Monday, March 7, 2011

I'm lovin' it... McFalafel


February 12th, on the Sabbath, we entered the Holy City... Jerusalem. The remainder of our trip would be spent in Jerusalem or right around it. After visiting the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane, we approached the 'Old City' on Mount Zion. After a brief tour of the four different quarters of the city within the walls we went to a place just outside the main walls to the "Garden Tomb." This day was extremely busy and packed full of memories. It was very beautiful, confusing, enlightening, and frustrating all at the same time. I think one of the biggest struggles of this journey has been the amount of questions that arise everytime we find one answer. I had expected to come on this trip and see and learn and experience things that would become firm foundations of my faith. I had foolishly expected to enter this holy land and gain immediate clarity and assurance about some big stories and questions in the bible.

At the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane we maneuvered through crowds of people from all over the world. In one of the spots overlooking the Old City, a German group was singing 'God is so Good'. I loved being in the middle of the crowd and hearing all of the people, because it gave me a new perspective. It doesn't matter where you are from, or what you believe, or what language you speak. This place matters to people. This place, while full of disagreements and struggles, still brings people form all over the world to worship and love our God who is so good.

In Jerusalem there are four major groups; Christian, Jew, Muslim, and Greek Orthodox. All of these people live within the same four walls. They are all striving to protect and take control of the holy lands that are so important to their religions. It was difficult to understand this struggle. Four completely separate groups are all seeing and living in the same place, yet they believe such different things. Everywhere we walked in Jerusalem was a new world. Every door and alley opens to vastly different languages, cultures, and beliefs. It was unlike anything I have ever experienced.

February 13th we made our way to Bethlehem, to the Shepherd's Field, to the Church of the Nativity, to the Museum of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and then were set free to make our way around the markets and crowded alleys of street vendors. We concluded our day in the Hasmonean Tunnel underneath Jerusalem.

The "spot" where Jesus was born at the Church of the Nativity

Passing the wall between Bethlehem and Jerusalem
(Bethlehem is Palestine territory)

February 14th was our last day in Israel (insert reflective sigh). We concluded our time in Jerusalem at Temple Mount next to the golden dome, standing by the wailing wall, and then exiting the city for a half-day tour of the Judean Lowlands and the Valley of Elah (you know, the place where David and Goliath fought).

Februrary 15th we left Israel and made our way back to Greece. Leaving the hotel at 2am, we got to the airport in Tel Aviv at 3am. Security took a few hours and then we finally made it to the gate at 6am for our 7am flight back to our home away from home. While I was waiting at the airport I got some good news from back home... My friend Lacey and I were voted by our club at school to be the Vice Presidents next fall. The ladies of Chi Omega Pi nominated and voted for us to lead the plegding process next semester.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Yo momma so old, she was born when the Dead Sea was just getting sick.


February 9th was our 4th day in the Holy Lands. We visited Mount Bental, the Golan Heights, Tel Dan, Caesarea Phillipi, and a museum with the "Jesus Boat".
Mount Bental is a mountain in the middle of the Goshen Heights. It is an area with a double portion of political and religious strife. The Goshen Heights are mine fields. Active mine fields. Miles and miles of land just sitting there with high powered explosived lying in wait. After years of Syrian and Israeli conflict the fields were handed over to Israel. Yay lots of land... oh wait. There are thousands of mines underneath the ground? Perfect. Don't worry or anything. It's not like we walked through them or anything. We just drove on the high way by the fields up to Mount Bental. From the top of the mountain we could look over into Syria and Lebanon. There was a coffee shop, lookout point, and tourist shop on top of the mountain as well as military bunkers and a camp for UN soldiers who are stationed to keep the peace in such a volitile area. At one of our stops on the tour of Tel Dan we looked out over a valley toward the border of Lebanon. Two years ago there was a war here. Two countries that despise each other sent young men to kill each other in this field just two years ago. And there we were, 30 college kids from America standing listening to facts, taking notes in a moleskin journal, and snapping pictures with out digital cameras. It is difficult to understand the hate and strife in this area. It is difficult to understand the conflict, nevermind any possible solution.
Our next stop after Tel Dan and seeing the head waters of the Jordan River was in Caeserea Phillipi. I was really looking forward to this stop. Several years ago I heard a lesson on this place and the biblical account in Matthew 16:13-20. When Jesus took his disciples to this place it was the equivalent of your Youth Minister taking the youth group to Las Vegas... Can you say fired?! This place is a Pan worship site. There are carving in the stone where idols used to sit and where people would gather for pagan rituals in worship of the god Pan (the god who's name gave us the term panic). This place was evil. The spring that flow out of the mouth of a cave in the rock was thought to be the gates of Hades. Jesus brings the disciples here and asks who people say he is. It is probably here that Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ to which Jesus replies "on this rock I will buld my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it." Woah. Right? Can you imagine sitting at this place thinking about how much trouble you would be in if your mom found out your'e here, and then Jesus declares that he can build his church and kingdom over such a place and that the gates of Hades don't stand a chance. I love it.
As if that weren't a great way to end the day, we headed back to the Galilee region to a museum with the "Jesus boat". In this museum they have a boat found and excavated from the Sea of Galilee in 1986. It is dated back to the 1st Century AD. It is amazingly well preserved. It is made of 12 different woods imported from around the middle eastern region. Archaeologists say it is a miracle that this boat exists in such good condition after such a long time. After seeing the boat, we had a Yossi moment (extraordinary moments in the tour, that because of our guide Yossi, we get to experience unlike any other 'normal tour'). Yossi snuck us down into the basement of the museum into the head archaeologist's workshop. They are close friends, and even though he was out of town, Yossi 'broke into his office' and gave us a tour of the different project that are in progress. There were shelves and shelves of pottery and boxes all waiting to be sifted through and pieced together and catalogued . I touched pottery from the 1st Century BC. And to conclude my day I skipped rocks on the Sea of Galilee. All of the posts get increasingly surreal.

