September 17, 2014

Kali̱méra from Chania, Crete!

Along Chania's harbor

     Let's hope that's correct. I promised a lot of friends and family that I would try to give updates on my experience here in Greece, and now that I have a night to sit and relax, I  figured I would get to it! I decided to just try and write this like a journal entry. This one will probably be the longest, with everything being so new and lots to tell, so feel free to read it in its entirety, skim, or don't read it at all. It'll be here just in case.
     Gosh,  I still can't believe I'm actually here!! There are so many moments when I'll catch myself in the middle of a thought and it'll just hit me that I really am halfway around the world on a little Greek island, (well, maybe not so little) and I'm really here trying to learn some basic Greek phrases (I'm ridiculously bad at it), and eating real souvlaki, and paying in Euros, and swimming in the Mediterranean Sea.... it's just insane. 

    That being said, I think I will just dive in and recap the journey so far... 
     Saying goodbye to my family was much harder than I thought it would be. My sister was able to come up the week leading up to my departure, and it meant a lot to have her there. With her being a few months pregnant with the first baby we've had in our family, I wanted to soak up every minute! My final few days at home were filled with last-minute lunch/dinner/coffee dates with friends, saying goodbyes, and trying to get as many hugs as I could squeeze in. When I wasn't busy with that, I was home packing, which was a nightmare. I had been packing all week, and I even did a mock-weigh about 3 days early just to check the weight, and sure enough I was 23lbs over...on one suitcase alone. By that point I was getting so stressed out and losing sleep (constantly thinking about what to bring, what to cut, what couldn't I picture myself wearing on the romantic, picturesque island...) and thank the Lord my sister and mom came to the rescue! They sat down with me for a few hours, made me unpack everything, go through every single item, and discard the ones that I was being stupid about. (i.e.-my 50, yes 5-0 pairs of underwear. I may have been a little overzealous, but you never want to be underprepared! They both had a laughing attack.) Along with that were a ridiculous amount of socks, my quart-sized bag of floss, 4 tubes of toothpaste, (Dental hygiene! Hello!) my large bottles of shampoo and conditioner, the list goes on. When it was all said and done, we finished with three suitcases, all within the weight-limit, (and I mean JUST within!) and my backpack. We left Friday the 12th, my dad's 58th birthday, and headed to O'Hare. 

     We got the necessities out of the way, checked in, upgraded my seat for a little more wiggle room, ($40, why not?) reminisced, and tried to take advantage of every moment together. Then came time for the goodbyes, we all cried, and I had to get out of there before I lost it. Steph's flight badge could get her through security and to my gate, so we did that and killed time in the food court. Then I was in for a VERY unexpected surprise. I looked up from my table and saw what looked like my good friend Anjel walking towards me, but as I kept staring at her awkwardly, thinking there is no way she could be in Chicago when she's home in Orlando, FL, she kept smiling at me, like "Yes, Jessica, it's me!" Sure enough, it was her, and I about fell out of my chair!! So I ran up and gave her a hug, and blubbered out a whole lot of shocked-nonsense, asking her what in the world she was doing there, (never-mind the fact that she somehow got through security and customs and all of that) and she told me she booked her flight several weeks before, to fly that morning from Orlando - Houston - Chicago just so she could see me for about a half hour and give me a goodbye hug, and would then fly to Miami, and finally back to Orlando. I mean...seriously?! What friend does that?? I wouldn't even do that, let's just be honest! I STILL can't believe it! What a blessing that was! So she and Stephanie sat with me at my gate, calmed me down, made me laugh, made me cry, and then hugged me goodbye. It felt like a movie- my sister and I kept looking back at each other until we both were out of sight. 

