Friday, October 28, 2011

"Yia sas" I said to the customs official at the Athens airport with a big smile on my face when I returned from Istanbul yesterday. I was happy to be home after an incredible trip with Colleen and Katie! We saw so much and got a good perspective on city life in Turkey. I was particularly struck by the blend of East and West, old and new that characterizes the city.

On our first day in the city on two continents we were immediately thrown into Istanbul's unique culture. We lost ourselves in the grand bazaar, enjoying a very sensory experience. Around every turn there was a new smell, sight, sound. When we finally made our way out onto the streets we were caught in the hustle and bustle of men moving giant packages on their backs, street vendors, and people rushing off in every direction. Out of all of this came a booming noise that enveloped the city; it was the call to prayer! I was amazed at this Muslim, Middle Eastern tradition. People did not drop everything they were doing to pray as one would expect in a Middle Eastern nation. It was interesting to learn that Turkey is secular despite it's Muslim majority. The blend between East and West was also evident in the combination of older, Ottoman buildings and new, Western style high rises. The commingling of Eastern and Western features gives Istanbul an approachable, but exotic air.
The mix of old and new elements in the city create a similar impression. Istanbul is highly modern with its garbage chutes, well organized public transportation, and energy saving technology. Yet there is evidence of the city's older roots all over. Historic buildings like the Topkapi palace and Blue mosque are displayed pridefully. I was in awe of the Blue Mosque's monumental exterior and sumptuous interior. The infinite rows of columns in the atmospheric Royal Cistern create the same effect. The Galata Tower on the city's newer side was built in 1348, but presents an incredible 36o degree view of all of the city's older and newer aspects. Perhaps the Hagia Sophia is most symbolic of Istanbul's juxtaposition of old and new. It is now a museum, but was formerly a church and then a mosque. It's still possible to see its layers: mosaic, covered by plaster, and then restored to showcase the building's different functions over time.
It was refreshing to visit a place so near Athens, but with some very different characteristics. We met many international travelers and Turks who were excited to share their opinions on the European economic crisis and it was great to exchange ideas with them. It was a fantastic trip and a terrific learning experience capped by the feeling that I was returning home when landing in Athens!

The Public Peloponnese

As I departed for the Peloponnese last Tuesday I toted along an article on the rise of the individual in ancient Greece. The article references the achievements of ancient thinkers, scientists, and artists and their impact on the development of democracy in Greece. As we inched closer to our first stop, Delphi, I put away to the article and listened as Professor Nigel Kennell gave us an introduction to the trip. He told us that the trip would be geared to those in his ancient Greek athletics class, but that he would not exclude those of us not in the class. From his speech I began to imagine that our trip would have a focus similar to that of my article, that we would learn about the remarkable feats of athletes whose names had made it into the history books. It immediately became clear to me, however, that this trip would not teach us about people's achievements in the ancient world, but about the individual's integration into the community.
Professor Kennell recreated public life in the Peloponnese right away, leaping out of the bus and hiking to the top of the site at Delphi. We slowly made our way down, beginning with the stadium. Many people associate Delphi with the Oracle, but the site was so much more. Professor Kennell really emphasized that it was a Pan Hellenic site shared by the Greek city states. It was a place where individuals could come together to watch events in the stadium, consult the oracle on their community's fate, and set up monuments celebrating the success of their city state. I was surprised to discover Delphi's function as a place where ancient Greeks coalesced.
Our group made the same discovery at the site of the Nemean Games. We were the first visitors to the site that morning so we were able to hold a miniature version of the games. We held foot races in the stadium and pretended to crown the winners with wild celery wreaths. Professor Kennell pointed out that individual glory in athletic competition was important, particularly since the hoplite revolution had put an end to receiving personal acclaim in war. Yet we were able to see for ourselves that celebrating the winner was not the main focus of the day; we enjoyed the fact that cheering for athletes in our little races had brought us closer together.
Epidaurus, one of our last stops, also brought individuals together, but in a slightly different manner. The site was home to the sanctuary of Asclepius, the healing God. The ill would sleep and live at the site until the God appeared to them in a dream, healing their malady. There are records of Asclepius' success; one inscription, for example, refers to a woman, pregnant for fifteen years, who slept in the temple and gave birth to a son who was able to walk right away. Some of these records are obviously a little exaggerated and Professor Kennel pointed out that many of them indicate that people were given anesthesia during surgery; the dreams of the God that they remembered were probably due to their semi-conscious state. One's reason for coming to the sanctuary was personal, but the ill would interact with each other quite a bit while waiting to be cured. The recovery area, for example, was an open place with benches, not isolated beds as in modern hospitals.
We crossed the Corinth Canal and returned to athens with a better understanding of the individual's role as part of the whole in the city-state. Now, I'm curious, of course, about the ramifications on democracy. Luckily, Professor Kennell promised we would discuss that after fall break ends. For now, though, it was quite the enjoyable experience to return to Athens with my bus mates as a bonded city-state. Learning about coming together in the ancient world seemed to bring us together too.

