Today we woke up to another beautiful day in Athens. We had a great class discussion and an even greater set of speakers. The two speakers were from a group called SynAthina, which is an organization that works tirelessly to improve the city of Athens and empower people to make big, meaningful change. After our speakers, we grabbed a quick bite to eat in the cafeteria in the college, and rushed to the bus to get to our next destination.
It was a 45-minute bus ride, and I fell asleep like I usually do, but after a while we arrived at the Benaki Museum. The Benaki Museum is a museum that has priceless artifacts such as weapons and art from the Byzantine and Ottoman Empire time period. It was very interesting to hear from our tour guide all of the stories behind the items in the museum. It was also interesting for me to think about how some of these items aren’t really that old compared to the rest of Greece’s artifacts .
After our tour was over we heard from the great grandson of the museum’s founder, Pavlos Yeroulanos. He talked about the current state of things in Greece and shared his thoughts on how we can help solve this crisis. After visiting this beautiful museum and hearing from Mr. Yeroulanos, we all split up and further explored downtown Athens.
We looked in some cool shops, I probably spent too much money, and then we headed back to our residence. After a long day in Athens, I was ready to rest and end the day with a relaxing dinner with everyone on the trip in our residence. It was a good way to end the day, and I look forward to the rest of the trip.
This morning I slept in, took a quick shower, and ran to class at the American College of Greece’s Deree campus where we discussed the relationship of Church and State in Greece. In order to better understand the benefits and downfalls, Professor Helmke split the class in half and each group was tasked with convincing the other group why our side was clearly better. In the end we all recognized the need for a division between the two. Later on in class, we listened to Anastasia Kafiris talk on the current political and economic crisis that Greece faces and heard her candid take on the matters. In her previous career, she was the director of a nonprofit (the Hellenic Children’s Museum) and before that, she worked in digital marketing.
Throughout her talk, she touched on the apathy towards citizens paying their taxes; the need for increased private hospital infrastructure and funding (a subject I can heavily relate to after spending four days in a Greek Hospital); and on the microeconomic level of the Greek Crisis. As a self-described pessimist, Anastasia expressed her sentiments that Greece has not been through the worst part of its recession yet. While it was alarming to hear, it was comforting to know that Anastasia, along with thousands of other Greeks understand the condition they are in rather than being ignorant about the news and what happens on a daily basis and what has been happening for the past eight years.
After class a group of us went to lunch as Tsi-Tsi. When we walked in it seemed as if they were closed but they fired up the grills for us and we were the only ones in the restaurant. I can say with confidence that I had the most delicious Pork Souvlaki in my life. Shortly after we walked back to take a traditional Greek siesta. For our class group dinner this night, we made our way towards Lykavittos Hill, a beautiful elevated limestone hill that oversees all of Athens. Purchasing bus tickets at the local street kiosk was foreign to me, but I was able to do it before the bus arrived at the stop—something I can’t say for everyone who attempted to purchase their ticket. Lauren Krznarich, our Associate Director, stayed with the second group so they would not get lost in the Greek public transportation system.
After waiting for the second group to arrive, we walked a cobblestone sidewalk with a steep incline where we found ourselves at the base of 250 steps. This was tiring for most, however there was a tram that we took to the peak of the hill. At the top, we enjoyed the view of all of Athens, where we pointed out to each other the places we had toured on days prior, including the Pan-Hellenic stadium, the Parthenon, and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center. During dinner, we had a lively conversation of who in history we would enjoy having a drink with and enjoyed a cloudy sunset to end our amazing day.
After a harsh wake-up call, as well as stepping out of the bathroom to hear Drew yell “Where’s Connor at? It’s time for coffee and doughnuts,” I knew this day would be one for the books! This assumption was indeed correctly placed, as our engaging morning class discussion focused on connecting ancient Greek rhetoric and political power to contemporary leaders and speakers in the United States. It was very intriguing to hear my classmates suggestions, and to also process everyone’s ideals for how they think leaders should be given power.
