Tingles

The last week has been nonstop travel and I could not be happier about it. After a quick walk around Frankfurt, my mom and I headed out to Lucerne, Switzerland to start our mini-vacation. Lucerne is definitely a tourist location, which I thought was strange because I had never heard of it before my mom told me we were going there. Clearly I’m not as worldly or cultured as I think I am. There’s a reason it’s a tourist stomping ground–the whole city was walkable in a day and every part of it was impressive.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

My first impression of Switzerland was actually their money. They don’t use euros, they use Swiss francs. It’s really cool looking and colorful, and the coins make absolutely no sense. The half-franc, what is basically 50 cents, is smaller than the 10 cent coin. Why? Maybe it’s to distract you from how RIDICULOUSLY expensive everything is in Switzerland. Our cab driver today basically apologized on behalf of his country for the prices here. It’s the problem with having a good economy, he said. Nice problem to have.

I really can’t complain, though because I’m not paying for anything, my mom is Switzerland is an incredibly beautiful place. Lucerne was nice, but our trek up to the Swiss Alps blew it out of the water. I’ve seen a lot of great views in my life, but I was consistently awestruck walking by the snow peaks of the Alps. We stayed in the small town of Murren, 5,000 feet up in the mountains. If you’ve read my blog or been around me in high-up places, you know my battle with butt tingles. It’s an uncontrollable reaction I have to heights. It’s not fear (it probably is) it’s just an uncomfortable feeling that I have to live with. Butt trust me, it was well worth it for the experiences I got this week.

Yesterday, we took a cable car up to a peak and hiked 4,000 feet back down to the town, Wengen, that we left from. That hike was equal parts fun, tiring and completely zen. Everything was quiet, the weather was perfect, and the fields of flowers surrounding us contrasted with the giant snowy masses around them took my breath away more than the altitude did. My mom definitely enjoyed herself and I could tell because she was taking photos of everything. Literally. She stopped for five minutes trying to get a photo of a singular butterfly. It flew away and she called it something I can’t repeat here. Here’s another slideshow.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The views during that hike were unbelievable. Pictures really don’t do the scale of the mountains justice. We kept saying that it looked painted on, and it really does. It looks like a trick that Wiley Coyote tries to pull on the Roadrunner. You keep expecting to run into the wall but you never do. I took some time-lapses of clouds around the mountains, and I think those do a decent job of showing just how small they make you feel. Check them out.

Advertisements

Whirlwind

Settle in, this is a long one. Believe it or not, I was actually too busy to blog this week. Everyone needed to finish up their final stories in Athens, and I saddled myself with probably more video work than I could realistically handle. But like most things that require a lot of effort, this week was certainly worthwhile. We posted some great stories, from the state of healthcare for refugee mothers, to startups budding up across Greece (one of the few bright spots in the Greek economy according to one journalist who came to speak with our class), to the plight of endangered sea turtles.  There are still more to come, including the feature piece on the refugee crisis. I did a video for that as well, but I won’t share it here until it’s posted on our site, which you can check out here by the way.

Quick look at me trying to keep my eyes open this week.

This week also took me to some incredibly unique places, that I never would have seen on any brochure. That was actually the mantra of the first interesting person I met this week, John “Brady” Kiesling. He is a former U.S. diplomat who retired over his concerns about the legitimacy of our entry into war Iraq in 2003 (good call, Brady). He now has invented an app called ToposText, that shows users the history of where they are standing right from their smartphone–no brochure necessary. He took Mike and I up to the Pnyx, the place where democratic meetings used to held in ancient Greece. It had an awesome view of the Acropolis and the city, but he said most people don’t go there because it’s not on the usual tourist checklist. Panorama. 

