Monday, September 29, 2003

He's Gone Ape

Did anyone else happen to read the article about the gorilla who escaped from the Boston Zoo? I particularly love the fact that a woman saw this gorilla sitting on a bench at a bus stop. I wonder where it was planning to go.

It's kind of like that time when I was working at the Louisville Zoo and the lion escaped....Except that the lion didn't actually escape. Oh well. It could have been like that.

Who Do You Think You're Talking To?

The kids here call me “Missus”. Not Ms. or Miss. No first or last name following it. Just “Missus”. What kind of address is that? Apparently it’s a literal translation of the Greek way of addressing a female, but it doesn’t really work for me. Does anyone else think it sounds like I’m a rich white lady living on an antebellum plantation being addressed by my poor slaves?

Sunday, September 28, 2003

To Sleep, To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

I have never been a good sleeper. My mom tells me that as a baby, I did little more than catnap. I wasn’t capable of taking real afternoon naps. I’m still not. Sometimes I lay there and try, but I always fail. My failure at this skill is particularly obvious here in Greece where everyone takes a long afternoon nap every day. I may be the only person in the country who is up between 2pm and 4 pm.

My sleeping problem is not restricted to naps. I frequently have trouble falling asleep at night regardless of how tired I am or the fact that I was practically passed out on the couch before climbing into bed. I remember that when I was little I would lay in bed for what seemed an interminable length (probably less than a half an hour really) and not be able to sleep. I’d creep out of my bed and down the stairs and then present myself at the top of the stairs to the family room announcing, “Mom, I can’t sleep.” My mom would then respond, “Close your eyes, lay real still and don’t say a word.” I guess the advice worked, because I’d eventually fall asleep.

Now sometimes no matter how hard I try to follow her advice, I just can’t get to sleep. I’m a very picky sleeper. I hate any form of light or noise. I prefer the room to be cool so I can use a lot of blankets. But even with all these conditions met, there is no guarantee that I will fall asleep. My mind and body do not have a harmonious relationship. As soon as my body decides it wants to sleep, my mind races to life and cannot be shut down. I think about everything. Books I’m reading. Things I want to write about. What I have to do the next day. What happened that day. And lots of things that I can’t describe because they make absolutely no sense.

But there are times when I sleep perfectly. When I fall asleep with no effort. When I sleep the whole night through, untouched by worries about things I need to do or things I didn’t get done. When even a little light or a little noise has no bearing on my slumber. I used to think it was random whether I had a good night sleeping or a terrible night of tossing and turning. But it’s not. There are certain times that I sleep well no matter what. Like when Jeff’s around. I can have a huge project to work on the next day. I can have spent the whole day worrying and driving myself insane. But come that night, I will sleep well. The reason, I’ve figured, is that I’m right where I’m supposed to be. The work will get done, the worries will prove fruitless. Everything will work out. When he’s there, I quit worrying about the future and reliving the past. I’m perfectly content in the here and now. And that makes for a great night’s sleep.

Interestingly, I’ve slept great since I’ve been here in Greece. It was one of my worries before I left. Knowing my difficulties with sleep, I pictured myself staring at the ceiling all night long, getting up for drinks of water, trying to read a few pages, and watching the hours in which I should be sleeping tick away. But I fall asleep fairly easily and wake refreshed in the morning. It’s a good sign. I don’t believe there’s only one right place for a person to be or one best route for a person to take. There are a number of places I could be right now and be happy, content in the moment, sleeping well. There are also a lot of places I could be where I’d be tossing and turning, dreading the work that had to be done the next day, wondering what the heck I was doing there. Fortunately, that’s not the case. For now, I’m right where I’m supposed to be. The bed-head proves it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

The Results of Your PLAN test: Garbage Collector

Sometimes I feel like I’m still in school, like I’m spending a year studying abroad. But every now and then I realize that I’m out of college and am in the “real world”. While my little Greek vacation may not be particularly “real world,” the fact that I have to find a way to support myself when this assignment is up is most definitely “real world”. I spend a lot of time thinking about what I want to do, but I make very little headway in regards to actually deciding on anything. There are lots of things I want to do…zillions really…but I can’t imagine one job that I want to have. Jobs just seem so thoroughly unnatural. Is it realistic to ask people to decide on one thing that they want to do with their lives (or even do for a couple of years)? I don’t think it is. It’s downright absurd.

