Elena Nicolaou, a senior at Columbia College, is the editor in chief of Now!Here, Columbia International Relations Council and Association’s travel journal, along with fellow Columbia College senior Rebekka Troychanskiy. Nicolaou is studying English with a concentration in modern Greek studies. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
If you had to explain Now!Here briefly, how would you describe it? What is a travel journal?
So Now!Here is a part of CIRCA. We’re CIRCA’s travel journal. And what we aim to do is share people’s travel stories. So this is our magazine, it’s very simple. Most of the stories we publish are people talking about specific moments in their travel. Because I feel like when people travel, every day is a story, and every moment is a story. It’s something new. This is a way for people to come home after the trip and share something cool that happened to them. But we also publish longer pieces and columns on our website, which tend to be more reflective, with people talking about what traveling means to them. Where this is more like travel stories.
How did you get involved with Now!Here? At what point in your Columbia experience?
I think it must have been when I was a sophomore. I remember that I had class during the meetings, and I was so upset that I couldn’t get involved. Now!Here feels like such a specific and important role on such a global campus, to be able to tell travel stories, so I was upset that I couldn’t go to meetings. But I was involved in the editing process. And when it came to applying to be on the board, I applied and was the managing editor during my junior year, and became editor in chief during the second semester of my junior year, and have continued since then.
What’s your own personal experience with traveling?
I grew up traveling. My dad is from Cyprus and my entire family lives halfway across the world, so my sister and I can’t remember the first time we were on an airplane. We’ve always been traveling back and forth. And there are no direct flights there, so when we would go, we would always have to stop somewhere and make a little vacation out of the layover. I grew up very privileged in that I was able to be exposed to different ways of life from a young age. Since then, I’ve been fascinated with language and travel. When you’re traveling, your mind is more active because everything is different, and you can’t settle back into complacency. But in terms of traveling experience I’ve done, I study Greek at school and for the past two summers I’ve done programs there and have been working on my language skills.
That relates to something else I was going to ask you. You’ve just touched on this, but what would you say the purpose of travel writing is? The reader might not actually be able to go to the places they’re reading about, after all. So what do you think the travel writer should try to accomplish?
That’s a good question! For me, when I sit down to write something, it’s really because I’m trying to understand what happened to me. And hopefully, in the process, something will come through that another person will find fascinating. If I found something fascinating and learned from it, maybe somebody else will as well. But I think the travel writer should be able to translate an experience and translate difference. I think there’s something really incredible about being able to distill an experience and distill foreignness into words that anybody can read, and that anybody can have experience through reading. So it’s translating something that’s lived to something that’s read, which is accessible to people who can’t get on a plane and go on a boat in the Amazon River, or get on a plane and fly to Prague. It’s bringing the world to the page. I think that fiction does that, but travel writing does that in a very immediate and real way.
So I guess you could say that’s the value of travel writing. What would you say the value of traveling as a college student is, during this time of our lives?
They always say that this is the time in our lives to travel, which I do think puts an unnecessary pressure on people. I don’t think it’s fair to say that this is the time in our lives to travel, because I feel like you want to continue learning and growing for your entire life. You should always be traveling, and it doesn’t just have to be international. There are a lot of good places to go on the weekends! That’s my plug, because I know that it can be hard to travel in a realistic way. But I do think it’s important to seize any opportunity to travel and say yes to it. Because as I said before, it tugs you out of complacency. There’s something magical in being somewhere where every day and every minute is out of the routine. It means that you’re constantly aware and active, and that you’re perceiving much more than you normally would. Because you’re just drawn to the new things. Plus when you meet people and see people from other walks of life, you come back changed. I think traveling does make you a better person, because you become aware of difference, and can respect and appreciate difference more.
Can you talk a little bit more about how traveling has helped your study of language?
