There are people in this world who carry themselves differently than others. A unique aura revolves around them that outputs a wildly fascinating kind of energy, without them even noticing. One that inspires you to work harder than ever, pursue every passion you've even the slightest inkling of inspiration for, and to truly be your best and most successful self.
This week during my time in Thessaloniki, I met one of these people. Smaragda Makris is an accomplished chef and food educator living in the heart of Thessaloniki, and conducts food tours and classes for locals and traveling visitors alike. My study abroad group and I had the pleasure of meeting her recently and experiencing a walking tour of the culinary expertise Thessaloniki has to offer, as well as a cooking class where we made the most delicious dishes - ones with flavor I will remember for years to come.
While the class was one of the most enjoyable experiences I'll remember from this trip, Smaragda's personality and energy she shares with her community instantly captured my attention. In my professional and social life, I strive consistently for quality connections and valuable conversations, something she seemed to provide for everyone she encounters, as I observed. Upon the close of our cooking class, there was a part of me that wanted so badly to learn more from her, and explore her beautiful mind to glean from the immense wisdom that she unconsciously outputs.
Because my blog entries this month, revolve around my discovery of the lifestyle and culture that surrounds this fascinating country, I reached out to Smaragda and inquired that we meet for coffee so that I could interview her and learn more about her story and life.
Firstly, I must say, I further understood her generosity and giving nature through her making the slightest sliver of time for us to meet in her extremely busy schedule - because both of us are quite non-flexible in our free time (her having many work commitments and mine school), she nonetheless agreed to connect at a cafe nearby after her long and tiring work day. People that so lovingly give their time to near complete strangers such as myself continually inspire me to always be generous, as you never know which people will make an impact on your life. It's the time we choose to share that is the most remembered and useful in our lives, I think.
So, at 9:30pm on a Thursday night, Smaragda sat down with a glass of red wine and enlightened me. Wanting to know more about the true nature of Greek culture and lifestyle, I asked her opinions on these things and to describe them from her perspective. In my travels, I make a strong effort to avoid any sort of "tourist" endeavors and rather sit in coffee shops or other common places to observe the people, things, animals, happenings, and explore the new place through a local's set of glasses. However, it's conversation and the sharing of thoughts that can best educate someone on the true culture of a place, because that's essentially what culture is - connection and thought. I expected to learn simple things and opinions about Greeks to lightheartedly share on this blog, but as previously stated, Smaragda is not one of simple thought.
To begin our conversation, Smaragda firstly described Greek culture as "An amalgam of the past and the present." She furthered her statement to say that "We (Greeks) are trying very hard to keep that philosophy of the past and the history, but also the way of living more happily and going out, meeting friends, (and) enjoying the sun, but to do that, we also need to work hard." This instantly reminded me of the rose-colored lenses tourists can often gaze at an unfamiliar culture through - one they are not familiar with. Tourism and traveling can tend to "fantasize" a culture and forget the realness that resides behind the 5-star hotels and white sandy beaches. Before I arrived in Greece, all I pondered was how amazing the people were going to be, how beautiful the landscapes were, and the delicious food. However, through Smaragda's interview, she reminded me to continue my visit here with a heart for both the positive and lesser-considered elements of Greek culture.
According to BBC, Greece suffered the worst out of all European countries during the 2008 global financial crisis. Greek citizens were hugely affected, and are still suffering from governmental and financial unrest since then. As Smaragda noted, "We (Greeks) are struggling to preserve these assets that we have, but (are) also (are trying to) enjoy them at the same time. Yes, we still keep this more 'cool' way of living, but it's not as it was years before, because we realize that only with hard work and consistency in what we do, and devotion to our values, will we gain something better for the future." The financial situation here was something I was largely unaware of, unfortunately, upon my traveling to this place, and it was fascinating to hear about it from a direct source. Being reminded of the stresses of Greek culture (and any culture, to be fair) changed the way that I value positivity and happiness altogether. It's true that behind every smile, every handshake, every laugh, there is a world of suffering and experiences unique to each individual. However, making an effort to realize this puts so much more value on the joyful connections that I do make - because I fully realize how much hard work has been put into sharing these emotions.
“Only with hard work and consistency in what we do, and devotion to our values, will we gain something better for the future.”
Smaragda mentioned that “…Greeks have that ‘sun’ in them, that warmth of the sun, and we are really, nowadays, trying to cope with these feelings and, also, at the same time with the difficulties we are facing." I believe that this is a mindset that should be applied to any and all lifestyles - spreading positivity and joy even through pain and suffering contributes to a fruitful and memorable life. However hard things can be at times, choosing to push through, work hard, and remain optimistic can lead to a well-lived life. As Smaragda said to me, "...these needs (spreading positivity and choosing to stand for what's right) require strength, and (sometimes choices to) jeopardize your personal life...but (we do it) not for ourselves, but for Thessaloniki. We need to...be active, to point out the bad things, and to fight."
As people of the world, in any location, we share our personality in our everyday connections, which is a transparent output of our lifestyle. As I continue to observe Greek culture before and after my fruitful meeting with Smaragda, I'm reminded to continually strive to share my best self with the world I connect with, as it represents my culture and values. How would I want a tourist to view my lifestyle? How can I best share American culture through my life? I believe, through Smaragda's insightful wisdom and connections with other locals as well, that Greeks are a truly magnificent people, not just through their friendliness and welcoming nature but, further, through knowing that they are actively working hard to share these elements of their lives even through the hardships they've experienced.
It's people like Smaragda that enhance your worldview and encourage you to strive to be your best self, and this is ultimately why I travel. Experiencing the world through connections like these are what truly why traveling is so valuable and worthwhile - sweet and wise Smaragda is someone I will continue to connect with and remember for the rest of my life. Through watching her interact with her community and talking with her personally, I believe that I have embraced Greek culture and immersed myself in it in a way I never would have before, and can apply these unique principles to my own life as I continue to represent my own. Smaragda's words are a reminder to us all, that hard work, dedication to one's crafts and community, and passion, are what enhance us as humans and allow us to contribute fully to the culture we represent.