19,534 Words

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

IMG_9374
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. 

 

 

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.

cropped-img_8378.jpg
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.

img_0343
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.

IMG_8424
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 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.

    IMG_7722
    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!).

    IMG_7752
    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.
    IMG_7805
    One of the shots I took of Aristotle Square during our boat ride. 
    IMG_7783
    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.