After nearly 30 days in Greece, I fly home on Thursday to the city of brotherly love. I can already tell it’s going to take me a long time to “unpack” this month (owing not just to the 50 pounds of clothing I brought so I wouldn’t have to worry about laundry..). As intense as my language and paleography courses were— my Greek was NOT up to the level it needed to be when I landed— I know I’ll go home to my Classical authors not only with a new appreciation for just how freakin’ tough the Greek language can be, but also for the Classical era in general.
The course I took actually focused on the Medieval period/Byzantine Greek, which is far, far more different from Classical language and culture than I had anticipated. For every author or vocabulary word I recognized, there were, quite literally, scores of them whom and which I wouldn’t have been able to pick off of a Greek police line. Talk about humbling. Not only were the other students in my class true Greek fanatics— I’m more of a “Latinist” by nature— but their fascination with and vast knowledge of a completely different period of time stunned me in my ignorance. As I asked in an Instagram post, “Who invited the classicist to the Byzantine party…?” Truer words had never been typed. Talk about a fish out of water.
There’s something so pure to be gained in these types of situations, although two weeks ago I probably would have told you to eat sand if you comforted me with this fact. Through discomfort, comes growth. I’ve known this for a while now, as I encountered some of the toughest years of my life living abroad in England and attending a year of university there, as well as adjusting to teaching a few years ago with a soul-crushingly-busy schedule. More than anything, I’ve found that— especially during extended stays in other countries— I really come to know myself, in all my faults, limits, and abilities. While they always seem hellish at the time, I am perpetually thankful for experiences like these, when I am pushed outside of my boundaries, forced to self-reflect and adapt (or perish! Just kidding). So, as I sit in my little apartment recovering from what was my first bout of food poisoning ever (thanks, Thessaloniki…I’ll always remember you fondly), some thoughts on this past month:
I am not a Hellenist. Latin will always be my first love, and landing in Rome always sets my heart ablaze. However, Greek language and ancient Greek history will ever compliment and inform my study of Roman past— the two are as interconnected as heart and lungs. And now that I’ve cleared (at least some of) the sheen of dust from the “Classical Greek” folder in my brain somewhere, I intend to foster it with meticulous energy in the pursuit of a more balanced approach to Classics in general. Despite my love for Rome, I don’t think I’ll soon forget walking right past the ropes blocking off the Parthenon from the general public and exploring a beleaguered, iconic piece of Greek history.
I can truly, truly appreciate what it feels like to look at a text and say, “I really don’t know where to begin.” Having taught only upper-level Latin and not Greek for years now, I have had the really strange experience of picking up a text and reading Latin, fluidly and fluently. Although in class my students would express total confusion, or claim to be intimidated by a text, I admit that I didn’t “get” it. 10+ years of reading Latin and grappling with the language on a nearly daily basis had paid off for me, and I needed a pretty swift kick in the ass to remember that my students are not there yet. They will be, but only with time and effort. So when I looked at my professors not a few times during this month with tears of frustration in my eyes, drawing a complete and total “blank,” and needing their step-by-step guidance through one measly sentence, I can say I will return to the classroom enriched and humbled for having really struggled.
I was in Greece during what will most likely turn out to be a singularly transformational time in its modern history. I also have an acute awareness of just how “hyped up” the media portrays events not just in the U.S., but in the world at large. My reality in Greece was of a fully-functional but frustrated populace, who lined up daily to take out their maximum amount of cash from the ATMs of closed banks. My view of the crisis will inevitably be skewed from the fact that I was in Athens for most of the month, and not in rural Greece (where I’m sure they felt the situation more acutely), but even still, grocery stores were open and fully stocked; I had no trouble taking cash out of ATMs; tavernae were packed; and tourists still flooded major monuments and museums. The undertone of dissatisfaction amplified at times in Syntagma Square, Athens’ main social and transportation hub, resulting in demonstrations which littered the ground with spray painted “οχι’s” and “ναι’s” to the referendum vote, tear gas, and smashed ATMs. I have as a result never felt more American, when I am honest with myself, and not in any stereotypical way (no fanny packs and loud “Land of the Free” t-shirts for me); rather, I feel distinctly in tune with the fact that every country has its faults, and I am beginning to mitigate those faults with the good in the Home of the Brave. Home is home, and if home includes baseball, crisp Pennsylvania apples in October, and a distinct feeling of security with an eagle-emblazoned passport in my purse, so be it.
