“It’s all Greek to me!” My students cultural exchange part 2

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It was only two weeks ago, when I posted part 1 of this great adventure with a Greek school located in the area of Agia Triada and the two cities of Argos and Nafplio. As I promised here I am to tell you all about or visit this time around, to our great sister country Greece.

I want to start by saying that whatever the media tells us every single day doesn’t not quite reflect what the real situation is in Greece. We somehow expected to find civil unrest, a country at its knees, but on the contrary, we found great strength in the people and what joy for life they showed us.

As all cultural exchanges go, the project is always divided in two phases, one where you receive your partner school and the other where you visit your partner school. This is the tale of the second phase where we (16 students and 2 teachers) were received and hosted by our partner school in Agia Triada, Greece.

We left our hometown on the 15th of April and it seemed we were off to a bad start when we found ourselves at school with no bus in sight. So on the phone I was trying relentlessly to contact the bus company given to us by the travel agency which booked our trip, but initially with no success.  After a few tries and on the verge of a morning nervous breakdown, with parents asking me why the bus wasn’t there yet, I managed to get a voice on the other side (a very sleepy voice) who told me “oh, I’m sorry I had the wrong time, I’ll be there in 10 minutes.” Those 10 minutes became 20 and the bus arrived. I thought if this was any sign of what our trip was going to be like, I was going to be a wreck by the end of the week.

We departed for Rome Fiumicino and within three hours we arrived at the airport. Our second anxiety attack was the weight of the suitcases. Have you ever tried to get 15 teenage girls and 1 teenage boy to pack for a week and keep it under 20Kg? Well if you haven’t, good luck when you will have to. Patiently we got on line and waited one by one for our turn to put that suitcase on the scale, trembling in fear that the airline clerk would say “I’m sorry it is way over the weight limit, either you pay for the difference or you got to pull something out and donate it to someone.” So, as one of the two accompanying teachers, I was chosen to be the first one and off I went.  I lifted my suitcase, gently resting it on the scale, as if that would make it somehow lighter and waited for the sentence to bestowed on me. 18.8kg! Yes! I cried out in joy! The suspense was just too much for me! I checked in, then stepped to the side as my colleague and all my students went through the same adrenaline rush! Wow, what an experience flying with a low cost airline! In the end we all made it, actually some of my students didn’t even reach the 15kg mark, which was astonishing, but yet there it was, in digital numbers right under our eyes who are we to argue.

Time came to go through the metal detector and off to the gate for boarding. Once on the plane, one of our students, on her first plane ride, was a bit uneasy about the whole experience, but the excitement for the exchange was just too much making her more than  ready to deal with her fear of flight. Off to Athens and in one hour and thirty five minutes we landed in “the crib of European civilization.”  Once off the plane, the baggage claim was our first stop.  We waited anxiously for our luggage, another adrenaline rush, as we all very well know the nerve racking feeling of “the wait” for one’s suitcase.

We succeeded in getting all of our luggage.  I then called my Greek counterpart to let her know we had arrived and were getting ready to exit the airport in search of our Greek bus which was going to take to Agia Triada.

My colleague warned me that she had spoken to the Greek bus company in charge of our transport and she discovered that it was their intention to get us to our final destination not by highway (as we had paid for) but by secondary roads so that they wouldn’t have to pay the tolls. That would have meant an extra hour of bus ride for us.

Once out, we were met by a woman from the agency who was going to take us to the bus and before we even exchanged greetings I immediately told her what the deal was. I even put her on the phone with my Greek colleague, just to let her know. She apologized and spoke to the driver, making sure that there wasn’t going to be any funny business.

Even though what they said to each other was “all Greek to me” I could tell the driver wasn’t a happy camper.

After our initial difficulty, we got on the bus and our adventure in Greece began.

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The first images of that famous blue sea started to appear in front of our very own eyes as the bus drove by these breathtaking places.

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The hills, the sea, the houses that seemed like props from a distance. It was all so nice to look at.

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After a short 20 minutes stop at a local “McDonald’s” called “Goody’s” we arrived in Agia Triada.  The first thing we saw was this beautiful orthodox church which was unlike any of our churches but just as beautiful.

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The colors were just beautiful. As soon as we stepped off the bus our sense of smell was taken on a wild ride, we could smell orange flowers everywhere.  We later found out that this area of Greece is known as orange country, just like Sicily is to Italy and Florida to the US. Just great. The smells and the sights were a great start to our adventure there.

After sending our students off with their correspondents and their families, our colleagues took us to the hotel where we dropped off our luggage and went to dinner.

Now, I want to point out that I knew that Greek food was good, but my eating experience in this great land was way more than I expected. We parked the car and walked into the historic center of Nafplio and what a beauty it was.