Sure. After my sophomore year, I had been studying Greek for two full years, and I went to Greece and did a program for five weeks that was half Greek students and half American students. And one week into the program, my roommate woke me up one morning and said, “You were sleep talking in Greek.” And I thought, “Oh my god. This is a breakthrough. This means that my mind is thinking in Greek.” And I think that was because the whole week before, I’d been really engaging with the Greek students and I was getting over my fear of not being able to communicate in Greek. When you’re in the country and you’re surrounded by the way of life, it gets you excited, and it makes you realize that the language isn’t something that lives in a classroom but lives in the country. I think that my knowledge of Greek coalesced when I was there, and I realized that my words were part of a bigger picture.
You talked before about how sometimes travel isn’t accessible for everyone. Do you ever find trouble addressing that tension in Now!Here? Or in your personal approach to travel?
With Now!Here, what we try to emphasize is that traveling can be a mindset. If you go to the Lower East Side and you find that you’re surrounded by a really different atmosphere than Morningside Heights, and it makes you more aware and makes you feel like you’re in the moment the way traveling does, then that can be traveling. It doesn’t have to be living out of your backpack or driving across the country like Jack Kerouac. It’s really a state of mind. For Now!Here, we encourage people to write columns about New York City or get on a train and take a day trip and write about that. It doesn’t have to be something that you’re doing on your parents’ bankroll. It’s difficult that it can be so inaccessible. But there are a lot of programs at Columbia that fund travel. I think that it’s important for people to be proactive in seeking those out. I know people who have traveled for free every spring break because they’ve been very good at figuring out the loopholes in accessing travel. The array of stories that we publish, some of the people writing for us are writing about trips that they’ve taken with their families or trips that they’ve taken for study abroad. People come to traveling at different times in their lives, and they’re able to do different things. It’s more that people who write for us are excited with what they can do. I wish that it weren’t so expensive.
Are there any goals for the future that Now!Here has in mind? I know that you’re a senior and you’ll be graduating soon, but are there any long-term goals that you see for the journal?
Yes, certainly. We’re working with OGP [Office of Global Programs] to have Now!Here be a resource for students who are coming back. To say, “You had this experience, tell it to us.” We want to be more plugged into the community in that regard and start having more travel guide resources. Harvard’s travel magazine has amazing travel guides. They fund their writers to go live in places around the world, and that’s incredible. I’m not necessarily saying that’s what we’re working towards, but we want to not just have the dissemination of stories but the dissemination of practical knowledge. Like what you asked me earlier, with budget traveling. I might not know that, but our web designer who biked around Italy this summer could tell you exactly how to do that on a budget, I’m sure. If we could be a forum or resource for people talking about travel in a real way, that would be a wonderful goal. I think it’s strange that there isn’t another publication or hub on campus that also talks about travel. Since we’re the only one, it’s our job to be a resource as well as a publication.
Was there any moment you had while traveling over the past several years that really cemented your love for traveling?
That’s a good question. There are so many, so I’m trying to narrow it down to the moment. This summer was the first time I had ever been in a city by myself. I went to Vienna by myself. And most of the traveling I had done before was with friends, or with a group. I left my friends in Prague, and I was going to the train to Vienna by myself. It was kind of a series of unfortunate events, as it always seems to be when you pack too much and your purple suitcase is bigger than everybody else’s suitcases. I had to get it onto this train, and the escalator wasn’t working. I looked up at the stairs, and looked down at my suitcase, and thought, “There’s no way this is going to happen. How am I going to do this?” But because you have to when you’re traveling, and you can’t turn around and go call your mom, you just have to do it. So with my upper body strength from strength training [class]—thank you, Columbia—I got the suitcase up the stairs. And of course, there wasn’t a spot on my train for my suitcase because it was too big, and nobody in Europe has American-size suitcases. But eventually I found a spot for the suitcase, and it was all fine. I sat down, very tired, and probably was not looking my best. I found my spot on the train and I sat down next to this girl who had been traveling around Europe with her friends. We started talking, and finally I could catch my breath, and the train was going to Vienna, a city I had never been to before. It was my first time going somewhere by myself, and it all kind of shifted into place. Like, I did it. I don’t know where I’m going, but I know I’m going somewhere. It was this moment of wonderful, unfolding possibility. I didn’t know what other misfortunes would befall me, but I knew that with misfortunes would come great stories. It was this nice, forward-looking moment of going towards adventure and seeing the countryside zoom by.