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Culture Focus

Beyond Borders 2nd Place Winner: A Week in Greece

Pavlina Cerna November 4, 2019

Illustration credit: Sana Kewalramani

During the week of spring semester finals I received an email from the chair of the journalism department David Mindich, with a subject line “Spend a week in Greece this summer and earn three transfer credits through the Thessaloniki International Summer Media Academy.” 

Studying at home right then, I looked out the window of my Philadelphian room, my sight blurred by rain drops aggressively drumming on the glass. Not that I could exactly afford to travel to Greece with a bank account of a constantly poor student, but the rain kept pouring down and Greece carried a promise of sun. With my grandma’s saying on my mind – “money will always exist, we won’t,” I applied. It is educational after all, right down my degree alley, right? 

Looking for any excuse to procrastinate on my final projects, I started to look for the cheapest flights with the coolest possibilities right away. It had to be pure luck that I found one with a double layover – for a day in Madrid and for a night in Rome. 

I was ready for the junior year to end and summer adventures to begin.

Dirt-poor, but determined to make the most out of my only break from work this summer, I arrived to Madrid at the beginning of July. Meeting two dear souls I befriended in Spain the summer prior, I started my journey with amazing company, great coffee and delicious food. 

Rome welcomed me with a warm, summer-night air – and a closed airport. While sleeping at the airport was my plan from the beginning, sleeping outside the airport was beyond my wildest going-wrong visions. And beyond my hungry stomach that counted on some midnight Italian dinner. A broken vending machine outside the airport, filled with smoked-salmon sandwiches and other provoking items, was laughing in my face. So I laid down on the ground outside the airport (getting a feel for the homeless life) in my sleeping sack (still privileged though), occasionally conversing with fellow-sufferers, together turning our bad luck into a fun camping trip, and waited for my 6.30 a.m. flight. 

I arrived to Thessaloniki sleep deprived, highly undercaffeinated, and very probably smelling like a stray dog. The paradox of appearing drunk instead of exhausted (as those two often overlap) haunted me at this early hour of the day. I could not help smiling though – I was in Greece after all! 

Majority of participants were scheduled to arrive late at night or the following day for the official start of the academy. The ones of us arriving early finished the day with delicious Greek wine while getting to know each other. I pushed through the settling fatigue in order to not miss a thing, only allowing myself to sleep when I started to mix Czech and English words together, making it impossible for others to decipher my thoughts.

Kicking the next morning off with a double intake of caffeine, I was ready to take the week on! 

Over 40 participants, both students and professionals, from 12 different countries arrived to the summer academy, representing mainly Russia, but also Italy, Greece, China, Slovenia and many other European countries.

The day went like this: lectures, conversations, coffee, lectures, group projects, lunch, coffee, lectures, exercises and more coffee.

To be completely honest, the lectures themselves, while certainly informative, were mostly reinforcing information I had already known from my journalism classes at Temple. I really enjoyed the non-theoretical part, when speakers introduced projects they have been working on or shared their hands-on experiences.

But it was the people around me that taught me the biggest lessons.

Surrounded by nations such as Russia and China, I realized early on what a privileged journalistic life I am living beyond the ocean. While I am familiar with terms such as censorship, self-censorship or for example media as a government’s instrument to spread their agenda, I never directly faced people experiencing them in reality. 

Cultural exchanges and curiosity about ways of living in other parts of the world being my fascination, I was in my element. 

We could not have been a more different and diverse group, not only because we primarily speak different languages (causing many jokes to fall through the hole of “untranslatableness”), but also because we express our thoughts differently, proving that our minds are wired a little differently.

Whatever differences definitely did not become obstacles though. Everyone was friendly, open minded and ready to engage in a constructive conversation.

We found a common ground. Our passions became our common language. 

The most interesting conversations were going on both beyond the conference room and the journalism field. We lead sophisticated debates about the world over coffee during the day and then spend the night laughing it off over wine.

I broadened my horizons, adapted my perception, expanded my open mindness.

By the end of the week, we were all more friends than we were strangers. 

While I initially decided to travel to Greece for educational reasons, it was all about the people I met there (and on my way there) in the end. It always is.

The places themselves are gorgeous, education is important, but it’s the people who leave their footprints attached to a place and turn a mental picture into a fond memory.

Madrid itself would have been beautiful, but my friends there made it memorable. Rome would have been a miserable recollection (let’s not sugarcoat that), but my involuntary co-campers made it a fun night underneath the stars. The summer academy would have fulfill its educational purpose, but my new friends there made the week unforgettable.

This trip left me irreversibly broke for the rest of my senior year, but money has nothing on the truly invaluable relationships, connections and cultural exchanges. I have an empty bank account and nothing to my name, but instead, I have friends in places now I could not even place on a map before.

And that makes any experience like this one priceless.