Harriet Barrett, Contributor.
I arrived in Athens International Airport around midnight on September 22nd. It was late and dark but still, in true Greek style, pretty hot. I was tired, and if I’m honest a little overwhelmed. After months of waiting and a full day of travelling, I had finally arrived, alone, in the country that was to be my home for the next three months. Before I could even think about traversing the Greek underground with all my suitcases I desperately needed to charge my phone, so I found a spot on the floor and as I was sat there I began to think – ‘what on earth have I done?’ In reality had just begun a great adventure.
Taking a leap into the unknown is always daunting but this one a leap I will never regret. The first month of my Erasmus has been jam packed with exploring, travelling, socialising and * cough cough * minimal studying. In the first week alone I visited landmarks, ate my own body weight in gyros, partied, and even made plans to visit Santorini, an island I’d dreamt of seeing for years; I really couldn’t believe my luck.
Admittedly Athens, it wasn’t love at first sight and there are things about the city and the Erasmus experience I have found challenging, but that’s part of what makes it such a valuable learning experience. Just take my first day here, for example. It was a Sunday, I spent all day unpacking and only had the courage to explore my local shop, that evening I even shed a few worried tears; I hadn’t spoken to anyone in 24hrs and was petrified I wouldn’t find any friends. But that same evening I reminded myself why I was here and that I was the answer to my problems. So a few nervous Facebook messages later, I’d made a plan of action and promised myself I would go to the Erasmus student Acropolis visit the next day. It was a success! I met some of my best friends here on that first day trip and made even more at the subsequent events that same week. Everyone that’s ever studied abroad will tell you to attend everything and really throw yourself in, and they’re right. But I’d also say to that nervous person on the first day; just take a deep breath, and remember settling in takes time so be kind to yourself.
One of the best things about Erasmus is that it’s a Europe-wide initiative supported by the European Union, meaning that there are organisations such as the Erasmus Student Network to help students make the most of their time abroad. ESN is run by students who have all done at least one Erasmus semester, and here in Athens they arrange all the welcome week events as well as lots of travel opportunities across the semester. These are 110% the easiest way to make friends and learn about your new home. Another truly wonderful thing about Erasmus is the attitude. There are 600 Erasmus students in Athens this term alone, and every single person I’ve met has a thirst for new experiences, an open mind and passion for travel. Although you are thousands of miles from everything familiar, people’s warmth and kindness meant Athens quickly felt homely to me. An added bonus of having so many people around you is that there are many people to turn to when you hit a speed bump. Naturally acclimatising to a new culture, language and in my case alphabet too, can be challenging at times, but all the Erasmus students share frustrations and muddle through the new system together making the ordeal rather less stressful!
Acclimatising to Greek culture has been at times pretty challenging. In sharp contrast to Belfast, Athens is loud, chaotic and grimy but it real is a city with soul. Its people are often kind and very accommodating of the fact I don’t speak their language, which I am always grateful for. The city is vast and full of places to discover; you’re never far from a cool coffee spot or artistic graffiti covered corner in Athens. The heat and its size can make it exhausting to travel around; in fact, adjusting to the climate is perhaps one of the things I’ve found most difficult. The Greeks are also a very laid back people, something I was aware of but definitely not prepared for before arriving here. I found out the hard way that in Greece even the small things like queuing for a metro pass or getting a photocopy can be frustrating. Greeks appear to have a talent for being disorganised and inefficient and rather amusingly most of the Erasmus students from Northern Europe find this pretty annoying, you can practically see the steam coming from the ears of my uber-organised German friends! We definitely take the digitised, streamlined administration as Queens for granted; I’ve been here for just over a month and I’m still waiting for my student ID card! A rather more sinister and unexpected feature of life here is frequent harassment and uninvited attention my female friends and I receive from men in public. The culture for women here is markedly different to the UK and we are always mindful of our personal safety. However, I’m taking the attitude that noticing differences in this culture and my own is part of the Erasmus experience.
So what’s next? Well I am sadly going to have to cool down the socialising and begin tackling my university assignments. I suspect I will be thinking a lot about the differences in academic approach in November. I also intend to keep logging my experiences. I hope to write a guide to the city, as well as a log of all the places outside of Athens myself or my friends have visited so far, Greece has so much more to offer than just the islands we hear about at home. Its truly surpassed my expectations. But most importantly of all I will keep pinching myself when I remember I’m spending weekends at the beach and not in the McClay.