Spending a year in Greece was a dream realized. I had the extraordinary opportunity to explore Greek culture, tour the islands and the mountains, and discover buried secrets in my family’s past.
Story By Chelsea Murray
That was the question people asked relentlessly, eyebrows raised, when I stuffed my possessions into a backpack and broken suitcase and jetted off to Greece for a year to study abroad. Greece is a foreign country, but my study abroad plan sounded especially foreign to my inquisitors. Why not London? Why not Spain?
My answer was simple, “I’m Greek.”
The island of Mykonos is a world famous destination for the international jet-set during the Greek summer.
The Greek people are much like the weather – warm and open.
Since I was a little girl Greece has leased an apartment inside my soul. While my friends dreamed of Disney World, Cape Cod and Hollywood Hair Barbie, I dreamed of Greece.
When I was four years old I was told that my mother had been adopted from Greece. From that moment forward Greece cast a spell on me. The mysterious culture and exotic nature of it proudly became an identity for me. I’ve always taken pride in my olive-colored-oily skin, my big brown eyes and my full-dark eyebrows. They are Greek.
Greece, to me, is the most dramatic country on earth, which is ironic, because drama originated there – irony too – but I digress. Greece is a perfect melding of old and new. On the same street in Athens you can find an archaic store selling yellowing, dusty books and trinkets next to a raging nightclub pumping techno music until the wee hours of the morning. You can find aging men sitting at a cafe sipping coffee, playing chess and catching up on news, while at the table next to them a teenager dressed in black, surfs the internet, smokes cigarettes and yaks on his cell-phone. I learned quickly that the Greeks like a strong cup of coffee, which is an acquired taste. So is Greece.
The view from Cape Sounion, the site Poseidon’s Temple, looking west towards Peloponnese Peninsula.
A healthy Greek breakfast – turbo charged coffee.
Like much of southern Europe, the outdoor cafes in Greece are filled with aging men drinking strong coffee, smoking cigarettes, and debating politics.
Greece is a country shrouded in history that the entire world celebrates, but it was my family’s history that captivated me. I desperately wanted to visit that apartment in my soul – that place that housed secrets of my past, and held keys to my future. I have visited the country six times, traveled extensively within its borders, and spent more than a year of my life in Athens, so Greece would appear to be an easy subject for me to write about.
After finishing my year abroad, in May 2009, I set out to fulfill my promise of writing a travel story about my Greek experience for the Waterbury Observer. It was a wild, eclectic, life-changing year – the story was waiting to be told – but Greece was hiding in the recesses of my mind, refusing to cooperate. Each time I sat down at the computer to write, I froze. The story was bigger than me. There was too much to be told. I couldn’t boil down this enigmatic and mysterious country into a few thousand words. Greece launched democracy, Socrates, Aristotle, Ulysses, Hercules and unstable financial markets, but for me it was personal – Greece launched my mother.
Standing atop the Acropolis with my mother, Laurie Singer Russo, who was born a few miles away in Piraeus.
Tangled up with writers block for three years, it wasn’t until I returned to Greece this past May that my writer’s block began to melt. Greece is an incredibly open and expressive nation, so I went back to her for help in writing this article. I again smooshed my face into Greek lamb gyros, devoured Greek salads, and made the pads of my fingers sticky from sweet Baklava desserts.
Slowly, the story began to emerge.
The taste of Greece lies in the freshness of the ingredients. Dishes don’t look like the pieces of art you will find in France or Italy. In Greece, the food is served un-tampered. Fresh meats and seafood are abundant as well as olives, ripe tomatoes, snappy cucumbers, and baked bread. The close proximity to Italy would make one assume that Greek foods are smothered in rich tomato sauce, but that is not the case. Pizza is a rare delicacy found only in Americanized tourist places and sauces are non-existent. Greece has a unique cuisine relying on their most famous export, olive oil. The olive oil found and incorporated in Greek cuisine is fantastic. I discovered from living in Athens that it takes your body weeks to adjust to the heavy use of olive oil, but it adds a proven health aid to your diet. Greek people love food and are proud of their cuisine from grilled meats, American style Gyros, tomato-cucumber salad to octopus.
A healthy Greek lunch – tomato, cucumber, onion, olives and slices of Feta cheese.
The Greeks, like most Europeans, love dining al fresco, which means eating outside. There are hundreds of options to eat al fresco in the Plaka section of Athens, which is the old historical neighborhood of the city.
