Reflecting and Reframing My Greek Experience

It’s hard to look back on five weeks worth of experiences and memories without sounding trite or sappy. It’s obvious that these experiences will impact me as both a writer and a person. How could they not? What I’m more interested in is how these memories – both good and bad – will fair with time.

It’s remarkable how quickly an experience like this can fade when routine and “normal” life take over again. Luckily, we all have digital documents tracking our thoughts and feelings over the course of the last five weeks, but even that might fade into obscurity, as we neglect these blogs or ditch them altogether.

Maybe memories are meant to fade. I don’t think that’s inherently a bad thing. Every night at the Thessaloniki waterfront, every weekend spent furiously writing to deadline, every conversation – sober or otherwise – with a local will transform after enough time spent reflecting on this trip. Those memories will change to fit whatever narrative we choose to make out of this trip. That’s really what our past is: a collection of memories we’ve used to make a meaningful narrative, a story that gives us purpose, motivation and an emotional tether to hold onto.

I guess what I’m saying with all this amateur philosophizing is that I’m still trying to decide what narrative I’ll make out of my time in Greece. Clearly, I still have a lot of reflecting to do. The next few weeks will give me the chance to look back on everything I’ve done and not only reflect on it but reframe it in a way that makes sense.

That could mean “big events,” like our visit to the Acropolis or our journey up the city of Delphi, will fade away, while “small events,” like a beer shared with a game developer or the hunt for used tear gas grenades in Exarchia with Danny, cement themselves in my memory bank. It’s easy to lose those big, supposedly momentous experiences. It’s almost like they become a part of a story you’ve heard so many times that you lose track of the origin. My mind instead lingers on the small, mundane memories, the sparks of life that prevent those memories from becoming part of a static mental museum, or maybe mausoleum.

This is all part of a process. It may be hard to come down from an experience like this – returning to the bustling metropolis of Sharon, MA definitely requires an intense mental readjustment. But I think it will be good for me. Some time spent away from the noise and the constant human interaction will give me the alone time I’ve been craving this whole trip. Over the next couple of weeks, as I sink back into my routine, I just hope that I’m willing and able to make time for reflection and reframing.

Transdimensional Deer Theory

It was just supposed to be another interview.

It was the last one I had to do that day, the last in a string of three.

“I’ve been doing this all day,” I thought. “This one will go just like the others: a little awkward at first while I figure out this person’s rhythm, but it’ll smooth out.”

But I didn’t even consider the process – and it was a process – of getting to the interview.

To say I got lost would be an understatement. I’m not really even sure what dimension I was in. And just for the record, I didn’t really get “lost” in the physical sense of the word. I didn’t lose my sense of direction. I lost my sense of space and time.

I’m sure that all sounds very vague and obtuse. So let me set the scene.

I was on my way to interview Georgios Kasselakis, a partner at a venture capitalist group called Openfund. Like I said, this was the last interview I had scheduled for the day. I had been running around all day talking with developers, so I was already a little tired and a little out of it.

It took me a couple of minutes to find Openfund’s office once I had “arrived” at the destination on my GPS, but Georgios had kindly given me one very specific point of reference: a red door.

I walked past it at first, but I rubbernecked and quickly turned around to face the crimson portal head-on. It was magnificent in the most mundane way. For a door this red, I felt like it should’ve had ornate carving or satanic inscriptions.

Georgios buzzed me in, I opened the – deceptively heavy – door and walked through the door. I made my way down a set of stairs and entered into a room that I can only describe as a place outside of time and space. All I could hear was Rod Serling’s voice echoing in my head.

A long hallway stretched in front of me. The floor, walls and ceiling were all that shade of bland, industrial grey. The kind of grey that even cement finds boring. It was a completely nondescript hallway actually. But that made it a blank canvas for lighting and set dressing to set a surreal, dreamlike tableau.

The lights were out. The grey of the entire hallway was even darker, so dark that I thought I might sink into that thin river of drabness. And I would’ve had it not been for that deer.

That’s right, the otherwise empty entranceway had one other occupant: a white plaster deer. I’m still not sure what function it served – other than scaring the shit out of me – but I couldn’t tear my eyes away from it. The longer I stared into its dead ivory eyes the more I became convinced that it was the only thing keeping me from sinking into that grey river and getting carried away by the current.

I stood, motionless, in that hallway for a good two minutes, but it felt like a lifetime. That deer and I may have gone to some other place, some other dimension. We may have had conversations about the circular nature of time, the cultural biases designed into languages that will always keep people apart and how one can get lost in Ryan Gosling’s eyes for hours. Yeah, the deer was a huge fan of Ryan Gosling.

