Trees — all kinds of them. Palm, pine, oak, eucalyptus, lemon, orange. Rolling hills that grow into mountain backdrops. Brilliant blue water and a sea breeze. Hot days that turn into cool nights.
These are the things that remind me of home. They’re also some of the first things I saw and experienced when I walked out of Athens International Airport. I’m from Southern California, but I’m studying abroad for the summer in Greece.
When I heard others talk about their study abroad experiences, the words “similar” and “familiar” were never mentioned. I chose Greece over other countries because I longed to be immersed in a place that was completely foreign to me. As a soon-to-be senior in college, I figured it was time to get out of my comfort zone.
This is why I had a mix of emotions looking out of the bus window on my way from the Athens airport to my residence hall in the suburb Agia Paraskevi. Wait, this looks oddly familiar. But I thought I just spent 13 hours traveling across the globe… Why does this look like home?
Because Greece and Southern California both have Mediterranean climates, they are actually quite similar in terms of geography and weather. I’ve been in Athens for three weeks, and I’m still learning to be okay with this. When I look around, I may see many things that are familiar to me — bougainvillea climbing up a wall, mountains peeking out from behind buildings, salty hair after a day at the beach — but to focus solely on these similarities would be to discount all the things that make Greece unique.
As I’ve explored ancient ruins, navigated the streets of Agia Paraskevi, and conquered the metro, I’ve learned that although Greece may remind me of home, there is still so much of it that is foreign to me.
First off, I barely speak any Greek. This has made simple tasks like ordering food and going grocery shopping a whole new experience. If you think the options in America are overwhelming, try making a decision in a country where you can’t read labels or menus. Am I buying body lotion or hand soap? What is moussaka? Does it taste like chicken?
Secondly, it would be an injustice to gloss over the history that is entwined with the everyday life of this country. It seems there are ancient relics everywhere you turn in Greece. One minute you’re shopping at H&M and the next you’re walking under an arch leading to a temple that was built thousands of years ago.
Because of this, the most important aspect of the study abroad experience is to never lose your sense of wonder.
I’ve realized that I have to look closely and appreciate the details that make Greece what it is, not just the whole picture. I grew up next to the Pacific Ocean, but it is not the same as the Mediterranean Sea with its clear water and quaint fishing towns. I am no stranger to mountains, but never before have I seen ancient temples and amphitheaters built into the sides of the rock, and I don’t know any waiter in America who would chase you down because you left too big of a tip like they’re known to do here in Greece.
So here is my advice to you, whether you’re already in your host country or you’re preparing to leave: don’t lose your ability to marvel at even the littlest things. Put aside any expectations you have about what you think studying abroad should look like, and embrace both the foreign and the familiar.
This post was contributed by Emily Fisher, an AIFS student studying abroad in Athens, Greece this summer.