Everywhere you travel in Greece you’ll find Greek food. Everybody eats it. Rare is the Chinese, Italian or French restaurant. Pizza is scare. One of the most popular meals is grilled meats – chicken, lamb or pork, served on pita bread and doused with tzadziki sauce (yogurt, cucumber and garlic puree)
Open-air markets are the “it” place to purchase groceries. A visit to the market is imperative to truly understand the country’s cuisine, ingredients, and the people that create it. For people that reside in Greece, it’s a fun, exotic, and cheaper way to stock up the pantry with fresh food items. Luckily, my apartment was located a few blocks away from the biggest open-air market in Athens, the Omonia Square Market. The vibrant colors, loud cat calls from the vendors and smells of their wares circled the area. Greeks have an intense relationship with food observed at any family dinner table or restaurant, but it is on full display at the market. The vendors puff out their chest with pride as people peruse their goods – piles of fresh fish, and fruits and vegetables teeming off the carts. As a side note, the market was a good place for a young green horn to practice their Greek. Most of the vendors spoke little to no English, which made communicating an exciting challenge.
A merchant awaits a customer in the meat market in downtown Athens.
In November of 2008, my friends and I decided to create a Thanksgiving meal in our small apartment building. Most of us were away from our home for the first time at the holiday and it was important to celebrate a giant feast with our new family.
I decided to make a few dishes and took off for the market to get the ingredients. A task that would have taken a half-hour back home took me three hours in Greece. I stood with a list in my hand, utterly perplexed at the different food items laid out in front of me. The language barrier didn’t help. I attempted to ask countless vendors if they had sweet potatoes for a sweet potato pie, and how much they would cost. They threw their hands up and shrugged. Some of them tried to convince me to change the vegetable in the pie. I shook my head, some how I didn’t think eggplant pie would go over quite the same with the crowd back in the apartment. The vendors tried to be helpful, encouraging me to practice my Greek. They were patient and understanding because I was trying. I had a blast meandering my way through the aisles, slowly gathering the items necessary to create my dishes. Some of the ingredients were a little different, but the best part of cooking to me is being inventive and creative. I never precisely follow a recipe.
The market experience, together with cooking Thanksgiving in our small apartment and sharing it with my new friends abroad, will be a holiday memory that will stick until my grave.
Puma tennis shoes? What on Earth was I thinking?
I stared at the fraying rope in front of my face and my legs began to shake like wet noodles in the wind. I looked down and surveyed the steep incline my peers and I had spent the past few hours billy goating our way up.
I wondered how I always manage to get myself into these strange situations.
I was about 20 minutes away from base camp at the top of Mount Olympus and a rope stood between me and a warm bed, and bowl of soup. Everyone else seemed to make it up safely, so I took a deep breath, silently cursed my choice in footwear, and crawled my way up the rope. Afterwards we peeled through the fog and inched our way to the small wooden shack called Refuge C. My muscles and brain were utterly exhausted.
The night before our group of eight couldn’t contain our excitement and stayed awake late at the foot of the mountain in a hostel, downing a few Greek beers, talking to each other about life, and constantly surveying what we were about to climb. We began the hike in the wee hours of the morning from a town called Litochoro.
An ice cold feeling took over my body as we began the climb into the sky. We had heard stories about hikers vanishing on the mythical, majestic mountain.
According to ancient Greek mythology, Mount Olympus was formed by twelve Olympian gods, including Zeus, Aphrodite, Apollo and Athena. As legend has it the Gods defeated the Titans in battle and took up residence in a palace at the top of the mountain. Each year, 10,000 tourists attempt to climb up Mount Olympus to feel closer to the gods, and we did too.
We began our ascent and during the next few hours we passed through all four seasons. The forested area was cool, damp and smelled of autumn back home in Litchfield County. The leaves were changing color and it was the only place in Greece that I had seen a hint of fall. Besides my family, autumn was the only thing I was missing back home. It seemed magical, and the presence of the Greek gods seemed possible as we trekked along. There was an aura hanging in the air that was unlike anywhere I had visited. I wasn’t expecting Athena to pop out from behind the next tree and introduce herself, but a greater presence lurked.
Friends and family can attest to the fact that I’m not the most physically active individual on the planet, but I don’t sit on the couch all day eating potato chips and channel surfing. I make a monthly appearance at the gym, but Mt.Olympus kicked my butt. My body screamed for me to stop multiple times, but I kept pushing until I got to the top.
It was an incredibly magical feat and a part of Greece that few take the time to experience. Although we didn’t meet the Gods, it was nice to hike in their neighborhood.
Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves
I was robbed my last night in Greece.
After watching the sunset from the Acropolis, two friends and myself took a short cut back to our apartment. On our way through the cobblestone streets we encountered a young Gypsy couple, who stepped out of the shadows looking for a smoke. My friend gave them a cigarette and loaned out his favorite lighter. After small talk about how quiet the streets were, the man pocketed the lighter. My friend calmly protested and asked for his lighter back. Instead of the lighter, the Gypsy pulled out a switchblade and thrust it against my friend’s throat.
