Archive for February 17th, 2011

Italy in three months

After being glued to the news during the Egypt demonstrations, I’ve been scrambling to catch up all my work, even as protests spread around the Mideast.   Governments have learned from Egypt, they are trying to crush the protests early from Bahrain to Yemen and Iran.  But that’s not the subject of today’s post.

Here in Maine we’re deep into winter.   This is good.   Mt. Titcomb here in Farmington has superb skiing and is a very inexpensive family oriented mountain.  My recently turned five year old son can now ski down the mountain from the top (he still needs help on the T-bar), while my seven year old is attempting black diamond runs.  I find myself utterly and completely awed and emotionally fulfilled by the beauty and joy of skiing.  It’s a kind of giddy exuberance, the colors, the crisp winter air, the views, the feeling of speed and control gliding down the mountain.   I once likened skiing to something akin to a religious experience — movement, control, beauty and speed combined — to me its a transcendent sport.  Not that I’m an expert (heck, I won’t do some of the things my seven year old attempts), but it is one reason I’m glad I live in Maine and no longer in South Dakota!

But in three months it will be May 16th, and along with 43 students and three other faculty, we’ll be leaving for a two week travel course to Italy, visiting Venice, Florence and Rome alongside some day trips.    Besides skiing, I love teaching, and despite having no strong belief in an organized religion I feel extremely blessed to have a life filled with things that bring me joy and satisfaction.

Travel courses reflect the ultimate teaching and learning experiences.   Teaching and learning always come together.   In every course I teach I learn more, often pushed by student questions and ideas, or simply in preparing the course.   This involves both the subject matter and the art of teaching itself.    Teaching travel courses solo, something I’ve done twice, pushes me to learn about aspects of the trip I’d otherwise not be interested in.  But teaching with others is an intense experience where learning and teaching mesh, we are all travelers, all learning.   Two weeks in a course like that is more valuable than a semester in a class room.  Moreover the learning isn’t through lots of passive reading and listening, but active discussions and explorations.

Exploring the food, sites and culture of another country is for me even more joyful than skiing since it engages me intellectually and provides a freshness of experience that adds some zest to life.   When you travel you also leave everything else behind, all other projects and demands are forgotten, all that matters is the daily experience.   It’s an invigorating and rejuvenating experience.

A lot of Americans get caught up in the trap of thinking that money not spent on a material object that one can have sitting in the corner or available for use is money wasted.   Travel is not a priority for many because once the trip is over all that remains are memories.    Yet while material objects often sit in the corner unused, travel changes lives.    The experience stays with a person.  One appreciates culture at a deeper level, and recognizes that what seems natural and normal in one culture may be strange in another.  One appreciates new things and casts a more critical eye on what once was taken for granted.  It adds a richness to living that never goes away.   Students often say their travel courses (or study abroad experiences) were the highlight of their education, the part of their study that had the most impact on their future.   Perhaps that’s why travel becomes addictive; once people discover its true quality of life value, just getting more “stuff” is seen as a less satisfying use of money.

Travel courses also keep things fresh.   One time we started our first walk in Venice.  I’m looking around, appreciating the city and feeling good to be back (the upcoming course will be my sixth to Italy) and suddenly students are zipping by me, running for something.   I look around, trying to figure out what’s happening and I realize that they are simply awed by the canals and running to a spot to take photos.  Then I remember how the canals looked to me the first time I saw them; I can see Venice through their eyes, and not take the canals and alleyways for granted.

Watching students discover the culture, the food, and revel in the experience (and then write back ten years later that they just read their travel journal and relived the trip, thanking us again for the experience) is immensely satisfying.   To be a part of making that happen gives me a sense of pride.

This May I will blog again (I did so back in February 2009 from Italy, and last May (albeit fewer entries)  from Germany/Austria).   But this time I’ll blog only about food.   I’ll document the culinary experiences of the trip, perhaps in short posts.   I’m already looking forward to the tastes of Italy!

But for now, it’s still winter, and still ski season!