Next up was a trip to Sepolia, a neighborhood of Athens where NBA star Giannis Antetokounmpo (I’m a pro at spelling this now) grew up. There is a court there dedicated to him, with his image painted across the entirety of it. Brandon, Theo and I talked to a bunch of the kids playing there about their favorite players and teams. We also got to meet the scout who discovered the “Greek Freak” and interviewed him at our hotel. Brandon’s story on Giannis and the neighborhood is awesome, and is also up on our site.

Then on Saturday, Bridget and I paid a visit to Ergastiri, a training facility for people with mental disabilities. The residents there are put into classes and taught to make their own products: cookies, pasta, rugs, soap, gifts, ceramics, you name it. It was a beautiful facility and it pained me to remember that we were there because the Greek government hasn’t been able to pay facilities like it for well over a year. Story and video on that still to come.

Residents of Ergastiri working looms to make rugs.

Finally, I also got in some interviews for my personal project, which is a video on the Exarchia neighborhood of Greece and the street art there. The neighborhood is known for its rebellious and anarchist spirit…and its great street art. I’ll save most of the description for the video (which I’ll post on here later when I find the time to edit it) but the coolest part of making it was meeting the street artist Cacao Rocks.

Some street art by Cacao Rocks outside his studio.

Just like that, another dialogue is over. It was as much fun as I thought it would be, but also more challenging than I expected. I went out of my comfort zone a lot and I’m really happy I did (Carlene even said I wasn’t lazy!). One thing that never changes throughout these trips is my love of seeing new places and meeting new people. I’ll keep the blog up as I travel through Switzerland in the coming week, but I can’t think of three better pictures to post to officially end this dialogue.

Click to enlarge and have nightmares.

 

 

When it rains, it hails

At least in Athens it does. Yesterday I went to get some lunch after taking a break from cutting down Arabic interviews for an upcoming piece on the refugee crisis on the mainland of Greece. I went to McDonald’s. Yeah, I said it. I would say something about how each McDonald’s in a different country has it’s own feel and I wanted to see what it was like…but I passed over the “Greek Mac” and went for a quarter-pounder with cheese and fries. I’ve eaten a lot of Greek food, so judge away, I’ll be alright.

On the way back, the Greek gods seemingly wanted to punish me for my American lunch choice, and it started raining. I was not prepared for this in the slightest, so I took shelter under the library a few blocks from our hotel. At first I was pissed because my shoes were ruined and my pants were soaked through, but as I looked out on the square I realized I actually had a great view. As the good little videographer I am, I took a time-lapse video which you can see here, as well as a riveting close-up on the hail that was coming down with the rain. What started out as a negative ended up being a pretty cool experience.

That’s starting to happen a lot on this trip. On Saturday, I was excited for the whole group to visit an island for a beach day, which we missed out on in Thessaloniki because of the rain. It started out looking like a disaster, as we struggled to get ferry tickets and were looking at a lot of cloud cover. When we got to the shore, the beach we could see looked meager to say the least. But after consulting some maps and following Ellie’s leadership, we made it to a really nice beach and had a great day. I was so happy about the sun coming out that I soaked it in probably a little too much and have a nasty sunburn. But guess what? That burn is going to be a tan (and possibly skin cancer down the line but we’ll ignore that for the sake of this analogy). Negative to positive.

On Sunday I had decided to wake up early to go to a mass with Bridget. I woke up feeling like every bit of my skin was on fire and really regretted the decision. But once we got there that regret flew off me like a piece of peeling skin. The church was gorgeous, and the priests were decked out in ridiculously elegant clothes and had extravagant facial hair to match it. There was a chorus of about twenty men singing ancient hymns, and it wasn’t hard for me to imagine Greeks having mass hundreds of years ago.

