Final thoughts on Greece

I’m on the plane headed back to Boston now, still more than 1,800 miles away, as I write this. I figured now would be as good a time as any to reflect on the past five weeks in Greece.

It’s hard to put into words how challenging and rewarding this experience was. I doubt there is any other Dialogue of Civilization that is more time intensive or demanding. It’s just not possible to give anything less than your whole self over to this reporting program and, at times, that was far from being easy.

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Isabelle and Isaac working in Thessaloniki. / Photo by Olivia Arnold

There were points during which I struggled a lot — over questions of whether it’s morally responsible for students to report on refugees as an educational experience. There are things I wish I could re-do, specifically during my reporting at the refugee camp on the Greek island of Chios, but I have made my peace with it. I hope in the end that I did more good than harm.

The experience reaffirmed for me that my upcoming co-op working on a girls’ education project in Jodhpur, India, is exactly where I need to be next. The role of journalists reporting on conflicts and social issues is immensely important but, for now, I don’t want to just bear witness and record the suffering of others — I want to try to help, and be a part of the solution.

While I learned more about who I am, both as a journalist and a person, I also got to learn more about other people on the trip. I was already lucky enough to be going on this Dialogue with Isaac, who really is one of my closest friends, though my frequent snarky remarks toward him may suggest otherwise. I’ve always been in awe of his incredible writing skills, and I’m so glad that we were able to step outside of our comfort zones together and produce, film and edit our first-ever video story. I’m also thankful that we were able to stop laughing at each other long enough to record our voiceovers and stand-ups (sorry Mike).

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Look! We ARE friends.

Before the trip started, Carlene said she had a gift for choosing roommates and, wow, was she right. I’m not sure how my life was ever complete before I knew Suma Hussien. She is all the good things in the world: funny, talented, smart, adventurous and compassionate, to name a few. I am going to miss all the little things with her: whether it’s getting eaten alive by mosquitoes in our Thessaloniki dorm room because we refused to close our balcony door or talking for hours late at night from our beds in our Athens hotel room.

 

Name a more iconic duo. I’ll wait. 

There are so many other people I could go on and on about, but really, our Dialogue must have hit the jackpot for the most talented and kind group of people. I feel like a better person for knowing and working with all of them.

It was great working closely with professors Carlene Hempel and Mike Beaudet, both of whom have been such incredible mentors to me throughout my journalistic career at Northeastern. We were also blessed with amazing people from the American College of Thessaloniki, who never took a day off from suggesting story ideas, teaching us Greek culture and helping out with translations — Theo, Maria, Kristina and Yvonne.

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Shout out to Mike for suffering through my 1,000 questions about video. / Photo by Isaac Feldberg
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Big thanks to Carlene for dedicating so much of her time to editing my Chios story. / Photo by Isaac Feldberg

Okay, you get it, the people were amazing. I know this isn’t an Oscars acceptance speech, but it’s hard not to gush about all of them. Beyond the people who made this trip great, I also had some experiences that I never thought I’d have, many of which left me thanking journalism for keeping my life both interesting and humble. Those include, in no particular order:

  • climbing Mount Olympus, home of the gods
  • seeing the Parthenon for a second time
  • sitting down for iftar dinner during Ramadan with prominent leaders in the Muslim Association of Greece
  • having coffee in the home of a professor as he showed Isaac and me videos of research he did on demonic possessions in Sudan
  • reporting from one of the most overcrowded refugee camps in Greece
  • having dinner and exchanging emails with two exiled Turkish reporters who were imprisoned for more than a decade for their journalism
  • attending the Athens Pride concert celebrating equality and LGBTQ+ identities
  • feeling a spiritual peacefulness at Meteora, a monastery seemingly suspended in the air

There are probably a lot of other life-changing things that I’m forgetting at this point, not to mention all the not-so-big moments that impacted me as well, but it’s time for me to start wrapping up (only about 800 miles away now). 