On top of Mount Tabor overlooking Syria and Lebanon

Last night by the Sea of Galilee

February 10th we moved out of the fertile land of Galilee and into the desert. We started our morning by the Jordan River and continued to Mount Tabor (of the Transfiguration), the valley of Armageddon, Bet Shean, a passing glance and Jerico, and stopping for the night at a Kibbutz by the Dead Sea.  My tow favorite things from this day were Bet Shean and Mount Tabor. On this portion of our tour I was not in the best mood, because I had a cold which later spread  and made its rounds through the rest of the HUG group when we returned to Greece. Despite the sore throat, stuffy head, and punding head ache I really loved this day in our trip. Bet Shean is the second oldest city in Israel (behind Jerico). It is a huge ancient city with more ruins than any place we have seen thus far. It was the capital city of the Decapolis from the biblical times. It was the center of Roman culture and entertainment in this part of the empire. There is a huge bath house, a beautiful theater, an amazing central road lined with gigantic columns. Being the math nerd that I am, I was so impressed with the science and ingenuity that went into building such amazing structures that are flawless and long lasting. The massive excavated city we walked around is only estimated to be 20% of the ancient city. I was so impressed by only 1/5?! I can't imagine what it must have been like in its glory days. That would have been an astonishing thing to behold.
My second favorite site of the day was Mount Tabor. This is the Mount of Transfiguration. From the top we could look out and see Nazareth, Galilee, and the Valley of Armageddon. I tried to imagine standing there when the Lord tranfigured and conversed with Elijah and Moses. I pictured Peter saying "Let us set up tents for it is good for us to be here." Then looking around as if to say, "Can I get an Amen?!" The view alone is prime real estate and makes me want to spend more time there. Then add the presence of Jesus, Elijah, Moses, and God's perfect glory... yeah, I think I'm with Peter.
In the church on top of this mountain there was a beautiful grate floor, and inside this space in the floor are thousands of prayers written on scraps of paper. I think people leave them here, like at the wailing wall, because of this places' past connection to the presence of God. It was another step on the journey that made me feel the yearning of humanity to feel connected to a divine presence. It was on top of this mountain in the serenity of the high altitude and surrounding nature that I tried to understnad how it must have been to stand in front of Jesus as he let his fully divinity shine through.
Bet Shean central road

The Feta Five in the theater at Bet Shean

Prayers in the floor in the church on Mount Tabor

February 11th was spent in the desert. It was the day in which I experience the Israel I have always pictured in my mind. We started the day outside En Gedi, continued on a desert walk, visited a Muslin mosque, took a tour of Qumran, swam in the Dead Sea, and I rode a camel named Charlie.
The desert is beautiful. It is expansive and breathtaking. There is so much going on in this place named for its desertion and emptiness. The colors alone are enough to write a blog about. Pictures can't do it justice. It is amazing how small I felt on top of a desert mountain standing over a cliff looking out for miles over the land and Dead Sea. During our desert walks we met Bedouins offering donkey rides and arm-fulls of jewelry. We were advised to avoid eye contact and not stop for anything otherwise we would be harrassed by these men for the remainder of our tour. In the middle of the desert we stopped at a Muslim mosque. The load speakers around the compound were playing the Friday prayers. We went to the entrance of the mosque where Yossi asked if we could go inside for a tour. After a heated exchange in Arabic and some violent gesturing, the offended Muslim man turned us away in disgust, so we retreated back to the tour bus and on to the Dead Sea for a float.
The Dead Sea is a surreal place. The water is slimy and gritty all at the same time. The mud on the bottom of the floor is used around the world in expensive washes, creams, and makeups because of its unique mineral composition. I will advise you to go look for one of those creams or something, because the mud itself is gross. The weirdest part was walking out to deep enough water to wade and float. A few people lost shoes in the mud because of its slimy quicksand qualities. The one plus side of this mud is how soft my skin was the next day. I don't know if my skin has been that soft since infancy. It was amazing. Now on to the water. I have never been able to float very well. I don't think I ever really mastered the art of laying stiff as a board in the swimming pool and rising to the top of the water. In fact, I am always envious of the little kids who do it so efortlessly. This was my shot to float with the best of them. I know it is cheating, but let me have my moment. Sitting in the water feelings like reclining with your head and feet easily bobbing above water. The head above water part of this equation is key, because if you were to get just one drop of water in your eye... game over. I was lucky enough (or maybe I have incredibly fast eyelid reflexes) not to get any water in my eyes. I did watch as many other swimmers ran out of the water searching and feeling around for a towel, clean shirt, or fresh water to soothe the burning. This also happened when unprepared swimmers neglected to adopt a no-shave policy in the hours leading up to the dip in the sea. I did not experience any negative effects from my float in the Dead Sea apart from one foul tasting splash of water that landed on my tounge. After rinsing off and changing clothes, my freind Brooke and I got our turn riding Charlie the Camel. Did you know that camels are huge? Their size is staggering. The whole time we were riding I was astonished at the size and power such a weird looking animal. By the end of this trip I will have experienced many differnet modes of transportation: airplane, car, bus, train, bike, ferry, cruise ship, donkey, camel, and I'm sure I am forgetting more. This trip is full of boundless new experiences and opportunities. I am incredibly grateful for the things I get to see, hear, and feel on this journey. More than that, I will always be thankful for the relationships I am forming with my HUG family. Being together each day, all day has been a blessing and has given me the sense of what it might be like to have brothers and sisters. I would not trade this adventure or the people in it for anything. My only wish is that family and friends from back home could be here too.

