Tuesday 2 Apr, 2013

Greece – A Week In Paradise

OK. So some might think it unfair to describe Greece truly as “paradise” given the turbulent economic and political state of the country. We hear that sensationalized in foreign media. But after a week of overwhelmingly scenic vistas and being surrounded by cultural vibrancy, I let my foreign media bias succumb to new love for Hellas (“Greece”).

Temple of Aphaia in Greece, island of Aegina

It’s been two weeks since I returned from tour, where as an employee of EF I got to join our customers and share first-hand in the programs we put together. Like other travelers typically remark, I could say that it was both the landscape and the people that I most appreciated about my journey. But what I actually appreciate the most, what I bring back with me is something that defies description. I am reminded of Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” – a collection of stories from the author’s tour of Vietnam (his war tour, mind you). The point of the book is the idea that what people bring back with them from experiences (what they “carry”) are intangible assets that cannot be told as stories, but themselves hold stories within. You can only share by anecdote the things you carry, you cannot actually describe them. So what are some things that I carry back from Greece?

Anecdote 1: The day ferry docks on the island of Hydra – we have 45 minutes to taste this place before sailing on. The students run ahead to ride donkeys and explore the back-alleys (motorized travel on the island itself is outlawed). I charge up the villa streets, soon leaving back-alleys behind and charging up the great mountains of Hydra, now find myself on a path to a secluded monastery. It’s an hour hike up to the monastery but I continue running up the winding stone path- past a shepherd and his goats (we exchange poorly translated courtesies as I pass his flock). And with 15 minutes before the ship sails on without me I reach the apex. Before me are some monastic ruins and I snap an illustrious shot of the island as Icarus himself may have seen it, from above. I run back down the mountain and make the boat just in time – we ferry onwards and the students and I share photos from our respective journeys.

Island of Hydra - the view from atop the monastic trail

An example of the adventures to be had on tour, but what about the learning moments? These are, after all, educational travel programs.

Anecdote 2: We return to Athens, spent from several days’ travel through northern, backcountry Greece. We’ve seen a myriad of ancient ruins, Olympic artifacts (the traditional, historic variety, of course) and ancient cultural sites. As we make our way back to the city hotel, some of the professors and I remark on the unique type of learning our student travelers are experiencing, outside of the classroom. At Delphi, our local guide’s discourse focused on how Delphi’s cultural center was born of the play between both rational (intellectual, logos) and irrational (emotional, relational, pathos) forces over history and time. Through our journey at Mycenae and Epidaurus our guide spoke of the landscape and how the land drove its inhabitants to do what they did (for example how defending forces at Mycenae used architecture to play up their terrain advantage). So holistically, we could see the convergence of many threads of learning. The professors and I remarked on how we could observe students applying their prior classroom work in the field, and synthesizing this knowledge to form a bigger picture. I carried this with me as well.

Students learning about Delphi

Whether it was the warm cultural hospitality of the Athenians (who enthusiastically welcomed us into their homes, shops and cafes), the educational value of our local experts or just the safe, guided environment we’ve created to facilitate amazing experiences abroad, I can say that I left Greece impressed. With our group, our program and the country itself. I carry many things back with me but I’ll share one more:

Anecdote 3: Waking up “with the chickens” (as our Tour Director affectionately calls it) becomes increasingly difficult as we near the end of our Grecian Odyssey. But this day, it was well worth it. We arrived at Epidaurus, where resided Asclepius at his ancient medicinal center. This is home to the famed Theater of Epidaurus (where every actor hopes to perform before they turn in) and also the birthplace of modern, Hippocratic medicine. It is still early, but to our benefit we are the only group on-site. As we near the Theater our local guide seizes upon an opportunity. Ever the thespian (indeed our guide moonlights as a local actor), he allows the group to climb the theater and experience the unique acoustic properties of the theater. The icing on the cake was that our demonstration was no mere clap or shout as you might get on your own when surrounded by other groups. But, in fact, our local guide performed a Homeric passage from the Iliad in ancient Greek and then had a student perform the modern English translation to follow. This moment, I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

They say “Η Ελλάδα είναι πολύ ορεα” (“I Ellada einai poly orea”) which translates to “Greece is very beautiful”. It was my favorite phrase while there, and still one of my favorites several weeks later. But what I’m beginning to believe is that it’s not the language, people, places or food that I cherish the most about this trip (as I had once thought). It’s the things I carry.

Students and Professors at the Theater of Epidaurus