Archive | September, 2009

Gotta Love That Swine Flu…

30 Sep

After a long day of work, when someone runs up to you jumping up and down screaming that you don’t have school for a week over and over again, your first reaction is to stare at him or her blankly and then calmly decide to ignore the statement.  So when Elyse came running out of Starbucks yelling and panting that school was to be canceled until next Thursday, this was exactly my reaction.  Why should I believe her?  We were already scheduled to have a 4 day weekend, I had not received any notification to deem this claim true, and she had that sly little smile, the one that just reeks of a laugh waiting behind those suspiciously curled lips, that could absolutely not be trusted.

“GUYS!  GUYS!  We have the whole week off!  We have the whole week off!” (Insert jumping up and down incessantly)


“The whole week!  School is canceled!  Until next Thursday!”


“Seriously!  Because of the flu!  We don’t have school all week!”

“Stop lying.”

“I’m serious!”

“No, you’re not.”

“Guys!  I’m absolutely serious!  School is canceled for a whole week!  All the schools in Athens!  I’m not making this up!”

“Shut up, Elyse.”

**Cue phone call from Chris, telling us that all schools in Athens are closed for a week until next Thursday due to swine flu.

“Elyse!  School is canceled for a whole week!”

“I know.”

Turns out, if you give a few kids swine flu, the Ministry of Education in Greece finds it necessary to close all schools in Athens for an entire week.  This means two things: 1. Greece can see into the future and knows that the entire swine flu epidemic will be completely eradicated before classes resume on Thursday, and 2. I get a 7 day paid vacation!

And this is exactly how I ended up sitting on my bed at 3:20am with an oversized backpack stuffed to the brim lying beside me, trying to stay awake for another 2 hours when I must leave my house and make my way to Piraeus (the port city) to catch the 7:25am ferry to Santorini.  Yes, Santorini.  That storybook island with the white and blue buildings, donkeys meandering up steep steps, cliffs overlooking a breathtaking view of the ocean, and…well, I think I’ll stop there.  I, along with 4 friends, will be island hopping for the next 6 days, taking our own little tour of the Cyclades, a group of Greek islands.  Starting off in Santorini, where we will stay one night in Fira and then 2 nights in a 5 person apartment at a gorgeous little hotel in Oia (pronounced ee-ya), we will then move on to Ios and Mykonos.  This is all completely tentative, of course, seeing as how we currently only have the 2 night hotel stay in Oia booked and confirmed.  But, we all figure, the best way to island hop is to just hop.  Start off somewhere, meet some people, have some fun, get some suggestions, and hop on over to a new island and a new adventure.  If we’ve learned anything in Greece, it’s that the best thing, and often times the only thing, to do in this country and this culture, is to just relax and go with the flow.  So if this is the last post you ever read from me, my flow probably got lost somewhere in the Aegean Sea.

Thank goodness for swine flu.


The Myth Factor

22 Sep

I sat in the corner of the classroom, shadowing Elizabeth, a middle school teacher, as she went over the reading exercise in her MS2 (8th grade) class.  She asked a question.  No one volunteered.  She asked again.  Not a hand in the air.  I eyed the class, taking note of the middle schoolers and remembering just how awkward that age is.  Braces.  Gangly limbs that you’re not quite sure what to do with.  Girls towering over boys.  Boys trying to be cool despite their cracking voices.  Even as they sat in silence (or amidst the steady snickering and Greek chitter-chatter), I could get a sense for the array of personalities sitting in those chairs.  The popular girl, the funny guy, the teacher’s pet and the bashful one.  Elizabeth, still trying to get an answer out of one of these kids, searched the room for her victim.  Her gaze closed in on the bashful boy in the second row, nervously avoiding eye contact by blinking down at the desk that seemed too small for his body.  He was going to be chosen, no doubt about it.  I knew it.  He knew it.  It was uncomfortable for all parties.

“Hercules, how about you?”

Hercules?  Really?  The bashful boy who doesn’t feel secure in his own figure has a name like Hercules?  I know this is Greece, and naming your child Hercules could possibly be the equivalent to our naming a kid Adam or Eve or David, but I mean, Hercules??  It’s hard not to snicker when you hear that.  When you’re the teacher, it’s even harder to keep a straight face, especially when nobody else in the room gives it a second thought.

