Blue Skies and Gorgeous Sunsets

Yesterday was our third full day in Athens. So far, my impression of the city is that it’s much larger and more bustling than Thessaloniki, but in a good way. Every time I turn a corner I see a cute coffee shop I want to try.

I have really enjoyed my time in Athens so far, but very little of it has been spent in the city. On Friday, I took the tram one hour from the downtown area to Glyfada, where the ARCHELON Sea Turtle Rescue Centre is located. During the very crowded tram ride, I listened to music as we passed by some lovely beaches that hopefully I will get to before the end of the trip.

The reason for my trip to Glyfada was to film and take notes on the release of a sea turtle, Angelliki (Greek word for “angel”), back into the ocean. Angelliki was found with a head injury and rehabilitated for about seven months at the rescue center before she was declared ready to resume her life in the ocean. The release was amazing to watch, and I also really enjoyed talking to some of the volunteers at the rescue center – who come from countries all over the world – about their experience so far. Stay tuned for my upcoming story about sea turtle research and conservation in Greece.

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Two of the volunteers at ARCHELON just before releasing sea turtle Angelliki into the ocean.

The trip to Glyfada was also a great opportunity to see a couple of different beaches here in Athens. The release of the sea turtle took place in collaboration with the Aqua Divers Club, which is about a 45-minute drive from Glyfada. I’m really glad I had the chance to visit such a beautiful place, and the drive there was absolutely breathtaking. Not to mention the brief but exhilarating boat ride.

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The beach at the Aqua Divers Club.

My ocean tour continued yesterday when we took a group field trip to Aegina, one of the closest islands to the mainland. We took cabs across the island to visit the Marina Beach, one of the largest beaches on the island. Lying on the beach and swimming in the ocean provided some much-needed relaxation, and by the time we left around 6p.m., everyone looked sun-kissed and happy. I also got to try some of Aegina’s famous pistachio ice cream!

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Enjoying the ferry ride on the way to Aegina.
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Marina beach on the island of Aegina.
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Aegina is known for its delicious pistachios, as Pavlos Tsaros, rescue network coordinator at ARCHELON, told me during our car ride to the Aqua Divers’ Club on Friday. I’d say the pistachio ice cream lives up to the hype.

The best part of the day, though, was the ferry ride back to the port of Piraeus. Our timing on the 7:30 ferry was perfect, and we got to witness one of the most incredible sunsets I have ever seen. Watching the sun set over the Aegean Sea is an experience I will never forget.

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Not pictured: dolphins also enjoying the sunset in the distance.
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Pure happiness. Photo by Suma Hussien

I know we only have about a week remaining in Athens, and I think that by then, I will be ready for a vacation. But moments like the sunset last night help remind me just how lucky I am to be here.

Back at Home…

Things are not going well.

Tonight, as I was painstakingly going through video interviews with Paxtyn and Danny to figure out what parts of the interview we wanted to send to a translator, I received a breaking news notification from the Boston Globe that drove interviews and translations from my mind:

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To be honest, it has been nice to spend a little time living in a country where Trump is not president. I am embarrassed to come from a place that is associated with the election of a person to the world’s most important job who is truly unfit to fulfill it. I have been glad to find that people in Greece do not immediately associate Americans with Trump – or if they do, they either express sympathy or effectively hide their distaste – and I have been able to connect with locals without having to explain that I do not share Trump’s views.

Being in Greece has allowed me to forget about what’s going on at home. Over the past few months, I have become numb to the Globe’s breaking news notifications, and being abroad gave me an excuse – though probably not a good one – to turn my back for a little while.

Tonight, however, all the anger I felt on election night came rushing back. Near the end of 2015, nearly 200 nations agreed to a unified effort to voluntarily reduce worldwide carbon emissions. The Paris climate accord is an essential step in combatting climate change, the effects of which are already predicted to have an effect on the daily lives of people around the world, but will worsen significantly if we do not reduce our emissions soon and quickly.

I was aware that Trump had plans to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris agreement, but had forgotten until tonight just how real of a possibility this was. The U.S. is the second-highest carbon emitter on the planet – behind China – and our country’s participation in the agreement is important both for reducing worldwide emissions and for facilitating future conversation about our changing climate.

Donald Trump knows nothing about climate change and doesn’t care to know anything about climate change. He’s described our scientifically-proven-to-be-changing climate patterns as a hoax (and according to Vox, has tweeted his skepticism over 100 times), and still refers to climate change through the limited descriptive title of “global warming.” He is not fit to be president and he is not equipped to make this decision. But he can and already did.

Here’s where I’m at. For the past two weeks or so, I have been working on a story about recycling initiatives in Thessaloniki. I think it is starting to come together. My central focus is on the people in different areas of the city – based everywhere from the local waste management association to the university to a startup called Cyclefi – who are all working to promote the need for recycling and environmental preservation.

