“On the road again…I just can’t wait to get on the road again…” -Willie Nelson
Few experiences expose you to the constant movement that Euroculture does. Amongst the careful searches for accommodation, endless negotiations with landlords, costly shipping of suitcases, frequent (un)packing, farewell get-togethers, moving in rituals and eventual redo of the entire process, students abroad are educated about being adaptable in changing situations more than most of the population…but what are we missing in the midst of so much movement?
One of the major lures of Euroculture is its mobility requirement, in which each student is required to study in at least two universities as well as a research/ internship placement. This unique element encourages Euroculture students to not only learn in different environments, but to immerse themselves in many manifestations of lifestyles and cultures. Whether we realize it or not, the mindset we adopt throughout this process is key to succeeding academically as well as growing personally.
According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs , the physiological needs for food, water, safety and warmth must be achieved before embarking on the next steps toward self-realization, a process of growing and developing as a person in order to achieve individual potential. Vedic knowledge concerning the chakras  also refer to this critical requirement of basic physical stability, associated with the root chakra , as the foundation for the increasingly social aspects of fulfillment that come afterward. For the most part, students abroad technically meet this first level of fulfillment (though Ramen noodles don’t always do the trick), but how do we counter the negative effects of instability  when moving so frequently? Continue reading “At Home on the Road”→
I’m walking in the plaza, basking in the sun. I can practically smell the sea from here…
I blink again.
I’m back in our old house, peering out the foggy window. It’s late. The house has a rickety, wooden fence whose small gate constantly makes a horrible, creaking sound whenever it’s windy outside. It’s pitch dark, but a strange luminescence from the other side surrounds the edges of the door, an eerie white shine that makes me even more terrified of the light than I am of the dark.
I can see the door move every so slightly, and squeak back to smash against the fence, producing that rhythmic nuisance.
The leaves on the trees are dead still this time, though.
I feel a chill run down my spine. I thought it’d never happen.
I blink for a third time.
Mercifully, I wake up in my own bed this time, drenched in sweat. The electricity’s been out for a couple of hours already, with no signs of returning any time soon…
It’s been about two months now since I’ve been back home, in Lahore. The heat is as unbearable, the bazars as dirty, and the roads as crowded as ever. But it’s not really the same. I have moved on in the time I was away, and so has Pakistan; regrettably, though, it has done so for the worse.
Everything that could’ve gone awry, indeed has. Yes, there are new roads, new buildings, and even a new democratic government, but the troubles run deep. You can make cosmetic changes to the country’s geographic sprawl, but nuisances like corruption, dishonesty, laziness, and a general aversion to truth, are hardly solved by anything less than commitment and dedicated effort.
Everywhere I look, I see a landscape marred by various issues. I can only talk about so much here, and I will chart out some problems in the coming lines, but how’s this for starters: Pakistan is on its way to become a water-scarce country by 2017; that’s not 20 years from now, it’s just a university term away. And for a country that derives a fourth of its GDP from the agriculture sector, and employs a major portion of the labor in the same, that should be setting off all kinds of alarms in the policymaking halls. But I’m yet to see this issue come up in any debate.
And there’s no solution to the massive electricity shortage problem either. Pakistanis want their light bulbs (and air-conditioners) to stay on 24/7, but due to the enormous debt the government owes to the power-generation companies, that’s not a possibility anymore. Also, since no one is willing to pay higher tariffs for electricity (which, very crudely, equals to more revenue and less debt for the government) we, effectively, have 12-hour days where the manufacturing sector has all but packed its bags, the laptop batteries have given up, and the children are late for school because their uniform is not ironed on time.
Moreover, we are facing what I call the ‘Population Epidemic’. Pakistan has close to a 190 million (!) people living in its territory; that’s about two-thirds of the total US population living in an area slightly less than twice the size of California. We’re the world’s sixth largest population, and incidentally, the only global scale on which we’ve consistently stayed close to the top, beaten only by Brazil (Pakistan is 146th on the HDI rankings, and spends a measly 2.5% of its GDP on health) and we’re growing by a rate of 3%. Contraception, despite being relatively cheap, is not readily available, and since a sizeable majority considers birth control ‘un-Islamic’, there isn’t much hope of its widespread use anyway. The Pakistani middle-class has reached a critical mass, beyond which the rules of supply and demand are going to go out of the window. More people have more money, but there’s less and less stuff to buy. And then there’s the preferences: people would rather have their gardens trimmed up nicely, and roll around in expensive vehicles than ensure that their children are educated and have an open worldview. The purchasing power structure’s also biased towards screwing the services industry. Take this instance: a Euro would buy you a haircut, or one liter of fruit juice. Likewise, for 50 Euros, you can have someone clean your house, tend to your garden, and wash your dishes and clothes on a monthly basis, or, you could just buy a nice pair of jeans. And then some people are mystified as to why anyone would leave when Pakistan has it all?
