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Many Americans have read the Oedipus myth – the one where the man kills his father and marries his mother in an attempt to outrun fate? Or, perhaps you’ve heard of the legendary King Croesus, the richest man in the world, who could not decide whether or not to fight the Persians? No? Then, maybe you’ve heard of the Trojan Wars, where the Greeks fought their Asian foes, most likely for access to the Black Sea? If you know of any one of these tumultuous tales, you’ve got a background to understand Delphi, the Oracle of Apollo, the international temple for all who sought answers.
Jamil and I knew we wanted to go to Delphi because we had read so much about the site, but it was difficult to figure out how to rouse the interest of others. After all, like so many people, my parents had heard about the site and learned bits of information about the ramifications of its prophecy, but then only the human experiences had endured in their minds while the shrine faded from their memories. On their own, my parents would NEVER have booked a tour to Delphi! But educational travel as a family is all about overcoming this kind of disparity in interest – and the best way to achieve that aim is to find an interesting guide. Thank goodness we happened upon Andromache at the museum on the 31st of December because she and her husband became our guides to Delphi on the 2nd of January.
We thought we were renting a minivan that Andromache’s husband, Kostas, would drive, but somehow the minivan never materialized, so our family of four wound up riding in a 50-passenger bus – alone. It was a bit awkward, but extremely comfortable, as we set out on a 2.5-hour voyage to Delphi (so much less cumbersome a trek than anything our ancient Greek predecessors faced in the past). As we drove, Andromache explained bits of history we never knew. Apparently, the road to Delphi was fraught with thieves hoping to snag offerings to Apollo at his oracle. Therefore, it was always safer to go by boat via the Ionian side of Greece. Andromache promised that when we arrived at Delphi, we would see for ourselves the reason the Greeks opted for this method of travel. In addition, she described the olive groves that connected Delphi to the valley and the sea below. According to legend/perhaps the truth, in Delphi there is at least one olive tree for each Greek citizen (currently bordering on 10 million). Still, with her colorful words fresh in my mind, nothing prepared me for the vast expanse of olive groves stretching for miles until running directly into the sparkling blue sea. Delphi must be seen firsthand to be believed.
I’ll be honest. I came to Delphi with bias. I was going to love it no matter what. Truly. However, my parents held no such preconceived notions. While Jamil had some background knowledge and had listened to the same archaeology lectures as I, my parents were newbies to Greek archaeology and easily bored. At the Delphi museum, I gawked at the charioteer statue and could have spent hours fixating on each shard of pottery. It’s hardly fancy or elaborate, and even in the off season, there are loads of tour groups.
I think the museum was worth visiting for a few reasons. First, there was the gorgeous depiction of the god Apollo with gold embellishments. The god appears black in the statue, but that’s because a fire consumed the ivory piece over a thousand years ago, charring the remains. What is left exists only because it was buried, an earthbound time capsule for modern humans, safe from the reach of gold-hungry barbarians.
This piece serves as evidence of the rich, shiny wonders that decorated Delphi’s temples, treasuries, even streets. To the right of that blackened piece of ivory stands a flattened piece of silver, a life-sized bull, once three-dimensional but crushed underground by the weight of the millennia. This startling piece of metalwork was given to Delphi as thanks for a profitable catch of fish by the Sifnians (I hope I wrote it down correctly!). Next, the charioteer was breathtaking. It’s one of the finest pieces of Classical Age bronze, plus it’s a tribute to the Pythian Games at Delphi, one of the most important events in ancient Greece. I want you to look at the face and see the pride and the calm. This charioteer was the winner, and his family would have experienced tremendous glory because of his success. It’s even said (according to Andromache) that family members were known to die in the stands when their sons/brothers won the Pythian Games from happiness. Finally, I was impressed by the musical instrument standing in the final corridor of the museum.
It’s an ancient organ, perhaps the oldest musical instrument with a keyboard. No, I am not a musician myself, but the familiarity of this instrument was eerie. It was a miniature of a device I’ve seen my entire life, a musical connection between my world and that of the Greeks, and more astounding than the lyre (the harp) because of the technology involved in its creation. The ancient Greeks may not have played Fur Elise, but they were moving their fingers in a pattern that I might recognize today. It was staggering to consider.
When we moved into the Delphi sanctuary, we learned a valuable lesson: Even if the schedule of a Greek monument says that it’s open until 3, you need to be there at least an hour before closing. The schedule means when you need to be OUT, not the last time you can come IN. Remember that! Just in case you think you have more leeway than you, in fact, do.
