Friday, August 31, 2012

NEW PERSPECTIVES, COURTESY OF GREECE

by Sarah Freriks

Hello, Everyone! I’m writing to you from a private balcony off the Pagrati apartment I’ve shared with my two roommates for the last month or so in Athens, Greece.  It’s bright and sunny, the sky that otherworldly early morning blue that promises another day of beautiful weather.  My neighbors are just waking, drawn out onto their balconies for sunshine and the orange trees in our private courtyard.

These weeks have centered around lots of travel.  In the past four weeks, we have traveled from Volos, Meteora, Delphi, Olympia, and several islands including Crete and Thira.  While the travelling seemed endless, we have had ample time to explore Athens and its extraordinary history.

One of the advantages to truly living in a foreign country for an extended period of time is that you are forced to live and interact in a way wholly different than if you were merely another tourist in a hotel.  From realizing that there are switches to turn the oven on and off to the first trip to the market, living abroad allows you to live and experience the lifestyle and cultural differences of the native people.

The people of Greece have been exceedingly friendly, even if most of us have not had enough broken Greek or English to converse fluently.  The market, the street, anywhere, is the perfect place to meet new people.  We have our favorite gyros stands and nearby restaurant, Dionysus, where the owners know and recognize us. In fact, they know and recognize most of their customers.  The people of Greece are very social and connected to one another in a way unlike the States. 

They are conscientious of one another (I wasn’t sure we had neighbors for the first two weeks-they are so quiet) and go out of their way to introduce themselves and strike up conversation.  This results in a wide, diverse social group that they take great pleasure spending time with.  While friends and family are important everywhere, in every culture, the Greeks we have met spend their free time and work time together.  It is very rare to see people listening to iPods or texting on their cellphones.  They are more likely to be chatting over souvlaki and gyros in a café or sharing a lively conversation on the street.  This gives the cities a very warm, neighborhood-like atmosphere, and this hospitality is extended to polite and interested tourists.

This atmosphere of family and friends extends to the way they take care of their city and its treasures. One of the first things that we noticed about the Greek cities that we have visited is how clean they are.  While Athens is relatively small compared to many other cities in the United States, it is spotless.  The people work hard to keep it that way, too, because the city is their home.  Unlike many places where people are generally only willing to accept responsibility for their private dwellings, the Greeks as a community take pride and invest in the common welfare of their communities.

Another key difference from the United States is the intergenerational interaction.  Older (aged 30+) Americans generally only lie on the beach and encourage their children to be still or play by themselves, and people unofficially socially restrict and separate people by age group.  Whereas all ages of Greeks swim, dance, and play together.  This has resulted in, I believe, a stronger sense of community and social identity for all. They learn how to interact appropriately with all members of society, and not just with their parents and their age group.  Older members of society also serve as fully-invested mentors and inspiration for younger, less-experienced members of society.

The benefit of this contact shows in the warmth and caring they show for all members of society, even the not-so-stray dogs and cats that populate the streets.  Daily, I see old and young alike supply food and water to the homeless people and animals.  Not only that, but parents teach their children to show generosity and kindness to all by leading by example. 

In my sociology class, we learned that the stereotypical (though very real) angst that American teenagers experience is not universal.  When younger generations have such limited experience and so little investment in older members of society, how can you become a fully functional, involved member of society if no one shows you how?  It is more than sending children to school-it is the daily emotional, physical, and social engagements that bind people together and share cultural knowledge. I believe that the community culture that Greeks have created for their people has leant itself uniquely to the development of good members of society.  Their belief in the value of both individual and community responsibility allowed them to make history and serve as global inspiration for thousands of years as the cradle of democracy.

This trip has given me unique insight into the history and culture of my own country and the ideals it was founded on.  In so many ways, your history is your identity and, to an extent, Greece and her democracy is my history and inspiration too.

This article is one in a series of blog entries written by University of Illinois students who were selected to travel to Greece to participate in a four-week Renewable Energy Concepts Study and Cultural Tour, provided by the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES). Tour participants embarked on technical field trips, cultural excursions, and collaborated with students from the Agricultural University of Athens and the University of Thessaly in Volos to solve real-world engineering problems. This program is partially supported by the European Union Center through a US Department of Education Title VI grant.

Sarah Freriks is a junior studying Agricultural and Biological Engineering with a concentration in Renewable Energy and continued study in foreign languages. She resides in the rural countryside past the far-west suburbs of Chicago.

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