So I need some help here. I assume that if you are reading this, you know me pretty well. What the heck do you think I should do with my life? What should I do next year? To make it easier for you, I’ve compiled a list of things I like: books, writing, travelling, non-profits, the arts, World War II, teaching, thinking, outer space, meeting people, research, German history, American history, languages, sports, historic preservation, biology, the outdoors. Also the things I don’t like: people who work solely for the money, development offices, investment banking, hospitals, cold weather, hole-punching, binding, filing, cubicles, assembly lines. The general requirements for my ideal job are: intellectually stimulating, meaningful, potential to “make a difference,” interaction with a variety of people, exposure to new things and ideas. As long as I make enough to pay my bills, money isn’t really an issue. I’m open to exploring any and all ideas. So if you’re reading this please, please, please throw your ideas at me. What type of job should I look for? Where would be the best place for me to work? Should I consider going back to school? If so, what degree should I pursue? Should I work for a few years first? Who do you know that has the perfect job for me and I absolutely must meet? I’m listening, people. Talk to me!

Monday, September 22, 2003

This Land is Your Land

I have now been in Greece for three weeks. Three weeks that have, like the light of a comet, passed so quickly that there is little time for comprehension. Three weeks in which there have been moments that have passed as slowly as the night before Christmas when you are five years old. Either way, it’s been three weeks. Twenty-one days. Five hundred and four hours. For better or worse, faster or slower, Greece has been mine for that amount of time.

A banker who goes to Aegina to catch octopus for his friends on the weekends. A nun who lives alone atop Hydra, watching the worldly come and go at the port below, baking sweets for the handful of visitors she may have each month, quietly existing in a world unknown to most. A Greek cabdriver who tells you in perfect German that he has rocks in his heads for leaving Germany to come back to Greece, and replies to your comment that Greece is home with the wisdom of his father…home is wherever you are happiest. A man and his two sons(?), nephews (?) who spend every day slow roasting pork and chicken to make gyros and who for 1.35 euros will provide you with dinner and a few new words of Greek. The rich who sit in cafes in their designer clothes and sip frappes. The poor who sit with their tin cans on the sidewalks of Syntagma and sell their deformities for mere cents to the unseeing eyes of shoppers buying hundred euro shoes. The prejudiced comments about Albanian refugees spoken in loud whispers on crowded buses. The bowl of scraps set outside the door for the stray dogs that roam the city. The farmer at the Friday morning market who slips an extra peach into your bag as a gift. The teacher who invites you to her home for dinner and calls all the people she knows who are your age so that you might have someone to hang out with. The housemates who laugh with you, yell with you, eat with you, and sit quietly with you while you simultaneously wonder what you are doing here and how you got so lucky as to be here. Sapphire water. The smell of pine. Light as you have never seen it before, brighter, more illuminating. This is my Greece.

How would someone who had only been in America for three weeks see it?
What, I wonder, is my America?

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Does This Look Like A Zoo?

Classes have been in session for a week now, but I’ve yet to do any teaching. So far my days have consisted of shadowing, sitting in on classes, and attending endless meetings. In all honesty, I haven’t seen or experienced enough to make a fair judgment call on the schools here. But over and over, one thing has jumped out at me. There is a serious lack of discipline. Never have I seen so many students who talk throughout class, who pay little heed to the bell, who don’t know how to raise their hands, who have to be told repeatedly to spit out their gum, who don’t bring their materials to class. While this in itself astonishes me, I am most taken aback by the fact that none of the teachers or other authority figures really seem concerned with it. They ask the kids to behave, but they don’t demand it. I’ve seen one teacher move one kid to a different desk. I’ve heard one teacher threaten to send a kid out of the room. But the actions are empty and the threats idle. Nothing changes. It’s all a farce…and all the kids can see right through it.

While the kids should be more respectful and well behaved, I am not convinced that the fault lies with them. They have apparently grown up in an atmosphere, which, if not publicly, at least quietly condones this behavior. No one demands that the students be on time, that they don’t talk during class, that they turn their homework in when it’s due, that they come to class prepared. And if they don’t have to do it, why should they? Kids will be kids. They’ll push the limits. They need someone to set limits and demand accountability. By not doing so, the authority figures in these kids lives are, in my opinion, failing these kids. If they don’t learn these things now, when will they? If we don’t show them how to be responsible, respectful, conscientious people, how will they learn?

I haven’t been to other schools in Greece, so I don’t know if this is a nationwide issue or one that is confined to this school. I think part of my shock stems from the fact that Athens College is considered the most prestigious school in all of Athens, and perhaps Greece. The children of the rich and powerful go to school here (along with talented students on scholarship). People pay huge amounts of money for their children to be educated at this institution. It seems to me that they would demand the best. Or is the school like this perhaps because these are the rich and powerful and no one is willing to challenge them? I don’t know the answer, but it’s something I’ve been pondering. I’m not an expert on schools, so if you have any insight into this issue, please share.

