Head On

My head and heart are both very full now that our Dialogue in Greece has come to a close. Fortunately, I have come to the perfect place to reflect on this experience: the island of Santorini, where I am spending a few days with my parents before heading home this weekend.

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My view as I write this blog post. 

The quiet atmosphere of our hotel is very different than the busy, social atmosphere I have been in for the past five weeks, and at first, I found it difficult to adjust. After spending a day in the sun and rereading one of my favorite books, I’ve realized that a little quiet can be nice too, and I think I’ve adjusted to the vacation lifestyle. Still, I keep finding myself wishing that the trip wasn’t over, even though there were times when I longed to get back to a feeling of calm. 

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Adjusting to life in Santorini. It isn’t hard. 

This trip is what I’ve termed to be a capsule experience, an adventure with a predetermined beginning and end that gives just enough time to settle into an environment and community but short enough to still be caught off guard when it’s over. To be honest, I’m not sure I’m the first person to use this phrase, but I like it.

Capsule experiences range far and wide over time and place; past examples include my three-year high school education in Cleveland, my six-month science writing internship in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and the two-week trip I took to a sister school in Chiaravalle, Mexico when I was fourteen. 

With capsule experiences, I tend to remember the overall experience the best: the people I met, the work I produced, the places I saw. Sometimes, though, what’s even more important are the little moments that are delightful at the time but easily forgettable. Regarding this trip, I think that my own sentiments echo those of many of my friends that I have already read (Olivia, Hsiang-Yu, and Alexa, to name a few): I’ve taken away some incredible professional experiences, but have also really enjoyed spending time with the people on this trip.

The problem with writing a final reflection is that there are too many things I want to reflect on, so in lieu of a long, philosophical post, here are a few favorite experiences that meant something to me. In no particular order: 

Professionally

  • Learning to use Final Cut – with some help from Ellie and Mike – is an important step in my professional development that I no-doubt will continue to use as I further explore video storytelling.
  • Exploring aspects of reporting that are totally new to me, like interviewing refugee families in apartments and camps, was not something that I initially thought I would be doing on this dialogue. Now, I could not be more thankful for this opportunity.
  • Shooting GoPro footage of a sea turtle being released into the ocean (story and video here) was both an amazing experience and a great continuation of the oceanographic reporting I have done in my previous internship in Cape Cod.
  • Hearing the different perspectives of scientists in another country, who often share many of my views but are operating in a completely different environment, was a fascinating and fun way to network with people in Greece.

Personally

  • Enjoying snacks, walks on the boardwalk, and discussion with my wonderful roommate, Hsiang-Yu helped me get to know a lovely person in unexpected ways.
  • Sharing both early-morning breakfast and late-night drinks with friends at our hotel in Athens helped was a fun way to spend time with the group outside of our stressful classroom environment.
  • Swimming in the Aegean Sea on a nearby island – and then having an impromptu photo shoot during the most picture-perfect sunset I have ever seen – is a memory I will treasure forever.
  • Spending a quiet and relaxing day in Meteora, where we spent equal time gawking at the beautiful views and enjoying the pool and town surrounding our hotel, was the perfect way to transition from Thessaloniki to Athens. Not to mention I got nearly unlimited time to gaze out the window and listen to this song – the song I’ve chosen to encapsulate our time in Greece and also the inspiration for this post title – over and over on the bus ride.

I have really enjoyed having this blog as a way to document and reflect on my experiences in Greece, and truth be told, it was much harder than I thought to write this final reflection blog post. Maybe that’s because I do not feel ready to face the fact that the program is over, and maybe it’s because I have so much I want to say that the blog, for the first time, feels like an insufficient outlet.

I am so glad to have been a part of this trip and this experience. I am signing off for now but am excited for the future, both for myself, now an internationally-equipped science writer, and for my talented friends both at home and abroad.

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Here’s that oft-posted group photo. Until we meet again! 

Connecting with a Like-Minded Science Communicator

Last week, I took the bus to Chalandri, a suburb of northern Athens, to meet with Theo Anagnostopoulos. Anagnostopoulos is the cofounder of SciCo, a nonprofit organization that aims to facilitate communication of scientific topics in a creative and interesting way. After spending more than 10 years developing a background in genetics and cancer biology in the U.K., Anagnostopoulos, who is also the president of the board of the Onassis Scholars’ Association, chose to pursue a career in science communication even though, in his words, “there was no market for it” in Greece.

“How do you survive in a field that has no market?” he said. “You have to open the market.”

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The (somewhat hidden) entrance to the SciCo offices in Chalandri.

