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Prague: That Overcrowded Place Called Home

Jun. 6th, 2008 | 11:01 am

The Czechs are obsessed with pizza. Maybe it was the fall of communism or globalization or even the new routing of Prague-bound flights through Rome, but regardless of the reason, there are pizzerias in droves around the city now. So, I felt even a bit patriotic as I choose to eat at the neighborhood pizza joint rather than Amsterdam, the Czech bar. I walked in and after finding a table, the waiter and I began the serious business of the evening--deciding what I would have to drink.

"We have Stella and Bernard on tap."
"Bernard? What's that?"
"A chick beer."
"A WHAT?! A chick beer?!" The second before I was prepared to launch into a feminist rant, I realized that he meant a Czech beer. Obviously, I ordered the Bernard and meat lasagna. Months of burnt moussaka had left me craving good lasagna. As i waited for my Czech-Italian meal, I reflected on the past few days.


I came to Prague with the lofty notion of finding my roots. More objectively, I wanted to come here and recognize a piece of "home" or familiarity in the surroundings. I had hoped the trip would add a certain completeness to my life that until that moment, I had been completely unaware was missing. I wanted the enactment of the trite cliches. As we have often been reminded over the last two years, America is a "nation of immigrants" That identity has been cherished by both sides of my family, particularly the Czech side (so 3/4ths of them) and the tribulations and trials of immigration and adaptation were present at the dinner table, not locked away in an attic. I have known I am 75% Czech for as long as I can remember, known how to spell it with the silent "z" (like the silent "e" in my surname). As I grew up, the stories and memories of my great-grandparents and grandparents' childhood were tangible. My life has been seeped in their histories. So when years later, I arrived in Europe, it was never a question of "if" I would visit the Czech Republic, merely "when."

But Prague had not been quite what I imagined. I had not stepped off the plane and started noticing the instant family resemblance. Nor did I seem to possess a magical understanding of the culture or place. Indeed, I spent much of the first afternoon wandering aimlessly through Mala Strata, the old town, looking at giant bronze monuments and churches, puzzling over their meaning. In the old town square, Stare Mesto, I jostled amongst the many tourists to get a better picture of the Astrological Clock and the bright facades of the houses. Tourists. They filled Prague like a carpet, impossible to take a step without a large group being underfoot. Of course, I was one of them, and that very realization made me even feel a bit more disconnected from this place that was supposed to be my homeland. Though, as I despaired at the overwhelming amount of tourists there, I also was amazed at how much difference a generation makes. When my dad had visited Prague, it was still under communist rule (it would remain so until 1989). Before leaving, I asked what he remembered about the city. He replied, "The grayness." A sentiment I took to represent both the emotional overture of the place and the physicality of the city. Except now, communism had been lifted. The formerly gray blocky apartment buildings had been repainted in almost outrageously pastel colors. The city was bustling with commerce; high-fashion shops tucked into the streets surrounding the old town square, the , next to souvenir stands that had huge displays of marionettes and glass pieces. Churches, gaudy with statuary and stained glass windows, seemed to sprout from every corner, growing into steep tiled tiers.

Prague, like many European city, is conveniently arranged around a series of large squares. Each neighborhood will have one large square, and from that square it is possible to get yourself to any other location in the neighborhood, making it very easy to walk the entire city. Prague's most famous square might be St. Wenceslas Square, he of the "Good King Wenceslas" revered in the Christmas carol. (This, I might add, is Wenceslas I not his great-great-great-grandson (or thereabouts) Wenceslas IV, whose nickname was "the Drunkard" and who plunged Bohemia (then a province of Germany) into two decades of violence and religious war after executing the Protestant reformer Jan Hus (though in his defense, he protect Hus for many years from the Catholic church, only moving to have him killed once Hus started preaching, in Czech, against Wenceslas' government). I make this note because I could not, for the longest time, figure out how such a loathsome individual attained sainthood and became the patron saint of Prague). Little is actually known about Wenceslas, except that he was not exactly a king. As mentioned above, Bohemia until much later, was a province or region of Germany. However, a system of dukes had been set up to head each region, and Wenceslas' father, Vratislav I, controlled the area that would eventually contain Prague. Wenceslas does have the notable family history that each of his immediate family members--- with the exception of his mother--- were all canonized and became saints. His mother, Drahomira, was the daughter of a pagan priest who converted to Christianity after her marriage to Vratislav. After her husband's death, and perhaps in light of her less than devout practices, custody of Wenceslas passed to his paternal grandmother, (Saint) Ludmila. Drahomira, who dreamt of keeping power herself, arranged to have Ludmila strangled, regained control of her son, and, consequently, the region. Or at least until Wenceslas turned eighteen and had her exiled. How's that for extreme teenage rebellion. Besides his colorful family history, Wenceslas didn't really "do" anything notable at all for the region of Bohemia or the future city of Prague. He did commission the building of the St. Vitus Cathedral on the grounds of the (future) Prague castle. But most of his time was spent doing what most rulers were doing in 10th century Europe: crushing rebel uprisings, escaping assassination attempts, and thwarting the attempts of neighboring dukes to take over his land. Eventually, he was killed by his brother on the way to a dinner (thrown by his brother with the intent purpose of luring Wenceslas out of his house so he could be assassinated). He was declared a martyr for the Christian faith (his brother had not embraced Christianity), and tales of his miracles soon sprang up throughout the region. Today, he doesn't seem to perform many miracles but instead keeps watch over the square named in his honor.

The square itself has been the site of many of Prague's revolutions. In 1969, Jan Palach, a student, self-immolated in the middle of the square to protest the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Twenty years later, in 1989, on the fiftieth anniversary of the murder of Jan Opletal, another Czech student and protester, at the hands of the Nazis, thousands of students descended upon St. Wenceslas' Square to protest communism. (If you have not noticed by now, essentially every single famous revolutionary or even rabble-rouser in Prague's history was named Jan.) The Velvet Revolution, where non-violent students confronted armed military police, lasted two months, and eventually resulted in the fall of communism in the Czech Republic and the first democratic elections in decades. Perhaps one of the most famous pictures from this event is a picture where a wall of heavily armed military police approach a crowd of students, all of whom hold out carnations to the officers. Amazingly, over the course of the protests, in which over 2 million people participated in, only one student was killed. Today, walking in the square, you would hardly be aware of this history. There are only small, ground level markers commemorating the events, completely overshadowed by the statue of St. Wenceslas and the hulk of the Natural History Museum.

However, that evening, I arrived not to examine the monuments, but rather to have a cup of tea. Prague has a notable series of tea houses, many hidden in back alleys throughout the city. Despite trying to find out more about the Czech tea culture (other than "it exists"), I have been able to find out little about its origins. There seems to be a tepid connection between the introduction of capitalism, the end of the Velvet Revolution, and the rise of Czech tea houses. But it would certainly be a stretch to say that capitalism makes a country a tea-drinking nation. I had heard of one tea house that was off of St. Wenceslas' Square, and decided it might be the perfect location to break into the Prague tea culture. Here if anywhere, I assumed, I could find my homeland within the city. It is worth interjecting here that one of the reasons I prefer to travel alone is frankly, I'm horrible with directions. I will often walk up and down and left and right at least ten times before haplessly arriving at my intended destination. On this particular instance, my quest for Dobra Cajovna took me around the entire square, down one side street, back to the square, down another street, and eventually, found it tucked inside a small alleyway. Right near the metro exit where I had first appeared on the spot. Dobra Cajovna has a contrived Buddhist air about it-- the servers all are wearing long black robes, shuffling around barefoot or in sandals. I found a table, and was soon brought an extensive tea menu and a bell-- to ring when I wished to place my order. Of course, I succeeded in knocking the bell off the edge of the table at least twice, only to have to explain myself to a rather unamused (tea) novice.

After safely stowing the bell away to the other side of the table, I took a moment to look around. The room was the type often described as "inviting" or "homey," and indeed the dark wood floors, quietly groaning under the shifting tea drinkers or pacing of the servers, added its own notes to the background music. In the front of the room, a refinished picnic tables had been pulled up near the window, so long rows of tea drinkers could sip communally. The middle of the room, where I sat, had a cleared path through the middle, with tables or one to four pulled up against the wall, all of them boarded, square wooden tables with matching miniature chairs or oriental style stools. At the very back of the room, there was a slight platform. Here, the floor was covered with oriental carpets, brightly colored pillows somewhat dulled by overuse and the dim lighting, and low heavy looking wooden tables whose table tops picked up glints of light. The walls were covered in tapestries and carpets, only adding to the Asian ambiance. But you only need to look at the customers to realize that we were still in Europe. There were the heavy gear backpacks of two student travelers propped against a wall, another couple seemed entirely too interested in each other, barely touching the tea before them, and a whole host of other younger customers talked with each other in Czech and English, read Kafka, or buried their serving spoons under piles of notebook papers. In between moments of concentrating on my menu, I watched this strange mismatch of people that so clashed with the decor, until I finally narrowed the field of over 100 teas to two.

Despite my love of leaf, I cannot help but become extremely annoyed by the strange haughty-taughty attitude which seems to accompany all purveyors of the drink. At a bar, if you ask for an opinion between a Leffe and a Hoegaarden, for example, the bartender will at least give you the benefit of the doubt that you do know something about European beers, and are considering the virtues of each in your decision, unless you inform them otherwise. Tea houses, or at least the ones I have gone too, seem to have no such respect for customer knowledge. (One notable exception would be Ching Ching Cha, a delightful Chinese teahouse in the Georgetown district of Washington, DC. The owner, a former British citizen who was fascinated by the tea houses from her ethnic homeland during World War II decided to build a similar hideaway in DC where it serves a huge selection of Japanese and Chinese teas, a standard "tea meal" (three vegetables, soup, and an entree) at extremely reasonable prices. More over, they are fully committed to teaching their customers the proper tea ceremony for each variety resulting in a procession of various drinking containers and devices. Despite this dedication, the staff is also quick to respect the customer, instructing only when asked-- which I imagine is often-- "what are all these cups for?") Thus, while it was expected, I found myself a bit annoyed when my server challenged my two considerations over the fact that one was an oolong while the other was a black variety.

"These are completely different teas. They have nothing in common."

"I am aware of that. I just want your opinion on which one you think is better."