      Finally, I got to my seat. Now my family and I had prayed a LOT together  leading up to this point, but I was still a nervous wreck. It was my first long-haul flight. (I'm not the biggest fan of flying).  My sister was so excited for me because the Boeing 747 is like, "the best plane ever!" and I'm all like, "something that big has no business being in the sky..." But long story short, the flight went by way faster than I thought, and though I couldn't really sleep or get too comfortable, it really went better than I could have asked. They had awesome movies you could watch for free, and I was seated next to the sweetest German man. He made a lot of small talk with me, told me he was a farmer that was in the Chicagoland area looking at farm-exhibit equipment, and that he was there with his fellow German comrades who were seated all around us; meanwhile, I was nodding along or giving weird and sporadic little giggles incase he said something funny, since I only really understood bits and pieces of what he was saying. In my head, I kept noticing his teeth, the smell of smoke wafting when he talked, and how his long legs kept drifting into my very-limited legroom when he slept, but I didn't care because I was so happy to make a friend, and such a nice one at that. Really, I don't think it was by accident that he was seated next to me. We had prayed for months prior at home that God would take care of every single detail ahead of me, including the people next to me on my flights. And He more than delivered. I had this man, who once we landed in Amsterdam 7 1/2 hours later, not only helped me with my carryon, but walked with me through the airport to help me find the direction of my gate for my connecting flight. Then, after we had said our goodbyes and I had been sitting in a crazy-long security line that didn't seem to be moving, (sweating to death because I had less than 30 minutes until my flight departed and was practically running through the airport), this same man came out of nowhere and somehow found me in the crowd just so he could tell me that there was a quicker lane I should be in because he knew I didn't have a lot of time; he notified a worker there to take me through, waved goodbye, and that was the last I saw of him. I ended up getting to my gate just in time and was one of the last passengers to board. If it wasn't for him, I'd have most likely missed my flight!
     Amsterdam to Athens was another 3 1/2 hour flight. I was originally seated next to a woman that wouldn't even look up at me as I tried squeezing past her with all of my stuff, saying "Excuse me" numerous times, until a  young Dutch couple with a baby asked me if I would mind switching seats with one of them so they could sit together. I was happy to oblige. Another moment I don't believe happened by accident. That switch ended up putting me next to two of the sweetest guys I've ever met, both Greeks, and both my age. They talked so much with me; I was completely distracted, the flight flew by, (no pun intended), and they gave me all kinds of tips and things to know about Greece. One of them was a sailor on a cargo ship that had just finished sailing around the world for the last 10 months, and he was on his way home on one of the Greek islands. (So jealous!), and the second is a doctorate student at Columbia, NYC, originally from outside Athens named Dimitris. That boy was seriously a Godsend. He also knew I was a little nervous about arriving in Athens because I had to collect all of my bags from baggage claim, go through security and all of that, and then recheck in on another airline, recheck my bags, etc., all in a foreign airport. He walked with me to get my bags, even helped me get a cart and loaded my bags for me, and then walked with me to show me everywhere I would need to go! All in all, my flying experience went without a hiccup, as we had prayed. Completely smooth, barely an ounce of turbulence, I was anxiety free and not one of my suitcases got lost! And I will forever be grateful to those gentlemen who took the time to simply care for a stranger! It meant more to me than they will ever know. 