In the desert overlooking the Dead Sea
Me and Brooke riding Charlie the camel

In the Dead Sea... weirdest feeling ever!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Shalom Y'all!

Right off the bat I would like to apologize for the delay in updating my blog. I realize I haven't posted anything since February 3rd. I'm sorry I have taken so long, and because of this time lapse the next few blog posts will be particularly long. On February 6 we left for a 10 day trip to Israel. I am planning to write three posts so I can break up those very dense 10 days. Without further delay, here is ISRAEL POST #1.

February 6th we landed in Tel Aviv, Israel around 1pm. Security is extremely intense when traveling in and out of countries over here. Two member of our group were detained and taken to interview rooms to check out their stories and explain their respective backgrouds. One of the girls on our trip is half Persian and her dad is from Iran so she gets stopped at every airport checkpoint. After waiting in several lines and clearing customs we met our tour guide for the trip, Yossi. He is by far the most knowledgeable man I have ever met. He hold doctorates in multiple fields, teaches university classes on comparative philosophical and religious theory, speaks 5 languages (that I heard while on the trip), plays the flute, and knows more about the bible than I can ever hope to. I am incredibly grateful for the amount of time we were able to spend under his direction. Throughout the 10 day trip we were shown amazing things, and not just stops on a typical tour. We would often go to "Yossi spots" that are either little know or off limits.
On the bus we had a whirlwind summary of the Holy Lands and the history of the Judean area that we would experience over the next week and a half. Our first stop was in Jaffa (of Acts and Jonah fame). We looked out over the Mediterranean. We meandered through the back alley and rooftops of the beautiful port city. We ate our first authentic Israeli meal of shawarma (a delicious round pita filled with grilled chicken or pork and hummus). After a quick walk through the city we left to settle in at the hotel in down town Tel Aviv. It was about a block from the water and was surrounded by high rises, neighborhoods, and shopping strips. The fisrt day in Israel was a whole new experience for me. It is hard to explain the feel of the places we went. I can take pictures and try to describe it, but so much is lost in translation because you can't experience the smells or sounds. The culture and feelings are so unique and distinctive. We met one girl at the hotel with a gun strapped to her back. She is a guard for one of the tourist groups that stayed at the hotel. She is an American from California and moved to the Holy Lands two years ago after high school to join the Israeli army (like all the other 18 year old in the country). She finished her two years of duty a few months ago and is now working as a guard for tours around Jerusalem. We got to talk to her for a really long time about her story and interesting things about the country. She is the same age as me and grew up just a few minutes from Disney World and yet here she is in a hotel in Israel with a rifle slung over her shoulder. This was just the beginning of a world of things I would see and experience over the course of the trip.
The view from a roof in Jaffa

February 7th was a wonderful day. We went to Caeserea Maritime, Mount Carmel, and Nazareth. Wow, can you believe that last sentence? In the course of our 9 hour day we saw three distinct things from three great times in the Bible. Mount Carmel, the place where Elijah called on the dominating power of God over the hundreds of prophets of Baal. Nazareth, where Jesus spent 27 years of his life. Caeserea Maritime, the port city of Herod the Great where Paul stood in the stadium infront of Agrippa and Festus. I stood on that mountain side and had falafel for lunch. I walked the streets of Nazareth and stood over the excavated main street of Jesus' hometown. I sat on the marble stones in the theater at Caeserea and pictured what the city must have looked like in its glory days and what it must have felt like to stand before the crowds of people professing faith in Jesus and spreading a new thing called Christianity.
This trip changed my view of the Bible. I now hesitate to call the scriptures "Bible stories". They are more real to me now. Calling them 'stories' seem distant and diluted by fantasy or time. After standing on the sites, seeing the artifacts, and learning the history, the Biblical accounts are so much more real to me.
One things that really stood out to me during our trip is the human desire to be close to something holy. One thing I had not expected was the amount of churches and monuments set up at all of the sites. When I say churches I don't mean an auditorium with pews, a youth room, a gym and lots of purple carpet. These churches are the most ornate buildings I have ever been in. In the Church of the Holy Sepulcher there are 42 different churches! All 42 different groups clamour to grab a piece of  real estate at the place where they think Jesus was in the tomb and was raised. Thousands of people flock to this place every month and wait in lines to kiss a spot on the ground or say a special prayer. I found some of the displays difficult to grasp and appreciate. I was stirred as I tried to understand this human need to dwell in the presence of God. For many, this is their one shot to be in front of God. They wait their whole lives to come to these lands and have access to God. I could not help but feel overwhelming gratitude for the sacrifice of Jesus and the relationship he opened to us. While I don't think this was my one shot, I can appreciate the power and reassurance of seeing these places in person.  
A Muslin billboard in front of a Catholic Church in the center of Nazareth.

