There is a misconception that I inadvertently feed with my misguided attempts at humility. I am constantly told that I have a knack for languages. A talent. An innate ability. This is not the case (or if it is, it is a deliberate thing). In life I have found myself reacting negatively to my activities being described in these ways. I wonder now if this is more an issue of semantics. Perhaps my understanding of talent is distinct from the norm. When I hear the word talent, I think of synonyms such as natural, predisposed, effortless, inborn, innate, etc. And thus I take the world as a dismissal of the effort put into said talents. In terms of languages, I would like to set the record straight here. I do not magically learn languages. I put a lot of time and work into the process.
I mention this here because I learned quite a lot of Greek. I can read basic emails and essays, and hold moderately long conversations on topics of my choosing. Learning Greek made basic sense to me – as the consistent fourth term of our schedule at TGS, it is the one language on which we should devote the most energy. Learning the language of a host country is to me an act of common decency. This seems to be a diminishing minority opinion among travelers, especially with the many applications that facilitate travel in ways that remove interaction with locals entirely (navigation and map apps, photo-translation integration, ride-share and food delivery apps, online accommodation bookings, pre-arranged tour services, etc. At any rate, I have been greatly admired in the past month for my facility with Greek – translating for our bus driver during WeXplore, for instance. I see this as a missed teaching opportunity. I also see this more as a mark on others rather than something for which I should be lauded.
At the end of the previous term in the UAE, I was appointed head of languages for the following school year. Given the way that we farm out our classwork, I decided that I needed to study the way our students study languages. I downloaded Duolingo to learn Greek, signed up for a weekly maintenance Russian tutor with NovaMova/SRAS, and arranged a set of conversation lessons in Thai with iTalki. I began using Duolingo a few weeks before heading to Athens. Every day I drilled on the app for a minimum of one hour or 1000 experience points, and I continued throughout my entire time in Athens. I noticed diminishing returns with this experiment after arriving, but stuck to the program for the sake of the experiment. All this to say that I have no special brain or super power. I simply spend the necessary time.
In Greece we have no dedicated module. Instead, each student or pair of students designed their own project specific to our context. I have the pleasure of mentoring three such projects – Greek Music History, Athens Refugee and Immigrant Photojournalism, and Rock Climbing in and around Athens. All of the organization assistance has necessarily been remote – by phone and internet – as the projects happen simultaneously. The one exception has been the latter, as I have took the relevant student to the local climbing gym.
I’ve been climbing quite a lot in Greece. Finally back to relative health, I feel the strongest in regards to climbing that I have in many years. In contrast to the strange corporate-ness that is plaguing gyms in the USA, I was welcomed to the local climbing gym in Athens even before arriving, and had the wonderful privilege of re-setting most of the climbing gym on my first day off. The gym manager, Antonis, told me
You are maybe the best route setter passing by Mamouna. Thank you.
Our first weeks in Greece were rather glitzy, with “team-building” activities meant to unite the two cohorts of the school occurring at a kitschy dinner “experience”, a joint staff dinner at a shiny restaurant with an epic view of the Acropolis, etc. We’ve strangely had very little time to see and experience Athens, though. Our days are filled with time in our office space in meetings, advisory sessions, and various academics. The first two weeks in particular featured the final mastery (culminating projects) and service learning (community service) defenses from the majority of our seniors. I am happy to say that I was able to contribute rather significantly here in bringing a culture of critique to the school that is sorely needed.
Aside from climbing and school, I’ve wandered around much of Athens in search of groceries. I stocked up on standard ingredients easily before realizing that the main thing impossible to acquire here in Athens seems to be relevant fresh vegetables. In retrospect I should have focused on learning and cooking Greek food (which has some excellent components) and taken advantage of the proximity to the rest of Europe to cook other European dishes. The availability of excellent guanciale and pecorino romano has been a revelation. Next year I should refine my pasta dishes as much as I’ve worked on my freddo espresso execution.