"Well, the first one is an o-o-long," he rolled the word out slowly, as if carefully introducing it to my vocabulary. "That means..."

"I know what an oolong is! And I know the Edward Leer is a black tea. I just want your opinion."

"But they're completely different."

"Which one do you prefer?"

We went on like this for several minutes, heaven forbid that someone eventually point out that all tea does come from the same plant (albeit picked at different stages) and it all is made after an infusion in hot water. I mean, on some level, they're really not that different! It's tea! I was not horribly surprised when he finally advised that I get the more expensive oolong rather than the black tea. Now, after dismissing his inability to compare teas across color spectrums, I must hurry to add in a word about the fine quality of the two teas I was considering. The oolong was a mellow, green-yellow variety with a hint of citrus fruits and woodiness. The other, the Edward Leer tea, named after the author, was a black tea with hints of dark chocolate. I have no explanation for my interest in this tea--I once received a complimentary sachet of chocolate mint tea that was so horrible I actually sent it back with a nasty note. The distributor assured me they would not be selling it anytime soon. But for some reason, this idea of a dark chocolate in a dry black tea, appealed to me. After my oolong, which I found quite unremarkable, I ordered a cup of the Edward Leer. It was a lovely afternoon tea. The flavor was deep and dark, not at all like a mug of watered down hot chocolate, and the chocolate in this blend managed to bring out the tea rather than overpower it. I had one more pot before finally paying my bill and stepping back out into Wenceslas Square.

By that point, most cultural exhibits were closed, only restaurants open, and I was not quite hungry yet. So instead, I walked around the city for two hours. At one point, I stumbled again into the Stare Mesto, now empty, where the full moon peered at from behind the gothic steeples, peering down onto the immense monumental statue to Jan Hus, who stands in defiantly against a group of accusing Catholic bishops. Unsure how to spend the rest of the evening, I eventually started back towards the train to catch my hostel, when I noticed Tram 22 coming down the street. I recalled from several guides that the 22 ran past all the major tourist sights. So, I jumped on, anticipating a short ride past the sights and back to the city center. We passed the opera house, the symphony, crossed the drawbridge, rumbled past the Prague castle, the miniature Effiel Tower (given to Prague as a gift), the Strahov Monastery, Lesser Town, the fortress of the city, and innumerable churches. I kept expecting that then, at any moment, we would turn back towards the center of town. Except the tram kept going, going, out past the city limits, where there were fewer street lights. I started to panic a little bit. I didn't know exactly where we were headed, but also reasoned that I could just stay put, and eventually the tram would take me back to the beginning. Except, then, it pulled into a desolate parking lot across from some bars and a liquor store, and stopped. Everyone got off the tram. I kept sitting, until the driver finally came back and gestured that I needed to get off the tram. I pointed to the seat, trying to convey I needed to stay on. In response, he pointed off the tram at a small covered stop a few steps away. Disembarking, I was surprised by how chilly the evening had become. Huddling under the shelter, I watched as the driver read his newspaper fro five minutes, then dutifully pulled the tram to the stop. I quickly clamored aboard, leaning against the window as I watched the city again pass by.

Dinner hour was long over by the time the tram arrived back in Wenceslas Square. I was considering my options, when I noticed the food stands down at the bottom of the square. After some consideration, I ordered a polish sausage and a cup of mulled wine. Standing at one of the tall tables, across from a nicely dressed couple, perhaps fresh from an evening symphony performance, we didn't talk at all, but merely at our hot dogs, trying not to spill mustard down the front of our shirts. The mulled wine was too sweet, and it did not compliment my polish sausage well, so instead, I took it with me, sipping it on the metro as we headed towards the Hostel Bard and Clown.

* * * *

My hostel, besides it clever name, was outside of Prague proper, in a quiet neighborhood. There were many refurbished apartment buildings, and the main square of this district was home to a cubist style church, a refreshing sight after the dozens of gothic era churches scattered throughout the city. The diversity of architecture was one of my favorite parts of Prague. If you needed more proof of just how eclectic the city's buildings are, perhaps you have to look no further than the other landmark in my hostel's neighborhood: the Zizkov Television Tower. Work originally began on the tower in 1985, continuing for seven years because of massive protests against the design (characterized as "brutalist architecture") and the fact that it was being built on an old Jewish graveyard. When completed, the tower looked not unlike a group of silver-colored hotdogs held together by large similarly colored boxes. Basically, it was phallic, space-agey, and completely hideous. The people of Prague hated it. Until, in 2000, the TV station, in a desperate PR move, commissioned an artist named David Cerny to add some element of design to the tower. He choose to install between 10-12 fiberglass babies crawling in all directions, on the main sections of the tower. The result was so bizarre, so attention-grabbing, that people loved it. The babies were removed briefly, in 2001, before an outcry prompted their permanent return. Today, you can still pass by the tower, and bask in the intense weirdness of it all.

Today though, like my 24 hours in Budapest, I had to see all of Prague and quickly. My first stop was the Natural History Museum, a Neoclassical wonder. I love quirky, strange museum, but unfortunately, nothing could save this museum from being just dull. The one potentially exciting exhibit, on the development of feet and shoes throughout human history, was entirely in Czech, with only the briefest of museum labels in English. Afterwards, I realized my trip to the museum had progressed much more quickly than I had planned. So, noting a helpful directional sign, I decided to head towards Josefov, the old Jewish quarter of Prague. Prior to World War II, Prague was home to one of the largest Jewish populations in all of Europe, though an estimate of the number of residents is difficult to find. That is not to say that Jews in Prague did not face persecution before the Nazi occupation. As early as 1300, there was the Easter Sunday Massacre, where 1500 members of the Jewish community were killed and thousands of others displaced as vandalism ripped through the make-shift ghetto. Year later, during the late 1500s, a prominent member of the Jewish community, Mordeai Maisel, became the Minister of Finance and directed funds to the construction of religious and community projects in the Jewish quarter. During this time, the Jewish Town Hall, the Maisel Synagogue, and the High Synagogue were completed. But it wasn't until 1781, and the rule of Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II that Jews received the majority of freedoms enjoyed by other members of the city (these freedoms would not be complete until the middle of the 19th century). In his honor, the ghetto was renamed Josefov.

After the Edict of Toleration was passed, many wealthier Jews moved out of Josefov, and were replaced often by poorer individuals, many of whom were not Jewish. As the Nazi party rose to prominence in Germany, Josefov was recognized as one of the poorest and most crime-ridden areas of Prague. There were several attempts to build walls around the quarter, and passes were reinstated at one point. Eventually, the quarter was partially razed to make way for new building projects which the city government hoped would signal a fresh start for the area. But the building projects would have to wait. In 1938, the Nazi army marched into the disputed Sudentland. Eventually, the European community gave the Sudentland to Hitler under the doctrine of appeasement. Czechoslovakia was severely weakened, and by March 1939, the nation has really ceased to exist as a separate entity from Germany. Almost immediately, Josefov was emptied of its citizens; many were taken to Terezin concentration camp or Auschwitz. In total, over 80,000 Jews were killed during the Nazi occupation.

Today though, unlike other ghettos, such as Krakow, Josefov is still in remarkable shape. Almost all of the synagogues, the community center, and the cemetery are still intact. The story behind the preservation of Josefov is perhaps even a darker story. As the Nazi government systematically killed Jews throughout Europe, artifacts from other quarters were sent back to Prague. Hitler and his top advisors planned to turn Josefov into an open-air Museum of the Extinct races, and carefully catalogued pictures, religious icons, and personal belongings of the former residents.

As we know, Hitler ultimately failed in his quest to dominate Europe (and perhaps the world) but his plan to turn Josefov into an open-air museum has strangely come true, though surely not in the fashion he imagined. Today, the sites are monitored by the Prague Jewish Community. The main streets of Josefov are lined by souvenir shops. The centerpiece of the museum (or series of museums) is the Pinkas Synagogue. I purchased my ticket, and prepared to enter the synagogue, following a school group. The Jewish Community provides paper yarmulkes for male visitors to wear as they enter. Once you enter Pinkas, the solemnity of the place is commanding. There, written on the wall in black and red lettering are the names of the nearly 80,000 Jewish victims of the Holocaust from Bohemia. The names completely cover the entire building, from the floor all the way up to the ceiling. Besides the names, the uncolored leaded glass windows, and the main alter piece, it would be hard to recognize the building as a synagogue. As it is, it remains a silent monument to the many who were murdered. Seeing the names, the event seems so much more overwhelming than can by conveyed by a history book, and much simpler than the United States Holocaust Museum. There is a weight to the letters that interactive exhibits, so popular in new museums, cannot carry. I eventually ducked away from the student tour to head up the stairs to the synagogue's "steeple." The attic of Pinkas houses an exhibit of art made by children who were incarcerated at the Terezin concentration camp. The overwhelming majority of these children were transferred to Auschwitz and killed. Most of the drawings were created during clandestine classes organized inside Terezin by a painter, Mrs. Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. While I admit that I remember very few of the actual paintings and drawing, I was engrossed in the stories and themes represented. Almost all of the paintings focused on a return to utopic notion of home. I could not help but draw similarities between these paintings and the images and stories produced in the prison classes I teach. In both environments, individuals idealism home, regardless of the persecution and social problems that actually exist. Indeed, at least with inmates studies have shown that returning to the old neighborhood is often just the first step towards falling in with the same group of people and recidivism. But the idealism is there. And of course, in this extreme case, the persecution of home, which was actually drawn into several of the pictures, was a much better alternative than the death camps. Another common note was the difficulty of smuggling supplies into the camps. While we certainly don't smuggle supplies into the prison, I can remember the hours of negotiation that accompanied the first art classes, and the creation of the "art bags" for each inmate, that had to be reviewed at the end of each class. I remember the debates over the necessity of watercolor or charcoal paper. Mrs. Dicker-Brandeis didn't even have these luxury, and many of the drawings are on old pieces of reused typewriter paper or even receipts. The picture that sticks with me the most though was one done of transportation to the camp. There is a train, rolling through a hilly area, and the door of one of the boxcars is open, revealing the sad, gray faces of all the occupants. While this piece was a pencil drawing, many others were in color, including one of the "home" drawings, where smiling and frowning individuals walked past a bulldozer constructing a wall around Josefov, the houses all done in marker in the background behind a brown wall. All of these paintings and drawings were created soon after the siege on Czechoslovakia. In 1934, Mrs. Dicker-Brandeis received word that she was going to be transferred to Auschwitz. Before being deported, she managed to hide suitcases containing over 400 paintings and drawings. She never returned from Auschwitz, but the Jewish community has preserved the important work that she contributed to in the art exhibit.