Sunday, October 23, 2011


This past week the students of College Year in Athens escaped hectic Athens and traveled down to the Peloponnese. It consisted of a lot of time on the bus and an incredible amount of time at the ancient sites of Greece. Tuesday I hopped on a bus that drove across the Isthmos at Corinth and stopped at Epidaurus. Epidaurus was spectacular! I loved seeing the entire complex, and the theater certainly is famous for a reason. Sitting on the top bench at the theater, I could hear a coin dropped on stage. In the afternoon I saw Mycenae. My favorite parts of this site included our journey down into the very dark cistern to see how the ancient Mycenaeans retrieved their water and the Treasury of Atreus. I don't think anyone can ever appreciate how large the tholos tombs are until they are actually standing inside one. That evening was spent in the town of Nauplion where I consumed some delicious chocolate and hazelnut gelato. The following day we traveled to Ancient Corinth and listened to the director of the site discuss what would have been there. While the site was closed due to the general strikes, we did go over and look at some ruins a little farther outside of the downtown district of Ancient Corinth. Then we went to Tiryns which was another Mycenaean city. On Thursday we went to Mystra, a beautiful city on the hillside overlooking Sparta. Today there is an active nunnery and ruins of monasteries. It was absolutely gorgeous and much more recent than any of the other sites we had seen. For lunch we stopped in Sparta and then then made our way over to Ancient Sparta. There was not much there, but we did shout "This is Sparta!" On Friday we visited the fortified city of Methone. It is on the water and very castle-like- moat, drawbridge, and all. We also saw the town of Pylos and the Palace of Nestor. Saturday we saw the amazing compound of Olympia. I raced at the original Olympic stadium and saw the place where the golden pillar once stood. Sunday was spent at Delphi where I drank from the spring and saw all the treasuries (at least what remains of them). It was a long, tiring trip, but I learned a ton and saw places of Greece that would have been difficult to access on my own.


Monday, October 17, 2011

Hiking in the Rain: Meteora and Kallidromo

After surviving midterms, my roommate, Emily, and I decided to head into central Greece to see the famous cliff top monasteries of Meteora. I was expecting a hike, but boy, did we get an adventure. As we set off with our backpacks at midday on Friday, Emily remarked, “Look at us, just like Frodo and Sam.” Because all there was a general transportation and taxi strike in the city, we decided to walk to the train station on the other side of the city. It took us an hour and after we got there, we were told the train was full and the next one was not until the morning. We were disappointed, but not completely crushed. We decided to head in the general direction of where the bus station was and rely on Greeks for directions- the bus station was so far out of the center of Athens it was not even on our map! We made it in another 40minutes and got our tickets to Kalabaka, the town at the base of the cliffs. It was a long bus ride, but we got the opportunity to see the Greek countryside. It started to thunderstorm, and watching the lightning flash behind the mountains was beautiful. We switched buses at Trikala and finally arrived in Kalabaka at around 9:00pm. It was raining and we did not have a place to stay. We first followed an old Greek man to see his room, but we decided not to stay there. We ended up staying at Guesthouse Mythos which was very nice. We had dinner at a taverna in the sleepy town and crawled into bed for an early wake-up.The next morning we got up and it was still raining. We did not find the bus up to the cliff tops in time and decided to hike up as originally planned despite the rain. It was beautiful going up the path in the mist. We first saw the Holy Trinity Monastery. It was small, had 150 steps leading up to the top, a beautiful view, and a small church with paintings. It seemed as if quite a bit of renovations were being done on the building; the supplies are carried over by cable car. It was also featured in one of the James Bond films. On our way out we also got a little treat- Turkish delights, which were delicious! Next we went to Saint Stephen’s, which was much larger and had a museum. The paintings on the walls and ceiling all looked very new- they must have just been repainted. One of the nuns in the museum felt bad that we were walking in the rain and brought us juice boxes and a broken Winnie the Pooh umbrella. She spoke very little English, but she her generosity was greatly appreciated!
Holy Trinity:
View of Holy Trinity:

