Since the year began, I have traveled to four new states and two new countries. I stepped foot on another continent for the first time, and I lived in another country for five weeks. While these are not groundbreaking numbers, my continued exploration has broadened my understanding of people and the world.
Living and reporting in Greece, I gained insight into two different populations: Greeks and refugees.
Something that struck me when I spoke to Greeks was that they are very proud of their heritage and nationality. Oftentimes when I talked to someone, whether it was our culture professor at the American College of Thessaloniki or my Uber driver, they would bring up the Greek root to some English word that was said. I found this fairly humorous because it reminded me of the father in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” who did the same thing. Many conversations with Greeks came back to a discussion of something in Greece’s history. Many people still fight for to remember issues Greeks faced, and fight to preserve their history.
It was also eye-opening to experience a new way of living – a slower way. As an American, I live in the fast-track of life. My time passes quickly, I need things quickly, I get through tasks quickly. So it tested my limits to be in Greece, where people run on slower internal clocks.
A prime example is when I asked a worker at a casual pizza and pasta eatery how long it would take to make a pizza. He said it would take 10 minutes, so I ordered one, but the pizza was not ready for more than half an hour. But the chefs didn’t seem to be rushing at all, or trying to hit that 10-minute mark. Instead they leisurely prepared the pizza and went about their other business in the meantime. It is a stretch to get food in less than an hour anywhere in Greece, which I was completely unused to.
Furthermore, talking with people often took twice as long because I was either speaking with them through a translator or using their very basic English. This made every interview drag on, no matter how short it was purposed to be, and exhausted me constantly. The slow pace of everything exhausted me, and I found myself craving the middle-of-the-day nap that Greeks take at 3 p.m. every day.
Further broadening my perspective, I was able to step into the lives of several refugee families and learn about their struggles to get to Greece as well as their attitudes and aspirations. Refugees, I learned, are very genuine, honest and positive people. Despite all they have been through, including family deaths, near-fatal journeys to Greece, living in tents for months in the cold with rain pouring on their heads and having no shower in the hot summer months, they welcome any stranger into their makeshift homes. They offer their limited food and drinks to company and openly tell the stories of how they came to be there. They laugh and smile with guests despite language barriers.
A theme that came up over and over again with refugees was that they did not care what country they were relocated to in Europe as long as they were safe and their children could go to school. The most heartbreaking thing for parents was that their children were losing time, missing out on being educated and getting left behind. When you hear these things, you realize that these people are no different at all from any other family. They want the best for their kids, and for their children to be more successful than they were. The children run and play with each other just like any other children. The only difference is that these families were born somewhere it was not safe to stay, and they had to risk their lives to escape and try to find a better life. The only difference is that they are still trying to do this.
In traveling and meeting people this year I learned that everyone is very much the same and very much different all at the same time. We all have ties to our heritage and are proud of it, and we all work to make life better for our children and grandchildren. However, we all live in different styles and have access to different needs and luxuries, which change our outlooks on life accordingly. These are things I knew before but that I didn’t truly understand until becoming immersed in another group’s culture.
Given how much my eyes have been opened just by traveling to a European country, where the lifestyle is close to the same as it is in America, I can’t imagine how groundbreaking it would be to travel elsewhere, to countries farther removed from western culture. I hope to be able to get this same immersive experience in other nations so that I might be able to further broaden my horizons and build empathy for those I cannot possibly understand without first stepping into their worlds.
This reporting trip has taught me more than I ever could have imagined, and I will continue to keep my eyes and ears open to what is happening in the worlds of these people I have grown to know so much about.