The memories I have from studying abroad in Greece are ones that I love to think back to every now and then. Studying in Greece symbolized my first trip to Europe, and an immense transformation I saw in myself both personally and professionally. Like many, I was bit by the travel bug as soon as I came back from studying in Greece, and today, I honor that as a travel writer and as an avid traveler. Here are some of my memories from studying in Greece.
Being Away From Family for the First Time
Coming from a first-generation household, where my siblings and I were the first generations in our family to be born outside of Mexico, the concept of studying abroad was a strange one for my parents. But then again, many concepts in the U.S. were strange to my parents. Being the eldest daughter, I had to often maneuver these cultural shifts. I often bounced from one culture to the other. I had to make sense of the American way of life for myself and learn how to explain it to my parents in a way they would understand. Figuring out how to create harmony between these two identities was a challenge I was very familiar with.
When I told my parents that I wanted to study abroad, they were shocked, scared, and worried. They didn’t want to take that leap with me out of fear. Thankfully after some time, they decided to support me. I don’t know where they grabbed the reassurance that I would be ok, or how they managed their fears over letting me go. However, with their blessing, I was on my way to Greece. While I was studying abroad in Greece, I spoke with them as much as I could through Facetime and text messages.
Discovering Independence While Studying Abroad in Greece
In many ways, I look at this Greek program and think how much it not only helped me grow more independent and sure of myself, but how much it helped my parents in trusting in me, the world, and in themselves to be ok to let their kids do things they never did. I appreciate them not passing down their fears to me. They slowly let go of a protective grip they had always had to keep us safe in the only way they knew how to. Studying abroad in Greece was monumental for me as much as it was for them.
My First European City
They say that the European lifestyle is one that is favored by many for its laid-back approach to life. There’s the mix of tranquility and liveliness, quality of life overall, and so much more. Greece was the first-ever European destination that I visited. It left me absolutely enamored. It was around 6 pm when I arrived in Athens to study for the next three months. I took my first steps in the cute and picturesque neighborhood of Plaka where our hotel was. I was met with a sample of the charming aspects of European city life. People of all ages — locals and tourists — walked around leisurely, looking for a dinner spot or sightseeing on an unusually warm March evening.
Crowds of teenagers hung out at ice-cream shops, waiters outside of the restaurant talking to people about their menu. Police patrolled around making sure everything was ok. Coming from a suburb town in Illinois where everyone drove everywhere, where we all lived in our own little world, and where we were all always busy with something, this was a sight I had never really encountered. People leisurely took their sweet time hanging with friends, enjoying a good meal outside next to a Greek ruin or temple. Super casual, and wonderful at the same time. I knew I would like it here right then and there.
The Greek Language
As a bilingual speaker of English and Spanish, I wasn’t sure how I would pick up the Greek language. Would the language be too difficult? Would my knowledge of Spanish and English help me in any way with Greek?
I learned quickly that Greek was not part of the romance languages. Therefore, making sense of Greek with my Spanish-speaking abilities was simply not going to cut it. However, where my Spanish did come in handy was in my pronunciation of Greek words. I may not know how to order a Freddo, but I could at least hear someone say it and, then, pronounce it in a way where Greek people could understand what I was trying to say.
Once I remember being in a taxi with three of my classmates when we were trying to get to the Acropolis. The taxi driver couldn’t understand when my classmates said “Acropolis” to the driver, but I had remembered the way it was written and pronounced, so I tried using my Spanish pronunciation on the Greek word “Acropoli” — and it worked! He understood and he replied with “efcharistó” — thank you. It was a small but amazing accomplishment that I will never forget. I had made contact with a local!
The Greek people don’t like spicy food, but I do. For the first time in my life, I was without any kind of salsa or peppers in my food. This was one of my own personal culture shocks. As a Mexican-American, I was shocked and missing a bit of that spiciness in my food. But as a previous culinary arts student, I was super interested in the ingredients and the typical meals that Greeks enjoyed. Everything from gyros to spanakopita, to authentic Feta, which I never liked before until going to Greece, as well as souvlaki and moussaka.
