When I used to think of Greece, it came in a package: “Ancient Greece and Rome.” My lifetime of museum-based travels, combined with Princeton’s year-long Western literature course the Humanities Sequence, had tied the concept of Greece firmly to its past. When I read about the country’s economic troubles or and influx of migrants in recent years, that was a different Greece I was reading about.
For the Humanities Sequence’s trip to Rome or Greece last fall break, I went to Rome. Our 10 days were saturated with history and culture and art. In the city’s museums and monuments, our reading became grounded in something really real. The author had lived here, and the battle happened there, and this was that building they mentioned.
Standing in the shadow of slices and slabs of history, scattered through a city that seemed like one big museum, our books gained dimension—and in only 10 days.
Last Monday marked my 45th day in Greece. I spent the first half of the summer reporting on the country’s refugee and economic crises through the Journalism seminar led by Professor Joe Stephens, “Reporting on the Front Lines of History.”
Sitting across the table from a man at Moria migrant camp on the island of Lesvos, hand cramping in effort to capture every word as he said that he is hungry, that he cannot sleep, that conditions in Greece are as bad as in his home country Eritrea—it became surprisingly easy to chop the word “Ancient” off of the word “Greece.”
Greece suddenly had so many other words and ideas branching out from it. It was a first stop into Europe: for some, branded as a paradise, and for others, a complete mystery (someone said the first time they heard the word “Greece” was when their boat was coming ashore). It was a final stop into Europe: people have been trapped in camps for months, for years, and maybe for years more.
Greek was a thing to learn to read books in their original writing. Now it was packaged with stories of determination, as people struggled to learn the difficult language to move forward in their new home; and also stories of resistance, as people taught themselves German in pursuit of a dream to continue further north despite the looming possibility that they might never get there.
Greece was not just museums and art, and it was hard to see it like that. Every week or so, our little group would put down our notebooks and take a tour, taking the obligatory trip to the Acropolis or the Benaki Museum. They were never unwanted obligations—not only were the sites incredible to see, but each tour guide pointedly related Greece’s history to its present situations.
In the Benaki, we saw some paintings and ancient agricultural tools, and also learned about the time when two million people traded places between Turkey and Greece under the Lausanne Convention. Every time we talked Ancient Greece, discussion centered around the question: what did it mean to be Greek? Which brought us back to now: for those migrants just arriving, what does it mean to be Greek? To be there for years? To know the language? Something else entirely?
Even the best museum tours felt strange, jotting down important dates in history and artists’ names between interviews in our journalism notepads. Tourists sometimes looked out of place and museums looked closed off in their pristine design and air-conditioning, compared to the rest of Greece we tried to see—the Greece that tourists try to avoid, if they decide to come at all anymore.
We were, of course, still tourists, trying desperately to get a sense of the everyday in a very countable number of days. But Rome, in comparison, is a snow globe in my memory: 10 wonderful, incredible days, which were so educationally rich and rewarding, but when I don’t think I talked to a single Italian besides waiters and tour guides. I learned so much about Rome, but just about one side of the word Rome. I still maybe learned about only four or five sides of Greece. I wonder how many more there are.
Now, I’m in Spain, continuing to report on the refugee crisis independently and shifting my attention to the Mediterranean route into Europe. I texted my mom that next week I think I’ll try to report from detention centers in Málaga and Motril. She said it sounded good, and also to pop into the Picasso Museum while I’m in Barcelona (and of course, I will).