I can’t believe it’s over. That’s the sentiment pounding away at the inside of my head as I sit down to write this, a reflection post about a trip I’ll be coming to terms with aspects of for months, maybe years to come. So when I say this post will be incomplete, I don’t mean that I won’t be putting into it the full force of my heart and head; I simply mean that the greater truths and lessons learned from my time in Greece will appear in their own ways, at their own times. Perhaps I’ll write about them then.
As for now, I can say with a great deal of certainty that my weeks in Thessaloniki and Athens constitute both the most challenging journalistic experience of my college career and the most personally meaningful travel abroad of my young life. I don’t acknowledge that lightly; this trip has stimulated and strained me in ways I wasn’t expecting, and perhaps in ways no one involved in the planning of it could have intended either. Exploring a foreign country while attempting to glean deep journalistic insights about its state is, on paper, a difficult task. In practice, however, it became a consuming one, a completely absorbing, fascinating, and infuriating journey that required of those in attendance nothing short of all their available energies, all the time. That’s not a complaint in any sense – that this Dialogue demanded so much of its participants is a testament to the sprawl of its ambitions.
And what it gave back was valuable enough to justify its stipulations. I emerged from this trip a better journalist and a much richer human being, and for both of those progressions I hold no small degree of gratitude. I was lucky enough to participate in a truly singular trip under the guidance of two remarkable professors – Professor Carlene Hempel, my first and foremost mentor at Northeastern University, and Professor Mike Beaudet, whose Advanced Reporting class constituted one of the most challenging courses I’ll take in college (and whose wit and warmth made it one of the best). I was lucky enough to explore Thessaloniki and Athens alongside friends old and new, many of whom I hope will remain in my life for the foreseeable future, all of whom I left the trip thoroughly in awe of. When it comes to reflecting on this trip, one thing is perfectly clear: I was lucky.
Professionally, I came away from the trip with three strong stories, all of which I’m proud of, as well as photos attached to two others besides that. I produced the first writing of the entire trip by covering a speech given by US Consul General Rebecca Fong then got to work writing one of the trickiest and disturbing pieces I’ve ever tackled: a look at Golden Dawn, the Greek neo-Nazi party that, amid the tumult of the economic and refugee crises, has emerged as the country’s third-largest political force – and unquestionably its most dangerous. Writing this piece came with a slew of difficulties, from the condition that I was not permitted to approach neo-Nazis for in-person interviews (an understandable caveat, given – among other factors – my very Jewish last name and their history of violence against journalists) to translating the Greek in written interviews and attempting to glean from them a real sense of tone and tenor. I almost couldn’t believe my eyes when I was able to visit the piece online after weeks spent with it – then an ugly, blocky wall of text – in Microsoft Word.
For my last piece, I had the sincere, significant pleasure of working with my good friend Olivia Arnold, whose reputation for excellence in all areas is deserved, on a video story I first pitched about slowly progressing plans to open Athens’ first public mosque since Ottoman Empire times. Neither of us had worked in video before, and we’d both separately voiced interest in adding camerawork to our skillsets, so in many respects the project could be called a godsend. But in other respects, it was uniquely challenging, whether we were struggling to shape the piece with limited, usable footage (I picked just about the worst time to inadvertently kick the camera during a key interview, we later discovered) or losing our minds at the cruel machinations of Final Cut Pro. Speaking on camera for stand-ups was, surprisingly, one of the most plainly fun journalistic endeavors of the whole trip.
I could go on talking about the journalistic adventures those stories allowed me to pursue, from visiting the home of an Athens professor whose specialties include both Islamic culture (!) and demonic possession (!!!!) to sitting down with a reformed neo-Nazi and winding up hearing his rather terrifying perspective on the world for three hours (!!!!!!!!). But so many of the meaningful experiences I had in Greece came when I least expected them – that is to say, outside the boundaries of my reporting.
While in Greece, I hiked a significant swath of Mount Olympus, traversing lush forest and rocky caves as I explored one of the country’s most impressive natural wonders. The decision to attend the Olympus hike, which was an added expense on top of the trip, came at the last minute, as I was working on my Golden Dawn piece away from the group as arrangements for it were being made, but I’m beyond grateful to have attended. There’s a mystique and a magic to the area that was accentuated by the arrival of a slow, rolling mist, one that grazed the tips of trees and caressed the outline of the mountain’s many valleys, only enveloping it fully as we descended out of reach.
I visited the monasteries at Metéora and found in the area’s wondrous formations, a metaphysical marriage between religion and rock face, a rare kind of spiritual bliss. I’ve written extensively about the unique relationship I have with this place in other posts, so I won’t reiterate it all here, but I’m still processing in many ways how Metéora seemed almost to reach inside my lungs and pull out a four-year-old breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. As someone who still deals with the long shadow of loss and trauma, I’m always happiest in places of tranquility and great, quiet peace – and Metéora was without a doubt one of the most serene I’ve had the privilege to visit. Without a word, it healed.