Descending to the ground floor again, I followed the path out into the old Jewish cemetery, in the yard behind the synagogue. Over 12,000 individuals are buried on this small tract of land, no larger than one city block. Prague's Jewish population petitioned the mayor, governor, and even the king at various times throughout history to allow them to expand the cemetery, but to no avail. So many individuals were simply buried on top of each other. Some tombstones mark as many as twelve graves. By the time Josefov was being razed, the situation has gotten so dire that families had to bring in additional dirt so they could bury their loved ones, inevitably covering up the bottom names on the headstones in the process. Today, the ground in lumpy and uneven from this practice. It also is surprisingly green--covered with moss, shaded by large oak trees, and in some places, small plots of wildflowers and grass even find a way to peer out from between the stones. The large headstones are so thick that they seem more like teeth of some gnashing beast, pointing out in all directions, than the orderly rows we are used to finding today. Many of them are also covered in a sheet of moss, making only the most recent names visible, the elegant Hebrew barely visible. Everything is overcrowded here. The names on the wall of the Pinkas Synagogue are overcrowded, leaving no spaces between letters, just an endless run-on. The graveyard with its twelve-deep policy and tall stones that push against each other, turning the other out of order, so soon, the whole yard is simply a mess of jagged granite. The throng of tourists are overcrowded, the stone leaving us nowhere to walk except in a single file line, where we grumble against our inability to move about freely. Josefov, itself, was so crowded with "undesirables," the quarantined area of crime and disease. And finally, the horribly overcrowded box car in the small child's drawing; all the unhappy faces peering out of the open door into the wide open space. My own discomfort is brief though, and eventually I am able to snake my way through the stones, and out into the open street, where everyone seems to gasp for air, relishing personal space a little more than usual.

* * * *

Eventually my lasagna arrived followed by a fruit plate for dessert. As I prepared to leave, I asked if i could pay with credit card, since I had limited Czech funds--about enough to get me to the airport the next morning. However, when I received the ticket, I noticed there was no line for leaving a tip. Unlike Greece, tipping is practiced in Prague, and I couldn't figure out how I was going to leave something for my very helpful waiter. Finally, out of options, I motioned him over and explained my situation. He smiled, "Don't worry about it. Just leave me a tip the next time you're in."

He knew I was a visitor, and the chances of me returning were almost nil, but he still was helpful and kind. Reluctantly, I paid my bill sans tip and left. Maybe Prague did not feel like home, idealized or otherwise, but it still remained a place I'd be happy to return to, with, of course, a tip in hand.

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Meeting the Neighbors

May. 22nd, 2008 | 04:22 pm

Before I left for Greece, I spent many conversations telling anyone who would listen that I would have a gorgeous, spacious apartment that overlooked the Aegean Sea. I don't recall admitting this yet, but Kate got the apartment overlooking the sea. And I, well, to be frank, I look out over a parking lot. And some tall pine trees. Luckily, that's not all. Those pine trees are there to deter the wandering eyes from realizing what lies on the other side. Indeed, I happen to live right next to Agios Dimitrios (St. Dimitri), the state psychological hospital. Generally, I have no complaints about my neighbors. They are quiet, do not stay up late, and never blast their music. Sometimes though, on nice days, some of them will, unfortunately, start screaming. Now, these incidents tend to fill me with panic, mostly because I misconstrue that it is the children in the dorm screaming. Or on occasion, it annoys me when I (again) wrongly blame the dormitory students, and think they are screaming inside the dorm. In either event, these screams have frequently resulted, certainly more than I would like to admit, in me rushing out of my room, only to find neither a gaggle of children screaming in the stairwell, nor an injured child who accidentally fell over the stair guard. Maybe next time, I'll realize it's my neighbors and not my students.

* * * *

Greece is enthralled right now in the grips of a vicious competition: EuroVision. Think American Idol, but for all of Europe. Each nation can send one representative to compete (sometimes they also dance as well) and the competition is known for its loony antics and over-hyped egos. This year, Greece's contestant is actually a Greek-American who speaks almost no Greek, named Kalomira.  You can watch her interview. with a Serbian newscaster, and learn about how she believes “smiles make the world go round.” (And for those wondering why a Serbian is interviewing her, EuroVision is being held in Belgrade this year.) In case you were wondering, her song for EuroVision is the catchy, though somewhat repetitive My Secret Combination.. . O, and be warned, embarrassing dancing ahead. Enjoy!

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Lesotho:: Livin' in the Boonies

May. 19th, 2008 | 09:12 am

Finally! Getting finished with the final two installments of my Africa trip (way back when). Enjoy! South Africa will follow soon!

Megan and I met serendipitously towards the end of our first year at Grinnell. My roommate and I had not connected well, so we did not plan on living together the next year, and the person I was going to live with decided she wanted to get a single room instead (since she had a low number). So, with two days before room draw, I did not have a roommate for the upcoming year. I put the word out, and soon, a mutual friend, known forever as “Katie with Blue Hair” because of her choice in hair dye during our first year, suggested I contact a girl from our Chemistry class named Megan Straughan. Megan, from the little I knew about her, seemed loud. I wasn’t sure I really wanted to live with her. (Megan would later tell me when Katie suggested to her we live together she had reservations too—because I was a know-it-all.) But we met anyway, our reluctance to be in this situation painfully obvious, and agreed to live together. Almost four years later, I look back on that strange coincidence of fate as one of the luckiest.

I know that most people who find my life exhausting only think so because they haven’t met or lived with Megan. And our senior year was one of the busiest for Meg, a Chemistry and Education double major. She had technically graduated early, but stayed behind to do her extra semester of student teaching. (To put this in perspective, an Education major usually completes their program in 9 semesters at Grinnell. Megan finished hers in seven. Meaning that by the end of her third year at Grinnell, she had completed her Chemistry major, complete with research, and only had to finish a semester of student teaching for certification.) As graduation grew closer, and we each were pulled towards different opportunities, our paths again ironically crossed. Megan and I both applied for Grinnell Corps—Greece. The week applications were due, I oscillated between fear of being the competition Megan crushed and ecstatic joy at the possibility of living in Greece with her for a year.

Then, a week before our Grinnell Corps Greece interviews, Megan and I met for our usual midweek chai date, and she broke the news to me.

“I’m going to Lesotho.”

I hadn’t applied for Lesotho. It’s a bit of a stretch to even imagine that I’d ever apply. There was no electricity, no drinkable water, no telephone or internet connection, and hours from the nearest town.

A week later, I had interviewed and was Greece bound. “Great!” Megan said. “Maybe you can visit me!”

So, the seed was planted, then reinforced when another friend, Sarah Parker, won the Watson Fellowship to study Marimba in Southern Africa, and finally, just pushed over the edge when Megan posted an appeal on [plans], a Grinnell online journal community, that someone come travel with her over Winter Break.

Thus, completely unbeknownst to me, nearly four years ago, I met the person who would convince me to fly to Africa and almost missed the opportunity because I thought she was loud.

Luckily, Megan’s other talent—her aptitude to talk to everyone—was of vital importance at the moment. We had arrived in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho, and were at the minibus terminal. There were thousands of small and medium-sized buses, drivers yelling, boys selling frozen fruit ice treats, and women with babies tied in on their backs with blankets and buckets of water on their heads. On the perimeter, ramshackle vegetable and fruit stands were pushed up against cages of chickens. The smell of rotted lettuce and confined chickens mingled with diesel fumes and overly sweet fruit. When a man sat down next to me and started offering me jewelry to look at my sensory overload was complete.

“Do. Not. Take. Out. Your. Camera.” Megan hissed before leaving Sarah and I on a curb to eat our lunch while she searched for our bus. We had planned to go visit this waterfall, but the exhaustion of traveling (and the promise of walking several miles—“several” in Megan talk translated to 12 miles in this particular case) was a bit much, so finally, we decided to head back to St. Rodriguez, the mission that Megan taught at in rural Lesotho. Though not far in miles from Maseru, the bus trip would take 3-4 hours because of the bad roads and many villages the bus passed through.

We gathered our bags and found the bus. Though it was not due to leave for an hour, the bus seemed full. After finding some space for our bags near the driver, we struggled to the back of the bus, and tried to find seats. Sarah and I found a mostly empty seat with someone’s belongings in one corner. Moving them gingerly, we arranged ourselves so I was on the outside. Megan, after setting her stuff on a nearby seat, left the bus to find a tomato and onion for dinner that night (she was making us curry). Eventually, the bus rattled to life, and Megan reappeared. Our seatmate still had not showed up.

Suddenly, the largest African woman I had ever seen got on the bus. She was hopelessly overweight, and I knew the minute she got on that bus, she’d be sitting in our seat.

Sure enough, she walked over, smiled, and pointed at where here things had been pushed towards the window. Sarah and I got out of the seat, and she sat down. Sarah is tinier than me, and to be fair, I’m no Kiera Knightly, but the small section of seat I had previously had soon became a sliver—about enough for one cheek. Sighing, I balanced myself on the little bit of seat, content to read my book for a while as we bounced along.

Then the music came on. The bus had installed several large, radio sized speakers near the back, right above our seats. Soon, a Christian broadcast program was booming down on the bus calling on me to repent. There was no air conditioning on the bus, and the preacher’s Sesotho admonishments, punctuated by the occasional howl of “HELL” seemed rather mocking. Suddenly, our large seatmate shifted, and Sarah, who had miraculously fallen asleep, fell over on to my shoulder, pushing me off the seat, so I now was perching on a inch of cushion and air. I glanced over at Megan for support, only to see her head thrown back, obviously also asleep. The music abruptly changed to African gospel, causing our seatmate to boogie down on her side of the seat, sending Sarah farther onto my space. Finally, not entirely feeling Christian-like with the situation, I roughly shook Sarah awake. She blinked and smiled pleasantly.

“Oh, sorry. I must have fallen asleep.”