But even the biggest issues cower beneath the mightiest issue of them all: Religious Extremism. There was a time when no one ever bothered to ask their friends what religion or sect they belonged to. You’d chant The Lord’s Prayer everyday in the school assembly, and then go offer the Friday prayer, all without a hitch. Sadly though, it all seems like a long forgotten dream now. Pakistan was never a particularly liberal country, but now, all ground for debate and discussion on matters of faith has been completely lost. Everything from your web browser’s history to the size of your beard, from the number of children you have to the color of your underwear, from the way you pray to the way you have sex… everything is a public issue, the boundaries between the private and the public never really existing from the very beginning. Being ‘secular’ is almost an insult in a country where the extremists are seen as brave and uncompromising defenders of religion. People who are against such hijacking of religion, in turn, are lynched and burnt at the stake, though thankfully, only metaphorically… for now, at least.
The consequent terrorism such thinking has ensued also paints a gruesome picture. It might seem extremely callous of me to say this, but any day withouta terrorism-related incident in Pakistan now just seems… abnormal… incomplete, even. Close to 50,000 Pakistani lives have been lost as a direct cause of terrorism since 9/11, and yet there’s no end; the situation seems to be only worsening with time. Many (foolishly) believe that the Kraken of religious extremism, the most visible and recent manifestation of which is the Pakistani Taliban, will go back to sleep once the US withdraws its troops next year from the neighboring Afghanistan, but of course, that will never happen. The US is negotiating its withdrawal after a job not even half-done; Pakistan doesn’t have this luxury. Even if with the American and NATO presence, terrorists can carry out their activities (including bombing schools, hospitals, government buildings, prisons, army installations… and last but not the least, funeral processions) with such ease what would happen when the situation was otherwise? Afghanistan would swiftly fall to the Taliban (it already has) and the last twenty or so years would’ve been for nothing. With the porous ‘border’ (I’m not sure the term qualifies) between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the secure base of an entire country (plus a considerable chunk of Pakistani land) at the Taliban’s helm, and, regrettably, a cheering majority on both sides of the Durand Line that only disagrees with the means used by the extremists, and not their intent, this breed of religious extremism is here to stay. Forget about booze and music and sex and ‘immorality’ (whatever that means nowadays); in Pakistan, facial hair is going to become an issue of life and death in the near future.
In a country where Muslims are not afraid to kill other Muslims even on funeral processions, what hope is there to stop the persecution of minorities, religious or otherwise?
Living in Pakistan, then, is like living inside a ticking bomb. I wonder how much time’s left is the only question on my mind over the constant tick-tock of suicide blasts, jailbreaks, and executions.
Tick – The Bury-Your-Head-In-The-Sand approach only works when the hyenas are chained up…
…not when they are digging into your flesh – tock.
The Pakistanis worried about the threat of extremism have God on their side.
The extremists have God, and a suicide bomber vest.
But whose side is God really on, you ask?
Whichever side wins, naturally. Ever seen the losers laying claim to the Almighty?
Tick– “Hell is the impossibility of reason.”
Welcome, then, to the Islamic Republic – tock.
Tick – the hair on my neck’s standing on end…
I’m peering out the foggy window once again.
The door slowly screeches open, allowing the light to pierce through the darkness.
The demons enter.
I blink furiously.
They don’t stop.
Syed Rashid Munir, Senior Writer
Rashid teaches Political Science and International Relations at the University of Management and Technology, Lahore, Pakistan.
I land in the centre of Europe. A small airport welcomes me back home.
When I think of my country, I always picture a charming lady. She has an entangled past to share with travellers.
