Katie Diedrick was the Grinnell Corps Greece fellow for 2007-2008.
Kate Diedrick's Reports
Report 1Kate Diedrick
How could I have known that a traveling musician and a private club would aid me in my transition to Thessaloniki, Anatolia College, and Greek culture?
I arrived on the Anatolia College campus at dusk, after a late-afternoon flight from London. The campus was deserted: the students had not yet returned from summer break, the teachers and administrators had gone home, and the only creatures who greeted me were the campus cats and dogs. But after a busy three days in London, I welcomed the silence. And I was enchanted by my spacious yet quaint apartment, with its view of the city and the sea. I felt on the eve of adventure.
Later that evening, I got a telling taste of Thessaloniki, guided by Phil Holland, the chair of the Anatolia College English department. He took me, Katie Jares, and Katie Chow, another Katie and a new English teacher, out to the old part of Thessaloniki for dinner. We roamed around amidst crumbling walls and ruins, now the backdrop of people's daily lives. After dinner came my first surreal experience, made even more so due to my recent arrival and general fatigue. As we were making our way back to the car we noticed a building's facade that resembled a posh dance club or restaurant. The owner, who was standing outside the door, invited us in. After inquiry we found out that it used to be a restaurant but was now a "private club." As the owner lost no time in telling us, he used to be a traveling musician and had bought all the equipment to make his basement into a restaurant and performance room; he had it outfitted with black lights, strobe lights, and many strange collections from his around the world journeyings.
At first he just spoke to us in a mix of Greek and English about his life. But soon the presence of an audience was too much for him, and he proceeded to give us a sampling of his favorite American songs (well sung, although he continuously implored us to help him with the words) and a series of Greek songs that he felt represented the canon. It was an odd and entertaining end to my first day, but it was more than that. After spending more than two months in Thessaloniki, I realize it was an excellent introduction to the Greek-American fusion and cultural exchange that would color my first three months here. Not to mention a prototypical example of Greek hospitality--mixed with a little too much information and excitement.
Coming from a small Michigan rural town, caught between the east and the midwest, I expected Thessaloniki, a city of a million nestled amongst rolling hills on the Thermaic gulf, to be unlike anything I had experienced. The city is new, old, big, small, rural and urban-and undoubtedly and consistently exciting. When I first arrived I have to admit that the views of the red tiled roofs, the city center and the crystal clear water (before you reach the city) led my expectations slightly astray. While I have spent time amidst all of these delights, my daily life at Anatolia feels a lot like that to be found in a small town environment-the same people, a few block radius, routine, and gossip. Anatolia is a 45 minute bus ride and a 20 minute cab ride from the city, and as I have found myself sufficiently busy during the week and then working every other weekend, it is rather difficult at times to "get out." Not that I necessarily need to with the flurry of activity, work, fun, surprise and entertainment that the kids and my job provide me with right here on campus, but still it is certainly different than expected.
My position at Anatolia allows me to serve others in a comfortable environment that also facilitates contemplation, rest and the kind of pleasure reading that got lost under piles of required reading and paper drafts at Grinnell. If this sounds like some sort of neo-liberal, self-indulgent, "whole person" babble, then I might ask that we re-define the terms of service. Those that think it is possible to leave "the self" entirely behind and focus solely on "the great need of others" might heed Ralph Waldo Emerson's words: "it is one of the beautiful compensations of life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself." It is only when the desire to help oneself is the sole driving force in our service that this definition becomes problematic. One of the most important things that Grinnell Corps Greece has given me is a reformed definition of service. To better illustrate my "working" definition and how I have come to it, I will offer another anecdote.