Ten minutes later, she was asleep again, but I had managed to reclaim some of my lost ground, so the trip progressed without too much incident. Not so worried about my seat, and slowly becoming accustomed to the blaring music, I started looking out the window and watching the people who congregated at the bus stops we passed.

I had seen pictures of women carrying children slung around their backs in blankets before, but perhaps what I had always missed about these pictures were the types of blankets they used. In my mind, they used hand woven, brightly colored, very thin blankets easily sculpted into a papoose. Reality, though, had a different sort of blanket. The blankets worn by the Basotho women were very heavy poly-fiber cotton blend I put on my bed for winter and emblazoned with large cartoon animals. Sometimes, they had lighter blankets wrapped around the outside hiding Barney’s face from onlookers. Many of these same women had large buckets or packets of food balanced on top of their head, one arm akimbo to keep the load from sliding off, the baby happily dozing against their shoulder blades.

Though at this point, the majority of people were disembarking, several individuals did get on the bus, including a very young mother and her small child. The baby, the mother confirmed, was sick. And every so often, her beautiful young mother would turn and politely cough into a tissue before going back to holding her child. The baby was not skeletal, but frighteningly small. Her eyes did not seem to focus on the world and seemed cloudy. And when Megan held her, the baby had no control of her body, despite being several months old. When Megan and I talked later, we both concluded the mother and child had HIV/AIDS probably combined with highly drug-resistant TB.

The crowd on the bus continued to thin out as we progressed to the interior of Lesotho until we finally came to the small town at the base of St. Rodriguez’s Mission. There, scaling the hill with backpacks rather than babies we trudged up the hill and towards Megan’s house. In our dusty, sweaty finest we walked into Megan’s house to find a nun furiously attacking the space under a bed with her broom.

"Sister Amalina! What are you doing" Meg asked between introductions. 

"I am cleaning. Whew. This house is so dirty," Megan tried to hide her laughter, but eventually the poor nun's shock at the state of her house had us all laughing. Megan on the other hand, kept telling us, quietly to the side, how dirty the house really had been. It was obvious that the nun was doing something above and beyond the normal call of duty. Finally, after a bit of rearranging, Sister Amalina prepared to leave and introduce us to some of the other nuns. After meeting the head of the school, Megan gave us a more involved tour. St. Rod's, as it's affectionately called, serves about 400 girls from neighboring villages (85% of Lesotho's population is rural). The tuition, approximately $50/year, is often waived for students who cannot meet the cost.

In addition to a school, the nuns also run a clinic that serves three populations: women, children, and those living with drug-resistant TB and HIV/AIDS. Megan, whose future career goal is international public health, works part-time in the clinic as a staff member, helping hand out medications and checking in clients. Sadly, as illustrated by the story on the bus, the former populations often also make up the latter. Lesotho, it should be mentioned, is an extremely small country, only one-fifth the size of Iowa, completely embedded in South Africa. Thus, mostly due to its mountainous nature-- Lesotho is the only country in the world where the entire state is above 1000 meters in elevation-- most of its economy is fueled by the sale of water and migrant workers for South African mines (that bottled water from "natural mountain springs" has to come from somewhere). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of these migrant workers are men and they are often away from home for periods of 6-9 months. Moral judgements aside, many of these migrant workers sleep with other individuals while on their tours, and often end up bringing STDs back to their family, which are then passed on to their wife or girlfriends, and, occasionally, their future children. This migration means that today the HIV/AIDS infection rate is at 29%, and the UN projects it will increase to 36% in the next fifteen years.

Sadly, much of this transmission could be greatly reduced with education, especially about safe sex. However, the lack of funding for such initiatives often means there is false information running rampant, both about condoms and cures of HIV/AIDS. For example, as we were leaving Lesotho (sorry, jumping around a bit), we passed several billboards promoting awareness about HIV/AIDS. One promoted healthy family relations, and though I can't remember the actual message, was promoting monogamy between partners. Great, that's a good educational step. But then another billboard, the one the left the biggest impression on me, was decorated with toothbrushes and razors and said, simply, "SHARING TOOTHBRUSHES AND RAZORS CAN SPREAD AIDS." I was a bit taken back by this billboard, though Megan did assure me that there was truth in it. Long term sharing of toothbrushes and razors can spread AIDS, but certainly to a much, much lesser degree than unprotected sex. Places like St. Rod are then put in an tough moral situation of weighing the obligations of the Catholic Church (which is firmly against the use of contraception, including condoms, even to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS) with reality. Despite this, many African nations, inspired by the success of proactive governments in Uganda and Somolia, have actually tried to encourage more public acceptance of HIV/AIDS and encourage the dissemination of correct information.

Certainly the TB/HIV/AIDS wing gets much attention, but the OB/GYN and pediatrics centers were also fascinating to me. We happened to be there on "Baby Day," when the pediatrician from Maseru was in and no less than fifty women with small children were waiting to see him. Many of the babies were crying, or screaming, and the waiting room was warm. While the sexually transmitted version of HIV/AIDS is prevalent amongst the adult population, a growing number of aid agencies are attempting to address mother-to-child transmission. It's important to dispel the myth that women who are HIV/AIDS-positive will automatically pass the virus onto their children. We know now through a combination of drugs, family planning, and quality pre-and-post-natal care, many women can deliver healthy, happy, HIV-negative children. Indeed, when these factors are met, the transmission rate is just 9%. One of the most notable problems that international health officials have noticed is how women often deliver in one place (such as their home or local clinic) but then take their children for pediatric check-ups at another location, one that is often unaware of the status of the mother. St. Rod's is trying to cut down on that confusion by offering both services at their clinic. Many of these women had actually given birth at St. Rod's, which has a nursery with beds for 6 mothers and their newborns. The children are brought back for periodical medical checks, childhood vaccinations, examining weight, overall health, and disease status. Concurrently, their mothers may be receiving HIV/AIDS treatment and counseling, allowing the nuns and staff to make more informed recommendations to expectant mothers and help reduce the possibility of MTCT of HIV/AIDS. While the Grinnell Corps member's house does not have electricity, the room adjacent to the nursery and delivery center, had a solar energy-powered refrigerator for keeping blood samples and vaccinations.

After our tour, we returned to the house to relax for a bit. Then Megan and Sarah became restless and voted that we climb the (small) mountain behind the house. Despite my original misgivings, I decided to climb with them. From the top, we could see the entire expanse of the surrounding village. The lavender fields caught the soft mauve colors of sunset, highlighted by patches of light tucked within the recesses of the surrounding mountains. We were not alone, as we soon realized, as two women, and their two children, who lived on the mountain had also set aside their duties momentarily to watch the sunset as well. Together, we watched it for several minutes before hurrying back to the house as dusk descended into dark.

That night, guided by Megan's headlamp, we endeavored to make some curry. As we started cooking, I took the kettle, where we had boiled water earlier in the day, and, by custom, dumped the leftover water into the sink, not in part because of the ants floating in it.

"What are you doing?" Megan asked, glancing up from her assault on a carrot.

"Boiling some more water for tea."

"You shouldn't dump out the extra water though. Remember, we don't have a lot of drinking water," Megan said all of this much more calmly than I would have in her situation.

"O! I'm sorry, Meg, I didn't even think about it..."

"Don't worry about it. Here," Megan reached under a table doubling as a cooking station, and pulled out a standard five-gallon bucket. "after you're done making tea this time, put the extra water in here." I followed her instructions, and tried to help with dinner. Soon, the curry was ready, and we sat around the table in the living room, eating by candle, torch, and headlamp. Inevitably, as happens when any group of college alums are together, we ended up telling stories about Grinnell, and soon our shadows danced around the walls, enlivened by our laughter.

* * * * *

Two mornings later, we were all up at some abysmal hour (I think 4:30 AM), arranging clothes into our backpacks, washing our faces, and getting ready to catch the bus. The bus didn't stop at the base of St. Rod's, like it had on the earlier trip, but instead, we had to hike over to a nearby village, about 2 miles away, with all of our luggage, and catch it there. Sarah and I, following Megan's instructions, started off, while she quickly locked up the house. In a matter of minutes, she had caught up, and we were all chatting, and enjoying the morning. Now, Megan had warned us that the bus schedule was often subject to whims. Though it was scheduled to leave at 6:30 AM, it might leave at 6. Or it might not leave until 8 AM. So, we were trying to arrive early, with enough time to be there in either case. We shuffled along quickly, trying to move with speed despite our body-sized backpacks.

As we approached one of the houses on the way, Megan shouted a greeting to a neighbor, who answered with an inquiry about where we were headed. "The bus."

"It has already left," he replied.

"What?" Megan was obviously upset by this change in plans which meant we would have to wait until the 8 AM bus arrived. Which could be as late as 10 AM. Still, I was a bit relieved when we slowed down a bit, and was marveling at the houses. The Basotho people traditionally live in round huts. The walls of the huts are a mixture of mud, dung, and concrete, often packed around straw. The roofs are rounded domes made of sheet metal. Megan, who generally walks fast anyway, was walking a ways ahead of us (from experience, I know this is also her habit when she's upset. Rather than yelling, she'll just out walk you by a mile). Suddenly, both she and Sarah started walking even faster. I was a little annoyed by all of this hubbub, but generally just kept at my pace. After all, what were we hurrying for? Eventually, I saw Sarah stop and wait for me, so I scrambled to catch up.

"Come on! The bus is still there!" I could see Megan booking it in the direction of the town.

"What? I thought it was gone already. That's what Megan told me." Quickly we hurried after Megan, arriving to find the bus with engine running. Megan helped throw our bags up the luggage man, who strapped them onto the top of the bus, and we were off, passing through villages en route to Maseru. We were planning on staying with one of Megan's co-workers. After three hours, the bus was filled to capacity with people and one extremely unhappy rooster, who had been stuffed in to the overhead luggage rack. At each stop, his young owner would check on him, making sure he was not squashed between the buckets and carry-ons of other travelers. Occasionally, she would have to take him down to rearrange some luggage, and during one such moment, he started flapping and kicking violently before he was again secured in his onion box.