There are a number of challenges associated with this aim, not least of which is the fact that many Greeks are distracted by the economic crisis. Nevertheless, public awareness is increasing, and the amount of recycled material in Greece has increased significantly in the last decade despite the ongoing crisis.

Reusing and recycling is not a direct way to reduce carbon emissions, but it does have an effect. It helps to keep our environment cleaner and freer of pollution, and reducing and reusing plastic and aluminum can also reduce a country’s carbon footprint.

Greece is a country in crisis, but there are still people working to increase awareness and preserve the environment for the next generation. It’s a difficult task, but a necessary one for addressing climate change both within the E.U. (third highest carbon emitter, if you’re keeping track) and globally.

Of course, there are many, many people in the U.S. who are also working to promote environmental awareness and to communicate the realities of climate change. I’ve met some of them. But right now, the loudest voice in our country is saying that climate change isn’t a pressing issue. And my voice – an aspiring science writer reporting from Greece – feels very small and far away.

I do not know what will happen next or how to mentally respond to this decision. One thing is for sure: I will no longer turn my back on what is happening at home. I am watching and listening, and this is not okay.

Bus Rides are for Sleeping, Reflecting, and Going to a New Place

As I write this, I’m sitting on a bus that’s rapidly leaving Thessaloniki behind. I usually reserve bus rides for staring moodily out the window, but I’ll make an exception in this case.

The past three weeks have been chock-full of stimulating experiences both professionally and personally. I’ve met refugee families, interviewed university professors about recycling and sea turtles, and shot and produced a feature story in video form. I’ve also celebrated birthdays of friends I didn’t have a month ago, tried countless new foods, and hiked Mount Olympus.

Living in Thessaloniki didn’t feel like a whirlwind, though. I think that’s because the city itself isn’t hectic: aside from the daily protests, there’s a certain tranquility I have felt during my quieter moments there. Thessaloniki is active but calm, and its small size makes it easy to navigate. It’s definitely a city I’d consider coming back to.

To that end, I’m a little nervous about Athens. It marks a major transition point in our trip, and I think will require a level of adjustment that we just don’t have time for. I am looking forward to getting to know a new city, but there’s also a lot more work to do. It will be a different kind of international reporting. While Thessaloniki felt like home, I expect to feel like more of a spectator in Athens. I’ll see it, but there may not be time to choose a favorite bakery or a favorite bar. Then again, maybe there will be time.

There are a couple of things that have made my experience in Thessaloniki particularly special. Actually, there are a lot of things, but I’m going to focus on three.

First is the boardwalk. Everyone is writing about the boardwalk on his or her departure blogs (and by everyone I mean Asia and Isabelle) and I promise they’re not overselling it. The boardwalk is different every time I walk – sometimes wavy, sometimes busy, sometimes cloudy – and I think it’s part of the reason we’ve made it through the past few weeks without losing our heads. As Asia put it in her blog, there’s something calming about being in the presence of a big body of water. It’s something I learned when I was living in Woods Hole, Massachusetts last year, and it has been reaffirmed here.

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A cloudy and calm day on the boardwalk.

Second are the people, both my travel companions and the locals I’ve met while reporting. I thought I would find it difficult to navigate this group dynamic, but the reality is that I appreciate and am happy to spend time with every single person here. There’s a certain closeness that comes from being in this environment together, not to mention sharing local food and drink, and I’m really glad to be a part of this supportive group of people.

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Our team on our last day of class at the American College of Thessaloniki – that’s our Greek culture instructor, Maria, in the center back.

Furthermore, I’ve been blown away by the kindness of the people I’ve met here in Greece. All three of the refugee families we met last week were so quick to invite us into their home, offer refreshments, and tell their stories. Even the restaurateurs who don’t speak English are always happy to see us and serve us food at the wrong time of day. And our hosts Maria, Kristina, and Theo have been continually sweet and helpful as we have navigated the city these past three weeks, and have made my experience that much easier and more pleasant.

The last part of our stay in Thessaloniki that has been particularly special is our balcony. When I picture living in Europe, I always picture having a balcony to step out onto every morning and mentally prepare for the day. I’ve gotten to do that every morning so far on this trip.

Tsiang-Yu and I were lucky enough to get an apartment on the fifth floor of our building, and our view is literally of a wall, but I have loved it so much. We’ve both spent hours out there working, eating, talking on the phone, and yes, occasionally crying as I mentioned in my earlier post. There are many things I’ll miss about Thessaloniki, but I think I’ll miss the balcony the most.

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I took this shot of our balcony as we packed up our things on our last morning in Thessaloniki.

