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Greetings from Greece!

by on October 02, 2019 5:00 AM


THESSALONIKI, GREECE – My first morning here, I awoke at dawn to Homer’s wine-dark sea — if the sea in question were a rosé. Twelve hours later, it was the sky that was pink, the sea a darkening sapphire.

Greece’s second city, also known as Salonica, sits at the back end of the Thermaic Gulf, which is an arm of the Aegean Sea. When Paul wrote his epistles to the Thessalonians, this is who he was writing to. 

The sages do not tell us whether the Thessalonians ever wrote back, but if they were anything like their descendants, they were probably too busy nursing coffees in outdoor cafes or promenading along the seafront, a stretch of pavement that curves around the modern city for three lovely miles. I’m nursing a coffee as I write this and plan to walk home along the seafront when I’m done.

So what am I doing here, seven time zones away from home (which explains why, during these first few days, I’m up to see the rosy-fingered dawn and ready for my first nap by early afternoon)? My flip answer is that I’m escaping Trump’s America.

The flip answer isn’t the real answer for two reasons. First, in the age of the Internet, there is no escaping Trump’s America. At whatever crazy hour I wake up, I will peruse the New York Times and the Washington Post and of course,, just as I do at home. Now that impeachment is officially on the table, I’ll do so even more avidly than usual.

This will be a far cry from my first trip to Greece in 1978, when I picked up an International Herald Tribune every week or so and was way out of the loop on large chunks of news and popular culture. I missed “Grease” while in Greece. Also, “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.” 

Speaking of killer tomatoes, during our first foray into the neighborhood where my wife and I will be spending the next nine months, we happened upon the Monday morning street market, and made off with all the fixings for the first of the many Greek salads we intend to assemble. 

Farmer’s markets are ubiquitous in America these days. The difference between them and a European street market is that here the vendors hawk their wares at the top of their lungs, just as their Thessalonian ancestors surely did when St. Paul was writing to them.

This being my first day out, I struggled to catch the prices of the tomatoes, cukes, olives, feta, lettuce, lemons and onions, couldn’t remember the relationship of kilos to pounds and fumbled with my fistful of newly acquired euros. No matter. The olive guy offered us samples, the cheese lady made us compare the fetas and the melon guy cut slices into our outstretched palms. Sold!

But back to my flip answer about Trump’s America. People think Greece is paradise, and certainly it has its wine-dark seas and rosy-fingered dawns and those olive-and-feta laden salads to recommend it. 

But aside from a few brief exceptions, it hasn’t been well-governed since the days of Alexander the Great (born less than 30 miles from where I’m sitting), its shaky economy has often had to rely on money sent home by Greek-Australians, Greek-Canadians and Greek-Americans, and for the past few years its position on the edge of the European Union has made it a point of entry for refugees from wars in Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

It’s the refugee situation that drew me here. Since 2015, more than a million migrants have entered by land and sea. Few planned to stay. The goal was to get to where the jobs are in Germany and Sweden and other northern European countries. 

But the EU didn’t want them – Trump-like portrayals of the refugees as terrorists, as bringers of alien values and cultural practices, and as job thieves didn’t help matters — so many of them got stuck in Greece. At this writing there are more than 60,000 such people here, many of whom are still living in tents, under tarps and in abandoned buildings and railway cars.

American news outlets were all over this story at the beginning, but then, as with most intractable problems, they moved on, returning only when there’s been some dramatic new development, like a drowned child washing up on a beach.

Yes, I wanted to spend my sabbatical from teaching at Penn State eating olives by the sea, but more than that, I wanted to make myself useful in some small way. The best way I know to do that is to help keep the story alive through my own reporting.

I’m also going to send my journalism students at Aristotle University into the field to do their own reporting on the situation.

Class starts this week. I’ll let you know how it goes, assuming I don’t oversleep.


A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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