We had just reached the edges of town, when Megan motioned that we should begin our journey to the front of the bus. It was a slow process, and the other passengers, seeing our intent to disembark, soon were helping us along, passing up our bags and our very persons, until almost without realization, we had arrived at the front of the bus, and were soon standing outside of it, amidst a sheep market. We stood huddled together, waiting for Megan's friend's neighbor's brother to arrive and collect us. Eventually, a group of boys, ranging from seven to eleven arrived. One of them, the apparent leader, walked up and asked our names, and after learning we were indeed Megan and company, the group proceeded to walk back with us through the neighborhood. We were all a strange parade, a group of young, white girls, being led by a small Basotho boy, followed by a growing entourage of children, most of whom would giggle and disappear if we turned to engage them in conversation. There were some exceptions, mostly the older boys, who were eager to practice their English. Though there are 7 official languages of Lesotho (a small number-- Zambia has over 70), Sesotho is most commonly spoken at home, with instruction at school being in English. Xhosa, one of the click languages, French, Afrikaans, and now Chinese, due to the large influx in Chinese immigrants in recent years, tend to round out the most common languages spoken. As we walked through the neighborhood, onlookers would move to their doors, watching us, usually shouting out to ask where we were going or to wish us a Merry Christmas. Our leader always responded, and the procession would continue moving forward, until at last, we arrived at Megan's friend's house, where she stood outside waiting for us. The house, I soon realized, was actually broken into several smaller apartments, for multiple families. There was no indoor plumbing, a water pump and outhouse stood a ways away, but we did have electricity. After relaxing for a bit, we soon were off, as our host set out to introduce us to her aunt. And that is how we ended up, unexpectedly in the Nicest House in Lesotho.

From the outside, it looked just like a small house found in a subdivision outside of Chicago. There was landscaping, the first I had seen in Maseru, and even a small fountain, almost comically bubbling with water while just across the lane, the houses had no running water. Inside, there was plush beige carpet, chairs and sofas covered with plastic dirt covers (something we were all happy about-- at this point, we had not showered for four days), and most remarkably, a chandelier. The Aunt summoned a small girl from the kitchen and asked her to bring us some cookies and soda, Orange Crush in a glass bottle. Afterwards, she stood by shyly as the aunt introduced her. Rather than being a domestic servant, it turned out that she was an AIDS orphan. Her mother and father had both died of the disease, leaving her alone, running around the neighborhood. Eventually, the entire community came together, and the aunt volunteered to adopt the girl. Next year, she would be starting school, and the aunt was trying to find her an English-speaking pen pal. The girl shyly spoke in English before the aunt gave her a cookie, and she disappeared down the corridor. Later, the whole episode reminded me of the stories I loved as a little girl, such as The Secret Garden and The Little Princess, where the orphan is brought up in a rich family, forced to work as a servant despite her true fortune and brilliance under the direction of a sinister mistress (though I would hurry to add this last element seemed absent here). The real story I witnessed in Lesotho, however, lacked the romanticism. In truth, as this spindly seven-year-old had ended up in this fine house, not as the result of a tragic accident, but a preventable disease. It is hard to escape how much death permeates the Basotho culture. Megan has told me at different times that funeral homes and coffin wholesalers are often the richest people in town. Every family has been affected, in some way, by this disease, this skeleton that has stayed in the closest for so many years. And, it would be easy to look at this orphan, this whole country, as one that is falling into turmoil.

Still, when I think about Lesotho, I remember the people, more than the disease: Sister Amalina cleaning the house and even washing Megan's socks; the many hands on the bus passing us and our belongings towards the door; another friend of Megan's who used her entire lunch break to drive us into town and drop us off; the young taxi drivers that carried our luggage up a hill for us and then chased us down the other side when we wouldn't kiss them; the gaggle of children who escorted us to our temporary home; the two ladies at the (very) rural grocery store who helped us gather eggs for lunch; and of course, this house, where despite our extremely dirty appearances, something unspeakable in this clean society, we were invited in to the living room, and served cold drinks. I do not know the HIV/AIDS status of any of those individuals. But when we sat down to eat together, to laugh together, or just to talk about the world, as people do when they are welcoming guests into their house, that did not matter. So, when I think about the kindness and energy of these individuals, I have a lot of faith in Lesotho. That the country and her people will continue to grow into something beyond another statistic.

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Let's Talk About Goals

May. 7th, 2008 | 04:23 am

Kate and i were discussing the other day how "real life" is so different from "college life." That being said, i'm not sure we are living in "real life" yet. We still get 4 weeks (or more) of holidays a year, we're able to travel on a whim, and i spend most of the week waking up at 10 AM, drinking tea, and trying to win a $100 gift card on Ann Taylor before setting out to find something to do. One of the reasons that Kate missed her college life was that the breaks signified a time of reneweal, a time when she could return refreshed and revived, and make some modest goals for the rest of the semester.

I think we can still do that. I'm a big fan of making goals. So, in no particular order, here are my goals for the next six weeks in Thessaloniki and beyond!

1. Volunteer at the Center for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeast Europe.
2. Learn a movie line for my "So, can you speak some Greek for us?" staple when i return to the States.
3. Attend the Student Film Festival (CrashFestival) downtown.
4. Continue tutoring my students.
5. Release another edition of In Focus.
6. Read another 20 books.
7. Write an article for the Thessaloniki Press (the other English newspaper in town).
8. Visit Romania
9. Go to bazouka (i'm hopelessly spelling that wrong).
10. Attend a Greek wedding (may involve crashing a wedding).

1. Take Spanish courses at Drake University.
2. Decorate my apartment in appropriate Eastern Philosophies decor
3. Settle down into domestic life with Chris.
4. Join Drinking Liberally, Plymouth UCC Church, the local NPR station, and the YMCA
5. Volunteer at the Newton Correctional Center.
6. Build a house on Pine Ridge
7. Increase my reading rate to 2 books a week.
8. Visit a friend in a foreign country
9. Tour an Iowa brewery
10. Get a cat or corgi.

So, now here's the question for all my faithful readers. I should have three more weekends before i leave Greece. Where should i go?

I've already decided on Romania. But where else? Your vote has to be a reasonable distance away (ie: inside Europe or thereabouts). So cast your vote, and i'll try my darndest to get there before June 16th (or so) rolls around.

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Budapest: A Tale of Two Cities

May. 5th, 2008 | 08:47 am

"Please use the toilets for No. 1 only and in a case of emergency."

I glanced suspiciously around the bus. A mere four hours earlier, i had booked my ticket on Orangelines from Prague to Budapest. Despite flying through Budapest to reach Prague, the Hungarian carrier had threatened to invalidate my entire ticket if I left the airport. So, I had instead slept for 5 hrs at the Budapest airport, endured the measly 45 minute hopper connecting the two cities, then struggled with luggage to the nearest internet cafe, and purchased a bus ticket back in the direction from whence I had just come.

The comment about No. 1 surprised me though. Orangelines' stewardess, a charming gap-toothed girl, was clearly not as comfortable speaking English as Hungarian or Czech-- indeed, had I not watched the accompanying video on safety, her instructions on how to buckle my seatbelt may have resulted in my death. Despite this trouble, she was using standard American slang like "No.1" in reference to bathroom necessities. I briefly wondered with "No.1" was official company lingo.

Also, these instructions came at Bratislava, along with the safety video, a mere 2 hours from the outskirts of Budapest. What if someone had had to No. 2 during the first five hours? They would be unaware of the strict No.1-only policy. I considered these thoughts grimly as I ordered a choco-cappuccino, a known laxative, from the free beverage service. Then, quite keeping with my traveling experience, I fell asleep.

Two hours later, we pulled into Budapest and I woke up to look out at the inky black Danube River. We passed a strange building with long, skinny blue lights randomly places within its sandstone exterior. We continued traveling through the lights when eventually we arrived in front of a random sports bar. I glanced outside and was quickly convinced by the lack of lights or a building and the pack of screaming football hooligans that this was not the central Budapest station. Why, there weren't even any other buses. I knew Greek buses made multiple intercity stops before finally arriving at a station, so I assumed the same was true here as well, and remained seated.

"Ms., what are you doing?" asked the friendly stewardess. Only a couple people besides myself remained.
"I get off at the central bus station." The neon lights flickering over my shoulder lent some much needed legitimacy to my concern.

"This stop is the only Budapest stop. See?" She pointed behind the bus. "There is the station."

My fellow stragglers and I gingerly removed our belongings and disembarked. About half of the passengers dove into the sports bar, while the rest of us shuffled quickly past the hooligans into Budapest's subway system. Safe, I walked up to a ticket machine-- only to realize that it did not take any of the four currencies in my pocket. A stop by the ATM was in order. Spying a (literally) underground gambling establishment nearby, I went in to ask where the nearest ATM was. The moment I asked, the bartender broke into a fit of uncontrollable laughter while the stoolies started offering to buy "the pretty thing" a drink. Unnerved, I left, and kept looking. After 20 minutes, I finally found one. Another 20 minutes passed before someone could make change for me. More confusion ensued at the above ground tram as I tried to decipher which way I had to travel before dashing into a convenience store for more change. Thus, bedraggled and tired, I arrived at the street my hostel was on-- right smack in Hungary's red light district.

GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS! sprang down from neon signs. Prostitutes, johns, and pimps walked the streets. (Prostitution is still legal in many Eastern European countries-- including Greece.) The women cooed into the windows of dark cars while their pimps watched from darkened doorways. Desperately, I searched for the sign to my hostel, and was happy for the first time that night that I did not speak Hungarian. Finally, I found the sign on a large metal door, the kind you see on safes or castles with no obvious entry. I looked helplessly at the callbox. Rather than residents or tenants' names, it had a phone pad. And I had no clue what the number to the hostel was. I continued staring, hoping an epiphany would supply me with the code when a hand grasped my shoulder.

I turned around and started into the face of a ragged old man. The face you see on the streets panhandling everyday. The dark-stained overcoat, patchy layers of shirts, and tattered dark jeans. His scruffy gray beard smelled heavily of alcohol. Hopelessly dirty hands contained in fragmented glovers. I pushed his hand off my shoulder, the weariness turning to wariness. In the next seconds, I considered how quickly I could drop my bags (or throw them at him) and sprint to the neighborhood Burger King, the lights still on. Instead through, the man did not touch me again, merely cocked his head, reached around me, and with a quick turn of his wrist, unlocked the door.

"Oh," I said, "I'm so sorry." I was sorry for my misjudgment of him, for the negative image I had created.

He did not respond, but instead ushered me into the complex's courtyard. There, he pointed up the stairs to the hostel before disappearing into the maze of apartment doors.

