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 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!
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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. 

 

 

Too Much Confidence, Or Not Quite Enough

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Protestors marched through downtown Thessaloniki on May 17. Photo by Gwen Schanker

So far, every day here is so full of activity that when I have a few hours of downtime, I feel like I must be missing something. Tonight for the first time, I sat down and watched part of a movie on Netflix without worrying about whether I should be reporting or writing. It was nice to turn my brain off for a little while, since I am generally so hyper-aware of what is going on around me. Nevertheless, in such a high-energy environment – I’m referring both to the new place I’m in and the ambitious young journalists that currently populate it – it’s hard to stay shut off for long.

It’s appropriate that the title of today’s post is based off of a lyric in a Jimmy Buffett song, “Semi-True Story.” One of the core principles of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics is to “seek truth and a report it.” In other words, journalists are absolutely restricted from “making up a few things” (as Buffett claims he does as “Semi-True Story”). As a writer, I don’t make things up, but seeking truth and reporting it has plenty of challenges in itself.

Today is an excellent example. Workers in both Thessaloniki and Athens were striking to protest an upcoming vote in parliament on new austerity measures that would cut pensions and raise taxes for Greek workers. There were protests going on all over the city, and while we were warned by many locals to stay away in case of danger, this wasn’t exactly a story that our group of aspiring professional reporters could ignore. I volunteered to help shoot video at the protest, which I figured would be a good way both to get my feet wet as a videographer and to help out with an important reporting opportunity.

If you take a look at Ellie’s post from last night, you’ll see we went in prepared for and expecting the worst. Fortunately, the protest we found ourselves in the midst of was peaceful, full of workers from all walks of life showing their support and standing up both for their own rights and for those of the masses.

We wound up catching one group at the beginning of a demonstration, which essentially consisted of a march around Thessaloniki’s downtown area with periodic call-and-response chanting. As our group of reporters, photographers, and videographers dispersed, Alexa and I joined the march to both capture video via GoPro (note: settings on a GoPro are not as easy to use as they seem) and interview strikers. Our goal was to collect usable video as well as vignettes that could be used in a larger print and video story on the culture of protests in Thessaloniki (I can hear Carlene working with our team members to edit the final version in the next room, and I think it’s going to be good).

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Around 6,000 people marched through downtown Thessaloniki on Wednesday, according to an article in Al Jazeera. Photo by Gwen Schanker

This is where things get tricky. It wasn’t the actual reporting that made me nervous – while as always, I was initially shy to approach people, most were friendly and willing to talk – but the fact that many of the people I interviewed were unwilling to tell me their name, let alone the name of the place they worked. They were, after all, protesting the government and the conditions in which they were working. One woman gave me her name but expressed concern that if she told me where she worked, she could lose her job.

My goal as a writer may be to “seek truth and report it,” but I’d hate to be responsible for putting a person in jeopardy, which is why while I was proud of myself for contributing to the reporting today, I found myself feeling very uncertain as I passed my notes from the day on to the reporters taking charge of the article.

It’s not easy to find the line between being tenacious and asking for too much, especially in a delicate situation like the protest. There’s no way to tell a story without voices from those who are in the thick of it. A a journalist, I’m faced with the conundrum of trying to raise awareness and communicate important issues while simultaneously making everyone else’s job harder. Sometimes, reporting makes me feel strong and confident –   like the conversations I have and the writing I do will make a difference – and other times, it makes me feel very, very small. Like every new question leads to uncharted territory that I’m not quite sure how to handle.

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I took this photo on the boardwalk shortly after the protest ended. From chaos to calm in just a few moments. 

Today I got a firsthand look into the frustration, energy, and worry that permeates every aspect of Greek working life. I learned a lot, met some new people and got some great quotes, but I had to face the fact that reporting isn’t always going to make me feel good. That the confidence I’ve felt so far this trip isn’t necessarily warranted, especially when my accomplishment might increase another person’s fear.

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.

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    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!).

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    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.
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    One of the shots I took of Aristotle Square during our boat ride. 
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    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.