Thursday, July 8, 2010

Where it all began

THOSE OF YOU who follow Jungle Vision know that the material I posted on this site dropped off dramatically in 2010. Those of you who know me well know that I’m not happy about that fact.
             Many of the things I saw and heard in Greece, and many of the things that brought me there in the first place do not fit easily into blogging. The stories are long, involved, more complicated than they often get portrayed and less complicated than I usually try to tell them. People want short stories on the Internet, yet the web is the only place where a writer doesn’t deal with the devil of inches, paper and ink.
The people I talked to did not want their names or their stories on the Internet. Protestors gave me an “or else” if I didn’t put my camera away. Union journalists didn’t want some punk with a point-and-click camera and a cheap microphone on their turf.
But as I sit here, unable to sleep, as always I can’t help but feel this story needs to be told – if not for anyone else’s sake then for my posterity.
It was mid-July two years ago when I began the process to apply for a Fulbright Fellowship to study how the Church of Greece interacts with immigrants and what that means for Church-State relations. After all this time I still have trouble boiling the purpose of my project down to a coherent sentence. The wordiness ought to foreshadow the bureaucratic application process a little bit too. Bureaucratic, but well worth it I might add.
Two years ago, I was adrift trying to figure out what to do with myself. Now I’m trying to make sense of what I did these last two years.
The best solution then is to write, and write a lot, but not too much. I need an audience (that’s where you come in) or I’ll say, “what’s the point?” and give up. So each night for as long as it takes I’ll devote one hour, no more no less, to telling the story of a world in recession, a country in crisis and a kid from New Jersey trying to make sense of it all.
Pretty grandiose right? Well I’ve got 50 minutes left tonight to start this story.
(NOTE: because I’m not warning people that I’m doing this in advance, I’m going to leave out most personal names)

            My bed in Arlington hated me. Few nights did I go to bed quickly.Not once did I wake up feeling rested. 
Luckily most days I didn’t get to sleep much at all. One day of the week I worked the 6am shift (unpaid) as a news intern at Fox 5 in Washington, DC. Two other days I woke up at 4am to call Greece about my future. Those calls ended in frustration.
            It turns out the oracle doesn’t take long distance calls. Not after July 15 anyway.
            Bleary-eyed and blind in the gray morning light I fumbled for my headset and waited while my laptop fired up Skype, the salvation of students making international phone calls. If a voice did answer on the other end I would clear my throat and croak out what I needed in Greek. I was trying to call the University of Athens’ Master’s in Southeastern European Studies programme. According to the program's (old) website and a succession of terse people speaking in loud Greek and broken English, the programme secretariat took calls from 11am-1pm, two days a week. Great timing if you live in the Balkans but for those of us in the Western Hemisphere the seven-hour time difference meant an early wake-up.
            Unfortunately, I was desperate.
If I didn’t find an institution in Greece to support my research proposal, there was no prayer I would get a Fulbright Fellowship. Every unanswered call or conversation in broken Grenglish made it look like my only hope to stay productive after college was slipping away.
            It had become clear to me that a) I wanted to go back to Greece b) I had no idea and too many ideas about what I wanted to do with myself longterm after I graduated from Brown c) the US was heading for some kind of economic disaster with houses falling into foreclosure, banks folding and $4/gallon gasoline pummeling everybody. 
These conclusions came to me while I was sitting in the third floor student center of College Year in Athens in May 2008. Technically, I was writing papers and drawing up power-points for final exams. In reality, I was reading news back in the States and glancing every other minute over the top of my laptop at the Acropolis. Located next to the Marble Stadium, where the first Olympic Games were held in 1896, CYA’s top floor has an unobstructed view over the tree tops of the National Garden and all the way up to the backside of the Parthenon.  
Things were bleak back home and even months before Lehman Brothers collapsed and set off the dominoes that toppled the international financial system. I got e-mails from Brown’s Career Development Center just about everyday about preparing for graduation. But they weren’t fooling me. We were heading into a bad, bad situation.
Meanwhile, I had just spent four months living in Athens, sharing an apartment with three (then four) other guys, cruising around the Balkans and eating souvlaki to heart’s content. For the first time in college there were academic issues I was dealing with that didn’t feel like they had been hashed out 600 times already. I felt passionate about what I studied; religion, politics and immigration. But what was I going to do with it?
“Why don’t you apply for a Fulbright,” one of my best friends in the program said to me.
Reading it now sounds a little bit like a 1950s commercial. I have x problem and someone replies why don’t you do y. Truth is, this actually happened.
“Yeah, I’m doing it. You get paid to live and do research in Greece. Isn’t that what you want?” 
God Bless her Soul.
Her suggestion changed the course of my life. I still feel a little guilty I got the Fulbright, she didn’t and one of my best friends in Athens was someone researching her same field (public health). 
But I only feel a little bit guilty.


The voice on the other end of the phone sounded more excited than I was. After over a month kicking around ideas and procrastinating, in early July I finally took a friend’s advice to call Brown’s Dean of the College Fellowship Office for help designing my Fulbright project.
“I see. I see. Oh that’s interesting. How would you do that? Ok. Ok,” one very excited Brown University Dean said over the phone as I explained the unexplored triangle between church, state and immigrant. To my credit, I had my elevator pitch figured out. I would supplement the book and article research with interviews in the field. Throw in some multimedia and a blog and voila! 21st century research project by a kid coming out of an Ivy League school.
One problem was brought to my attention. I needed an institutional affiliation for Greece. Other Fulbright countries like Japan take the student and the project then they find a match with professors at a university. In fact, just about every Fulbright commission, I would later find out, has their own way of doing things.
This university affiliation had to be a "real" in-country institution so my beloved professors at my study abroad program were out of the equation. Worse yet, I needed a professor or a program that works in English because my Greek isn’t that great, and definitely not up to postrgraduate level.
I spent some quality time with google over the next few days and came up with the MA in SEE studies at the University of Athens. I started by e-mailing the secretariat and each of the professors in the program to see if they would offer me a letter of support and/or advise my research. 
A couple weeks later I still hadn’t gotten a response. 
I reported back to the College Fellowship office with my troubles finding an advisor but with the good news that I had found a potential English-language postgraduate program. 
“Take limited coursework, do not do the full MA program. It’ll take away from your research,” was the advice I received.
The pitter-patter and joyful screams of children’s footsteps was growing louder outside my door. In exchange for baby-sitting, college advising and rides to baseball practice some relatives had offered me free room and board, including the torture rack of a bed. My charges were getting restless.
“Sure thing,” I replied feeling a bit harried. “No master’s degree. Got it.”
A month and half-a-dozen 4am wake-up calls later, there was still no response from Athens.

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