Long ago Belarus used to be part of a huge powerful country, which comprised of Poland, Belarus and Lithuania. The state was the second one in the world that adopted a Constitution in 1791, and was recognised as a cultural and military centre of Europe for many centuries. A huge part of that culture remained forgotten and silent for a long time, but now it is slowly waking up from the period of integration with the other 14 soviet states, which affected several generations of the state’s culture.
A small shuttle brings me to the closest metro station. Just a while ago, all the station names were dubbed in English to make it more convenient for travellers. The other two main languages you will find are Russian and Belarusian. They both are equivalent, according to our Constitution, but people are using Russian more these days. When parents have the option to choose education for their children in one of the languages, Russian becomes more prevalent due to the Customs Union and the economic relations between Russia and Belarus.
“Belarusian definitely shares more roots with the western languages than Russian.”
Belarusian, in fact, is markedly different from Russian. I remember one time when I stayed in Warsaw, to my surprise after several days I started to understand the language and could say simple sentences like “No, I am not getting off the bus now”. Compare the words “paper” in English and “papera” in Belarusian with “bumaga” in Russian. Belarusian definitely shares more roots with the western languages, and proper Belarusian speech is very hard to comprehend for Russian speakers.
I get off the metro in the middle of Minsk, at its only ancient part – Nemiga. The Second World War destroyed the city and it was all rebuilt from scratch in 1944, modelled in line with the best Soviet architectural traditions. My great-grandfather used to tell me that when standing on one edge of the city he could see quite far – there were no roads or high buildings to block the view at all. Walking along the Svislach River, I look at the row of ancient remains of Troitskoye Predmestye (Trinity Suburb), where the families of famous Belarusian writers like Kupala and Bogdanovich once lived; these days the sight attracts brides and girls who crave for a new Facebook profile picture.
“The Second World War is a huge part of the history of the country…”
The Second World War is a huge part of the history of the country. From 1941 – to 1944 the country was occupied and people kept fighting as they could: in cities and in forests. There are many remarkable monuments from that period. Visit Brest Fortress, for instance, where you can read the words written by a dying soldier “I’m dying but I won’t surrender. Farewell, Motherland. 20.VII.41” , which really makes the blood in your veins freeze. Another breath-taking place is Khatyn, which until 1943 was a typical Belarusian village to the northeast of Minsk. On 22nd March 1943 it was burnt to the ground killing all of its inhabitants. There were many villages that, just like Khatyn, were never rebuilt after the war.
The post-war Soviet period was a very controversial and difficult time for the culture of the country. Nevertheless, even with all the Soviet drawbacks, the government managed to save the country that was destroyed by the war. Many famous factories and plants, schools and universities opened during that period.
“The Soviet Union disappeared from the map. The predictability of life disappeared together with it.”
The state has changed a lot in the past 20 years. The Soviet Union disappeared from the map. The predictability of life disappeared together with it. Borders fell down. There were many possible ways of development for the country to choose from, a huge variety of things to do and to believe in.
As I walk along the river to my apartment, I see many people on bicycles. Belarusian people are slowly letting their identity show. There are many festivals and sport events which are held in the city, and I am very happy to be part of the huge Erasmus Mundus community of Belarus.
Two German guys ask me for directions, and I am glad to show them around. Many tourists come to the country to see the main lakes: the lake Narach, which is the largest lake in Belarus, and the Braslau Lakes, a unique lake system that attracts fishermen from all over the country.
“Foreigners sometimes get scared of our ‘strong’ currency, but…”
From a local grocery shop, close to my apartment, a loaf of bread costs 8,000 Belarusian Roubles; 1 Euro amounts to 11,500 Roubles. Foreigners sometimes get scared of our ‘strong’ currency, yet after getting a breakfast for less than a Euro, it is funny to realise that all the Belarusians are millionaires!
I finally reach my flat and sit comfortably on the bed with my laptop. I look at the smiling faces of my European friends on Facebook. Many of them keep saying that visiting Belarus is very hard due to the strict visa policy between the European Union and Belarus. I would respond that this paperwork is possible to do if you want; and it can never keep friends apart.
“Belarus, a young country with blue lakes for eyes in her early twenties again.”
