearby that would be a little less touristy. Four of us decided that it would be fun to check out this “Greeker” club, and after a half hour of hilarity during which the three of us girls tried to convince our accompanying friend Paul that he should hop on the back of our new male Greek friend’s vespa, we hopped in a taxi and rode into central Athens. I think Theodore (one of the guys we met on Imitou) did not seem too thrilled by the prospect of Paul adorning the back of his bike. Not exactly what he had in mind, I suppose. The club was a fun, free Friday night as a result of our newfound Athenian connections, and a nice peak at nightlife here from a local perspective. On Saturday we did some local window shopping, got coffee at a little café bar across from school that also serves great grilled cheese with turkey and tomato, and did our food shopping. Food shopping in some form seems to be part of the daily culture (Dad, you’re so European!) given the abundance of fresh produce at the markets and such. The phrase, “let’s use up stuff and clean out the refridge” seems to have leaked into my vocabulary. Some cliché about apples and trees comes to mind, no? My apartment made dinner with our friend Ben that night who contributed freshly baked bread. Amazing. Then we got dolled up as an entire apartment for the first time and headed over to one of the other Arcadia apartments to attend a fellow Arcadia study abroad student’s birthday celebration. The majority of the kids from our program were there, and after hanging out and probably eliciting noise complaints from the entire block, we walked to Syntagma square (previous knowledge of our destination may have impacted my shoe choice) to a club called “Lollipop”. The place was OK, but seemed kind of Americanized. We ended up meeting up with our Greek friends again. Nice people, although one of them speaks very little English and kind of looks like a milk maid. We went to a different bar that was a lot more populated and authentically Greek than our other spot. I’m sitting back at Lucky Charm currently, contemplating a nap in preparation for a possible trip to an Australian pub later to watch the Superbowl. We’ll see.

So I actually did go to the James Joyce Pub with many fellow Englishmen and Americans last night from 2am to 5am and am only slightly regretting it today. I know that this is not the point of watching the Superbowl, but the actual pub itself (once we found it) was an extremely cool space inspired by Mr. James “The Dead” Joyce himself. We have been talking a lot about the effects of isolation and spatial issues in my Greek Key Seminar, and this Superbowl party was a perfect experience of displaced sense of community. It was strange to spend three hours surrounded by obnoxious men in jerseys chest bumping each other and eating hotdogs only to be greeted by the somewhat less familiar Athenian air when we left around 5, hopped in a cab and snapped back into elementary-level Greek communication to get back to Pangrati. After a few hours of naptime, I rallied and got over to the bus stop in an attempt to make it on time to my first walking tour facilitated by one of the co-teachers of my Greek Key Seminar (designed to familiarize us with the personality of the neighborhoods and get a native and historical perspective). I won’t say that our small traveling group (about 6 people go on each walking tour) arrived at our destination flawlessly, but we did eventually make it to the Acropolis monument meeting point where a slightly peeved and flustered Maria was waiting. We coincidentally ran into an English speaking woman, actually a friend of my Contemporary Greek Society Class, who had helped us to locate our destination. Small Athenian world! Although our tardiness cost us about fifteen minutes of our walk (Hey, I thought Greek time was about that far behind anyway?), the route did not disappoint. We scaled Philopappou Hill, a picturesque mini-hike past an amazingly ornate and tiny church at which we were able to sneak an unexpected peek. I only wish I could have taken pictures, but as I understand it and witnessed, the walls are so ancient and elaborate that one snap of a modern camera flash would rob it of its romance. I felt privileged to soak in the mental image, but sorry that I can’t share! The top of the hill boasts an impressive 115 AD monument to the Roman Galus Ioulius Antiochus Philopappos (say that one time fast, let alone three), the benefactor of the town. Philopappou seems like the most perfect, silent spot to contemplate lofty, philosophical ideas while absorbing the truly Athenian surrounding wildlife (apparently any tree planted that was not native to Athens was semi-recently removed). I only wish I could have taken this walk down the trail in times past as Themistocles and other great orators shared their craft on the hill. Shops, cafes, and a museum dedicated to Greek dance share the place at the bottom of Philopappou with the surrounding Acropolis area. Definitely an area to explore again. And I have to add one more detail for my father: as we sat in the shade of the acropolis discussing the associated readings that Maria paired with this walk, I found myself caught up once again in a complex discussion of Edward Said’s theories. That’s right, my knowledge of “the Other” and “Orientalism” actually came in handy!! Thrilling, I know.