Also, it’s interesting to note that among all of the Teaching Fellows I seem to feel most strongly that the behavior of the kids is atrocious. We’ve all expressed some astonishment, but the others have told me that many of their classes and schools were pretty undisciplined (although perhaps not to such an extreme). I’ve only attended two schools (both of which were private), so I have a pretty limited basis for comparison. (I am in no way condemning public school. I am aware that there are many excellent public schools in the U.S. I simply think that discipline is a bigger issue in public schools, because of the strict limitations public schools are burdened with in regards to discipline.) My view is perhaps a bit tainted because I went to schools that had high expectations regarding proper behavior. While there were students at both St. Athanasius and Sacred Heart who weren’t well behaved, they were usually dealt with swiftly. The philosophy of both schools was if you didn’t like the rules, then you were free to go to school elsewhere. Harsh…maybe. Effective…certainly. Many times I thought the rules were silly and superfluous, but now I see the way that small things really do matter in regards to creating a productive learning environment. And I see how enforcing rules early and uniformly allows for a lessening of discipline as students age, because they have already learned the proper way to behave and don’t need to have it spelled out for them. There are a lot of things to be learned in school beyond what’s in the books.

I don’t really see myself as a disciplinarian. But I’m certainly nobody’s babysitter. So straighten up your uniform, spit out your gum, raise your hand if you have something to say, and let’s get to work. School is in session.

Monday, September 15, 2003

Every Day Is An Adventure. Weird Shit Will Happen.

Although it does sound like the perversion of a fortune-cookie message, the above wisdom actually came from Heather, an American teacher at Athens College, and her British husband Russell. This was their way of telling us that things in Greece often don’t go the way you want or expect them to and the best thing you can do is play like it’s all one big adventure. They’re right, of course. There are many days I wonder how anything gets done in this country. Some days procuring a loaf of bread seems like a really big accomplishment. But then there are days like yesterday when you forget about all the chaos, the bureaucracy, and the insanity, and you think, “Ahh, this is the life.”

The nine o’clock ferry took us to the island of Aegina, an oasis of serenity only an hour away from Athens. We didn’t really do anything, but it was perfect. We strolled through the town, sampling the pistachios grown all over the island, peering through the windows at displays of handcrafted jewelry and ceramics, and grabbing a few items for a picnic lunch. Late morning we headed out on foot along the road running beside the coast. The island was gorgeous. It wasn’t Hawaii or the Bahamas; there were no real beaches to speak of. The coast was kind of ragged, and fir trees, cacti and scraggly desert plants dotted the landscape. But the water was sapphire and turquoise perfection. Before we found a place to settle for the afternoon, we came across a man who, from our vantagepoint, seemed to be pounding a bench with a stick. We went closer and discovered that he was actually beating octopuses. When we asked if we could watch, he excitedly began to tell us all about what he was doing, taking us on to his thirty-three year old boat with the hit-and-miss engine that puffed like a freight train, showing us the chandelier-shaped hook at the bottom of a long string tied with various lures used to land his catch, and letting us gingerly touch the octopuses. Dionyssus (as we learned he was called) told us that this was only a weekend hobby, and he caught the sea creatures not for sale but to give to friends who enjoyed them. We must have talked to this man, who on weekdays wore the clothes of a bank manager, for at least half and hour, at the end of which he gave us his number and told us that if we called him he’d be more than happy to give us an octopus too. When we left him, we were carrying a bunch of grapes he had washed off for us in the sea and presented to us telling us that he grew them in his yard. As we stood talking to Dionyssus, who treated us not as strangers or foreigners but as long-lost friends, and watched the shrimp, crab and fish darting through the pools of water at our feet, felt the sun warm on our skin, and smelled the sea on the breeze, the world seemed small and personable and at peace. The rest of the day we spent swimming in crystal water, snoozing on the warm stones, and meandering slowly around the island.

When we got back to Athens twelve hours after we had left, the city was as chaotic as ever. A week of ambiguous work awaited me. But it didn’t really matter. Weird shit will happen. Every day will be an adventure. And there’s an island only an hour away where the only thing to do is let the day simply and joyfully live.

