Stories from Greece....Group travel with students and parents.
Updated: Mar 7, 2019
I have always been one to shy away from discussing ethical and political topics, mostly because there is just so much of a story we do not know. I am very wary of what "news" I am receiving and of making statements based on secondary sources and opinions. So what do I do?
I go. I go far. I travel. I meet people and I ask questions.
I just returned from a 9 day trip to Greece as a group leader for EF (Education First) Tours which allows teachers to design trips and take students and parents along for the ride. The itinerary choices make it difficult to choose, so my first two trips were based on the curriculum that I teach in 7th grade social studies. Last year I led 52 people to Venice, Florence and Rome where we got to see first hand the many places we had studied. This summer we went to Greece.
It was two years ago that I offered this 2018 trip to Greece which initially sparked a lot of interest. Offering a trip two years in advance allows people to plan and make payments, making such a trip more attainable for many. Over 35 signed up for the trip, but something strange happened over the first few months after the sign ups. People started backing out, giving me reasons such as , "I'm too busy" or "Something else came up." etc. But while asking around about opinions on Greece I heard the words "refugees" "bad economy" and "safety/terrorism" a few times. I was anxious to set out for myself and find out what is really going on in Greece.
I had a feeling that there was nothing to be afraid of and it turns out that not only did Greece feel very safe, but its people are the most beautiful, kind, happy, friendly people I've met in Europe. Most Greeks we encountered had perfect English, so I made sure my travelers knew how spoiled we are that everyone in the world speaks English as a second or third language, and how we are so ethnocentric as as society that we feel we don't need to learn another language at all. I wondered how many of my students had really pondered this concept.
Let me address a few concerns of those that backed out :
Safety/Terrorism: According to our tour guide (who was British but has lived in Greece for 20 years,) there has never been a terrorist attack in Greece. Now I am not here to argue about that, but my point is more about how many Americans are scared to travel abroad when WE are really at more risk in the U.S. for terrorism and gun violence than many other nations. So when we asked him why this was so, my suspicions were confirmed. Why bother? Why bother attacking a country that really can't do much for you. It's not about religion, it's about money and power. He went on to tell us that the biggest attack in Greece actually occurred by students at a University in Athens and it was never reported in the news; go figure...just not exciting enough.
Athens, just like any other big city, has its good and bad areas. We saw a lot of graffiti and some areas were worn down and dirty. However, I think that some people would be surprised at how safe we felt in the small villages we visited. In Naufplio we came across an outdoor elementary school concert where there was traditional dancing and singing as the parents and family in the audience looked on. They were as excited to see their children perform as we are when we attend our kids' concerts. It was so fantastic to be able to experience REAL Greece. Real people. They are just like us! During our dinner in Naufplio there was a market across the little street that we let the kids go to by themselves. Yup....these young teens walked together and got to experience a little adventure. Sure we kept an eye on them but I felt safer there than I do in most places in the US.
Economy: All I could think of when people mentioned not going to Greece because of the economy was how it seems like a GREAT time to go! I figured prices might be low...and they were. A liter of water from the market was 20 cents. Jewelry was reasonably priced and food was similarly priced to here in the US. We got a marvelous meal of lamb souvlaki at a restaurant for $13 which would have been twice that much here for the quality we got. Every single restaurant we visited was outstanding, whereas in other countries it's very hit and miss. Our guide kept telling us that all of the food was good, but it was hard to believe until we experienced it!
Did I mention the history in Greece?
Refugees: This was something I was eager to chat with our guide about. He said that one of the hotels near ours in Athens was actually a place that was housing many refugees and that hotels were a common place for them. He said it was a bit like a "squatters hotel" and that they really are in need of supplies like diapers and toiletries. The government is struggling with what to do with them and how to help. They are stuck but they are safe. Our only encounter with obvious refugees was twice when our bus was stopped at an intersection. The first time was a boy that our driver was annoyed with as he was asking for money like we see here on our very own street corners....but this boy didn't have a sign. The driver was asking where he was from and the boy said he was from Athens but our driving wasn't believing it due to his accent. I'm not sure why this mattered. The driver gave him a bottle of water and drove off. The refugee issue is of course a concern, much like it is here.
The next time we saw a young boy and girl on the streets. The girl's hair was very matted and both were dirty. The driver talked to them for quite a while and eventually gave the boy a water, but the girl kept begging. As we drove off I looked around to see if I could see anyone else and sure enough, I saw what I assume to be their parents across the road. It broke my heart. I wondered, were these parents once doctors, or teachers? Were they uprooted from their homes desperate to find safety? What if this was my family? Greece is not the only place I have seen such a thing. When we were in Italy we saw a boy playing the accordion for money. He was adorable but we knew he was making money to help his family. What we see on our streets in Liberty, MO is usually the mentally ill homeless begging. Many choose this lifestyle and wouldn't change it. Seems very different to me when it's refugees that would absolutely go back to their jobs and their life if their homeland wasn't dangerous. How privileged are we to be born in the United States. We did nothing to be born here. Nothing. We are lucky.
As we sat having a little happy hour one night in Naufplia, a little girl's hand came through the window with a small basket asking for money. We shooed her off, but all I could think of if how if I could possibly come back to Greece and meet these families and learn their stories what would I do? How could I help? I imagine they aren't much different than us but were forced into unthinkable circumstances.
Visiting Greece as a tourist! DO IT! GO! Spend your money, meet the people, learn the culture! Talk to the people....engage! In one little jewelry shop there were 5 of us....3 teen boys and my friend and I. You can imagine that we were all touching things and I worried that the shop owner was concerned., but he came up and started sharing about his jewelry. We were all very friendly and as we all paid he showed us they he carried a $20 American bill in his wallet. He said it was for good luck. So I gave him a quarter to add to his collection as a thank you for being so kind to us. You would have thought I have given him $1000! He said, "But I have nothing to give you" I said, "Sure you do! Show me how to get to the beach!"
I also encountered an adorable old gentleman in a shop where I was buying a rug. He and I were chatting just as we figured out that all of the hubbub going on outside the shop was the President of Greece finishing a meeting on the street above and he was heading our direction! The shop owner said the President had stopped in his shop earlier was very nice. As we walked to the front of the shop, one of our travelers was there shaking hands with him! We had to google him to be sure he was who they were saying he was because it was just so crazy! Obviously secret service was not concerned about a bunch of sweaty American tourists completely clueless to what was going on. And he was very kind! He stood and talked to our friend for a minute or so saying he was sorry that he only spoke Greek and French.
After this encounter with the President, the shop owner wanted to see my picture. He noticed that he was in it and was so excited. So I came in and asked for his card so I could send him the picture. Again, he was astounded at my kindness, but to me it was just fun! My advice; don't be afraid to engage with people.
Holding a real Olympic Torch When we travel the world we need to be ambassadors for the United States. The Greeks loved us, but I know many countries that are annoyed with our loud personalities. Many think we are living in the Wild West and would be scared to come here due to the shootings they are hearing about. So for us to be scared to travel to other countries but not be scared here....well, just think about that.
We are actually very much like Greeks in personality so it worked well for us on this trip. As I head to England, France and Switzerland in July with my family, you can be I will enjoy watching out for personalities and how other cultures engage with us. I feel we need to try to match the personalities of those we are with. So take a look around you where you are, observe and join in. And go. Go Far. Travel. Meet people and ask questions.
Check out a short video here! https://photos.app.goo.gl/gHuYchskhLz9Me9U7