Writing this now it sounds like a fever dream. I was definitely tired that day, but I wasn’t that tired. I’m not really even sure how much of this story is real and how much I just made up because I was so invested in my own story. I’d like to believe most of this happened. I’d like to believe in a story that doesn’t just end with me walking through a plain old hallway to another interview.

And if I believe it – I mean truly believe it – what’s the difference? I’ll take a transdimensional deer over a hunk of plaster any day.

This is Not My City

Running from one interview to the next, from office buildings to small incubators, I haven’t had much time to really take in Athens. I’ve been spending so much time with my head to the ground that I’ve forgotten to look up and appreciate the city I’ve been inhabiting for a week.

I use the word “inhabiting” for a reason. In my mind, it’s more distant, less involved, than “living” but also more placed and located than “visiting.” Word choice here is important because at every turn this trip has been a reminder that I’m not the focus of my own experience. This dialogue isn’t about me. It’s about the stories of the people I meet and talk with, the craftsmen, the activists and the small businessmen.

It’s very easy to come back from a trip like this and frame the whole narrative around how much we got out of it. “Oh, it was a life changing experience.” “I had a hard time getting used to Thessaloniki, but once I did I felt right at home.”

I understand journalists, more than many other professionals, are constantly thinking about how to tell the stories of other people and how to blend their own experiences with those of others. Many people on this trip have already been reflecting on these things far more than I have. But I think it’s important for us not to forget all this when we get home and inevitably slip back into our routines – our morning cup of Dunkin’ coffee or welcome return to a favorite bar.

When I travel on an experience like this I know a place like Greece will never be my home. It can’t. Like every one else, I’ve only gotten a very segmented view of the country. It’s a view limited by the stories I’ve pursued and the interests I have. But it’s also a view limited by the knowledge that I will always be an outsider here. I’m a visitor, someone who has come to take down stories and translate them into a language my people back home can understand. Am I thief, an imperialist or a tourist? I don’t know. I don’t think I’ll ever really know the answer to that question.

Again, this experience isn’t about me. I’ll never really understand the struggles, triumphs or everyday lives of the people here. Athens isn’t my city, it’s a place I’m inhabiting. I can try to understand. That’s our job, right? To try to understand. But it’s really presumptuous of anyone on this trip to think that they know anything a country we’ve only spent five weeks in. We all have our own limited perspectives. That’s not a revelatory idea; we’ve all been grappling with that over the last few weeks.

I don’t want this to be a lecture. This is my side of a half-thought-out conversation that will only really start as we reach our departure date. This whole thing probably still comes off as pretentious, but I’ll risk that branding myself with that label in order to get across one idea: we need to understand our place in our own narrative.

The Power of Play Part 2: Words to Play By

Today was day two of the GROW Games Expo, and I was lucky enough to speak with more talented and creative game developers. I’m still in awe of the work these small teams, most with four to five core members and some that are one-person operations, are doing.

But the real reason I’m writing is to share some words that one board game developer, Babis Giannios, said to me.

We need to remain children.

Sometimes I hear a phrase and it gets stuck in my head for days. The meaning of the words changes over those days. Usually I still won’t fully grasp the importance or relevance of the words – even after reflecting on them for days – and I kind of like it that way. They remain a ghostly presence, a spectral hand tickling the back of my mind. It’s kind of a creepy metaphor, but I’m in too deep to turn back now.

For some reason this phrase, which Giannios, like a lot of people here, claims is a saying among Greeks, continues to tickle my mind. It has a fairly obvious meaning – people should cling to the curious, explorative spirit that children have but so many of us “lose.” I just can’t help but feel that it has more to offer me. I don’t know, there’s just something about it – the part warning, part pleading, part nostalgic sentiment maybe – that’s clung to me since the expo this afternoon.

 

The Power of Play

Running as fast as I can through the arena, I scale walls with ease and hop over obstacles like they’re not even there. My opponent, surrounded by a reddish glow, does the same. This battle can only end one of two ways, and either way its going to be tense and bloody to the end.

This epic setup is mostly my way of reimagining my utter failure at playing Greek game developer Traptics’ Moribund, a multiplayer brawler. That’s right, we’re talking about games now.

…Half of my (already small) readership leaves…

Hello and thank you to those that are still here because we’re about to get into some nerdy shit.

Moribund is a fast-paced yet tactical brawler (in the vein of Towerfall) that’s easy to pick up and difficult to master. It was one of the many games I got to play at Athens first GROW Games Expo, a showcase for Greek developers that lets Greek gamers interact with developers. It also provided me with one of the best moments of this entire trip.