On the docket for this week: get into more of a routine with my class schedule, plan our upcoming trip to Meteora in Northern Greece (we have an extra long weekend this coming weekend because Monday is “kite flying day” or something. Makes sense to me!), wake up insanely early tomorrow to go get TB screenings and hug a cold metal pole in the nude to get chest x-rays with the rest of the students in my program and the inevitable multiple apartment trips to the lykke!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Nafplio, Experiential Learning, and Angry Greeks

So. Nafplio is officially one of the most beautiful places on earth. The bus to reach Nafplio took us on a twisty, two hour ride through It was overcast when we first arrived, but that didn’t stop us from exploring the charming little town full of shops, tavernas, and unusual nature. We took a lovely walk down what I can only compare to a boardwalk--one side lined with little cafes, the other pulsing calmly with picturesque views of the waterfront and the fortress sitting on an island in the foreground. As we continued to stroll around, we came across what appeared to be a “forbidden” area, but the guard was content to garrulously welcome us to the coastal town and let us pass through. We made our way through a surprising scene of hills, mud, and a lot of cacti, stopping at one point to peek in this strange cave-like situation with random graffiti that provided a perfect photo opportunity.

Arcadia took us out to a delicious taverna oozing with Greek small town ambiance. I am becoming familiar with traditional cuisine in these types of places—lots small plates and wine flying everywhere. No complaints. After dinner we sat around at a café and then decided to check out the nightlife. I only said a few words, but I think I may have actually passed for Athenian?! Maybe wishful thinking, not really sure. It was fun though, regardless of what nationality I exuded. The next morning we got up extremely early to go on a hike up to the top of the fortress (pictured here). Reminded me a lot of the hike up Masada (early morning, around 1,000 stairs, totally worth it). We even had a rainbow cascading over the mountains below as we continued to hike up. We noticed a lot of the features of the fortress on the way down--as we were less focused on not hyperventilating—like the tradition Napflio lion engraved on the sides of the mountain and the safety features that would attempt to provide those who lived atop the fortress. Well worth the four near death experiences on the way up.

We stopped to get gyros for lunch—a Greek staple actually starting with the letter “ramma” not “gamma” (apparently it has become gamma in the English adaptation because the “ramma” sound is impossible for us to pronounce, although Apostolos is working on it with us). Lamb, French fries, taziki, tomatoes in homemade pita. Delicious, dirt cheap, and found on every street corner that doesn’t have a bakery. The other noteworthy event was our visit to the ouzo distillery. A few of us decided to get up early before the bus left to take us back to Pangrati to take the walk to see where they make the ouzo, the cherry brandy, and several other Greek liqueurs. The walk was beautiful and took us through a neighborhood of huge and ornate Nafplio houses. We were the only ones at this tiny distillery and thus got a private tour from the 4th generation owner of the three room museum/working distillery. We learned the interesting and actually multi-cultural history of the place as well as insight into the inner workings of the factory room (and of course, we got free samples of the products.) It was a nice little morning treat (oy) as we were glad that we didn’t sleep the morning away and miss out on the experience.

So, back to Athens and the start of classes! I am being encouraged—rightfully so—to use my limited knowledge of Greek as much as possible. I had to go get additional passport pictures for some student IDs that I want through Arcadia to get student discounts at museums and such around the city, so I decided to try my Greek at this little photography shop I found on Proklous Street on my way to school. “Yassas, Kalemera! Ti Kanete! Meh leneh Suzanna y…. diavatirio…?” (Hello, good morning. How are you (formal)? My name is Suzanna and…passport…uhhh…?” He replies in perfect English, “you’re from Arcadia?” Oh well, at least I tried.

I have, however, mastered the art of ordering my coffee in Greek after many failed attempts of consuming disgusting frothy concoctions because I didn’t want to be the entitled American who complains after they order the wrong thing. That hurdle, thankfully, is no longer a issue. Speaking of hurdles, my roommates and I plan on going for a run at the original Olympic stadium which happens to be just minutes from our apartment.