Delphi is an uphill climb. If you’re on a family trip, remember that people who are very young or in poor shape will probably find Delphi overwhelming. My group was very fit and could probably have made it up to the stadium section of the sanctuary, where the games were performed, but that section was roped off for restorations. Instead, we had to content ourselves with a walk to the ancient theater, where thousands of people sat to watch comedies and tragedies during the games. Andromache told us that all Greek theaters were built into hillsides, like the ones at Delphi. While that arrangement makes a great deal of sense – it’s got natural support – it also provides an extra advantage: you always have a view behind the stage. If you’re bored to tears, you can gaze out into the horizon and entertain yourself. No such happy distractions exist in today’s theater (not even in Roman theater, honestly), but they should! A gorgeous backdrop can entertain even the pickiest of theatergoers – my Greek heroes definitely knew that.
Ten days in Japan:
Many families we work with ask for our advice on educational travel to Europe and South America; after all, those continents have a familiar feel, and they don’t seem too far away. Some of our clients want to travel to Africa, but usually on safaris. We really aren’t into safaris, no matter how many people tell us we’re missing out, so we don’t wind up discussing those ventures with them. However, despite the fact that our students’ families willingly travel into the African unknown to observe lions dining on hyenas in the wild, they fear the cultural differences they might face in Asia. Well, after decades of studying Asian history in our jobs and our own educations, Jamil and I decided to make the transpacific voyage to Japan and Korea to see for ourselves whether or not we should recommend those destinations to our clients. We were knocked off our feet, and we gained some serious insights into how to maximize your educational experiences in both places.
Tip #1: In Tokyo, hire Yukari Sakamoto for an unforgettable tour.
Everyone we know, even the pickiest of eaters, enjoys some variety of Japanese food, whether ramen, sushi, or tempura, and we were interested in learning whether our clients would find their palates pleased or disappointed in Japan. But I knew it would be tough. I can’t read Japanese symbols; I know nothing about Japanese etiquette; I have no knowledge of how Japanese people really eat. As such, I knew we needed a guide. I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: a great guide can make a culture come alive. That is precisely what Yukari Sakamoto did for Jamil and me in Tokyo.
I found Yukari through her food blog, at FoodSakeTokyo.com. Yukari has an illustrious history as a sommelier and is the author of her own book, entitled Food Sake Tokyo, which is available for purchase online. Her husband is a fishmonger in Tokyo, and the two of them dedicate their lives to exploring, enjoying, and perfecting Japanese food. They’re even considering starting their own cooking school in Tokyo! But for now, Yukari is a guide, a wonderful, insightful guide, who can open your eyes to Japanese culinary traditions and give you the knowledge to eat less like a tourist.
We met Yukari at our hotel in Tokyo – the Peninsula. Please let me take a second as an aside and say that if you have the budget for it, please try this hotel. It’s phenomenal, and it’s a Japanese educational experience unto itself. The pristine cleanliness of the hotel, the polite unobtrusiveness of the service, and the advanced excellence of the technology are all perfectly Japanese. Literally, at the touch of a button, a machine in your room grinds coffee beans and makes you coffee, and so as not to disturb you, the hotel staff delivers your water and newspaper via little two-way cabinets.
The bathroom has a toilet that lifts its own lid, plays muffling sounds for modesty, and rinses your rear end from multiple different angles.
Finally, the control panel in the bedroom allows you to alter the mood lighting and open your draperies, among other features we never figured out. Basically, it’s that futuristic Japanese-ness we all imagine, and it’s pretty amazing. They simply have us beat, and it feels like you’re in a sci fi movie. – Anyway, we met Yukari there in the morning on our first full day in Japan. She asked to meet us at 8 AM, and I quickly balked, but she said we absolutely had to start early if we wanted to truly experience the culture. She was right.
Yukari taught us that morning about Japanese culture with its unusual attention to detail and commitment to perfection. She led us immediately into a 7-Eleven and explained that we could eat there every morning if we liked, because even in convenience store, the Japanese people only put out the highest-quality items. They simply refuse to compromise quality, regardless of the circumstance. And that’s how Jamil and I came to eat every breakfast at 7-Eleven, grabbing a rice ball or two out of convenience and spending probably less than $5 for a meal in a country that everyone told us was astronomically expensive.
After that quick exposure to fast eating in Japan, we headed over to the Tsukiji Market, the world-famous fish market, where restaurateurs have been known to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a beautiful Bluefin tuna. The Tsukiji Market pulsates with life.
There are restaurants of different varieties radiating from its central hub and countless potential purchasers roaming its halls. With Yukari, you get a special insight because her husband is a fishmonger. That means she knows every fish (and almost every fisherman) in the place. Yukari showed us how critical consumers take bits of fish and rub it between their fingers to test the fat content. She pointed out the rows of bags of fish lying in wait for their owners that testify to the honesty in Japanese society. These bags contain hundreds, even thousands, of dollars’ worth of fish, and they sit out in the open, to be picked up on the honor system. The honor system!?! Does that even exist in the United States anymore?? If so, I’m sure it’s regularly violated. However, Japan is relatively crime-free. People do not steal. They do not break the rules.
