Story by Alex Kitevski, photos by Lauren Goldberg
I moved across the world, in the middle of a pandemic, for my first semester of college. Although COVID-19 cases were rising, I decided to accept my position in Northeastern University’s NUin program and commit to living in Thessaloniki, Greece for three months. I have always wanted to travel the world, so to me, this program was a perfect fit. However, everyone else was unsure; the overwhelming response from my family was “What will you do if the borders shut down?” Admittedly, that was a good question, and my answer was somewhat naive: “I don’t know, but whatever happens I will figure it out.”
A few months later, I was on a flight from New York to Greece with about 100 other Northeastern students. The reality of the situation did not sink in until hour three of the flight, as I sat in my seat and felt an overwhelming rush of anxiety arise out of nowhere. I went to stand in the bathroom and looked in the mirror (like a scene from every cliche coming of age movie), and I started to think to myself, “Alex, what are you doing? How did you get yourself into this position?” I was faced with the realization that if I truly did want to back out now, it was a little too late, so I washed my face in the sink and did not look back. However, as soon as we hit the ground, I knew that this was exactly what I wanted.
Thessaloniki is a beautifully vibrant city, filled with amazing nightlife, and young students from around the world. The city was built as a port for passing ships, and if you look out to the water you see the Aegean Sea framed by Mt. Olympus on the horizon. I will always remember the first time I caught a glimpse of the snowy peaks rising in the distance. My friends and I took the opportunity of a clear November day to stroll around the boardwalk, and I stared in awe at the natural, yet otherworldly beauty painting the sky of my new home.
One of the most shocking differences I initially noticed was how easily many of the Greek citizens adapted to the pandemic. The rules were simple; when you entered stores, you wore a mask. It was somewhat uncanny to me; there were no debates or protests at the entrance with workers, as I saw daily in America. After a few weeks of living in the city, a new policy was adopted— to enter a store, you had to show a QR code that was assigned through vaccination in the EU. If you were vaccinated in the United States, which many NU students were, you had to show a photo of your vaccination card and a physical form of ID. When you went to the major shopping strip, people would walk up to a store to scan their QR code and continue on; an example of the new “normal.”
Traveling presented more of a challenge, as each time I entered a different country I had to fill out a Passenger Locator Form. It was a little overwhelming as I was interrogated on every detail of my trip: where I was going, when I would leave, where I was staying, etc. It was confusing at first, but if you regularly checked the countries most updated guidelines, you were fine. Thankfully, I was able to safely travel to six different countries outside of Greece during the semester.
It was fascinating to experience firsthand the cultural differences between countries, especially in their management of the pandemic. The United Kingdom had the most restrictions to enter but was surprisingly the least COVID-19 safe. To enter the country, you had to have a COVID-19 test scheduled for after arrival, yet in London on the Tube, about 60 percent of the people were not wearing masks. It was clear that the citizens were not compliant with government restrictions. There was no strict enforcement of policy on the administrative end either. For example, to enter an 18+ club, all you needed to show was a government-issued ID, no vaccination card necessary. In London it felt ordinary, like if COVID-19 had never existed, which was a strange, unfamiliar experience. At this point, it had been almost two years of living with the “new normal” of COVID-19; however, in the UK, it was as if everyone had moved on and forgotten about the pandemic. I was conflicted and honestly a little upset, knowing that COVID-19 was still affecting so many people, but most of these citizens were not taking it seriously.
Even though the pandemic complicated many aspects of the program, interactions with people remained an integral element of the experience. Through the NUin program, I was able to travel and meet the most amazing people in each country, as I encountered locals who loved to share their life stories. One Saturday night, my friends and I found a small restaurant tucked away on a random side street and decided to stop in. We sat there for hours talking to a man who turned out to be the owner, and he told us all about his family and how they had operated the establishment for the past 50 years, passing it down from generation to generation.
Through seeing people in their natural environments and learning about their lives, it helped me further understand the idea of human connections. Humanity is such a beautiful concept, and in a world where hatred is perpetuated, I would like to say that there is hope for a better future— a future where we can understand and accept the differences between us, rather than using them as weapons against each other. Before traveling abroad, my news was constantly plagued by grief. However, after meeting such diverse people and hearing firsthand accounts, such as an English professor flying to Greece to reunite with his daughter, or a young girl who has lived in Thessaloniki her whole life but wants to see America, my perspective has changed entirely. Maybe this aforementioned “better world” is possible.
In Thessaloniki specifically, the people were extremely accepting, and if you got lost (which was embarrassingly common for me), a local would always stop to help. I made connections with those in the city, like the woman at the Gyro shop. She was short with dark brown hair, and she and her husband had lived in Thessaloniki for over 20 years. They knew all about the NUin program and had photos hanging on the walls of past groups of Northeastern students who had come to Greece the same as me. I heard stories about the lives of those around me and gained indispensable knowledge I would have never realized on my own— for future reference, hiking Mount Olympus for hours is a fantastic way to learn about your tour guide and his experiences in Greece. Even today, a year later, I still think about the various connections I forged, and I know that although I may forget specific conversations, I have taken these interactions to heart and will never forget the way that they shaped me as a person.
The locals took the pandemic and learned from it, and consequently taught me that human interaction is more important than I could have ever anticipated. My time in Greece was by no means easy, but I loved every second of it, and the independence and experiences that the opportunity has afforded me are unparalleled. I learned about humanity, and especially given the pandemic, I now believe that human interactions are the thread holding us together and necessary to our development as people.