Athens: A First Glance Back

Have you ever had an experience that is so perfect and short-lived that it almost hurts to think about it after it’s done?  You know you can’t have that time back, so sometimes it starts to feel better to dismiss it from your mind.  That’s what the Athens trip is for me.

This was our second adventure to the Acropolis, around 8am on a weekday (about an hour before the tour buses start unloading their hordes). My camera went on the fritz when we got up there and I was almost ready to cry – until my last attempt yielded success and I was able to snap this photo.  The camera kept working for the rest of the day without another hiccup.  Thank you, Athena.

     I know why I haven’t gone through all of my Athens pictures since I got home (which is now almost five months ago)… Not only is it too daunting of a task – there over 3,000 tucked away in iPhoto and just 300 of those uploaded to my Picasa account – they also bring the memories back so vividly that it makes me miss the people, heat, food, sights, and sounds more than I can bear.  The task IS on my WorkFlowy (see previous post), with a goal to have all of the pictures on Picasa by the end of February.  If you would like an invite to see my Greece album, let me know by commenting or email.

     Let’s start from the beginning though.  The biggest motivators for deciding to go on the trip were the following two things:

  1. I would earn 12 credits for approx. 8 weeks of pre-departure reading/homework + 3.5 weeks in Greece = Awesome with a capital A.  This would also allow me to graduate two quarters early.
  2. I would be spending 3.5 weeks in GREECE = holy crap so Awesome!

     Initially, in January 2011, the European adventure was so far off (eight months felt like a long time) that it didn’t feel like it was actually going to happen.  I still had two full quarters to get through, plus summer quarter which I was doing for the first and only time.  The twelve credits from the Greece trip would combine with a writing proficiency course I was taking before the trip to give me seventeen credits that summer.  It ended up being way more work than I should have taken on, but the research paper helped prepare me for the trip because it was on Delphi: a town we would visit on a day trip that would change my perspective of Greece forever.  More on that in a later post.

     I had no expectations leading into the trip.  We had met for info sessions three or four times before August, but I didn’t know anyone besides recognizing a few faces.  It was made extremely clear from the first meeting in January that the trip would be the most amount of walking I had ever done in a one month period of time.  This aspect didn’t make me nervous, just excited.  Seeing a city by foot leads to opportunities that we would never get if we were on a bus/tram/flying carpet etc.  Still though – at all those meetings with pictures from the members of the previous year’s trip and many mentions of the food, culture, and all-around amazingness – the trip seemed impossibly distant.

     Pre-departure classes started the week before we would fly out in August.  Our group met every day with our professor for seven hours to work on Greek history and to practice reading ancient Greek.  For the five us who had taken Greek already, the latter was just a refresher course, but we still had a quiz at the end of that week that would cover all the readings and homework we had done throughout the summer.  Also by the end of that week, I had managed to get sick.  Very sick.  I had just moved into the apartment I would be in for my last quarter of school, so every day after class I would go home and try to unpack some boxes and pack up some clothes for the trip.  All plans halted on the Thursday of pre-departure classes when I came down with the worst cold I’d had in over two years.  Long story short: I got through Friday feeling rather groggy and snuffly, spent all of Saturday in bed, packed my suitcase and drove to my boyfriend’s apartment on Sunday evening, had an early dinner with my parents on Monday to say goodbye, and got to Sea-Tac airport around 5.45am on Tuesday morning.  Even as I waited in the unprecedentedly long lines for my ticket and security by myself, the idea that I would be in another country – by myself! – seemed foggy and surreal in my mind.  I was terrified for no good reason, hadn’t slept more than two hours the night before, and was now getting on a plane to travel alone for the first time to a place I never thought I’d actually go.  The amount of excitement was way in excess, but the nerves and lack of sleep were kinda killing the good vibes.  Also, maybe too many cold meds.

