Day 1: The Agora, the Consulate, and Souvlaki

Yesterday’s flight felt endless (was it yesterday? or maybe two days ago? I’ve lost count.), but the thing about traveling is, suddenly you reach at your destination and it feels miraculous. All of the travel is totally worth it.

As my roommate and I unpacked our suitcases in our appropriately tiny studio apartment, though, the fact that I’m finally in Greece didn’t really sink in. After a short walk around the neighborhood, a trip to the nearby Discount Market, and a bleary but delicious bleary pizza dinner, I was ready for a night’s sleep – or a late afternoon to midnight sleep as it would have been at home.

This morning, I woke up feeling surprisingly well rested and much more like a real person. This was good, because it was a jam-packed, info-filled, food-filled day. It would take hours to gather all my thoughts from the day, so I’ll just share a few highlights.

“Don’t forget that Thessaloniki of the past is asleep underground” 

During our walking tour of Thessaloniki’s historic district, tour guide and professor at the American College of Thessaloniki – where our Greek culture elective will be taught – Daphne Lamprou guided us through the Rotunda of Galerius, a circular church covered in resilient thousand-year old mosaics that was built during the Byzantine Empire and later converted to a Christian church; along the sea shore to Aristotle Square, one of Thessaloniki’s busiest areas where peaceful demonstrations frequently take place; and finally to the Agora, where the ruins of Thessaloniki’s historic city – everything from the open-air theater to the spa – are visible to pedestrians.

 

 

While Thessaloniki’s historic buildings are certainly an important part of the city – work on building an underground subway system has been repeatedly stalled due to the presence of historic artifacts – Lamprou informed us that Greece’s current economic crisis has meant that many current restoration projects have been postponed. This not only means that the jobs associated with archaeological restoration are not available, it also jeopardizes the city’s ability to maintain its historic identity.

However, that doesn’t seem like it’s likely to happen anytime soon, especially since the buildings and historic sites serve as a constant reminder that the daily lives of Greeks thousands of years ago weren’t so dramatically different from those of Greeks today. “[The city’s] heart has been beating in the same places” for thousands of years, Lamprou told us. The tour certainly made me feel a little closer to the history of the city, even on the very first day.

Rebecca Fong is a total badass

Our second activity of the day was a visit to the U.S. Consulate of Thessaloniki, where we had a Q&A with Consul General Rebecca Fong. Her talk offered an extremely interesting window into the life of a U.S. diplomat – a career path I knew essentially nothing about before today but which sounds like a mish-mosh of crazy, rewarding, and exhausting experiences. Before coming to Thessaloniki, Fong worked in Bahrain, Iraq, Paris, and Afghanistan, and has much more international travel in her future.

In addition to telling us about her life, Fong spent nearly two hours answering student questions about everything from the refugee crisis to environmental initiatives (hint: that one was from me and apparently there aren’t any). It was an exciting and intriguing way to get to know the country a little bit better from someone who embodies global citizenship, especially since I’m hoping to become a better global citizen on this trip.

Becoming a foodie in a new country

I have a tendency to second-guess myself when it comes to ordering meals, especially when I get to a new place. Today went pretty well, though – I had chocolate cereal from the nearby market, pork souvlaki (which is basically just a kebab), and dinner from a Mexican restaurant called Habañera – not exactly authentic Greek food, but getting lost in the pouring rain on the way there made it a memorable bonding experience. I also discovered that tzatziki is an exception to my lifelong dislike of yogurt, knowledge that I’m sure will come in handy over the next few weeks.

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Enjoying lunch in Aristotle Square with highly photogenic – and hungry – fellow travelers Luke, Suma, and Bradley. 

It’s been an exhausting but rewarding day, and I’m ready to clock out. Can’t wait to see what tomorrow holds.

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An Exercise in Social Stamina 

Our first group photo after checking in and a great view of everyone’s choice plane attire. Unfortunately, I’m blocking the T.A.’s face (sorry Danny).
One of the many words I think I’m repeatedly going to use to describe this experience is immersion. It’s an immersion in a new place, with new people, and in a new kind of work. It surprised me how that immersion starts right away. Last night, as I struggled to get a few hours of sleep before heading to the airport, I felt isolated. Now, I’m suddenly immersed in a new experience. Everyone around me is going through the same process I am. 

That makes me feel a lot better and more confident about what’s going to happen next, and it will also make this experience a lot more fun. But it will also be an interesting challenge to be constantly surrounded by social stimulation. I chose to major in journalism for a reason: I really like talking to people and being around people. However, I also consider myself a hard-core introvert – the definition being that I need time to recharge every once in a while. This trip is not only a chance to learn more about what it means to be a global reporter; it’s also an exercise in social stamina. And balance – that’s the other word I’m going to be using a lot. Balance between excitement and calm. Between loud and quiet. Between work and fun. 

The plane hasn’t yet pulled out of the gate, but this international immersion and social balancing act has already begun. Time for the next step.

New Territory

In the past year or so, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a storyteller and to tell a good story. I’ve written about how my organic chemistry professors tell the story of nucleophiles and electrophiles; I’ve researched how to frame the climate change debate in ways that may be more accessible to both sides of the political spectrum; and I’ve watched a lot of really good TV.

There are a lot of different types of storytellers, and a lot of different storytelling roles that I have already experienced, whether that was as a child passionate about creative writing or as an aspiring science writer breaking down complex oceanographic topics during my co-op at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. But there’s one particular role I haven’t tried out at all, and that I’m getting the chance to try out now: that of international storyteller.

In only four days, I’ll be departing Boston with nearly 20 other Northeastern journalism students to spend five weeks as an international reporter in Greece. We’ll be spending three weeks in Thessaloniki and two weeks in Athens, where our job will be to tell stories about the goings-on in those cities for an international audience. This is exciting and scary for a lot of different reasons, from the basic (What if no one speaks English? How do I navigate an unfamiliar city?) to the more complex (How do I frame a local story in a way that speaks to a broader audience? What are the right questions to ask?).

As someone with a double major in journalism and biology, I’m planning to use my combined skill set to report on and write about science and environmental stories in Greece. On the one hand, my background research and knowledge make that seem totally feasible; on the other, I really have no idea how I’m going to do that. But I think that will be part of the uniqueness of this experience: that I have the opportunity to stretch my familiar skills in a completely unfamiliar place. I’m already a storyteller. I’m already a science writer. Now, I’m going to find out how to be an international storyteller. I’m nervous, but I can hardly wait.