December ended with two weeks of paper-writing self-isolation, resulting in only 75% completion of necessary tasks. The new year began with war-zone resembling, firecracking chaos in the streets of Amsterdam – a terrifying good time.
And now I find myself in Athens, sadly yearning for Amsterdam.
I was here more than 10 years ago while I was in law school – a shocking revelation about my age and the unforgiving passage of time. In 2001, I spent nearly two months completing an international law course at the University of Athens, and traveling a bit around Greece. Every weekend I went to a different island, enjoying beautiful views, kind people, and yummy veggie-friendly food. But somehow, over the course of these 10+ years, I forgot why I was leaving the city every weekend. It turns out I didn’t – and apparently I still don’t – like this city.
I’m here for just over 2 weeks to complete an intensive course with the University of Amsterdam on the relatively recent rise of African migration to Athens. I jumped at the opportunity. Fond selective memories of Greece and a desire to escape winter in the Netherlands would have been enough. Access to leading scholars in the field, interesting course materials, and the opportunity for daily fieldwork among African migrants sealed the deal.
The busy days that are filled with lectures and fieldwork appear to leave little time for much else (including the 25% of work I didn’t finish before I left). But since the fieldwork is literally in the “field” of Athens, I’ll spend plenty of time out and about in the city. Perhaps it will grow on me. And my impressions will change over time. But after the first day, I already was wishing for a summertime escape to an island.
At the moment, the weather is no better than Holland – cold and rainy. The unapologetic staring is out of control. Ciggarrette smoke is absolutely everywhere – bars and taxis alike. And the number of homeless dogs and cats (although they are well-fed and many are given shots by the city) is just too much for me to bear. But it was last night when I almost reached my breaking point.
We were going to a performance of a Greece-born African rapper. Since I would be interviewing him later in the week, this was going to be an opportunity to chat briefly and enjoy some of his music. While I waited outside in the cold rain for my colleagues to arrive (for 30 minutes, which admittedly contributed to an incredibly shitty mood), a black man walked by. I’m black – he’s black – no one else is black. So of course I smiled to acknowledge him. He ignored me. Okay, I get it. We’re not all on the same team.
The performance was at a bar/club that appeared to be for relatively affluent locals (7 euros for a beer). The air was filled with smoke and the dj played Biz Markie. And among the Greek crowd, I saw the same black guy whom established earlier in the evening that we were not going to be friends. The Greek professor I stood beside motioned to him to join us. I knew immediately that this was the dude I was supposed to interview. He was cordial in the introduction, offering me his hand to shake and stating a Greek name by which to call him. Okay, I thought. I guess he’ll offer some interesting insight about the experiences of a black man living in Athens.
Before any conversation could begin, two of my Dutch classmates approached. Oh, the joy on his face. The taller of the two got most of his attention. He smiled widely as he introduced himself with a different name from the one he offered me – his rapper name, perhaps. His body language excluded me from the conversation. And he proceeded to ask them about the research they would be doing with second generation migrants, indicating his excitement to speak with them/her about his experiences. Oblivious to the insane rudeness of this interaction, my Dutch classmate corrected him to indicate that I would be the one focusing on 2nd generation migrants, pleasantly turning to re-include me in the conversation. Oh, the disappointment on his face. He said something about maybe being able to speak with me later in the week before quickly ending the conversation.
Needless to say, I have better things to do with my time than spending it in a smoke-filled club, listening to an asshole perform to a crowd of white people that echo shallow, insincere tributes to Africa (based on a description of the performance from one of the admired classmates). So I left.
It wasn’t a good night. And it exacerbated the negative feelings that were already starting to brew. But instead of packing my bags and fleeing back to Amsterdam, I decided to be a big girl and stick it out (after a couple of frustrated tears and a skype call to my mom, of course).
On a brighter note, I was wise enough to bookend my time in the city with side trips to other parts of Greece. When I first arrived, I spent a weekend with a friend and her family in the northern region of the country, in Alexandroupolis and Komotini, which was delightful. And after the program is completed, I’ll spend another weekend somewhere else pleasant. My opinions of Greece will not be measured by the weather or the people in Athens. But in the future, I need to be more careful about this whole selective memory thing.