Friday, September 12, 2003

Theatre Thoughts

Last night I saw The Shakespeare Theatre from Washington D.C. perform the Oedipus Cycle at Herodes Atticus Odeon, the theatre on the Acropolis. To see an ancient Greek tragedy performed by a modern American company in an ancient Greek theatre was an amazing experience. Almost 34 rows of stone seats remain, rising seemingly straight up from the ground. Behind the stage, there is a row of arched windows, above which is a row of smaller square windows, then another level of bigger arched windows. To the sides, ruins linger, making it clear that at one point the theatre had at least two more levels. While I am sure the theatre is nothing more than a shadow of its former glory, it is unqualifiedly grand.

As I watched the show with one eye and examined the theatre with another, I couldn’t help wondering, “What is the cost of such greatness?” Not the cost in money, but the cost in human lives. While it is certainly worthwhile to marvel at the way these buildings, constructed hundreds of years before Christ, still remain, demanding respect and reminding us of the ancient roots of democracy, it is important, I believe, to think about how these buildings came to be. Structures of stone, they required tremendous labor. Each stone had to be cut from quarry. Each stone had to be transported to the site. Each stone had to be arranged and secured to withstand the change of centuries. “Who did this work?” I wonder. Who gave themselves fully to the task of creating such a monument? Who lost their lives when a rock shifted unexpectedly? It wasn’t the great men of Athens. It wasn’t those we read about in textbooks or see statues of in museums. It was the common man. It was, most likely, men held slaves by other men. Greatness is a strange concept. There are men we consider great, and there are things we consider great. Sometimes we forget that many great things result from the toil of many forgotten people. It is not just true here in Greece, but in the United States and throughout the world. That which we marvel over and hold precious often has a hidden cost. That doesn’t mean that we should quit marveling. We should marvel, but not just over the thing but also over the people who created such marvels.

On a different but related note, have you ever gone somewhere and wondered what it used to be like before it is the way you see it now? For instance, whenever I go on long roadtrips, I always find myself imagining what our country must have looked like before interstates, or even roads of any sort, crisscrossed it. What must it have been like to have crossed the U.S. by wagon, without roads, interstate signs, fast-food restaurants, billboards, hotels, convenience stores? All you had was yourself and whatever you could fit in your wagon. All your food had to be prepared, found, or hunted. Every need had to be fulfilled by you. You didn’t know what was up ahead. You couldn’t consult Mapquest. You couldn’t call AAA. In one day, you would travel the distance we now travel in one hour. Strange, isn’t it? Could I have done it?

So yes, I’m getting to the part that relates back to my theatre experience. As I sat high above the stage, just as others had done centuries ago, I wondered what it must have been like for them to sit there. What was the same? The glow of the full moon, the pin point light of the stars (multiplied exponentially, I am sure), the trees like rough strokes of black on an illuminated canvas, the shadows dancing wildly on the stone wall, the balmy summer air, the whispers of theatre patrons. So much must have been the same. But as I looked out the arches over the stage, I saw city lights, buildings, restaurants, endless streams of cars. Where there must have been rolling hills and fields, there is now development. While the Acropolis stood stoically, the city around it grew and changed to become a modern metropolis. If the people, who in B.C. sat in the same seats that were filled last night, returned, what would they recognize? Would they even know where they were? While some things remain, so much changes. Bit by bit, the familiar becomes the unfathomable. The world is only ours for a brief moment.

Monday, September 08, 2003

Mmm Food

If I were to pick one thing particular to European countries that I would like to transport to the United States, I would, without hesitation, choose the markets. Yes, I know that America has farmer’s markets, but they are few and far between, never particularly close to our homes or our daily routes. While almost all of us would claim to enjoy such markets, in all honesty, who of us really shops there on a regular basis? Most of us go to the grocery store or the super-mega-everything-in-one Target or Walmart, where the produce is arranged into fantastic looking displays, doesn’t have a bad spot or discoloration, looks wonderful in a fruit bowl, and has very little taste. We spray, alter, and modify our produce until it’s more like art than food. And sure, there’s organic food to be had, but only if you are willing to pay a pretty penny.

But in Europe, fruit and vegetables are still real. Sometimes the oranges have green spots on the outside. Sometimes the zucchini curves into a strange shape. The grapes aren’t always perfectly symmetrical. The onions and carrots have dirt on them more often than not. Yet clean it up, take off the peel, slice and dice and you have the best produce you could imagine eating. And there’s no middleman, no giant company producing in mass. The woman or man who grew that produce packs it into the truck, sets up the stand, offers you a sample to prove that the green spots and the asymmetry don’t matter at all, and then sells you the fruits of their labor for pennies. Today I bought three peaches for fifty cents. Three of the juiciest, most delicious peaches I have ever had cost a mere fifty cents. It’s almost criminal.

