A free day well spent

It’s not everyday that I get to see my family. If you know me well, you also know that my family is characteristically well scattered across the globe. We’ve covered ground in Germany, France, Italy, the U.S, and South Africa. The latter is where my brothers were raised and where they now raise their own children. Even before leaving France, seeing Inness and Quintin was a struggle, and now that I live in Boston, I’ve only added an additional ocean between us. Needless to say, I miss them a lot.

One of the perks of having cool, rugby-playing South African brothers is being able to show them off. People are generally surprised when they first hear about their existence and I love talking about them and how proud I am to be their little sister. It’s always a fun time. Quintin, the youngest of the two (who is still 15 years older than me) lives in Cape Town with his beautiful wife and two children, Rosabella and Caleb, age 5 and 2. Inness, the oldest (with a full 18 years over me) also lives in Cape Town with his wife, but splits his time in Athens while working on a boat. He’s been here on and off for the last three years. Last year, he and his wife Laura had their first baby, Ava Sofia, who is now a precious little bundle of joy. While I’ve always missed seeing my brothers, it has gotten exponentially worse since the arrival of cute little babies.

Thankfully, our schedules lined up perfectly so that we were in Athens at the same time, and Laura also coincidentally flew up from Cape Town to be here too. I spent this weekend basking in the sound of baby giggles and taking a break from work to enjoy some prime family time. It always surprises me when things like these work themselves out. Who knew I’d be hanging out with Inness in Athens for a weekend?

It was a wonderful break from responsibilities and my heart still feels all warm and fuzzy.

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Appreciating this country.

Greetings from Athens! Are you ready for a long post full of travel updates and pictures? Keep scrolling.

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The sunset from the rooftop restaurant at our hotel.

Thessaloniki is now behind us and we have made our way down south to this country’s capital. The summer is growing strong and everyday has become hot and sunny. The streets are wide and busy. From a tall rooftop – like the one on top of our hotel – you can see just how far Athens sprawls into the surrounding hills, how it covers an entire valley and lines a massive bay. From that rooftop, you can also see the Acropolis, resting on top of a big, rocky hill. At night, it lights up in the most stunning way, tricking your eyes into believing it’s floating above the city.

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A not so good panorama of a very good view.

I love Greece, and I love it a lot more than I ever expected to. Coming here was an exciting opportunity to get to know a new place. And I knew that I would enjoy it because of its Mediterranean culture, so similar to the one I grew up in. And while I was right to make that assumption, (it is lovely to be in a place that is also obsessed with olive oil) a lot more has contributed to my growing appreciation for this place.

Beyond its people, who have all been kind and welcoming, Greece is simply a stunning place. Instead of flying down to Athens, we took to the road for two days to drive through the countryside and make a few stops at different sites. From Thessaloniki, we traveled to Meteora, then to Delphi, then to Athens. A few days before leaving Thessaloniki, we had the chance to hike through parts of Mount Olympus, where the views were expansive and misty. It quickly became easy to understand why people would believe it is the house of Gods. We walked through forests all day while a slight rain drizzled down through the tops of the trees. At some point, a dog walked alongside us, minding its own business before taking off into the woods again. We saw waterfalls, tadpoles, bridges and a small church, tucked away under a boulder. I’ve come to love walks like those and I couldn’t help but be thankful I was able to experience all of that.

After leaving Thessaloniki, our first stop was Meteora. I already know as I type this out that I am going to have a hard time finding the right words to describe it. Isaac wrote beautifully on how it impacted him and if you want to get a feel of how awe-inspiring Meteora is, I highly recommend you give it a read. As we drove down winding roads leading up to monasteries perched on top of mountains, looking out the bus window felt like arriving onto another planet. It’s beyond beautiful – it’s breathtaking. Even the throngs of tourists snapping pictures did not manage to negate the beauty and serenity of it. Meteora translates to “suspended in the air” and its origin as a place of worship dates back to when monks moved into the mountains as hermits in an attempt to be closer to divinity. Before the monasteries were built, men lived in small caves on the face of the mountains.

That night, we slept in a hotel for the first time on this trip and I realized how much I had missed a good pillow.

