Will Stroebel was the Grinnell Corps Greece fellow for 2004-2005.
Will Stroebel's Reports
Report 1Will Stroebel
Now that it's November, we can finally see things beginning to take shape. I think at last that I've learned the ropes, and the pitfalls, of the job. It is difficult to develop a routine, though, because our work-hours are scattered about the week: one day I'll work from three to eight p.m., the next from five to twelve. And what exactly do we do when we're working? Well, at seven a.m. we must wake up all 68 of the students, going door to door and turning on lights, saying "good morning" just loud enough that they raise their heads from the pillow and stumble to their bathroom. We've apparently had problems with students coming late to morning class, so there is a certain pressure over our heads to put everyone out the door by 7:50. The students ought to go to the cafeteria for a small breakfast before they leave, but "breakfast" is not really a Greek tradition, so most students have only a cup of coffee with some sugar (or, perhaps, a cup of sugar with some coffee). There is little food of substance at breakfast.
After this frenetic hour of waking, we have the morning free. At times, we are asked to substitute-teach during this time. I have been unable to help with substitution, though, due to the Greek lessons I take downtown in the mornings. Unfortunately, then, Laura has had to field about 90% of the classes. So far, though, we've not seen much call for substitution from the teachers.
After school gets out, the students file back into the dormitory and we prepare for the afternoon duty. At three o'clock, the students have two hours of free time before study period. It is at this time that we should organize activities for them. One of the counselors (there are five of us: one older Greek woman, two Greeks our age, and Laura and I) has set up sports tournaments for basketball, soccer, volleyball, ping-pong, and pool. We've also begun preparing for the Thanksgiving dinner and concert, an event which the dormitory hosts for the entire faculty and staff every year. This year, Laura and I have the charge of organizing everything! We decided to create a choir and to teach them some traditional folk songs of America. They had their own ideas, though, and would not be told otherwise, so we've had to include some songs like "The Whole World in His Hands" and "We are Family"-simple enough, but hardly essential Americana. We tried to introduce songs they'd never heard, like "Shenandoah" and "Over the River," but of course they said no.
In this example we can define a trend: the students have a hard time with new things. Another example: I organized a cooking club, in which we made a traditional Thai stir fry. The process of creation was an amazing diversion for the students, each one cutting vegetables, mixing spices and sauces, and commanding a giant wok-they loved it!-but when it came time to eat the dinner, most students chose instead to eat the cafeteria food (which happened to be a small slab of ham hidden inside a thick sheath of fried grease). These sorts of examples are, really, small frustrations. Usually we and the students compromise: slowly we make progress with them; little by little, we introduce new customs to them. And, for the most part, once they try it, they're hooked.
This is because they are happy to be doing anything. I guess that the major problem of the past years has been that students have nothing to do in the dormitory. This year, we are trying to change this, and we've supplied them with a great sum of activities. I've even begun to teach them baseball! Not many students are interested right now, but again, I hope to slowly build interest.
So, back to the daily-schedule: at five o'clock comes the study period. We split the students into young and old; we take the younger students to the library, while the older remain in their rooms and study on the honor system. This study period lasts until seven-thirty. It grows long, especially for the younger students stuck in the library. It doesn't help that our superiors have imposed rather austere rules: no helping one another; no speaking; no moving from one table to another. So of course the students in the library get antsy after a while. And of course noise becomes a problem. But, honestly, I think that the students work well. Who can expect a 14-year-old to sit silent for two and a half hours?
After this, we have dinner. Unfortunately, the meals in the cafeteria are a pejoration of traditional Greek food: an island of pork, or beef, or stuffed pepper, surrounded by an ocean of grease. The food and drink outside of the dorm-in the local taverns and homes-usually sets the tongue to ecstasy and the limbs into a pleasant narcosis, but here in the cafeteria we are slowly losing all faith. The students, too, complain of the food, and often rush through the meal in less than ten minutes.
Then, from eight to nine, the students have an hour to unwind and do as they please. After this, again we take the younger students aside and make them study under our supervision until ten. At about this time, we begin to prepare to put them to bed. At 10:45, we round up the first two grades and herd them into their beds, saying "shh" and turning out the lights. Then, at 11, we do the same for the third and fourth grades. At 11:30, we conclude with the fifth and sixth grades. The students are never ready to drop off to sleep at their exact hour. They are always ready, though, to run down the hall and visit their friends in another room.