February 8th was one of my favorite days! We stood on top of the Mount of Beatitudes, hiked down the muddy paths and a Roman road to the Sea of Galilee, toured Capernaum and the house of Simon Peter, stood on top of Mount Tiberius, and drove through Gennesaret. The Region of Galilee is beautiful. It is not at all how I had pictured the land of Israel. I guess I never really thought about the climate and landscape of the biblical times and lands. I think the false assumptions I had stem from early on in life. When ever we colored pictures in Sunday school or watched flannel graph stories about Jesus or David and Goliath there was always an abundance of desert . I remember searching for the brown and tan colored crayons so I could color the land around the bible characters. I never thought about the areas of this land that are beautiful and fertile. I never thought about the Jordan River, or the seas, or the Mediterranean. I can't tell you how many times people in our group would exclaim "Jesus walked in mud!" or "Look at all the trees. Were these here 2000 years ago?"
The Mount of Beatitudes was the first place I really understood the area where Jesus lived. The Galilee region is amazing. We hiked through the mud down a mountain to a spot that would be similar to the place where Jesus preached to and fed the masses. As we looked out over the valley and the Sea of Galilee I tried to picture what it must have been like to sit in the crowds of thousands straining to hear everything Jesus said. As we were walking, our guide pointed out some yellow flowers and asked a few people to pick them to eat. What Yossi was pointing out to us were mustard seeds. When Jesus spoke to the crowd about faith as small as a mustard seed moving mountains they were sitting in a field of mustard plants at the base of a mountain. How cool is that? How great is our God? I love it.
Standing in the Sea of Galilee was one of my favorite things. Jesus totally controlled this water. He told the disciples to cast their nets on the other side and to catch "many, many fish in the nets in the hands of the men in the boat on the Sea of Galilee" (as the song says), he calmed the storm, and he walked on the surface of the sea. There was no question of Jesus' power when it came to this body of water. He showed time and time again who he was and what he controlled. Wading into the water was such a wonderful experience, and soon after we visited a small Bizantine church built over the "Resurrection rock" on the shore. In the center of the small chapel was a rock said to be the place where Jesus had breakfast with his disciples after the resurrection. I sat in that church and read in John 21 where Jesus sits and eats with his friends and followers. This is when he restores Peter for the three times of denial. He sits and asks "Peter, do you love me?" To which Peter responds "Yes, Lord, you know I love you." They repeat this three times and Jesus calls Peter to follow him. This resonated with me. I imagined what it must have been like to be Peter. He denied Jesus, his Lord and friend, three times in a row. He must have been so guilty and ashamed. I wonder how many times I deny Jesus with my words or actions. I question how loyal a friend and follower I am, and yet like Peter, I am forgiven, restored, and called. What a relief Peter must have felt to have been given the chance to tell Jesus how much he loved him. That redemption and love shown by Christ is indescribable and perfect. I will always be thankful for these moments of clarity whether they be by the Sea of Galilee or sitting in my room in Texas.
Later in the afternoon we ate a fish lunch by the sea. Galilee fish! I picked the bones clean. However, I was not in the group of students who tried the eyeballs of the fish... too far for me.
The last thing of the day was a boat ride on the sea. We rode out to the middle of the water and sat in the silence and stillness. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be in the middle of the water during a huge storm and then for the sea to calm just like how we viewed it that afternoon.
After our long daym we headed for the kibbutz where we would stay for the next two nights. If, like me you had never heard of a kibbutz until now, you should google it. The way our guide described it to us was as a compound with an ideal communist society. Everyone works as much as they can and consumes as much as they need. We stayed at one hotel on a compound which was formerly a kibbutz, and we also stayed on a fully functioning kibuttz later in the desert. If you have watched the show Lost, I can give you an explanation of how it felt to stay on the property. I felt like I was in the Dharma Initiative tucked away in 70s style compounds full of palm trees and armed guards.

My muddy feet in the Sea of Galilee

A fishy lunch by the Sea

This trip is so full of unique experiences and I can't begin to share them all here, but I hope some of these details will give you a glimpse of one of the greatest adventures I will ever have. 

Thursday, February 3, 2011

"Give me a word, any word, and I show you that the root of that word is Greek."

Wow. The days are all blurring together. I should really try to blog more often so I can distinguish the days from each other. It is hard to blog and sit on a computer when friends, homework, coffee shops, bakeries,  and Greece are calling my name. I have neglected this blog and updating facebook pictures in favor of building relationships, exploring, and making memories. I think most would agree I have chosen the more rewarding path, but I am sorry that my days might run together.