Over the next few days and my fair share of paperwork, I also came across an Odysseus and an Aphrodite.  Talk about laying on the expectations right from the get-go.  A famous politician, social activist, or sports star as a namesake may be hard to live up to, but a renowned war hero who concocted the idea of the Trojan Horse and helped win the Trojan War before taking that epic journey back home?  That’s a whole different ballgame my friends.

I’m waiting for the day I meet a Zeus.  While many kids write their college admissions essays on extra-curricular activities or overcoming obstacles like drug addictions and eating disorders, I think Zeus could have a solid personal statement discussing the hardships of having a father who ate all his siblings.  If anyone should know how lonely the top can be, it would be him, and those Ivy League schools should know it.

In Greece, or at least at Athens College and Psychico College, it’s not just myth and reality that can get blurred.  There are no special education classes formed for those students with learning disabilities, and thus all students are integrated in the same classrooms.  As a result, remedial and more average classes become settings not only for those who simply have a harder time learning a second language and could very well be extremely bright in other subjects, but also for the autistic and dyslexic, among others.  That’s a lie, actually.  In Greece, as I’ve come to learn so far, there is no such thing as Autism, ADHD, or any other disease or disability from which a child might suffer.  Any student with any type of disability is immediately classified as having dyslexia.  This is neither fair to the student nor the teacher, for while they should have the opportunity, especially in a prestigious, wealthy, and resourceful school like Athens/Psychico, to get the best education with attention paid to their special needs, we teachers are not qualified or prepared to teach these children, yet are forced to at the expense of them, us, and the other students in the class.

I’ve just firmed up my teaching schedule, and beginning this Thursday will make my rounds and assist the teachers in my department.  I’ve already co-taught two classes and, just this morning, taught a class completely on my own.  I was more nervous than a new kid on his first day at a new school, but I managed.  I never realized that teachers can be just as nervous as students, filled with expectations and anticipation and the terrifying concept of not knowing what to expect or anticipate.  I now have a new found respect and appreciation for all my teachers, especially those who were just starting out and new at the game when I walked into their classroom.  As we get into the thick of the school year, I’m sure it’ll get easier and easier, and I’m just trying to remember to take it one day at a time.  In a short amount of time I’ll be helping with Drama & the Arts, a class for 11th graders dealing with theater and Shakespeare, as well as many lower level (8th and 9th grades) English classes, teaching units on A Wrinkle in Time and The House on Mango Street.  I can remember sitting in the Elkins Park Middle School cafeteria reading A Wrinkle in Time, and I can still feel the desk wrapped around me in Wilman’s 9th grade English class discussing Cisneros and her poetry and prose.  I could’ve sworn when I graduated high school I was ecstatic to finally be out.  I don’t remember the part about my being ecstatic to go back.  For those who have an anxiety attack at the thought of returning to high school, it’s not that bad, really.  But then again, I’m also not going back as a 14-year-old metal mouth with a handful of honors classes to ace and popular kids to impress, so maybe I shouldn’t be the authority on this subject.

To end this post, I would like to amend an earlier submission.  I previously mentioned 4 things that nobody tells you before you get to Greece.  I forgot one:

5. Rat-tails are apparently still in, and going strong.

Athens does Mardi Gras

13 Sep

There are certain things nobody tells you about Greece until after you’ve already arrived (or at least nobody told ME these things):

1. You can’t flush your toilet paper.  For reasons associated with the pipes and clogging, you must instead dispose of your used toilet paper in a receptacle next to the toilet.  It’s gross.

2. Cab drivers decide when they want to pick you up.  You might be thinking, don’t they do this in America?  No.  Cab drivers here slow down, make you tell them your destination, and then drive away.  I’m not sure if they just don’t want to make money, or if they already have a set destination in mind and if you don’t say that exact destination you’re shit out of luck, but whatever the reason, this usually results in you standing on a corner for far too long, until you give up and start walking.

3. Don’t put your hand up.  Kind of like how Americans do “talk to the hand”.  It’s the Greek equivalent to giving someone the finger.  This may seem like a simple thing to avoid, but it’s not.  High fives.  Giving someone a wave of recognition.  Saying that you want 5 of something.  All out of the question, and things I somehow manage to do on a daily basis.