I’ll never forget the Gypsy’s cold, malicious expression and his girlfriend’s green serpentine eyes. The moment he pulled out the knife my body felt like it dropped ten degrees and my stomach turned into a bag of ice. I had left my purse, camera and valuables back at the apartment, so the only thing of value they could take from me was my life.
My body bristled as they ran their hands repeatedly over me searching for money. My friends and I were frozen and put up no resistance. We didn’t know what to do. At the time, and in many situations, the best protection is to comply and not act like a superhero. While I was calm during the experience, I was a wobbling, terrified mess afterwards. Although I had no valuables, in just a few seconds the Gypsies had taken my trust with them.
For months I looked at everyone that crossed my path suspiciously. I didn’t feel safe. I picked up my pace walking and rarely wanted to go out in public alone. I felt like a deer tiptoeing through the woods sniffing the wind for predators. I decided fear could not sit in the driver’s seat the rest of my life. I wanted to feel safe in my own body and at ease going places alone. It didn’t matter whether going to a grocery store down the street, or wandering through a spice market in Egypt, I needed to strengthen myself, mentally and physically. This freak experience wasn’t an uncommon occurrence and as a frequent traveler it prompted me to take a self-defense class back home – yet another impact from my travels across the Balkan Peninsula.
Smell of Rebellion
A person’s sense of smell is an incredible thing. It can aid in recalling past memories, stir up hunger for certain foods, and make someone sick to their stomach. I have taken in many smells in my life, but I will never forget the smell of a Greek riot. The potent mixture of burnt rubber, tear gas, and sweat from protestors and police smacked me in the face as we stepped into the center of it all on the night of December 9, 2008.
While spending a few days traveling outside of Greece with friends, the country I had been living in for the semester took center stage in the news across the world. A young boy had been shot and killed by police in a borough of Athens, which sparked a youth rebellion and violent riots across the nation.
As we returned from Ireland we were flying into chaos. Each of us in the group had received dozens of e-mails and Facebook messages from family and friends back home concerned for our safety and wanting to know first hand accounts of the riots raging in Athens. Fortunately, we could say that we were safe in another country waiting in the airport, but we had no first hand knowledge of anything in Greece yet, which was disconcerting. We talked to our families and to each other, and decided to proceed with our flight plans into Greece and figure out our next move from the airport in Athens.
The Greek directors of our abroad program kept calling to tell us the city was in flames, it was a terrible situation, and even claimed the Parliament was on fire (which turned out to be false). Instead of freaking ourselves out, we just stayed calm and prepared ourselves for entering a potential war zone. Greece seemed eerily different the second we stepped off the plane, even the airport seemed a bit off. We went to the bus counter outside the airport to purchase our tickets back to Syntagma Square.
“You don’t want to go there,” the man selling the tickets said to us, “find another hotel or place to stay.”
“We have to go there.” I said. “So if a bus goes there, we go there.”
“You can’t get into Syntagma,” he said. “It’s closed off. The bus does not even run there. But take it to the end and make your way to your home.”
We got on the bus and started creeping closer towards the chaos. It felt like we were in a movie hurtling ourselves towards a scene of destruction. I started to get nervous and excited. This would be an experience to write home about. As we sat on the bus an older man started speaking to us. Just that day he had received his certification to be a riot police officer and was headed into the mayhem. He held up his certificate proudly and showed us. He asked about where we were going and why we were in Athens. We explained that we were Americans studying abroad in the Syntagma area and were just trying to get back to our apartments. A worried look came across his face. He shook his head and told us that we should stay as far away from Syntagma as possible, and said it would be very dangerous. He offered his services to help us get back to the apartment safely.
We were skeptical of a Greek rent-a-cop, but decided to go along with the situation since he was our only option. We got off the bus at the next stop and hopped into the underground metro. The line we were on went right through Syntagma and during the course of the ten-minute ride, we decided to get off and survey the situation. If it wasn’t too bad, we were going to sprint as fast as we could through the square and get back to our apartment.
Our small group followed the policeman up the stairs and into the Syntagma metro station. That’s when the smell of the riot smacked me in the face. My cavalier attitude about charging through the square started to dissipate as we got closer to exiting the station. We got right to the bottom of the stairs that led to Syntagma Square and were stopped by police officers saying that no one could proceed any further. I peered into the darkness above to see what was going on when suddenly a loud crack sounded and a stampede of 50 pierced, rebellious, teenagers dressed in a sea of black came charging down the stairs right towards us. We turned as fast as possible, splitting up in the process, and bolted back down the stairs.
