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!

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. 

 

 

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.