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It was all just so nice. It seemed like I wasn’t in Italy any more. Or was that Kansas, I forget.

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Greek cafes were the highest of pleasures for us during the week. I must say I prefer Greek lifestyle anytime, they really know how to relax and enjoy coffee and lukumades (boy, were they a guilty pleasure).

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After a short stroll through the historic center of Nafplio, we reached our taverna. Vasilis.

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A cute taverna right smack in the middle of town.  Our colleague ordered all kinds of traditional Greek foods, from Greek salad with Feta cheese, to Musaka, to oven roasted lamb and potatoes. All of it just a delight to taste.

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The Greek salad was nothing like I tasted before. Just fantastic.

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The Musaka, was incredible.

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The stuffed vegetables, from cabbage leaves with rice and minced meat. to eggplant. All a delight for my taste buds.  All, truly fabulous. Not enough space to compliment all of the great dishes of Greek cuisine we had, but rest assured that whatever you will eat, will be just too delicious and you’ll want to write home about it. I want to end this food part of the article by telling you that the best pita bread ever eaten was in Athens on Saturday, I  will miss it dearly as finding Greek food in Italy is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

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Let us leave the food experience behind, something very hard to do for me and let us move on to the educational aspect of the trip, not that food is less educational (I believe food should be an integral part of teaching our students about foreign cultures, especially when they do study foreign languages). As this was an exchange, we were received by the mayors of the towns, Nafplio and Argos. What a warm welcome it was, they made us feel right at home.

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Argos.

Receiving local products from the Vice Mayor. Such a great welcome. Our students were also given local products as a gift from the town. What a great experience for them all.

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The rest of the week our Greek correspondents took us sight seeing, from the town of Nafplio and its fortress “the Palamidi”, to Mycenae, to Athens, to the a small village by the sea.  Our students had a chance to see, taste and live the real thing, in fact they stayed with families and experienced Greek life first hand.  We all learned some Greek, from the classic good morning (kalimera) to thank you (parakalo), not an easy language to learn due to the different alphabet, but the sounds weren’t to difficult to produce all it took was a little bit of practice and some good teachers.

The weather was outstanding we were so fortunate our time around, nothing like the rainy and snowy weather our Greek friends had to endure while visiting Naples back in March. Athens on the last day was a real treat. From the Acropolis and the Parthenon to the streets full of people, restaurants and yes even a Starbucks.

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The Bourtzi Castle, from which Nafplio gets its name, in fact it is known as Naples of Romania, due to the resemblance to Castel dell’Ovo in Naples, Italy.

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I discovered the “komboloi” an anti-stress toy, if we want to call it that way of which I had no knowledge about, until my visit to Nafplio. At first I thought it was some sort of orthdox rosary, but I stood corrected.  Interesting fact though, it is used by men mainly in this area of Greece.

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The breathtaking view from the Palamidi fortress, built by the Venetians during their occupation of the area.

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The view of the Bourtzi castle from the fortress.

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Getting the students into a class photo, priceless.

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The Greek guards outside the Parliament and the monument to the veterans of war.

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A “Kodak Moment”, wow I haven’t used this expression in years, some of you might know what I’m talking about. Acropolis. Unless you see it with your own eyes, it is just hard to grasp the sense of history it gives you. The view from up top of the city of Athens below, without words.

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The sights were beautiful and what came to mind was just “how was it possible that Greece, a country with such a historical print on European civilization, could be in such an economic crisis?” I just couldn’t find the answer, but I could add Italy to that same question.

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History is best experienced rather than read and when you add language and culture to it, it makes for an interesting life experience.

Our goodbye party was fantastic, the Greek students danced the Sirtaki and feelings and emotions were running high.

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Time flew and Sunday came but in a wink of an eye.

All the things our students saw, experienced, lived through during our week could have never been with a simple field trip. Cultural exchanges give students what no field trip of any kind can give, in other words the real taste and hands on of the country they are visiting. It helps students understand that no stereotype of any kind holds up when you enter into contact with a culture on a person to person basis. Our students thanked us for offering them this great opportunity and even though our Ministry of Education did not chip in a cent to help the students experience Greece, we the teachers were more than happy to work for free for a year, so to give them just but a brief glimpse of what lies beyond.  After all teaching has become a vocation, like being a monk or a priest, you surely don’t get into it for the money, especially here in Italy. I’ve been in the profession for 16 years as a substitute teacher, qualified (certified) and yet with no knowledge of when I might become permanent.  Hard to work for the students this way, but I do my best because I believe in what I do.

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This is the sea we left behind and with it a new found family in Agia Triada. A big thank you to all our Greek colleagues and all of their students for making this year a special one indeed.

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     Parakalo – Παρακαλώ

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