Grab Your Passport and Go Study Abroad!
by Alison Erves
On the fence about studying abroad? Take it from me, I was the last college student on the planet who wanted to study abroad. I thought it was going to be pointless and a waste of my time. I found any excuse I could to convince myself that taking a semester abroad was not for me. Ultimately, I was scared of the unknown. I was nervous about living in a country where I did not speak the language and did not know anyone. It took weeks of convincing from my parents and the study abroad director for me to finally take the plunge and spend five months of my life in Athens, Greece.
It was the spring semester of my junior year and I studied at Deree, The American College of Greece, settled in Agia Paraskevi, a suburb of Athens. I remember waking up my first morning in my new apartment and the distinct and pungent smell of cigarettes coming from outside my window. I soon learned that Greece had one of the highest tobacco consumption rates in the world, says Ekathimerini. So, that very smell became a part of my everyday life and a small representation of the country I would grow to love. I also remember meeting three of my roommates for the first time. Little did I know they would become my best friends. We had an instant connection and we were all laughing hysterically about a funny story our new friend Nana had told us. One of my new roommates, Emily, even started to plan out all of the trips to other countries we would take together. In that moment, I knew everything was going to be okay. I knew I was not in this alone.
I made a new life there; Athens was my home. My world opened up. The campus was just a short walk from my apartment and the route was filled with everything one could imagine: restaurants, stores, markets, bars, and hair salons, not to mention all of the stray dogs and cats who roamed around freely! My roommates and I, having become very close friends, went everywhere together. We began to form relationships with the baristas who worked in Cafe Beneth, a coffee shop we frequented every morning before school, and got to know the waiters in our favorite traditional Greek restaurant, Tsi Tsi, and, of course, made good friends with the bartenders at our go-to bar in town, Dodo’s. We felt like locals.
It was a little segment of time that felt like forever. It was like a dream. I gained a lot of intercultural knowledge while I was in Greece and discovered many differences between how I was living in Athens compared to my life in the United States. Athens is one of the oldest cities in the world and Greece is rich in history and its ancient ruins tell a million stories. The Acropolis of Athens, built in the 5th century BCE, is one of the oldest structures in the world that still stands magnificently in the heart of Athens. The structure was dedicated to the goddess Athena, according to the Odessey. I was immersed a culture that had existed way before the United States had even been discovered. The Greeks are very proud of their heritage and you can feel that around you, yet they are so causal about it as well.
One of the main differences I noticed was that the people of Greece appear to live a genuinely relaxed, slow paced, relationship-oriented lifestyle whereas in the United States, we tend to lead a fast-paced, stressful, work-oriented lifestyle. It was very interesting to be able to experience both sides of the spectrum. I learned, however, that this relaxed lifestyle came at a cost. In 2009, Greece was struck with an economic and financial crisis in which they exceeded their budget deficit by 12.9 percent, which is 4 times the 3 percent European Union limit, reported by The Balance. The Greek economy took a huge blow from this and unemployment rose to 25 percent by 2010. Nine years later and I could see, first hand, the economic struggle a lot of people in Greece were still facing. I recall many of the students in my class were shocked at the fact that I had held a job since I was 18 and they complained that it was almost impossible to get a job anywhere. I also remember being told by my Greek Resident Advisors to never talk about Greece being an inexpensive place and that this would be very offensive to the natives. Unfortunately, it was true, prices were incredibly low and the U.S. dollar went extremely far there. Of course, it seemed great to a bunch of American girls studying abroad, but for the native Greeks, it was and continues to remain a hardship. Though, it was good for me to experience both the positive and negative aspects of my host country and gain a well-rounded view of what life was really like in Greece.
Through this experience, I began to view the world through a new lens and be present in every passing moment. I learned to slow down, disconnect a little bit from my life at home, and focus on the people and experiences in Greece. I am so grateful for the people I met there and that we had the opportunity to be in each other’s lives, even just for a moment in time. I know I did not meet them by accident and our paths were meant to cross. I met and spoke with people from all over the world. We laughed together, ate together, talked about sports and music together, cried together, and spent valuable time together, and that was beautiful. Studying abroad was, by far, the best thing I have ever done.
It is hard to describe the feeling when you must pick up and leave the life you have just created in another place, pack the memories away in your heart, and leave a part of your life behind. Little did I know this experience would affect my life, my mind, my identity, my relationships, and my ideas about the world. There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel a tug on my heart and and a deep longing to have that experience again. I will always miss the smell of cigarettes, looking down at stray cats by my feet, and stuffing my face with chicken gyros. I will always miss Greece.