Julianna Aiello Arcadia in Athens, Greece


February 7, 2018

These downtrodden streets are so wise as my feet ache over the knolls to my apartment. Already I have gained the intense skills required to cross the street, order a coffee how I like it, and turn on the water heater twenty minutes before I need to shower and be to class on time. The orientation week wore me to the bone and wore out the shoes I thought would suffice for the semester. Turns out, the sketchers memory foam slip ons from my grandma were nowhere near as powerful as the classic black bootie almost every single European woman wears. I feel confident. I feel ready to take on this experience, and I feel motivated to explore the city as my own.

I traveled alone across the seas; my carry-on, my back-pack, and my book (100 Places in Greece Every Woman Should Go by Amanda Summer-- a highly recommended read! Get it here). The slip-on sketchers from my grandmother were gold-ish, and I could only imagine attaching little paper wings to my heels, channeling Hermes, god of messages and travel between astral planes. I ended up traveling for 36 hours straight because of flying through the night on the cheapest flights I could find back in August. Booking far in advance helped me with the financial grounds I was traveling with, but I don’t think I could have ever prepared for the anxiety and physical strength the journey took. By the time I was on Agean Airlines, sitting next to a middle-aged Greek couple, I pulled my hood up and immediately fell asleep. To my surprise I was woken up by a dinner tray being set in front of me. “I didn’t order anything,” I said. “No, It’s free.” The kind stewardess smiled back. The steaming tin box of pasta seemed like ambrosia, replenishing my soul. All throughout the flight beautiful images of the various islands was displayed on the screens.

I landed at 23:00 and the real journey began. My Air BNB was in Attiki—which as a word of advice for anyone getting an Air BNB in Athens, THIS IS NOT THE PLACE TO GO. It was only until speaking with my orientation director the next day that her jaw dropped when I mentioned Attiki. In truth, Attiki is a dilapidated district in Athens, with a poor repute. Indeed, as I struggled to find my address I was concerned with the lack of street lights and the mysterious figures I may or may not have seen in the shadows. Truly, I do not mean to exaggerate putting my own personal safety at risk, because I did safely get to my Air BNB and my host was ever so kind and gracious, but I feel like if I had the courage to ask the man in the motor-cycle jacket who didn’t speak English for directions I certainly have the strength to get through the rest of my journey.

It was amazing how quickly I was able to orient my-self the next morning. But the day-time would bring one more challenge yet; this time only one that fate would bring. As I took the metro (still carrying all my belongings with me), the line passed Syntagma Station—my stop. I found out there was a strike. Later my orientation director advised us students that the Metro Workers announced regular strikes to happen during the month of February, and that this was the first. OF COURSE, this would happen to me. I ascended to the blazing bright streets and saw Athens for the first time. The sensory input from the overflow of people to objects to food and traffic in the same spaces, intersecting with the cerulean skies, the dotted orange trees and the crumbling cements. I decided the best way to get back to the airport for my meeting point was to take a taxi. At this point, I thought I was a good driver. Now, I have nothing except utmost respect for anyone who braves the chaos that is Athens’ driving laws. My cab driver gave me my first Greek lesson; my first word, Kalimera: Good morning. Yes, this was a good morning. I felt it in the air, I saw it in the mountains. This was good, and I was good and safe and my homecoming was near.

Orientation week seemed like the inexhaustible endlessness of culture shock and accommodation. Settling into new spaces has always been easy for me, since I have been nomadic for the last two years. I found myself quite eager to act like and THINK like a Greek. I was surprised to hear from one of my program directors that actually impersonating this culture is a productive way to learn adaptation. For example, to try to avoid the relentless advances made by the Greek men on the street I put my unapproachable Greek woman face on and found success. Not only did I feel more confident as a single, young (vulnerable) American woman walking through uncharted territory, but I felt like I understood the culture more. .

On one of the last days of orientation we had a wine and dine with our professors (yes, holding you liquor is a skill you MUST master to succeed in Greece ACADEMICALLY). Here I met my philosophy professor, Kostas. Immediately I was taken by his passion for the content. To me he related this: NOSTALGIA. Nostos is the Homeric Greek word for return (by sea, in the context of The Odyssey). Algos is the word for pain. Therefore, the prevailing etymology of the idea of ‘nostalgia’ is the pain of homecoming. Kostas said; its like when you have a small hors d’oeuvre, and it was scrumptious but now it is gone. I spoke to my lover over the phone and we agreed that the sting of being so far apart was not necessarily a bad thing, but necessarily something to be felt. For Ithaca, or finding a home in Athens is not the point of this journey; rather it is what I will feel on my way there.