Saint Stephen's:
We then walked along the road to the Great Meteoron Monastery. It was huge and had multiple museums. There was a history museum, a display of where the workshops that were once used, and a museum with beautiful manuscripts. Afterwards we walked briefly down the hill to the Varlaam Monastery. This one was cool because they were actively using this basket to bring supplies up to the monastery. They have a machine that pulls it up now, with people on both the top and the bottom ends to load and unload the supplies. Imagine- when these monasteries were first built, the stairs were not quite so sturdy, so all traffic in and out of the monastery was by this basket/net. There was also a giant barrel (I’m talking the size of my bedroom) at this one, which was used to store rainwater in the old days because water was in short supply on the top of this cliff. Many of the monasteries had this image of judgement day with a dragon breathing fire- I haven’t really seen this image before, and it was quite striking. After this monastery, my roommate was done (the cold rain finally got to her), so we took a cab back down, ate a hot meal, and returned to Athens on the train. We made friends with a couple Americans who were travelling around Europe for three months. We got a cab back to our apartment, which was much quicker than walking- thank goodness they were done with their strike!
Varlaam Monastery:
The next morning I woke up early again and joined 8 of my classmates and the Athens hiking club in Syntagma Square. We took a bus ride to Kallidromo near Thermopylae. Kallidromo means “good road” and is one of the smaller mountains in the area. We hiked for 5 hours through the rain. Part of the time, we were on the same path the Persians took to Thermopylae when they defeated Leonidas and his army. It was a challenging hike, but I had a great time. At the end we stopped a thermal spring where we could get out and take a dip in the thermal pool. Many people were too cold and wet to have the energy to get off the bus, but I was so excited for this spring. I got right into the spring which has about 27 degree Celsius water. It felt so good! I returned home exhausted, wet, and cold, but it was overall a wonderful weekend despite the rain!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


When I walk out of my apartment building, my nose instantly wrinkles up as it senses the smells reeking from the dumpster on the corner. The municipal workers have been on strike now for too long. Whenever I get within 15 yards of a dumpster (and they are on just about every street corner), I am overcome by the rotten stench of the garbage. There is more trash than the dumpsters can hold so piles have accumulated around the dumpsters, sometimes even making it difficult to pass by. The latest word I have heard is that the strike is expected to extend for another week. This poses a huge health issue and I hope it is resolved sooner. Here is a Greek news article about it:

The garbage workers are not the only ones on strike though. The ministry of culture and archaeologists started a 48 hour strike and will not reopen until Friday. This means that I will not be able to give my presentation for class, the Archaeology of Athens, at the National Museum tomorrow morning for the museum will be closed.

A general public transportation strike begins tomorrow and will last two days. This has the possibility of messing up some of my weekend plans.

The number of strikes here seems to have increased. I have also heard more talk about the tax raises and the debt problems. Athenians always seem very willing to talk about the economic situation. My Greek professor went off in class one day about all the taxes and how the middle class are the ones that will suffer. On Mount Olympus a Greek hiker started a conversation with one of my classmates about the crisis. This evening Petros Doukas, the former deputy minister of finance, gave a lecture at CYA. Unfortunately I did not make it, but many of my professors expressed their dislike with him having been invited here. They were visibly angry with this man who is, according to them, personally responsible for the Greek debt crisis.

This evening I spent a couple hours at a U.S. university fair as a Tufts representative. I spoke with a Tufts alum a little bit about the situation. He was a) disgusted by the garbage and b) telling me about how the politicians are corrupt. According to him, the politicians promised people jobs in return for their support. This led to too many jobs in the public sector, which the government cannot afford. The politicians cannot fire these people or else they will lose power.

I find it fascinating to be in Greece watching firsthand how this economic crisis is affecting the people. People are certainly talking about it and are visibly upset. The strikes, however, are at times a bit inconvenient.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Pnyx, Prompt for Thoughts on Democracy