So I’ll end on this note: Another thing that Carlene said at the beginning of this Dialogue was that if you can do this (meaning this intense five-week reporting program), then you can do anything. I think I finally believe her.

One year later, at the Acropolis again

Almost exactly a year ago, I went on a cruise around the Mediterranean with my family that made several stops in Greece—one of them, of course, being Athens. With only a day there, we did what all tourists do and headed to the Acropolis.

Two days ago, our group toured the Acropolis and its archeological museum. Finding yourself in the same spot a year later but thousands of miles away from home is a strange thing. I couldn’t help but remember the last time I was there, and think about how my life has changed since I first looked at the Parthenon with fresh eyes.

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My brother, mom and me in front of the Parthenon in July 2016.

A year ago, I had just finished up my sophomore year at Northeastern and my first co-op at The Boston Globe. I was newly in a relationship with my boyfriend, who I’ve now been dating for over a year. I hadn’t yet tackled my junior year or started as an editor and later editor-in-chief of The Huntington News. I hadn’t moved into my first apartment or accepted my upcoming fall co-op at the Institute of Philanthropy and Humanitarian Development in Jodhpur, India.

Sitting in the museum, I remembered the wonderful tour that my mom, dad, brother and grandma received around the building, and the blazing heat that we endured when climbing the steps to the top of the Acropolis. I felt a pang of homesickness wishing that they were there with me again.

At first, when I heard this Dialogue was going to be in Greece, I was slightly disappointed that it was in a country I had already been to. But now four weeks into our Dialogue, I’ve realized that these two experiences could not be more different.

Our visit to the Parthenon reinforced this idea for me. Even though I was walking around the same museum and looking at the same ancient temple, I was experiencing it with different people. And I was a slightly different person myself. It’s like reading the same book twice—you always pick up on something new, or at least gain a deeper understanding or appreciation.

One year later, some parts of life have changed for me, but one thing remained the same: the Parthenon was magical.

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Isabelle and me mid-climb of the Acropolis. / Photo by Paxtyn Merten
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Luke and me being cute next to the Parthenon. / Photo by Suma Hussien
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Sophie and me at the top of the Acropolis. / Photo by Paxtyn Merten

This blog post also appeared on the Northeastern University School of Journalism website.

Hello, Athens!

After a two-day road trip, we finally reached Greece’s capital city and the hotel we will be calling home for the next two weeks. Yesterday marked our first full day in Athens, and it seems like everyone is collectively overjoyed to be back in the heart of a bustling city.

On the way to Athens, we stopped at Meteora—a 14th to 16th century monastery built into tall rock formations—and Delphi—a town famous for its 4th century BC Temple of Apollo, home to the all-important oracle. Both visits were wonderful, but Meteora was especially fantastic, from the breathtaking views of buildings perched on rock formations (Meteora literally means “suspended in the air”) to the colorful artwork and religious artifacts decorating the inside.

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Only six of the original 24 monasteries have survived at Meteora. / Photo by Olivia Arnold

The day was so serene and it felt, quite literally, like a breath of fresh air; a welcome break from the hectic mood of our final week in Thessaloniki. During this trip, we’ve all had to report on some difficult issues and cope with significant amounts of stress, but the magnificent nature at Meteora helped clear my mind. It put things into perspective about just how beautiful and amazing the world can be.

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Carlene and I overlooking the wondrous views at Meteora. / Photo by Isaac Feldberg

Now at the beginning of our second full day in Athens, I have not gotten to explore the city much yet because Carlene and I devoted yesterday to putting the final edits on my story. The process was a lot more complicated than usual—as it involved understanding complex asylum processes, sensitively handling heart-wrenching stories of escape and survival by refugees and overcoming multiple language barriers. But after a couple rounds of edits and four hours on the rooftop deck of Carlene’s apartment last night, we finally settled on a version we were both happy with around 1 a.m. The story should be going live sometime today, complete with videos from Suma and Ellie.