Through Yukari, we also learned about the Japanese penchant for perfection. We stood at the doors of Mitsukoshi department store when it opened and got to be some of the first people in the downstairs gourmet foods section. I can’t really think of words to describe Mitsukoshi’s selection because it’s fresher, more deluxe, and more exciting than any food store in the United States – or any of the 20 other countries I’ve visited. The fruit section bears witness to the Japanese obsession with flawlessness. A cluster of grapes, purple and fat, sparkles in a gilded gift box, while a lone apple stands under a spotlight, with neither bruise nor wrinkle. Yukari explained the source of these ideal specimens: artificial selection. Essentially, this is human-enforced Darwinism. The growers find the individual fruits or clusters of fruits that appear most desirable, then they trim away all other pieces in the vicinity, leaving just the chosen fruits to thrive, absorbing all nutrients, taking all water, and achieving prime form and flavor. As a result, one cluster of grapes may cost over $100, and an apple may be more than $50. A watermelon (which may be cube shaped to fit the small Japanese refrigerator)? That’s easily $150, as is a ripe, magnificent mango.
While these culinary rarities may seem mere novelties, they speak volumes about Japanese culture. These are the people so preoccupied with maintaining excessively high standards that they jump in front of subways and hang themselves to avoid dishonor. A crisp, smooth, spotless peach represents the ideal that each person is trying to achieve in Japan – and as in the growing of such perfect fruits, blemished counterparts must be eliminated. For Americans, these notions are hard to grasp. We embrace imperfection, even celebrate it. We want everyone to feel okay, to have a chance in the world. It’s okay if you’re mediocre; just do your best. In Japan, such notions appear to be rejected. You strive for the summit. Period.
Tip #2: Do not buy the JR Pass
You may do some research and learn that there’s an inexpensive travel alternative, called the JR pass. It’s like a Eurail pass, but not quite, as we learned. The JR pass allows passengers to use the so-so trains, not the newest Shinkansen, but the lower-end models. Additionally, the JR pass lets its users travel at specific times, so don’t think you can just get on whenever you feel like it. It doesn’t work on any metros, by the way, so don’t try to use it there. Furthermore, you have to realize how crappy it is AFTER you’ve activated it at the airport, the ONLY place you can activate it.
After we spend $600 apiece on the JR pass, we also spent about $600 apiece on individual tickets that let us travel when we wanted and on the fastest trains available. We could have gotten away with spending substantially less if we had just purchased the tickets on their own. What we surmised: If you’re not planning to trek relentlessly throughout Japan, the JR pass is probably not for you. We were going from Tokyo to Kyoto to Osaka, with small detours to Nara and Hiroshima. It was completely NOT worth it to buy the JR pass in our opinion!
Tip #3: Hire Kenzo Sato in Kyoto
Kyoto begs to be explored by bicycle, I promise it does. It’s a small, walkable town, and it is filled with tiny, ancient streets that seem overwhelmed by motor vehicles. This city has beautifully preserved architecture from feudal Japan and lovely temples on every corner. It deserves more than the cursory glance a ride in a car allows. On a bicycle, you can move somewhat quickly yet slowly enough to take in your surroundings. And, in Kyoto, no one is really speeding. It’s safe and relaxed, a perfect place to cruise.
For our bicycle exploration, we hired Kenzo Sato, a guide we found on Tours by Locals, but whom you can find on Facebook, as well. We highly recommend Kenzo. Not only is he personable and adorable, but he is also incredibly knowledgeable. Kenzo studied economics in college, and he hated it. After college, Kenzo floundered a bit, trying to find his calling, and it turned out to be in the tour industry. Today, Kenzo gives tours for high-end tour companies, but he also does his own thing, the bicycle tour.
I’m sure his ritzy tour is fantastic, but I can’t imagine enjoying anything more than the tour we did with him. His story about not being prepared to select a major right out of high school spoke directly to my soul because I see too many students trying to plot a lifetime academic path when they’re only 17. It is unrealistic and ridiculous, and while I’m glad Kenzo has found his calling, I can’t help but wonder how he might have done with a liberal arts curriculum under his belt to assist him in selecting his major.
With Kenzo, we learned about the differences between Shinto and Buddhism. We performed the ritual cleansing to enter the temples and pleased the gods with the smoke of incense. Furthermore, we enjoyed spicy, sour summer udon noodles, and Kenzo slurped with a level of gusto I never dreamed imaginable. Then, we had the chance to visit a real Japanese university, the Kyoto University, considered the best in the nation. Japanese students vie for acceptance, and Kenzo said that although he was always talented in school, he never stood a chance. I wonder if anyone we know could stand a chance!
That night, we made a strategic choice and asked Kenzo if he would take us to eat classic Japanese food. He selected an old, traditional izakaya, the type of establishment that caters to old men who have hours on their hands to linger and become real fixtures at a bar or sunken table. With Kenzo at our side, we got to plunge into real Japanese food, which was unbelievable. We sampled practically everything on the menu, and because of Kenzo’s Japanese heritage, the people in the restaurant accepted us, the only foreigners in the restaurant. As a woman, the experience was educational because I stood out more for my sex than for my color. There was not a woman to be seen, not even a Japanese woman working as a waitress. Nope, it was just me. The restaurant screamed sexism, and I’m not really a nut about equality; in general, I’m too busy to think about it. However, this is Japanese culture. It’s a man’s world.