At SciCo, Anagnostopoulos helps run various programs that enable science communication in Greek society, though he also hopes to expand internationally. This includes the Athens Science Festival, which was started in 2014 and now draws 30,000 visitors each year, and the Thessaloniki Science Festival, which was instigated shortly after. They also have developed a program called Mind the Lab, which places research demonstrations in Athens metro stations for one day each year in order to integrate science into everyday life. Volunteers are an important part of making these programs a success.

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Theo Anagnostopoulos, general manager of SciCo, at his desk.

Anagnostopoulos says that SciCo has two main pillars: communication and empowerment. “A lot of the issues that drive global attention involve science,” he said. “Once [people] leave the festival, hopefully they will engage with something scientific afterwards.”

This type of work is essential in a world where science research is flourishing but communication and engagement are still lacking.

“We’re trying to create education based on rational steps,” Anagnostopoulos said. He says it’s important to help people navigate the science communication landscape in what’s been called the “infobesity” era. “There’s so much confusion about the masses of information coming out on the same topic. I think the more you have, the more confusion is created. You need someone who is balanced.”

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Employees working at the SciCo office.

Anagnostopoulos is passionate about creating engagement on crucial issues like global climate change. However, he also admits that Greece’s ongoing financial crisis has created a distraction from dealing with these issues firsthand, as have the ongoing antics of the U.S. government.

“You get distracted by the U.S.’s position,” he said. “You feel as though you’ve got an Olympic Stadium full of water and you’re using a coffee cup to empty it, but you have someone throwing buckets of water back in.”

As someone who wants to be a science communicator in the U.S., I found that metaphor to be equal parts accurate and depressing. Still, it was fascinating to hear the perspective of someone who’s observing Trump’s actions from the outside, and I was glad to offer my own opinions on the reasons for what’s happening.

While in Greece, I’ve been able to pursue many different types of reporting, some of which I’m already accustomed to and some of which I definitely am not. In the midst of those different experiences, I’m glad to have found time to meet with someone who is in the thick of the field that I hope to make my own career in someday.

Anagnostopoulos says he enjoys science communication because of the “creativity of how you will express what you learn.”

“Whatever tool you use, you are on a stage,” he said. “Being a researcher is an isolating profession. I like having the chance to talk to and interact with other people outside of my job.”

Anagnostopoulos is working on expanding SciCo internationally and says that he would love to have an office in the U.S. someday, so who knows, maybe we will have a chance to connect again. For now, I am excited to move forward with my own goals of helping create more scientific awareness in society with the knowledge that there are people around the world trying to do the exact same thing.

Thessaloniki struggles to promote awareness of environmental initiatives

Here’s my latest story for our team site on recycling initiatives in Greece. It’s a topic I’m glad I got to explore while I was in Thessaloniki.

NU Journalism Abroad - Greece 2017

Recycling and trash bins like these, photographed in a residential area of Thessaloniki, can be found on nearly every corner throughout the city.
Photo by Gwendolyn Schanker

Story by Gwendolyn Schanker ·

THESSALONIKI, Greece – Large plastic blue bins dot the streets of Thessaloniki, intended for citizens to dispose of their plastic, paper and aluminum. The ubiquitous – and often chock-full – receptacles signify rising awareness of recycling initiatives, but Greece still has a long way to go in embracing environmental awareness.

The EU has set a goal of recycling 50 percent of household waste by 2020. According to theEuropean Environment Agency, only 19 percent of municipal waste was recycled in Greece in 2014, the last year for which data are available. That number has risen by nearly 10 percent over the last decade, but is still low when Greece is compared to other European countries: For example…

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19,534 Words

That’s how many words I’ve written since coming to Greece.

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Outside a bookstore I visited today. I feel like I’ve written enough words to fill all of these books, but my math tells me that’s not the case. 

Forgive me if the number’s not exact. I copied and pasted the text from every blog post, then added up the words for my two published stories and two yet-to-be-published. I’m accounting for about half of the story Paxtyn and I are writing together, the first draft of which clocks in around 3,500 words. I estimated 1,000 words for rewrites and 1,000 for emails, though both of those estimates are conservative.

Handwritten notes, of course, don’t make up part of this number, though I’ve nearly filled three reporter’s notebooks taking down observations and logging interviews. Nor do Facebook messages, though my friends and I have conferred many times about where to go to dinner. I’m not counting the words I wrote in my journal, since most of those were either posted on this blog or said aloud. And I’m obviously not counting  the words I’m typing now.

We’ve been in Greece for approximately 30 days now, so my estimate suggests about 650 words per day. Honestly, that number seems low. I feel like aside from eating and reporting, all I do is write here. Fortunately, I usually enjoy all three of those activities, so it’s not a bad lifestyle.