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Carlene and Suma hard at work last night on a story. / Photo by Olivia Arnold

Though I haven’t wandered Athens much yet, I still picked up some first impressions. I love the unique vibe of the city. I love being right in the center of it (as opposed to 20 minutes outside like we were in Thessaloniki). I love how ancient monuments and markets stand next to modern buildings and 15-foot murals.

I want to see all the art, music and attractions in the city, and try out all the incredible food. In addition to the awesome sushi dinner I had with Suma on Wednesday, I ate last night at Nolan, a Greek-Japanese and Michelin-starred restaurant (which I didn’t know until yesterday means a very, very good restaurant).

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Gwen, Suma and I eat at Nolan. Food not pictured because we ate it too fast. / Photo by Isaac Feldberg

There is so much I want to experience, and I’m nervous that we only have about a week to report for our final stories. But I’m also excited to start on my newest endeavor—a video story with Isaac about the first mosque being built in Athens. I’m also thrilled to live in a hotel for the next two weeks as I’ve always wanted to since watching The Suite Life of Zack & Cody as a child.

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I know the next two weeks are going to fly by, and I can’t wait to see what this new city has to offer.

This blog post also appeared on the Northeastern University School of Journalism website.

Climbing mountains: Mid-trip reflections

It’s that dreaded point of our Dialogue: the (slightly more than) halfway point. Three jam-packed weeks have passed, the most recent week or so marking so many memorable moments, both big and small.

At the end of last week, we toured the Thessaloniki Archaeological Museum on Friday and visited underground royal tombs preserved from the 300s in Vergina on Saturday (with our group almost getting kicked out of the second museum for unknowingly taking prohibited flash photographs).

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Paxtyn appreciating some ancient artifacts at the Thessaloniki Archaeological Museum (the one that allowed photographs). / Photo by Olivia Arnold

Sunday and Monday, I went to Chios to report from the Souda refugee camp, one of the most overcrowded refugee camps in the country. In Chios, I witnessed so much suffering and what it looks like when the international community turns its back on people fleeing their conflict-ridden homes.

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We woke up around 5 a.m. Monday for our second day of reporting in Chios. Here, you can see the coast of Turkey, located just 4 miles away, where many refugees journey from. / Photo by Olivia Arnold

But I also met so many people to be grateful for: the courageous refugees (Abdullah, Salem, Sobhi, Jaser and Aifa) who shared their heartbreaking stories with us, the dedicated volunteers (Leslie and Helena) who support life-saving programs, the refugees working at the Chios People’s Kitchen who prepared an amazing lunch for us, Greek restaurant owner Kostas who perseveres in the face of community backlash for helping refugees and Oya and Hassan, a married couple we met over dinner, who are also Turkish journalists who served 10 and 16 years, respectively, in prison for their journalism. All in less than 24 hours, I observed the best and the worst that humanity has to offer.

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The meal prepared for us by the Chios People’s Kitchen, a volunteer refugee-run kitchen that offers cooking courses and meals for schoolchildren in the Souda refugee camp. / Photo by Olivia Arnold

The week didn’t slow down from there. The past six days included touring several downtown markets, tasting my first Turkish delight, lighting a candle in an old church to say a quick prayer and then being hugged by a nun there, community leader Father Athinagoras kissing us all on the head, learning about the Greek Orthodox church in class, attending a lecture by refugee crisis researcher Panagiotis Paschalidis, ending our final class with a toast and some really strong alcohol at 11 a.m., going out to the bars for only the second time since I’ve been here, accomplishing a strenuous (but totally worth it) 5+ hour hike in the rain of Mount Olympus, home of the gods, and filming my roommate shaving her head (she looks amazing). Also: a lot of good food, a little bit of sleep and a lot of coffee.

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Isabelle and I on our hike of Mount Olympus, home of the gods. / Photo by Isaac Feldberg

Three weeks done also means just two weeks remaining. Two weeks left to get a whole lot done, and the pressure is on. Just look at my email inbox from this evening:

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AHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.

