Bradley Iverson-Long was the Grinnell Corps Greece fellow for 2005-2006.
Bradley Iverson-Long's Reports
Report 1Bradley Iverson-Long
Among the first words scrawled into my Grinnell College Volunteer Send-Off Journal were, "Now I remember what I hate about foreign countries --> I'm so isolated. I can't eavesdrop on other conversations and I don't have anyone to talk to." These words were written by a sleep-, shower-, and luggage-deprived tourist, gazing at Hadrian's Arch, the 1,800-year-old symbolic welcome mat to Athens, Greece. I had just left my hostel, and was in Athens on the most hostile of days, a Sunday (when most business is shuttered) in August, when all residents are sweltered. It hadn't been a good day. Fortunately, my days have improved.
After living in Greece for eighty days, I can say with the utmost confidence that I am ready to begin working at Anatolia College. I now fully understand both the requirements of my job and the Greek alphabet. Hold on-I have already been working for two months? Can I have a do over?
Since I'm frequently asked by others, I suppose should clarify exactly what I do. If film credits for Anatolia College ran at the end of the school year, the students would be the stars, and Emily Zdyrko and I would be the "teenager wranglers." We work mainly in the boarding department, acting as parents-away-from-parents at 75 students' home-away-from-home. We feel many of the joys and toils of parenthood, only in smaller doses. Twice a week, I wake the kids up at 7 a.m. As a human alarm clock, I travel the halls, knocking on doors and in as nice a tone as I can muster, say "?a??ÂµÐ¹?a, it's time to wake up!" Early morning is not the time for conversation. Luckily, later in the day we get such gems as "What do you want?" "I have so much homework!" and "Uck, can you go away now?" Apart from these niceties, the kids every so often share gems of their lives, describing their family, their village or their favorite sports team. With these random bits of sincerity and customs, Greek culture has started to swathe me.
Another of our job responsibilities is to proctor study hall, which spans three and a half hours every school night. The gymnasium (junior high) students must study in a common area, and we must keep them quiet. They are not even allowed to sit two at a table, for fear that they will get distracted or, worse, loud. In September, our study hall responsibilities, along with the students' workload, were minimal, and I was able to do my Greek language homework. In the past few weeks, though, many students have needed help with their algebra, English, and chemistry. They get dumbfounded looks on their faces when I tell them I never took a chemistry class. Still, my "be quiet" glare is getting much more practice than their shock.
Walking into the Eleftheriades Library, where the students study in the afternoon, you're greeted by bright red letters atop computer screens that command "NO CHAT! NO GAMES!" During study hall and the weekends, when about half the students stay in the dorms, we try to keep the kids plugged into the non-digital world. Many of the younger students, boys mostly, will spend hours consecutively clicking mice and mashing keyboards, eyes transfixed on the glowing box supposedly transmitting joy. I talked with one boy this weekend about a computer game where he used all sorts of cheats so that he never dies, and then boasts about his high scores. He didn't understand my question about where the skill or fun of that was. Sadly, I'm sure my parents will recall memories of me as a boy, gazing longingly at my Super Nintendo on warm summer days, in these boys. Today I spend too much time hunched over my laptop, trying to stay connected with my friends and my culture. Perhaps the advent of the integrated circuit and the internet has led to a shared global experience.
I had the privilege to talk with former U.S. Ambassador to Senegal Harriett Elam-Thomas, who was a scholar-in-residence at the American College of Thessaloniki last month. At 18, she first left the U.S. for a year in France. Her time away from home strengthened her love for her country, and led her to a career in diplomacy and government service. Working for the U.S. State Department and living outside our borders, she spoke of "showing the flag," and being a positive ambassador to the United States, a country that, especially today, has a major P.R. problem internationally, to put it delicately. While many American citizens disagree with policy decisions made by our leaders, Elam-Thomas believed that it's not difficult for Americans to highlight ways our country has augmented our world, and not just with bomb craters.
In many ways, I am an American ambassador to Anatolia. Besides only speaking English, which is more necessity than choice, I also lead school clubs in two activities largely influenced by Americans: baseball and comic strips. Every Thursday, I go to a playfield, bringing an aluminum bat, some worn gloves and baseballs, all rare commodities in Greece. The ping of aluminum-on-ball shares the field with kids playing football in mildly-organized chaos that surprisingly has resulted in no permanent injuries. The kids may not care much about who won the World Series, but they relish their chance to step up the plate. Alas, they need to work on turning the double play and all other aspects of defense.
My love for comic books has overtaken baseball, and I'm happy to share what I know and love with a bunch of 13-year-olds. Two things that I don't know, though, are how to speak Greek fluently, and how to draw fluently. I've been able to get by on instructions from other drawing books, but I am planning some lectures based on Scott McCloud's theories of communication through comics, which I bet is precisely what the kids want.
While I journaled some nasty words on Athens, where I spent my first three days in Greece, I have greatly enjoyed the character of Thessaloniki. It is a much smaller city than Athens, and the downtown area is comprehensible and coverable on foot, without a map. Several large streets parallel the once-walled coast of the Thermaic Gulf and guide car and foot traffic. To the north is Ano Poli, the old city, which is what an American would imagine an old city looks like, only with hills. The narrow, winding cobblestone streets are confusing but charming, and the colorful buildings are sprinkled with colorful grafitti. I love open air markets, and Thessaloniki's largest is packed with sweet shops and sock vendors, while meat vendors stock decapitated pigs' heads close to fresh octopus. And while I have found Thessaloniki's two large comic book shops, there are still many parts of the town and the country left for me to discover.
Scattered throughout the modern downtown are rustic brown churches with Byzantine architecture. When open, the churches are a quiet break from the commerce and Greek drivers. I enjoy studying the religious icons, which look like comic strip panels but are loaded with meanings I don't recognize. I think Thessaloniki's churches reflect the Greeks approach to religion-it is integral to the lay of their lives, but consumed in short doses. Whenever a bus passes by a church, passengers cross themselves. At the school, a prayer is said before dinner each night. However, none of the students leave for church on Sunday morning, and I can't name anyone here that attends church on a weekly basis. Perhaps this is because I don't interact with many people over 30.
I re-viewed the most recent Greek ripple in American popular culture besides the Olympics, My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I enjoyed it much more than when I saw it two years ago. Sure, now I know what ouzo tastes like and how to say "Yes, I have nine goats" in Greek, but my appreciation goes slightly beyond recognition of all things Greek. What the film shows perfectly-no, not comedy-is the attempt to preserve one's culture. The Greek family's fear is that Toula, the protagonist/bride, will marry a non-Greek and abandon the culture central to their lives. I also have made a bold step, coming to live and work amid a different culture. It has been a tough shift. Toughest of all has probably been the Mediterranean approach to time-things move slowly, and everyone takes a break at three in the afternoon. Yet it has been a joyful shift. But, like Toula, I fear I'm in an intractable cultural situation. I was born an American, and that's how I'll remain. The big difference between us, besides the fact that I'm not getting married anytime soon, is that I am being encouraged, by my family, my college, and my new employer, to try out the other culture. So far, I've liked most of what I've experienced of the Greek life.
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