…gone to Greece

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.

Criminal Activity

When I was a teenager, I took the train from Philadelphia to NYC to visit my sister.  At the conclusion of my trip to the big city, I found myself at Penn Station, smushed in an unacceptably large group of people as we all tried to avoid a single-file line at all costs.   I carried a bag in my hand and another on my back, shuffling along with the crowd.  Down the escalator, onto the platform, and eventually onto the train.  I thought I made it out of the city unscathed.  But alas, when I went to the front pocket of my backpack for my ticket, I saw that it was already wide open.  And although my ticket was still there (some mercy was had), my wallet was gone.  Long gone.  All I could do was sulk for a couple of hours as I sat in angry train silence.

That was my first truly lesson-teaching theft experience.  I’m pretty sure this girl in my 5th grade class stole some stuff from me back in the day.  But this was the first time I can remember falling victim to and being outwitted by a complete stranger.  Traumatic, yes.  But I learned two lessons: 1) Sometimes thieves win – can’t sweat it too much; and 2) front pockets are not meant for wallets…or maybe backpacks aren’t meant for wallets.

Fast forward a few years and time zones, I found myself walking down a street in Amsterdam, delighting in the fact that I felt so safe walking alone after dark.  Maybe I didn’t want to walk down the street with headphones, but I was still impressed by the unfamiliar feeling of…




Although several people were around, the night was quiet.  Waiting for the tram, she was dressed up – skirt, heels, that kind of thing.  She was carrying a bright yellow clutch purse.  I heard him grab her purse in a quick motion before I registered what I was seeing.  He ran almost silently across the tram tracks in my direction, continuing down the street I had just crossed.  She chased him all the way – perhaps on instinct more than reason.  In English she screamed things like, “thief!” and “stop him!” But with the exception of one guy who was in the way and made a faux attempt at heroism, none of us helped.  Her frantic footsteps and screams just faded down the street.

I was shook.  Standing at that tram stop, that woman easily could have been me (though her style wasn’t exactly my taste).  And since I was in for a 10 minute wait for my tram, I stayed shook.

The biggest threats around these parts seem to be bike theft and pickpocketing/mugging – though no one else seems to have witnessed a mugging in such a way.  Perhaps I needed to witness that poor woman losing her yellow clutch purse.  Because although I carefully double-lock my (inexpensive) bike every time I so much as turn my back on it, I was getting a little too relaxed about everything else.  Now, whenever on the street, I try my best to stay conscious of what’s not strapped on and locked down.  The bike also helps me stay out of harm’s way, keeping me off the sidewalks and moving at a much faster pace.

Fast forward several more months, a new problem presented itself.  Sitting in a cafeteria, on campus, with three other people, among once trusted student-colleagues, I placed my laptop at my feet.  Okay, I’m absolutely certain I would have treated such a valuable item with far more care if I were in an airport or somewhere of the sort, keeping it in my sight and attached to me in some way at all times.  But I was at school, with school people, discussing school stuff, with laptops and large bags all around.  I felt safe.

Too bad I wasn’t…or rather, my laptop wasn’t.  I have no idea how it was done.  But although four of us sat at the table, someone managed to steal it from under me.  A sad story, I know.

A student may have been the culprit.  Or perhaps someone from outside of the school preys on careless and distracted students.  (But I think it was a student.)  Regardless, I need to get it together.  I’m just not secure anywhere, at any time, around anyone.  Got it.  And I really can’t afford many more of these tough lessons…literally.  I literally can’t afford this.

She’s Come Undone

I’ve been back in Amsterdam for over a week.  Actually, well over a week.  But something terrible is happening.  I’m unraveling.  Completely.

Initially I blamed it on exhaustion.  I had a terribly uncomfortable flight back to this side, involving a broken middle seat that would slowly return to the fully upright position each time I moved my head.  I slept so hard the following night that it almost hurt.  And then, for the next several days, I blamed jet lag.  I support the belief that everyone is allowed to feel a little “off” after traveling a long distance.  But a week and a half?  According to wikipedia, I should be recovered by now.

Wide awake at 4am.  Multiple naps getting me through a day.  Looking at outside like it’s a scary place.  Getting very little accomplished.  I have fully embraced my lazy, homebody, night-owl tendencies.