Saturday we had class day number five. We had class on a Saturday to make up for Thursday when we went to the Archeological Museum, and because we leave for Israel in four days. As my friend Evann mistakenly puts it, "You take some.You get some." Her intention is correct, and I am happy to give and take for the sake of this whole semester's worth experience. After class I had the chance to skype with some friends and family during the day. I talked to mom and dad for a while before dinner. It was the first time we got to talk together as a family unit, and face to face at that. It was so good to see them. I am so thankful for the technology that allows me to stay connected to all the people I love and miss. We made our 'skype date' with the intention of talking about an opportunity for me to go to Barcelona for a travel weekend in March. I am so excited to say that my parents encouraged me to go and join the group of 10 already going! Later that night we booked our tickets. I am beyond thrilled to get to spend 4 full days in Spain in the beginning of March. As my dad said "What a way to celebrate your 20th Spain!"
After dinner in a wonderful local taverna down the street, we headed back to the Artemis to hang out and relax. The entire group played Sardines for a few hours, and it was so much fun. Sardines is a game of backwards hide and seek. One person hides within set boundries of the the Artemis and its outside campus. After a few minute all the other players search for the solo player. Once they find their mark, they have to slip away, unseen, and hide in the same spot. This continues until the entire group is hiding in one place and only one person is left seeking. At this point the round is over and the last person left seeking becomes the person to pick the new hiding spot. In the third round Kelcey and I tied for last place and were then tasked with the hiding job. In a moment of kismet, we simultaneouslly locked eyes on the cabana roof on the back patio. We hopped up onto a stone wall and hoisted ourselved onto the rooftop where we would end up laying for close to an hour. We layed there in the silence and cold for what seemeed like forever as the rest of the group proceeded to wander around searching high and low, but not quite high enough. It was only after Victoria climbed a fire escape ladder were we discovered. We climbed off the roof and defrosted ourselves by the fire place before heading for bed and calling it a day.

Sunday I slept in until 1:30pm. I know you are probably asking "How could you sleep that late when there is so much to do in a place like Greece?" Well, I will tell you. I am a night-owl. Curfew is at midnight and then I staty up an additional few hour each night catching up on homework or talking with people back home. It is difficult to get all the homework I need to get done during the day when there are more fun things to do, so I stay up late and get it all done. Sunday is our only day to sleep in. We leave for church at 4:30pm, and the rest of the day is ours, so I spent mine catching up on all the lack of sleep. I love my bed here. I am no longer worried about sleeping soundly this semester. I am so comfortable each night, and I find that the only thing I dread is the moment when I have to get out from under my covers and take the first step on the cold marble floors in the morning. I suppose it is a good thing that this moment begins each day and that the day's events can only become more pleasant as the time passes.
After waking up and getting ready for church I had a few hours to grab lunch and do some homework. But while putting off that homework, I made a very tenative plan for free travel at the end of the semester. The people I am thinking of traveling with made a list of ideal places we hope to visit. We then pulled up Google maps and plotted a rough estimation of our route and calendar days of locations. It was so fun to talk about all the great places we will soon be seeing. On the tenative list so far we have Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Czech, France, London, and maybe Ireland if flight prices permit. Wow. Can you believe that last sentence? Do I really get to go to all of these places? All of this, not to mention the sites we are about to see in Israel in less than one week. At 4:30pm we loaded the bus to go to church. I love church in Glafayda. The singing is wonderful, and we even sang two songs in Greek. Hopefully with more practice I will be able to learn what they mean and maybe be able to pronounce the words.

Monday, after class day six, I used a lot of the iTunes money I got for Christmas to buy a few new albums. I made a playlist of all of my new songs and proceeded to knock out 4 hours of homework. It was a very productive day and overall pretty relaxing. Ten people from our group left for the evening to work with a local ministy that provided meals, showers, and laundry services for refugees in Athens. Since Greece is widely considered the gateway to Europe, ther is an overwhelming population of undocumented refugees from many of the surrounding countries. One of the members of the church we attend in Glafayda is a missionary in charge of this ministry on Monday nights. The rest of the group who did not get to go this week, including myself, remained at the Artemis and enjoyed a relaxing night of watching the Lion King.

Tuesday, we had a quiz over the Greek alphabet. I now know how to write and pronounce the entire alphabet. This is a big step, because now I can sound out most words. Our Greek teacher likes to point out everytime we use an English word that has Greek origin. It reminds me of the dad from the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding (hence the title of this post). Over the past few days we have learned almost 80 words, all of which sound just like the English word. Being able to read and sound out words is a big step toward understanding and feeling more comfortable here. After dinner our group went to the beach of the Aegean sea to hang out and built a campfire. It was a very cold night, but by the fire we had a great time. After most of the group made their way back to the Artemis, those of us still at the campfire had a little devo. We sang some praise song and as we were wrapping up two men walked up and asked where we were from. They recognized our use of English and stopped to say hello. They were from Florida and in Greece on a mission trip. What are the chances? It was definitely a cool moment. When I got back to the Artemis I got a chance to call my aunt and cousin. With all the ice and snow back home they were out of school and it gave me a chance to call during their afternoon. My cousin is seven years old and when he found out I was leaving for Greece he became curious about the language. My aunt has been updating me about his interest in Greek over the past two weeks. He bought a conversational Greek book and is learning phrases he thinks I might need while I am here. He is so sweet and I was anxious to call him to trade the words we have learned. It was nice to be able to answer all of his questions and tell him about new words and cultural difference here. I am definitely impressed by his curiosity. We talked until right before curfew and I had to explain to him that I had to go because it is 8 hours later here and I had to go to bed.

