I’m sitting halfway up Mt. Olympus, currently feeling far from godlike.
I had tried to push my limits and decided to hike the mountain, something I used to be able to do with (somewhat) ease. About 3 years ago, I had the worst year of my life, resulting in a paralyzed left leg and now, a very weak and finicky one. You can ask me for the full story later, but long story short, I am limited and I hate it.
I was never the most fit kid, but I have always loved nature and exploring. Growing up at a summer camp in the forests of Wisconsin and having a nature trail in my back yard, falling in love with trees and green was inevitable.
Since my (botched) surgery, my love for nature has frustratingly not diminished. The five-hour hikes have turned into one-hour, harder trails into easy and less beautiful strolls. And today, the four-hour hike to see the Gods of Olympus has turned into a $25 cab ride and a $1.50 beer in a taverna not even Hades would want to be at, the rain putting out his fiery blue hair.
Knowing ones limit is something I still have not come completely to terms with. I am not good at saying no, holding anyone back or turning down a group activity. Coined, “FOMO” or “fear of missing out,” I push my limits, medical and mental, to match those around me, and in this case, it is not such a good thing. While I know no one on this trip would say anything mean about me, the fear of missing a great hike, an inside joke or worse, being the butt of the joke is worse than the ache in my leg.
Ever since the first twitch of my big toe, signaling that I wouldn’t be paralyzed forever, I have pushed myself to embrace everything. I shoved my bandaged foot into my heels for the Homecoming dance, bound my ankle to my calf in order to make it to my first day of school and hiked up and down Masada (in Israel) not once but twice.
On bad days like these, on the side of the road in nowhere-Greece alone and waiting for a cab in the rain, I try and remember how far I’ve come and how many limits I have pushed with a positive outcome. Today was not one of those days…maybe tomorrow.
I was sitting in a beautiful apartment, in an old looking building that smelled of must and some cooking that had been left for quite some time.
I was admiring photographs of four generations of people, while hearing of the destruction of not just families but an entire population.
I was served strawberry and vanilla ice cream in a glass bowl with a tiny silver spoon, while listening to the story of starvation and a hunger not even just physical but a mental hunger as well that touches one’s bones.
Cars playing pop music roll by and screams of happy children echo up, through the open balcony windows and into the house of Heinz Kounio, a Holocaust survivor, telling us his story.
Heinz is a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau, a death camp in Poland. His family of four, including two parents and a sister, all miraculously survived, used as translators for the Germans, being moved from the death camp Birkenau into the administrative side of the camp, Auschwitz I.
I am not going to retell his story, as Brandon will be doing that in his article to come. I felt the need to blog about this experience for two reasons.
1. I had the fortune of being able to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau two years ago, along with many other camps in Poland. I have still not fully processed it all, and so for selfish reasons, I am blogging to get closer to truly understanding what I saw.
2. We are the last generation to see and hear a Holocaust survivor in the flesh. My children will never see the inked forearm of my brother’s grandmother, nor hear the aged laugh of my childhood best friend’s Bubby, slowly slipping back into solely speaking Yiddish. The survivors stories are so important, and while we have museums to document them (and I am currently writing about a new one in Thessaloniki) the generation of the strongest yet most vulnerable people on the earth are slowly leaving it behind, one by one.
Below are some photographs of Auschwitz-Birkenau that I took while there. While listening to Heinz speak, I was transported back there, but in a new way. I was not holding my friend’s hand as we silently walked through the empty barracks, listening to ghosts. I was shoulder to shoulder with Heinz, being pressed up against the bunk’s walls, trying to squeeze through the hoards of people to get through to the other side of the camp.
These photos document what is left of the camps, and will remain in Poland for the foreseeable future. They will remind the next generations of what happened, a long time ago in history.
These photos, coupled with the live stories of survivors, will not remain. Only in my memory, which will too fade, will the voices of Heinz, Mary, Susan, and countless others of whom I have had the honor to meet live on after their time.
“It was a night that even Dante did not describe. It was a night of Hell,” Heinz Kounio
I have always been afraid of roller coasters. They are high and fast, and as someone who hates bumps in the car that make you lose your stomach for just a split second, I can NOT handle the loop-de-loops.
To parallel to something less random, I also do not like having unstable moods. The “roller coaster of emotions” (trite) expression is almost as uncomfortable as being strapped into the real thing.
These past two weeks have not only had the bumps of a car trip down an unpaved street but the drops and steep climbs of the most insane coasters at Disney.
The trip itself, the friends, food and all-around experiences have been extraordinary.
Here, I am not a lowly freshman, I am up there with the rest and have learned (and possibly taught? Input, guys?) so much from my new friends here, from rising sophomores like myself to 25-year-old graduate students (happy birthday Brandon! How’s 25 feel?). I never knew how good it would feel to be surrounded by such driven yet down to earth people who are all riding this ride with me. While I may be the most terrified, white-knuckling it in the back, I know that everyone else has been there too, now at the front of the ride waiving their hands in the air like it’s no big deal. We were all beginners once and we all get scared sometimes.
