Yesterday afternoon I looked at photos of my high school graduation. After going through them, I could not help proceeding to the album's following chapter -- my first days as an undergraduate student. The memories associated with each picture kick-started a mental slide show, which eventually covered my entire studies. I remembered my first morning as an innocent freshman, when the bus left me at the door of the...cemetery, which happens to be situated right next to the Physics Department building of the University of Athens. From that day forward I had been welcomed every morning by the shining marble of graves and elderly widows with their hair tied in a bun. Who needs "Skull and Bones" when you have that?
I recalled my first lecture of linear algebra when a girl of questionable scientific merit exclaimed, "Look at all these symbols! There is not a single number among them!" I reminisced of my first encounter with the lovable -- albeit sometimes exhibiting a frustrating lack of manners -- nerds who would become great friends and who today are scattered among the top research institutions in Europe. I remembered the primitive lab experiments designed to determine rolling friction by means of a heavy metallic orb that was rolling down a duct, culminating at a wall. That wall seemed to have come from the set of a gangster film, bearing marks similar to the ones left by hundreds of bullets.
When the experiments were over, I would dart to the lecture hall to catch the thermodynamics lecture where the professor advised us to "Lay back, take a sip of whiskey, and listen to jazz," and all our difficulties with multiple integrals and Maxwell distributions would be resolved. I still wonder whether the audience, which consisted of students of almost every conceivable age and background, who were busy smoking, drinking the infamous frappé coffee, and sending text messages to each other, was responsive to this kind of approach to problem-solving. I guess I'll never know.
Freshman year was by far the toughest -- impossible hours and tons of homework assignments after each lab session. Things eased in the coming years, aided by the esprit de la révolution, which thrives inside faculty and students alike. The main séances where the aforementioned esprit was summoned were the infamous "student assembly sessions." Delegates from various student parties -- whose main purpose was to cover every square centimeter of wall with their posters, organize excursions, and pretend to fight for the rights of the students -- engaged in endless rigmaroles, ornate with Marxist buzzwords and devoid of meaning. At the end of the session, they had the power to order the university to close down if the majority voted for them. Their henchmen (aka party members) would padlock all entry points to the building, effectively inhibiting courses, exams, lab sessions, and everything a student needs to perform. And all this because the police are legally forbidden from accessing the campus, save after the commitment of a very serious crime -- e.g., homicide.
On every occasion, there was a new enemy to be fought by the brave party orators. One time, it was unemployment, another, the war in Iraq, but most often, it was the "privatization of universities and unfair intensification of studies to the detriment of the lower social classes." One may ask, "Why didn't the students vote against them and keep the university functioning?" The answer is simple: Few people can say no to a deus ex machina who relieves them from their tasks, giving them ample time to laze around, drink cappuccino, and absorb precious sunlight -- an ample commodity in Athens. And when the students decided to unblock access to the university, it was the turn of the equally intrepid professors to strike -- without their pay being suspended!
The result of the consecutive strikes and sit-ins (which plagued my studies almost every year) was the accumulation of monstrous exam periods at the end of each summer, which made you wish you had never been born. Or that you had been sent to Vietnam and become best friends with Agent Orange . Yes, it was that bad. Frustrated by this situation, I teamed up with a friend of mine during the fourth term and we built a legendary website -- which is still out there, somewhere -- mocking all that dysfunction. It was full of hilarious photo retouches of professors' pictures, humor laden with sophisticated cultural references, and advice for how to retain one's mental sanity as an undergrad at University of Athens. Despite the website's popularity, we never revealed our identity, fearing serious repercussions for our academic future. Perhaps the time has come.