I felt like the scene in the Lion King movie when Simba was chased by a stampede of wildebeests. A young man grabbed me and carried me down the rest of the stairs, apparently my feet weren’t moving fast enough for him. Our whole group managed to swarm together into a corner in the metro station as the sea of anarchists charged back up the stairs as quickly as they had arrived. My heart was pounding so hard it nearly leapt out of my chest and followed the rioters back into battle.
Getting chased by a mob of rioters was the wildest adrenaline rush I have ever experienced. Afterwards, I felt like jelly as we stumbled down another flight of stairs and piled back onto the metro train. We opted to get off a few stops away from the action and try and pick our way back to our apartment. The streets were quiet and scary, and we felt like someone was going to jump out from behind every tree, or darkened alleyway. We walked past burning mattresses, broken glass and charred buildings, and were relieved to make it back to our apartment.
A few hours later we decided to go out as a big group and have the students that had stayed in Athens during the riots give us a tour of the damage. The city was dead quiet when we stepped out again. There was not a single protestor in sight. We walked through streets where every other building was a burnt carcass of a once flourishing business. The other students in the program had been caught up in the biggest night of the riots when it looked like Athens was going up in flames. They said they saw anarchists throwing petrol bombs into upscale clothing stores, government buildings, and robbing banks.
As they guided us down the burning streets they said they saw people running into electronic stores and looting piles of expensive items before it went up in flames. The rioters had no remorse for destroying businesses, but they did seem to make sure no one was inside before hand. One building that had been attacked was McDonald’s, the symbol of American expansion in the world, and it was depressing to walk down the streets that had become part of our lives those three months and see burned buildings and charred cars.
It turns out that rioting is a rite of passage for Greeks. We have our own ritualistic rites of passage in the States like getting a drivers license, or turning 18, but the Greeks are more extreme. The Greeks love to strike and protest their frustrations. During my stay in Greece there had been over 100 strikes ranging from the transportation workers to students in elementary schools. It’s an extremely raw system of democracy where the people strike and protest to get their voices heard. The government does not necessarily listen to them, but the strikes and protests are allowed.
This riot was fueled by anarchists and youth fighting against the police and government oppression, and the shooting of the young boy gave them a reason to finally rise up. Ruining the city with petrol bombs and fire pushed too far. Many students in my university, including the Greek ones, were disgusted to see the proud Greek people destroying their own country.
We re-entered Syntagma Square in broad daylight to observe a national strike gathered in front of the Parliament. We were told it was going to be a peaceful gathering, it wasn’t. The police boxed-in the square from all sides and after a few minutes there was no way in or out. We were trapped. The fear from the previous night rushed back into my body and I started surveying the area like a doe during hunting season. The rioters still wearing all black, with their faces covered with masks and cloth, ripped up chunks of sidewalk and hurled them at the police. The police fired tear gas into the air and my throat itched and started to burn. My face and eyes felt like a mix of jellyfish sting and intense sunburn. There was no way out of the Square for 20 minutes and we had to find a spot safely away from the police and rioters so we didn’t get caught in the cross fire of rocks and tear gas.
It seemed like an orchestrated show because all of a sudden it all stopped and everyone went separate ways. While it’s powerful to see people standing up to, and for, their government, violence is not the best way to protest.
Three years after the riot I still recall the charred, burnt rubber smell that slammed me in the face in the metro station that night. The smell will stay with me forever. It was the smell of rebellion. It was the smell of fear and excitement mixed together. It was the smell of raw democracy in action. You can’t learn about riots and anarchy from a textbook. It is a smell that you must experience first hand to grasp the events that took hold of the world for a few days in December 2008.
It has taken me three years to write about Greece, but one of the things I learned to appreciate from living there was “Greek Time”. The Greek people move at a slower pace, which helps people appreciate the small details of life. Instead of rushing to work and taking things to-go, they will sit and enjoy a simmering cup of coffee with friends, or indulge in a long meal for hours with family, never looking at the time.
I used “Greek Time” in order to process the experience and help myself learn to appreciate it more before I wrote about it. I experienced some of the most dramatic moments of my life in the shadows of the Acropolis, and have experienced some of my greatest joys.
Santorini is the southern most island in the Cyclades and is perched on the rim of an ancient volcano. Like Mykonos, Santorini is one the hot spot destinations for international travelers.
One of the highlights of my year living in Greece was when I had the opportunity to visit the island of Syros, a stunning backdrop to my exploration of family history.
Having spent a year exploring Greece and unraveling a family mystery, I sat atop Lykavittos Hill overlooking Athens, a city of 700,000 residents.
I fell in love in Greece, was pepper-sprayed in a riot, was robbed at knife point, and unraveled the mystery of my mother’s adoption. Greece provided a stage for all of this theater, and I know deep in my gut that I will return for more. There are new stories to tell, and old ones yet to be revealed.