Belarus is now in a beautiful transition period from its post-Soviet state: a young country with blue lakes for eyes in her early twenties again, looking for her identity and trying all of the new opportunities she has ahead. So if you are open to breaking stereotypes, you want to see some very atypical architecture and to explore a new culture – you are more than welcome to Belarus. We will meet you, show you around, and definitely have the craziest nights after eventful days.
Nadezhda Fomenok, Contributing Writer
Nadezhda is a senior year private international law student, living in Minsk, Belarus. From 2011 to 2012, she studied in Bilbao as an Erasmus Mundus exchange student. This experience helped her develop new interests, among which are the culture of the European Union in the view of integration and how Belarus could be a part this process. Nadezhda dreams of successfully graduating from her course in 2014 and finding her own way in the big world. In her spare time she reads Paulo Coelho and sketches her greatest ideas.
Housing is a very important issue for MA Euroculture students because they get to move constantly as part of the curriculum. For some, getting a room in new places has been easy but as most of them admittedly say, they were lucky. The truth of Euroculture housing is here: It can be very difficult and if you are not lucky, you are all on your own. Looking for a room in a foreign country can be a very stressful process especially if you don’t speak the local language. Also, it’s possible that the semester already started and you are without ‘home’, living in a hotel or hostel. I examined the housing situation of Euroculturers, in collaboration with Niccolò Beduschi (Euroculture 12/14) who brought up the issue and ask three questions in an attempt to get more housing support from MA Euroculture Consortium and some universities which are not providing any housing service.
Why don’t we start by looking at ‘very good’ cases?
“The University has helped us find a place. You send some necessary documents before a set deadline and one month after you receive information about your place. They send you information of your apartment (address, cost etc) and ask if you’d like to accept the offer. Bilbao is really good in that service.”
“Euroculture Krakow team was really helpful throughout the process. They gave us advices on web pages, kept track of our accommodation status via E-Mail and coordinated semester rooms with Laborooms (kind of dorms from a private company). I am really happy with the “service” of Krakow.”
Question #1. How could Bilbao and Krakow so good at these services when others are not?
And here are some ‘could have been better’ cases.
“It is possible to find a place “through the university” but only by paying a fee of one month of rent.”
“You can get student housing, but it is not in a good condition (ok, it’s cheap but that should be the only positive thing!). The application process for the student rooms was easy and worked out well. But you definitely need French in order to get along with everything.”
Question #2. Should we not expect a decent room if we cannot afford a high fee or speak good French?
And here are some ‘could have been a lot better’ cases. The problem not only comes from the lack of support from the university but also the fact that there are too many students looking for a room at the same time. Still, they can do more than just saying “I don’t know.”
“Most landlords want you to have a contract for a year. Actually, there are many ads from people looking for roommates, but because they all look for people who will stay long, finding a place is very difficult, although if you have time, it’s not impossible.”
“The university at the beginning did not help us find a place until at last we were told that some rooms were reserved for international master students. Many of us got those. However, it’s very hard to get rooms in Uppsala in general.”
“Everyone had to search for their own accommodation as far as I know, and we didn’t receive any help from either Euroculture Goettingen team or the university. They just recommend me websites for the private market. You can apply for student dorms, but you get on a waiting list with the average waiting time of 20-24 months. Some people even had to stay in a hotel for a few weeks, even when the semester had already started.”
Question #3. We all know we are adults who need to take care of our own affairs. But what if it’s REALLY DIFFICULT?
This simple poll and possible following comments/debates will be collected and sent, in a month, to the Consortium and each university to show Euroculturers’ opinions on the issue. Many thanks go to Niccolò Beduschi and other Euroculture students for providing the information(quotes) I used to write this article.
Eunjin Jeong, Editor-in-chief
Eunjin is from South Korea and studied Education for her BA. She began MA Euroculture in October 2011 in the University of Göttingen, later studied in the University of Strasbourg, did a research track in Uppsala University and currently finishing her MA thesis in Strasbourg. Her research interests lie in finding ways for diaspora groups to feel as ‘citizens at heart’ in host countries. Eunjin is a part-time realist and a full-time idealist.