* * * * *

The next morning I was up early. My twenty-four hours in Budapest were ticking, and I had a list of sites to visit. As I wandered down into the courtyard, now with my own key, I saw the same man, in the same clothes, shuffling towards the gate again.

"Good morning," I yelled. "Thank you again for last night."

He nodded, continuing to the door, and had disappeared by the time I reached the landing.

Budapest is actually two cities-- Buda and Pest. In the past two hundred years, the joint sisters, separated by the Danube's flow, have weathered innumerable wars, poverty, communism, and now, the onset of the European Union. However, as a new member state, the country is not on the Euro yet, and the Hungarian Franc faces rampant inflation. Today, 1 USD= ~273 HUF; 1 EUR= 350 HUF. Likewise, a large portion of the population only speaks Hungarian and/or German. While monolingualism has not hurt the Untied States too much, fewer people know Hungarian and the government has pushed forward programs to increase funding for language studies in schools with the hope that a larger English-enabled population will attract more tourism, jobs, and opportunities for its 1.6 million citizens.

But these concerns seem distant once you reach the Buda Castle. The grounds are teeming with battalions of tourists armed only with guidebooks and a camera (or two). Tourism is the main industry in this city. It attracts over 20 million visitors each year, making it one of the most popular destinations in Europe due to its beautiful setting and affordability.

My destination, though, lay beyond the castle grounds. In one of the guide books, Rough Guides (a great series, I should add), had mentioned a small defunct pharmacy turned into a museum of medicine. The Golden Eagle Pharmacy Museum proved easy enough to find just down the street from the castle, and tucked between souvenir shops and overly expensive restaurants. I walked inside and it was immediately obvious that i was the first visitor of the day.

The other occupants of the building, an aged man and woman, leapt up, surprised by the daylight trailing in behind me. The woman had white hair pinned up on the back of her head, a knit sweater, and silver glasses. She was the woman who sat on legions of auxiliary volunteer clubs around the country, often working in the bookstore, pressing numbers into a cheaply bought blue calculator, peeling away price tags with her wizened fingernails. The man also had white hair, a bit unruly, that danced around his widening bald spot. He wore spectacles as well, and more unusually, a lab coat. It was probably supposed to be a doctor's coat, but without a stethoscope, he easily fit the bill of the crazy professor. They both waved me over, then briefly discussed between themselves before announcing they would allow me to visit the museum for only half of the normal student rate (about 1 euro). However, after spying my camera, they reaffirmed that, regretfully, the rate for a photography permit remained unchanged.

As I turned to start examining the cases, the man made a sudden exclamation, and asked the woman for something. She pulled out a single plastic page holder, the kind elementary-aged children put their school reports inside, Once the page had exchanged hands and eventually reached me, I realized I was holding the English guide to the museum. I made my way from case to case, examining the contents, consulting my guide, and snapping a couple of pictures before moving to the next case. It became obvious rather quickly that the "guide" was not an English translation of the museum labels, but the briefest of summaries, prepared, perhaps, by the only English-speaking volunteer. I kept looking at the labels, that were often several paragraphs, then at my guide, with lines such as:

"Pharmaceutical jars from Europe about the 15th Century."

That would be it. There could be twenty different items in the entire case and my guide would only mention the jars. The painting of Christ getting a prescription filled by a nun (men and women of the cloth took on the role of the pharmacist in early Europe) was a highlight.

The museum also had two dioramas set up-- a 16th C pharmacy stand with actual Golden Eagle containers recovered from all across Europe. The second room had an alchemist laboratory, except the display was so over the top it was laughable. Yellow stars were painted on the wall, taxidermied animals hung from the ceiling, and nary a mineral in sight The display cases in this room held more intriguing items, such as Francis Bacon's notebook, and an early water purifier (not exactly the faucet version). But the real mystery was the mummified human head. I looked at my paper in vain for an explanation.

"A cabinet ful of pharmaceutical supplies and ingredients."

A bit foolishly, I turned the paper over, hoping for some further explanation, but here was none. So, I marched back to the front of the museum, and asked the wacky scientist (who was currently leading a tour in Spanish). He excused himself from his tour group (of 2) and walked back with me where he explained that shavings from the head were believed to cure epilepsy. On that note, I reached the end of my tour. As I purchased a postcard, the old woman suddenly reached out for my guide sheet.

"This?" I held it up.

Smiling she reached over the counter, grabbing it away, and tucking it under the cash register for the next English speaking tourist to use.

* * * * *

My bus left at the obscene hour of 0630, so the next morning, I quietly maneuvered around the dorm room and lugged my bags down the to the landing. The hostel manager had assured me I could press a button to open the door to the street. However, once I reached the door, I could find no such button. Frustrated, I pressed my face against the small window, and looked out onto the street. Suddenly, I saw a street sweeper. She was dressed in a large overcoat, her hair hidden under a scarf, busily sweeping away the evidence of last night's debauchery. I watched her, and when she glanced up and saw my face through the gray glass, she stopped and considered me for a moment. Then, she typed a code into the keypad. The door fell open, and I tumbled out onto the street. Surprised, I thanked her profusely, she nodded, the scarf bobbing. I turned away, to catch the tram, when I realized I had no change for the ticket machine. I turned back to her, already reabsorbed in her task, and tapped her shoulder. She started, then looked at me.

"Change?" I asked. She shrugged and gestured that she did not understand. I pulled out the bill, made a motion like I was cutting it up, pointed to her, then back to me. She frowned. I repeated the actions. Finally, she smiled, nodding. Looking slyly over her shoulder, she dug into the folds of the coat pulling out a coin purse. She opened it and shook out the contents, counting them against my bill. She shook her head again-- not enough change. Depositing the purse and contents back inside her coat, she grabbed my elbow, and started leading me around the corner into an open shop. Prodding me, and gesturing that I should produce my money, I did. Then she launched into a list of instructions to the clerk. The clerk checked his drawer then shook his head. Muttering, she again grabbed my elbow, and led me to another store. Once again, she chattered, prodded, and gestured. This time, the clerk did have change, which he counted out to me. Grateful, I thanked them both, hugged the lady as she smiled, and ran for the tram.

* * * * *

Ideally, that is how my story in Budapest would end, a testimony to how strangers take care of each other, but the day had just started. I reached the tram, the ticket machine ate all my change. There was a strike, so no public transit was running anyway (I didn't know that) so I had to flag down a taxi. The driver asked me which station I was going to, and I had no idea. I collected myself enough to find it on the map, and he drove there, smiling and humming, obviously trying to relax my worried watch of the clock. I ran from the car into the station, frantically looking for the big orange bus. I had only 15 minutes. Desperate, I stopped at the information desk and asked.

"Ma'am, do you know where Orangelines is at? Orangelines?"
"No! No Information! No English!" and with that she turned around and refused to look at me anymore. From the side, I could see her face contorted into determined belief, as if she ignored me, I would just disappear. I tried again, and she moved away from me, leaving me there with my bags drooping at my sides. I watched her pointedly ignore me despite my attempts. My face reddened, embarrassed by my helplessness, and I started to cry. Frustrated, I turned away from the desk, started walking between the buses, wiping the tears into the backs of my hands. I was on my second loop around the bus terminal, still praying for some sort of miracle, when I saw my bus across the highway pulling to the curb in front of the sports bar. I ran across the highway, depending on the brakes of several cars, waving wildly so the driver would see me. I arrived out of breath and jogged over to the stewardess, digging out my ticket. She read it, then looked me.

"Pragha?" I nodded. "This bus is going to Vienna. Pragha leaves at 0700." To illustrate, she pointed to the time on my ticket.


I spent the next half hour milling around, thinking about the lady at the bus station. Her decision to ignore me, actively ignore me, as a fellow human being, brought forth a mixture of emotions: confusion, betrayal, but mostly guilt. I knew I had done the exact same thing, numerous times, and had never considered the other person I was ignoring. I'd like to resolve this story happily, saying that moment irrevocably changed my life, but in retrospect it hasn't. I still pointedly ignore panhandlers and junk salesmen. Despite my hurt, the information lady and I are just two varieties, it appears, of the same human apathy.

My bus arrived and I was delighted to see the same gap-toothed stewardess. We boarded the bus, and as I snuggled into my seat, beneath my dragon blanket, I heard the beginning of the safety announcement.

"Please use the toilets for No. 1 only and in case of an emergency...."

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May! Already?!

May. 4th, 2008 | 01:45 pm

The past month seems to have flown by, and not without reason. Sorry I have been out of touch. Due to the loss of my laptop, I have primarily been writing in notebooks and scraps of paper this past month, and am now in the process of slowly converting them. The good news, as the final part of that sentence indicates, is that i am now the proud owner of a MacBook. This weekend, i'll spend time uploading the final stories from my days on the road, newest quarterly report, and pictures (1300+).

But in the meantime, some context for what I have been doing lately, here is where i have been the past month:

March 28-April 1st: Athens, Greece and the Peloponnese
April 5-8th: Prague, Czech Republic and Budapest, Hungary
April 12-14: Easter Extravaganza at the Dormitory
April 19: Cruise of Mt. Athos (the Monastic Republic of Greece--this Vatican City)
April 20-21: Istanbul, Turkey with Mom and Dad
April 22: Istanbul, Athens, and Crete (oh my!)
April 23-24: Iraklio and Chania, Crete, Greece
April 25-26: Santorini, Greece
April 27-28: Athens, Greece (again!)
April 29-May 1: Central Greece (Nafpaktos, Messoloungi, Ioannina, and Meteora to name a few)
May 2: Thessaloniki, Greece


So, now that i'm approaching the end (i'm expecting to leave Greece sometime in mid-June), I am trying to find time to visit Romania, Corfu, Sparta, and possibly Georgia before i leave. This coming weekend i'll already be back on the road, chaperoning students on a trip to really northern Greece (the Prespa Lakes and Neapoli).

Watch for pictures as they're posted, and upcoming stories.