4. Before you shower, you have to turn on the hot water and let it heat up, and then remember to turn the hot water off again.  We didn’t realize this for a solid week, at least, and all had our fair share of cold showers before deciding to just stop showering altogether.  Luckily we think we have figured it out, although temperature and pressure can still be sporadic and disappointing.

Other than these small pointers I wish I had known before I came, nothing has been too out-of-the-ordinary, or at least unexpected.  This week I started getting into my daily routine.  School began on Friday, however I started work on Monday.  I work in the UK college counseling office on M-W-F from 9-3:30, and this week I learned more than any American should ever have to know about the British university application system.  I can’t wait for the day when I meet a Brit and can impress him with my vast knowledge of UCAS (slightly like the common app, but used for every school), Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, LSE, and which colleges have the best reputation for English, Engineering, Economics, History, Law, Medicine, etc.  Students were shuffling in and out of the office on Wednesday, which was most surprising.  Never in my high school career did I ever even play with the idea of entering my school before the first day.  And on Friday I already had two personal statements to edit by the end of the day.  These kids sure don’t mess around.

On Tuesday I had the day off, and so went sightseeing with some friends.  We took our own walking tour of Athens, hitting up Parliament to witness the changing of the guards in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the National Gardens, the original Olympic Stadium, the Temple of Zeus, and a statue erected for Lord Byron.  It was a trying day for my feet, topped off with a perfect scoop of gelato for my stomach, which I’m praying isn’t already beginning to grow.  That evening I went to the movies and saw The Soloist.  The theater was in an American style mall, and walking into the structure, one truly does feel like she is back in American suburbia.  Differences?  The movie theater had a swanky lounge, serves alcohol, and provides complimentary juice.  It also stops the movie randomly in the middle for an “intermission”; in our case right as Robert Downey Jr. was about to yell bloody murder at Jamie Foxx.  The movie was great, and I am now terrified that I’m going to develop paranoid schizophrenia.

As we’re all settling in and making Greece our home, we’ve been spending more time just hanging out at the house.  We’ve already had a family dinner with all the fellows, and a dessert and wine night at one of the apartments.  Exploring can be fun, but the occasional relaxing on the couch watching House or The Office in sweats is a great way to spend an evening too.  We’re not losers, though, and last night we intended to show Athens exactly what we’re made of.  Athens, it turned out, planned to do the exact same thing.  We started out at a little Mexican restaurant for dinner.  Mexican?  In Greece?  Am I kidding?  No I am most certainly not.  The restaurant, Santa Fe, is owned by a family originally from New Mexico, and this Mexican food was grade A authentic.  Margaritas, enchiladas, chips and salsa and guac, fajitas…while I love the Greek cuisine, this place is definitely a nice escape.  At 12:45am, with a pitcher of margs behind us, we finally got up and headed out to experience the nightlife.  We had the cab driver drop us off in Gazi, a hip part of town, and…wow.  I couldn’t tell if I was at Mardi Gras, at a massive college block party, or just in party heaven.  The streets were packed with 20-somethings strolling along, hopping in and out of crowded bars and clubs, each with its own unique vibe.  No lines, no checking of ID’s, no cover charges.  Just wander in, push through the crowds, and enjoy the music.  Tired of one place?  Go next door.  Getting hot?  Just go back outside to the street, which is just as crowded as any bar.  Gazi was the place to be, well into the wee hours of the morning, and there were no signs of it slowing down.  We finally decided to head home at 4:30am, and it’s a safe bet to assume that we were some of the only ones heading to bed at that hour.  The metro re-opens at 5:30am, so next weekend we’ll be pushing ourselves to stay out that extra hour.  I don’t think it should be too hard to do.  Highlights include pounding drinks in the taxi, a car somehow making its way through the congested street that my small body couldn’t manage to do, and Greek men who finally didn’t resemble cavemen.  Turns out all the attractive people are hiding out in Gazi.

Today was spent sleeping past noon, recounting the night, watching over half of The Office season 3, downing multiple Domino’s pizza pies, and going for a run to prevent any guilt from creeping up.  All in all, a great way to start the upcoming week.

