The staff member of this month is Antonia Apostolakou, who recently went on a research stay to Switzerland and is now putting the finishing touches to her PhD dissertation.
Hi Antonia! In the Blandijn, you are quite famous to be the girl coming from one of the most evocative places in Greece: Sparta! Could you tell us more about your homeland and the adventurous journey that brought you to Ghent?
Hello! That’s true. Although people usually have a surprised reaction when I introduce myself at conferences, it does make for a good icebreaker, I have to admit. Sparta is a charming small city in the Peloponnese, surrounded by mountains, full of olive and orange groves, with locals that may exceed 300 but still come in short numbers. Apart from the natural beauty of the area and its apparent historical reputation, Sparta has been and is still being associated with a military lifestyle, extreme discipline, and toughness. This image has made its way to pop culture (for example in films or video games – there have been some nice discussions by classical scholars on this subject over the last couple of decades) and has been worshipped by notorious dictators and like-minded groups to this day. I therefore tend to be cautious when it comes to boasting about my hometown. The occasional homesickness and the excitement of colleagues have definitely made me focus on the bright side, though, so I will hopefully not disappoint any more enthusiastic classicists.
Now that I have already set out the proper ground for treason, I will continue by saying that my academic journey started when I moved to Athens. There, I studied ancient, Byzantine, and modern Greek philology, and had a lovely time that generated some of the tips I’ve been sharing with many of you before your Athens visits. I specialized in linguistics, and my fascination for the field led me to the Netherlands, where I completed my master’s, with a focus on intercultural and multilingual communication. After graduating, I came across an announcement for a PhD position at Ghent University and the EVWRIT ERC project. It felt like an ideal opportunity for me, as it combined all different aspects of my previous education and training: classical and Byzantine studies, but also multilingualism and language contact. And, better yet, the position offered a new challenge: papyrology! I applied, flew to Belgium for the interview, and the rest is history. A fun fact is that I had visited the city one year earlier with a friend and, as I liked it a lot, had said: “I could live here.” I am still enjoying my time in Ghent, so it turns out I was right.
My tip to new international colleagues, which applies to differences beyond eating habits and weather conditions, is to keep an open mind and try to find the beauty in everything unfamiliar, rather than get trapped in seeking what they had back home.
Replacing spanakopita for boterhammetjes must not have been easy! After a few years living here, I believe you developed some strategies to master the art of the broodje and to adjust to the northern weather. Do you have any tips to share for our new international colleagues?
Just as I was complimenting Belgium, you needed to bring up the food… Just kidding! Surprising as it may seem, I think my Greek culinary skills got stronger over the last years – sharing food with friends is always a pleasant experience. Quite unexpectedly, though not for those who are aware of the composition of the Greek section, I also became more familiar with Italian cuisine from different regions (shoutout to all the friends who have kindly invited me over for dinner) and gained a new appreciation for it. I do, however, occasionally enjoy the late-night frietjes or take my visitors to local restaurants to try stoverij, and I appreciate the many veggie options in Ghent (Did you know it’s one of Europe’s veggie capitals?). I’m also a big fan of Belgian desserts, especially a warm Liège waffle or a good mattentaart. I am afraid the lunch broodje and I still have some way to go. Belgian weather is certainly different than what I was used to growing up, but there is a number of fun and relaxing things I like to do when it’s rainy: going to the cinema, visiting exhibitions in Ghent or Brussels, watching shows while enjoying a cup of hot chocolate with friends or just curling up by the window with a good book. And once the sun shines in Belgium, everyone is excited and goes out for ice cream or a glass of cold beer by the water. My tip to new international colleagues, which applies to differences beyond eating habits and weather conditions, is to keep an open mind and try to find the beauty in everything unfamiliar, rather than get trapped in seeking what they had back home.
As you mentioned before, you joined the Linguistics Department of Ghent University to start your PhD within the ERC project EVWRIT. What is your research project about?
Right! It is one of the linguistics projects of the ERC, that nevertheless incorporates many paleographic observations. Simply put, it’s an investigation of papyri from the fourth to the eighth centuries CE, where more than one language and/or script are used. I could say that the project was inspired by my own experiences to some extent, as I have grown up in a bilingual environment (on my mother’s side), and have witnessed intriguing switches between the Greek and English languages by my relatives – or a mix of Greek and Latin characters in some of my grandma’s amusing notes and gift tags. In papyri too, we find certain choices in language and its writing (for example, writing Greek in Latin script or mixing letters from different alphabets within a single word) that often seem unconventional by modern standards, especially in the context of more formal documents. My project aims at understanding the complex motivations (sociohistorical, textual/practical, cognitive, etc.) behind this variation, and evaluating their importance in enhancing or creating meaning. To do this, I use theoretical concepts and methods from historical sociolinguistics and socio-semiotics, language and script contact studies, comparative paleography, and more, depending on each case study.
I could say that the project was inspired by my own experiences to some extent, as I have grown up in a bilingual environment (on my mother’s side), and have witnessed intriguing switches between the Greek and English languages by my relatives – or a mix of Greek and Latin characters in some of my grandma’s amusing notes and gift tags.
Sounds fascinating! Our work allows us to travel all around the world, and I have heard that you have been able to enjoy a couple of great experiences abroad in the last year. We want to know more! (Where were they? And on which purpose did you go there?)
I was indeed lucky enough to obtain a couple of scholarships and visit some beautiful places over the last year. The first highlight was without doubt the Summer Institute in Papyrology. After its postponement due to the pandemic, I managed to travel to Cincinnati for the summer institute last summer. During this intensive training, I improved my knowledge on papyrology and the preparation of papyrus editions, while working on original papyri from the collection of the University of Michigan, under the guidance of distinguished instructors. It was also a very fun month of making new friends, watching the fireworks on the 4th of July, and racing on chairs with wheels at the dorm’s corridor. I returned to Europe just on time for the 30th International Congress of Papyrology in Paris, which was completed with a memorable celebration of my birthday on the waters of the Seine. My second longer stay was at the Hardt Foundation in Switzerland in late spring. I was happy to work on my project in a beautiful library and interact with classical scholars of different ages and backgrounds on the daily, while enjoying the generous services provided by the kind staff of the foundation. Once books and laptop screens were closed for the day, I went on small excursions with lovely colleagues, like visiting the Bodmer Foundation, exploring Geneva by night or even traveling to a suburb where Kieslowski’s “Red” was filmed.
While all these experiences may sound wonderful (and they absolutely were), it’s important to remember that doing a PhD is not “all play and no work”, in more senses than one. It’s a personal journey and a challenging experience with many ups and downs, and I feel fortunate to have been able to share both my achievements and struggles with other PhD candidates in Ghent since the beginning of my project.
One final question: as we were children, September used to be the start of a new exciting school year. Sure, we now have moved to a bigger building and switched apple juice for coffee, and oral tests to conference papers, but September still feels like our yearly turning point. With the beginning of the new academic year, what are your good resolutions?
I think that highly specific resolutions like the ones people come up with on New Year’s Eve put unnecessary pressure on many of us, so I tend to avoid them and think of a very general and easy one instead, just for the fun of it. My 2023 resolution was to let myself be surprised, and I can tell you it has been a success so far! I nonetheless have a few humble plans for the new academic year and the near future: submitting my dissertation, completing some editions, and evaluating the options ahead. I would also like to do some more carefree traveling and maybe return to taking a language course after a short break. And let’s see if that one friend and colleague finally convinces me to join her at the gym – that would be the ultimate surprise for everyone!