Tip #4: Visit Nara, but just for a day
Nara is a strange place. It’s a haven for deer, and that means thousands of deer roam the streets and reign supreme in all corners of the town. Nara is a Shinto spiritual center of Japan that considers deer messengers of the gods. If you go to Nara, take the train and make sure to purchase some deer food as you near the shrines. It’s an enlightening experience to witness deer chasing down humans for snacks and hopping fences to approach potential suckers. There is no parallel to this place in the United States. The stark contrast between the fear exhibited by deer in the Texas, where people hunt them without remorse, and the blatant confidence on the faces of the deer in Nara, where humans defer to the deer, is an interesting study in the hierarchy of nature. It certainly makes you question whether our relationships with the natural world are fixed or fluid, depending upon our own behavior.
Tip #5: Try not to miss Hiroshima, but don’t expect an uplifting experience
Let’s face it, one of the darkest days in human history was August 6, 1945, when Americans used nuclear weapons for the first time. Americans warned the Japanese government that a tremendous attack was imminent, but no one understood the magnitude of that threat. Then, the Enola Gay released the bomb over Hiroshima, and in an infinitesimal fraction of a second, the world stood still. Thenceforth, the possibility of nuclear warfare loomed as a dark cloud over mankind, feeding the irrational fears of the Cold War and eroding the sense of personal security of an entire generation (maybe even two or three).
Hiroshima stands today as palpable evidence of the feasible extent of human cruelty. However, at the same time, it represents the resilience of Homo sapiens. The city of Hiroshima is modern, tall, and proud. It is not beautiful, but rather defiantly practical – a product of current technology and ideals. Atop the site of the bomb’s detonation lies the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, filled with information about the city prior to the attack and the horror that ensued thereafter. One particularly eerie artifact is wristwatch whose hands stopped dead in their circular course from the shock of the blast. The wearer of the timepiece was perhaps a punctual person, for the time on his watch was perfect, 8:16 (A.M.), precisely the minute when the Enola Gay unloaded its weighty cargo.
The gloomy past of Hiroshima may dissuade potential visitors, but I think it should do just the opposite. As people who teach others about the lessons of World War II on a regular basis, Jamil and I struggle to impart the value of remembering history, so as not to repeat its mistakes. Hiroshima flashes a bright red warning signal to all who darken its memorial’s threshold. In a textbook, it’s easy to gloss over the fact that a weapon, a piece of metal encasing a core of plutonium (or was it uranium? Or does it matter?), wiped out 100,000 people in a matter of seconds. However, in the raw monochromatic setting of the Peace Museum in the new city of Hiroshima, you cannot miss the antiwar message. It’s critical for rising generations to get this memo, especially as we continue to fight distant wars, deploying numerous troops and utilizing indiscriminately dangerous drone devices. Are there just wars? I’m sure there are, but every conflict needs to be taken seriously. Hiroshima serves as an implacable testament to that truth.
Tip #6: Ladies, take care in the subway
In Osaka, we had the chance to meet Ben Slater, also known as “Great English Ben.” Ben is a TV superstar and a teacher of English. We got to sit down with him and talk about how the English education business is going in Osaka, as well as some of the hidden aspects of Japanese culture. Remember, Jamil and I go on vacation to learn, not to party – although we have awesome times. We wanted nitty-gritty details, and that’s what Ben gave us.
Apparently, in Japan there is a huge problem with sexual harassment. Most women report inappropriate contact with men on the subways, especially during rush hour. Quiet, repressed businessmen unabashedly cop a feel on the subway – and when Ben described this circumstance to us, it suddenly made sense why the concierge in Tokyo discouraged me from riding the subway alone. The reason I felt this was important to include in this blog is that tourists need to be aware. Keep your wits about you when you travel. Remember that even the safest, most courteous cultures have their dark sides. Trust me, if Japan has a questionable underbelly, everywhere does.
Tip #7: Make Osaka a quick stop
We traveled to Osaka for two reasons: because it was the cheapest, easiest way to get to Seoul and because the city offers so many abroad programs. Osaka is an unusual city. It’s basically a town of consumers. The people there all work and make a decent amount of money, but they are known for spending it all on food and parties. The food was spectacular. They did things like grilling crab on the corners and griddling takomono (octopus balls) in the streets. However, culturally, the city is a bit of a vacuum. I can see in Osaka the industry of Japan at work. Consumerism drives the city’s activity, and the speed with which the urban center moves indicates that the efforts are certainly not wasted. Osaka is booming.
