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Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Foreign students in Hania: Lasting impressions

This article forms one of a two-part post that will be translated into Greek for dissemination among the Greek media.I've posted it today just before Greek Easter when Hania will be inundated by a lot of visitors, and the summer season is about to start. The article will be edited at a later date, to include photos and more students' comments. 

Hania is a beautiful Mediterranean town with a long history which comes alive through its multicultural monuments. It is easy to be astounded by its beauty even if you are a long-time resident, as you relive the history of each part of the town through each different moment that you pass through it. The town is small enough so as not to tire you getting from its one end to the other. Its compact size enables you to bump into someone you know as you walk around it, so you never feel alone; at the same time, the old town’s hidden alleys enable you to remain anonymous if you so wish. When counted together with its extensive countryside and its magical coastline, Hania also feels quite big in that you have ample choices about where and how to spend your time, and more importantly, to have a good time, no matter what your age or tastes. Hania’s very short-term residents - the tourists - leave their reviews about the town on social networks, and they would probably agree with many of the above points, given that Hania is now regarded as a 'destination' in holiday packages, and it does well in the top choices for European summer holidays.

But Hania also has a sizeable number of medium-term residents, people who come here for work and studies, such as the students of the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Chania (MAICh), one of four research and post-graduate study centres that form part of CIHEAM, an intergovernmental organization made up of 13 Mediterranean member countries. These students come from North Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus and Eastern Europe, with a small contingent coming from the rest of the world, including Greece. During their one to three years of post-graduate studies at MAICh, they work towards a Master of Science degree in topics of urgent global interest such as: climate change and land cover mapping, food fraud detection, olive genomics, conservation of rare endemic flora, business management in the rural economic sector, and management of biotic and abiotic resources with minimum environmental impact. At the end of their studies at MAICh, these students go on to PhD studies at renowned universities all over the world, and they also take up high level positions in academia, government and private business. So they become ambassadors for Greece in effect, since their study time in Hania has played a significant role in their career path.

MAICh recently asked the students about their impressions of Hania as a place to live and work. Their insights are generally very positive. As a study location, MAICh students are in general agreement that Hania has one of the best combinations that make it conducive to higher studies: a good climate, a peaceful atmosphere, a vibrant nightlife and more importantly, a very human dimension. Here is what they have to say about Hania as a study choice.

Chaima (Tunisia) thinks that Hania exudes a warmth that cannot be expressed in words: "Chania is a perfect location for studies. First of all, the calmness and beauty of Chania are the best combination for enjoying life and building up knowledge towards a career. Since it is a very touristic place, you have the chance to meet new people every day, to see how others are, to learn about them and about yourself. When I finally leave Chania, I will have to leave a piece of me here. This warmth is very special and can't be described: it can only be felt." 

Abdelmalek (Tunisia) says that Hania has given him the chance to be more innovative: "Chania is a small and quiet town, making it very favourable for studies. The institute is located close to the countryside with a calm and healthy environment that provides the inspiration for creative thinking. Of course many students want an urban life style and night life during weekends, which is also available in the touristic part of the town. So, this diversity gives students choices in how they can spend their time." 

Haifa (Tunisia) has noticed the open-minded nature of the locals towards foreigners: "Hania feels like a multicultural community where people accept you as a foreign student and are curious to learn from you. They ask you questions about your country and why you are here. You never feel rejected or disrespected because you are different. Hania is a great location for studies, with its calm and friendly environment. People are also very helpful. You can even study outdoors due to the good weather. The landscape is beautiful and encouraging, so you really feel relaxed and not stressed at all. Hania responds to your needs if you like calm places. When you aren’t busy studying, Hania is great for walks and there are endless places for coffee with friends. But if you want to go partying or have a drink, you can also enjoy yourself with your friends at the old harbor." 

