Experiential Learning: Nichols College at Thessaloniki, Greece

By Dr. Karol Gil-Vasquez and Dr. Erika Smith

During the Spring Break, a group of eleven students and two professors embarked on an adventure into unknown territory, the country: Greece, the city: Thessaloniki. Second to Athens in terms of population, the city lies close to the Balkan region that borders north with Bulgaria and Macedonia. Thessaloniki is by no means the mecca of Hellenic culture. Instead, it ranks second as the most Byzantine site after Istanbul. The city is best described as a crossroad point that allows visitors to experience the Hellenic heritage, the world of the West, as well as the Far East, combined with the beauty of the Mediterranean atmosphere. Only an hour flight from Istanbul, a two-hour flight from Munich, as well as two-hour flight from Aleppo, Syria, experiencing Thessaloniki means living immersed into four cultures at the same time. Located near the birth place of Alexander the Great, the city reveals a myriad of complexity and wonder, filled with stories of historical defeats and victories, all tales of resilience. Thessaloniki is not your typical Greek destination, it is a cultural clash’s epicenter that has long embraced the melting pot ideal, a place where Jewish, Muslims, and Orthodox Christians seemed to get along very well.
The Nichols crew took off from Logan airport, excited. None has ever visited Greece before. Some have not even ventured outside of Massachusetts, none the less, abroad. There was one student who has never taken a flight before. T.S.A. security screening procedures – what are those? The closest the students and professors have been to what could resemble Greece? A few hours visit to New York City’s Astoria during the fall semester. The closest students have been to Greek culture? High school’s lessons on Greek mythology and the taste of our Mediterranean salad bar from Lombard Dining Hall. At the end of this great faculty-led trip, it was rewarding to see how much the Nichols crew actually learned from a one-week study abroad experience; how seven days impacted our perspectives, how taking a long flight with relatively unknown people ended up bonding relationships, friendships that can have a positive impact on our future lives.
As part of an interdisciplinary course imparted by Prof. Erika Cornelius Smith, from the History Department, and Prof. Karol Gil-Vasquez, from the Department of Economics, Nichols College set foot on Thessaloniki. The visit’s main academic purpose involved reaching a better understanding on the Greek Debt Crisis, by experiencing first-hand how the Greeks live, how the Greeks think, what the Greeks value, and how the Greeks understand and live the European Union crises as a whole. By taking a dive into Greek life, Nichols professors and students found themselves not only developing their own perspectives about the country’s various issues, but also, gaining living experience at a different cultural setting, country, and city. A place where buildings and walls were rebelliously decorated with graffiti, taxi rides were dirt cheap, historical and fancy buildings were abandoned, showers were small and complicated, elevators took forever to arrive (climbing 8 floors by feet anyone? Nice workout!), stray dogs were wondering around the streets, police men were unarmed, people ate French fries and salads for breakfast, good Samaritans returned lost valuable items to their owners (despite having to cross the whole city to do so), and free food was given by someone who reminded us of our own Webster’s Mama Dolce at a small restaurant, named the “Grillo.” Thus, how to understand, or at least, explain this complexity setting right in front of our eyes? How were Greeks able to go by with what is considered from our own perspective, complicated habits, practiced in a country where everything seemed to be falling apart? Greek’s generosity just did not fit our Grexit picture. It was not supposed to portray generous people.