However, this is the Houston of Japan, from what I can tell. What does that mean? It means it’s a place to live and work more than to visit. Still, it’s got a train station that will knock your socks off and a shopping center that will blow your mind. It just doesn’t have much to mention from an educational standpoint.
Where to stay:
The Italian adventure continued… on to Rome and Venice
When we started planning our trip to Rome, a student of mine stopped me and said I had to call the tour guide she had. She couldn’t remember the guide’s name, but she gave me this one tell-tale detail: the guide was Italian but grew up in Fort Worth, Texas. After just a few search attempts, I found the Papini family, owners of the highly celebrated Rome Guide Services. This is truly a family affair; everyone on staff is related and can claim a Roman heritage. We were paired with Carlo Papini for our tour, and we had one objective—get advance access to the Vatican in order to see the Sistine Chapel with some amount of leisure time. Lines to enter the Vatican in the morning can stretch around the block, a fact I know well because I’ve stood in that line. It was not fun. Besides, as much as you can look around, it’s hard to take in the expanse of the Vatican grounds. The museum itself stretches over 9 MILES!! So, if you have high points you want to hit, you’ll need a guide.
What I was really interested in seeing on our tour was the controversial sculpture of Laocoön and his sons:
Laocoon was a Trojan priest of Poseidon who recognized the deception of the Trojan horse. When he attempted to warn the Trojans, the Olympian gods sent snakes out of the sea to silence him. Laocoon and his sons died a miserable death, and they’re a classic example of innocents who die in myth because the whims of the gods dictate that they should. I saw this statue in my art history and classics courses, and I wanted to see it in person. After all it’s the quintessential example of Hellenistic art, with its overt display of emotion and excessive motion. Laocoon himself looks like he is coming unglued, almost as if he will break free of the marble prison in which he has spent so many centuries and assert his innocence. But, alas, he won’t – because he’s just a statue, if an extremely fabulous one.
This statue was a legend even before it was excavated in Rome in 1506. There were ancient sources that described its tortured appearance, with Laocoon and his sons being overwhelmed by sea serpents and dragged into the depths of the sea. According to ancient sources, the statue once stood in the palace of the Emperor Titus, and it had been the object of many a search.
There are some who believe that the Laocoon we see is actually a fake, perhaps even crafted by Michelangelo himself. However, I like to think otherwise (and I have zero grounds for making any judgment of any kind) because the Laocoon provided such an acknowledged role model for Renaissance sculptors. Raphael used the face in his works, and such masters as Titian and Rubens sketched the work multiple times to gain greater familiarity and ability with the human form. Furthermore, if Michelangelo truly did sculpt this work, why would he leave it incomplete? Laocoon’s right arm, which bows behind his back, was missing when the piece was found, and Michelangelo conjectured that the arm had indeed reached backwards to seize the attacking serpents. However, his contemporaries disagreed with him, and until the 1950s, the piece had an outstretched arm. Then, research and the chance finding of a new arm confirmed Michelangelo’s hypothesis, and the figure was reconstructed to reflect the new insights. A perfectionist like Michelangelo would never have allowed such a misguided representation of his own masterpiece. So, in my mind, the Laocoon is an ancient work, even if it’s a copy of an early ancient piece. It is one of the most breathtaking pieces of art I have ever seen – right up there with Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” and “Guernica.” Napoleon must have agreed, for he seized the Laocoon when he took Rome in 1799, and it sat in the Louvre until 1816.
I could not have found the Laocoon without Carlo Papini’s help. For all that I knew about the piece and all that I felt in my heart about it, within the labyrinthine Vatican museum, I would never have walked into the unassuming courtyard. I would have missed it, and I would have kicked myself. I needed Carlo’s keen knowledge of the museum to achieve my goal of seeing this spectacular feat of human artistry.
Additionally, each year, we work with students and talk to them about Roman history. The emperor that makes the larges impression (besides Augustus, of course) is Nero. I mean, he acted in common Roman theaters, murdered his mother, and played the lyre while Rome burned. The fact that his home, the Domus Aurea, has been unearthed is so exciting. In the Vatican stands Nero’s bathtub, taken directly from the Domus Aurea. The material of the bathtub is porphyry, a purple stone that was so hard to cut that between ancient Roman and medieval times the technology to make hard enough steel to carve porphyry was lost. The Romans quarried their porphyry in Egypt and brought it back to the imperial capital as a symbol of Roman wealth and power. Nero used one of the largest hunks of porphyry ever rendered to make his bathtub (or whatever it really was).
The tub sits atop a phenomenal mosaic floor, and in the rotunda stands one of the largest ancient bronze statues ever found, the bronze Hercules – The piece was struck by lightning in the 2nd century and was buried in front of the Theater of Pompey, where it originally stood, probably to prevent it from further damage, but also most likely out of superstitious concern.