It’s around this time that everyone starts to get stressed out, including me. Students start chirping me that I don’t do anything, deadlines are being imposed and everyone’s realizing that we only have single-digit days left in this great place and they might not get to fully experience it. While my main job is to do a head count to 19, I also like to make sure everyone gets a positive experience out of this trip, and doesn’t come away seeing it as a wholly stressful time or worse, a waste of time. I’m still friends with people I grew close with on these trips (shoutout to commenter Gina-Maria), I’m living with my roommate from my first time as a TA and I still show the work I did abroad to employers and they’re always usually impressed. It probably doesn’t sound great coming from me because I don’t have to write stories like the students do, but I was in their shoes not too long ago and I know how it feels. To complete the shitty analogy, the burn will wear off and everyone will probably be craving the Greek sun once we’re back in our normal lives for a little while. So let’s put on some sunscreen and get through this week.

Gallery: Acropolis Visit

A selection of photos from our visit to the Acropolis and Acropolis museum (here you go Mom and Dad):

Click to view slideshow

The Road to Athens

I’m in Athens. It’s been a busy past few days and we’ve been on the road for quite a while. The drive from Thessaloniki to Athens spans basically the entire country from north to south, so it was a long one. The stops along the way made it worth it and then some, though.

First up was Meteora, an area that used to be a giant lake but has since drained out and left gigantic stone pillars standing in the middle of a valley. Sprouting up from these pillars are monasteries, some built as early as the 14th century. The architecture is incredible, it looks like the buildings are growing straight out of the rocks. The inside of the monasteries are just as impressive, and standing in them and looking out at the view was nothing short of a humbling experience.

(Click to view full-size)

Next up was Delphi, the site of the ancient Oracle of Delphi. We were told by our enthusiastic tour guide that the Oracle was really just an elaborate con, used by the wisemen of the time to exert their influence over everyone from the average person wondering who they should marry to kings questioning whether they should enter a war with another city-state.

As disappointing as it was to learn that the Oracle couldn’t really tell the future, the fact that Delphi was considered the center of the universe by many ancient Greeks was not a myth. The history of the city was really interesting, as were many of the artifacts on display in the museum(in which I didn’t get yelled at or even scolded…progress). Delphi also boasted some nice views, although they weren’t quite Meteoric.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

So now I’m in Athens. I’ve been here once before with my family when I was in middle school, but I’m not recognizing much other than the Acropolis. Thessaloniki was a great city, but Athens is quickly coming for the top spot in my book. It’s bustling, covered in art and filled with shops and restaurants. The combination of modern life with ancient history makes this place truly unique. It’s tough to beat being able to look up and see the Parthenon illuminated on your casual walk to dinner. The view from our hotel rooftop isn’t bad either.

Parthenon lit up in the distance.

View of the Parthenon from our hotel.

Panoramas

Panorama is derived from the Greek words meaning “all” and “sight.” That’s what they’re meant for: taking in the whole view of something when it’s too much for your eyes or your lens to handle all at once.

This weekend we hiked Mt. Olympus, and there were many times where I felt overwhelmed by what I was seeing. While we didn’t go up to the Throne of Zeus, as they call the peak, the views and sights were still enough to to make me awestruck.

This will be my last blog from Thessaloniki, as we head for Meteora tomorrow and then on to Athens on Wednesday. I loved this city and I’ll be sad to leave its waterfront bars, delicious food and laid-back atmosphere. I’m doing a mental panorama right now, trying to take in all the sights and experiences that were had here over these past three weeks.

I became an avid Aris fan (F*** PAOK), met three Syrian refugee families and listened to their stories, got scolded at museums, learned how to properly drink wine, met the badass mayor of Thessaloniki, and most importantly got into Trois. It’s always crazy to me how the days seem so long, but the weeks fly by. I’ll leave behind this city with a series of panos (we’re fond of abbreviations on this trip) from my time here.

Mt. Olympus

View of Thessaloniki from the old city.

City Hall.

Grapes on grapes at the winery.

View from the six, aka my sixth-floor balcony.

Up Close and Personal

Coming into this trip, I knew I would be dealing with covering the Syrian refugee crisis. Greece is the entryway for many of the refugees seeking asylum in Europe, and thousands of them are stuck here waiting to be relocated or reunited with their families. It’s easy to read articles and watch videos and think you have a grasp on the situation, but the past couple weeks have shown me that’s really not the case.

