Harriet Barrett, Contributor.
Well, since I last wrote to you there has been a change in the air here in Athens and I don’t just mean the cold winds we seem to be having at the moment! If you read my first diary entry you might recall that I was spending my weekends at the beach and had almost forgotten what the word studying meant. Unfortunately my long hot summer had to come to an end eventually and, along with the cool autumn weather, arrived my assignments.
Generally the academic environment here in Athens is more relaxed than what I am used to in Belfast, but this laissez-fare attitude to learning can leave you rather unsure and confused at times. We are not guided by a syllabus, nor textbooks or even a reading list of articles. As most of these are unfortunately written in Greek, our teachers simply arrive (20 minutes after the class was due to begin, as that’s Greek for ‘being on time’) and speak on the given topic. Now don’t get me wrong, the classes are great; the lecturers are knowledgeable and for the most part engaging, plus I think without slides or books to rely on I’m 100% more focused in class than at home. However this can be problematic if you miss something, which happens for me as I am dyslexic and sometimes struggle to keep up, or if you misunderstand something, which is easily done when the lecturer is teaching in their second language and most of the class is listening in their second language too!
The relaxed attitude doesn’t stop at teaching either. In order to gain enough credits this semester and therefore retain my degree accreditation, I am required to sit exams as well as submit coursework-type essays unlike at home there are no set essay questions. I simply invent those myself, a tricky task when you’re new to the topic! After deciding on a subject matter a considerable amount of independent research is necessary so you can write the required 10 to 20 pages of typed material . . . lets just say it’s a rather different approach to the one I am used to. These essays have been a new kind of challenge for me and one that has required and indeed is still requiring rather a lot of genuine interest in my subject alongside a sizeable dash of personal motivation, but that is not a bad thing and it truly has been a pleasure to chose topics of genuine personal interest. Sometimes I feel as if my work here in Athens is a bizarre halfway house between usual coursework and a dissertation – lots of writing but none of the detail – but I’m telling myself it’s a nice way to ease myself into the wrath of 3rd year that is inevitably awaiting me in rainy Belfast. Oh, and I forgot to mention that I am sitting most of my exams early as I won’t be in Greece for the January exam period, so my juggling skills are being out to the test. Though I absolutely cannot complain, so please pay not attention to my whining; I thank my lucky stars I’ve had a break from the never ending pressures my friends at home have been experiencing.
So the increase in workload has been the biggest shift going into my second month in Athens, and I’m certain I will continue to feel the gears grinding upwards as I enter my third and final month here. Indeed it has really begun to dawn on me that my weeks here are numbered, which of course fills me with a mix of excitement to at being reunited with my friends and family and sadness at having to leave the people that have made my Erasmus semester so wonderful. Indeed, looking towards January has also caused a little long-distance stress. When I decided to undertake the move to Greece I also gave up my home in Belfast, meaning the last few weeks have involved rather a lot of long-distance housing negotiations with friends and letting agents. We have thankfully found a great place to live and I’m extremely glad to be moving in with some of my most treasured friends in the New Year; it is a wonderful feeling to know we will spend our final months in Belfast sharing a home. Before I get too misty eyed thinking about all my reunions, I must say that if you are considering an Erasmus semester you really must think about the impact your time away might have on your living arrangements further down the line. The rather important detail of a roof over your head isn’t something that should be ignored. On a more reflective note, I must also say that this semester has made me realize, even more than I already did before, the power of friendship; distance can be hard and for that reason you may need to lean on your nearest and dearest. If you’re lucky enough to have people who bring unicorns and rainbows into your day to day life from thousands of miles a way, tell those people you love them and do it now. Don’t wait.
Now we’ve gotten past my sentimental moment perhaps you’d like to hear some more about my travels, after all that is why we are here! This month has been filled with its fair share of adventures. I travelled to the north of Greece to see Meteora, a truly breathtaking series of monasteries perched on top of spectacular and unusual rock formations and was lucky enough to explore some sleepy mountain villages and lake side towns whilst there. The whole weekend was a welcome break from the madness of Athens. I also invested some time in exploring sights closer to home, such as the Greek and Roman Agora’s here in the city, a beautiful reminder of the cities rich an ancient history. As well as taking the short car journey out to Mt Parnitha to get some fresh air and take in the panoramic views of Athens and the greater urban area, which I was astounded to learn is home to 40% of Greece’s population. This weekend just gone I took advantage of my location and hoped on a cheap flight to Sofia, neighboring Bulgaria’s capital.
The sub-zero temperatures came as quite a shock to my system but its icy beauty made the frost bitten toes bearable, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone looking for an inexpensive weekend break. I’ll not ramble on too much about my trips as I will be doing a full travel guide to mark the end of my semester which, will include all the lovely sights and coffee spots I’ve enjoyed in the last three months, so if any readers are tempted by Greece and the surrounding area, hopefully my guide will help.
This seems like an appropriate place to end, for now, as I leave one of my favorite coffee shops for class and I hope you’ll join me again for the final installment of my Erasmus diary in a few weeks.