Wednesday, after more classes and lunch time, I played ping pong for a few hours. Part of the group went into Athens to the mall. Another group climbed "HUG mountain" for a few hours, and I went with a group to some local stores and to a coffee shop. At a local bookstore we found lots of popular American titles in all Greek text and we found some really cute children's books. Later in the afternoon we studied and worked on a project for Humanities. My partner, Jill, and I were assigned a city in Israel to connect to its biblical origins. Today in class we presented and heard lots of information about the many cities we will see next week.
My roommate, Victoria, almost got to go to a Greek fashion show but discovered at the last minute that tickets were sold out. In order to cheer her up we put on a HUG fashion show. We turned the disco ball on and set up a runway in the dinning room. Victoria's (secret) Fashion Show was a success! It was so much fun that our professors joined in on the catwalk.

Today I woke up to a very dreary scene outside. It is pouring rain and the mountain outside our window is covered in low clouds. After class and lunch concluded the group settled in for a movie day. We just finished the Disney classic, Hercules and now we are watching The Mummy. Tonight I will start packing for our ten day trip to Israel. Today marks a full two weeks since arriving in Greece.

A lot has happened in the past week. Things are always changing. With the situation in Egypt escalating daily it is doubtful that we will be allowed to go. The directors here are working hard to find the safest situation for us and they are currently working on a contingency trip to Turkey if the problems in Egypt do not resolve in the next 4 weeks. Things in Egypt are very dangerous and unsettled right now. We are all praying that things calm down and the government is able to stabalize for the sake of all the citizens. I am really hoping to go to Egypt, but if it doesn't work out I am sure Turkey will present other great opportunities and amazing experiences. 

For now, we go to Israel and wait to see how things pan out in Egypt. Sorry this is such a long post, but I hope I gave a good account of what is going on over here. I also hope you have a great day and that you stay warm in the midst of the crazy cold weather blasting lots of the United States.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Wait. We have to study?!

This week we began our first week of classes. We had been warned that while this semester is wonderful, we are not excused from studying. No matter how many time people said this I'm not sure any of us truly understood their seriousness. We do, in fact, have to study... a lot. I am getting 16 hours of credit out of this semester. I am taking Christian Ethics, Humanities, Life of Paul, Modern Greek, and Photography. I will definitely have the opportunity to learn a lot out of the course of the 40 class days. These class days are packed full and end by 1:30 for lunch, which leaves the rest of the afternoon and evening to explore Porto Rafti, rest and socialize in the Artemis, or make a trip to Athens. I have had the opportunity to do all three of these things in the past 4 days.

Monday, after our first day of class and realizing that we do indeed have to study, a few of us went on a trip to a nerby town to the Greek Best Buy, Kotsovolos. Because it was a rainy day, Dr. James took a group of 6 of us to this electronics store and then to a Famous Brands Outlet Mall. It was a nice little outing and on our way back to the Artemis we took a driving tour up into the mountains of Porto Rafti. The view of the Agean Sea in the rain was beautiful, and I hope to take a bicycle outing to the same spot later after the weather clears up.

Tuesday, I had one class. Yay! After class and lunch were over for the day, a group of 14 of us made a trip to Athens for the rest of the day. It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining with temperatures in the 50s, making it very pleasant. We took the two buses and train required to reach the Plaka and split into smaller groups to go shopping. The group I was with went in and out of different shops. I found and purchased a Greece Futbol jersey for 12 Euro. After a little bartering with broken Greek on my end and broken English on the shopkeeper's end, I left with my first souvenier in hand. After wandering around for a while, we made our way to The Poet Sandalmaker's shop. This place is famous. Jackie O, The Beatles, and other celebrities have been to this shop to have leather sandals handmade for them by The Poet or his son. The business is approaching its 100th year, and it is one of the many things I have been told to see while here in Greece. I purchased a pair of Olympia sandals for 27 Euro. The fit like a glove, and I have already gotten a lot of use out of them. I plan to go back later in the trip to purchase another pair. After getting our sandals we met the other group for dinner at a Greek restuarant, Sabbas. I had chicken kalamaki ( a chicken skewer, pita, and french fries). We rushed from dinner to barely make the train headed back to Karopi where we would go on to catch the two buses back to The Artemis.

Wednesday, after class day number 3, I went to the Palmi Bistro down the road. Three new friends and I walked 10 minutes down the road to the sea and had coffee in a little place on the beach. We went with every intention of tackling our homework, but ended up accomplishing very little. After a few hour of relaxing and conversing we made our way back for dinner at the Artemis.

Thursday, we did not have class. Instead we left at noon for the National Archeological museum in downtown Athens. The tour was very interesting. We saw amazing artifacts, statues, and art from places all over ancient Greece. Now, as I read a chapter out my humanities textbook, I am seeing picture of the very statues I saw yesterday in person. Wow. This is an amazing trip, and  I will only see more as this semester goes on.

Today was rainy and windy. We were pretty much confined to The Artemis. I am reading a book titled Water for Elephants, I am a little more than half way through after this day of reading. A group of us sat by the fire and read or studied whilst some of the guys played piano and guitar. A few times throughout the day we got a group together to play some ping pong. Even though it was rainy and dark; the power went out for a few hours, it was a very relaxing afternoon and evening. I am almost finished with my Humanities reading assignmet. People are scattered throughout the Artemis watching movies, studying, skyping with friends and family, enjoying tea time, or like me, blogging.