As I hurried through bustling Plaka with my Athenian Democracy class, trying to keep up with our Professor, Nigel Kennel, I was hit with sounds of tourists preparing for lunch, museum goers marveling at the glass floor of the Acropolis Museum, and street musicians belting out atmospheric tunes. Upon finally reaching our destination, the Pnyx Hill, I was shocked to find that we were the only ones there and the only noise to be heard was that of our own voices. I believe it is the first place I have been in Athens where it is possible to escape from the activity of the city. I am a lover of city hustle and bustle, but it's always somewhat magical to find that one place where it's possible to be in, but disappear from, the city at the same time. I could see why the Pnyx, situated just behind the Acropolis, was the hill on which the Athenian Assembly met. It is a great place to gain some distance from Athens, but the Pnyx also offers a bird's eye view of the city. Here, reflecting on the city from a quiet distance, I thought about some of the unique aspects of ancient Athenian democracy.
The ancient democracy was based on active citizenship. All male citizens were a part of the assembly, which discussed every issue facing the citizenry from threats of war to public festivals. The assembly's agenda was fixed by the boulé, a council of 500 citizens with 50 men representing each tribe. These men held their position for a year and were chosen by lot. In fact, the majority of government positions were chosen by lot. Only positions, like that of general, that required some expertise were elected. The lots system is the only way to maintain a true democracy because it allows all citizens to be genuinely equal. The more powerful a position was, the shorter the time it was allowed to be held. This served to prevent corruption and the natural tendency toward power hunger. Ostracism was yet another way to prevent tyranny. Citizens could vote to ostracize (for a ten year period) one person, usually someone who seemed to be gaining too much power, per year. These features allowed the Athenian democracy to flourish.
I often wonder if the groups rebelling as a part of the Arab Spring will create their own democracies, adopting mechanisms like those of ancient democracy. Even at home, with the Occupy Wall St./Boston protests, there is the possibility for adjustments to democracy. It will be interesting to see what happens, but for now I know where to go when I want to meditate on democracy. The Pnyx offers a great refuge to ponder perspectives on the past and the present.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Mount Olympus and Dancing

I hiked Mount Olympus last weekend with a group of my classmates. We traveled to the second highest peak (the highest is classified as a rock scramble and would have required ropes and additional equipment to reach). Unfortunately, at the summit we were surrounded by cloud, so our view was obscured, and reaching the top was rather anti-climatic. However, on the hike down out of the cloud, we could see the beautiful mountains and the town and the sea far down below. Overall the experience was enjoyable and has inspired me to do more hiking while in Greece- I plan to hike to a thermal bath next weekend with the Athenian Hiking Organization.

I am also taking Greek dance lessons. I have attended two classes so far and I have thoroughly enjoyed learning to dance. Some dances are fairly simple while others are very quick and complicated. Both times I ended class out of breath and with a smile on my face. While I doubt I will be able to master the dances by the end of this next lesson, I have definitely gained a greater appreciation for all dancers.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Crete and National Identity

A light drizzle streamed down as we wound our way through the tiny streets of Chania, a charming port town on Crete. We were nearing the end of our trip to the island and Chania was the last city we would visit, but all we could think about at the moment was taking in our first Greek rain while keeping up with our professors as they lead us to the first place we would visit in Chania: a small, miraculously restored synagogue.We settled into the cozy building quickly, enjoying the company of the two resident kittens as we gathered around the synagogue's director to hear about the restoration project, the building's history, and religious diversity on Crete. Something the director said toward the end of our time together really resonated with me. He mentioned that "Cretans think of themselves as citizens of Crete before citizens of Greece." As I looked back on our trip I found that our experience in Crete proved this to be true.
Working with the Sarpidonistas on the WWF Island Wetlands project, it was clear that the locals considered themselves Cretans rather than Greeks. The young men of the Sarpidonistas were fiercely proud of Malia and referred to the Greek economic problems as if Cretans were distanced from it. That first night in Heraklio, while enjoying some gelato, we passed by a group of young Cretans who were quite excited to show off their mastery of english expletives. They ended their tirade by shouting "Welcome to Crete!". Of course, I would probably say welcome to New York or Massachusetts over welcome to the United States of America, but their shout reminded me of the Cretan "Texans" CYA President, Alexis Phylactopolous, told us about. We were only in Crete's cities, but President Phylactopolous swears that out in the country some people still dress in traditional Cretan costume, carry knives and guns, and shoot at road signs for lack of other objects to shoot. Theseseem like the kind of people loyal to Crete before Greece.

Eating lunch in Margarites, a small mountain town just outside of Crete's third major city, Rethymno, a man at a nearby table was curious to know if we were enjoying Crete. He told us flat out that he was "Cretan before Greek".

By the time we met with the director of the Synagogue in Chania I was very intrigued by Cretan identity. Once the director mentioned it I was eager to find out more. He had mentioned that Crete had the option to become independent of Greece in two years, an event that he thought extremely unlikely. I asked him if, given the intense pride of identity of its people, could Crete theoretically survive without Greece? I didn't think so, but Crete does have a good location and provides well for the Greek economy. Mainly, I was curious to see how important national identity is to a state's ability to flourish. The director agreed with me that Crete wouldn't do well on its own. Together we came to the conclusion that it isn't really a matter of identity. A population that prides itself on its national identity can only help a country do well, but it isn't a major factor in deciding whether a country thrives or not. Nonetheless, it was fascinating to experience the differences between Cretan Greeks and Athenian Greeks, especially the Cretans' strong feeling of "national" identity.

