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I hesitate with every decision I make, think long and hard, construct pro-con lists, and ask the people around me for advice. One of the most difficult decisions I ever made took place a year ago: whether or not to attend a Greek summer camp. I’m pleased with my decision to go, because it changed my life. Here is how it happened.
I am sitting at the kitchen counter in my cousin’s house, listening to Isabella and Ruby’s argument in the next room; nothing is out of the ordinary. Throughout my childhood, I have spent countless days, weeks, and months, at my cousins’ house. Some of my favorite memories have taken place around their kitchen table, playing Trivial Pursuit and Pictionary, the yard sale, which we spent weeks planning. Theirs was the first house I ever slept at, other than my own.
This specific Sunday afternoon, I hear the garage door open and a minute later, Yiayia, our grandmother, walks into the room. I notice that she has a certain glow about her, she is happier than usual. I hold her two hours in church accountable for her mood, but the minute she starts to speak, I know that there is more. She calls Isabella in from the living room, and she sits down with us, a serious look suddenly dawning on her face. She says she has a proposal to make; she wants us to think our decision through before answering. She speaks of a summer camp, Ionian Village. “It’s not just any camp,” Yiayia says, sounding like an advertisement. She then explains that the camp is based in Greece and she heard of it through St. John’s, our church. I reminisce about all of the proposals Yiayia has made for various groups and fundraisers sponsored by St. John’s. She has attempted to involve us in GOYA, Girl Scouts, Bible Study, and too many others to name. She continues on her latest idea by informing us of its purpose: the camp would be mostly centered around religion; however, there would also be touring around the country and, of course, hours of lounging on the beach.
Isabella and I are not quite sure it sounds like the way we’d choose to spend our summer, but we agree to go. Our attendance at Ionian Village means a lot to our grandmother, and our parents strongly believe that we should try to make her happy. A week later, when our parents have already signed us up and Yiayia has paid the deposit, we get on the computer in Isabella’s room, on her Tempur-Pedic bed, and peruse the Ionian Village (IV) website. Isabella downloads the packing list to her desktop and begins to read it out loud to me. “Number one,” she says, “Bible, prayer beads, and stationary, to write home.” I remember the look of bewilderment she gives me in that moment. We both know that we have no idea what we are getting into. We continue to read the list, shocked at the one-piece bathing suit rule, the restriction against tank tops, shorts, and above-the -nee dresses. Almost scared to continue, my cousin and I read the daily schedule that the website provides. The schedule includes daily prayer services (twice a day, actually), trips to churches and monasteries, where floor-length skirts are required, and many opportunities to speak to priests concerning any questions we may have about our oh-so complicated faith. The slogan of the camp is “Faith and Friendships that last a lifetime.” Our nickname for it, however, is Nun Camp.
Isabella and I sit on her bed, horrified. To understand our reaction, you must know that we are far from religious. We have been dragged to church every Sunday, where we stand in pews for the 3-hour-long Greek Orthodox service, counting the times Father Dimitri clears his throat, searching our bags hungrily for an extra mint or piece of gum, or simply staring at our watches, vowing time to move quicker. In Isabella’s room, I reminisce about the biblical stories and Greek myths that I grew up with. I reflect on Easters and Christmases with my family; year after year, we would start off the holiday meal with a prayer, thanking God for all he has given us. Feeling a bit of guilt, I remember tapping my foot, fidgeting, eager to dig into the feast that is laid out before us.
The wonderful “opportunity” of camp in Greece seems to us an absolute nightmare. Isabella and I complain to our parents until finally they cave, allowing us to reconsider our decision to go. I do not remember what comes over me, but after thinking long and hard, I decide that my grandmother’s happiness is all that matters. She gives us so much; the least we can do in return is spend three weeks in her home country. Isabella and I promise each other we will make new friends, and rebel against the authority of the camp, if need be. After careful consideration, we commit to Ionian Village. Little do I know, it will be the most influential and best experience of my life.
As expected, religion is the main focus at IV; however, it is presented in a way that I can identify with, through jokes and games. We have an outdoor church service one Sunday night, in the camp’s amphitheater, which starts at 10pm and doesn’t end until after midnight. I sit towards the back of the whitewashed amphitheater with my head resting on my new friend Marielle’s shoulder, someone who I meet at IV and who remains a dear friend. We hold foot-long candles that illuminate the entire amphitheater and drip, as the night grows longer. The hymns wash over me and seem to calm me into a sleepy daze. The service is so beautiful, and tears well up in my eyes at the thought of how much I will miss the amphitheater and all of my close friends.
Another specifically impacting moment I have at camp is going to St. Nectarios’ house, in Kalavrita, on the Peloponnese. Inside a church devoted to worship of St. Nectarios is his tomb, which contains his preserved body. Before embarking on this specific trip, our counselor tells us that when people press their ear to his tomb, they sometimes hear his heartbeat, or the scratching of his nails against the marble. I know it is hard to believe, but I hear it, of that I am absolutely positive.
My favorite memories at IV include building sandcastles with my cabin mates for a camp-wide competition, stepping off the ferry onto the islands of Zakynthos and Aegina, learning to Greek dance and sing the Greek national anthem on a stone patio, and long bus rides spent reading Tiger Beat, creating puppet shows, and singing.
On the last day of camp, I am in the Athens Airport sobbing. I walk away from the campers who have grown to be my siblings, with only pictures and letters to remember them by. I am doubtful that we will easily keep in touch over the Internet or fit right back into place at the IV reunion in Boston the following spring, but we do. I return to my grandmother’s summerhouse in Sounion, Greece, the day that camp ends. The first thing I do is hug her, still crying, and thank her for giving this opportunity to me. I sob into her shoulder, saying, “You were right.”
Throughout the summer, my faith grows immensely, and I still feel God’s presence every single day. I make friends who are more like siblings; they will be with me for the rest of my life. I cannot even imagine how my summer, my entire life, would have turned out if I had not made the decision to please my grandmother, take a chance, and attend Ionian Village.