19,534 Words

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

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.


Finding Common Ground

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to go with Cody and Sydne to the house of a guitar-maker not far from Thessaloniki. Cody was reporting for a profile on the craftsman, Giannis Paleodimopoulos, while Sydne’s job was to take photos. My job was that of videographer, a role I’ve only fulfilled a couple of times before. I’m not exactly experienced at shooting video, as evidenced by my frequent calls to Danny about how to set up the audio and where the headphone jack was located. But you can’t learn how to do something without putting yourself in a situation where you actually have to do it, so I stumbled down the stairs with my giant tripod and tried not to feel too embarrassed by my inability to detach the camera from the tripod at the end of the shoot.

Looking more professional than I feel with my giant camera. Photo by Sydne Mass

After a 20-minute car ride, we wound up in a part of the countryside that I have never been to before, but that strongly reminded me of a past visit to Frýdek-Místek, Czech Republic that I took with my family about seven years ago. During that trip, we had the chance to visit the home of a colleague of my mom’s, Drahomira. I remember eating homemade onion soup and taking silly photos in her backyard, and feeling perhaps the most content that I have ever felt.

Town square in Frydek-Mistek, Czech Republic. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Arriving at Paleodimopoulos’ house yesterday immediately brought back memories of that experience. Even though this time, I was visiting someone’s house in a professional capacity (and I had a giant camera with me), I immediately felt at home. Paleodimopoulos’ wife made coffee and brought out a delicious feta-and-zucchini bread that I can’t remember the name of but which our translator, Theo, called “their take on tiropita,” or cheese pie. As I downed my espresso and consumed several pieces of the delectable breakfast treat, Cody, Sydne, and I chatted with Paleodimopoulos and his friends, some of whom were also musicians.

Giannis Paleodimopoulos. This photo’s from his website because I want to save the photos Sydne took for when Cody’s story is published. 

There’s no denying that there is a language barrier here. I can only remember about five Greek words at a time, so two-way conversation in Greek is essentially impossible. While Paleodimopoulos spoke semi-fluent English, several of the other people we had breakfast with did not. I’ve discovered that in those situations, there are always ways to find common ground. Maybe it’s using a single phrase in Greek, or discovering a mutual love of espresso, or just sharing a smile.

Sometimes it’s an unexpected connection. As it turns out, our photographer Sydne is fluent in several languages, and while Greek isn’t one of them, German is. As we were having a disjointed conversation in Greek and English – with Theo helpfully translating – Paleodimopoulos’ wife, Katerini, used a phrase in German that I would never have caught, but Sydne did. Soon, the two were chatting away in another language that, like Greek, is completely unfamiliar to me. Later, we captured video of Katerini explaining in German how to add the “rosetta” – the design around the guitar – which Sydne will soon help me translate and caption.

Not only did Sydne’s multilingualism come in handy yesterday, it also demonstrated something amazing about spending time in another country. Hearing three languages spoken simultaneously in the same room – Greek, German, and English – was a somewhat indescribable experience, but I think it comes down to the fact that there is always common ground. For me yesterday, it was the fact that the Greek countryside felt just like Frydek-Mistek, and that I was handed an espresso right when I needed one. For Sydne, it was finding someone who she could communicate with in a way that none of the other reporters in the room could. It’s hard to be far away from home, but it’s nice to know that mutual connections can always be found.

A Short List of Things I Did Yesterday

  1. I learned how to say “my name is Gwen” in Greek (Με λενε Gwen, or “me-lene”) from instructor Maria Kalaitzopoulou.
  2. I took a walk on the upper campus of the American College of Thessaloniki.

    Dazzling views from ACT’s upper campus. 
  3. I watched other members of our team pitch their first stories, which for some of whom (including me) will be their first international reporting experience. Stay tuned for stories coming up on our team site soon!
  4. I had an attack of stress that I didn’t get to pitch my own story and didn’t feel prepared to start reporting.
  5. I started reporting.
  6. I took my first cab in Greece.
  7. Olivia Arnold and I went to the first day of Thessaloniki’s International Book Fair and spoke to publishers and booksellers about how Greece’s economic crisis has affected literary industry and culture (more on this coming soon!).

    Bookseller Katerina Pandelidou, co-owner of local fantasy, science fiction, and horror bookstore Unknown Kadath, works at her exhibition booth at the Thessaloniki Book Fair. 
  8. I figured out how to make my Greek phone work – which I bought yesterday for only 20 euros – so now I can contact Greek numbers for interviews. (I just had to turn it off and on again.)
  9. I took a sunset boat ride around Thessaloniki Bay with a large group of friends, something I’ve now decided I want to do every single day for the rest of the time we’re here.
    One of the shots I took of Aristotle Square during our boat ride. 
    And another of the sun setting over Thessaloniki Port, with silhouettes of ships visible in the distance. 


  10. I stayed up late sending emails to scientists who study sea turtles.

I think it was a pretty productive day.

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.