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Students Confront Cultural Stereotypes in Thessaloniki, Greece

A group of nineteen students ventured to the coast of the Aegean Sea this June, debating about politics and debunking myths dispelled by the industry of mass tourism. Not your typical summer trip to Greece.

This June, the McGill Summer Studies in Greece program completed its third trip abroad to study transnational relations and interconnected histories along the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea. The month-long excursion began in the richly diverse city of Thessaloniki, allowing students to venture through its archaeological sites, museums and bustling urban enclaves before embarking on a journey through the vast, well-traveled Greek terrain. Students from a variety of disciplines came together to participate in the summer course HIST 262 – European and Mediterranean Interconnections, which presented to the intrepid group an amalgamation of lecture material and field exploration. Through the efforts of the McGill Modern Greek Studies group, the expansive theoretical and experiential survey exposed students to the diachronic and synchronic elements that inform international travel.

As a staunch advocate of speculation within and beyond the classroom setting, Assistant Professor of History Anastassios Anastassiadis spearheaded the program. With the help of Modern Greek Language Professor George Kellaris and MSSG Program Coordinator Isavella Vouza, Prof. Anastassiadis was able to design this year's program as a collaboration between McGill University and a variety of local partners (academics, heritage actors, NGOs). The course lectures were supplemented by frequent excursions into the true environments of their inquiry. Prof. Anastassiadis aimed to challenge the normative Western understanding of Greek civilization, juxtaposing the land through his teachings as a focus of the tourist gaze. As the technologies of mobility became more accessible to the traveler, the simultaneous urge to identify an exotic “other” and to include them in a global narrative generated an illusory stereotypical understanding of Greece as only a reliquary of ancient history. This trend towards reifying places as heritage sites refuses wider acknowledgment of the persistent dynamics that propel it forth, within and outside of the transcontinental Mediterranean milieu.

The analysis of the Grand Tourist concept was vital to the structure of the summer course. With his colleagues, Prof. Anastassiadis sought to elucidate the development of the mystical image of Greece documented by early voyagers, while also bringing students to witness the many iterations of Greece's past and present. The first week of the course encouraged students to learn and discuss the cultural and ethnic heterogeneity of Greece in Thessaloniki, an important port city on the Thermaic Gulf of the Aegean Sea. Students were able to behold the hybridization of cultures in the city's urban structure, while also gaining insight into the ways in which the nationalistic wave of backlash that has tightened world borders, in the past and at the present, has manifested itself in Greece. Resting at a crossroads of religions, cultures and events in a region crucial to the transactions between the European Union, Asia, and Africa, Thessaloniki's many corners illuminated to students the realities of the Syrian refugee crisis, of migration politics, and of the viability of the mythos of a united Europe.

Through discussions with refugee aid groups and NGOs, students were able to conduct their own nuanced analyses of population flows into and out of Greece. Dissecting the notion of hypertourism that has come about in an age marked by easy travel for those endowed with the necessary means, students visited historical sites at Delphi, Athens, Mycenae, and Epidaurus to compare their documented experiences with the ones of centuries bygone. In discussing the effects of globalization on the prioritization and preservation of spaces and biotopes, students debated about the ways in which one might represent (preserve?) the diversity of the existing population and ecosystem while accommodating the economic growth spurred by massive influxes of people. Students presented their thoughts to each other regularly, completing activities such as journaling, curating potential exhibitions on Greek tourism to the Musee des Beaux-Arts, and creating sample proposals to restore areas as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. These analytical exercises helped to debunk the idea of a glamourized Greece trapped at the same time in a distant millennium and a postcard image, instead supporting a justified awareness of the interplay between Greek history and culture and the diversity of the modern Mediterranean region.

By the end of the course, all nineteen students had created a personal log of their travels around Greece, committing to paper all critical thought about their readings and their distinct experiences of travelling. Reflecting on the formation of the syllabus, Prof. Anastassiadis said that "the challenge is to not create just another tourist experience, but an enlightened version of what it is to visit and what to bring back from it." To transcend cultural stereotypes, students were also urged to see the cultural wealth with all of its artistic, architectural, and culinary variance over time. Prof. Anastassiadis emphasized through the course that all processes of mobility are connected, tourism as well as migration—when people emigrate, they become the mediators of their ancestral homelands in a globalized society, and those who enter a country bear the burden of their own stereotypes through the gaze of the Western subject, which are often the result of the latter’s tourist experience. "Migrants and tourists are mediators always. Both processes of human mobility are intertwined and connected, feeding each other," Prof. Anastassiadis commented. He believed it was important for students to confront their gazes, to witness debates, to understand the consequences of globalization, to experience in situ the decisions of EU summits, to comprehend the gravity of warfare that leaves asylum seekers vulnerable in a foreign country, and to understand how migrant flows and the refugee crisis affect everyone.

An introverted civilization that is obsessed with uniform, linear histories tracing their origins in an idealized past, such as a polished Antiquity, leaves little room for diversion from the established norm. But a globalized civilization that treats historical and cultural diversity as a haphazard patchwork of tourist selfies across space and time undermines our capacity to understand historical processes, and thus anesthetizes our potential for self-reflexive critique about our own actions. Students on this trip defied these boundaries, learning of the new horizons for historical research that are being explored by historians that believe in multiplicity and the constant interplay between diachronic and synchronic processes. The work of dismantling rigid structures of historical research begins with students working together to create firsthand experiences and to produce knowledge. Over three years, 65 students have been part of this project, hailing from Arts, Engineering, Science, and Nursing Schools but sharing an affinity for expedition. A variety of grants are available through McGill to bring the social studies overseas, including the Schull-Yang International Experience Awards. In a time of such international tumult, students can look forward to having the chance to engage in crucial discussions of history and world politics in summers to come.

"This experience has reinforced my desire to discover new places and truly engage with the place I’m visiting and its past. The ability to adjust to new circumstances and come to love a place so different from one’s home is extremely valuable for anyone. I appreciated the degree of immersion and engagement with the course material made possible by virtue of the course’s format. It was so special to be physically present at the sites that we had previously read about or discussed in class. I also appreciated the social and tourism aspects of the course. From our shared meals to weekend trips to the beach, this course struck the perfect balance between cultural discovery, fun, and intellectual stimulation. I would absolutely recommend the course to other students for the reasons listed above. I cannot think of a more enriching experience on both a personal and academic level. Students interested in getting to know Greece from a different perspective (i.e., move beyond the typical North American tourist’s idealized view of what the “essence” of Greece is) and meet new, interesting people should not hesitate to sign up. " Katrina Kardash, Faculty of Arts student  (Major World Religions, Minor Italian)

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