Thursday, July 6, 2023

CIG Summer School (Anglophone), May-June 2023


On our way up the Kolonos Agoraios hill and the temple of Hephaistos at the Agora of Athens

The bus turns onto Panepistimiou street slowly, hindered by traffic, and the students gasp in excitement. As the neoclassical buildings of the University of Athens come into view, their appreciation is fervently expressed as they comment amongst themselves, pointing out of the windows. Despite the jet lag and the early hour, it is clear to me that they have been eagerly anticipating this trip. It is the start of the CIG’s Summer School, a program which began last year, in 2022, with one francophone and one anglophone class, but which has grown exponentially since.

Walking through Monastiraki on our way to the Agora of Athens

In the first and third weeks of the Summer School students attend lectures in the mornings at the Institute and visit the archaeological sites and museums of Athens in the afternoons. It is as rigorous a program as possible given the limited time, and the students are determined to keep up. Their enthusiasm motivates them to see and experience as much as possible. They are so full of questions and so eager to learn that they become an inspiration. The lessons in the mornings provide the necessary context for a better appreciation of the sites, but their thirst for knowledge is never-ending.

Ancient Corinth, our first stop during our week-long trip in the Peloponnese

There are many things that ignite their enthusiasm. The hike up Mount Lykabettos is challenging but rewards them with amazing views of the mountainous basin in which the city of Athens is nestled. The famed ancient Agora of Athens gives them a sense of how life in antiquity would have looked and felt, being surrounded by buildings like the Stoa of Attalos, or the Hephaisteion. The Acropolis always beckons in the distance like a siren’s call, the Parthenon set against the bright blue Attic sky surprising them with its sheer scale. Views that were once only pictures to them, now loom high above their heads and steal their breath away. But as is the case with any form of art, their breath returns to them much sweeter. Though momentarily stunned, once the first glance bleeds into the second and then the third, once the excitement of everything being new and familiar all at once dissipates, once imagination becomes reality, they redefine themselves. They remember why they made the trip, and why these views caught their eye in the first place, even if only through a textbook. They breathe Athens in, ancient and modern, each of the students taking in a different aspect of the city and its culture. Each of them has come on this trip for different reasons, but all of them find the space to breathe out, together, in contentment. The landscape is theirs to experience to the fullest.

Learning about the Palace of Nestor in Messenia with Professor Jack L. Davis

But Athens is not the only place they get to experience. The second week of the program features a trip into the Greek countryside. The island of Aigina is our first stop at the end of week one. The temple of Aphaia perched up on the hill soothes with its simplicity. But the Peloponnese, looming as ever in the distance behind Akrocorinth, is what promises the most respite from the bustle and heat of Athens. Although Akrocorinth itself is not part of the trip, it nevertheless poses an irresistible challenge for some of the students, with a promise to conquer it someday.

Running at the Stadion of Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic Games

But the road is long and forever calling out to us; there is only so much time for each site. Some days are more challenging than others, yet the intrepid students are eager for more. The walls of Tiryns, the Lion Gate of Mycenae, and the Palace of Nestor in Pylos show them how imposing and multivalent the architecture of Bronze Age Greece can be. The medieval fortresses at Mystras and Methone, as well as the Palamidi castle in Naflpion, all tell a similar story despite the large temporal gap between them. From Prehistory to the Medieval Ages, people have always told their stories, and some of those stories become encoded in the shaping of the environment. People feel the need to leave their mark on the landscape, as sure an attempt as any to achieve immortality. It is no wonder then that the students cannot get enough. Some sites are highly anticipated and do not disappoint, like Delphi. Olympia is a favourite too as the students re-enact some of their favourite sports, like running the stadium. The temple of Apollo Epikoureios in Arcadia surprises them as it is quite unusual. Perched high up in the mountains, with the closest place of modern human activity the rural village of Andritsaina about twenty minutes away by bus, it grants a different perspective of ancient human activity.

Group photo in front of the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion on the final day of the Summer School

The last few sites bring tears to their eyes, and no wonder; they have come to appreciate every minute of the trip, every one of the sites, despite the heat and exhaustion. Brauron charms them with its greenery, and Sounio enchants them with the various hues of blue, characteristic of the Aegean Sea. The bus ride back to Athens feels longer than it should, but at the same time it’s the last bus ride all too soon. The salty tears, some shed and some unshed, mix with the briny sea breeze as the students climb back into the bus. A fitting end to the trip, as the temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounio would have been the last thing one saw as they left Athens from Piraeus and sailed away into the great blue expanse of the Aegean. Although the students are scheduled to leave by plane in the coming days, the symbolic end to their trip with Sounio doubtless strikes a chord within them, connecting them with the ancients. Their eyes are alit with the richness granted only to those who dare to become travellers. New friendships bloom and connect them on a different, more real level. Experiencing such a trip together shows just how deep the bonds between humans can be. A deeper understanding of the world is evident in their demeanour, along with a sense of homesickness. But most importantly, that which is undeniable in their eyes is a promise that has taken root in them; the promise of a return. After all, during this trip they have learnt so many things that they “never would in a classroom.”

Until next time, then.

Katerina Apokatanidis

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