So, here’s hoping there’s a balcony in our room in Athens, the people are equally friendly, and I find a way to walk by the water. Even if that doesn’t happen, I’m sure that there will be moments that are equally special.

Spot the Domestic Cat

Coming across street cats in Thessaloniki never fails to make me miss my own furry one at home in Michigan. Giovanni, the Schanker cat, is as adventuresome as the next feline, but since we adopted him last year I think he’s become too domesticated to adapt to life on the streets. See if you can spot him in the slideshow below! Hint: he’s cute, highly photogenic, and far more spoiled than the cats I’ve encountered in Thessaloniki.

 

10 Things We’ve* All Done in Thessaloniki

*”We” in this case refers to the students on this trip, not everyone in Thessaloniki.

We’re approaching our final days in Thessaloniki: this is our last weekend here. Fortunately, there are still two more weeks of the Dialogue to go. We’ll be spending the night in Meteora on Tuesday and then arriving in Athens Wednesday.

I’m glad that I have more time to spend with these people and explore international reporting, but I’m also sad to be leaving a city that I’ve – predictably – fallen in love with. I mean, it’s on the water. I hope that I get to come back here someday, but for now, it’s nice to have a chance to look back on some of the Thessaloniki-specific experiences I have had, and that I suspect other students have shared. So, like this post if you’ve:

  1. Cried on the balcony.
  2. Spent an hour agonizing over where to go to eat and then just went to the gyro place instead. You know the one.
  3. Stayed up late not because you were working on a story or because you were out having fun, but just because.
  4. Played ding-dong-ditch with another apartment’s doorbell by accident instead of turning on the light.
  5. Sprinted to the bakery before boarding the bus.
  6. Walked the boardwalk pretending to think deep thoughts, but really just thinking how amazing it is to be here.
  7. Suddenly felt like you were lost when you were only two blocks from the apartment.
  8. Mispronounced a Greek word to the point that it’s unrecognizable.
  9. Wondered whether anyone actually liked ouzo or whether they were just pretending.
  10. Simultaneously felt stressed about stories, that the trip was going by too fast, and unbelievably glad you’d decided to come.

We’ll miss you, Alexandrias!

Smiles and Paradigm Shifts

On Monday night, Carlene called and asked me to come down to her room to discuss whether I wanted to work with Paxtyn to write a story about the current state of the refugee crisis in Thessaloniki and Athens. It will serve as an accompaniment to the stories that Olivia, Ellie, and Suma are working on based on the trip they took last weekend to the island of Chios with Professor Mike Beaudet. If you want to know more about the conditions in Chios and the work these three are doing, Ellie’s emotional account is a challenging but important read. 

Paxtyn’s and my job is to tell the story from the perspective of the refugees living on the mainland, some of whom live in camps on the outskirts of cities and some of whom have been relocated to apartments. Many of those refugees are Syrians who are fleeing from a war-stricken country, while others are from countries like Algeria and Iraq. It’s a complicated story with a lot of different angles, partly because many refugees are constantly in transition between different living situations in Greece, hoping that they will eventually be relocated to other countries.

Carlene called me on Monday around 7p.m., and by 7:30, Paxtyn and I were on the phone with Alix, a Syrian refugee slash journalist who approached Bridget last week when we were all reporting at the protests. Alix frequently spends time with refugees living in Thessaloniki, and set up an interview for the very next afternoon with an eight-person Syrian family living in an apartment less than a kilometer from our own housing. Bridget and Danny joined us to shoot photos and video, respectively.

The next afternoon we traveled with Alix and some of his comrades to Softex camp, where we met with another family that lives in one of the many isoboxes – containers kind of like RVs that function as small apartments, sometimes for groups of 5, 6, or 7 people – that make up the camp. We interviewed the parents in a family of six and also logged notes about the conditions. This time, Sydne and Mike came with Paxtyn and me, while Danny continued to fulfill his role of videographer.

I consider myself to be an experienced reporter, but I have never before dealt directly with tragedy like the Syrian refugees in Greece have had and are still experiencing. I wasn’t sure what to expect from these interviews, except that I would need to keep my own emotions in check.

The Almahmods have six children that range in age from infancy to 12 years old. The family lives in an apartment with one bedroom. There is one bed, and one large open room with pillows, where those who cannot sleep in the bed sleep on the floor. Then there is a bathroom and a small entranceway with couches, where we conducted the first two hours of our interview. The second two hours were conducted outside while we simultaneously played monkey-in-the-middle with the younger children and the oldest, Selma (third from the left in the below photo), did my hair.

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Myself, Bridget, Danny, and Paxtyn with the Almahmod family.