And although it’s rare for someone to leave the market without at least one purchase (most people have cartloads full of food), the market is worth going to even if your refrigerator is already overstocked. The food smells wonderful, the sellers are incredibly friendly, and with one in every neighborhood you’re bound to run into someone you know. The markets build community. For a few dollars a week, you can buy all the produce you need, eat incredibly healthily, and contribute to the maintenance of a vibrant community.

Growing up in a world where “neighbor” carries less and less meaning every year, it’s wonderful to see that a neighborhood can be much more than the place where you live. Imagine what America could be if we quit selling out, if we put our collective foot down and said to hell with letting the bottom-line be the end all and be all. Imagine a world were people were more valued than things. Imagine starting with a market.

Friday, September 05, 2003

Five Fun Facts for the First Five Days

1. I made it to Greece without a problem, but I almost didn’t make it to Athens College. When I got off the plane, I was supposed to look for a man holding a sign with the college’s name on it, but there was no such man to be found. So I wait, I look around, I wander a bit. Still nothing. I start pondering my options. And then, just when it’s getting to be worrisome, a man appears beckoning to me and whisks me off to his car. Apparently another girl got off the plane before me and approached the man with her luggage. Not until she got to the car, looked at the packet in the seat with my name on it, and declared that that wasn’t her was it realized that he had the wrong person. Turns out the girl was doing College Year in Athens and when she saw the Athens College sign she just assumed it was for her. Thank goodness for that packet in the car or I might still be at the airport.

2. For the first two days it was about 100 degrees in Athens. Our house has no air conditioner. It also had no fans because after last year’s fellows moved out the fans were commandeered by offices around campus. As follows, our house was an oven. So on night #2, I slept out on the back porch along with the four other girls. Darrell, the one male Teaching Fellow, sleeps in the basement so it’s not so hot down there. It was like a big slumber party…except we were all so tired we fell right to sleep without any of the usual slumber party fun and games.

3. On Tuesday night, we went out to dinner at a rooftop restaurant in the Plaka, which is an area downtown. If we looked up at the hill above us we could see the Parthenon all lit up. I think we ordered about every appetizer on the menu and split them among the six of us. So much food! After dinner we were pulled out to the dance floor to learn a traditional Greek dance, and then we were given free watermelon and honeydew for dessert. Mmmm.

4. This morning we work up early to go to the market before we were attacked by the slew of meetings and random tasks thrown at us every day. The market is awesome…I’m sure I’ll dedicate a whole blog to them at some point. But anyhow, as we were walking back, this old woman asks us if there is a market in the area. When we tell her yes, she proceeds to yell curses at us. Then she lifts up her dress (she’s wearing no underwear) and moons us! A few seconds later she does it again! Talk about Tourette’s!

5. Our computer is so slow that I have to type my emails on my computer, save them to floppy disk, and then copy and paste them into my email on the house computer. So if you ever get an email from me and it doesn’t address anything that you may have written to me in an email, you now know why. Hey, it’s the best I can do. Count your lucky stars that you are even getting email from me anyhow. =)

Thursday, September 04, 2003

Oh My God What Are All These People Saying In Insanely Loud Voices

Don't fear. I'm alive and well in Athens. I know you were all worried since I haven't posted, but there has been a lot to do and the computer here is so slow. (Plus one phone line for the phone and internet for 6 people is kind of difficult.) But so it goes. So I don't have much time to write now, but for a few updates. For all of those concerned, I made it here without any of my fears materializing. All my planes were ontime, my luggage met all restrictions, my luggage arrived with me, and I didn't starve to death. An A+ kind of day huh. Athens is massive. I really haven't been out into the city much, because I am living in the posh area of town near all the diplomats and such. My house is nice, the campus is beautiful, the facilities are posh, and the massive amount of stray dogs are well annoying. Yes that is right..there are stray dogs everywhere. They run in packs throughout the city. They don't really bother you except for the wake-up barks at 6am. Lovely I know. The one thing that is completely driving me nuts is the absolute lack of organization in this country. For this list-loving girl, a lack of organization is brutal. Everyone is super friendly though so that kind of makes up for it. Okay, if I don't end now my computer is going to crash. A sucky post I know, but I am sure you are all glad just to know I'm alive. And just as a little sidenote, it's pretty damn awesome to just be walking through downtown and then look up at the hill in front of you and see the Parthenon. Hard to match that in the good ol' USA.