These highlights would not have been nearly as impressive without Carlo’s insights. Yes, I knew about them, but I might have overlooked them. Again, we were dealing with NINE MILES of museum. There is more educational travel condensed in that series of halls than anywhere else in the world. I encourage you to go prepared with a knowledgeable guide at your side. It’s too easy to miss the magic otherwise.
Inside St. Paul’s, we witnessed a host of mind-blowing sights, but I think it is worth mentioning the body of Pope John XXIII. Illuminated rather eerily, the body refuses to decompose! No one knows why, but this joyful pope displays the same tranquility in death that it did in life.
For educational travel geeks, this takes the concept of the mummy to the next level – because no fancy desert salts caused this miraculous preservation. It’s mysteries like this that make history and life on earth so fascinating. We may never crack the code, and that’s just fine with me.
Another site that merits mention is the almighty Pantheon. While we’ve all seen its photos, have we considered how spectacular it is that the Romans constructed a dome before the first century AD that still stands? It is important to mention that the Pantheon we all know and love is often misunderstood. While the inscription on the front of the temple reads, “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, made this building when consul for the third time,” the building we currently see in Rome actually dates to a later time. Agrippa’s Pantheon burned in AD 80, and Hadrian, the famed Emperor whose wall still graces the English countryside, rebuilt it in 114, presumably in a far grander style. Although the fall of Rome resulted in the destruction of countless ancient monuments, the Pantheon survived because Pope Boniface IV converted it into a Christian church in 609 AD – wrap your brain around the fact that we are talking about 1400 years ago!!!
The Pantheon is so remarkable because of its lasting dome. Concrete was lost altogether to mankind after the fall of the Roman Empire; the finer points of its use were literally unfathomable. However, in Hadrian’s time, the Roman people knew how to combine pumice and tuff into the concrete, making the dome progressively less dense as the height increased. Therefore, the Pantheon’s dome could rise proudly and comfortably for generations.
Important mention – Educational travel in Rome is absolutely complemented by a trip to the Capitoline Museum. There, you will see busts of all major Roman figures, from Cicero to Caracalla. You will also have the chance to look at the massive statue of Augustus that once stood in the Forum. I recommend getting there early. Yes, I may be abnormally obsessed, but we got to see the sculpture of the she-wolf who nursed Romulus and Remus and the astounding bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius returning in triumph on horseback. I’ll be honest with you; you could walk all day through this museum and never see it all. Then, you could head over to the National Museum (as I plan to do on our next trip) and have the same experience. You would have the same experience at the Vatican museum, and so on. Just imagine the past with that in mind. A world of sculpture, of art. Imagine a city filled with white marble and stern visages. These sculptures are in many instances all that remain of that sparkling past. That’s why I never get tired of talking about Roman art and why I will always refer to Google images and other web sources for visual representations of the past. We have an abundance of these visual references. Let’s embrace them.
Venice has a far different ring to it than Rome. It’s ancient, indeed, but the richness of Venetian history really peaks in later centuries. Venice was a part of our trip because I had read about the strength of the doge system in Venice in the Middle Ages and seen evidence of its reach during a vacation to Croatia. After a trip to Venice, I can say with certainty two things: (1) It’s great to visit in the winter and (2) It’s not as much of a historian’s destination as Rome and Florence.
We would all recommend the winter travel time because of the dearth of travelers at that time. Literally, the streets are empty, and on our tour of the Doge’s Palace, we had the tour guide practically to ourselves. That’s an important mention, as well: the guides at the Doge’s Palace are really good. You don’t need an independent guide, provided that you are there in a low enough season that you can get in on a scheduled tour. We got to see the place where Casanova was held captive and the council room where his fate would have been decided. That was interesting, and the architecture was mesmerizing. However, there’s a strange, lurking history in Venice that I would like to know more about.
Venice is one of the only places that Charlemagne could not capture. It was its own country. It was exceedingly Eastern and exotic and wealthy. It was the home of Marco Polo, whose travels brought (purportedly) pasta to Italy and whose journeys captivate even the most disenchanted student of history. It maintains an active Carnival where masks are the order of the day. And yet it is terribly inaccessible to the casual traveler. All you can hope to do is wander the canals and marvel at the rarity of the city.
Jamil and I have a passion for working with kids, but we also have a passion for travel. And not just any travel – educational travel. I know it sounds nuts, but even when we’re not working with students on academic subjects, we’re learning, and we’re doing it by immersing ourselves in other cultures, venturing off the beaten path, and getting as much input from locals as possible. What may also separate Jamil and me from other travelers is that we quite often go with my parents. Traveling is so wonderful when it’s a family affair and when everyone can see the same sights and share the same memories.
For years, we have been writing down our experiences at the universities we visit – both in the states and abroad – but this year, it really struck us that we have some important insights to share about how to transform a family vacation into an amazing educational adventure. I have to warn you that, yes, we travel in style. We work our tails off, and our family vacations are our great escape. Plus, my parents are a little particular. You don’t have to stay in the hotels we recommend, but we’ll tell you WHY we selected the hotels we did and the methods we used to make our picks. At the same time, you don’t have to use our tour guides. Do we think they’re the best? Yes, but there are lots of services, and you definitely don’t have to do private tours. We just enjoy slightly more autonomy and prefer to avoid large groups.