Our last stop on the way to Athens took us to Delphi. This ancient site used to be considered the center of the universe in Ancient Greece. People traveled far and wide to consult with Pythia, the Oracle who answered people’s worries and questions. Today, well preserved ruins stand tall throughout the hills and the entire site is gorgeous. One of the highlights of our visit was our tour guide Vicky, who spoke more enthusiastically about a time long gone than most people speak about anything today. I know the chances of seeing her again are slim, but if I do I’ll be sure to thank her again because she is the best guide I have ever encountered. Again, I’ll let the pictures speaker themselves. All I’d like to add is that Greece has been making me happy, and all of these beautiful places will stay with me for a very, very long time.

Moving on to someplace new

Goodbye Thessaloniki, I’ll see you soon.

This morning was our last time waking up on Alexandrias street. We left our scratchy sheets behind and hopped on a bus toward our next destination. Leaving Thessaloniki felt bittersweet for a lot of people but I find comfort in knowing I’ll be back there soon again, for five months. I said goodbye to Kristina, our cute and loyal helper throughout this trip and she made me promise to come see her again in July. I can’t wait.

As I am writing this, I am sitting at my desk in a hotel near Meteora – a UNESCO World Heritage site where orthodox monasteries jut out of of the top of massive boulders. Driving to it today felt like approaching a new planet, but instead of aliens, it was filled with tourists. Apart from the crowds though, the scenery is breathtaking. Gigantic sandstone formations, which used to be at the bottom of a gigantic lake now tower over the nearby village and stand tall above the surrounding plains. The monasteries stand  on the top of the rocks and often look like nothing more than a natural continuation of the boulder they were built on because all the material used to construct them was directly sourced from Meteora itself. I don’t have the pictures ready yet but they will be released tomorrow. Check back if you want to see what this place looks like!

Since I am exhausted from the long day of exploring and travel, I’ll simply end this post by sharing some pictures of Thessaloniki that I haven’t published elsewhere yet. I can’t wait to be back again and to see how different Athens is.

Learning about the past and visiting Hope.

A few days have passed again since my last post. I’ve been finding it difficult to sit down and write because there is too much to say and I know that however hard I try, I won’t be able to share it all – to do it all justice. As I write this, David has set a 35 minute timer on his phone and is forbidding me from doing anything other than write. I’m mad at him because it’s making me nervous, but I’m madder because it’ll probably work. At least I have halva to snack on, and I don’t have to share because he hates cinnamon. Ha! So, here it goes.

Last Friday, we all made our way to the Archeological Museum of Thessaloniki, where we saw ancient artifacts from a time long gone but very much still alive in Greece. It’s one thing to learn about Antiquity in middle-school, but walking among the ruins in the streets of the city brings it all to a whole new level. It was amazing to see beautiful golden crowns hanging in glass boxes, all of which used to belong to kings and queens. The golden flowers are said to be as thin as gold leaf, and if they were to be worn they would flutter and move in the wind. Needless to say, I want one. But I doubt I’ll be able to buy one anywhere… They’re old fashioned now.

After the museum, things became more serious though, when a group of us splintered off to head to our next destination – Ελπίδα. Elpida means hope in Greek and on July 24th last year, it also became the name of a refugee resettlement center on the outskirts of Thessaloniki. Today, it houses close to 90 refugees, both from Syria and Iraq – many of which have been there since its opening last summer. I accompanied the group as a photographer while many others recorded what we learned from our guide, Dina, in their notebooks. The building is a repurposed textile factory and its walls are slowly being covered with art. The parking lot walls have been painted blue, the front of a building is bright yellow, red and blue. Words sprawled across the facade read: “home, funny, sunny, welcome, don’t worry – be happy.”

As we stood outside learning about this one of a kind place which allows refugee families to wait for resettlement or reunification while living in good conditions, children ran around and played. I call this a “one of a kind” place because in most cases, refugees are still forced to live in tents or repurposed containers. Here, the money from one American philanthropist has allowed people to live in humane conditions where they have been given a better chance to process everything they have had to live through over the last years. Many of the Iraqi refugees, we were told, were second-time refugees after having fled to Jordan, back to Iraq, and now, to Europe.

I don’t want to speak too much about what I felt while being there because it’s easy to imagine. I don’t want this post to be very long because I need more time to learn more and see more before making statements. Instead, I’ll post a slideshow of captioned images for you to see how these few people – who have gone through so much – are now living. I was not allowed to photograph any residents to preserve anonymity, I could only record the art that covers the walls, the words of hope the sprawl across the building. I will write more about this over time, but not today.