Just as therapeutic was iftar dinner with Naim Elghandour and Anna Stamou, a married couple whose work through the Muslim Association of Greece has brought Athens close to the opening of its first official mosque. In approaching our story, Olivia and I were invited into their home and enjoyed a lovely evening of conversation that did more to help me understand the unique cultural conditions of Greece than any classroom ever could. Their pride, struggles, and senses of humor were on full display all night – and I felt privileged for having the opportunity to hear them firsthand. I only hope, one day, they’ll visit the United States so I might show them similar hospitality.
Documenta, a city-wide art exhibit, generated some other salient moments. I visited an art exhibit that essentially involved seating strangers at tables and joining them with a complimentary meal. Curious but not all that receptive at first, the setup quickly entranced me, and I made friends at my table whom I hope to stay in touch with. Caught in a hailstorm, myself and Isabelle Hahn (who was actually writing the article on the exhibit) played pick-up sticks with my table and found it far more engaging than I had remembered the game to be in my younger years. Later, I visited a museum in which one exhibit resonated with me deeply – called “The Way Earthly Things Are Going,” and set inside a stone amphitheatre, it was a quiet space penetrated only by a low chorus of voices singing a political hymn discussing race, nationalism, and migration, and the green light of a ticker tape reading out the world stock index. Again, I found in art a form of peace that little of my professional life in the United States affords me – and that, now that I’ve experienced it, I’m all the more desperate for.
Outside a club in Thessaloniki on a friend’s birthday, I had the strangely cathartic opportunity to barter with the place’s owner, ultimately securing our group a private floor with complimentary champagne and vodka, as well as a striking view of the club’s dance floor, where a dancer twisted between ribbons, suspended in air, to Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” sometime around 3 a.m. I grew up watching my dad negotiate seemingly impossible victories out of interactions with shopkeepers, hotel clerks, and just about everyone we crossed paths with while traveling, and in a curious way my success in mimicking his approach to bartering signified a coming-of-age moment.
A face in the crowd at Athens Pride, watching performers sing and dance in euphoric defense of their sexual and gender identities, I felt more welcomed into the city than I had on any preceding day. The jubilant mood of the event was so infectious that I found myself dancing and singing along, even to songs I’d only learned to anticipate the lyrics of through the repetition of a few choruses, and the people I was with – my roommate, Luke Dean, and a handful of good friends – cemented the night as one suffused with universal warmth.
And walking around both cities, either on the hunt for bars or in search of nothing more than fresh air, I had the utmost privilege of getting to know the cadre of remarkable journalists and people on this trip. I’ll always appreciate Olivia’s grace under pressure and wry wit, but her enthusiasm and benevolence shone through on this trip more than ever before. I’m grateful to call her my friend.
Luke’s incredible sense of humor and seemingly boundless energy, as well as a keen perception of what’s going on around him that I’m not sure even he fully appreciates as a character strength, has endeared him to me immensely.
I’m stunned every time I look back on the sangfroid and sincerity with which Suma Hussien approached every situation on the trip, especially difficult ones she was tasked with capturing through a single photograph.
I’m grateful to have met Gwen Schanker, whose shy disposition sometimes hides an incredible mind and warm heart. I will always take her book recommendations going forward.
I’m happy to have gotten to know Isabelle better after having met her a few times over the past school year, and I’m thankful to more fully appreciate now what a talented writer, great thinker, and truly outstanding human being she is.
I’m definitely glad to have won over Paxtyn Merten, who admitted I came off as “pretty annoying” the first few times we met (though I’m not sure how much her opinion of me has changed, on second thought. Put an asterisk for “fact-check” next to this one).
And I’m at a loss to understand how someone as altruistic as Hsiang-yu Wu is also so achingly funny and thoughtful.
I could go on about everyone on this trip, and almost want to, but suffice to say there wasn’t a rotten one in the bunch. I’m incredibly excited to see how all of them progress and persevere through journalism because, after spending this month with them, I know all of them are likely to succeed.
Those relationships are the last takeaway from this trip I want to talk about, and may well be the most important. It takes a certain kind of person to pursue journalism, and after this trip I’m more sure than ever that I want to surround myself with as many of them as possible. It feels to me that we’re all cut from the same moral, ethical cloth – we care so deeply about each other, and about people in general, that how could we not be drawn to a career entirely about sharing others’ stories with the world? This trip broadened my horizons as a journalist and a human being, and it gave me a great many memorable experiences, but more than anything else it confirmed for me something I had been questioning more than usual this past year: that journalism is where my heart is. Exploring Greece, uncovering stories, and working with a talented team of writers to present our findings – that’s the kind of stuff I love. And with this trip under my belt, I can’t wait to see what comes next.