Helen was right when she said that it was about time to ask Euroculturers the question: Where is home? Is it possible to feel at home in the city that you will live for only a few months? It sounds difficult to answer until Liga says: Home is where love exists, and you can make anywhere home as long as love follows wherever you go. Sounds like a simple answer except it’s difficult to find… No? What Edith suggests sounds a bit easier: My kitchen is your kitchen! Home is where the kitchen is. Yes, definitely! Mi cocina es tu cocina también! Speaking about kitchens, Maaike wants to tell you about German au pairs who are making pancakes in the kitchen for their Spanish host kids. Don’t say buenas noches, say gute nacht so that the kids can learn German. A Greek girl, Penelope, is also learning German, and very intensively. But she says: Not tonight, because I have to go out with my friends! Yes, she says that the future and even the MA thesis can wait, especially tonight. Paul seems upset by the unfair reception of the EU in the UK, making his point by introducing the English city of Nottingham. If you have only one minute to live, what would you think? Rashid seems to know the answer.
The third edition of The Euroculturer starts with the theme of Home and will continue with a special feature on Asia, and other themes such as Trend, Future, Humanities, and the IP 2013. Don’t miss the chance to read our wonderful articles one by one every few days and have lots of Euroculture fun. Shall we begin?
Packing every semester, leaving everything behind and starting the process all over again is something that you love or you just get tired of. How long can you keep going? For some MA Euroculture fellows, the period of the Master programme is already too much. For others, it is just the start of a long-lasting expatriate life.
Mayra Lopes │firstname.lastname@example.org
They met during the weekend before the classes started. She had come all the way from another continent, carrying a heavy bag and trying to cope with the jet-lag that kept her awake all night. The first time they spoke was on Facebook. He was already living in the city, so kindly offered his ‘classmate-to-be’ a hand to settle. They bonded instantly and became very good friends. But, as we all know, they had to say goodbye when the semester came to an end. They promised to keep in touch. Deep down, they knew it was never going to be the same.
We live between hi and bye
That could be the story of anyone who decided to move abroad, for whatever reason. But, the truth is, meeting new people is exciting. It is the easiest way to learn about a different country, culture and even some key sentences in a different language. When you are an exchange student, you meet a huge number of people, coming from the four corners of the globe. When you are away from home and no longer have a ‘comfort zone’, you see that making new friends is easy – and necessary. You become easily attached to these new people, you get used to having them around. They do become your best friends! Plus, we all run the risk of falling in love with that one that lives the farthest away.
How to deal with all that varies a lot from person to person; some look behind with nostalgia, others prefer to look ahead and move on. However, having someone you care about abroad forces you to become creative in finding ways to keep in touch. In some cases, distance can even make a relationship grow stronger. That is what happened to the Brazilian couple, Juliana and Marcelo. When Marcelo was accepted to a Master programme in Germany, Juliana decided that it was time to study abroad too, something that she had had in her ‘to do list’ for a long time. She was accepted to the Erasmus Mundus Master programme in Journalism, Media and Globalisation and, even if they were in the same continent, they lived apart from each other for two years. “In the end, missing each other was good for our relationship; we learned to be less attached. We made a deal to see each other every two weeks”, says Juliana. “Low cost airlines are helpful, but being less jealous is also very helpful”, she advises.
It has been almost three years since Kato left Georgia to live with her family in France. Even if she only goes back to visit her friends during the summer holiday, she uses technology and creativity to her favour in order to keep in touch. But don’t go thinking that they chat or exchange long emails. “We have Skype Parties! We have some drinks together and, even if they are on the other side of the screen, we have fun and do crazy things. I feel like I am with them”, she says. Of course she misses being around, but these virtual parties, and the fact that she keeps sharing her deepest secrets with her friends from far-far-away Georgia, make her feel a bit closer.
Let’s talk about YOU now
Packing every semester, leaving everything behind and starting the process all over again is something that you love or you just get tired of. How long can you keep going? For some MA Euroculture fellows, the period of the Master programme is already too much. For others, it is just the start of a long-lasting expatriate life.
Just for fun: What kind of exchange student are you?
