Sunday, April 9, 2017

First and Not the Last

Just this past week, the clock ticked my two months stay as an exchange student in Athens. As I chatted with a friend overlooking the sun from the program’s balcony, we couldn’t believe that our halfway mark through the semester has already approached us. Sometimes, we realize the days, weeks and months that go about. Sometimes, we just don’t. The months I have spent here so far have felt like a mixture of noticing and not noticing time. Before I go on to speak more on my experiences so far, I wanted to say some few words of apology for my absence on this blog. For some time, I have been trying to think of what to write and share, however, it became hard for me to write because I wasn’t sure about where to begin. Last summer while attending a leadership retreat, someone said the following which I believe helps explain my hesitation with keeping up with the blog. This person said, “Come stay with us for a week, you’ll write a book. Come stay with us for a month, you’ll write a short story. Come stay with us for two years, you’ll not be able to write anything.” My hesitation with writing came about because I did not want myself to fall in the trap of writing something that is overly general about the experiences of living as a student in Greece. I felt that I should immerse myself more, given some time, and then share my thoughts, feelings and experiences of being here. It feels good that I begin to write now (although I guess I should have started earlier – sorry!). Anyways, being a big fan of learning, education and school, I am going to share some bits of my experiences living in Greece using the lens of the classes I have been taking so far this semester. I hope it is a good read to you all.

The reason why I decided to come study abroad as a college senior, and so extend my gradation a semester later, was because of what Greece has been witnessing over the past two years – a massive scale of human migration. Ever since broader news broke out about the ‘refugee crisis’ in Greece, I kept myself informed of the stories being shared about it. And when presented with the opportunity to study in Athens due to a generous scholarship, I took it because I felt a deep yearning to witness these events on the ground. I feel that I have been able to do just that ever since I got here because of my solidarity and service learning class. Taught through an anthropological lens, we have been able to discuss concepts of volunteerism, civil society, and solidarity in the context of Greece. More than the class readings and discussions, I feel that I am learning extensively through my weekly volunteering at City Plaza (CP). I am going to speak more in depth about my volunteering experiences in another post (just because it’s too much to do it in one go) but I’ll share a bit here as an intro. Once an abandoned bankrupt hotel, it now functions as a refugee accommodation and solidarity space close to the heart of central Athens. Every Wednesday evening, I have been going to CP to help with their dinner shifts. The times I have spent so far with this community has been a blessing for me. It has given me the opportunity to connect with people from various parts of the world – hear their stories of migration and living in transit. Being someone who considers herself to have been in transit throughout life, the experiences of being around these folks and connecting with them has helped me feel more at home. Not only has it been an experience connecting with migrants and refugee populations, but due to the nature of the class, I have also been able to reflect upon volunteerism and the experiences of volunteering as well.

refugees welcome graffiti in Pangrati, the neighborhood where all students except for homestay students live

I can say that this particular migration phenomenon is undoubtedly transforming the capital – I constantly think about how this demographic shift is changing the sociopolitical dynamics of Greek society. With the guidance of what I have been learning in my contemporary Greek politics class, I have been able to explore the many questions I constantly have around themes of nationalism, culture, and identities. There is no greater joy than being able to learn about how a country came to being a country because this process reminds me of alternative ways of living. Greek nationalism, like many others, is always a fascinating idea and an actuality as well. It was a shocking realization that I took Greece as what it is now for granted; the stories of the independence wars, megali idea, population exchanges, modern Greekness have all enabled me to realize that what Greece or being Greek is now is constantly changing like always. Understanding a place’s narratives, as told by its state and also its people, often helps historicize how current society functions. I’m reminded of who gets to tell stories, or more specifically whose stories are considered the stories worth listening. Being a big fan of history classes since ages ago, I cannot wait for further class readings, discussions, neighborhood walks, and even research papers because this learning gives me deep satisfaction.

view of Athens from the Acropolis! 

This deep satisfaction is what has contributed to my overall smooth transition to living in a new place. This is what has been helping me get through thoughts of missing families, friends, and the familiarities of homes. This is also what has been helping me overcome my doubts and fears about whether or not I made the right decision in coming to Greece when I could be following the clear path ahead of me. I am still not sure whether coming here was the right decision or not; all I know is that since I am here already, I am going to try to make the best out of my time here. Looking back, regardless of whether it was the right decision or not, I will at least come to cherish the time here and I am content with that thought. In addition to the solidarity and modern Greek politics classes, learning the modern Greek language has instrumentally aided me in making this study abroad experience 150% better! Learning languages, for the most part, have fortunately been great experiences. I grew up in a Tibetan speaking family in India where I also acquired the ability to communicate in Hindi mainly thanks to the television. English classes were also a norm from a young age, and once coming to the States, it became an everyday part of my life. During high school, I considered my Spanish classes to be my favorite classes besides gym classes because my teachers made learning the language a fun and interactive process. And so when I knew I was coming to Greece, there was no question about taking a language course.

Learning languages instrumentally changes a person’s understandings of cultures in my opinion. When I speak of culture, I mean how people live and be – not just speaking on traditions and values but also the everyday experiences of living especially in contemporary times. Being able to learn modern Greek and actually use it daily, even if it were just to say simple things such as hello, good afternoon, thank you and so on adds value to the relationships being built in a society where this language is the one mostly spoken. It is true that people here, for the most part, do appreciate your genuine effort in trying to learn the language because it is seen as a sign of respect and value for the language and the people who identify with it. It is also just beautiful to not constantly be surrounded by English as I’m used to back in the States. Exposing myself to the multitudes of human existences helps me build bridges and draw connections – something I like to see and do often. Taking a class with Marineta mou (my teacher) is not only filled with laughter and singing, but also with actual tests of evaluating and discovering the limits of learning. Her approach to teaching, although somewhat different from what I’ve grown used to in the States, however reminds me of my school days in India. Quite often, it is a nice reminder.

street protest sign at a march in support for refugee rights

My patience for learning has not only been challenged by the language class but also by this philosophy class I decided to take. I can confidently say that out of the four classes I surround my Mondays to Thursdays with, this has been the hardest. I underestimated how challenging a class entitled the concept of life: from ancient greek to contemporary philosophy would be. But over time, I’ve come to accept this challenge and fight back. Slowly by slowly, the readings are getting a bit easier. I am able to understand Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle better. However, I find myself surrounded by more and more questions as time goes on. My mind remains constantly amused by how people back then, these ancient philosophers, thought of society, people, justice, happiness and life, and how their conceptions have come to shape our current understandings of these topics as well. It’s funny how whenever we have a harder reading to sift through, our professor brings cookies to class. Being in this environment where what we know to be is challenged has been exciting and I personally can’t wait to now start reading philosophies of contemporary periods.

featuring some crazy street art + plato + me (just perfect)

I know this post has been a long one, and hopefully you have now gotten to this sentence. Let’s take a deep breath together, shall we? Ah, it feels good. Writing this down over the span of a week (yes, it does take me that long to write) personally helped me relive the past months of living in this place. For now, I will for sure say that the academics and the learning going on has openly enabled me to feel more at home. Yes, our academic pursuits can do that – so I hope that your own academic pursuits can help you create and build your version of homes. I look forward to the next two months of my time here and hope to write and share more. Thank you for reading and let me know if you have any thoughts you want to share after reading. Until next time!