By Sydney McCown

When our instructor told us that we had been assigned a writing activity that required us to go visit a location in Athens and write for one hour, I clenched my teeth and my eyes snapped shut. I had come to Greece to work with asylum seekers and people at risk, not to write a last minute journal entry that would likely make my hands fall off. When we gathered as a class in the hotel lounge, I was dreading the prompt that was about to come. I had never heard of a writing excursion before, but my interest levels rose when it was explained in detail. Although exploring museums, climbing a mountain, and strolling through the National Garden sounded adventurous, none of them peaked my curiosity like the day-trip to “Aegina Island,” which is just off the coast of Athens. Although it was more costly, sailing to another island was all my mind could focus on. Four friends and I decided to take this journey to the pistachio filled paradise.

Arriving by ferry to Aegina Island, near Athens.

The slow ferry ride consisted of conversations about our skin routines, and how we all fix our hair in the morning. The hour and a half sail felt like twenty minutes. Aegina Island was the picture perfect vision of Greece that I had imagined in my head before we had arrived in Greece. It was already 3:30 in the afternoon when we arrived, and it felt like half the the day was already gone, and we still had  the writing assignment to do. Little did I know I was about to have an amazing time.

View of the mainland (and Athens) from Aegina Island.

I wander around the unfamiliar island until I found a place full of people. People watching is the one aspect of this trip I most look forward to in every place we visit, so as soon as I settled on a rock on the coast of Aegina Island to write in my journal, the pressure of the assignment lifted. Although there were people all around me, I felt at peace, and the water was clear, just like my mind. The sea seemed to ignite laughter and interesting conversations all around me. The breeze gently caressed my face, pushing against the colorful buildings that lined up against the shore. Here, the distant mountains of the mainland meet the ocean is extreme angles, something I am not used to seeing in San Diego.The different slopes layer perfectly as if on a canvas, becoming more faint the further I looked down.

The clear blue Aegean Sea.

My heart starts beating quicker when I realize the writing prompt requires me to spark up a conversation with a person on the island. It’s never certain how someone is going to react when someone starts speaking a foreign language to them. I settled on proximity and spoke to the person nearest to me, who happened to be a middle aged woman in a hot pink bikini with a white robe around her body. She had artificial orange hair and a dark tan. She was sitting on a blue and white towel surrounded by plastic bags filled with food. I had asked her, “Do you speak English?” She pressed her pointer finger and thumb together and mumbled, “a little bit.”

“How long have you been in Greece?” I asked, circling my hands to indicate the island.

She picked up her hands, and lifted five fingers. The more questions I tried to ask, the more heads turned toward us. She noticed I was writing in a journal, and started reading some of the words on the page. “Peach, blue, red, Island,” she was able to say. “Students?” she asked inquisitively, and pointed to my friends and I. We all nodded and smiled back. She was able to tell me she was from St. Petersburg, Russia, so I assume Russian was her native tongue. I am amazed by how even though we are from opposite sides of the globe, with two different alphabets, we are able to communicate about where we were from, and read the same words. This entire trip in Greece has surprised because so many people can speak English, even if it was just a little bit. Every sign in Greek is translated to English–not Spanish or Chinese, but English.

A beach on Aegina Island.

Pretty soon, a big, round man with bright blue swim trunks joins the woman. The woman introduces me to him, and he bends down to kiss my hand. My cheeks immediately turn red. Curious, I ask if they are friends, and they shake their heads. I ask if they are cousins, and they say no. Laughing, they kiss each other on the lips. I knew then that are a married couple, and soon find out that they have been together for ten years. After chatting for a couple of minutes, I leave them to go sit with my friends and gather up my belongings.

Behind me, I hear the woman yelling, “Sydney! Sydney!” She comes up to me and shows me a 2” x 1” wooden square with a hand-painted image of Saint Peter, who turns out to be the patron saint of St. Petersburg! She begins talking rapidly in her native tongue, clutching the picture in one had, and simultaneously crossing her heart with other. She gave me a giant hug, and although I didn’t understand what she was saying, I knew what she was doing. I’m not religious, but I was blessed this day. The language barrier did not stop us from having a connection, which comes to show that everyone in this world is capable of positive connection, despite our culture and religion. I understood only a few of the  words she spoke, but her kind actions spoke a million words. Once we all realize that we are all the same, the world might be a happier, accepting place.