χαιρε, Athens: wrapping up a month in Greece.

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.

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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.

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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.

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Translating 101: at least five tabs open, a notebook scrawled with 20+ pages of vocabulary, and a bottomless pit of coffee. Tried and true for 2+ millennia (in various forms…).

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.

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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).

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Homemade granola bars from my little local market: a life-changing week-2 discovery.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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On the Road Again

It’s July? How is it July?? I hate to be cliche, but MAN does tempus fugit.

I’m definitely not naturally the type of person who just goes with the flow– I actually have a pretty terrible time doing so– and I find that I often stress myself out unnecessarily in trying to do everything and be everything to everyone. So when I returned home from Greece and Italy in March and was just plain pooped from learning the ropes at a new school; traveling in Europe for most of March; planning a wedding (and BUYING A WEDDING DRESS!); teaching, grading, and the like; I obviously took it easy on the blogging front. I greatly enjoy waxing on about food, running, and life, but not enough to lose sleep over it 🙂

With that said, I’m in Athens again for the month of July taking a Byzantine Greek language course and, when I’m not frantically translating in wow-it’s-been-a-long-time-since-I’ve-read-this-much-Greek mode, I’m doing my best to enjoy the crazy good weather (goodbye, humidity). It’s obviously a really strange time to be in Greece, and I have had so many people reach out to me to make sure that I’m safe in a country that is experiencing a critical, and frankly, frustrating, turning point in its history. Thankfully, things on the ground here are tense but stable. The referendum last week prompted some demonstrations in Syntagma, the main square in Athens, but otherwise the city has gone about its business basically as usual– except for all of the closed banks, of course. Talks keep breaking down over the fate of this achingly beautiful country, so no word as to whether I will be using drachmas by the time I fly out at the end of the month.

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This experience in Greece has so far been pretty vastly different than my time here in March. I’m not a tourist this time, as I said, so I have an apartment through school and can cook dinners in leisure in between homework assignments. I’ve also been able to find time to bask in one of my absolute favorite parts of Greek culture: long, leisurely taverna dinners with lots and lots of tsasiki, veggies, creamy feta cheese, olives, olive oil, and fresh, lemony salmon, all washed down with a half liter of house wine. The Greeks may eat a bit late for my taste, but every bit of the tastes themselves suit me.

There’s a lot of talk about the “Mediterranean diet,” but I think the health associated with the Mediterranean diet comes just as much from the lifestyle surrounding the food as it does the food itself. I was just remarking to my mother via text today how small grocery stores here are and how few there tend to be; instead, even in Athens, you’ll find lots of tiny little holes-in-the-wall selling fresh fruit, veggies, and fish. While Greeks do love a good pastry or flaky spinach pie in the morning (with about 15 cigarettes, but that’s another issue), I find that the emphasis is always on dining intentionally, with real food as the natural focus on their plates. They don’t THINK about what they’re eating; they know that the basic tenets of their diet have been around for thousands of years. They walk everywhere. They eat slowly, and with other people. They talk and laugh and share in each others’ company. For example, we hold class from 9:45 until 1:30 (which is a VERY late lunch by my standards); but when class has ended, we all saunter off to lunch, with nothing else to do (well, besides that pesky homework) but sip coffee after a giant salad of greens, cucumbers, tomato, olive oil, and vinegar, prying open a giant, juicy peach for dessert.

THAT is health. THAT is living. And while every time I go abroad I feel more and more drawn to my country of birth (it actually hit “kiss the ground” level when I landed in March), I can’t help but wish that more Americans would see health as an overall experience of life and not as a sum of the macro or micro nutrients they’re consuming, or the intensity of 30 minutes spent sweating on an elliptical. Health is waking with the sun, opening a window and sipping coffee with the sun warming your face, and the giddy potential of a day yet unfilled, no matter how full the planner.

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Classics trip: part 1 (Hi from JFK)

Leave it to the Northeast to deliver the first snowstorm to really pound the Mid-Atlantic and NYC all winter on the day we’re traveling across the Atlantic to Athens…

Happy March to you, too. It took us 5 hours to make it from Philly to JFK alone.