I’m the kind of person who goes over the word count. It’s not hard for me to come up with a lot of words to tell a story or describe a situation. Of course, using more words doesn’t always mean I’m using the right words. Nor are words necessarily the most effective tool for telling a story, as many of our resident videographers will attest to.

I think that for me, words will always be the medium in which I feel most comfortable expressing myself. However, I’m getting better at shooting video every time I pick up a camera, and my photography skills are also improving. These tools are essential in an era where our collective attention span is becoming increasingly shorter, and I am glad that I have had the opportunity to continue to develop them over the past few weeks.

Still, there’s something to be said for having words to document this experience. In a way, it’s like an uber-overachieving version of writing “Gwen was here” on a random street corner.

Hopefully, though, it’s also something bigger. I know the words I have written on this trip will be valuable to me. But I also hope they will provide value to others who read them. The ongoing ethical question we have dealt with on this trip is whether it is worth it to write about something, and especially to force people to relive difficult experiences, if the result may not reach a large audience or have a long-term impact.

As journalists, it is necessary to believe that what we are doing is inherently worthwhile. I think that I have managed to keep up that belief throughout the trip, but I am not entirely certain that it is valid. I really hope the words I have written will mean something to someone other than myself, whether that’s my family, one of the many volunteers at the ARCHELON Sea Turtle Rescue Centre, a bookseller in Thessaloniki, or a refugee family whose story has not yet been fully told.

I have no way of knowing the impact my work will have. But I hope that these 19,534 words create something beyond personal documentation. I hope that they create dialogue, or news, or evoke emotion. I hope that they have been worthwhile.

Run Around

Last night as I was having dinner with Luke, Paxtyn, Hsiang-Yu, and Suma and we were recapping our days, Luke, who had spent his day tracking down sources for a story on LGBT refugees, mentioned that he loves this part of journalism: working on deadline to the point where you have to literally track people down in order to get them to talk to you. “I think I gain energy from this type of reporting,” he said over our dinner of pork legs and pasta.

This morning, I reflected on that conversation as I set out to track down a representative at the Greek Ministry of Migration and Policy to talk to me after I wasn’t able to get through to them on the phone. What was supposed to be a five-minute walk turned into an hour of wandering the streets looking for the right government building. I kept being sent from one building to another, all of which contained nice, helpful people, but unfortunately, none of those people were available to answer my questions.

Finally, one particularly accommodating woman at the Department of Citizenship gave me the correct address of the Ministry of Migration (quite different than what I had pulled up on my Google Maps) and the name of someone to talk to. As I set off in the opposite direction, I realized I was sending myself a series of negative messages along the lines of:

I hate this part. I don’t understand why I even want to BE a journalist if it involves going up to random people and asking for directions and what is even the point of being here if I don’t even LIKE talking to people at all? In fact, after this is over I’m never going to talk to anyone ever again. 

If you haven’t already picked it up from reading this blog, I can be a little melodramatic.

It’s true that unlike Luke, I don’t thrive in these type of reporting situations. My favorite kind of reporting is when someone responds to my email saying they’d be delighted to talk to me and suggests an exact time and place. I don’t like the back-and-forth, I don’t like being rejected, and I especially don’t like tracking down people unplanned.

Here’s the part I do like. Once I arrived at the Ministry of Migration and found the right floor, the representative started looking up potential information that would be useful for my research. I struck up an informal conversation with her about the subject of refugees integrating into Greek society, which turned into a 15-minute interview where I took down notes on the piece of paper she’d just handed me.

My journey had not been in vain, as I had feared while walking along in the drizzling rain. Instead, I’d struck up a rapport with a new person and gathered information that would hopefully prove useful. Leaving the building, I felt triumphant.

“Sounds like journalism,” was my mom’s response after I described my morning of running around. It is journalism. But do I like it or not?

Sometimes, these types of reporting escapades are entirely unsuccessful. Today, Paxtyn took an hour-long train ride out of the city for an interview, and her interviewee stood her up. Even though finding someone to talk to made my trip today a small success, I would have had to be okay with the winding journey even if I had come up empty.

Part of the reason I don’t enjoy cold calls or tracking down sources is because I have a fear of failure. My general strategy as a reporter is to feel like I can’t until I do. It would be great if I could skip the I can’and go right to the I do part. That goal is a work in progress, but coming on this trip has brought me closer to achieving it by putting me in situations where I ultimately feel more capable as an international journalist. I still don’t enjoy wandering the city to find sources, but I’m starting to realize that I can. 

 

 

Sometimes Feeling Small Can Be Good

I’m the type of person who obsesses over small things, or in more colloquial terms, I “sweat the small stuff.” It is my tendency to be concerned about small details of my daily life, and though I don’t like to admit it, it sometimes detracts from my experiences.