Since I first arrived in Amsterdam in January, I’ve felt pretty busy.  Even when I wasn’t doing anything, I had something to worry about.   But now, having graciously granted myself the summer off, I’ve got nothing to force me to be normal.  Apparently, the things that I’ve been trying to get away from all of these years, such as responsibility and deadlines, are the things that keep me functional…and normal.

Of course I still have plenty to do, particularly the genealogy research for my internship and identifying funding opportunities that will allow me to live life as planned after school.  And I still have plenty to worry about, most of which come back to money (why always?).  But overall, things are just pretty calm.  I live in Amsterdam, my rent is paid, my life is good…blah, blah, blah.

Is this what makes me feel like I’m melting into my couch? It’s crazy.  Are there support groups for people without real problems?

Homework, Procrastination, and Freak Outs

Homework sucks.  Well, no.  I understand it from a reasonable perspective.  If I only attended class, even if I listened really carefully and took diligent notes, I wouldn’t learn much.  Most of the substance comes from reading, reflecting, writing…all of that.  I get it.  Really I do.  But for some reason homework brings on this unwelcome sense of dread and anxiety.

I think it goes back to when homework started picking up – maybe 4th grade.  I used to expect to be finished with all of my assignments by about 7pm.  So when Jeopardy was coming on in the living room, and I still had more than one assignment left to finish, I would freak out.  It would start with biting my nails, progress to a racing heart, and finally escalate to full-blown tears.  It was insane.  My mother would explain that I was only wasting more time with my freak out.  But I couldn’t be reasoned with.  I was already convinced I would still be doing math word problems as the sun rose…on my 20th birthday.

I didn’t have as much time to panic over homework in high school.  I was always involved with a bunch of activities, mainly ballet, that kept me busy.  By the time I got home and had some dinner, I only had a couple of hours before I needed to be asleep.  So even though I hated it, I just had to get it done.  One night I remember eating my dinner on the way to a rehearsal, while writing a paper, relying on the light in the car.  If I had taken time for a freak out, I would have missed rehearsal, and I wouldn’t have finished the paper.

The problem became procrastination, a good friend I met in college.  More free time meant more time to waste.  If I had 2 days to complete a paper, something else of critical importance would take priority on the first day – something like cleaning my roommate’s hair out of the vacuum or sitting in a room with a few friends discussing how much work we had to do.  On the second day, I would get everything else out of the way at the beginning of the day – checking mail, having breakfast and lunch, maybe a class or rehearsal.  Nothing would be finished between any of those things.  So I wouldn’t start until they were all completed.  And that usually left me at 9 or 10pm, beginning a paper that was due the following day.  I had it worked out to a science though.  Mountain Dew, commiserating friends, and knowledge that it had been done before got me through it every time.  I lost a lot of sleep.  And I had a reasonable number of freak outs.  And none of it helped improve my relationship with homework.

Law school was just about the same, defined by procrastination and complaining.  But that complaining was warranted.

And now, here I am about a decade later, still biting my nails, wasting time, and freaking out about homework.

I handed in my first real paper last week.  Although I left myself plenty of time to write the paper, it took me far longer than I expected to finish.  At one point I had to trash my argument because it was centered around an article that turned out to be absolutely nutso (took me three reads to realize the guy was talking about magic more literally than is acceptable in an academic environment).  Researching, re-reading, and trying to make sense of it all just went on and on.  I expected to finish with plenty of time to spare.  But around midnight, the night before it was due (it was to be emailed by midnight the following night), I was making fried rice and tea, knowing I would be up for several more hours.  And then, of course, old habits came back to haunt me.  No tears were shed.  But self-doubt made an appearance.  And then there was that woman I haven’t been in touch with for 4 years on facebook – I needed to look at all 121 of her Grand Canyon vacation photos.  And then there was my phone’s ringtone – that had to be changed.  And then of course there was the discovery of Top Chef All Stars on youtube.  My goodness.  There was just so much to do in such a short period of time.

But there’s a happy ending.  I finished the paper, emailed it, and handed in the hard copy before 6pm the following day (perhaps my earliest ever).  And I think it made sense.  If it didn’t make sense, well it’s not so much a happy ending.  But it certainly felt happy to get over that hurdle.  And having spent so much time on the paper, I understood more of the concepts than I had before I began.

So finally feeling a bit smarter and more confident, I think homework and I may have reached a better place…but that’s not to say I won’t be looking at every single photo you’ve posted on facebook the night before my next paper is due.

