A Coming of Age in Athens


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This week we have another Greek feature on the League of Expat Writers (LEW).  And I have to say, this piece is well worth reading: One woman’s Athenian experiences that helped her grow as an individual.

American Burd is working on her Ph.D and currently residing in the ‘States, but has had the good fortune of leaving, often for months at a time, to visit friends while traveling for the sake of research, conferences, and work. She’s recently booked a one-way flight to Italy so will be relocating in May. American Burd is the Love and Sex Editor at Girl Gone International and on her own blog Not A Scottish Lass writes about travelling, love (both lost and found), and living life within and well outside our comfort zones.

Keeping a journal
Keeping a journal

It was pure serendipity that whilst looking for my travel adapters for my upcoming trip, I found something I hadn’t thought of in years, my journal from when I lived in Greece. I moved to Greece in August 2005 to study abroad and, later, to teach English at a Multi-cultural school in Athens. There were a lot of firsts for me in Athens, and Greece as a whole. Athens is the first city I fell in love with, and I fell hard for Αθήνα. She was the first city I lived in, my first time travelling by myself, and my first time abroad on my own. I have a lot of memories from my time there and as meaningful as those times were, I had forgotten a lot. Reading the journal I kept almost eight years ago was a strange experience. What stood out most wasn’t the list of antiquities I visited, the classes I took and taught, it was the goals I made whilst there. I wrote a lot about the type of person I wanted to be, and Athens is what made me want to be a certain type of person. She made me want to be a better person, with goals that were larger than the life I had previously known, and wisdom that I knew could only be attained through more experiences, more travel, and a level of assertiveness and confidence, in myself, which I had not previously possessed.

Athens is where I truly became a woman.

Athens is where I became a woman
Athens is where I became a woman

In many cultures, the transition from adolescent to adult occurs, symbolically, when an individual reaches sexual maturity or a specific age. In various religions, this involves a ceremony signifying the progression to adult hood; in my own culture (American) it’s marked by legal rights (to drive, buy cigarettes, consume alcohol). It’s common for the transition from adolescent to adult to occur within one’s society, but my most profound coming of age experiences occurred when I was living in Greece and, by my society’s standards, already an adult. coming–of–age n. : the attainment of prominence, respectability, recognition, or maturity (coming-of-age. 2013. In Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved April 7, 2013)

Just a small town girl

Thinking back on it now, it seems absolutely mad. I’m from a village in the least populated state in the U.S. I had no idea what I was doing, I just knew I needed to do something different, and I did. I moved about 7,000 miles away from everything, by myself. I moved to a country where I was visibly (I’m pale and blonde), culturally, and linguistically different. Needless to say, the experience had a great impact on me. It’s amazing how the American Burd who wrote in that journal in 2005 is both vastly different and eerily similar to the one writing this post now. I lived in a little apartment located in Pangrati, a working class neighborhood in Athens. As the only American in my building, I learned a lot about Greeks just from observing them. I’m sure there were resources on how to adapt to living in a large city in a foreign country, but I obviously didn’t read them. I had travel guides and they were helpful for accomplishing certain tasks, but others… I figured those out on my own. It’s amazing how people adapt to situations they are thrown (and throw themselves) into.
I learned that, unlike Americans, Athenians do not go for runs throughout their city; they go to the gym and run on the treadmill. Eventually I conceded and got a gym membership, but that wasn’t until after three months of waking up every morning to run a carefully constructed route that began at the top of a miniature staircase next to the Panathenaic Stadium and then continuing to my favorite antiquities in Athens. First to the Temple of Olympian Zeus, then Hadrian’s Arch, the Acropolis, Athenian Agora, and last through the National Gardens on the way back to my apartment in Pangrati. This morning run was instigated so that I could soak up the antiquities of ancient Athens; I continued running this route because of what I learned about the culture of Modern Greece during the course of the run.
Every morning old men could be seen white washing the sidewalks in front of their stores, stray cats and dogs would laze about the ancient temples and fallen columns, Yia Yia’s were quickly scurrying about pulling folded grocery carts over the uneven and broken sidewalks towards the nearest Laiki to purchase fresh fish, olives, and vegetables, children were playing soccer in the city squares, screaming and yelling at each other while their mothers and Yia Yias watched on with adoration, and old men could be seen at the coffee shops drinking café Hellenico while relating stories using exaggerated hand gestures.

Exposure to a culture so different from my own was a shock, but one of my greatest learning experiences to date. Every day I left my apartment, I learned something new about Greek culture as well as something new about my own culture.

Laiki (Farmer's) Market
Laiki (Farmer’s) Market

 Choosing Athens

“Why Athens? Why not London, Milan, Paris?” For me, it was a simple choice; I was a Classicist. Since a very young age I had aspired to be a young Indiana Jones. I studied Greek and Latin and had spent my summers in archaeological field training. I had a romanticized perception of Greece and a lust for adventure that needed to be satiated. I wanted to uncover objects that no one had laid eyes on in over 1,000 years, see the “wine dark sea” Homer had written of in the Iliad and Odyssey, perfect my Greek accent, and…fall in love. I know it all sounds ridiculous, but that was what I went looking for in Greece and I wasn’t disappointed. The Greek islands were covered with ancient potsherds; the sea was dark but not ruddy, depending on the location, it was a deep dark blue or green, more beautiful than I had ever imagined; my accent, it never stopped sounding like that of an elderly Greek man whenever I said “Para-kalo” (but it did improve); and love… well I did have a few flings with beautiful Greek men (chronicled oh so well within the pages of my journal), but more importantly, I fell in love with travel and all of the adventures that come with it.

I came back from Greece with some wicked reverse culture shock, but a renewed sense of self and a goal. I wanted to be the best version of myself possible. A phrase made ever so popular by the book and movie Eat, Pray, Love was kalos kagathos. I had the feminine form of this word tattooed on my ankle after my return from Greece, to remind myself of what I had learned in Greece. I was surprised and disappointed when the movie came out and everyone (including my own mother who had never understood it) thought they understood this phrase, one I held very dear to my heart. It is so much more than that which Elizabeth Gilbert describes in her book (says the ornery ex-Classicist):

it is more than self-love, and it is not merely a state of being. Καλή Kἀγαθή is a goal and aspiration to be the best possible version of one’s self, both in body and character.

My experiences in Greece made me want to be a better person, travel more, learn more, and conquer the world.

Since Greece, I’ve been to many more countries and continents, and grown as a person in each of these places; but Greece has and will always hold a special place in my heart because she taught me so much. I’d highly recommend Athens, as well as the rest of that beautiful country to anyone and everyone. The islands are enchanting, the Peloponnese unforgettably beautiful, and Athens… she’s just so alive.

As a converted Athenian, I want to thank “American Burd” for this piece as it resonates with me so much.  You all know that I came to live in Athens in 2009 and haven’t left…well, “American Burd” states the reasons very well here. Thank you, so much, for sharing your personal journey.