Walid (Algeria) is happy to be studying in what he regards as a very safe environment: "The climate is amazing and I love that the houses have a 'human' size surrounded by many plants and flowers. I often see doors left open, so it feels very safe! You can see families having a peaceful meal together. People's faces do not differ from those of my country. It is such a beautiful town, and I feel it isn't very different from my own home town. The old harbor is one of the most amazing places ever. It has a lot of similarities with the Casbah of Algiers: narrow roads, lots of flowers, lots of cats, an amazing mix of architectural styles and above all, an intense human warmth. Arriving in Chania, I recall my first human contact, with the taxi driver. I was surprised to find that he physically looked like me, and we had almost the same body language, mind and reasoning. I immediately understood that I was not far from home. Crete feels like heaven. The beaches can drive you crazy. You have just to swim at sunrise at the beach in Souda, or take a coffee at sunset at the old harbor, or just spend the afternoon at Agious Apostolous beach, and then you will understand why God never talked about work in heaven! It is so hard to work when you live in such a heavenly island.”

Anas (Palestine) has enjoyed exploring Hania’s landscape: "I think Chania is a very good place to study and live. The weather is really good and personally I love the fresh air that I breathe everywhere in Chania. I like climbing so I especially like the mountain areas of Chania. The people are charming and very easy to get on with. You can speak with anyone at any time and they respond with a smile. I think I will miss being here very much when my studies finish." 

Ahmed (Morocco) is glad to have had the chance to study away from the ‘rat race’: "Chania is one step in my life that has shaped my future, far from banking empires and industrialization - the Cretans prefer cash! I enjoy being in a piece of heaven on earth. I find the people here close to my culture: warm, disordered, and never on time!" Ahmed (Morrocco)

Bobi ((fYR) Macedonia) had been visiting Greece for a long time before he started studying in Hania, but he believes that Hania stands out among the other places he has visited: "I've been coming to Greece for as long as I can remember, almost every summer for just a few days, because my country neigbours Greece. So I have a wide experience of Greece, but Crete and Chania in particular are something special. The people here seem more open-minded; it is the first place in Greece where I have seen a mosque and a church side by side. Most people are warm, friendly and helpful in every way and they smile a lot. It is worth mentioning that they don't change their attitude when I say which country I come from. Chania is for sure the best city for studies. It is simply amazing. I love how most of the old structures are still looking like the time they were built.  You feel like you are in Greece, Italy and the Middle East all at the same time. You can feel the impact of every nation that has set foot on this island.  It's a great place at the weekend to relax and recharge your batteries after a week of work and study. I feel completely relaxed after a trip into the town of Chania; even if I felt under any stress, it just disappears instantly when I am in the town." 

Ada (Albania) was mesmerised by the ease with which student life melded into tourism: "Hania is one of the best locations for studies. It gives you the opportunity to enjoy yourself even if you have a lot of studies - you can be a tourist and a student at the same time. The climate, the nature, and the people helped me cross every barrier that I encountered throughout my studies."

Rhona (United Kingdom) found Hania to be an inspiration: "I think Chania is an excellent study location. It inspires me for so many reasons: the friendly, kind and helpful people I met, who never laughed at me trying to speak Greek and seemed so genuinely pleased that a foreigner had bothered to learn some; the stunning beauty of the town and its surroundings; the nature, plants, flowers and trees that were everywhere and their scents; the traditional foods, horta and herbs; the long and interesting history and its visible signs from Minoan times to the present all around; the sea and the beaches; the mountain views; the sunny blue skies, the sunsets, the night skies so full of stars; the sounds of nature, goats, sheep and chickens in people’s gardens, and the traditional Cretan music, which inspired me so much that I bought a Cretan lyra a few years after being in MAIX, even though I’m not a musician, so I’m trying to learn that, but it’s extremely hard, especially in England without a teacher. I learnt a lot about Crete during my stay in Chania as a student. It’s a different world there!"

Gohar (Armenia) noticed how genuinely communicative people are here: "Chania is one of the cities where the local community makes you feel so at home from the first day. I was amazed to see a grandma and grandpa going for a morning coffee in a local cafe - we don't see much of that in Armenia. The same with the young generation: when they are out for a coffee or drink, they are chatting and not using smartphones all the time. They are enjoying a conversation with their friends. Chania is a very social community that prefers face to face communication, while other developed cities have now embraced online communication. Since the city has a long history with a diversity of cultures, there is that feeling of a multinational community. Being an international student here, I have never felt discriminated against or treated badly. I can say that I felt safer here than in my home city." 