This week has been busy. We have had a lot of fun and we have learned a lot. And we have realized that yes, we do have to study.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Step up to Mars Hill
The Parthenon

Me and My Roommate, Victoria.
The view from our balcony.
The Parthenon

Me and Mrs. Beth
Theater of Dionysos

First time getting Euros.

The Parthenon in the reflection.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Athens, Acropolis, and Awesome Cheese!

Weird title of this entry, I know, but I had to include something about my new favorite thing to eat in Greece... the Feta cheese. It is so amazingly good!
Today we loaded the bus at 8am and headed to Athens. We picked up our tour guide (James) in Galfayda and we drove past where we will attend church on Sundays. The hotel where we attend is in an area of the city that used to have an American Air base and it still has many remaining American influences. We saw 3 Starbucks, a McDonalds, KFC, TGIFridays, Gap, and many other things to remind us of home. After the hour bus ride we got off at the Olympic Stadium. It was beautiful. I am still amazed at all of the buildings here that are made entirely out of marble. Today, the stadium is only used for ceremonies and no longer for real sporting events. We learned a lot today about Greek history, mythology, and word origins... way too much to relay in this blog (I did take pretty good notes in my journal for class though). Next, we went to the Acropolis. Yesterday we saw it lit up on the hill, and today we did a walking tour for hours and had the opportunity to learn about and take pictures of some truly amazing things.

We saw the Odeion of Herodes Atticus (an ampitheater-type area), The Parthenon (the temple to Athena), The Temple of Erechtheion, The Olympian Temple to Zeus, Mars Hill, the Theater of Dionysos, the Areopagos, and the Athens Museum. All of these places were beautiful! It was wonderful to be in a place of such history and significance. Even though my feet were tired, I was hungry, and we had one student pass out, I am so grateful for the opportunity see and experience all of this!

We returned home back to the Artemis after a long day and had an hour to relax before dinner. I use the hour to call my mom and dad on the phone in the lobby that connects to US phones for free. It was so nice hearing their voices. I loved sharing with them all that we have done so far. I am so thankful for this amazing trip and the support of my parents.

We headed to dinner at 7pm at this Taverna right down the street. I had some delicious bread, olive oil, feta cheese, and chicken kalimaki (a chicken kabob)... it was so delicious. I will definitely never have to worry about going hungry here :) After dinner we went to YEGOS the local supermarket. I bought some lotion and other people bought some other toiletries or snacks. Then we walked back (with our street dog escort) to the Artemis where we are settling in for the night. I think we are about to watch a movie in the family room.

Today was a great day. I will never forget it! I thought I would share with you some of the different things we are getting used to while here in Greece...
- We can not flush toilet paper.
- Yes is said "Nae"
- No is said "Okie"
- Stop signs are only suggestions
- Cars do not stop for anyone... we just have to take a bold step out into the street to stop traffic.

Friday, January 21, 2011

γειά σου

γειά σου!

This means hello. It is pronounced "ya-sas". I know know how to say hello, hi, thankyou, sorry/ excuse me, so-so, bathroom, and the names of many of the nearby towns. I can't believe the amount of new things I learned today. I am starting to understand the Greek alphabet and it is getting easier to sound out the names of shops and signs.

This mornign we slept in (I'm tols it's one of our last opportunities to sleep late so I made it count). I got up in time for lunch and then after we headed on our first trip to Athens. We took a bus from Porto Rafti to Markovolo (1.40 Euro) then got on another smaller bus to Kariopi (1.60 Euro). Once there, we got tickets for the Metro bus (.50 Euro with a student ID). This train runs through a mountain and into the heart of Athens. We waited a very long time on the platform, but it gave us a good opportunity to talk and practice some of our Greek words. After riding the subway to the center of Athens we unloaded and walked out into a bustling station and then a beautifulthriving city.

With my rain jacket and waterproof shoes on (it was rainy and in th 50-60s today) we walked around Athens for a couple of hours. Here, we are warned, that there is a high risk of being pick-pocketed. I kept my bag infront of me with my hand on it the whole time, and I felt very safe. After finding our meeting place, we waled around the Plaka (an amazing street market with tons of cool shops). I can not wait to go back and get to explore all the shops! We walked for a while and even got to see the Acropolis lit up on the hill in the distance. We will be going there tomorrow for a more educational guided tour ( we will take notes for class). Then we headed back to the meeting place, Starbucks, and made our way back to the Metro station and back to The Artemis. It was so good to get off our feet and have lasagna for dinner. After dinner we set out tea and coffee, and some people watched a movie.

Tomorrow promises to be a very full and long day! We are set to leave on a bus at 8am and spend the whole day in Athens seeing the historical sites. And tomorrow night I will be eating at my first "Taverna" (No, it's not a tavern. more like a street vendor with gyros.)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

It's all Greek to me... Literally.

I did not sleep Tuesday night. My parents and I drove to the DFW Airport at 4am. We went through the checking in process and then tearfully said our goodbyes. With no lines at security, I made it through in a little under 5 minutes from passport scan to pat down to putting my shoes back on. It was so easy and stress free, and for that I am thankful. I got to the gate with 2 hours to spare before loading. Believe me, with all the nerves consuming me that 120 minutes crawled by. I met my plane mate, Zack. We got to know each other, I got some breakfast, and then we boarded to plane to Newark, New Jersey. I slept for a few minutes on the plane and spent the remaining time talking to a nice woman from New York who kindly pointed out the Manhattan skyline through the fog during our landing. So now I can officially say that I have seen New York... This is the beginning of seeing so many new things!

