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!

Bus Rides are for Sleeping, Reflecting, and Going to a New Place

As I write this, I’m sitting on a bus that’s rapidly leaving Thessaloniki behind. I usually reserve bus rides for staring moodily out the window, but I’ll make an exception in this case.

The past three weeks have been chock-full of stimulating experiences both professionally and personally. I’ve met refugee families, interviewed university professors about recycling and sea turtles, and shot and produced a feature story in video form. I’ve also celebrated birthdays of friends I didn’t have a month ago, tried countless new foods, and hiked Mount Olympus.

Living in Thessaloniki didn’t feel like a whirlwind, though. I think that’s because the city itself isn’t hectic: aside from the daily protests, there’s a certain tranquility I have felt during my quieter moments there. Thessaloniki is active but calm, and its small size makes it easy to navigate. It’s definitely a city I’d consider coming back to.

To that end, I’m a little nervous about Athens. It marks a major transition point in our trip, and I think will require a level of adjustment that we just don’t have time for. I am looking forward to getting to know a new city, but there’s also a lot more work to do. It will be a different kind of international reporting. While Thessaloniki felt like home, I expect to feel like more of a spectator in Athens. I’ll see it, but there may not be time to choose a favorite bakery or a favorite bar. Then again, maybe there will be time.

There are a couple of things that have made my experience in Thessaloniki particularly special. Actually, there are a lot of things, but I’m going to focus on three.

First is the boardwalk. Everyone is writing about the boardwalk on his or her departure blogs (and by everyone I mean Asia and Isabelle) and I promise they’re not overselling it. The boardwalk is different every time I walk – sometimes wavy, sometimes busy, sometimes cloudy – and I think it’s part of the reason we’ve made it through the past few weeks without losing our heads. As Asia put it in her blog, there’s something calming about being in the presence of a big body of water. It’s something I learned when I was living in Woods Hole, Massachusetts last year, and it has been reaffirmed here.

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A cloudy and calm day on the boardwalk.

Second are the people, both my travel companions and the locals I’ve met while reporting. I thought I would find it difficult to navigate this group dynamic, but the reality is that I appreciate and am happy to spend time with every single person here. There’s a certain closeness that comes from being in this environment together, not to mention sharing local food and drink, and I’m really glad to be a part of this supportive group of people.

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Our team on our last day of class at the American College of Thessaloniki – that’s our Greek culture instructor, Maria, in the center back.

Furthermore, I’ve been blown away by the kindness of the people I’ve met here in Greece. All three of the refugee families we met last week were so quick to invite us into their home, offer refreshments, and tell their stories. Even the restaurateurs who don’t speak English are always happy to see us and serve us food at the wrong time of day. And our hosts Maria, Kristina, and Theo have been continually sweet and helpful as we have navigated the city these past three weeks, and have made my experience that much easier and more pleasant.

The last part of our stay in Thessaloniki that has been particularly special is our balcony. When I picture living in Europe, I always picture having a balcony to step out onto every morning and mentally prepare for the day. I’ve gotten to do that every morning so far on this trip.

Tsiang-Yu and I were lucky enough to get an apartment on the fifth floor of our building, and our view is literally of a wall, but I have loved it so much. We’ve both spent hours out there working, eating, talking on the phone, and yes, occasionally crying as I mentioned in my earlier post. There are many things I’ll miss about Thessaloniki, but I think I’ll miss the balcony the most.

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I took this shot of our balcony as we packed up our things on our last morning in Thessaloniki.

So, here’s hoping there’s a balcony in our room in Athens, the people are equally friendly, and I find a way to walk by the water. Even if that doesn’t happen, I’m sure that there will be moments that are equally special.

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.