In The Odyssey's Land
A chance to teach opens the opportunity to learn
Thoreau said there is a difference between looking and seeing. The same could be said of being a tourist for pleasure and being a traveler with purpose.
Don't get me wrong: I like relaxing and sightseeing as much as anyone. But of the trips I've taken to three dozen countries, three-quarters have been made to pursue journalism or research for my novels or, most recently, to teach in Greece.
Carrying a notebook and asking questions is burdensome at times. But, like drawing or photography, it helps me see. In Greece I got to talk with adult students, learning more about the country in a day than I did in a week as a tourist.
It was not just amazing to find myself on the island of Ithaca, home to Homer's Odysseus, as literary pilgrim. It was the opportunity to teach writing to a foreign audience that gave meaning to the visit. The chance came through a sustainability seminar sponsored by Western Washington University's Huxley College of the Environment, where I teach part time. In trading thoughts on communication, we communicated.
Sitting on a shady patio next to a sparkling bay, watching my students scribble after my preliminary translated lecture, was not exactly hard duty. Oh, the foam on those European cappuccinos! But by having to explain the evolution of American environmental writing — and listening to how modern Greeks express themselves — I ended up learning more than my pupils did, I'm sure.
And while I appreciated my students' insights into Greece, they appreciated me coming 8,000 miles to share pictures of the Northwest and American participatory teaching methods different than the lecture-and-test regimen they are used to.
Traveling with a purpose does not make it free. The strength of the Euro was as alarming as the cheapness of the wine was reassuring. But honorariums, freelance payments and tax deductions can make travel more affordable.
Alternately, even a strict volunteer who gets no compensation will come away with a much more intimate view of a country than anyone will get staying at a resort.
As in every other country, Greeks outside the tourist industry are warm, thoughtful people quite sophisticated about the world and America's role in it. They also make a clear distinction between Americans, whom they like, and American foreign policy, which they don't. Ideas translate easily.
The students gave me perspective on environmental change in Greece, the reality of everyday life there versus Greek island nirvana, and lessons on the pacing of life that is so different than U.S. business frenzy. Even in class, a noon deadline meant 12:15, or 12:30, in "Greek time." Yet the young ones could dance until 4 a.m. and still function the next morning.
On the precipitous isle of Ulysses, we found time for beach breaks, an island potluck, an evening church choir concert and leisurely dinners. In the heat of the day, the chief noise was the clatter of cicadas, and in the cool dark it was children playing in the town square until midnight. You realize different rhythms are possible.
Was it work? Of course. But the students knew what we were about. More than one wrote that, on Ithaca, you realize the odyssey is as important as the destination.
William Dietrich is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer.