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Ball of Confusion

by on October 30, 2019 5:00 AM

POSSIDI, Greece – It’s great fun for a journalist to type an international dateline, but some explanation is in order:

We call it a dateline because in the olden days, reporters reporting from anywhere outside their paper’s home city would begin by situating themselves in time and space. The date was thought necessary because news traveled slow: Your dispatch dated Oct. 30 might not get to your editor until Nov. 10. It was a way of informing readers that they were reading the latest news as of several days (or weeks) ago. 

The news, in other words, was sometimes the “olds,” but it was the best anyone could do at the time.  

When, thanks to transatlantic cables and then satellites, an editor could get your story moments after you wrote it, readers could assume that what they were seeing was pretty fresh. At that point we ditched the date part of the dateline, but kept the term. In a more rational world, which, as you may have noticed, is not the world we live in, we would now call “POSSIDI, Greece” the placeline. 

In case you were wondering. 

So here I am, checking in from Possidi (as in Poseidon), a beach town on the Chalkidiki peninsula in northern Greece. On the maps it’s on the lowest of three fingers that jut into the Aegean Sea like a catcher telling the pitcher to throw the slider. The top finger is home to the 2,000 monks who work and study on Mount Athos. No women allowed. Not even female cats. Really.

I’m here because our friends Rika and Kostas invited us to their house here and because it’s a holiday weekend. On Oct. 28, 1940, Mussolini demanded that Greece allow itself to be occupied – or else. Else, said the Greeks.

What the prime minister actually said was, “Alors, c’est la guerre” (“Of course you know this means war!”). 

The populace then translated and simplified the P.M.’s undiplomatic use of the international language of diplomacy. “Oxi!” they chanted (the “x” is pronounced like the “ch” in Bach), which does not mean “OK,” as you might think, but its opposite -- “No!”

(The word for “yes” in Greek is “nai,” naturally, which is the first indication that learning this language is going to be one tough slog.)   

So that’s what we’re celebrating. We celebrated yesterday by going for a dip. The Aegean is saltier than the Atlantic or the Pacific. Excellent buoyancy.

Three days ago, back in Thessaloniki, I heard a roar so loud that I dashed outside to see what was making it. About a dozen military planes flew over, followed by several low-flying helicopters. Not knowing these were practice runs for the Oxi Day festivities, I thought to myself, “Alors, c’est la guerre,” though I did not think these thoughts in French. 

This is Trump’s fault, I thought. By pulling American troops out of northern Syria, he emboldened Erdogan to push the Kurds and other undesirables out of Turkey and into Greece and the Greeks are responding to the Turks with a great, big 21st century “oxi!”

This was like mistaking fireworks at Beaver Stadium on the Fourth of July for the outbreak of World War III. But as a foreigner, one often has no idea what’s going on. 

In this case, a movie we’ve all seen before quickly sprocketed through my brain: My wife and I desperately seek each other amid the chaos and the rubble. Eventually we cross paths, embrace and race hand in hand through the streets to catch the last plane out. 

Later, she told me she had had the same thoughts.

In the same clueless foreigner vein, soon after we arrived in Thessaloniki, droning exhortations began reaching our ears from outside our windows. My first thought was: This is the call to prayer, which sounds from loudspeakers mounted on minarets all across the Islamic world.

That might have made sense 100 years ago, when Thessaloniki had as many mosques and synagogues as it did churches. Not now, though. 

My second thought was that the message was political, not religious. Vote for so-and-so, it was saying. Or, down with such-and-such. Or, come to the march for/against this, that and the other.

My third thought was straight outta Python. “Bring out your dead,” the droning voice said. (See “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”)

The truth: The recorded voice emanates from a metal scavenger’s pickup. More “bring out your lead” than “bring out your dead.” 

Thus do I go about in a ball of confusion. 

I have made strides, however. I now know, for example, which of my two keys opens the door to the building and which opens the door to the apartment. And which way to turn them.

I also know to hit the wall switch on every landing as I make my way down the stairs so I’m not groping through the dark when the light automatically clicks off.

Which is exactly what living in a foreign land is like at the beginning. 

Russell Frank teaches journalism in Penn State’s Bellisario College of Communications. He is spending the 2019-2020 academic year as a Fulbright scholar in Thessaloniki, Greece.


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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