Let’s start with a trip to Italy that might be a little different from the mainstream.
Here’s our route:
While this itinerary may include some of the hottest destinations in Italy, we took some interesting twists. This first post will cover our Florence escape.
As soon as we arrived at the AVIS counter in the Fiumicino Airport, I wondered if I had made a mistake. I can’t believe I didn’t take pictures of the line, but you can’t photograph laziness, and that was the disease plaguing the attendants at the counter. We waited for what seemed like decades and finally got our Peugeot, and I learned a valuable lesson about getting my car at the train station, NOT the airport. TRAVEL TIP: Generally, in Europe, avoid getting cars at airports simply because they charge an enormous markup for the convenience. However, I knew we had a 3+ hour drive to Florence, and I was eager to hit the Autostrada. To set the tone for the trip, I had downloaded an amazing lecture series, “Famous Romans,” by the late J. Rufus Fears, an incredible professor who headed the Department of Classics at the University of Oklahoma. I know it’s dorky, but we listened to it throughout our trip every time we got in the car, and Fears’ lectures brought new life to a city and country whose ruins and monuments I have visited multiple times. He covers incredible people and significant people with an enthusiasm for ancient history that I hope I can one day convey to someone else. Thankfully, my family nurtures this dorky side of my personality, and has even found a way to enjoy the same nerdy presentations!
When we arrived in Florence, we went straight to the hotel, the Antica Torre di Tornabuoni. I selected the hotel because of its Trip Advisor reviews. I’ll be honest, I adore Trip Advisor. While sometimes it has led me astray, it’s generally up-to-date and savvy. You won’t find yourself overpaying for a crummy hotel if you’re patient and can flip through the reviews. The Tornabuoni did not exactly live up to our expectations for comfort – although it was quiet and had an amazing rooftop lookout. In the U.S., even the Hampton Inn and Marriott Courtyard have bright-white, crackling bed sheets, and overseas, the laundry system simply doesn’t measure up unless you’re staying in a super-touristy-oriented hotels. We were literally in the middle of everything and right next to the Arno. What’s to complain about, really?
That night, we ventured out for dinner and saw the magnificent Baptistery across from the Duomo. We were so excited about going into the Baptistery that we ran in and purchased tickets just as the doors were closing. Probably a dumb idea because the deal with those tickets is this: You have six days to use them to see Brunelleschi’s Dome, the Bell Tower, the Baptistery, and the Crypt, but once you swipe the tickets, they’re only active for 24 more hours.
Don’t make the same mistake Jamil and I did, having to purchase the tickets twice. It wasn’t the end of the world, but it wasn’t exactly satisfying, either. We should’ve just waited until we had a free day, but we didn’t.
The next morning, we woke up to meet with our guide in Florence, Roberto Martelli. Roberto is possibly the greatest guide anyone interested in Florentine history could ever hope for. We found him through the impeccable Rome Guide service that we used in Rome (more on that later!), and we wound up taking two tours with Roberto – one that was just for Jamil and me and one for my parents. With Roberto at our side, we watched in vivid mental Technicolor as Savonarola burned outside the Palazzo Vecchio and crept into a hidden painting gallery that apparently leads to secret passages that are only open on certain days of the week – we missed it!
For every nook and cranny, painting and sculpture, Roberto had a backstory, a tidbit of intrigue or a tale of woe. Unbelievably, Roberto even made me rethink my perspective of Machiavelli by giving me the facts of Machiavelli’s exile and showing me Machiavelli’s personal study. Roberto knew facts that obliterated my coarse association of Machiavelli’s behavior and belief system with the dogma proclaimed by The Prince. Taking it all in, I looked around at the people who were guideless, wandering aimlessly and picking up only hints of the majesty and history surrounding them. Without Roberto’s subtitles for the foreign scenes before me, I would have missed the meaning. I would again pay to hear him tell the same stories, to soak in more of the details and enrich my understanding of the Renaissance and its shockwaves.
The next day, we drove to another type of shrine, the Prada Space Outlet in Montevarchi. I came here for the first time with my best friend, Jennifer, in 2004 and in 2006. Back then, it was a total hole. And loaded with steals. Now, it’s been discovered, and although I scored a rockin’ pair of Miu Miu sparkly smoking slippers, I think the bloom is off the rose. I’ll probably keep coming back, simply because I like perusing the selection and because it’s such a trip to drive through an industrial, unstylish town and come upon a mecca for label seekers. Yeah, I wish I could say the thrill had left me altogether, but if there’s just one rad pair of platforms or one offbeat handbag, it’s worth the drive down the A1. On that drive we also stopped at a giant supermarket to pick up another necessity: a European flatiron. For anyone with a lot of thick hair, let’s abandon any further notions of electric converters for hair-smoothing machines; they blow fuses, and they start fires. I’ve seen smoke billow out of an unwitting outlet, used and abused by American voltage. Once was enough.