Just Let Go

8 Sep

I stood at the edge of the scraggly rock, the soles of my feet burning more fervently with every new attempt to stay upright as the sharp, pointy surface took every opportunity to jut into my skin and make me fall over.  “Just jump!”  “Dive in, it’s easy!”  “Just go in head first, or even a regular cannonball will do it.”  “You won’t hit a rock, don’t worry.”  These words of encouragement from the darkness ahead flooded in one ear and immediately out the other as I tried to convince myself I would not, in fact, be jumping to my death.  Look down.  Look out.  Look down.  Look out.  Hmmmmm.  Oh what the Hell?  JUMP

Admittedly I am not scared of heights.  Really.  I had absolutely no qualms about throwing my body out of a helicopter over the Swiss Alps.  And I’d do it again (just amongst new scenery; Swiss Alps is so Winter ’07).  But there’s something about standing in the dark on a small rock overlooking a black body of water that’s slightly terrifying.  How deep is it?  It there a rock just waiting for my head to crash up against it?  It wasn’t that the jump itself was high.  It wasn’t.  But once I pushed my toes off that edge, I had no control.  Even the reassuring words of Chris, my fellow teaching fellow, and Warren, my 60-something New Zealand ex-pat of a boss, coming from the water’s safety wasn’t enough to prove that I wouldn’t land in a different, and much more fatal, territory.  And the scraggly surface of rock on which I stood took away any hope of leverage, making it more likely I would fall in than jump in gracefully.

And thus began my first night on the island of Aegina.  Just a short ferry ride from Athens, and yet a world away.  I did jump in by the way, and have the 3 working limbs to prove it (kidding).  The Aegean Sea has a high salt content, and all one must do is lay back on the water to enjoy the stars above.  Everything else goes away.  The moonlight washes away any stress or worry, the stars shimmer among the black surrounding you, and small ships and fishing boats glide in the distance toward the lighthouse on the coast.  It’s wonderful.  If you’re ever searching to discover what happiness in it’s purest and simplest form is, it is exactly this moment.  And once you realize that, and say it aloud (“I’m happy”) it’s hard, no, impossible, to hold back a smile.

I could bore you with every detail of my delightful weekend of sun, food, and dogs (to be exact, there were 20 of them, all owned, groomed, and trained by one woman, who had us over her house for a delicious three course dinner after the star-gazing), but I’ll just hit the high points.  Clearly all the food was good.  One of my favorite meals is mini chips ahoy cookies in a bowl with milk, so I don’t think I’m capable of thinking all of this fresh, local, homemade cuisine is anything less than divine.  High point?  I ate a whole fish.  As in put the entire thing, head to toe, eyes included, in my mouth and chewed.  Once it’s in your mouth, it doesn’t taste like your eating a live fish anymore, but getting yourself to throw the whole damned thing into your mouth is quite another story.  It was a small fish, and it was coated in a batter.  I tried not to look directly into that little minnow’s eyes as I held it up to my face by it’s tail.  It was good; very good actually.  But I could only eat one.  The process of convincing yourself to chomp down on a whole fish was hard for me to swallow.

High point #2?  Warren has lived on this island for quite some time now, and knows all the little nooks and crannies for swimming, eating, and watching a sunset.  And so that’s what we did.  We watched the sunset.  We watched as the sun slowly fell and lit up the sky, turning it shades of orange, pink, and purple (magic hour as my brother would call it, though my camera couldn’t capture it quite the way his could have).  We watched as it tucked itself in beyond the horizon, and watched as the sky faded into black, illuminating the stars and the lights of the island.  We sat in our little beach chairs for what seemed like an eternity, in silence, just looking out, taking it in, and enjoying the present.  People don’t do that enough.  Enjoy the present.  We constantly plan the future, even if we don’t mean to.  I know I do it.  But there’s something about just letting go and taking it all in, letting your thoughts stream in and out, that’s so refreshing.  It wasn’t until we were fully draped in the blackness of night that we slowly picked ourselves up and moved on.  That’s the other thing about enjoying the present.  If you take it all in, and enjoy it thoroughly, there’s no need to hold on, and you let it go as easily as you came upon it.

Last high point: Pistachio nuts.  The island is famous for their pistachio nuts, and I am now the proud owner of two large bags of them, one bag salted, the other regular.  If I’m ever feeling stressed or just need to relax, I’ll close my eyes, think back to that sunset and those stars, and grab a handful of nuts.  I couldn’t imagine a better way to unwind.  Well, maybe with a glass of wine, but we’ll play that one by ear.