Following class, we hastily grabbed mesimerianó (lunch) and traveled to the Old Royal Palace, which currently houses the Hellenic Parliament. After going through security, we proceeded to tour the stunning and elegant halls of the property. We learned that after the Greeks finally liberated themselves from the 400 years of oppression from the Ottoman Empire, the Parliament building was constructed in 1836 to house the new King and Queen of the country.
After hearing more about the history of the government, we learned that the Palace was damaged by a fire in 1909 and abandoned, and then later reconstructed in 1930 to house the country’s Parliament. We continued our tour into the room where the Parliament sessions transpire, Assembly hall (the one located in Athens, not Bloomington). Here, we met with Notis Mitarachi, who is currently a member of Parliament representing the Greek island of Chios and formerly the President for the Council of the European Union on Foreign Affairs. He provided very insightful perspectives on politics, the crisis, foreign policy, education, and other issues facing the country that complements what we have been learning in the classroom very well.
Once our meeting with representative Mitarachi had concluded, the group dispersed and went shopping in downtown Athens. A few friends and I had some of the best shakes I’ve ever had, and then made our way back to Agia Paraskevi for dinner, Starbucks, and studying. While the day was very busy, it was also full of surprises and remarkable experiences that again made the classroom come alive in new and relevant ways.
Time in Athens is flying by. I cannot believe we started our third and final full week here in Athens. It seems life everyday brings new adventures. Today, for instance I walked through the weekly farmers market on my way to class. You can find anything and everything there. Some Civic Leaders found eggs and others found pants. After exploring the market we were visited by Dr. Constantinos Arvanitopoulos. As Greece’s former education minister he brought a new prospective to class on the social and economic climate of the country. One thing that really stuck out to me was when he discussed the referendum constitution that took place in 1974. He said that this was one of the turning points in Greek history. The referendum brought Greece into the modern age and closer to joining the European Union.
After class, Anna and I went out to lunch. Not willing to budge from my status quo, I ordered chicken fingers and fries from Meat I Live For (MILF) to go. Anna sat at a cafe we discovered down the block with her coffee and a chicken sandwich. We sat and talked about this past year and how much we look forward to seeing what the next few years of college have in store. We headed back to our rooms to get ready for the excursion to Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC).
Upon entering the center, I was amazed at the sheer size and beauty of the development. You walk in and see a canal that leads from the SNFCC location to the beach. The building was aligned with glass windows and natural light. We started in the middle of the two buildings which they refer to as the Agora. They named it so because it means a public open space used for assemblies and markets. The donation for the SNFCC was about 600 million euros. We were given a tour of both the big and small auditoriums. Our guide went into details about everything that was put into the rooms from the fixtures on the ceilings to the panels on the floor. This tour was my favorite thing that we have done. To finish off the tour, we ended at the “Lighthouse” which is a metaphor for the roof top. It had 360 degree views of the city, a beautiful garden, and a park. For dinner eight of us went to a restaurant called Arteon Garden just outside the college entrance. The food was really good and offered a twist on traditional Greek food.
Today we were supposed to go to the beach! Unfortunately, we seem to be assimilating into Greek culture a little too well. By the time I had woken up, it was already past noon, and a beach day seemed out of the question. Instead, we had the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful neighborhood of Aghia Paraskevi and enjoy a relaxing day after traveling through the Peloponnese region for the past two days.
After wandering, we sat down at the restaurant Tsi Tsi where we had had dinner the first night we arrived in Athens. We ordered food (four gyro wraps for 8 euros? Yes please!) and waited what seemed like several hungry years for our food. When compared to American culture, the Greeks seem more languid and relaxed in nearly every activity they perform, whether that entails waking up late or taking 15 minutes to refill our water. Though I imagine a more relaxed culture would have its benefits – and certainly a place in our own work-a-holic culture – this led to some members of my group being a little perturbed by the slow service.