 The family we met at the camp has four children. The youngest, Maria, has the same name as the youngest Almahmod child. It’s a Christian name dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and is one of the most common female names in Greece. The isoboxes consist of two rooms with a long hallway between them. There’s a bathroom but no running water. We sat with the family for two hours on cushions on the floor as the rain beat down outside. Halfway through the interview, there was a pause while the mother brought us juice boxes and fruit.

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Interviewing Alix at the camp.

“Interview” means something different in this context. It does not mean asking questions and getting answers. I didn’t leave feeling like I did a good job or that I got exactly what I needed; I left feeling exhausted, sad, and hopeful that our presence had a purpose.

While I have previously felt powerful with my reporter’s notebook in hand, these past few days it has felt like an inadequate tool for telling stories about lives that are so different from my own. The skills that have proved useful to me thus far – articulating interesting questions and writing quickly – are not that important when it comes to these types of interviews. So I have to turn to other tools. 

I like smiling. When I don’t know what to say, my instinct is always to smile. Needless to say, I’ve smiled a lot on this trip, sometimes from the pure joy of sunshine or delicious new food and sometimes – like when we were conducting interviews this week – because I am not sure how else to communicate that I am here and I care. And also because the kids are really, really cute.

Paxtyn captured this series of photos of us playing with the Almahmod children during a break in our interview. 

This week, my smile has been my greatest tool. It helped me make a connection with Selma and her siblings. It allowed me to ask complicated questions without – hopefully – seeming aggressive or like I was engaging in “parachute journalism.” And it allowed me to create normality in a situation that is entirely foreign for myself, my colleagues, and the people whose stories we hope to tell in a meaningful and purposeful way.

This week marked a paradigm shift in my philosophy as a journalist. I learned that just because I know how to take notes and ask questions, I don’t have all the skills needed to tell such a difficult and multifaceted tale. Fortunately, mine isn’t the only voice that these families can use as a microphone through which to tell their story. From our team alone, you can read perspectives from Ellie (linked above), PaxtynOlivia, Danny, and Bridget. There is also some exceptional journalism from The New York Times and The Guardian, among many others.

I am glad that I have been given the opportunity to be one of these many voices, and hope that my contribution will be worthwhile.

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The notes Selma passed to me during our interview earlier this week. She’s had no formal education but knows words from six languages. I will keep them forever.

A Few Updates

The past few days have been some of the busiest I’ve had so far in Thessaloniki. I can’t believe there are only four more full days before we board the bus to Athens, which promises to be a completely different experience and city. I’m still processing some of the experiences I’ve had since the weekend, but before I delve in further, here’s a short overview of what I’ve been up to.

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I have a lot on my mind, as you can tell from this photo Suma took on the bus to visit Thessaloniki’s open markets. See more photos from Suma here.

Audience with the mayor

Monday’s lecture at the American College of Thessaloniki was cut short so that we could get back on our bus and meet with the advisor to Thessaloniki’s mayor, Leonidis Makris. Not only did we get to have a long discussion with Makris, the mayor himself, Yiannis Boutaris, set aside a few minutes to answer student questions. If you haven’t heard, the mayor of Thessaloniki is a pretty cool guy. He wears an earring, has tattoos, and leans far to the left on social issues. He also speaks openly about being a recovering alcoholic and has been called “a beacon” of hope for the city.

I asked a question about the status of recycling initiatives in Thessaloniki, since it’s a story I’ve been pursuing since before we arrived in Greece and since recycling has been on the mayor’s radar since he took office in 2011. It’s clear from my research that public awareness of recycling initiatives has picked up in recent years, despite ongoing problems and distractions. Boutaris concurred:

“We have now a goal of having around 50% of garbage which has to be reused…I think we are doing a good job. People are started to understand that treating the garbage [recycling] brings money to the state.”

Many dissolves make one great guitar video 

On Monday night, I stayed up until nearly 2a.m. to finish editing the video component of Cody’s story on Giannis Paleodimopoulos, a classical guitar maker based in a village outside Thessaloniki. My first draft came out a bit shaky, but Mike Beaudet, journalism professor at Northeastern and resident videography expert who’s now joined our team, helped me improve the video by adding transitions and creating a stronger ending.

I’m really happy with how it turned out, plus it was kind of fun to stay up late with what Carlene called “team guitar.” Like Cody wrote on his blog, the “late night journo jam session” made me feel like a real journalist. Perhaps a member of Mackenzie McHale’s reporting team on Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom – which I pull up YouTube clips of whenever I have a free moment here. And when I have a free moment pretty much anywhere. Lame but true.

Anyway, read Cody’s story here or watch the video here.

Reporting on the refugee crisis 

This is another thing that I’m doing, but I don’t want to lump all of my thoughts into a post about updates. So, more coming soon.