With that said, I do credit Greece (and Europe in general) with a distinct awareness for both its environmental impact and for its reliance on fresh, unprocessed foods. Greeks are (kind of hilariously) wary of air conditioning despite nearly daily temperatures in the high 90s and 100s this time of year. They tend to use air conditioning merely to cool off a room, and prefer to open their windows and let the fresh air in, turning on a fan and taking a siesta during the hottest point of the day. Rarely will you find a shower that isn’t hand-held, so one must turn the water on and off as she washes, saving a hefty amount of water in the process. The best produce hides in little corner-markets, tucked away at various intervals in the city of Athens, and it’s a given that the produce is local and so fresh that one had better sauté that zucchini or slice that peach within a few days of buying. And although I think I’ll puke (again) if I touch one more Greek salad, it really includes the best of the best in Greece: fresh feta cheese, loads of sliced tomatoes, crunchy cucumbers, zesty red onion, and that indelible patron of Athens for millennia, fresh-pressed olive oil. Nobody really discusses veganism or “going gluten-free;” Greeks eat what is fresh, local, and has been around for thousands of years. That is food tradition at its finest, without need for talk of nutrient-this and calorie-that, and I’ll take a little of that home with me to good ol’ PA (but I’ll leave the oily pastries here, and I think my stomach will thank me for it).
Again, as the Classicist at the Byzantine party, I spent more time than I ever had (and probably ever will again) considering history in Greece beyond my main men Homer and Pericles and into the Byzantine Empire. That meant that I read and experienced, through trips to various sacred monasteries and other holy sites (churches…so many churches…), the many manifestations of early Christianity.
I had spend so much time hanging out with the pagans that I never really considered what the heck happened in the Mediterranean after Constantine converted the empire, the West shifted East, and Orthodoxy branched off from the realm of the Roman. As a result, I have a little more fluency, however still wildly limited, in the world of icons, Byzantine-era architecture and artwork, and Christian texts from a millennium ago. I drank cold, clear water from fountains at monasteries founded in the most remote sectors of the Greek mainland, tucked away in formidable mountains. I stood in the rafters of Medieval churches and considered the flaking faces of the archangels surrounding domes of old. I had never really understood, nor, as a Roman Catholic, made any real contact with the Eastern Orthodox tradition, but I sort of “get it” now, at least better than I did, and as knowledge breeds tolerance and all knowledge connects somehow, I consider this one of the biggest gains from my time in Greece. We are all trying to see the face of God; we are all vying for a piece of understanding of the beyond; and, no matter to what tradition we ascribe, we admire those martyrs and saints of the past, and build shrines and churches to God in the most perilously beautiful places on Earth, looking to reflect Him and our admiration for Him in some small way. It’s how the ancients felt when they looked up at Mt. Olympus and thought, “There’s something beyond me,” and it’s how I feel when I step, tremulously, closer to the dome in St. Peter’s.
If you can, travel. Lose yourself in another country, another people, and try— once you’ve gotten over the jet lag— to pinpoint what makes another culture singularly them, and you singularly you, and split the difference. You’ll wind up a little bit broken, but very much grateful; and your pieces of self will fit together again in new and unanticipated manifestations, more aware, less contented, and in total respect and awe of this blue marble in the middle of the universe in all of its vastness.
And try to avoid food poisoning.
Greece: I have traveled you South to North, East to West, from Sparta, to Corinth, Athens, all the way to Thessaloniki. I have fan-girled over the mask of Agamemnon at the National Museum, ran the stadium at Olympia, and climbed precariously to the top of the Theatre at Epidauros (scooting back down fearfully on my bottom); I have stood in awe of the remote mountains of Delphi and the sedimentary, alien-esque leftovers of a once-sea-covered Meteora. I have drunk full and deep of half-liters of wine and of your cultural inheritance, but in the eternal words of Forrest G., I’m pretty tired; I think I’ll go home now.