That’s right, folks. I have three deadlines, all for today/tomorrow—personal blogs, scholarship blogs and my edited story from Chios. Not to mention a 1,000-word essay for our Greek culture class at the American College of Thessaloniki due Wednesday, and a scholarship application for my fall co-op due Thursday. Calling today “crunch time” doesn’t quite cut it.

Tomorrow will be our final full day in Thessaloniki, and it seems as though we’re leaving just as we were all starting to feel comfortable. But I’m excited for the next adventure: to live in Athens and start reporting on my next story (the topic of which is to be determined).

Despite all the fun, the past few weeks have been a lot harder than I imagined they would be. I certainly didn’t expect this trip would make me question my values as much as it has, and make me think so much about right versus wrong.

I know that all these experiences—big and small, good and bad—have changed me. At the risk of using yet another cliche, this trip has definitely involved climbing mountains (and not just the physical kind).

This blog post also appeared on the Northeastern University School of Journalism website.

Week 2 reflections & looking ahead

Our group is on the tail end of week two now. Everyone warned me that this Dialogue of Civilization would go quickly and, wow, were they right.

I’m in that weird point in time now where it feels like we’ve been here for forever, but at the same time it seems like we just arrived yesterday. I’ve come a long way since my sleep-deprived and wide-eyed arrival in Thessaloniki, excited by every passing car and stray cat (though I still love the stray dogs).

In the past week, I’ve learned about Greek language, food and music in class. I climbed the steps to the Upper Town (nearly suffering a heart attack in the process) and sipped lemonade at an open cafe at the top, admiring the breathtaking view of the city below. I’ve eaten incredible Greek food—gyros, soutzoukakia, halva, tulumba and souvlaki, to name a few. I explored the local open market and picked up freshly grown produce. I toured a beautiful vineyard and learned the proper way to sample wines. I swam in the Mediterranean Sea with Mount Olympus, home of the gods, visible in the distance.

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If you thought me almost having a heart attack on the walk to the Upper Town was a joke, please admire the beet red color of my face here, as I sit at the top with my roommate/best person in the world, Suma. / Photo by Isaac Feldberg

Despite having all these remarkable experiences, my confusion navigating downtown and my inadequacy with the Greek language keeps me humble, reminding me that I haven’t been here very long. Some important things are coming up that once seemed like events in the distant future.

The deadline for my first story is tomorrow. I’ve finished my reporting on it—16 interviews in all, though eight of them were quick person-on-the-street questions. Still, it’s a lot more interviews than I usually do for my articles. I filled my reporter’s notebook from cover to cover (including front and back pages) just with interviews from this trip. I even had to frantically start scribbling notes on the cardboard back of my reporter’s notebook during one of my interviews, to which Isabelle (seeing my distress) graciously responded by ripping out some pages from her own notebook.

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Carlene was kind enough to bring me a cup of tea as I spent Tuesday night transcribing my interviews in the common room. / Photo by Olivia Arnold

The day after tomorrow, I’ll be flying out to the Greek island of Chios with two other students and our professor Mike Beaudet to report from a Syrian refugee camp there. I’m confident in my abilities and the team that we have going, but as I’ve been reading more articles about the island in preparation for the trip, I’m getting nervous.

One article by Al Jazeera especially stuck with me. In it, a refugee laments that the media treats the camp like a “zoo”—coming in, taking photographs, filming the deplorable conditions that refugees live in and then leaving the camp without having a positive impact.

Is this what we’re doing? These stories need to be told. But at the same time, doing a story like this is inherently exploitative. Though well-intentioned, we will be benefitting from the suffering of other human beings. And that can be a tough pill to swallow.

An easy way to justify it is to say that covering the plight of refugees will translate into donations from home for the camps. But in another case covered by the Al Jazeera article, a refugee whose art exhibit was written about said he did not receive donations after the story was published.

I know the others on our team have this concern at the forefront of their minds as well. I hope that if we cover the issue as sensitively as possible and depict the people with respect and empathy that we can produce a piece that we’re all proud of.