I’ve flown internationally in blizzard conditions before (to England a few years ago on a nasty night in January), and it wasn’t an experience I was looking to repeat. Ah well. My mom is somewhere in Philly having a heart attack over the conditions.

I thought I’d talk a bit about packing for international (or just long) travel, since this is not exactly my first time at the terminal-rodeo. I’ve managed to hone my packing and food prep over the years thanks to trips to France, Italy, and flights back and forth to London during my study year abroad.

Packing, while always annoying, is the easy part:

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I am my mother’s daughter. Pro tip: folding as thinly as possible is the name of the game. Stack as if your clothes are cheese in a display case: layer collars on opposite sides to keep things flat. You’ll fit a heck of a lot more than you would if you just stacked on two sides, and everything stays incredibly neat.

My #1 piece of advice for traveling overseas is obvious, but true: come to terms with the fact that you do not need NEARLY as much clothing & accoutrement as you think you do. Just because you CAN bring 50 pounds worth of clothes & junk, doesn’t mean you need to. For this trip– March 5th to the 20th– I’m hopping from NYC to Rome, to Athens, all over Greece, back to Rome, down the western Italian coast, and home again with 4 pairs of pants (including what I’m wearing at the airport), Sperry’s and sneakers, and a pair of flip flops for walking around the hotel room. I have a shirt for each day and two nice outfits (for fancy dinners in Rome, about which we were told in our itinerary). Other than that, I plan on layering for 50 to 60 degree weather in each country: a thin rain jacket in my backpack; a basic lightweight coat; and a warmer Patagonia. I have just one pair of PJ pants, a t-shirt per week to sleep in, and a sweatshirt in case I’m cold at night (and I’m always cold, so this was a necessity). I slipped a t-shirt, thin pullover, and pair of underwear into my backpack–just in case– and have one book and my iPad to keep me entertained. My luggage was 35 pounds, a much more manageable weight for me to “lug” around (ha) during our trip, which has us jumping from city to city every few nights.

On to the important part: the food.

If one picture defined my life, it would be this one.

Turning into a PB packet myself.

Plane food and I just “plane” don’t mix (ok, I’m done), and as you all know, I am both a real food and snack fiend. I have had some really painful experiences flying in the past due to bloating and general stomach discomfort…and if you know the kind of pain I’m talking about, you know that it’s NOT the way you want to kick off a 2-week trip. I’ve learned so much about how my body ticks since I first took off for Paris in June of 2006. Now I…

-Don’t eat plane food, to the extent to which that’s possible. It’s loaded with salt and preservatives, and drives my insides crazy. Even though it cost a fortune, I bought a grilled veggie sandwich from a panini place in JFK, snacked on a larabar in the terminal, and bought a huge bottle of water.

-Speaking of water…even though it means I have to find bathrooms all over the airport or use the dinky plane restroom, I try to stay just as hydrated while traveling as I would during a normal day. This way, I don’t become nearly as bloated (as long as I stick to foods without a ton of sodium).

-Try to eat on basically the same schedule as I normally would, meaning I pack lots of snacks and eat smaller meals throughout the day. Today, for example, I ate my normal breakfast of toast, PB and banana, packed a PB sandwich on Ezekiel bread, and had lots of celery and carrots on the side (with dark chocolate, of course).

-Even though it’s hard, I try to eat as few processed foods as possible. That means I packed lots of packets of trail mix with walnuts, almonds, seeds, and dried cranberries, dried fruit (DELICIOUS apricots from TJ’s), and about a zillion Larabars. Real food doesn’t tend to make even a blip on the radar of stomach irritation, so I stick to it. I even went as far as packing another PB sandwich on Ezekiel bread and stashing a banana in my backpack for breakfast after our long flight to Rome.

This might all seem a bit extreme, but for those of you with stomach issues like me who rely heavily on a routine every day to combat living in mild but constant discomfort, this level of preparation helps me to enjoy one of my favorite things in life: exploring new places and engrossing myself in a new culture.

And with that, we’re boarding! The Classicist in me is writhing with excitement. To Greece we go!

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