The Nichols’ visit to Thessaloniki included a variety of academic and cultural activities, facilitated by our professional and passionate Greek tour guides, Kostas and Spilios. The trip kicked off with a visit to the Byzantine museum and a City Walking Tour as well as a guided tour to City Hall Administration, next day. At the City Hall, Nichols crew met with Yiannis Boutaris, the City’s Vice-Mayor, who explained briefly the strategy to boost investment and economic growth in the city. For the following day, the crew visited the Meteora Monasteries, a three-hour road trip from Thessaloniki, located in the mountainous and serendipitous Balkan region, stands as the part of the trip that will stick in the minds of many, forever. “The story regarding the cliffs, hermits living in the caves, the rituals they perform of climbing them, and how the monasteries came to be made me feel as if I was listening to a bedtime fairytale,” according to one student. Built on inaccessible sandstone tall peaks around the XI century, Meteora monasteries are considered one of the most valuable world’s cultural patrimonies by the UNESCO. The monasteries locations’ height left us wonder about how were people actually able to get to the beautifully decorated small chambers, portraying orthodox Christian icons from the Byzantine period. Kostas showed us the only way to gain access to one of the monasteries: a little net-sack mechanically pulled up and down. After this visit, there was no doubt that religious fervor built wonders.
Pic4 Pic5 Pic6A total of three of academic guest lecturers informed the Nichols crew on the Greek contemporary issues. Dr. Spyridon Litsas from University of Macedonia presented “Greek Sovereign Debt and the Economic Crisis.” His presentation centered on the origins of Greece’s economic and political crises as well as the potential solutions to ameliorate its future impact through stablishing a North Atlantic economic and political agreement. Dr. Nassis Lambrini, adjunct Professor at the American College of Thessaloniki and New York City based attorney, compared the Greek and the U.S.’s judicial systems, her presentation was complemented with a walking tour to the City’s Central Courthouse, where students sat in a court session and met with the president of Thessaloniki’s bar association to discuss the ongoing attorneys’ strike (organized by private attorneys who resist a rampant increase in income taxes—itself part of one of the many European Central Bank austerity measures prescribed to Greece). Likewise, Iridi Pandiri from the ARSIS (Association for the Social Support of Youth) organization, presented “The Refugee Crisis in Greece: How it affects Relations with its Balkan Neighbors?” Ms. Pandiri talked to us about the refuges crisis’ dimensions and costs as well as the efforts being made by grassroots and non-governmental organizations to assist the refugees and the migrants stranded at the border.
For our last day, the crew enjoyed a fun tour through the Central Market. The food market offered fresh products, including, plenty of fish and lamb (how to forget that “fishy” smell and the terrified eyes of a deskinned lamb head!), fruits, vegetables, olives, oils, cheeses, and what have you. During the food tour at the Central Market, the crew learned more about the culinary traditions of the region, which were also put into practice during a cooking class imparted by Chef Bobby, who taught us how to prepare tasty dolmades. Dolmades are a popular appetizer made out most of the Greek cuisine’s staples: olive oil, fresh dill, mint, lemon, rice, and grape leaves. Our itinerary included a total of two “lunches” and two “dinners” that, to us, looked more like family banquets with plenty of delicious platters and drinks, formally served on large tables decorated with white linen where we all sat and ate together. One of the dinners was accompanied by the rhythmic sound of a bouzouki, having the restaurant’s patrons, to our surprise, unexpectedly standing up for dancing. This was quite an opportunity to immerse ourselves in Greek life’s shenanigans, that is, a chance to practice our dexterous dance moves, Opa!
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As if all these activities were not sufficient to get to know Greeks and the city they inhabit, a sailing tour was the golden broach to close our experience abroad, by all means, the icing on the cake. It is by a far distance from the harbor that professors and couple of students got to see Thessaloniki’s panoramic vision. The graffiti was no longer visible, the buildings appeared to be occupied, some green areas popped out in front of our eyes, even the Eptapyrgio fortress’ tower stood out on top of a hill. From the sea angle, a white city unfolded, a city that extended all the way to the mountains and was harmoniously embraced by the Aegean Sea, a deep blue color that contrasted nicely with the inland’s mosaic.
At the end of our last day, the Nichols crew was relaxed, sharing comments, and wonders, tired but still laughing, getting ready for departure. It is perhaps on our way back to the States, at the Thessaloniki International Airport, early morning, that all the experiences fell into place. The departure was bittersweet. We really did not want to leave, it has been a short trip. We were content, despite being extremely tired. We were somehow satisfied, despite feeling anxious to get back home, to our comfortable beds.

Up to this day, we continue to reflect on what exactly we have learned. The problem is that we have learned a lot within a short period of time, professors and students alike. A student describes it as “a reminder that I did choose the best possible college for myself.” A student majoring in economics considered the trip as the push he needed to gain enough academic and personal confidence to enroll into Graduate School to pursue his Ph.D. “This trip was an amazing experience and I don’t regret anything. I will always recommend travelling to see new places because it’s when you travel that you open your eyes to different perspectives”. As of now, we know by a fact that the trip was real, it was meaningful and awesome, and conclude with certainty, that after all, learning by living is a fun and rewarding experience. Or, as it has stated by John Dewey “education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” And, why not? Education is also adventuring oneself into an unknown life.

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