Greece as a country gets a bad rap from a European and international view because its inhabitants are viewed as lackadaisical and lazy. However, I found I haven’t been this relaxed in a long time, despite the fact I’m currently in a country whose language I can’t understand. It seems that the saying “Europeans work to live, Americans live to work” has never been more alive and true. Though it may frustrate American visitors such as me and my friends – we who have come to expect quick and pointed service – when we wait hours for food and stores are closed for an afternoon ‘siesta,’ maybe we as Americans should slow down a little and learn to appreciate life like the Greeks.
We then headed back to our apartments where, in college student style, we said we would do our homework, and instead we watched Netflix. Later that night, we finally got around to reading about some of the underlying structural issues in Greek democracy before we had the wonderful experience of ordering Greek pizza. After a harrowing 40 minutes the driver finally found where we were living, and we feasted on mediocre pizza before turning in for the night.
Days like today make me all the more positive that coming on this trip was the right decision for me. We woke up in our hotel in Olympia and toured the ancient ruins there. Seeing where the athletes trained blew me away. Since many of us Civic Leaders have played sports before in high school, it was very easy to fill in the physical gaps of the ruins with what we imagine life must have been like for the athletes. We learned that short pillars indicate the age of the buildings- the shorter and squatter pillars were used on the oldest buildings. We also learned that the statue of Zeus was a wonder of the ancient world, but it has unfortunately been lost. The most fun part of the Olympia visit was lining up on the start/finish line of the original stadium where the Greeks held the games and running to the other end of the stadium. Once again, our imaginations filled in the gaps in the ruins that have grown over time.
Next, we had a delicious lunch at a beachside restaurant that sits right on the Ionian Sea. I imagine I won’t have another chance to sit in front of the Ionian Sea eating traditional moussaka with my friends anytime soon! The sea was chilly, but that didn’t stop a handful of Civic Leaders from diving in anyway.
The day was finished with a night out in Athens to experience the nightlife culture. I love that this program has gifted us with the opportunity to live in a residential neighborhood, but we are close enough to be able to visit downtown Athens whenever we want. This type of experience could not be recreated on our own, making our experience even more special.
The first day of our overnight trip consisted of extensive travel on a bus with beautiful scenery and wonderful stops on the way, such as at the Corinth Canal and the cities of Mycenae and Nafplio. Like most trips we’ve done so far, the day started by getting on the bus early. I started the day ecstatic due to the fact that I was going to the much anticipated and historic area of Greece known as the Peloponnese.
Upon leaving Athens and making our way through the mainland of Greece, we saw wonderful scenery with terrain that changed slightly every mile. As the bus progressed through Greece, we made it to our first stop at Mycenae. Mycenae is historically significant because its people fought in the famous Trojan War and essentially a city on a small mountain with a wonderful view from the top.
The next stop in our trip was the seaport of Nafplio, the former capital of Greece. The city was honestly stupendously beautiful. The city lies in between a mountain range and the sea. Embedded and fortified on the hillside near the Argolic Gulf, the city is that of a stereotypically beautiful Mediterranean city. While there I explored the beautiful town, ate ice cream, and had lunch. The highlight of Nafplio, however, was not the city itself but the lunch we had. We ate lunch outside a pretty little restaurant in the center of town and while having lunch something tremendously funny happened. Asian tourists who were interested in our large table decided to take pictures of us while eating, and then decided to hop into a spare seat, while posing with all of us. One person even thought it was funny to pose for a picture with our director Paul Helmke while her husband took photos as if Paul were Bradley Cooper or some other celebrity. It was probably the funniest and weirdest thing I have ever seen in my life, but hey, when in Greece….
After we left Nafplio we headed towards our final destination of the day: our hotel near Olympia. Situated on a hillside overlooking Olympia, the hotel was picturesque and the service was great. We were greeted by the hotel staff when we arrived, and the pool and dinner that followed were amazing. We spent the rest of our evening hanging out and playing football (soccer) on the football field they had at the hotel and looking forward to our adventure the next day in Olympia.