Last week, we visited Elpida Home, a refugee center on the outskirts of Thessaloniki. It was great experience. The facility was in good condition, there was a communal kitchen with fresh food and lockable dorm-style rooms. The building itself was covered in art drawn by the refugee children themselves and blown up by professional artists. The children, which make up two-thirds of the home, were running around outside with smiles on their faces. “Elpida” means hope, and it truly was an uplifting visit. Here’s a short look into the home that I shot while we were there.

Things got a little more personal when I went along with Gwen, Paxtyn and Bridget to visit a refugee family that had been placed in an apartment in Thessaloniki. There has been a push by the European Union to move refugees out of camps and into their own apartments. The family had luckily remained intact: the husband, wife and their six kids all madeit to Greece after leaving Syria six years ago and going through some harrowing experiences along the way. It felt so much more real than our visit to Elpida. To actually see the conditions they’re living in and hear their stories firsthand was an incredibly moving experience. After we interviewed the husband (for four hours, Syrians love to talk in circles, as Carlene warned us) we played outside with the children, kicking balls and playing monkey in the middle, laughing the whole time. I left feeling sad for them, but also happy that we will be able to share their story.

Finally, yesterday Gwen, Paxtyn, Sydne and I went to visit a camp far outside the city called Softex. The residents there live in “iso-boxes” which are essentially cargo containers with windows. There was no running water, and one young man we spoke to said that the camp “was for animals, not for humans.” We interviewed another family, this time with three kids, about their journey from Syria and it was equally as devastating. Still, all the kids we met were happy, playing on bikes and scooters and asking to see the photos Sydne was taking of them.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Meeting these people, being brought into their homes and fed by them, playing with their children…it struck me how open they are. These are people who have almost drowned in rubber boats, had scissors sewn back up inside them after giving birth in a camp hospital and lost loved ones along the way. It would be easy to shut down and give up hope. Yet they still want to talk, they want to have their stories told, they want to be listened to. A running theme across all these visits was the happiness of the children. When we asked the mother of the family in Softex about her kids’ state of mind she smiled and said “they adapt.”

It’s easy to feel guilt about being welcomed into these families’ upturned lives, when we get to return to our cushy ones in just a few weeks. But these people want their stories to be told. Our connection for these interviews and visits, Alex (who is a Syrian refugee himself), wants their stories to be told. Even if we only reach a few people back home, that will be more than if we never came at all. We came on this trip as journalists, not tourists, and we have a responsibility to report what we’re seeing here, difficult or not. If these children can be happy given all they’ve gone through, I think I can handle this feeling of guilt. I know as a group we will use it to tell their stories in the most authentic and meaningful way possible.

I can’t stop getting yelled at during museum tours

I’m 24 years old and in the past week I have twice been scolded like a toddler. Right now I am two-for-two in being verbally eviscerated by museum staff here in Greece. The first tour was at the archaeological museum in downtown Thessaloniki. I’ll be frank here: I was bored. I don’t know why, but this museum just wasn’t keeping my interest. I’m not above museums and usually I really enjoy them…not this time.

So, I was entertaining myself by using Snapchat to put copies of Brandon’s face on a row of statues. Objectively, it was hilarious. I was laughing, we were all laughing, the security woman was not laughing. She came up and explained that this was not a joke, it was history. I apologized and I legitimately felt bad. It was disrespectful. I even went back about ten minutes later and talked with her for a while to smooth things over. Lesson learned, right?

I think deep down even she would admit that’s kinda funny.

Nope. Yesterday we traveled to Vergina to visit the museum that holds King Phillip’s (Alexander the Great’s dad) tomb. Unlike the other museum, it was really interesting to me. I was so interested that I decided to take a photo of one of the tombs…MISTAKE. Apparently I had missed other members of our group being chastised for taking a photo earlier in the tour.

The infamous photo.

