Over this past spring break, I was fortunate enough to travel to Greece for a week with a group of other seniors. Inspired by the stunning landscapes portrayed in the movie version of Mama Mia!, we impulsively purchased our tickets in November and did little else. When the time for our journey arrived, we had done almost no preparations aside from booking flights and hostels.
Sitting on the 11-hour flight from SFO to Munich, I racked my brain to come up with things I knew about Greece. Food: I knew about the food. Moussaka? So good. Feta cheese? Second best cheese ever. Hummus? Trick question. Hummus is from the Levant, not Greece. And knowing that, I felt adequately prepared.
But outside of that, I realized I knew nothing. Who is the president of Greece? Uhh. What would I see in Athens in addition to the Parthenon? My most educated guess was: Greek people. How would I say hello in Greek? It was all Greek to me.
Rather, every thought pertaining to Greece that I could dig out of my brain was about Ancient Greece. Greek mythology? I started reading it in elementary school when I found a big book of stories in my second grade classroom. Forget knowing the twelve Olympian gods and goddesses, there was a time when I could describe in detail all twelve labors of Heracles. It doesn’t stop there. In sixth grade, we spent a unit learning about Ancient Greece as the foundation of Western civilizations. In my freshman year of high school, we again reviewed Ancient Greek history, read “The Odyssey” and addressed the accomplishments of Ancient Greek scientists in my physics class.
The scene at Stanford is not too different. Many an IHUM student is required to read a Platonic dialogue. Freshman year I took a class on the ancient Greek poetess Sappho. Even the Ancient Greek alphabet doesn’t look so foreign because we’ve seen the first half of it already, albeit in our math classes. I did an experiment earlier this week. I searched “Greece” on ExploreCourses and uncovered dozens of classes pertaining to Ancient Greece and exactly one class about Modern Greece.
I know what you’re thinking: Greece is totally featured as a country in the present day! There are movies about it! Haven’t you seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding? Or the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants?! My answer would be that it’s just not enough, especially compared to movies like “300”, the 2007 film featuring scantily clad Spartans battling the forces of Xerxes at the Battle of Thermopylae. Even the Athens flea market boasted a number of touristy shirts that bore the title “300” as well as stores with replicas of the helmets and shields featured in the movie. There were, however, no framed pictures of Alexis Bledel.
There are lots of other examples of this phenomenon. Rome is known for the Coliseum, the Vatican City, the Forum; Paris boasts the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay; Egypt can probably be better identified by the Pyramids of Giza than by any of its more recent history. But what about Berlusconi, Sarkozy, Mubarak and the history that is unfolding today?
It’s funny how the information that is given to you can shape your expectations about things. On a more general line of thought, how often have you had a generalization shattered after you based it upon one narrow slice of information? Maybe you had a certain idea of how high school was supposed to be after you watched American Pie. Perhaps you looked at your friends’ Facebook albums wondering how college was going to be when you were still in high school. Or did you watch “The Notebook” to get an idea of how true love should be? If you did, you were probably disappointed when your experiences didn’t quite match up to what you saw.
I was disappointed in the same way when I arrived in Greece and didn’t see Archimedes running around and shouting “Eureka!” Kind of. I think the moments of realization are similar. The feeling you get when it occurs to you that the glorification of what you’ve seen somewhere sets the bar a little too high for real life was the type of feeling I got when I remembered that Ancient Greece was certainly not modern Greece, that I wouldn’t see the men from “300” running around the streets.
We have a habit of drawing out the highlights of things and focusing only upon them, then expanding our generalizations to include them. Particularly in the context of another country, we don’t have the time in our classrooms or the mental space to remember every aspect of every other place. It probably isn’t fair to suggest that teachers should cover modern Greece and Ancient Greece together. But it might benefit all of us, myself especially with regards to Greece, to remember that the little we may learn about a place is not nearly what represents the place as a whole.
Miriam wants you to figure out what her favorite kind of cheese is. Send her your guesses at [email protected].