At times I'm too tired to deal with these little things, and by 11:30 I'm ready to fall over, but usually the students' pranks just endear them to me. They are really very funny, some of them hilarious. Last weekend, for example, Laura and I put together a Halloween party, in which we carved jack-o-lanterns, dressed up in costumes, and toured the campus, begging the faculty for candy and showing off our clothes. One young boy dressed up like Doctor Mario; he "borrowed" a girl's eyeliner to paint a long curling mustache on his cheeks and sideburns down his jaw. Another girl wrapped herself in toilet paper and shaded black wrings under her eyes. She adopted a convincing, lumbering stride and menacing stare. Of course, if you hold candy in front of them, most kids will do nearly anything.
It also helps us that we needn't work a full day from three to midnight. We have time to ourselves, time to prepare for the long haul. It is easier to appreciate the genius of these kids when you can get away from them for a few hours a day.
Almost all of our students come from the surrounding regions of Greece, almost none from Saloniki. They are mostly from middle-class or poor families and study here under scholarship. They work hard and show little of the pretension and worldliness that some of the local rich students seem to know so well. For the most part, it is a joy to work with them, despite the endless tricks. "They are little devils," one of the counselors says, "but I love them." Each one speaks English well enough, though naturally some from the countryside have less exposure.
Outside of the dormitory, our other duties have fallen into a regular routine. Every week I hold two clubs, which are open to the entire student body (not just the dorm students): poetry on Monday; on Thursday, baseball. Laura and I hold regular tutor sessions with those students who've less experience with English. Usually we meet with them individually for 35 minutes, four times a week, and help them with their reading, their grammatical lessons, and their orthography. I've also wanted to begin visiting the new elementary school, but it's difficult for me to find a contact there. In general, it is difficult to contact people here. E-mail is unreliable, answering machines seem not to exist, and word of mouth slips in one ear and out the other. Also, it is difficult that everyone around us speaks a foreign language. It is a lonely world here for the monoglot.
But we're slowly picking up the local tongue. And of course all the English-speakers here have adopted us like long-lost cousins. The faculty on campus have been very warm to us-each in his or her own way. (Each way, it seems, involves food and drink.) Some have taken us out to the best taverns, others into their own homes and kitchens, and yet others have taken us downtown to the bars, some time between night and morning. The president has given us tickets to jazz concerts downtown, to symphonic orchestras at the university. One family of teachers in particular has given us so much-their home. For holiday they toured Turkey and left us the charge of their house. This was not a problem for us: a week of our own home, a bed away from the dorm, a silence unbroken by the sounds of teenagers.
It also helps that we've Grinnell connections here. Kosmas Papadopoulos will be back home for the year. I already owe more than I can give for his friendship, for the late nights downtown in the small corners of town that Laura and I could never have found. This year would not have been the same without him. Denitsa Kortsanova has also come to Thessaloniki for a year of graduate study, and has joined our small band. Every Friday night, every weekend, it seems, I can find a small part of Grinnell downtown in the nightlife of Saloniki.
The life here in Greece has produced no noticeable culture-shock, as I am sure is the case in few of the other Grinnell Corps programs. Thessaloniki stands at the edge of Western Europe, and is thus as modern as any city I've known, but it is also shows traces of 400 years of Turkish occupation, and pieces of eastern culture are everywhere; the East itself is tantalizingly close. Saloniki is a sort of hub for the surrounding regions.
Just because the city is cosmopolitan, though, is not to say that there are no borders or tensions. Greek relations with both FYROM and Turkey have for some time been strained. But the Greeks rarely manifest these feelings; the locals raise their blood more over local sports than over politics. It is also important to note that much of the modern political tension results from ancient history. Matters of ancient archeology and Classical studies often become matters of modern nationalism: just as often as you hear people arguing over FYROM, you will hear them retelling the life of Philip of Macedon ("And I tell you, he was a Greek, not a Slav!"). As a foreigner, I have not often felt neglected. Greece is a land of great hospitality, if also of great national pride. They have their fill to say on Mr. Bush, as most human beings these days do, but they know that I myself am not Mr. Bush.
The culture here, with its gathering of east and west, ancient and modern, draws the visitor in, especially at night when the lights come on and the people come out. To walk down Navarinou square and see the throngs of university students gathered about the ruins of an ancient agora, to see nearby an old, sunken church, to hear the rock music creeping out of the bars, the bouzouki music from the taverns, is narcotic to the senses. It stupefies a foreigner like me. Naturally, then, I must seem stupid to the Greeks, who have grown up with this ancient history mouldering right beneath their feet. It is all so new to me.
Every week I am sure to embarrass myself at least once and to discover at least one new site. The city, though expansive, becomes more and more like a small town. More and more, when I go downtown to enjoy the evening, I've someone I know-a chance meeting, for a moment, in the crosswalk or sidewalk. We smile, say hello, and pass.
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