From days at the beach where I swam in the Aegean Sea and talked about life over milkshakes to nights that end at 2:30 a.m. in an nondescript bar with a piece of pizza in my hand, ouzo and cigarette smoke in the air and chatting about politics with colleagues turned amazing friends, I am truly living. I could not picture a more amazing trip, and it has only been two of the five weeks.
Then the drop hits. When it does, my stomach filled with milkshakes and laughter slips up into my throat.
This trip has also come with challenges and downfalls, the kind that leave you feeling scared for the next inevitable drop and twist in the tracks that makes me want the ride to stop for a moment to collect myself and then move on.
As a first-year journalism major, I have not yet perfected the skills needed to be on a coaster that only goes up. (can you really perfect it though? Always a small bump, no matter what, I suppose, no matter how old you get.) The “you must be this tall to ride” sign looms over me, and at some points during the trip, I have let that defeat me. After my first story finished up, I was faced with a blank reporters notebook, and worse, a blank mind. Quickly, my brain filled with a whole jumble of ideas for my next article. While I still love most of those ideas, they were shot down almost as fast as I could come up with new ones.
Each time an idea was turned away, the coaster lurched down, sending my head reeling and sinking my heart further into the pit of my stomach. At one point, I wanted to get off.
However, as I am writing this, I would like to inform you all that I am still on my ride, a steady incline in my horizon as I have finally found a story to tell and have the resources to do it and the go-ahead from our faithful conductor (can I call you that, Carlene? It fits the whole theme).
I still hate roller coasters. They are scary, unpredictable and can go down at any second. But I am so thankful that I didn’t give up on this five-week ride, because riding the high of a published story, a great interview and the feeling after an amazing 3 a.m. conversation has been worth the lowest of the lows.
Here’s to the next peak! Stay tuned for my upcoming article and of course, more blog posts.
The smell of bleach going up the staircase is overwhelming, but I suppose that smell is far better then the stink of the camps from which these refugees turned residents came. They call them residents here, a word that humanizes the people, misplaced in a world where ‘refugee’ comes with the image of a dirt-smudged face and a malnourished body.
The group of white, American journalists standing in a semi-circle and barraging the guide with questions served simply as a hide-and-go-seek barrier for three small boys, ages 6 – 11 if I had to guess. Using my skirt as a shield before lunging out to run again, there was no fear of strangers on their faces, marked only with sun-kissed freckles and smile lines. I forgot for a moment that I was in a refugee resettlement apartment complex and not on a playground back in the States.
While the yellow and red mural overhead read “HOME” that is only a half-truth for the boys and the other 90 residents of the complex. The apartment serves as a sort of half-way house for refugees at the top of the ‘at risk list’. The end goal of the families is either relocation with their whole clan in Germany, Portugal or somewhere else, or reunification with the other members of their families, already settled somewhere safer in the European Union (EU).
The limbo between normalcy and what one would expect from a refugee hostel was something new to me. A sign for women’s yoga at 5 p.m. hangs in the lobby along with one for an Arabic class being held both Monday/Thursday and Sunday/Wednesday. A glance to the left and you are taken back into crisis mode with a barren bookcase and the counseling services number and emergency response contact posted in case of a conflict between residents.
The same is true in the basement level, used for storage and donations. Among the many boxes of clothes, toys and personal care items is assorted rubble, not bothered to be moved by the 5 volunteers working that day. An old bathroom door sits in the corner, off its hinges, with a faded “W.C” sticker on its center. Pipes and old plaster sit near the door, making up what appeared to be a restroom for ghosts.
Not to say that the whole room was abandoned. Far from it, the workers sorting clothes smiled at their humanitarian task and at me when I shyly said hello. An entire warehouse-sized room was filled with clothing for every age, shape and size, encouraging to see such a surplus. The same was said for fresh food, sanitary products and more so than anything else, there was no shortage of camaraderie.
Walking back out into the warm light of the late afternoon, we rounded the brightly colored building once more to find a middle-aged man, a women of around the same age and a child sitting outside, being watched by a brown basset hound in the olive grove across the yard. Again, I was back in the states with a family and not with a group of misplaced persons.
On the way back to the bus, having the luxury and privilege to return back to the life of an American tourist, I passed under the bright mural reading “HOME” and it made some sort of sense to me. Despite the lack of permanence of this home, the world keeps turning. Kids play hide-and-seek weaving in and out between the legs of strangers, a fully equipped barber shop sits across from a fertile olive grove and there is a list of tasks to be completed for the following week.
full story with photo slideshow and video can be viewed at nujournalismingreece2017.wordpress.com
THESSALONIKI, Greece – At a four-way intersection on a usually busy Greek street in downtown Thessaloniki, traffic has stopped for what appears to be a job fair for the disillusioned. Workers from all sectors of the economy, equipped with painted signs and flags, chant their grievances toward the Ministry of Macedonia and Thrace, a towering four-story mansion also known as the “Government House of Thessaloniki.”
A band of Coca-Cola workers stands behind a sign saying, “We don’t drink Coke anymore.” They face the accounting union group, also protesting the government, but for the lack of healthcare. A union of clothing store workers is opposite them, making up yet another piece to the jigsaw puzzle that was the 24-hour May 17 nationwide labor strike. The unrest stems from the upcoming May 18 vote in Parliament on new austerity measures that would cut pensions and raise taxes on Greek people.