Cycling Debacles

There’s a woman ahead of me on her cell phone. Her pace is slow. So I follow her. An old man zooms by us both, pleasantly ringing his bell. Another woman pulls up behind me, saying something in Dutch. Most likely I’m doing something wrong. So I assume she’s alerting me to the fact that my tires are on backwards or something. Then she pulls up beside me, causing me to panic at the thought of veering straight into her. “dutch…dutch…dutch” is met by my blank, nervous stare. “Oh, you’re not dutch! I was just saying you have really awesome dreads!” I offer a winded response. Something like, “hank-uh.” Then she zooms off at three times my speed.

Cell phone lady must have turned. Because now I’m at the intersection alone. Every muscle is tense. My hands are tightly clenching the handle bars. And every ounce of my concentration is on the peddles. When the bike light turns green, I’ll need to have a plan for how to push off smoothly, in spite of my exhaustion, frozen fingers, and runny noise. A pitiful scene. And a typical one.

So yeah. I got a bike. But look, people. No one can be good at everything.  And I am comfortable with owning this as one of my more obvious weaknesses.  I’m even able to see the humor in the misery of it.

Before purchasing the bike, I watched the bikers really closely.  Aside from the fact that I hadn’t seriously ridden a bike since I was very young, I was most concerned by the laws of bike traffic.  Stopping, merging, navigating – there was definitely a system. And although it continued to baffle me, the cost and slow pace of the trams compelled me to put on a brave face, buy a bike, and learn by doing.

I was told not to spend more than 60 or 70 euros on a bike, knowing that it has a high likelihood of being stolen anyway. Some people even recommended going straight for a stolen bike for the lowest price guarantee. But since I feel too new to engage in criminal activity, I went to the Waterlooplein flea market, which usually seems to have a good selection of used bikes. I looked through the first guy’s selection, which seemed to be mostly the more expensive, fancy-type bikes. He walked up with a bike in tow to ask me if I needed help. When I told him I was just looking at the bikes, he said, “how about this one?”

A typical dutch bike – brown, rusty in plenty of places, and absolutely no frills. But it seemed like a good bike with the potential to be cute if I could figure out the right accent colors. As I considered the bike’s aesthetics, the guy said, “it’s a good bike. Try it.”

Internal panic. I didn’t think I would have to take my first ride in years in front of an audience – at this crowded market. But it was important to me to be cool. So I said, “okay, great.” Adjusting my gloves and shuffling things around in my bag, I stalled a bit. Then I took a deep breath and pushed off into the street behind the market. I wobbled into a turn on the sidewalk to avoid running into real traffic. Then I leveled off to go a few paces down the street. I hadn’t fallen off, so I got off before I could. 60 euros, including a new lock and some dinky lights, I bought the bike.

rusty and sexy

Although I had gotten over a huge hurdle by getting up the nerve to purchase the bike, I still didn’t have the nerve to ride it home. So we walked halfway, making a stop in the park. And then I practiced, going in circles, back and forth through the park. I felt silly. But I needed the confidence boost before I could go into the street.

Finally I forced myself to leave the park, coming to a complete stop before I had the courage to enter the bike lane. Then I was in the mix. A few people passed me. And one of those tiny cars honked at me when I didn’t know I was allowed to turn at a light. But I managed to get myself home, exhausted and relieved.

The next morning was Sunday, when hardly anyone is on the street. So I decided to take my bike to the central library, which took me about 15 or 20 minutes after getting a little lost. Two days later I took it to class. And since then, I’ve just been forcing myself to keep getting back on. I’ve come home so exhausted that I can’t even take my coat off (yeah, I’m out off shape); I fell off once in front of about 10 people waiting at a tram stop when my tire got stuck in the track (only because construction forced me out of the bike lane); I still scream out loud when other bikers merge into my lane; I sweat in spite of the freezing temperatures; and I have yet to ride at night. But each time I feel slightly calmer and less tense, which in itself makes it easier to ride. I understand how the lights and intersections work. And I haven’t run into any pedestrians (well, almost – but not really).

Once the cold weather eases up, and I can steer the bike with anything less than a death grip, I’m pretty sure my bikeriding skills will resemble my approach to driving down Flatbush Ave in Brooklyn – carefree, reckless, and impatient. But until then, I’ll be testing the limits of my comfort zone every day.