     Jumping ahead.  While we were there, the biggest motivators for not wanting to ever leave were the following five things:

  1. The people.  Our Greek family, as we came to call it.  There were seventeen students from WWU (two of them were TAs, whom we loved) plus our professor, Diane, and an older gentleman named Kung that came along to learn with us. He had a lot of crazy antics, which I might go more in depth with in a later post.  We spent between 5 and 16 hours with the group every day, plus time in smaller groups at dinner or in the apartment.  Despite or because of this, I’m still very close with several people from the trip – especially my three roommates (Δ4 love!).
  2. Our location in the city.  The apartment building our group lived in for that brief month was not only right down the street from the Athens Centre, but also incredibly central to our adventures into the city.  It might have been at the top of hill, which we came to dread at day’s end, but a brisk twenty-minute walk could take you to Syntagma Square and beyond, the gates of the Acropolis, or even – if you were determined – Lykavittos hill. This topic leads me to #3 on the list…
  3. The Athens Centre.  Not only would the trip have been nearly impossible without the help and hospitality of the Centre, I wouldn’t have met and been in awe of such wonderful people.  In particular: Rosemary, Vassia, Katja, and Isabella.  A return trip should be in the works soon to visit all of them again and be in the amazing atmosphere that the Centre creates for all of its students.
  4. Diane Johnson.  Repeatedly throughout our trip, our group thanked and praised our professor for everything she did for us, although I’m still not sure she understands how grateful we are to have had her as our teacher, guide, and – in many cases – mentor.  As with the Centre, had it not been for Diane, our trip wouldn’t have been half as extraordinary.  Lucky for me, I went home to one last quarter at Western and had two more classes with Diane.
  5. The FOOD.  I own plenty of Greek/Mediterranean cookbooks now, and I’ve gone to a few restaurants since I’ve been back – but nothing will ever compare to a fresh Greek salad in the middle of September in Athens.  The tzatziki State-side is also a bit of a disappointment.  Not that I was expecting anything else, it’s just that when you get used to having ambrosia every day, it’s hard to come home to… well, not ambrosia.

     I never stopped feeling like a tourist.  We would migrate as a pack (with 19 of us, it was more like a mob) and none of us looked or dressed particularly Greek.  We learned some common words and phrases to help us when shopping or ordering at restaurants, but we were nowhere close to full immersion.  When walking in small groups, we would get asked if we were Americans everywhere we went: Friday mornings buying fruit at the market down the street from our apartment; eating lunch at a café or taverna near the Acropolis; browsing for art and souvenirs in Monastiraki or Plaka, the neighborhoods known for the enormous Flea Market.  It’s cliché and stereotypical, but there was something profound about the experience of being surrounded by another culture.  It was a lifestyle so distinctly different from my own that it would have been pointless and inadequate for me to try to “be Greek” in the short time I was there, but part of the insight was about learning to always travel as a student rather than just a tourist.  I went to Greece without realizing that I would return with such a defined idea in my mind about travel: never let go of the thirst for learning, no matter where you are or who you’re with.

     Ten or so members of our Greek family still plan parties together in Bellingham.  We’ve had Greek salad, tzatziki, and wine; watched movies, listened to music, and played Mario Kart – but the best thing about being together is being together.  It may not be in Plateia Varnava eating 2 Euro gyros for dinner, or walking the shaded streets in the Athenian mornings to the Acropolis, or lounging in the courtyard of the Centre after class… but they’re still my family, and I don’t have to fly back to Athens to find them.


About jmmack

Full-time swim coach and pool program manager in the Seattle area. Swimmer, writer, cross-stitcher, HP fan, wife, sister, auntie of two nephews, human to a feisty Jack-Russell mix.
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4 Responses to Athens: A First Glance Back

  1. Pingback: The Shining Marbled City | The Innumerable Uses of Language

  2. Pingback: A Feast of Nostalgia | The Innumerable Uses of Language

  3. Greece will be here… you’ll be able to come back again! heck, you could end up like me. I studied in Greece in college (classics and modern greek) and now I live here permanently. I have the Greek husband to prove it :P

    • jmwalker17 says:

      That’s awesome – and thank you for the comment, Heidi! I don’t know that I’ll ever live there, but plans for a reunion trip are in the early stages as we speak… who knows though, Greece might win my heart completely next time =)

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