“We protest whenever we have to. It’s a chance to show every day what is possible. It is something for every worker,” said Giorgkas, 34, a member of the Organization of Communist Internationalists in Greece, who attended three protests this week. “You have to support it in a country with such high unemployment, but people are not participating as much.”
While one group shakes the gates of the government building, a young woman spraypaints “resistance and worker control” in Greek on the building’s outer barrier. Amid the chaos, Dimitrios Giogkas stands in the center of the street, occasionally echoing the shouts of a protester leading a call-and-response chant.
In the past week in Thessaloniki, there have been two other protests at Kamara, a famous square in the heart of downtown, leading up to the labor strike. “Tomorrow night after the vote I will be here again,” said Giorgkas, who works in a local bookstore.
The European Union (EU) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) have imposed strict austerity measures, such as budget cuts and pension caps, on Greece’s government in an attempt to rescue the country from its ongoing government debt crisis. The crisis began in 2010, with the country’s troubles stemming from the 2008 worldwide financial crisis.
A woman paints a banner for a demonstration in Kamara Square, Thessaloniki. Photo by Sophie Cannon
People in Greece are beginning to feel hopeless as the economic environment is showing little signs of improvement. Unemployment is at 23.2 percent, the highest in Europe, according to EU statistics. Youth unemployment is at 48 percent. These statistics coupled with the all-around economic turmoil in Greece have bred a culture of frequent protests and strikes.
It is no longer surprising for there to be six-month delays for Greek people to receive their paychecks. According to Georgios Anastasiades, an economist and adjunct professor at the American College of Thessaloniki (ACT), Greece has lost 50 percent of its income since the crisis. This frustration has caused workers to take to the streets almost daily, an option that was once powerful and is now a last resort.
“People are striking but not with particularly radical intentions,” Anastasiades said. “In the past, they thought they could do something. We have strikes without demonstrations. It’s supposed to be a strong weapon, now it’s at the drop of a hat.”
Large labor strikes, like the one on May 17 that attracted 6,000 people in Thessaloniki and 12,000 in Athens, according to published reports, happen a few times a year. In the past week alone there have been strikes by bus and ferry drivers, air traffic controllers, hospital workers and journalists. In addition to multiple labor unions across numerous industries, the May 17 strikes also saw participation from large numbers of communists and anarchists.
“Greece is going through the most difficult [part] of its post-World War II period with dramatic consequences in various fields of the country’s social and economic life,” said Panagiotis Avramopoulos, the former president of the Trade Unions Center of Thessaloniki and member of the City Council of Thessaloniki since 2002. “Greeks are suffering [from] dramatic changes in their lives caused by the severe austerity measures. This difficult environment generates the need to protest.”
Since the crisis began, the constant strikes and marches have done little to nothing in terms of policy change and instead have disappointed and infuriated the people of Greece. The birthplace of democracy is now failing them.
“Many people nowadays are disillusioned, disoriented, disheartened by the fact that despite the protests, the outcomes they seek don’t always materialize,” said Maria Kyriakidou, the chair of Humanities and Social Sciences at ACT. “In 2012 you could find half a million people outside Parliament protesting. You won’t see these numbers anymore.”
Riot police stand outside the Turkish Consulate on May 12. Photo by Sophie Cannon
Despite different governments voted into power since 2010, no party has been able to reverse the negative economic trends in Greece. The current party in power is the far-left Syriza party, but many people disassociated from the party in 2016 after Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras agreed to an austerity package that significantly increased taxes and cut public spending.
“We believe in what we are doing. We are not out here for fun,” said Kalamara Garyfallia, the president of the clothing store workers’ union. “Left wing, right wing, we don’t care. We march whenever there is a law against us.”
Garyfallia is just one of thousands of the working class in Greece dissatisfied with the government. No matter the party that is in power, she said, the outcome is the same and no real changes are made to improve the lives of workers.
“Everyday life has been affected,” Garyfallia said. “It’s hard to make ends meet.”
Ioanna Katsarou is one example of a worker struggling to put food on the table for her family. “In many ways, we don’t have [what we need] to eat, don’t have [what we need] to pay the rent. It’s my right to have something to live, not [just] to survive,” said Katsarou, a native of Thessaloniki who attended the protest on May 17 with her husband. “I want to eat, to feed my children. I will fight for it today.”
Katsarou is a member of the Communist Party in Greece, and says that the community of like-minded thinkers that surrounds her is part of what makes her feel safe during the protests.
“I am here with persons that I understand and that understand me, so I feel at home,” she said.
The mob mentality usually associated with large protests and social groups like the anarchists and communists can serve as a family for disillusioned people. Despite differences in ideology, age, class and gender, the community aspect of protests have been sewn into a social fabric and developed into a protest culture of its own.
“Over the last years, protests rarely accomplish the reverse of negative and unpleasant developments,” said Avramopoulos, the Thessaloniki City Council member. “In any case, peaceful protests remain the lifeblood of our democracy.”
Gwendolyn Schanker also contributed to this report.