Allie Kossoy was the Grinnell Corps Greece fellow for 2008-2009.
Allie Kossoy's Reports
Report 1Allie Kossoy
I like to use the analogy of parking in Thessaloniki to sum up my first three months here. If there are parking rules in the city, they are unknown and not enforced. Drivers plant their cars wherever they feel like it: sidewalks, on the median (with two wheels hanging off), double parking, and sometimes in the middle of a two lane street with their caution lights flashing. At first I loved the parking here. 'What a cultural experience' I thought to myself. 'Parking here looks like fun!' But slowly, the amusement wore away. I grumbled every time I was on bus 58, attempting to make it from downtown to Anatolia in less than an hour, but waiting for the bus to go circumvent a crooked, double-parked car in the middle of the road.
My first three months in Greece exemplify my changing emotions about parked cars. Upon arrival, I LOVED everything. The campus was quiet but beautiful, as kids had not come back from their summer vacations yet. Walking around, I saw olive trees, plum trees and even a fig tree. I was welcomed by Phil Holland, one of our directors and head of the English Department, and Teresa Platidou, director of the dormitory. After getting accustomed to the campus and exploring downtown, Calvin and I headed to Halkidiki, a peninsula nearby, for some last minute relaxation and tans before getting to work.
Upon getting back to campus, I learned what my responsibilities entailed: working shifts in the dormitory (which included waking kids up, helping them with their homework, playing, making sure they go to bed, making sure they aren't in trouble), teaching kids yoga classes (well I volunteered for that one), substitute English teaching, helping with Forensics Club and Pottery Club, writing grants for the president of the college, helping start a Big Brother/Big Sister program in the dorm, organizing tutoring for the dorm, organizing another Big Brother/Big Sister program, and finally, creating and teaching my own weekly SAT class.
Apart from working responsibilities, I was also trying to find "extracurricular" (off campus and not related to my job) activities that would ease my transition into a new life. I spent time online and talking to people trying to find a yoga studio, swim team, and any other fun group to make friends and keep healthy while being here. I was very excited at the prospect of learning Greek through yogic poses, swim workouts, or maybe pottery instructions.
I started taking Greek lessons and an art appreciation class, two things I never had time for at Grinnell. These classes while not on a Grinnell level of learning, helped me assimilate into life here, learn some fun art things, and make friends with people studying abroad. On the weekends and some weekdays I would wonder around downtown, visiting ruins and getting lost. Other highlights have been chaperoning a trip to Mount Olympus (snow in October), taking a trip to Meteora (six beautiful monasteries that reside on cliffs) and having Halloween in another country (we carved orange gourds that slightly resembled pumpkins).
However, after a month or so, I was walking to swim practice (I joined a high school team, because apparently adults here don't swimâ¦or exercise together) and in the middle of the sidewalk, obstructing the path on all sides, was a black, four-door car. 'How annoying!!!' I thought to myself. I just want to walk to practice and this parking business in SO inefficient, so disorganized. Around the same time, exasperation seemed to find itself in all aspects of my new life. For example, this reflection on one of my substitute English classes:
The bell rings, and air whooshes out my lungs in a deep exhalation. My knees tremble and I sit for a second. Did that really just happen? In only 45 minutes I was chewed to pieces and spit back out by 15 loud, spastic, seventh graders. From the moment I entered the classroom it was nothing but chaotic. There would be no learning of the English language. I tried to take attendance and they told me their names were "James Bond" and "Antonio Vanderas." I tried to read aloud but couldn't get the kids to stop their side conversations. I asked questions about the reading and no one would respond. Even my backup plan, a rousing game of heads up 7-up failed because the kids could not follow the instructions.
I was also feeling overwhelmed with all my job responsibilities. My contract for this job states that I will "counsel students in the dormitories, substitute English teach in the English department, tutor students in English, assist with extracurricular activities, and take part in other activitiesâ¦" Yet, my twenty-hour-a-week-figure-out-what-I-want-to-do-with-my-life-while-living-abroad-job soon resembled my Grinnell life, too busy to breathe.
I recognized the need for change, and started "finding ways around the parked cars." I began by meeting with our director Phil Holland, who agreed that I was taking on a more-than-healthy load of work. I wrote the president graciously saying thank you for the grant-writing projects, but that I was too busy working for other areas of the school to continue to work for him. I told the club instructors that I would not be able to help except on weeks when I had the time (which so far I still haven't found extra time). Finally, I stopped volunteering for more extra work, but tried to think in a stereotypical Greek way (aka do as little work as you can). I'm practicing decision making in when to take initiative in my job, and when it is okay to let others do work.
Another job frustration was with the kids. My perfectionism and persistence that worked so well at Grinnell did not work here. I had to learn to be patient and be okay with making mistakes (MANY mistakes) with the kids. Trial and error helped me understand which kids would tell me the truth about bedtimes, when I should be lenient and when I needed to be strict, and how to set boundaries.
I was also frustrated with my extracurricular activities. Growing up always having team exercise, the team here was inept. It took an hour to get to practice (there are always traffic jams and very inconsistent buses), and I never wanted to go. None of the other swimmers interacted with me, and the practices were long and boring. As much as I wanted to keep swimming, I decided to give it up. I needed an attitude change, and not just for swimming, but for my whole life here.
I began to compare my cultural beliefs with those around me. I realized that my American, productive, efficient, Protestant work ethic does not work here. I stopped trying so hard and instead try to enjoy the process of adjusting to a new life. Instead of getting frustrated and angry, I try to laugh. I remember that I came here to thrive in another culture, and learn from that experience. Hopefully the ups and downs of my first three months will help the following month flow easier. I'm sure that one day I will look back at this time and think, 'Man, those parked cars weren't so bad. They taught me a lot about who I am and where to go from here.'
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