Journalism has my heart

It’s been a while since I last posted on here. Sorry about that. Everything has picked up speed and nine days in, we are all fully immersed in the journalism we came here to do.

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A house in the Upper City of Thessaloniki.

Greece has been fantastic thus far. People have been nothing short of kind, welcoming and ready to help. The vocabulary basics we’ve been able to learn in class have gone a long way when communicating with locals, and it’s nice to be in a country where communication efforts are appreciated rather than mocked.  In nine days I’ve tried a lot of Greek food, both sweet and savory, yet nothing has surpassed halva – a semolina desert, filled with sugar and cinnamon. Anyone who knows me should realize that is the key to my heart. Maria, our Greek language and culture teacher at the American College of Thessaloniki was the one to introduce me to it and I am still trying to come up with an adequate way to thank her, even though that’s probably impossible. She has singlehandedly made me love Greece just that much more. There will probably be a post dedicated to this desert at some point throughout this trip. Stay tuned.

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The Gerovassileou vineyard, the Mediterranean Sea and Mount Olympus.

Other than eating, I have also been running around a lot. Being a journalist, especially a photographer, means that you are always on the move from story to story. So far, on assignment, I’ve visited the American Consulate, five different churches, a soup kitchen, a protest march and a guitar-maker’s house and workshop. Each story has reinforced why this line of work makes me so happy. Let me tell you about today.

Cody, Gwen and I were picked up this morning and driven outside of the city instead of going to school. Gwen brought a heavy-duty video camera, Cody brought his notebooks and pens and I brought my beloved camera, which I am starting to develop real human feelings for. That’s normal, right?

Not long into the drive the scenery changed as we found ourselves on the outskirts of Thessaloniki. Instead of buildings, the view became a series of olive groves, vineyards and twisted roads. We got lost for a minute but found our way again after Theo, our Greek friend/tentative translator/driver, called our source and figured everything out by speaking very fast and saying yes repeatedly. Two minutes later, we met Giannis Paleodimopoulos, his wife, three friends and his dogs – of which I could not get an accurate headcount because I happened to be too distracted at the time.

Giannis makes guitars for a living and Cody had tracked him down online in order to possibly write a story about his craft and his life. I don’t want to go in great detail about it because I do not want to detract from Cody’s work writing the story, which will be up on our website early next week. Instead, I’ll tell you about why Giannis Paleodimopoulos made my day.

Sitting there, in a stranger’s house, drinking tea and eating cookies I thought about how funny life can be. I never would have guessed I’d end up there at some point, listening to a man talk about his life crafting classical guitars. I never would have guessed I would be in Thessaloniki either, reporting on crisis and culture. Actually, I never would have guessed most of the things that have happened to me over the years, and I have a hunch a lot of people feel the same way. As we sat, listening to him speak, I knew once again that journalism had my heart. There is no other context in which someone is able to gain such trust from a complete stranger and learn so much in such a short time. And it’s a blessing.

I took a lot of pictures, of his guitar, of his workshop and as I looked through the viewfinder, I knew what needed to be conveyed. We spoke for over four hours and we learned more about guitar-making craftsmanship and Greek hospitality than any of us had expected. To think that what happened today could someday be my life everyday makes me so happy. Every long night, every rejected interview, every hard day will be worth it if only to share stories of people from all over the world, from all different walks of life.

Giannis Paleodimopolous made my day today because he made me realize how much I wholeheartedly love this job.

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Giannis Paleodimopolous in his workshop outside Thessaloniki.

Sometimes, forcing yourself to leave the house pays off.

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When you’re not an avid party-goer like me, preferring small groups of people in more private settings, I think you’ll agree it can sometimes be hard to be 20. To my parents’ moderate surprise, I never went through a crazy partying phase like nearly all of my friends did. Instead I always tried to make sure everyone was happy, safe and comfortable. (And hydrated) And I became known as the proverbial “mom” of my friend group.

Before coming on this trip, I knew, like I always do, that people would not be on the same page as me. The truth of the matter is that people always want to go out and party and I end up feeling like a grandmother trapped inside the body of a 20 year old girl, full of irrational fears and anxieties. “What if something happens? What if our group gets separated and someone doesn’t know how to get home? What if there are scary strangers lurking the streets? Also – I can’t dance!”

