Hello lovely blog readers! Guess what? I’m writing from my new home in Thessaloniki! Holy guacamole!! I didn’t have consistent internet access til now, so this will be a long post, because there is much to fill you in on!
I got into Athens Saturday morning at 9, and after a long layover (including a spanekopita, which was delicious, and a Greek coffee, which was not–definitely a regular filtered coffee girl here!), I boarded a plane to Thessaloniki and arrived at around 14:40. My bags didn’t make it from Athens until around 19:00, but that was okay–I’m just glad they got here at all!
At the airport I was picked up by the Dean of Students at the American Farm School, which is where I now teach and live in the dorms. He is incredibly friendly and helpful, as is everyone here! He has studied and lived in Kentucky, California and Tennessee and speaks excellent English. He brought me back to the school and showed me my room, which, in the realm of nice dorm rooms, is pretty standard (it’s fairly good sized, has a desk, an armoir, a bed and a few other pieces of furniture, and a window). I will have the room to myself, which is great!
At 19:30 (trying to get used to 24 hour time!) I was picked up by the principal of the school and taken out to dinner.
And it was amazing.
Not only are she and her husband so friendly, helpful and nice, but the food was to DIE for. Gyros (which was just a big plate of meat shaved off kebab-style, not actually in a pita with stuff necessarily as we think in America), meatballs (not like we think of, either, more like mini-burgers with no buns) that were SO delicious, fried zucchini ribbons with tzatziki (I pretty much ate my weight in those), Greek salad (delicious as promised, though I have to get used to the punch that feta packs!), delicious grilled bread, fries, great wine, and a dessert that was actually made from buffalo milk, believe it or not… it was all awesome!! Typically, Greeks eat around 9 PM, and order lots of dishes to share with one another. We spent around 2 hours dining and talking. It was really lovely–the sense of community I get from dining with people in Greece is something I’ve never experienced before, even as someone who loves to share food with friends.
The principal is a former Fulbrighter herself, and speaks very good English, as does her husband, who is also a teacher here. They told me more about the American Farm School, and I couldn’t be happier to have been placed here. In 1904, the school was founded by a Greek man who was concerned about all the orphans left by the wars the country had been through. He decided they needed to learn skills if they were going to survive, particularly how to work with their hands. To this end, the students at this school spend the morning following the state-determined curriculum of math, English, science, and the usual other subjects, and in the afternoon, every student is required to work on the school’s farm. There is a vineyard, where several wines are made, and a ton of really enormous cows, from which the students help to get milk that is distributed locally. They learn not only the physical skills required but also the trade-oriented side of things; how to distribute, market and maintain product sales. Honestly, I think it’s pretty darn cool.
Day 3 (day 2 wasn’t very exciting–just unpacking & meeting people!)
On day 3, I had my first teaching stint in the morning, and then had to book it into the city for the first time (I had only been to the suburbs before), find the Fulbright office, have a meeting and then lunch with the Fulbright folks, and have my first venture into Greek shopping for shampoo and the other things I needed, and then get a taxi by myself to get home.
From 8:30-12, I taught at the school. …It was very difficult. I am still optimistic about teaching in general, but boy, was it rough. I had a group of about 20 of the “medium” level English students. It turns out “medium” is more like basics-or-less. I can’t tell you how many blank stares I got that morning. I had to do several activities (help them do some crossword puzzles, have them listen to a song in English and fill in gaps in the lyrics on a worksheet, etc) and then administer a placement test to them, from which they will be assigned to their levels of English courses. And after I graded their tests, I realized how little they must have understood what I said. Most of my group failed the test, which is fine–all that means is that they will be placed in a low level course. But it does mean that I was speaking way too fast and definitely overestimated what they would understand.
In general, much of the education system in Greece is less than ideal; while the American Farm School is an excellent school, new students often come from schools that had poor or even constantly absent English teachers. Students here often don’t get the inspiration from their educational environment necessary to really take interest in their studies; this is true in America as well, and all over the world, really.