I was playing with the three members of Traptics’ development in a 2v2 battle to the death. They paired me with the games lead designer, Mike Papagathangelou, to account for my considerable lack of experience and skill, for which I apologized to no end. Ten seconds before the match started my teammate informed me that friendly fire was on and that I should refrain from shooting my (very patient) teammate in the face.

Just for the record: I tried. I really tried. But it seemed like every time I fired my gun, my comrade in blue found himself on the receiving end of some not-so-friendly fire. Despite my best efforts, we won. Mike was patient and we laughed about the whole thing after we were done cheering and high-fiving over our (read: Mike’s) victory. It was the first of many reminders that play is a powerful tool for bringing people together, even complete strangers who don’t speak the same language.

All them business cards

The games expo was an amazing opportunity for me to see and play the games that these small, hardworking teams are producing, often without financing from publishers and without any guarantee that people will play it. There were only about 20 teams at the expo, most of which were composed of only three to five people. These are truly independent studios that use creativity to make up for a lack of resources, funding and staff. It’s creativity born out of necessity and crisis, but the act of creating something is enough for a lot of these developers, even though many of them do view game development as their full-time job and lifelong passion.

I hope that I can do these extraordinarily creative and hardworking people justice in the story I end up writing. But I also can’t help but feel like I’m getting just as much if not more out of this experience than they are. Going to the GROW Games Expo really reinforced that games journalism is what I want to do. A lot of people (including some on this trip) probably see it as frivolous, and I would be stupid to argue that an industry built on fun and games isn’t, in part, about just having fun. But for me it’s so much more than that. Games and the act of play can bring people together, elicit powerful emotions, educate people about world issues and, yes, provide truly joyous, entertaining experiences. Play doesn’t have to be light and airy; it can be serious and purposeful, and the same goes for games.

New City, New Friend

We left Thessaloniki, our home for the past three weeks, and embarked on a quest – through space and time – to Athens.

In other words: after a day-long bus ride, we finally arrived in Athens yesterday. It’s strange to be in terra incognita again after becoming sort of familiar with Thessaloniki, but it’s kind of nice to have a change in environment. Athens is big and bustling, so there’s a lot to take in. It already feels so different from Thessaloniki, which is to say it feels like a real city. I’m not sure if I like it yet. It’s way too early to say. But for now I’m just enjoying the chance to explore this new place.

We explored a bit today and I managed to make a new friend.

Despite my lack of skill, I picked up a brand new guitar from a flea market in Athens. The owners of the shop were super nice and talented; they actually make traditional Greek instruments like the bouzouki in the basement of their shop.

I had been hankering for some music in my life, so I decided to buy one of their (cheapest) acoustic guitars. I’m not a fan of the pure white color and the tone is a little bit lackluster (it’s not a Paleodimopoulos guitar after all), but it does the job. I also haven’t thought of a name for her yet. It’s too early. I need to get to know her first. On the bright side, the color makes it very tempting for me to write random, angsty slogans on the guitar’s body. If any of you have something you want to write on her body just swing by 305 with a permanent marker and we can add it. Maybe by the end of the trip this guitar will be more like a collage of all our absurd, late night thoughts.

And if you hear something in the Titania Hotel that sounds like a cat being strangled that’s probably me fumbling my way around the guitar. Apologies in advance!

The Halfway Point; Dread and Anticipation for Athens

We’re already more than halfway done with our reporting in Greece, and I feel like I’ve had entire lifetime in those three weeks.

Unlike my last Dialogue, this trip really pushed me out into a foreign place. I was always flying by the seat of my pants, figuring things out as I went along. I doubt that’ll stop in Athens, but at least I’m sort of used to the pace of reporting (which runs counter to the pace of Greek life).

It’s hard for me to sum up all the feelings and experiences I’ve had these past three weeks. I’ve met some of the most incredible people and I’ve done some work that’s truly inspired me. I’ve also had serious doubts as a journalist and as an individual struggling live in what a wise man once called “this thresher.” (True Detective reference? Check.)

What I can say for certain is that all of this stuff – the good, the bad and the strange stuff in between – is part of what I’ll remember about Thessaloniki for years to come. I’m also sort of dreading Athens because of what Thessaloniki has come to mean to me.

Thessaloniki is, in a lot of ways, my kind of city. It’s a little bit smaller, it’s not a sensory overload and the pace is relaxed. I’m sort of scared that Athens, which is a massive city, will be overwhelming. Will the transition from Thessaloniki to Athens be too much to handle? I don’t know. I’m just holding onto the idea that my third and final story, which will all be done in Athens, is the one I’m most excited about and personally invested in. So while I’m dreading Athens in a lot of ways, I’m also really excited about the possibilities for my work.