May 6, 2022 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Alanna Jackson | Photo by Anna Jackson

From tearing into dripping gyros (hold the tomato) from Yasouvlaki while engaging in a neck and neck Tavli game to hiking past the deteriorating goat guarding the Cave of Zas, the 25 students of the Block 7 course in the Greek Islands experienced adventure to the fullest.

As computer science major Lucy Flanagan ’24 would say, “we slayed.” Yet, throughout the course titled “Greek Islands: Myth and Environment,” students found that even the places known for being the most pristine and beautiful are still affected by the climate crisis.

During the three-and-a-half week course, students voyaged to islands throughout the Cyclades with Naxos, known as Dionysus’s Island and the home of Ariadne, as home base. Each day, after a breakfast of cheese pies, feta, olives, pastries, Greek yogurt, and cappuccinos at Hotel Iliovasilema, the group meandered through the labyrinth of old town and up many stairs to their classroom in the Cultural Center former Ursuline School, nestled in the Kastro.

According to environmental studies major Willa Frantzis ’23, the class “focused on Greek mythology to get a brief snapshot of how ancient Greeks interacted with the environment and environmental change.”

As Daphne Frantzis ’23, another environmental studies major, explained, “the class sought to better understand how nature was represented in literature through looking at metaphor, anthropomorphization, or people’s interactions in the stories.” Greer Harnden ’23, an education major, reflected that earth, or Gaia, was often personified and often sought revenge if heroes or gods disrespected or harmed her.

After class time, the students wandered off to tavernas, such as Amici, Yasouvlaki, or Kozi, or to the market for lunch and chatted amongst themselves and with local friends, such as Vasaliki and Demetrius. Oftentimes, class time extended beyond the classroom to field trips to wineries, olive oil tastings, hikes around the island, and villages.

The class also voyaged to the Byzantine Road speckled with olive trees in Paros, the archeological ruins of Delos, and the vibrant cliffs of Santorini. Even though the excursion presented unmatched beauty and delectable dishes of local food, the students noted feelings of remorse in witnessing environmental issues imagined in the myths.

Photo by Anna Jackson

“Deforestation was a major issue in antiquity since lumber was needed for ship building. We noticed this issue while walking about Greece – the trees were uncharacteristically short,” reflected Willa Frantzis.

Agriculture, often depicted as a form of sexual violence committed against Gaia or Demeter, resurfaced through the myths, and as Daphne Frantzis noted, “the technologies described in the myth were quite different to what we use now, which are highly industrialized and used on large areas of land.”

All three students found these violent depictions difficult to read as femme-presenting and femme-identifying people. Mirroring the treatment of the earth with the treatment of women in myth also traces to the contemporary moment, especially when reflecting on the violence against and marginalization of Black and Indigenous women.

One of the most prominent motifs of the class was large-scale transport, especially boats (unfortunately for my seasickness). When departing from the port on the massive Blue Star Ferry, a beige bubble of pollution encompassed each island, especially near Santorini.

Santorini is known for a volcanic eruption at the height of the Minoan Civilization that resulted in the creation of the half-moon shape of the remaining land with the Aegean Sea filling in the spaces that were once land. It is the site of breath-taking reddish cliff sides and picturesque white-washed and blue buildings.

The natural destruction and sinking of entire cities into the sea has been theorized as the inspiration for Platos Atlantis, while the beauty on monumental cliff sides have served as the backdrop for movies like Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Yet, these renowned aesthetics juxtapose the crowded villages filled with tourists and littered with discarded trash.

As Daphne Frantzis critically thought about her experience here, she pondered, “who causes the destruction? Often wealthy tourists. This reality makes stark the income disparities between the residents and tourists and uneven distribution of benefits and burdens.”

A current contamination circle caused by the 2007 sinking of a MS Sea Diamond cruise ship is regarded as a ticking environmental disaster time bomb, and the dispute over who should take responsibility keeps the ship in limbo within the Aegean Sea.

This current phenomenon symbolizes the uncertainty regarding the necessity and detriment of tourism in Santorini, as Daphne Frantzis noted, “how do we solve the issue of tourism if getting rid of tourism also causes problems, especially concerning Santorini’s livelihood?”

As Willa Frantzis and Harnden also noted, the island of Thilos recently became the first island to secure self-sufficient energy in the Mediterranean, which diminishes the number of energy blackouts at the height of summer tourist season and furthers the pursuit of sustainability. However, as Harnden pointed out, “this shift also has the potential to increase tourism.”

In thinking about Santorini’s drastic physical scars of the volcanic eruption and cultural remembrance of Akrotiri, an excavated archaeological site, the three students felt a certain sense of human insignificance in the face of nature. As Daphne Frantzis observed, “humans are at the mercy of the earth. As we see with Akrotiri, one natural disaster could wipe out an entire population.”

One of the recurring mythological genres throughout the class was tragedy, which requires the hero’s recognition of their mistake and an attempt at reversal. Often, it is too late to undo the damage committed. “Seeing the places that we read about in the myth and placing that in conversation with environmental issues, I realized that we are living in our own tragedy in terms of the climate crisis,” Daphne Frantzis said. Recognizing our harms and taking action right now may not be enough to disrupt the harms set in motion.

Yet there is hope, as Willa Frantzis says, “reversal can happen through a shift in cultural mindset. Reversal cannot just be through technology, but also through justice in acknowledging disparities and centering Indigenous knowledge, Indigenous water and environment protectors, and Indigenous stories of resistance.”

If you are wanting to visit Greece, the three students have the following advice:

  1. Get to know the local residents and become friends with them.
  2. Learn the language, even if it is just “hello,” “good-bye,” “thank you,” and “please.” In Greek culture, hospitality and friendship between guest and host, known as Xenia, is extremely important, so returning kindness to the folks who host you is crucial.
  3. It is valid to feel guilty about traveling, especially in understanding that your visit contributes to environmental degradation, so “maybe do not visit places like Santorini or do your research about how to have the least amount of environmental impact,” as Harnden advised. This environmental awareness should be compounded with awareness of how to bolster the livelihood of local residents. For example, “Airbnbs have led to housing instability and are often not owned by local residents, so staying at family-owned hotels is more important than ever,” Willa Frantzis said.

Ultimately, the Block 7 course in Greece was a time of deep reflection, growth, and imagination. One of the main takeaways rests on how reconciling and learning from folklore and history can help people continue valiantly and sustainability into a future that respects ways of knowing and nature alike – a balance of strategy, humility, and practice much like a game of Tavli.

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