I snapped the photo, with flash, in a very dark room. Sidenote: if I had known not to take photos, would I have used the flash? You be the judge. Out of nowhere, a museum staffer descended on me like a shrieking banshee. “I TOLD YOU NO PHOTOS THIS IS SECOND TIME!!!”

“Uh…um, well, not me personally,” is the best I could come up with, shocked that I was again being verbally bent over and spanked for misbehaving. I almost got our entire group kicked out of the museum. The kids call this “taking an L.” The L’s continued when we went over to Veroia, a small town nearby with great views.

Anxious to not miss any sights there, a group of us entered a restaurant with no one in it and had some of the worst food I’ve had not only on this trip but maybe this calendar year. If you see the below restaurant in your travels someday…run away. Here’s to less L’s and more W’s in the future.

BOOOO

Suma summing up our dining experience.

Take Note, Restaurants in the U.S.

A big pet peeve of mine is when people say “I love food.” Oh really? You enjoy one of the four things that is necessary to keep you alive? Same! I’ve never asked anyone to go get some food and they’ve responded “oh no thanks, I’m not really a food guy.”

But I digress. The food here is amazing. Earlier this week, we went to a ‘taverna’ called “It’s Getting Late” because our guy Theo recommended we check it out. As usual, he didn’t steer us wrong. The owner, Leonidas, was a great guy and was very apologetic that the grill wasn’t on yet because we had showed up “early” (it was 8 P.M.). The restaurant itself was also great. It had a variety of guitars on the walls that Leonidas said are regularly taken down and played by customers. Our group shared a huge amount of food, and Leonidas still brought us more on the house. He even took us down to the basement to show us where he made the restaurant’s ‘retsina,’ which is basically a light, cheap wine (think Franzia but better tasting).

Which brings me to my larger point. Restaurants back home need to step up their game. I firmly believe tip culture is ruining our collective eating experience. I don’t need Kristin checking in on my table for the fourth time, making me sputter out a noise that resembles “it’s good” as I’m eating. What I do need is a more laid back atmosphere, the ability to relax and decide when I’m done, and free desserts, which I’ve received three times here already. Let’s abolish tipping, pay our waitstaff and start doing this the right way.

Free dessert. No tip necessary.

Wine…And F*** PAOK

Yesterday was an awesome excursion, as we got a chance to visit a Greek winery about 40 minutes from our group’s apartment. The views were incredible, it was so serene and quiet, the air just smelt better. Most importantly, the wine was delicious. We were even blessed to be on the tour with a wine snob enthusiast who chimed in with helpful remarks and plenty of affirmations that our tour guide did indeed know what he was talking about. *rolls eyes*

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

After the tour, we drove to a beach nearby to hang out for a few hours. There’s nothing quite like a Mediterranean beach to make you never want to go back to Boston again. If it didn’t have the same deep house beat playing for the entire three hours we were there, it may have been the perfect place.

As far as the other part of this blog’s title, I am officially a fan of the Aris basketball team, which is one of two teams that play in Thessaloniki. One of the students, Brandon, is working on a story about the team and I’m helping shoot some video for it. On Friday, we went to a game and let me tell you: Greek fans go HARD. There was more passion in those stands than I’ve seen at pretty much any sporting event in the US. They were losing the entire game, and they were chanting and dancing and clapping for all of it. I found myself getting genuinely pissed off by the end of the game when calls weren’t going our way. (Yes I said our).

Aris basketball stadium

Some food truck sausage and “poor wine” and Coke in the background. Thanks to our guide Theo for introducing us to this drink

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part of my newfound fandom is developing my hatred for our rival, PAOK, the other team from Thessaloniki. I wore my Aris jersey for the first time at the beach, and I don’t think I imagined the dirty looks I was getting. There’s no love lost between these two teams, and all it takes is a quick walk around our neighborhood to find evidence of it. Sorry for the f-bombs, but this is my lifestyle now.