10 Tips for a Greek Semester Abroad
How to kick start your Greek life.
When I got my college acceptance letters back, I, like everyone, was faced with a choice. Except my choice was between attending one of my backup schools or getting to go to my top pick and spend my first semester of college in Thessaloniki, Greece. Tough decision, right? Greece is full of history, beautiful sights, and delicious food and I had no plans of turning that down. Everyone told me how welcoming Greeks can be and they were right. In only a few days, we knew the local shop owners and they knew us. Pretty soon, there was a friendly face on every corner. It was the semester of a life time and now I cannot imagine having done it any other way.
As much as I loved the experience, there were plenty of obstacles. I probably could have solved some of these by reading my guide books beforehand, but for those of you who, like me, are packing the night before you leave and haven’t learned a single Greek word yet, here are a few tips to get you through.
1. Learn the language.
I don’t mean you have to become fluent before you step off the plane, but have some familiarity with it. My dad pushed me to memorize one word a day before I left, advice I promptly ignored and then immediately regretted not doing. Greek has a whole different alphabet, so even learning the sounds of the letters and how they work together will make a huge difference in your ability to understand your surroundings. I was required to take beginners Greek while I was there, which helped me out a lot, but if you won’t be doing that (or even if you are) learning some basics before you go will make your trip less stressful.
2. Try the food.
There are too many amazing Greek foods to name them all here, but at the very least, try some of the classics. If you’ve gone the whole semester without having a frappé, gyro, or souvlaki you’re missing out. You may not find everything you’re used to and you may have to visit a few different stores to get all your groceries. Don’t expect American brand name food products. The Greek versions will be just fine. But if you really can’t live without your favorites, do what I did and have a care package of goodies sent over.
Greece also has great seafood, so if that’s your thing, you’re headed to the right place! I am not a seafood person, but I went way out of my comfort zone and tried octopus one night. I actually ended up really liking it (but not looking at it), so don’t be afraid to try new things, even if you have to close your eyes and pretend you’re eating chicken.
3. Know the culture.
This is like learning the language. Do you have to know every single detail? Of course not. But understand where you’re going. People who are from Europe might have a leg up, but even then, Greece can seem like a totally different world. Things like subtle differences in body language or business hours can lead to some confusing situations if you’re not prepared. For instance, nodding does not mean yes and may be considered impolite. A single, downward nod signifies ‘yes’, while an upward nod means ‘no’.
The Greek culture is also very family and religion oriented. Many stores are closed on Sundays and there are frequent national and religious holidays. That being said, restaurants and bars stay open much later than they do in the states and even families with young toddlers can be seen out and about as late as midnight.
As I mentioned before, Greeks are incredibly welcoming and friendly, but if you’re a shy person this can be a little overwhelming at first. What you may consider a “personal question” might just be a Greek person’s way of getting to know you better. Don’t automatically assume someone is being rude, they might just want to be your friend!
4. Don’t be an ugly American (or wherever you’re coming from).
This goes along with knowing the culture, but it’s even more important. Americans are notorious for being loud and obnoxious. If you’re studying abroad, the last thing you want to do is stand out in a negative way. Even if you don’t think you’re being rude you could be unknowingly doing something offensive, so be careful. For example, talking loudly, or at all, on public transportation will earn you plenty of dirty looks. Also, women are expected to cover up when inside a church. Be aware of where you are and the people around you.
This may seem trivial but it can go a long way towards improving your experience. It’s okay to feel frustrated and overwhelmed by the differences, especially once you start missing home, but don’t take it out on the people. You are in their country by choice and most are happy to have you, so don’t give them a reason to wish you’d leave.
Around Greece, around Europe, do it all! Do not stay in your room the whole time (but also don’t let FOMO wear you down, take a break if you need it or you’ll get sick and be miserable). Greece is close to just about everything and cheap airlines like RyanAir will get you where you need to go. Just make sure you read up on their policies because they make their money off of people who didn’t read the fine print.
Without breaking my budget, I travelled to Italy, Germany, and Cyprus, as well as various day and weekend trips throughout Greece. In my 3 months abroad, I only had 2 weekends that weren’t booked with some kind of adventure. Always check for student discounts or school organized trips because these will be most likely be significantly cheaper. Get out and explore the city you’re staying in too. I didn’t really start doing this until a few weeks before my program ended and I was sad to realize there were tons of cool places I’d been missing out on. Don’t wait!
6. Don’t listen to people who tell you it’s not safe.
This should probably be first on my list because I’m fairly certain every person will deal with this from 75% of the people who find out where you’re going. You will quickly learn to fend off questions about the economy, protests, refugees, or muggings.
Fun fact: these things are present in all cities around the world, including America.
I made friends from other countries who were genuinely worried about moving to America and being shot, because they thought everyone carried guns in their pockets. Perspective is everything. Having said that, be smart. As long as you know what areas to avoid, stay away from protests, and stay alert you will be fine. There are plenty of apps and websites that will let you know if there is anything dangerous going on near by and how to avoid it.
As for the economy, it is unlikely this will cause you any issues. Make sure you have a debit or credit card that works oversees and doesn’t have any extra travel charges. Take a back up method as well and keep it somewhere safe. I also recommend, in any country, taking out larger amounts of cash at a time to avoid excessive fees. Really the only issue I ever ran into financially was that smaller stores couldn’t break big bills (even 50s) so be aware of that.
I’ve had more unsettling experiences in my college town than I ever did in Greece, so don’t let what your aunt heard on the evening news scare you.
7. Be wary of the islands.
Definitely go to one! They’re beautiful and entirely worth it, just do your research. These islands can be incredibly overpriced and you could be missing a huge chunk of your travel funds before you even know what hit you. Fortunately, you probably won’t be abroad during the busiest and most expensive summer months, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find a better deal if you look a little harder. Any touristy areas will be costly and there are so many amazing hidden gems waiting to be discovered.
8. Go to a museum.
Greece’s history is one of the most lengthy and interesting, so even if you’re not a history buff, you’re bound to find something that piques your curiosity. Do not leave this country without being able to recite a few historical facts for your friends back home. About a week after I returned home, I got schooled by an 8 year old on Greek mythology. Don’t let this happen to you. Do the walking tour, read the pamphlet. Two thousand year old rocks and dead guys can actually be pretty cool if you give them a chance!
9. Climb Mount Olympus.
This is by far one of the coolest and most awe-inspiring things I have ever done in my life. I am not an athletic person. I rarely even make it to the gym, but I told myself this would be my goal for Greece and I made it happen. If you have the opportunity, do it. One hundred percent, do it. Not only was it an amazing adventure to write home about, it also taught me so much about what I am capable of. Never in a million years would I have thought I’d check that off my bucket list, but once I did, it opened up a whole new world of possibilities for me.
10. Keep a journal.
Personally, I kept a blog because I could access it from my phone so I was more tempted to write. That also meant my friends and family could keep up with my whereabouts without me relaying the same information ten times. It doesn’t have to be every day or very lengthy but try to keep up with it even if it sometimes feels like a chore. Take lots of pictures. You won’t remember everything as clearly as you might think, so write it all down. There’s nothing better than a written account of your time abroad to deal with the storm of mixed emotions that comes with going home. My time in Greece sort of feels like a dream now, but my pictures and blog help remind me that it was, in fact, very real.
Have a blast
These tips will work anywhere you’re studying abroad. I will certainly be keeping them in mind on my next trip, wherever that may be. However, I can honestly say I learned so much from being abroad in a country so different from my own and I would not trade it for any other place. There are thousands of amazing cities to study abroad in, but I hope you go to Greece.