Musings on My Semester in Athens

Petros Santamouris IT and Social Media Manager

Date

November 25, 2017

Destini Price is a Project Editor at the Publications Office of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, located in Princeton, New Jersey. She was a student at the Arcadia Center during the spring 2010 semester. Upon completing her BA in Classics and English at Hollins University, she completed an MA in Ancient Greek and Latin at Florida State University and an MA in Comparative Literature at the University of Texas, Austin. She moved to Philadelphia in 2015, and she currently resides there with her husband and two beautiful γατάκια.

 

There are so many things to say about Athens, my semester abroad, my first time leaving the East Coast, my first time taking a flight anywhere, ever. I swell with the memory of it all - though, at first, Athens intimidated me. It seemed harsh, dirty, the din of car horns echoing against apartment buildings; the steep labyrinth of Pagrati streets, some hardly streets at all, despite the persistence of the local drivers; the vastness of the Tuesday laiki agora where I could purchase kilos of olives, eggplants, fish, and within a few yards, pantyhose, paper towels, knock-off Nike sneakers.

My initial weeks in Athens felt doubly challenging because I had not visited, much less lived in, a large city previously. The professors and administrators at the Arcadia Center notably, Jan, Joanna, and Petros encouraged independent exploration of the city, and this is how I came to love Athens. Padding my pocket with a detailed street map, I ventured from my Odos Neoptolemou balcony and walked as many unknown avenues as I could during spare afternoons and weekend mornings.

My comfort in solo-exploring the city was in large part due to the Greek Key course, led by Maria Michou, in which students strolled through various neighborhoods of Athens learning about their (modern) history, politics, and communal spaces. The two walks I remember best were in Omonia and Exarchia, neighborhoods I was wary to visit alone due to their reputation for crime and political discord. By giving an academic platform to the graffiti and the abandoned spaces neighbors had adopted and transformed into parks and gardens, Maria enriched my relationship with Athens. She gave credence to the modern monuments and buildings and created an equity with those ancient spolia that too often steal the spotlight. As a Classicist, I primarily considered Greece, and especially Athens, in its ancient context; the Greek Key course was essential to my time abroad in that I learned divorcing Athens from its modern politics, landscape, and demographics is a disservice to studying its past. We must remember there are people living among the ruins of Ancient Greece.

Perhaps this is one reason I found the laiki agora to be so enchanting. It seemed to create an intersection between the Athens I knew, the Athens I lived, and the ancient Athens I studied. Even if the modern version of the marketplace lacks its own pestering Socrates (though, I think the vociferous banana-salesman, with a pitch heard from at least a block away, could be an occasional stand-in), the congregation of the community in one bustling place, poring over λεμόνια, φράουλες, ρίγανη, while also stopping to greet a neighbor or a cousin, occurred to me as the likeliest stage to imagine the ancient agora.

Many of my friends preferred the Friday laiki agora near Plateia Varnava, and for obvious reasons as it was convenient to the Arcadia Center and many of the student apartments. Yet I chose to walk a bit farther to a larger laiki near Odos Philolaou, one Joanna recommended early in the semester for those of us who desired a more immersive, arguably a sensory-overload, laiki experience. It was magical to me! When I recall it now, I think I must have appeared sometimes comical to the regulars - an American woman filled with joy at the sight of people doing their weekly shopping, negotiating the size of the fish they would prepare for dinner that night, and combing heaps of oranges for the ripest ones. I shopped there as well, but much of the experience was people-watching and an excuse to expand my paltry lexicon of Modern Greek. Those mornings when I had a successful transaction entirely in Greek felt like a prize.

Athens stole my heart, and I did not return home at the conclusion of my semester abroad. I stayed through the summer due to a generous study grant provided by the Arcadia Center. After that, I fled back to Greece four times in the next five years, often for a few months at once. My love of Greece propelled me into graduate work and is entirely responsible for where I am today. Those six transformative months sparked a love affair I will never be able to give up. It is all too vivid: the lilac dusk settling in the bosom of Mt. Hymettos, the faint twinkle of Lykavittos, and always, always, the yellow sleep of the Parthenon as it ushers in a balmy evening.