Getting Oriented

4 Sep

We have placements people.  This week has been orientation, which is a formal way of saying the 10 of us have been sitting around a table with our coordinator talking about everything from which islands to see, to what areas in Athens we should frequent for dining/shopping/going out at night, to….oh right, how the school runs and what we’ll actually be doing.  On Monday night we had a barbecue at the president’s house.  Dr. Rupp is an American archeologist who has been president of the Foundation for the past few years.  He lives on campus, a convenient 1 minute walk away from Ladas (our house).  The bbq was a great chance to get to know some of the department heads and faculty members in an informal setting before the daily grind of school begins.  All of the faculty members I met are really nice, and many are native English speakers, which is comforting.

On Tuesday we received our placements.  I have been assigned to Psychico College Middle/High School (7-10 grades mostly), as well as the British college counseling office.  M-W-F I will be in the counseling office from 9-3:30pm, helping students with their personal statements and editing them until they are polished and perfect.  On T-Th I will be teaching English Lit to students in Psychico.  A little background: HAEF is a foundation comprised of two schools, Athens College and Psychico College.  Each begins in our equivalent to 1st grade and goes until 12th.  There are advantages and disadvantages to both schools is my current understanding.  In addition to the two schools, Psychico also has the IB program (same as the IB program in America) for 11th and 12th grade students who wish to take part.  There are two campuses, an elementary campus which houses the two elementary schools, and the main campus, which is home to the middle and high schools, the IB program, and a few more things, like a theater, a gym, and, among other things, my house.  Students in the two schools do not share classrooms, but they do share lunch periods, a library, and extracurricular activities, making it more than convenient for students in one school to have friends in the other.  As part of my two days working in Psychico, I will also be helping out with the IB program, especially after January 15th, when I will no longer be working in the counseling office (for the obvious reason that college application season ends by that time).  The best part of my placement?  The IB coordinator wants to stage a play and a musical, and thus one of my responsibilities is to make that happen!  Looks like my Rolodex of musicals and annoying habit of singing show tunes on end is finally paying off.

On Wednesday, we had “fellow to fellow”, which was basically all of us hanging out in Athens.  We walked a lot and ate a lot.  We had a great lunch in Plaka, and then walked around the little streets where I bought a few trinkets and eyed a few more items.  I’ve made a mental note of stores I’ll be re-visiting once I get paid, and am trying my best to hold off until then (top of my list–shoes.  Black strappy wedges to be specific.  In my defense, I need them, and there’s no point in arguing to the contrary).  We then walked all along the path around the bottom of the Acropolis, which is beautiful, topped off by Chocolat, a dessert and coffee bar that is to die for.  Seriously.  We sat on the rooftop, getting an incredible view of the city and the Acropolis, and shared decadent desserts ranging from tiramisu, to chocolate waffles and ice cream, to crepes, to mini doughnuts, to candied pears.  YUM YUM YUM.  YUM.  By the end of the meal, we were all lethargic and tired and ready for a nap.

Last night I had my first outdoor cinema experience.  In Greece, they have these outdoor rooftop movie theaters, where you sit outside, drink your beer and eat your popcorn, and watch an American movie (in English!  Congrats to Greece for believing in subtitles as opposed to dubbing).  The movie playing last night?  The Time Traveler’s Wife.  Was it good?  Absolutely not.  The experience?  Fantastic.  We all agreed that had we paid to see that movie at a regular movie theater, we would have felt ripped off and been royally pissed off.  But the atmosphere made it great.

And now for the best part of this post.  Drum roll please.  In a few hours I’ll be visiting my first Greek island!  The head of the English department at HAEF has a house on the island of Aegina, a small island close to Athens, and extended an invitation to one of the fellows.  The department head, Warren, said that the fellow could invite two more (space could unfortunately not permit for all 10 of us to come).  Names being picked out of a hat ensued, and I was selected!  We leave today at 5pm and return on Sunday.  It should be a very casual weekend, and I’m excited for the opportunity to get to know one of the faculty members better, not to mention the chance to have a weekend on a traditional and beautiful Greek island.  So the next time I post, I’ll be a tanned Grecian Goddess.  Perhaps a slight embellishment on my part, but why not shoot for the stars?

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