When we landed in Newark at 10am we found our next gate and met our sponsors, the Thompsons. We were the second and third students to arrive in Newark, and all that remained to do was wait for the next 29 people to arrive. During the layover I had the opportunity to meet and get to know several new friends. I immediately hit it off with a few people and we had a great time talking about all the random things that come up in long airport conversations. I am very thankful for the bonds we formed in those hours sitting in New Jersey.

I boarded the plane for Athens at 5:45pm Eastern time. My new plane buddy, Jill, and I watched the Social Network as soon as the plane took off. During the middle of it we were served a chicken and rice dinner with a side salad and roll. I will not knock the airplane food, because I was starving and too tired to even care it it was good. As soon as the movie was over I fell asleep. According to my plane buddy, I fell asleep in the embarrassing way: head back and mouth wide open. Attractive, I know. No matter, it was worth it because I slept through the entire 9 and 1/2 hour flight. I woke up 30 minutes before landing feeling much more rested than many of my fellow Huggers (Harding University in Greece... HUG). We landed in Athens at 10:15 (we are now 8 hours ahead of y'all in Texas). We breezed through the passport stamping line, baggage claim, and customs. No one was searched and we had no problems. Once outside then airport we were greeted by the directors of the program, Mike and Beth James. It was so good to see them! I am definitely going to enjoy this semester with them. After boarding a charter bus and driving a quick 15 minutes to the small port town of Porto Rafti we pulled up in front of our home away from home, The Artemis.

The Artemis is the property that Harding bought in the 90s. It used to be a hotel for the tourists who flock to the area in the summers. After the economic downturn Harding bought it and changed a few things to make it a beautiful mini-campus. I am on the third floor living in an apartment with Victoria. Our balcony (yes we have a balcony) looks out over the front entrance of our campus. We settled in and unpacked everything. Then Fofi, our HUG cook, made the group lunch. We had a short info meeting about how things work around here and the rules. Then we had another info meeting about job opportunities. I signed up to be a Tea Time helper. My partner, Amanda, and I set out tea, coffee, snacks, fruit, and sometimes baked good every night at 9pm. It is fun and easy because we get to hangout with everyone in the dining room and play card or just chat. I have a feeling I will love having this time every night. After our meetings and tour of the Artemis we took a walking tour of the town of Porto Rafti. Everything is in Greek! It is a bit overwhelming to look around and not recognize anything (except the Ikea right by the airport and the Shell gas station down the street from us. We have learned several basic Greek words for common phrases. If I read them now I wouldn't be able to recognize them, but I do know how to say a few things... To say hi and goodbye you say "ya-su", thank you is "effhharisto" with the emphasis on the "sto", my name is spelled Really weird because they don't have a B in their alphabet. I will download the pictures I took later when we have some free time tomorrow. The best part about the walking tour was seeing the Agean Sea. It is the most beautiful place I have ever been, and I am looking forward to seeing so many more things! I can't even describe the beauty. Another cool thing about our tour is that there are street dogs that roam the area, and whenever HUG students are here they act as guard dogs. They walk along side of our group and protect us from other dogs, cars, and anything else they deam a threat. Right now they are sleeping at the entrance to the property and we are told they will stay there until the day we leave.

After exploring for a while and eating some delicious ice cream at a shop just down the block we went back to the Artemis for dinner, and a relaxing night watching a movie and playing cards. After tea time I headed up to my room where I am now writing this entry and I just got off of skype with The Mallorys :) It is 12:15am Friday morning as I write this. I am about to go to bed and rest up for a great day tomorrow. We will head to Athens in the afternoon and see the Parthenon and Mars Hill. Wow, I can't believe this is what the next 3 and 1/2 months will be like.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tomorrow, I leave...

Tomorrow, I leave for an amazing adventure abroad. I am starting this blog so my mom can follow my travels, stories, and pictures, yet I know a few others will stumble upon this and I hope you can enjoy something from my experiences. I am new to this type of forum, so please bear with me (also I may not have the best grammar on the planet, so forgive me). 

For the next 108 days I will be spending the second semester of my Sophomore year in college on a semester abroad in Greece. Our group will live and study (yes we will have to study) in Greece just an hour outside of Athens. We take several trips, including a jaunt to Egypt, Israel, and the Mediterranean Islands. I have been looking forward to this trip for over a year. This Spring semester has consumed my plans (I am a major planner... OCD at times), it is all I talk about (sorry if it got old), and now that I leave in a little over 24 hours, I am still amazed by how blessed I am to have this opportunity. I know our itinerary, I have the packing lists, I have prepared and planned, and yet I don't know what lies ahead of me. Whatever happens, I aim to enjoy the journey, have too much fun, and learn a lot about myself along the way (and if I happen to meet a handsome Grecian man in the process so be it... just kidding... sort of). 

I am finished packing except for a few minor things to be thrown in last minute, and believe me, it was a process. One 50lb suitcase, two carry on items, three trips to the store, a quadruple-checked packing list (yep OCD), and five hours later  I am almost packed and ready to go on Wednesday morning at 4am... here is a picture of my packing process from start to almost finish.