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The Second Quarter (or so)

Apr. 11th, 2008 | 10:48 am

Secret Santa is serious business in Greece. Mere minutes after the names have been drawn, brightly decorated notes started appearing under my door, often attached to candy bars. Lacking markers, I hastily found some leftover thank-yous from graduation and quickly wrote a note back, leaving it tacked to the bulletin board intended for such delivery. Ten minutes later, another note and candy bar had appeared. Slightly baffled by this speedy response, I decided to wait until the next morning to write a reply to my Santa. That evening, at work, one of the younger girls approached me and asked what was wrong. “Nothing. Why, do I look upset?”

“Well, your Santa is very sad. You didn't write back to her. And you haven't sent any candy.”

“Candy? I have to send candy to my Santa too?” The look I received conveyed that it was general knowledge that all good victims reciprocate chocolate with chocolate.

The next morning, I quickly went to Masouti's Supermarket and bought over fifteen euros worth of candy bars, markers, and construction paper. Over the next thirty days, I scrutinized the dormitory's sign-in sheet trying to deduce who my Santa was. I even shared my hypotheses with Kate, having whittled the field of around twenty-five girls down to two. Then, came the earth-shattering moment. The next day, there was a knock on my door. And my prime suspect, Maria, was standing there, nonchalantly holding out a note. “Your Santa wanted me to give this note to you.”

Baffled, I continued my second life as Encyclopedia Brown, trying to gather clues from door decorations before finally conceding a certain degree of confusion over who actually was sliding the notes under my door if it wasn't Maria. Everything fit. But what sort of Santa just came and handed you a note? Then, finally, the gift exchange arrived, and Maria, with much pride, announced she had indeed been my Secret Santa. I had to admire the brilliance of her plan

However, my Greek winter was substantially shorter than Kate's. Instead, I headed to the summery Southern Hemisphere to visit my former roommate, and Grinnell Corps Fellow, Megan Straughan in Lesotho. Together, Megan, Sarah Parker '07, and I travelled through South Africa, Lesotho, Zambia, Zimbabwe (okay, we walked on the Zimbabwean side of the Zambezi River), and Namibia for just under four weeks. Though it's not necessarily a unique experience for Grinnell Corps Fellows to visit other sites, I was struck not just by the expected differences, but also the similarities of our experiences, despite the very different settings. Sure, in light of the task Megan undertakes to have a hot shower, waiting twenty minutes for the water heater to warm up isn't such a burden, but we both shared difficulties with learning the language, engaging our students in extra-curricular activities, and responding to what we, as outsiders, see as intolerance towards other ethnic or social groups. And there were many of the same joys—recognizing a student was finally understanding a difficult concept, being accepted by our new community, and sharing parts of our culture with new friends. Hearing that someone else was having those same experiences and talking about how they had reacted was so helpful. By recognizing these similarities, I was also able to personally resolve how working in Greece is a form of service, despite it differing from rural Africa, and return to Anatolia more excited for the upcoming semester.

One of the most notable changes this semester is simply how comfortable I have become around the dorm kids and vice-versa. First semester, there was a stiff awkwardness to interactions, as we both figured out how to best accomplish certain tasks. Now, we all know what the expectations are, though that doesn't always mean they're followed. Plus, as the spring weather helps to coax us all outside more often, everyone generally seems to be more relaxed. So, instead of spending weekends cooped up watching movies, there is a lot more time for playing “Mielo” (Apple), the very physical Greek version of “Monkey in the Middle.” Of course, my personal favorite is the ice cream delivery service, possibly Greece's second best gift to the world after democracy.

Outside of the dormitory, Kate and I both had the chance to do some long-term subbing after school resumed. Most of these assignments I enjoyed. On one of these weeks, I had a lower end third form class (9th grade). We were reading Trifles, a play about a woman who kills her husband in rural Iowa, by Susan Glaspell. I love this play, and wanted to get the students involved too. We spent the first two days reading over the play, talking about Iowa, and the role of women in farming communities. But at the end of the second day, when we started on reading comprehension questions, no one knew who the killer was (it's very obvious in the play). Since we still had time left, I asked some students to act out certain scenes, and then would draw on the board how each scene connected to each other. As the class ended, you could sense most of the students were starting to get the bigger picture. The next class, Phil Holland asked if he could co-teach and observe my class. I was nervous having Phil there, especially since I wasn't entirely sure how the kids comprehended the story, even after review. But the class went really well. Not only did the atmosphere stay fun and energetic (including a moment where I demonstrated how the vicim was killed using Phil as a example—his idea) but the kids also proved that they understood the text on a deeper level and we had some great discussions about the social implications and the subtexts of the play.

Besides revisiting Iowa in the high school literature canon, I've also been in the strange position of teaching classes on both September 11th and the Vietnam War. The teaching instructions for the first class were especially vague, since I was supposed to talk about my own memories of that day and then come up with a class list on how September 11th had changed the world. As we wrote different events on the chalkboard, I soon was being faced with questions about various events. “When did Osama Bin Laden die?” “Then why is he still alive?” “Wasn't he in Iraq?” “If he wasn't in Iraq, why did the United States start a war there?” Their questions, entirely innocent within the context of this class, deeply unsettled me since I, myself, had those same concerns about the Unite States' foreign policy, without any real answers. As I provided the answers my government had given me, trying to keep politics outside of the discussion, there was a quiet dissatisfaction throughout the classroom. None of us found tangible answers that day, and our class list became a lightening rod for political opinions.

A month later, my class was reading a short story by Gary Paulson on a returning Vietnam veteran who suffers from PTSD. Though I realized the similarities between this class and the last, I somehow felt that history provided more answers. But unlike the previous class, this one was completely unruly and we did not get very far in the story or discussion. Students kept yelling and talking rather than focusing. I eventually asked three of the students to leave, but the overall atmosphere did not improve. Indeed, it worsened as the students from the hallway kept opening the door or banging on the windows. When I tried to explain to the class, from a personal level, how important the Vietnam War was, in history and to me, as the granddaughter of a veteran, no one seemed to care. I left unhappy because of the discipline problems that had ensued, but the lack of respect these students had for a major world event. Even though I'm supposed to be teaching English Literature, in times like these, classes become more American History. While to me these events carry an almost religious importance, for Greek students, they are just reading selections, with little social baggage attached, and as a teacher, I find it difficult to face these events so lightly.

While I've become more comfortable with the kids, I still often find myself confused or frustrated by certain aspects of my job. One of the dorm students was having trouble in her English class, specifically with her writing, and asked me to proofread her assignments. I greatly enjoyed these sessions, we'd often go through several drafts of an essay, and I could see the progress she was making as she remembered to incorporate corrections from previous papers into new ones. During these meetings, though I was there to help with grammar and structure, I often found myself working as a sounding board, a safe place where she could put together different language concepts or vocabulary words before writing them into her essay. Usually, through the act of talking through a problematic sentence, she could ultimately correct the errors on her own. After about two weeks, the dormitory director asked me to stop meeting with this student, since my job while on duty was to make sure I am available to everyone. While I certainly understand that I should be a resource for the whole dormitory, many of the other students don't actively seek out language help outside of study hall. Without these lessons, my duties consist of sitting with another advisor, in an office, and watching over various sign-up sheets, something I am capable of doing while assisting someone with their homework. Frustrations aside, it once again raised the question of exactly what our position in the dorm is. Am I a language assistant here? A resident advisor? Both? Is one of these aspects more important than the others? How much time should I give to any one student? Do I benefit the Anatolia community more by having informal conversations with a variety of students, intensive meetings with a select few, or a combination?

Complaints aside though, the past quarter (and a half) has certainly been more enjoyable. Besides dormitory work and substitute teaching, I was able to start tutoring several students on campus. Each of these students is a different age and their abilities vary greatly. Beatriki, my littlest, is only four, so our lessons often consist of playing various games, drawing butterflies, or cooking up some imaginary soup. Recently, she has begun to question the justice in having to learn English when I, apparently, don't have to learn Greek. While I certainly empathize with her point, we've reached a middle ground where for each book we read in English, I will also read one in Greek. While this system seems to work right now, I do worry what will happen when we move past picture books. Besides Beatriki, I work with two boys, both named Nikos. Nikos the Younger is a third grader, and presents a unique challenge because I no concept of what a third grader learning a foreign language should really know. While his lessons can't be as unstructured as Beatriki's, I try to incorporate comic books and games such as “I Spy” into our weekly lessons.

Finally, Nikos the Elder is a high school student retaking the Cambridge Proficiency Exam. In the States, we have our own ongoing debates about teaching to the test, but here, these students must take such exams and pass them if they'll ever be able to go to school abroad (or often, even to apply to a well-paying job domestically). There is no other option besides teaching to the test, and trying to reconcile that fact while infusing our sessions with a bit more creativity can be daunting. We have just over a month left of lessons before the exam, and I constantly am worried he won't be suitably prepared. This anxiety leads me to weigh every activity against the possible outcome. If we do a creative writing exercise today, will it be at the expense of learning about formal letters or proper use of infinitives? How do I balance my own desire to show him how enjoyable writing can be with the hard mechanics he'll be tested on? Am I even qualified to teach someone about grammar when I still am guilty of mistakes, like ending sentences with a preposition? When I originally applied for Grinnell Corps a year ago, I did wanted the experience of teaching outside of the prison system, where I volunteered for four years during college. Was it the activity of teaching I enjoyed? Or the setting? These weekly lessons, substitute teaching, and leading various extra-curricular groups haven't necessarily given me a clear answer but have shown that yes, I enjoy teaching to a variety of ages, situations, and subjects. Rather than narrowing my future choices, this year has only seemed to compound them exponentially.

That future seems to be approaching far too quickly, as we continue to roll through April, and June seems almost on the horizon. This winter, the International Baccalaureate students performed one of my favorite shows, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and three months later, I continue to find myself humming the opening song “Comedy Tonight!” while working. Whether its one of the older students waking everyone else up at 7 AM to surprise me on Friday morning, breaking up a game of strip-poker, or learning the Greek origins of the word “ditto,” I continue to find daily opportunities to laugh. Recently, one of our dorm students argued I should watch a funny movie with them because laughing adds years to your life. If that is the case, after this year in Greece, I'll need to start planning for a longer retirement.

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Independence Day!

Mar. 27th, 2008 | 01:56 pm

Happy Greek Independence Day, everyone!

On Monday and Tuesday, Greece celebrated its independence after 400 year of Turkish rule. So, in true Greek fashion, i spent the day eating at tavernas (for 4 hours--not joking), drinking in cafes (three cafes--another 4 hours), and dominating the Greeks at UNO (3 outta 5 games)!

