List #139: Hellas!

A much younger and thinner me on holiday in Naxos, Greece at Easter.

When I was younger I spent a year teaching English as a foreign language in Agrinio, Greece. I'm not Greek, I just fell in love with the country as an undergrad and wanted to leave the United States for awhile.* It was, without a doubt, the best year of my life.

Flash forward a few years that gloss over the Olympics, a Eurovision win, a Eurocup championship, my students growing older, Facebook bringing everyone together and a whole lot of other things...Greece has been in the news daily for what feels like an eternity. Because they are beyond broke and Athens is rioting and Europe is bailing them out. And it breaks my heart.

But here's the deal. I'm not an expert in economics. In fact, I'm not even a casual acquaintance who would wave hello to economics if it walked into the same coffee shop as me. Numbers and I just have a rocky relationship. So when I'm asked about the current state of Greek affairs, I'll just repeat a few things I heard on NPR, tell you to listen to this episode of This American Life, or talk about something I read in The New York Times. They can do a much better job of explaining what happened than I can. And really, we should all be searching for trusted resources.

But, like I have always been able to do, I can tell you tales of the Greek people. I can tell you about my students who are scared, their families who are trying, and bloggers who struggle and swell. I can point you to Twitter feeds to follow. I can show you photos.

Because at the heart of Greece, with and without their problems, are the people.   What did my year in Greece teach me about this ancient country and its people?

  • Greece has always known it was poor. My own lovely city didn't even get paved sidewalks until 1999. I was graduating high school in 1999 and Agrinio was paving roads. The shopkeeper sweeps his sidewalk twice a day not because he's bored, but because he has pride.
  • Tradition has deep roots. One of my favorite stories happened in March. When so many of my students began wearing thin red floss on their wrists. I asked why, for I had never seen this trend except on Kabbalah-Madonna. And every.single.student. told me that it was because it was tradition. And now they wouldn't get sunburned in the summer months. 
  • Greece has pride. When the 2004 Olympics swept the world and everyone wondered if Greece could pull it off, they had no doubt that they would. Sure, to award them the Olympics was probably a risky financial move. And yes, buying large, flat-screened televisions was a sign of a credit problem that was to come...but you better believe that everyone was watching every second of those games. Greece made sure Greeks were in every event, they made sure to televise each Greek match, and they made sure to go out onto the streets ask tourists if they preferred souvlaki on a stick or souvlaki on a pita. Because they wanted the world to know just how much amazing was housed inside their borders.
  • Greeks work hard. Yes, they may have an early retirement and much more vacation time than we could ever dream about in America. But that doesn't mean they are lazy. Students in Greece go to regular school during the day. Just like our students. But then they go off to private lessons at night. For English, physics, music lessons, math, many other languages and subjects. I taught students until 10pm every night. Even on Fridays. And we're not talking one lesson-one night. We're talking every lesson, every night. And Greek adults? They open and close their shops, they manage businesses, they learn multiple languages, they provide the vacations of your dreams.
No one gets in these types of situations by themselves. And no one gets out of them alone either.

And many thanks to my favorite Greek Blogger, Eleni, for posting this video on her blog first. 

 *I still want to leave the United States sometimes, it's just a lot harder to do the older you get. So my advice? Do it when you're young, don't plan too much, and disconnect from Facebook when you go....you'll have a much more enjoyable experience to look back on, trust me.

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