It’s good perspective, therefore, to witness things that are bigger than I am.

We’re getting into crunch time now, and the work I have coming up this week feels like a series of enormous milestones. So to put things in perspective, here are a few places I’ve visited lately that surpass the significance of my everyday tasks and make me feel small in a good way. The experiences I have had at each of these places have been extremely special individually, but together, they all have something in common: they’re so much bigger, older, and wiser then I am.

Mount Olympus, Visit date: 5/28

On our last rainy weekend in Thessaloniki, we took a four-hour hike on Mount Olympus. According to Greek mythology, Mount Olympus was the home of the gods of the ancient world. Walking through the hills and trees to encounter views of waterfalls and towering rocks under pattering rain made it easy to believe that I was standing where Zeus and his colleagues once lived, and I experienced a sense of calm that I cannot always find that easily.

Meteora, Visit date: 5/30

During our two-day bus ride to Athens, we stayed overnight in Kalampaka, a town located next to the floating monasteries that compose Meteora. The monasteries of Meteora were built on gigantic rock formations by monks during the 14th and 15th centuries and are now a popular tourist destination. We didn’t have a tour guide at Meteora, which gave us more freedom to relax, walk around, and photograph and gawk at the awe-inspiring views.

Delphi, Visit date: 5/31

Delphi, an ancient city home to remains of the Temple of Apollo and thought to be the site of a powerful oracle, was our last stop before Athens. As our tour guide regaled us with tales of Apollo’s conquests and the Pythian Games – predecessor to the Olympics – I enjoyed taking in the sights and views of the ancient city, despite the fact that I was plagued by my irrational fear of buzzing insects.

Aristotle’s Lyceum, Visit date: 6/4

On Sunday, which was our free day, I took a late afternoon walk through the National Garden, which is conveniently located less than a kilometer from our hotel. My goal was to visit the Lyceum, an ancient gymnasia in Athens where the students of philosopher Aristotle strolled and studied. What remains of the Lyceum is now preserved and surrounded by benches where visitors can relax, journal, and attempt to wrap their head around the fact that this pile of rocks was the site of Aristotle’s Peripatetic School more than 2,000 years ago.

Acropolis of Athens, Visit date: 6/5 

Cody, Alexa, Bradley, and I missed last week’s group visit to the Acropolis because we were reporting for our stories. So on Monday, we spent the morning visiting Acropolis museum and climbing to the famous site of the Parthenon and Temple of Athena. We can see the Acropolis from our hotel, but seeing it up close was well worth the sweaty hike up.

The view from the Acropolis was absolutely incredible, and I enjoyed spending a little time wandering around and helping out other tourists when they asked me to take their photo. It was the perfect way to spend the first morning of our last week in Athens.

Reflections During a Sudden Hailstorm

I am currently taking shelter in the Omonia metro station as hail beats down on the escalators and water rivulets begin to flood the space at the bottom of the stairs. The “caution: wet floor” sign does not do it justice.

I am surrounded by locals and tourists who are either watching the sudden hailstorm with a combination of amazement and annoyance, filming it on their phone, or bravely charging up the escalator to run to their destination. One woman takes a look at one of the ice-cube sized pellets at my feet and makes a gesture of prayer. 

Less than half an hour ago I was leisurely walking through tourist shops with Hsiang-Yu under sunny skies. How quickly things change. 

It’s reminiscent of a time two summers ago when my parents were visiting Boston. I wanted to take my mom to try her first bubble tea, which would have been a five-minute walk from where we were having lunch. As soon as we started walking, however, it began to hail. We took shelter next to a nearby nail salon and my dad literally had to cover my arms and face to protect me from the pounding hail and strong winds. It was brief but terrifying. Afterwards, we had to go the mall and buy replacements for our soaked clothes because the hotel was too far away to go back. 

My parents have not yet arrived in Athens, so I am alone in the metro station. I do not feel scared or lonely, though, as I am surrounded by others who are having the same experience. It is strange to share this moment with strangers who I will probably never meet, but it is also  nice to know that I am not alone.

I can relate to the fury of sudden storms because sometimes my emotions change in ways I have difficulty controlling. One minute everything is fine; the next I feel like a terrible person. It’s not unlike the sudden change in the weather. Sometimes my changes in sentimentality aren’t in the forecast, but happen anyway. Sometimes it hails when it’s only supposed to rain. 

I can only take shelter inside this metro station for so long, just like I can only mope in my room for so long when I am upset. It is therefore time to join my fellow train riders in ascending the escalator into the next phase of the day. Despite sudden changes, we have no choice but to move forward. 

Update: I am now safe in the lobby of our hotel.