There are those who are super needy. They always try to make a lot of friends, hang out with every kind of person and are out every night. Hyper-social, they get easily attached and are the first ones to start crying their eyes out on the last day of class. And there are those that prefer not to go so deep. They stay rational and repeat to themselves that this is just another period of their lives, seeing no need to feel emotionally involved with all these people that they are unsure of ever seeing again. If you are in the group of ‘sufferers’ or in the ‘way too cool to worry vibe’, here are some tips that might be helpful to have a blast in the Euroculture way of life:
Good practices for the sentimental:
– Use your sentimental side to your favour; become the PR of the group and assure some of the best memories (and photos) of the season;
– Send some nice birthday/Christmas cards (and maybe one of those best photos) by post – Facebook messages are so impersonal…;
– Keep up with their stories; even if you are far away, try to know what is going on in your friend’s life and be there to give some (even if lousy) advice;
– Try to always have actual conversations with your friends living abroad, say more than “I miss you” – that we all know.
Good practices for the cold hearts:
– Don’t play it too hard. We all know you build this brick wall around you because you fear getting too attached… So, first thing: “Let it be”;
– Keep in mind that this can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Try to get interested about other people’s lives, cultures, idiomatic expressions… It will not compromise your heart and it will help you to become a more tolerant person;
– Enjoy the music. Go out, meet people. If you stay home, you might be letting pass your soul mate and a lot of potential friends!
– Taste new food, be curious and enjoy. It’s alright, none of us expect you to cry and hug for 10 minutes before saying goodbye.
Mayra Lopes, Contributing writer
Mayra Lopes started spreading her Brazilianness in Europe a while ago. She studied in the UK, Czech Republic, France and Spain (and in Brazil, of course). Currently in Brussels for the professional track, she thinks she will never see chocolate the same way. Mayra is a journalist crazy about international news, coffee addict and polka dots enthusiast.
And I say “This is what life should be like. There is nothing else”. I believe it. I am convinced. And Yota smiles and nods. And for a small fleeting moment, I feel as happy as I can possibly feel. There are no more problems in the world, just the sun and the sea and the smell of salt in the air. And I realize that no matter how far or how close I am, this is my home. The home I leave, but the one that always beckons me back as a siren.
Penelope Vaxevanes | email@example.com
It is a truth universally acknowledged that in Greece all problems cease to exist in the summer. When the sun becomes blinding, when the heat becomes intolerable, when everyone starts talking about islands and beaches and cocktails in summer clubs, annoying everyday problems start to fade in the Greeks’ minds. The summer is here and it is taking over everything.
And it was like that that I landed in Eleftherios Venizelos airport on the last night of June, after a 17-hour long trip, with the temperature reaching 30 degrees at 2 am, making everything and everyone uncomfortable. But I was home after ten long, long months. Home, in my bed that seems foreign. Home, at my house, that seems strange, yet familiar. Home, where my mother has to remind me all the time that we do not flush toilet paper, because “You are not in Germany”. Home, in a neighbourhood where everything feels and seems the same. Home in the big city you always love, even when you hate it so much. Home in the country that has changed in ways that are so subtle, yet so dramatic, in ways that are cruel yet delicate, in ways that I could never really describe to someone that has not experienced it first-hand… and yet, I’ll try.
The first few days pass in a daze, with a never-ending array of coffee dates and dinner dates with friends and family that I haven’t seen in months. They ask you to tell them how it has been. What do I answer? How could I, ever, describe how it was? Can I tell them about any little detail of 10 months split in three countries? Can I tell them about everything I lived and felt? How changed I feel? But I do talk, because they expect me to and I see them smile and say how jealous they are and how all that moving from country to country must have been so exciting and fun. Most of it is not, but I really don’t want to sound ungrateful and they don’t want to listen to me being a little over-privileged brat.
And then I ask about life in Greece and I offer my first impressions. What are my first impressions? Everything seems the same but feels different. “Everything has gotten so cheap”, I offer. They do not agree. It doesn’t matter if something has gotten cheaper when you cannot afford it either way. “The coffee is less than three euros”, I offer again. “How much is it in Germany?” they ask. My argument, suddenly, becomes very weak.
They are right. All of them. But I am too. Everywhere you look, you see small restaurants that offer cheap, simple food. The number of gyros places has tripled in my area because you can have a big meal there for less than 5 euro. It is good, affordable food and a chance for a family to go out and enjoy a meal. The nightlife booms. Everywhere you go, there are new bars. You can hardly find a table to sit on a Monday night. When I point that out I always hear a cliché “Greeks will cut from their food, but they will never cut from their fun time out”. It is true. But what is also true, is that all these new bars that have opened offer good, inexpensive drinks. Sometimes with no proper service, sometimes in plastic cups, but still the quality of the drinks is high. And then, there are all these new Greek beer breweries. Ten years ago, a Greek beer was a joke. Not anymore.