One of the older dorm students, albeit a new arrival, spends at least half an hour every day teaching me Greek words, only to ask me to credit her two hours of "service." As I sign her sheet for half an hour I question the validity of calling tutoring a 23 year old, fully capable, post-student, "service." She assures me that I am alone, sad, frightened, and unable to communicate, thus validating the label "service." Ironically, I am none of these things. But I am sure she is at least two. Alone because she is away from her parents at the age of 16, and sad because she is a teenager and all teenagers are a little bit sad. This one example of my daily life with the students represents one of the biggest joys of my position here: having a relationship with these young people so unlike most other relationships. I am not just her friend, she is mine, yet I am also her authority and parental figure. And, ironically, while I am here doing "service," I have also become the object of a service project. My position (and that of my colleague Katie) is different from that of the other counselors because we are "out of the loop" so often because of the language barrier, and sometimes we cannot understand the small dramas that occur on a daily basis. So, in a sense we ARE often a "service project" for the kids. It takes patience on their part to translate things to us, explain Greek customs, or elaborate on dorm rituals. And for their willingness (most of the time) to do these things, I do want to award them their due "credit," or service, be it real or symbolic.
At the best of times I am overwhelmed with my investment in, and extreme love for, these young people--their lives, grades, friends and even their love problems. At the worst of times (which are thankfully few) I feel like I have been dropped into some parenting nightmare-"immature, twenty-three year old woman becomes single mother of sixty unruly teens." At these times I feel too close in age to the 17 year olds to present them with sage advice or reprimand them for things I myself did (and probably still would do), and too sensitive to the continual ups and downs of the 13 and 14 year olds who hold hurtful grudges for a rather extended period of time. But more often than either of these extremes, I feel a part of a living community in which I am a role model and counselor, but also compatriot, despite the different nationalities. The kids and I share the same frustrations: the dorm food, the fact that there is only one washer and dryer, and we delight and mourn over the comedies and tragedies (usually a little bit of both) that to date include: a flood in the boys' hall (prounounced FLUID over the phone to me at 6:30 in the morning) a broken arm, an accident with nose surgery and a thrown toilet paper role, one student leaving the dorm after breaking a number of rules, the older kids' annoyance with the 12 am curfew and many other of our daily dramas, progresses and arguments.
When I am not spending time with the kids in the dorm, I am attending my Greek class at the American College of Thessaloniki (right down the hill from Anatolia), helping the students who want to go to school in the United States with their college essays, teaching a SAT verbal prep class, assistant coaching the girls soccer team, co-leading a first form (7th grade) forensics club, playing soccer, running, or attempting to maintain my own social life. And of course, there have been the substitute teaching duties, which, so far, have been relatively few and far between. However, I have taught more than ten classes and have found myself enjoying them, despite the unruliness, and occasional rudeness in Greek. I do usually lose my voice and sometimes my cool, but I find both of these tactics rather effective in dealing with these kids. For the most part, although loud and hyper, they are interested in listening to me and happy to have a substitute, although they usually say, "Miss, why we don't have study?" "Study" is the term used when the students are given a free period, perhaps a little bit of wishful thinking since that is usually the last thing they engage in during "study."
To conclude my first report I will end with one final anecdote concerning something close to my heart. I did not come in with the expectation that I would play much soccer here, since I assumed that in a still largely "patriarchal" country, the men wouldn't want women to play and the women wouldn't be skilled. I was wrong on at least one account. While it is still the case that the women are not skilled (as a general population, there are certainly skilled players!) it is mostly because they do not play. But the men are happy for me to play, at least sometimes. On most Thursdays I play soccer with the faculty. The first time I went it was all men except for me-and mostly older men at that. But not only were they happy to have me play, they passed to me and included me more than I have ever been included in co-ed soccer in the States. But the best part was that I understood almost everything they were talking about! For the first time since I have been here I understood their language-the universal language of soccer. When a player misses the ball, an egregious foul occurs, or the ball goes over the fence, the reaction in all languages are (generally) the same. So, in the end, my soccer-assumptions were grossly wrong, showing me that what we assume is rarely what we find. Instead, I have found my narrow assumptions replaced by an inviting and pleasant surprise, one that has done a lot to make me feel at home here.
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