My job is to be that inspiration. I usually think of myself as a very inspiring teacher; I really try hard to radiate good energy & get students to relate to the material. But with such a massive language barrier, all my usual tactics for incorporating personality and a sense of humor into the material were lost, and I found myself feeling incredibly blase and helpless. That will be my biggest challenge while here; how to infuse my lessons with not only my own personality, but figure out how to reach the students at the same time, all with tools other than words.
The other big bummer of my first lesson was the cheating! While they were taking their test, I sat at the front of the room at a desk, and quickly learned that I literally had to just stare at them in order to not let them look at one another’s papers. And then, whenever a student would ask me a question, I’d go out to help them and be very concentrated on how to best help them without giving away the answer or using English that was too advanced… when I’d realize all of a sudden that every other student in the class had turned to one another and started swapping answers. It was nuts! With this group of students, it really appeared to be the norm. I’m very curious to see if this holds true across the board.
I will be teaching at one other school, which, according to the principal here, is a private for-profit school that has an owner. I’m curious to see how they are different; AFS is a non-profit that is foundation-based and has a president rather than an owner. I won’t know much about it until I meet my supervisor there next week.
Anyway, after teaching, I literally had to run to the front gate to catch a taxi into Thessaloniki and meet with the director of the Fulbright Greece foundation and the head of the Thessaloniki branch. They were incredibly nice. Really. I’m so glad to have met them both! We had a quick meeting about some logistical matters and then met up with some other Fulbrighters for lunch (all Greeks who had grants to the US in the past). The company and food were both excellent. I had some lemon risotto with shrimp and basil oil, and it was absolutely scrumptious! I forgot myself and pretty much scarfed it down! And the people were fascinating. My supervisor from AFS was there, as well as a Greek girl who just got her Master’s at Harvard through a Fulbright grant, a professor of American Studies at Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University who had a grant to study at the University of Michigan, and a local woman who went to the States to work at a school for the deaf through Fulbright. They were all very accomplished, interesting and very kind–I felt much better after meeting with them. It’s nice to meet with people who have your back and will occasionally take you out to a really, really fancy and delicious lunch. 🙂
After that, I ran around with Dimitri (the head of the Thessaloniki branch of Fulbright Greece) trying to get a Greek bank account. I doubt it will happen before next week; they need several forms and such. It’s very bureaucratic and very complicated. He then pointed me in the direction of the Hondos Center, where I could do the shopping I needed to do. The Hondos Center is a difficult thing to explain. It’s sort of like a department store, pharmacy and Bed Bath & Beyond all in one. I’ve heard it described as a “lady’s paradise.” I spent forever trying to figure out what was shampoo and what was conditioner, and everything was much more expensive than I thought it would be. But it is definitely nice to not be using my watered-down travel-size bottles anymore! Then, I caught a taxi home (after much Greek-English ridiculousness with the driver), and spent quite a bit of time decompressing with one of the interns. The AFS has three American interns who are kind of like super-RA’s at the school. They live in the dorms, take care of the students, teach occasional classes, do sports with them, run their study halls and lots of other things. It is SO nice to have other Americans on campus–last night’s rant sesh with Ashley left me feeling much better and less stressed!
That’s about it! Next week is my orientation in the Greek islands. (I still can’t believe that’s happening.) I’m not sure what will happen after that–I expect things will pick up pretty quickly!
In general, I’m doing good–I am excited and happy and comfortable 90% of the time, with brief pangs of semi-paralyzing terror (I don’t speak Greek! How does this shower work? Couldn’t I have done something easier this year? Oh, the toilet flushes by pulling up on the knob…). I’m now sleeping pretty well and adjusting slowly but surely. And I’m learning a lot; all this will get easier as I learn what to expect, and especially as I continue to make individual contact with the students. That’s the best way to ensure my teaching success, I think; through individual conversations, there’s more opportunity to make sure they know what I’m saying, and therefore know more about who I am and why I am here!
Off to lunch with the president of AFS! Love to everyone!