I walk to the centre of my suburb in Athens, Halandri, one warm evening in July. I am with my best friend Electra and her boyfriend Matt. For as long as I remember, since we were small girls, we have been talking about living abroad when we graduated from university. She has been living in London for more than three years, but now she is moving back to Athens and Matt is joining her. They want to open a bar like those I described. It is very difficult but, in this market, to me, it doesn’t seem like the worst idea. And like this, Electra becomes the only Greek I know that moves back to Greece instead of going as far away as possible.
One steaming July morning, I find myself in the Piraeus port of Athens, at the house of my friend from my Erasmus days in Lyon, Ioanna. She is a new mother. In what is a true marathon visit, we talk about everything that has happened since I last saw her at her wedding. The baby, the jobs, the family life, our Master’s degrees, our times in Lyon, all mingled together with food, sweets and coffees, until it’s late and Dimitris, her husband, comes back from work. He owns a small ship cleaning company with his family. Conversation turns to the crisis and how difficult it is to raise a child in this economy, how their mentality has changed in one year but also, how lucky they are to be able to have the life they have. Ioanna tells me how depressed she becomes when on the train to Athens, she just sees gloomy faces. “No one smiles”, she complains. And I think about that. Have I seen anyone smiling genuinely? Was the smile reaching their eyes?
The last part of my vacation is, as expected, the vacation part. I take the 12 hour ship to Kos with my friend, Yota. For almost two years she has been working in a tourist shop in the posh tourist shopping district of Plaka, in the centre of Athens just below the Acropolis. Plaka is booming every summer with tourists trying to find the best kind of souvenir from Greece. We joke all the time about how I do a Master’s in Euroculture and she did a Master’s in fake ancient statues sale. She has been recently forced to quit because she was no longer affordable for the business. In one year, the new labour laws state that they can hire people who are aged 25 and under, and pay them half of the standard 8 hour minimum wage. It’s supposed to be a solution to the huge unemployment rate for people aged 25 and under. Being over 25, suddenly, becomes the worst feature on someone’s CV.
And we arrive at the port of Kos, an island that used to be cosmopolitan, rich and a huge tourist attraction for foreigners, especially English and German, in the 1980s and 1990s. At the bus station, waiting for the bus to the village where we will stay, we learn that this is a dead summer. It’s not that the tourists are not coming to Greece. It is that they are going to huge hotels that offer all-inclusive accommodation with three meals, snacks, and all beverages in their holiday packet, therefore leaving nothing for the local businesses of the islands. Tourism still represents more than one fifth of Greece’s income but the future seems uncertain. Another part of Greece’s future that seems uncertain.
And finally we are at the sea, and the sun shines brightly, and we relax in a way that you can only do one meter from the blue sea, the sea that is the only thing that I miss abroad, the sea that is part of the Greek DNA. And suddenly, as if by a miracle, no problems exist. I do not think about the year that lies ahead. There is no Master’s thesis to write. I don’t have to move to Hamburg where I know no one. Yota is not unemployed. The crisis is forgotten. We have only one concern: how fast can we get tanned without getting cancer?
And when we are burned beyond recognition, and we cannot ignore our bellies that want to be fed, we move to the little tavern, where (illegally) the tables are 50cm from the waves, and we eat the Greek salads and the fried calamari and the fresh fish, and we both smile. And I say “This is what life should be like. There is nothing else”. I believe it. I am convinced. And Yota smiles and nods. And for a small fleeting moment, I feel as happy as I can possibly feel. There are no more problems in the world, just the sun and the sea and the smell of salt in the air. And I realize that no matter how far or how close I am, this is my home. The home I leave, but the one that always beckons me back as a siren. The country that is in deep trouble, but always finds a way out of catastrophe. The country where nothing works but everything somehow makes sense. My home, Greece.
Penelope is from Greece and studied French Language and Literature in the
Philosophic School of the University of Athens. She studied in the University
of Göttingen and Jagiellonian University, Krakow, and hopes to fulfill a career
in Cultural Diplomacy.