While I’ve accepted all of this as a part of who I am, I also very much dislike missing out on an opportunity to bond with people and solidify budding friendships. So, on Thursday night, when I was invited to go on a boat ride around the bay followed by a couple drinks – I tried my best to completely ignore my usual concerns and went along. It seems so silly to me now that I was worried about such a harmless activity. There was no stress, there were no problems, nobody disappeared, and Greeks seem to be fundamentally nice people who do not lurk the streets creepily.

The boat ride was beautiful. We saw the sunset and watched as Thessaloniki slowly became bathed in a deep blue as the night closed in. Of course, this was the quintessential tourist activity, but we nearly had the entire top deck to ourselves and no one was there to judge us for laughing too loudly or taking too many pictures. And just like that we’d all made a new, lasting memory of Greece and our time spent here together.

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Last night, people planned to go out again, this time to experience Greek nightlife. Again, I was apprehensive, but again, I went along – and it was fantastic. We celebrated Paxtyn’s birthday with lots of singing and dancing. To my surprise, Greeks seem to be very relaxed partiers who, instead of dancing like crazy, stand around together and talk over the loud music. There were also dozens of cafes open with tables outside, all occupied by groups of people drinking wine and chatting, even into the early hours of the morning. Maybe the Greek party-scene is a lot more aligned with my preferences than I could have imagined.

In any case, I am proud to say that I have been successfully stepping out of my comfort zone and have been enjoying it a lot more than I thought. I’m also proud to report that my limited Greek skills have allowed me to get myself home and even hold a small conversation with a nice taxi driver, Angelos.

There is a lot more writing coming up so stay tuned for an onslaught of blog posts over the next few days! I’ll leave you with some pictures of happy people on a happy boat.

Day one, done.

Here we are – in Thessaloniki.

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The waterfront near the pedestrian area.

I’m not quite sure where to begin, seeing as most of the things that happened today deserve their own blog posts. It’s so hard to believe it has only been one full day. Let me just say that it’s been a whirlwind and I love it here.

Thessaloniki is the second largest city in Greece. It juts right out of the Mediterranean Sea and sprawls up into the hills. The main squares are the same ones from hundreds of years ago and the entire city is built on ruins, some of which are fully incorporated throughout modern-day architecture – in the middle of pedestrian streets and next to parks. History lies below everything people walk on, live on and build upon.

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Ruins jutting out in the center of the city.

We made our way to the center of town today, to learn about its past, which also gave us a chance to discover where we will be spending most of the next three weeks. Already yesterday, as we drove toward our apartments from the airport, I noticed something strange: Thessaloniki looks a lot like the South of France. The architecture is very similar, featuring squat residential buildings lined with balconies and colorful awnings. The streets are narrow and filled with cars. The sun shines just as bright and the sea is just the same. As we walked around today, the inkling of a feeling I’d had yesterday continued to grow. And when we got to the pedestrian street, it persisted.

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The center of town and graffiti.

The main pedestrian area lies right near the water’s edge and the wide, square-like street is lined with small shops and food dives covered by arches, Making it look exactly like Place Masséna in Nice. It was both reassuring and confusing to be in a place that felt so strongly familiar. My mind naturally wandered to images of home, where my favorite restaurants are, where my favorite side streets lead to, and it was a constant jolt to come back to realizing I was, in fact, in an entirely new place. And still, while things look similar on the outside, the atmosphere of Greece is different.

Daphne, a professor from the American College of Thessaloniki leading us on this tour spoke vigorously about Thessaloniki’s past, under Roman and Ottoman rule. She seemed passionate about archeology and wanting to preserve the ruins that are continuously being discovered everywhere around Thessaloniki: “No matter where you dig, you will find something,” she said. She spoke the effects of the financial crisis on various aspects of Greek life and culture, including the lack of funding for archeological excavation and preservation – something we will likely be looking into over the course of our time here. There is too much to say about all of that to be able to comprehensively include it in this blog post.

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Our tour guide Daphne.

Everyone here has been more than welcoming. While I knew I would enjoy Greece, I did not expect it to pull me in so fast. Having spent time in the Balkans, I’ve also picked up on things I’ve missed from Belgrade. So far, Thessaloniki seems to be a strong mix of cultures that stand together as one and I am interested to understand it more as we continue to meet more people.

Much more took place today, and I will write about it soon. But it is getting late and classes begin tomorrow. I am more motivated than ever to keep writing about what we’ve seen so far, so I will be sure to update this blog again tomorrow with additional stories. This trip has been off to an amazing start.