Was it only a week ago that I had the amazing experience of Skyping with the entire sixth grade at Douglas School while they were gathered in Mrs. Christensen's class preparing to for an end-of-year spelling bee? Technology is certainly an amazing thing. Here I am, across the entire Atlantic and 2/3 of the way across the Mediterranean Sea from Acton, and yet I was "in" the familar surroundings of my colleague's classroom for half an hour thanks to the electronic age in which we live.
During that conversation, the students bombarded me with questions. They wanted to know everything, from why people are protesting in the streets of Athens to what my hotel room looked. One question in particular seems appropriate to answer now...now that I'm nearing the end of my stay in Greece. I think it was Sarah who posed this question to me: What has surprised you the most in Greece?
I'll start with the answer that I gave to my sixth graders last week, but I will add several thoughts beyond that.
Reflecting on the answer I gave to the sixth graders, it was pretty lame. Perhaps I was caught off guard, not ready to field a question that would make me think critically when I was still somewhat jet lagged! At the time I said this: I was surprised at how "the same" people looked there in Thessolaniki as they did in the Boston area. In Thessolaniki, people seemed to project a similar "personal appearance" in that city as they do in Boston: hair styles, clothes, shoes. Maybe more cosmopolitan than compared to Acton, but then again, who wouldn't be? I haven't done much international travel, but I have been to London on three occassions. Now THAT is a city where you could pull up a seat at a sidewalk cafe and watch all manner of "personal expression" walk by.
As I think about the past week, I think I can put into words what else has surprised me. Not only has this country surprised me, but the travel experience has surprised me as well.
As I wrote in an earlier post, I am surprised at just how mountainous Greece is. Despite the fact that every source that I've ever read about Greece talks about its many mountains, for some reason I never painted an accurate picture in my head. I guess I've lived in New England too long; poor Mount Olympus being associated with Mount Nashoba is pretty pathetic. The reality of the physical landscape has surprised me considerably.
I'm surprised, although I shouldn't be, at just how widely used the English language is used here. Billboards along the roads and names upon buildings seem to be as likely to be written in English as Greek. And of course English is one of the languages widely spoken by the population. In school, students begin studying English and another language (ususally German or French) in 3rd grade and continue through high school.
I'm always surprised when I see "old" right next to "new" here. It is not uncommon to turn a corner and literally stumble onto an archaeological site. In Thessolaniki, there are six story apartment buildings with laundry hanging from balconies overlooking the palace of an ancient royal whose name is long gone from my brain. In Athens, cars in five lanes buzz down the city boulevard at breakneck speeds, passing the Hadrian's Arch and the remaining columns from the Roman Temple of Zeus like they weren't even there. Walk into another area of the city and...oh yeah, there's the Temple of Hephaesus..gotta run to get my hair done. Ancient past sits in the midst of the present.
I'm surprised at some of what I've learned about the education system here. My surprise, in this case, is definitely cultural; it's hard for me to imagine a system outside of our own. Here, in Greece, when students finish high school they take the National Exam for placement into university. But before they take the exam they rank the various jobs or areas of work that they would like to pursue. For example, a student might say his or her first choice career is to be a doctor, then to be a lawyer, then to work in advertising. The student then takes the exam. The exam is scored, and the score on the exam determines which area of study you will allowed to enter in the university. Stathis, our faithful guide for this trip, has an 18-year old son who just finished high school. While we were in Delphi his son received the scores from his exam. He did not earn enough points on the exam to go into law, which was his first choice. I don't know what field of study he will undertake next fall, but it won't be law. My American experience with education makes me enfuriated with the Greek system. But I need to remember a couple of points. First, I don't have complete information about the Greek system; I have many questions which are unanswered. Second, for all its antiquity, Greece is actually a very young country. Since WWII these people have endured a civil war and a dictatorship. As an independent and democratic state they are going through difficult growing pains right now. Perhaps I shouldn't be critical of their educational system as they grow.
I'm surprised at how surprised I am about Athens. Does that make sense? When we first rolled into this big city I as very excited. Hustle, bustle, energy. Over 4 million people live here, almost double the number of 30 years ago. And it's population density rivals that of large cities in eastern Asia. Hooray! I thought. Civilization! After three days here I'm changing my mind. Lots of cars...I'm familiar with that. But you would not believe the moped/motorcycle population here! These one and two person vehicles are everywhere! On 4-lane boulevards motorcycles fill the empty gaps between cars the way sand fills the space between rocks in a jar. Furthermore, motorcycles are not bound by any kind of laws. Riders don't wear helmets, they don't stay in marked lanes, they don't even stay on the road! That's right, motorcycle drivers drive wherever they want, in whatever manner they want. Beware, you pedestrians strolling upon the sidewalk; sidewalks are just another avenue for the motorcycles. Watch out! I have also seen my fair share of beggars on the streets: haggard looking women holding an infant; a man with no legs sitting in the midday heat; another man with stumps for arms geturing towards his hat where a few coins glisten in the sun. In stark contrast to these figures are the storefront window displays of shoes, dresses, shoes, sunglasses, jewelery, shoes, and shoes. As I pondered which pair to bring home as gift to Erin, I wondered how many fellow ooglers were tourists like me. Yesteray I found myself thinking, "I'm not so sure I really like Athens..." Perhaps Athens is much like Los Angeles: very, very big and therefore very difficult to understand unless you live there.
A final surprise (because this entry is beyond the point of long). I'm surprised at how much I miss my family right now! For months prior to this trip I was salivating at the thought of being away from home for five weeks. No grocery shopping, no cooking, no cleaning up, no dealing with anyone but myself. (Hey, now that I think about it, this is a great deal!) But I do miss Hugh; it is a different experience simply knowing that we don't share it together.
We finish the week on the island of Aegina, for some well deserved R&R. Then we're off to Turkey. I know many surprises await me there!