Connections-Working with the WWF in Crete

There seemed to be a general mood of hesitance on the way to our meeting with Crete's branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). My group of about thirty students, led by Professors Karavas and Doxiadis and Activities Director, Nadia Meliniotis, had spent our first day in Crete exploring Heraklion's Venetian Walls, the archaeological museum, and the grave of author, Nikos Kazantakis. After an all night boat ride and an early morning start, my group appeared unsure of the next event on our itinerary: help the WWF clean up Malia's (a popular tourist destination on Crete, 23 kilometers from the major city of Heraklion) wetlands. Yet, after just a few minutes with the WWF, public opinion changed and there was not a doubt in anyone's mind that our experience would help define our trip to Crete. What was it that lead to this change? Our time with the WWF employees and locals who taught us that globalization can mean something as simple as helping another country with what appears to be a small, local problem for the betterment of the entire world.
Before we could take action, though, we needed to be debriefed. We met for a presentation with the WWF Crete staff and the Sarpidonistas (the classicists in our group loved that they are named after Sarpidon, King of Malia and Minos' brother), a group of environmentally conscious locals. During the presentation we learned about WWF Greece's Island Wetlands project, run out of Crete; the work that had been done thus far; and our main job for the day, posting signs to alert Malia beach goers of the project. We were also introduced to the concept of ecotourism, giving back to an area one is visiting by volunteering time to its environmental programs. As would be emphasized several times, the WWF staff was happy to have our help because locals would see that we had come all the way from the US to help them fix their problem. The staff hoped this would encourage more locals to take up Malia's cause for themselves.
After our meeting we set out for Malia Beach armed with garbage bags and sign posting materials. Upon arrival we were split into could say arbitrarily. One Sarpidonista in his sixties was the first to choose his volunteers, "All the young women come with me and the men can be divided into the other groups!" The younger Sarpidonistas were onto his scheme though and women and men ended up evenly divided between four main groups: cement makers, trash workers, ditch diggers, and sign posters. Everyone traded groups multiple times, though, to get the full experience.
I started out with the trash workers, donning a pair of gloves and using eagle eyes to pick out pieces of trash on the beach. My fellow workers and I filled up multiple green trash bags with all different kinds of rubbish from basic cigarette buts to furniture that had been ditched on the dunes.
Next, I became a sign poster, a job which also allowed me a good vantage point from which to observe the ditch diggers and cement makers. I watched as the Sarpidonistas coached students in using an electric drill machine, an auger, to dig holes in the sand. It was a difficult process that required lots of teamwork: one Sarpidonista and one CYA student held onto the machine while a second CYA student ran back and forth pouring water into the hole. Another Sarpidonista oversaw, shouting "more water" and "deeper". At one point, though, there was just one CYA student working, surrounded by ten others watching. Kostos, a Sarpidonista, joked that this was "the reason the Greek economy is in the toilet. One man works while ten watch and after ten minutes it's break time." Finally, though, three perfect holes had been created. The cement mixers, who had created 100% natural cement from materials found on the beach, poured their mixture into the holes. Three sign posts were quickly thrust in and a board nailed on top of them. We then painted a coat of glue on the board and another on the laminated signs. After fifteen minutes we were able to fuse the two together and voila, completed educational signs!
We were all extremely proud of our hard work and had the sunburns and dehydration to prove it. During our work many people had stopped by to watch, just as the WWF had predicted. I spoke to at least three people in mixed Greek, French, and English, explaining who we were and what we were doing. One woman was so impressed that she came back after we had finished and fed us Cretan sfakianopites, sweet cheese pies. It was around this time that we realized that we had lost track of the ditch diggers! Finally, we spotted them down by the water. They had just finished clearing out a path for some run off and joined us in munching on sfakianopites. After returning to the town of Malia we celebrated even further. One of the founding Sarpidonistas brought us to his shop where we toasted with raki and sampled many Cretan products. The food and drink flowed freely until everyone was full, right out of this man's small shop. We were all amazed at his kindness and hospitality. It was a fantastic welcome to Crete! We were all surprised to come away with so much from this brief experience. It was interesting to observe that the Greeks, who want so much to guide their own way, can accept outside help. This concept extends to the European Union bailout as well, although the Greeks are more begrudging about accepting that help. At the end of the day, with the sun setting behind us, we drove away from Malia feeling more connected to it than we ever would have had we just explored the sites.

For more information on WWF Greece and the Sarpidonistas visit: and

Photo credit: Stephanie Lindeborg