But back to Greek. Not only does Apostolos (my Greek teacher) run our class in a law school set up—you can and will be called on at any time to read an eleven syllable word that looks like a geometry test problem—but our classes in general are structured in ways that force us to use our admittedly limited knowledge of Greek to interact with each other, natives, and the city itself. While this is a bit intimidating, I know that this kind of personal interaction is the reason for being here and I know it will infinitely enrich my experience. After all, an anthropologist’s fieldwork is most successful when she is able to call herself a native—to understand not only the systems and priorities of a culture, but also what motivates these traditions from a personal standpoint. To learn how to get as close to this sense of comfort and natural understanding of a culture while still maintaining the distance necessary to apply what you learn to your own life is the real challenge. I think that my “Contemporary Greek Society” class will help me to make inroads into understanding more about the intricacies of Greek culture—the rituals around everyday activities, coffee drinking, night-life activity, education systems, gender, feelings around religion, etc etc. This class, along with most of my other classes, will force us to become a part of the surrounding community and of Greater Athens through field observations in coffee shops, bakeries, public transportation systems, cemeteries, and more. We will even be conducting interviews with local immigrants that we will have to seek out individually. This professor, Lois, is my only American professor. She has quite a host of credentials and is equally as impressive academically as her hair is strange. No, but seriously, she has an academic and social obsession with moving to new places and achieving “native” status. She speaks around 7 languages and has lived everywhere from Mexico to a small town in Ethiopia to Spain to Crete to Athens. Even though this class is listed as a sociology course, her deep interest in anthropology will suit me well.

All of my professors seem ready and willing to cater our courses to our individual interests—an attainable goal seeing as my classes are generally about ten people. My Greek Literature professor (Pauline Bithara) has structured our course as a collection of classic Greek novels, short stories, and films which we will study around a few thematic units, the first of which being an exploration of “the virtuous and the guilty sinners: a debate of morality” through three short stories and a film. We are reading Georgios Vizyinos first. She emphasized that if we have particular interests (and the budget to support those interests) that she would be happy to take us to the theatre, the ballet, a soccer game, an art gallery, or whatever kinds of cultural activities that we want. The professors here really want us to get out into the city as much as we can, and their help is invaluable to us as a way to find inroads toward this goal.

My Byzantine History professor is named Stavros and is a brilliant lecturer who will provide me with a smart, thorough, and creative survey of an academic subject of which I have almost no previous knowledge. It is a good thing that he is so compelling because otherwise I’m not sure how jazzed I would be about a nine AM class. Stravros is taking us on an early morning field trip (what is it with this guy and academic pursuit before the sun even gets warm??!) to Eleusis on Friday. I’m sure I will be reporting more on that later. My last class is an informal Greek Key seminar. This class divides us into small groups and leads us on walking tours in different parts of the city, asking us to observe as well as sight-see and hopefully encourage us to ask more informed questions about the city. The professors seem keen on helping us to become simultaneously comfortable in our identity as semi-permanent Athenian residents and uncomfortable in our constant reaching for more information and foreign things to figure out and untangle.

I have to go meet Apostolos for our Greek class tomorrow at a café in Athens center, “Syntagma Square” where the Parliament is. We’ll see how that goes. We have to meet at 3:00 and it takes about 20 minutes to get there, so I’ll probably leave around noon. To end for now with the academics, it is amazing to me that I will have this deeper understanding of so many facets of another culture that so many people never experience. The classes are just as interesting for the way that they are taught and the things they prioritize as they are for their actual subject matter. Now if only they could regulate the temperatures of the classrooms (although with all of these experiential learning classes who knows how much “classroom” time I will actual log!), then academia would be perfection.

OK, I have to go finish reading for my Greek lit class. My roommates and I are going to cook dinner afterwards (at 9, because we are very European). We went to great lengths to procure the food for this meal. We went to the lykke (the outdoor market) at 7am in the pouring rain on Tuesday before class so that we could get there when it opened and get the best produce. We have learned that if you stand near multiple citrus vendors and look indecisive it is not uncommon for them to offer you samples of the product. I had some strange orange-grapefruit-tangerine combo. We bought a few to stick in the Sangria that we plan to make. I also think we might be forbidden to go back to our neighborhood supermarket. We tried to use our Greek with the cashier and she rolled her eyes and popped a pill. Then we shattered a jar of spaghetti sauce everywhere. One of my roommates is quite possibly the only blonde in the city of Athens, so we are pretty sure we need to wait at least a month before we attempt reentry.

Also, I think that the shower floor looked worse after Olga the cleaning lady left. And she made my bed very weirdly. I suppose some things are universal.