This blog post also appeared on the Northeastern University School of Journalism website.

Day 1 reflections

After my second full day in Thessaloniki, I feel like I’m finally able to begin processing what has happened so far.

First impressions: The city is beautiful. I want to pet all the stray animals even though Carlene told me not to. Greek is a really hard language to pick up.

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Thessaloniki is the second largest city in Greece. / Photo by Olivia Arnold

We kicked off our first day yesterday with a walking tour around downtown Thessaloniki. We met at 8:20 a.m., which I would normally consider brutally early, but I was completely fine for considering I had been up since 6 a.m.

I had gone to bed the night before at 9 p.m., shortly after returning from our welcome dinner in which I struggled to keep my eyes open while scarfing down pizza at Casa Bianca. I felt particularly lucky that morning as other students complained about grappling with their jet lag—waking up at 3 a.m. or only sleeping a couple hours. Meanwhile, I slept comfortably for nine hours throughout the night without even stirring.

I remarked to Carlene that, after feeling close to passing out from exhaustion the night before, I had never felt so alive. My morale was high as I hopped onto a public bus along with the rest of our group to head downtown and meet our tour guide.

The walking tour was a wonderful chance to take in the atmosphere of the city. I found my eyes bouncing all around, hoping to catch glimpses of passing people and snippets of their conversations (even though I mostly couldn’t understand the language).

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A man stands near the edge of the waterfront. / Photo by Olivia Arnold

The tour featured an inside look at the Rotunda, a monument constructed in the early 4th century supposedly as a mausoleum for Emperor Galerius, though it never fulfilled that purpose. Instead, it was transformed into a Christian church, then a Muslim mosque and then a Christian church again. Today, the Rotunda is a museum and the oldest monument in Thessaloniki.

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The purpose of the Rotunda changed several times throughout the centuries. / Photo by Olivia Arnold

In addition to checking off seeing the Rotunda on my Thessaloniki bucket list, I was fascinated throughout the city by the preservation of ancient monuments in the middle of bustling urban areas. The old structures looked out of place amid their modern surroundings.

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Ancient structures coexist with modern buildings in Thessaloniki’s downtown area. / Photo by Olivia Arnold

I also noticed graffiti covering nearly every surface in the city—businesses, residential apartments, street lamps. Much of the graffiti conveyed anti-police or anti-capitalist sentiments, reflecting local frustrations amid Greece’s ongoing economic crisis.

Most importantly, Thessaloniki has the most adorable stray cats and dogs all over the place. A couple of dogs started following our group around and when I looked into their sad eyes, I really felt like we had a connection. As I mentioned earlier, Carlene specifically instructed us not to pet the animals, so I refrained—my most difficult task of the trip thus far.

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A stray dog with sad eyes followed our tour group around. / Photo by Olivia Arnold

After our walking tour, I sat down with a couple others to grab gyros, Greece’s classic on-the-go meal. It was my first gyro since my trip to Greece last summer, and it was just as good as I remembered (even better, since I was tired and hungry after the tour).

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I’m all smiles just before devouring a gyro, my favorite Greek food. / Photo by Paxtyn Merten

Though these experiences were enough for us to call it an enriching day, we didn’t stop there. We headed over to the U.S. Consulate, where Consul General Rebecca A. Fong gave our group a presentation about her career in diplomacy and then fielded a wide range of questions about Greece’s economic and refugee crises. She spoke about dealing with the unpredictable nature of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy objectives, but upholding her patriotism throughout years of changing administrations.

The talk was incredible, and I was pleasantly surprised with how candid Fong was with our group and how much time she set aside to talk with us. I was also honored to be in the presence of one of the few high-ranking female diplomats.

Overall, the day was perfect. If the first day is any indication of how the trip will go, I can’t wait for all that I will learn, see and experience. 

This blog post also appeared on the Northeastern University School of Journalism website.