Flying in Athens

    That being said, I can say God answered in a powerful way, gave me SUCH a peace, took care of every detail, and proved Himself faithful yet again. What I didn't know was the challenging part was just about to begin...
     Once I was picked up at the airport, I was taken to my accommodations. I'm fortunate enough to be rooming right here at the school. (There is only one bedroom. Talk about convenient! Students in the past had to walk about 30-45 minutes to get from their room to the school). At first I was dropped off at the front step with all of my luggage and asked by this individual who picked me up to wait about 10 minutes or so... then we came inside and he very hastily walked me through the place, only helped me carry some of my bags up the never-ending staircases, (and they're really heavy!!), showed me a few quick but important switches I needed to know to get hot water, etc (which I'm still not really sure about. Luckily cold showers aren't so bad when it's hot) and then dried off his sweat, rolled up a cig and was getting ready to leave. I had to jump in and ask how to plug things in and where the light switches were since I HAD NEVER BEEN TO EUROPE, and where should I eat, and what were the other students that had arrived doing... Basically everything I could think of on the spot, and fast. The only answer I really got was that he walked me to the next street over, called for one of the students, no one answered, and said, " I don't think anyone's here. Don't worry, you'll find something! There's food all over..." and left. 
     Granted, I was exhausted, I hadn't slept at all except a tiny cat-nap at the airport, I was emotional, slightly homesick, (and truth-be-told, he was a pretty nice guy, and I'm sure I wasn't the easiest person to handle),  but at that moment I just wanted to sit and cry. I never felt so alone in my life. I don't know a word of Greek, had never used a Euro before, wasn't sure how to go about ordering food, sitting in a 3 story building all by myself, and immediately started questioning my decision, thinking I made a mistake. I just sat in my room hungry, since I hadn't really eaten all day, snacking on a small pack of beef jerkey I had brought for the trip, and decided I would unpack my bags. (It was then that it dawned on me that I had WAY too much stuff. Go figure.)  And the icing -  I found 2 letters my mom and sister had written to me as a surprise and stuffed in the bottom of my suitcase. I lost it. Thank God for FaceTime, seriously. (After first talking to one of my best friends, Lindsey, and crying to her) I called my parents, and dumped all my sorrows, and they were amazing, encouraging and just reassured me that there were a whole lot of people that were home praying for me, and that they've never felt more certain that I was in the EXACT place I was supposed to be. Then they reminded me that I definitely needed sleep and the next day would be better! So I took a shower, downed a Tylenol PM and sacked out for a good 10-11 hours. 
      I won't go into as much detail after that, except they were right. Things did eventually get a little bit better, but it was Louisa and Lou, a couple from England who were a Godsend the following morning. Louisa is taking the course with me, and when she asked me to meet them at the fountain in the harbor , and I had told her I didn't know where that was, or where anything was for that matter because I hadn't left my room yet and no one showed me :( , they came to the school to get me, took me out for brunch, and walked me all around the harbor and Old Town, since they had been vacationing to Chania for the last 14 years, and knew it well.  And  yet again, I had never been so grateful for a friend! I met the rest of the classmates that evening and we had our first session. From that point on, I've met some incredible people in the class, we've walked and explored and eaten all kinds of food. My teacher is just so sweet, and I've enjoyed the classes so far! We have school everyday Mon-Fri, but most days this week we don't begin until 2:30p.m., so there's plenty of time to walk around, go to the beach, eat, (which is a couple-hour process in itself!) and just see some of God's most incredible and beautiful creation!! I can't get over the water! It's like the Caribbean - crystal clear. 

      The streets are cobblestone and winding around different corners and bends with flower trees lining the walls and overhanging little restaurants and cafes long the alleyways.  (I'll add more pictures of that next time!) There are so many ancient looking buildings. There are street lanterns everywhere, and you walk by and hear random spurts of old Greek music, whether it's an elderly trio playing at a bar, or little Gypsy boys playing an accordion. The selection of adorable places to eat is endless, and they have the most amazing fresh orange juice here, along with everything else. I have a hard time with the Greek, but thank goodness everyone is so understanding.  And while I'm adjusting to the fact that pretty much everyone smokes, and to the norm of topless beaches, the stray cats and dogs that are so cute but you can't feed, the fact that you can't flush toilet paper in the toilet, or that none of my electrical hair appliances work here because the voltage is too high, and the overall sporadic bouts of culture shock, I'm just taking everything in one day at a time, and feeling grateful for the opportunity. I know these things aren't easy at first, but with every day you learn more and more, and I'm getting more comfortable! On one hand it's all so adventurous, the sights are breathtaking, it's rich in history, and I never tire of the beach! On the other, I'm still trying to figure out what I'm doing here. I don't know for sure if I want to teach or not, but I don't believe God brought me this far for nothing, and that He has an exact purpose for all of this. I'm just not sure what it is. If for nothing else, it's an experience I will NEVER forget, and it's stretching me and bringing me out on my own and out of my comfort zone. Plus, I wanted the challenge of learning a new culture.  And I mean, it's in one of the most sought-after locations in the world, so it can't be all too bad, right? ;) 
     That being said,  I can not thank everyone enough for their prayers, encouragement, questions and advice, and I humbly ask that if you think of me, would you continue to pray for me? I appreciate it more than you know. I think these past few days I have just ridden on the prayers of others. I have such a peace about everything. Which reminds me - when I first started considering this whole thing back in March, I was praying my heart out, and this was one of the first verses I read. I had never read it before, and I know this was a promise for me, and He couldn't have given me a better one. I have it written down and sitting in my room...
     "But I'll take the hand of those who don't know the way, who cant see where they're going. I'll be a personal guide to them, directing them through unknown country. I'll be right there to show them what roads to take, make sure they don't fall into the ditch. These are the thongs I'll be doing for them- sticking with them, not leaving them for a minute."
                                                                                                      -Isaiah 42:16 MSG
Until next time...