Studying in Greece gave me the opportunity to try new flavors. I experienced an authentic Greek Easter with the spit-roasted lamb, delectable and fresh Greek salad, flatbread with amazing quality olive oil, and observed and engaged with the culture through its food. When I came back home, I experienced reverse culture shock. I sought out the quality olive oil, the gyros, and the tzatziki sauce. Oh, how the tables had changed.
My study abroad experience in Greece allowed me to meet people from countries that I had never met before. Do you remember the first time you met a Spaniard? A Greek? Or an Australian?
What about meeting someone from your own country, who even though you shared a similar language and background, seemed like they were more “worldly” and “cultured” because they were travelers? A conversation with them left you in awe and utterly inspired. Studying abroad in Greece expanded my knowledge of people. It taught me that even though we may come from different places in the world, we all have more than we think in common. A conversation with people outside of your culture will show you that. If anything, you can always share your love for travel and meeting new people. That is always something to bond over.
I felt a sense of comfort in Greece, that to be quite honest, I was not expecting. I guess moving to Greece to me felt like taking a giant leap into the unknown. What would the people be like? What would the culture and traditions be like? Would I like the food? Though I consider myself to be quite an adaptable person, ready to accept any kind of culture shock that I would potentially experience, I realized that it was pleasantly easy to adjust to Greek customs and traditions.
It reminded me a lot of my Mexican upbringing, such as the way the Greeks that passed near a church would make the sign of the cross, or how religion and church-going was a significant part of life and culture for many Greeks. The massive emphasis on family and looking after the giagiá and the pappoús and the ritual and love for food were comforting. I felt at times like I was in Mexico visiting my own family. It was almost as if I was visiting a village in Mexico when I was really in Greece. The feeling was special and comforting. I realized that it led to me questioning what home is if you can find that feeling outside of the place you were born in. It was one of the many questions that had never occurred to me until living and studying abroad in Greece.
The Beginning of My Desire to Explore More
I am forever grateful for the structure of this study abroad program I did in Greece. We didn’t have a university campus where we took all our classes. In fact, our time in Greece was divided up into three different subtopics of study. Depending on that subtopic of study, we would physically travel to the part of Greece with the most physical history and study it in person.
So I studied the ruins and the Greek god Apollo on the island of Delos while walking around archeological sites. We sat on rocks on the sacred site of Delphi to take notes and learn about this mystical oracle that many people traveled from near and far to ask questions. I presented a project on the important documents stored inside Hadrian’s Library, and the importance of this landmark to my classmates, while standing in front of the ruins of Hadrian’s Library.
On the Move
Because of the constant traveling, we did throughout Greece, from its northernmost tip in Thessaloniki to the southernmost island of Crete, and everywhere in between, my studies in Greece felt like a hybrid between a fun gap year of staying in hostels and doing school assignments throughout our journeys. For three months, it was hostels, hotels, trains, ferries, buses, and metros.
It was incredible and gave me a strong sense of adventure, learning, adapting, and adjusting to what the day held. Each day was different, and each day we learned something new. One cannot possibly deny the sheer excitement in that. It made me feel excited for the moment, and for life. I was hooked. I wanted nothing less than a life of adventure. The bar had been set high for what I wanted to do after this opportunity, and so my thoughts started to brainstorm just how.
Study abroad programs, whether they’re year-long programs or just a few weeks, for many, are the first opportunities to travel for many young American college students. I know it was for me. The combination of youthful excitement, combined with a desire to learn and travel — it’s the perfect recipe for major transformation.
Travel transforms people from the inside out. From the people you meet, to the new foods you try that end up being what you crave when you get back home, to the observing of and participation in a new culture, and the physical distance and feelings of being in a place so far from home where virtually no one knows you. It’s liberating. It’s euphoric, and it’s unlike any other feeling. You see yourself maneuvering a new culture, becoming more social, taking more risks, and saying yes more often. You learn A LOT along the way. Finally, you see yourself grow, and you learn more about yourself than ever before as you go through a myriad of different situations, emotions, and adventures.
Travel is a confidence booster and a transformation. You don’t return home the same. My Greece study abroad program inspired me to start writing, and eventually start my own travel blog. It cleared a career path like nothing ever had. My memories of studying abroad in Greece are a constant reminder of why I do what I do.