Unlike so many of my classmates here in Athens, I heard no dire warnings about Greece from family and friends. It wasn’t that they hadn’t read the articles that called Greece “hopeless,” or seen the dramatic images of Athens in flames. But both my parents are of the firm belief that the media exaggerates anything, and Greece, in their minds, was no exception to that rule. I have other relatives who are more inclined to believe what they see in newspapers or on television, but even though they may have been worried for me, they knew that telling me horror stories about my chosen study abroad destination was futile. I am a classicist, and Greece is a classicist’s paradise – crisis or no crisis. I was going to study there regardless of what anyone else had to say about it.
So I arrived in Athens in September 2013 expecting to have the time of my classics-obsessed life. And for about a week, I did. The places I’d dedicated the past two years to studying were now at my feet. The main building of College Year in Athens commanded a perfect view of the Acropolis and the Panathenaic Stadium, and when we weren’t in class, my friends and I were always rambling through other sites. I did see a few things that irked my American sensibilities: anarchist graffiti scribbled on some walls, constant clusters of people in front of Parliament, police officers toting machine guns in the National Gardens. But these things tended to fade into the background – partially because I was so enthralled by the ruins, and partially because they just weren’t that prominent. For the most part, I couldn’t see what all the media’s fuss was about.
About a week into my stay in Greece, I injured my right knee. What I thought was a simple bruise evolved into an odyssey entailing three hospital visits, two crutches, and, ultimately, my return to the US for reconstructive surgery. This sounds like a miserable experience, and I will not lie: In many ways, it was. But it was also the experience that really introduced me to the wonders of modern Greece. Even though the archaeological sites I loved so much now threatened to hurt me more with every rock, I still wanted to explore them – and I did, at a glacial pace. But I began to spend the bulk of my time in my own neighborhood’s cafes, bakeries, and tavernas. And in these places, I discovered Greece’s true asset: its people.
I feel rather cliché at this point, because it seems like everyone who writes about a love for Greece mentions the warmth of the people. But they mention it because it is true. One of the first phrases I learned to recognize in Greek was “Kathiste, paidi mou” – “Sit down, my child” – because people were constantly producing chairs for me. Pharmacists dispensed hugs and kisses along with my pain pills and strangers offered to carry my groceries. And I could not believe how many things I received for free from Greek business owners. Bakers stuffed me with free sweets in an attempt to make me feel better; taverna owners brought out complimentary rounds of ouzo and toasted my health. “No wonder they’re in debt,” my dad said when I told him about this. “They give so much stuff away that they never make any money.” But for Greeks, I have come to realize, it’s not about the money.
Giving a half kilo of cookies a week to an injured little girl will not help you turn a profit, and kissing a customer who has just returned to your store and your country after three months away will not lift you out of debt. But actions like these do show the incredible love and respect for humanity that pervades Greek culture. This is something that the US, with its all-consuming consumerism, has completely lost sight of. And if the Greeks hold on to it, I believe it is something that will sustain them far beyond the current “crisis.”
There is one restaurant in Pangrati that I frequent for its delicious sandwiches. If the owner is there when I go in, he’ll sit with me while my food cooks and ask about my knee. He did the same thing right after my injury, when I was in his restaurant at least once a week. And every week, when it was obvious that I was in pain and that it wasn’t getting any better, he would pat my hand and repeat a single phrase until I calmed down: “Siga, siga.” Slowly, slowly.
I kept those words with me when I had to return to the US. In the nights after my knee surgery, as I waited for the painkillers to kick in and wondered whether I’d ever feel normal again, I repeated them to myself. Siga, siga. Slowly, slowly.
Greece, like my knee, is not going to get better overnight. But I am healing, and I believe that this country can too. I believe in Greece, and more importantly, I believe in its people. I don’t deny that they have made mistakes in the past, but I have hope that they, dynamic and loving as they are, will be able to move forward. I came to Greece because I was in love with what it was long ago, but I came back because I have fallen in love with what I know it can become. I look forward to the day when I will be able to run, pain free, to the top of the Acropolis. And I look forward to the day when the world will see Greece for what it is rather than for what the media wants it to be.