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Getting in a Ferris Bueller state of mind. Photo by Olivia Arnold.

Approaching the end of this Dialogue, it’s been really remarkable to reflect on all the wonderful little adventures I’ve managed to experience under the banner of exploring Greece. Everyone always tells you that studying abroad is highly conducive to random escapades, but it’s difficult to really appreciate what that means until you’re, say, stumbling into the middle of Athens Pride with a massive tripod slung over your shoulder, or realizing that your academic source for an Islamic culture story is an expert on demonic possession (or having both those experiences within the space of two hours, like I did).

It’s my firm belief at this point that all the random, colorful anecdotes I’ve collected in Greece matter just as much as the more structured experiences I’ve had writing stories or touring national destinations.

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Lensing the impossible beauty of Meteora. Photo by Paxtyn Merten.

Navigating the halls of Meteora and looking out over a seemingly infinite plain of wide-open air, reflecting on the losses and lives that have shaped me, was a religious experience like few I’ve been lucky enough to undergo – but then again, so was accompanying Isabelle to a Documenta art exhibit wherein a chorus of voices resonated around a shadowy, stone amphitheatre, their low but steady tones complemented by the faithful scroll of a ticker tape, flashing green, reading out a string of world stock indexes in real time. What did it mean? Who’s to say? I’m still not sure I could tell you with any degree of certainty. I was haunted by the cadence of the exhibit’s chorus, even as individual words flitted past me like 3 a.m. thoughts, far too urgent and exhilarated to pause in the name of comprehension. I was struck by the fusion of history and modernity, the impressive otherness of the arena, the rich history imbued in its stone slates, and by the cold distance of the numbers, digital candles meant only to illuminate themselves – not any greater truths about their meaning, nor the meaning of their passage, nor any noticeable impact upon those watching them, waiting, in the dark. But that’s my meaning, not the artist’s. That I’m still thinking about it a week later suggests, however, that their project was a success.

As spaces within which I was permitted to exist, however temporarily, both the exhibit and Meteora emanated with some unspoken power, a near-holy purity of expression and construction that stirred in me emotions I’m usually very capable of suppressing. Those two spaces, one a planned visit, the other a spontaneous discovery, were remarkably potent chambers of reflection – I’ll be unpacking their discrete meanings for weeks to come, perhaps longer. I’m struck as well by the companionship I had on both treks. At Meteora, I was among many, a pair of eyes in a pack of them, all of us gaping and pondering and putting camera lenses between ourselves and what we were seeing. I felt like a tourist, and perhaps it is for that reason that the sense of mild intrusion I felt exploring Meteora’s monasteries, viewing it almost cheaply, without the truly reverent standpoint of someone for whom its grandeur has inspired a lifetime of pilgrimage. By contrast, at the exhibit, I was with only one other person – a fellow lover of art who, like me, can appreciate the beauty of a silent moment. We sat and gazed, then stood and turned, and were together only in observation, for a time. There was something beyond words in the air of that space, and we both felt it. Neither of us would try to talk about it, I think we knew immediately. It was beyond us, too.

I’ll also look back on this trip and remember with vivid clarity the nighttime escapades I’ve had around Thessaloniki and Athens. Negotiating free bottles of champagne outside a club for Paxtyn’s 20th birthday is a personal victory for someone who grew up watching their father manage to barter seemingly everything down to the point of reason (and then some), as was attending Athens Pride with a fantastic group of people, enjoying a rare solidarity with the LGBT population of Athens as we danced to too much bad American pop, as well as some sensational Greek and Latin music, and witnessed incredible performances by the LGBT artists of the city, typically hidden, emerging on stage like fireworks through the full dark of midnight. But if I acknowledge those nocturnal adventures are thoroughly indelible experiences, I must also mention that some of the day-time trips I’ve been on throughout this Dialogue matter just as much. A rainy-day walk around Thessaloniki, past winding side streets and vivid graffiti, brought me peace amid a stressful time. Both my beach trips have been near-Edenic retreats from responsibility, chances for me to stretch out in the sun with friends and savor every second of relaxation.

Professionally, too, the trip has been action-packed. Sitting down across from a “reformed” neo-Nazi and hearing his take on everything from “the problems with Jews” to the triumphs of Trump made for one of the most challenging interviews of my journalistic career. Sitting across from someone who at one point represented the kind of hatred I’m socially dedicated to driving out of my community, and trying to listen impartially while getting as much information as I could, was an exercise in restraint on multiple levels. Subsequent interviews with members of Golden Dawn, Greece’s neo-Nazi party, were all the more chilling for the restriction, placed by my professor, that they were to be conducted through the icy remove of a social media message thread in Greek.

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Interviewing Anna Stamou, of the Muslim Association of Greece. Photo by Olivia Arnold.

Luckily, my next story was stimulating in ways far more spiritually replenishing than soul-crushing. In writing about Athens’ first official mosque, I was invited to a delicious iftar dinner with the head of the Muslim Association of Greece and his wife. One of the loveliest evenings of the whole trip, it was made infinitely more wonderful by the presence of Olivia Arnold, not only my favorite journalist but also my favorite person on this trip. Working with her on a story has been a long-time dream, and it’s been idyllic to handle a story so beautifully steeped in the day-to-day realities of life for Greece’s Muslim population, an unusually interesting demographic given the country’s past and present politics.

Memories are to be treasured, and this trip has given me plenty that I’ll hold onto for years. Getting ready to greet my last full day here, the word I have to keep from tumbling out of my mouth is “bittersweet,” but, if we’re being entirely honest, I’ve already learned more from this trip than I ever could have asked for. Greece opened its doors to me, and I’m all the better for it. And hopefully, with some knowledge of the country under my belt, I can return some day to do more meaningful journalistic work that will repay the people of Greece in some way for having shown me that kindness.

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

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