L'didja (Algeria) is impressed by the pureness of the air, and the uncontaminated nature: "I remember my first trip into the town. The first thing I noticed was how clean the city is: the air seemed so pure and you could smell the sea as you approached the Venetian port. Once you enter the area of the harbour, a spectacular view is offered to you. For me, seeing it in real life was better than any image I had seen on the web. It was something that can’t be translated into a simple picture. What I like most in Chania is the peaceful feeling that it impresses on you. I feel safe and quite far from the stress that you face in a city. I like the beauty and authenticity that I can discover at the corner of each street, its multicultural character which is not only present in the architecture but also in the Cretans themselves, their cuisine, and traditions. I think this is the main reason that makes the Cretans particularly prone to be open to different cultures." 

Zahreddine (Algeria) immediately understood the nature of the Mediterranean when he realized that his North African homeland did not differ so much from Hania: “When I first arrived in Chania, I noticed that nature, the climate and many other features of the town were extremely similar to the ones in which I had lived my whole life. I realized that I had just come to the perfect place for a successful study journey. Chania is a small touristic city with amazing places to visit. When we feel the pressure from our studies, we can come into Chania to wind down and recharge our batteries. As a matter of fact, I consider myself lucky to pursue my Master's in the island of Crete, and Chania precisely, a place that people dream of visiting to see its spectacular beaches, historic sites, and the genuine hospitality that it offers. The old town is just amazing and it reminds me of the Casbah in my country with its calm neighborhoods and yards full of rose bushes. Is there anyone that doesn't like the old harbour? It is a place where one can meet people from all around the world and indulge in real Mediterranean cuisine, especially the seafood which I personally like very much. You hardly ever feel stressed in Hania’s calm atmosphere. The people are so friendly, and there is very little of the hustle and bustle that is often associated with European cities. There are no big buildings or busy metro stations to make you feel sick. For me, one of the best features of Chania is to go to an elevated place with a view of the blue sea, the beautiful Mediterranean town
and the high mountains covered with snow, such a rare mixture that exists in only very few places in the world."

Liliya (Russia) highlights the importance of the climate in pursuit of personal happiness: "I never lived in such a beautiful town where summer lasts a whole year! It seems impossible for my Moscow friends to believe that in November I can pick mandarins, lemons and oranges directly from the tree, and I swim in the sea while they are already wearing jackets in cloudy, rainy, cold weather with temperatures next to zero! For me it is so important for there to be many warm clear days even in autumn and winter. You don't feel depressed when you look out the window because every day you see blue sky and sunshine! In my first year in Chania I have had more sunny days than I actually had in the whole of the four years I spent in Moscow!" 

Omar (Syria) is no longer at MAICh, but he remembers how good the food was here: "I now live in Sweden, but sometimes I really miss that Mediterranean flair when I see the traditional places they have here. I miss the vegetarian food which was harvested from the same area where we were living. Chania, for me will be always the place which welcomed me to Europe in Mediterranean hands."

Valentina (Italy) really felt at home while she was in living in the MAICh dormitories: "Living in Chania was a bit like being at home. The local customs were close to my own reality as well as the hospitality of the Cretans that made me feel very welcome. Day after day, I would make small discoveries while walking through the small streets of the town Chania is not just a tourist place, but also an ideal place for students. The city can be appreciated all year round."

The foreign students of Hania who find themselves living and working on an extended visit in this enchanting Mediterranean island are a source of pride for the town. They remind us of not just how lucky, but how privileged we are to live in a part of the world that does not exert on us the pressures of modern-day life. The old harbor offers a refuge away from the stresses of the daily routine. The strategic location of the island does not compromise its safety. The climate and history of the town make it a magnet for foreign visitors. The open-mindedness of the community endears the visitors to the locals. The remarks of the students of MAICh are particularly revealing as to what should be preserved and maintained in Hania to ensure its sustainable survival in a highly connected world. Perhaps the time has come when Hania should capitalize on its success in this respect, in such a way that its true assets are disseminated to a wider audience. 

Click here for Part 2 of this article:, dealing with students' perceptions of how Hania can be improved, what Hania taught them about Greece, and how they view Europe in relation to their time spent in Hania. 

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