Writing this in New York, part of me doesn’t believe my spring break in Thessaloniki was real. My memories are hazy, taking place in a world far different from the endless rush of New York. And yet, I have photographic proof of my absolutely life-changing week in Thessaloniki, Greece. My iPhoto doesn’t lie. There I am, hugging my new friends and gazing out into a new city. It was a spring break of exploration and adventure, good food and amazing documentaries. It was a spring break of long coffee breaks, strolls throughout a beautiful and interesting history, and making lifelong friends, and it definitely was real.
I was a part of Columbia’s alternative Spring Break trip to Thessaloniki. Along with another Her Campus writer, Gabi Mayers, there were 11 of us total. The students came from all over the country and world, but we were based in Columbia, Barnard, or Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Part of the trip’s magic came from the fact that none of us were already good friends. Most of us just knew of one another, but didn’t know each other. Well, after a week of laughing and bonding, I can safely say that I know my friends from the trip, and what a great thing that is. The wonderful thing about spending a week with a group of almost strangers is that after the week is done, you have developed a collection of memories and a language with which only you will all comprehend. All 11 of us went in strangers, and now, after only one week, there are certain phrases that could be uttered and we would all fall on the floor laughing. Everyone else present would not budge. So, when I say ”para poli,” I don’t expect any of you readers to understand. But Thessaloniki people—I loved this trip…para poli!
Thessaloniki, the second most populated city in Greece after Athens, has an amazingly rich history. Located in Northern Greece, the city begins atop a steep hill with a citadel and continues all the way down to the Mediterranean. On a clear day, you can see Mt. Olympus across the sea like it was right in front of you.
A view from the top, Olympus up ahead. (Not taken by me)
Thessaloniki is a layered city both figuratively and literally. In fact, it hasn’t always been classified a “Greek” city. For most of its history, Thessaloniki was a multicultural city, populated by Ottomans, Jews, and Greeks. Perhaps this can be best illustrated through the building of a subway line. Ancient ruins are found underneath the modern-day city each time a plot of land is excavated for construction of the city. Underneath the fairly unattractive modern architecture lies another city of Roman and Greek ruins. Layers of Thessaloniki’s Byzantine past are present in various old churches throughout the city, and of course remnants of the Ottoman Empire are present as well. In the beginning of the 20th century, Thessaloniki’s population was predominantly Jewish, with over 60% of the population being Jewish. Tragically, the vast majority of this thriving population perished during the Holocaust, forever destroying one of the most vibrant aspects of the city’s multicultural history. Now, Thessaloniki is a Greek city, but if one looks closely, Thessaloniki’s Jewish, Ottoman, and ancient history is everywhere beneath the modern architecture.
Ancient ruins of a palace next to modern apartments–layering!
We spent the week attending Thessaloniki’s 16th International Documentary Film Festival. It was a truly extraordinary experience. By day, we would attend multiple documentaries of our choosing, in between feasts, of course. Some of my favorites were Finding Vivian Maier, The Starfish Throwers, and To Be and To Have. As someone who previously had not been acquainted with many documentaries, this trip was a revelation. Documentaries are about stories and shedding light on the human experience in ways that fiction films try to do, but in a different way. What’s so special about these documentaries is they connect the viewer to people who are utterly foreign to you, but through the hour and a half you spend with them, you come out with a greater understanding of someone else’s life. Ultimately, I emerged from the movie theater with the confirmation of a “shared personhood;” that is to say, all humans share the same human experience. Once we realize how much more similar we are—that we all have struggles and dreams and stories—life takes on a new meaning. There is a community in every person you meet. The documentaries may center on things that aren’t necessarily ground in people, but it was the interviews and human input from each film that really affected me.
In addition to attending the film and eating copious amounts of delicious Greek food and wandering about the city, all 11 of us embarked on making our own short films about Thessaloniki. We chose one aspect of the city and created a 1-5 minute film about that subject. The projects spanned a wide array: one student interviewed an African immigrant and found out about his background and life in Greece, another did a project on Thessaloniki’s abandoned buildings and graffiti, another group interviewed Thessaloniki’s high school students and investigated the tradition of “copana,” which is essentially hookey. Kids will take off from school in the middle of the day, sit in cafes, and walk down the beautiful boardwalk as a nice alternative from class. Sounds pretty sweet to me. The documentaries will all be uploaded soon, and I will post the link.
I did my project on friendship in the city. On my first day, I was struck by the amount of women strolling arm in arm. These women ranged from middle-school aged preteens to their elderly grandmas. It seemed as though the girlfriends walked this way for companionship and support. I loved the intimacy created by the way these women’s gaits would soon match up as they continued to walk arm in arm. I interviewed friends as well as took footage of the friends walking. Narrow New York streets aren’t conducive to walking arm in arm with my friends, but I think I’m going to do it anyway.
A view of the main square where we spent a lot time filming and hanging out
I learned so much about the world and myself during this wonderful week abroad. It all seems like a dream, but I know that I did a lot of growing up in only a matter of nine days.
Waking up every morning to the slow realization that I’m no longer in Thessaloniki has been hard, and so has coming back to a schedule of class class class homework homework internship, etc. But hey—I can’t complain. I’ll be back in Greece in only two months for more adventure.