But now, it's back to work, and living without a computer. As you may have noticed from my lowlights, my laptop, after lovingly serving me for the past three years, crashed last week. What followed, as i tried to figure out whether it could be prepared, as the single best conversation i have had in Greek. Observe:

Me: Hi, this is Katie Jares, the intern. I brought my laptop in on Wednesday.
ITS Guy: It's broken.
Me: Well, yeah. I know that. What's wrong with it.
ITS Guy: It doesn't work.
Me:.....Yes.....that's true. Would you recommend i fix the problem with this one or get a new one?
ITS Guy: Get a new one. This one doesn't work.

So, i'll be trying to figure out if it is more economically savvy to have my parents bring a new laptop when they visit or if i should buy one here. Decisions, decisions. Though, i am looking forward to having a clean surface for all the stickers i have collected on my travels this year.

An update on travel plans-- Tonight i will be headed back to Athens to chaperone a debate trip. Sunday, i'll be making a day trip down to Mycenae to see the fabled Lion Gate. Next weekend, i will be traveling back to the land of my roots, visiting Prague and Budapest (and staying in a place called the "Hostel Clown," a nicely done play on words if i may say so myself). With any luck, i'll be able to update more this week, and finally get caught up on my great backlog of stories.

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Three Months of Highs and Lows

Mar. 23rd, 2008 | 12:52 am

Wow! The time has flown by so quickly, and suddenly, it's almost April, and my year in Greece is approaching its conclusion. I'm sad it has gone by so fast. The past quarter has been a busy one, and i have compiled a list of highs and lows from the past 90 days. Enjoy!


Perhaps the most notable accomplishment of the last three months has simply been how at ease I've become with the dormitory kids. There is a certain group of younger students (and several older ones as well) that include me in their activities and games. As these relationships continue to grow, I have started to enjoy my job more and more. I do start looking forward to going to work now, playing Apple (the Greek version of Monkey in the Middle) or balloon volleyball, talking about Greek islands, or fixing them tea and cookies in my apartment. I can already tell that by June, which seems to be approaching much faster than it should be, it will be hard to leave.

Similarly, I have also found several private lessons. Obviously, many Corps members have noted in their reports how private lessons supplement their income, but for Kate and I, our clients have become surrogate families. I also enjoy the range of challenges they present. Veatriki (Beatrice) is only four. Twice a week we play games, do each other's hair, draw countless pictures of butterflies, and bake (imaginary) cakes for an hour, all while I'm speaking English. Nikoli is a third grader from Anatolia Elementary and we spent a lot of time going over new grammar lessons. His lessons are the most challenging because I have no comparison for what a Greek third grade English class should be like, how much vocabulary he should know, or what exercises are too difficult. Overall, he does well at written work, but has trouble translating those same skills into spoken exercises. Finally, Nikos is a high schooler who is retaking the proficiency exam and has the most methodical study schedule with multiple books and essays to cover in the next two months as he prepares.

I have to tell a great Veatriki story quickly. Last week, we were playing a game where I pick out a picture, say the word together, and she picks out the first letter of word. (My hope is that we'll move up to spelling the word together). When we got to apple, Veatriki insisted it was “mielo” rather than apple. So, instead of “a” she picked a “u,” since the lowercase mi in Greek looks like a u. I corrected her, said the word again, and picked up the “a.” Once again, she disagreed, and picked up the “u.” We each did this about one more time each, when finally, she dragged out her LeapFrog, turned on the word game, and showed me that an apple was, in fact, mielo, and started with a “u.” Hard to argue with a four-year-old who is smart enough to use another game against you.

Many tournaments and field trips have allowed Kate and I to both do some long term substitution. On one of these weeks, I had a lower end third form class (9th grade). We were reading Trifles, a play about a woman who kills her husband in rural Iowa, by Susan Glaspell. I love this play, and wanted to get the students involved too. We spent the first two days reading over the play, talking about Iowa, and the role of women in farming communities. But at the end of the second day, when we started on reading comprehension questions, no one knew who the killer was (it's very obvious in the play). Since we still had time left, I asked some students to act out certain scenes, and then would draw on the board how each scene connected to each other. As the class ended, you could sense most of the students were starting to get the bigger picture. The next class, Phil Holland asked if he could co-teach and observe my class (I had told him about my concerns). I was nervous having Phil there, especially since I wasn't entirely sure how the kids comprehended the story, even after review. But the class went really well. Not only did the atmosphere stay fun and energetic (including a moment where I demonstrated how the vicim was killed using Phil as a example—his idea) but the kids also proved that they understood the text on a deeper level and we had some great discussions about the social implications and the subtexts of the play. I was extremely proud of the class for engaging the text so well.

Two issues of In Focus have been released. We still have problems with getting kids to attend meetings consistently, but I'm happy with the quality of our finished publication, and am pleased by the strong core group of students that have dedicated themselves to writing articles. Several of the dorm students are included in that core, another factor that makes me proud since they arrived at Anatolia with weaker English skills and now are writing stories for the newspaper.

On the subject of newspapers, Thessaloniki has an English paper (The Thessaloniki Press) and after seeing a call for writers, I sent in a writing sample and some of my photography. The editor thought they were great and has invited me to do a monthly “photo column” featuring one of my pictures and an accompanying prose piece. Plus, he also encouraged me to write other articles too. I'm looking forward to writing again on a regular basis.

In early February, we had the forensics competition. As you'll recall, the girl i was working with, Ioanna, was reading the first chapter of The Princess Bride. When we started, the forensics coach told me that she did not expect Ioanna to make the team, but to work on the piece to help her gain some experience. Ioanna was determined to make like the piece, and over the last semester, she gained so much confidence in her own ability to speak English even added emotion to her reading. The progress was obvious when she did her final reading, and she was named as an alternate to the forensics team (so fourth out of about 10 kids). I was so proud of her and all of the work she did on that piece. Later this month, we're having a movie party so she can see why I made such a big fuss about the film.

I would be remiss not to include all the amazing traveling I have been able to do in the last three months. Southern Africa with Sarah Parker and Megan Straughan in January then Greece and Amsterdam with Willa Campbell and Vincent Solomeno (Truman) in February and early March. Both trips helped put things in perspective, both the positives and negative aspects, think about the future, and were just really fun. I fell in love with Amsterdam, quite despite what I expected, and am thinking actually of applying for a Fulbright to go back for their Urban Welfare Program. But that would be a couple years down the road. So many things to say about all these trips, they could safely take up pages on their own.

To thank me for letting him stay up late to complete some papers, one of the older students in the dorm woke all the boys up for me one morning. It was completely disorienting to walk into the hall at seven-o-clock and have them all yell “GOOD MORNING.” For a couple of seconds, I thought I had overslept and that it must be later than seven.

The Thessaloniki Film Festival just finished. All the films I saw (around 15) were fantastic, and I enjoyed the event greatly.

Finding an Indonesian restaurant in town. It's neither cafeteria food nor Greek.

Anatolia has been hosting several wonderful “mini-interns” the past couple of months, including right now, an Oxford exchange student named Elizabeth. It's wonderful having other people my age around to hang out with after work on Friday nights.


I'm getting really tired of the cafeteria food. It's repetitive and the novelty is gone. I just want summer to be back so I can eat grapes again.

I knew it would eventually happen, but it made me a bit melancholy when I stopped receiving letters from home. It's a sign that I've been here long enough that people are forgetting to write. It always really sucks to have an empty mailbox.

My computer crashed.

The Social Action Group advisor and I continue to have differences on our goals for the club. At this point, I'm not sure I want to be involved anymore. That feeling surprises me since I was so excited when the idea was pitched.

Last month, our assistant dormitory director made a very loud homophobic remark during a staff meeting. It was unsettling to both Kate and me, and neither of us really knew how to react, so we said nothing. Two weeks later, the hate crimes on campus occurred, sparking an online dialogue about a response to homophobia. The events at Grinnell made me, as someone who supports the GLBT community, feel worse for not speaking up and saying something. Thinking back though, I'm still not sure what I would have said or done. In this situation, how do I balance respect for Greek culture (which is more conservative generally than American culture) with respect for my friends' sexual orientation? Plus, what is the proper way to call a supervisor out (or even just express your disapproval) for making such comments?

One of the students has been a problem the entire year. Not only does she not listen, but is clear she lacks respect for the rules and the advisors. Then, at the beginning of March, her school suspended her for suspicion of dealing and using drugs. Combined with her many other infractions, all of the advisors wanted to kick her out of the dormitory immediately. However, because of her family's money and sway at the school, the administrators would not approve our decision. And insisted that we allow her to stay until the end of the academic year. She has been suspended until after Easter. But then she'll be back, and I'm not looking forward to her attitude when she returns.

Despite several calls, I have not been able to find an outside organization where I can volunteer.

My Greek is not progressing, at my own laziness and unwillingness to go to class. I do feel self-conscious about it though and keep trying to psych myself into learning. These spurt usually last a weekend or so. And then I'm back to apathy. Kate's Greek, on the other hand, is improving rapidly, so I often feel even more self-conscious when she's around.

Upcoming Plans and Goals:

Now that forensics is over, I'm trying to get involved with some work in the grant writing department and at ACT's public relations office.

I'm organizing an Easter Egg Hunt for the dormitory for the weekend before Orthodox Easter. I also am working with the IB students to organize a large Easter Egg Hunt at the children at the Refugee Center.

Observing a third grade class at Anatolia Elementary so I'll have a better idea of where Nikoli falls in the spectrum of language usage and interviewing the teachers afterwards.

Chaperoning the debate team to Athens, judging some of the competition, and visiting Mycenae.

More traveling! I'll be visiting Prague the beginning of April, then traveling around Greece and Turkey with my parents over Easter vacation, and finally, hanging out with my sister at Dracula's castle (Romania) in late May.

Hosting Grinnellians Christina McFall and Emily Guenther on their cross-Hellenic journey.

Continuing to work with another student on her independent reading for next year.

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God Bless the Mediterranean

Mar. 8th, 2008 | 07:23 am

Today, before work, Kate and i laid out to soak in some early spring time rays. A midwest girl, i really can't recall ever tanning before the end of April. Or even May. Let alone March. 

What great weather! You should all come visit!

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