Okay, so back to the historical and educational stops in Florence. We did the obligatory basics: stopping in to pay our respects to Galileo and Michelangelo at the Basilica di Santa Croce, visiting the Uffizi Gallery, and strolling along the Arno. We ate incredible food – recommendations at the end – and we shopped at the phenomenal leather stores on the other side of the Arno. Although I had been to Florence three times before this trip, this was certainly my most magical experience there.
This trip convinced me that Florence is the ideal place for history-hungry students and travelers to visit, especially in the winter. The lines are reduced to less than half, and the weather is fantastic. In the heat of summer, sweaty tourists stick to one another in throngs like gummy bears left in the sun. The stench of the crowd overwhelms. The prices skyrocket, and pickpockets come out in droves. Most of all, the abundance of activity dampens the city’s sparkle. Everyone deserves the chance to see a calm Piazza della Signora. Take my word for it; this is a wonderful December destination.
If you can possibly spring for the St. Regis, it’s the way to go. My parents stayed there on their way back through Florence, and it was a premium hotel experience. They had the Michelangelo Suite, overlooking the river, and said it was spectacular. My mom particularly enjoyed the bar downstairs, where she sang with the pianist until the wee hours, so late we could hardly get in touch with them.
Recently there has been some buzz in Houston among high school students and their parents about CLEP tests. CLEP stands for College Level Examination Program and is run by The College Board. These tests are offered in 33 subjects and are designed to allow students to demonstrate their knowledge and test out of some lower level college courses. The main benefit to testing out of lower level courses is cost – taking a test is cheaper than a college course (only $80!) – and that it frees up time to take other classes that will count toward graduation so there is potential to graduate earlier than if you had earned all of your credits through course hours. This is a great way to get ahead – but it only works well in certain scenarios. Is it right for you? Read on to find out!
Are you attending a community college with the hope of transferring to a larger 4-year university? If so, you’ll need to mind your GPA. Schools like The University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University will want to see a very high GPA from transfer applicants. Taking a CLEP test will not go toward your GPA – you’ll just have your score printed on your transcript. This means that with fewer classes being calculated into your GPA, each one will carry more weight. And since CLEP tests are lower level courses, you might be giving up an “Easy A” that could have helped your GPA in favor of some easy credit.
Another thing to consider is what is your intended major? While there are 33 CLEP tests available (see the list here), only 9 of them are transferable to UT and A&M will accept 16. (See UT’s list here and A&M’s here, or search for another school here) Before you delve into a test, make sure that the course you will be testing out of is one that you would have to take, and one that your desired university will accept.
If you are a community college student planning on transferring, the CLEP tests can be a great way to get ahead of the game… as long as you’ve done your homework and know that you wouldn’t be better off just taking the class for a high grade, your desired school would have you taking the class anyway, and that your desired school will accept the score for credit. Click here to be taken to the College Board’s CLEP website.
It’s August and the applications are out! We hope everyone is making the most of the time before school starts to get ahead and get there materials in and applications submitted as early on as you can. One element of the application that can be a little confusing is the resume. THE RESUME IS SO IMPORTANT! So, here’s a post that goes over some resume-related information to keep you on track.
The biggest thing is: students have to fill out the entire ApplyTexas and/or Common App forms – INCLUDING the activities sections.
– Students have to check the box that says they will send in an expanded resume.
– They still have to fill in what they can in the form. DON’T LEAVE IT BLANK!
For schools like UT and Texas A&M, students will get emails from the schools confirming the receipt of their applications. Those emails will contain student ID numbers. Students should add those student ID numbers to their resumes, right under their birth date.
Students will then have to upload their resumes directly to the A&M and UT sites.
For other schools on ApplyTexas, students can either email their resumes to the undergraduate admissions office or mail a hard copy.
For Common App schools:
Some schools actually have the option on their supplements of letting students upload their resumes directly to the Common App. Most schools, including TCU, SMU, OU, do not. Instead, students need to email their resumes to the admissions offices. The email addresses for all of the schools can be found on the Common App under the university’s Contact Info.
Usually, students send something along the lines of the following email:
To Whom It May Concern,
My name is Jessica Givens, and I am an applicant for Fall 2015 to TCU. I would like to share with you additional information about my activities and accomplishments in high school, so I have attached my resume for your review. I hope you will add the document to my file.
Thank you so much for your consideration.
So, that’s what you need to know! Your resume goes a long way toward telling the schools what you’re about, what your interests are, and how you align with the major you’re applying for. Make sure it receives the attention it deserves!
Can you believe it is already almost the end of July?! This summer is flying by. We’re in the midst of our third week of College Application Crash Courses and have worked with some amazing students thus far. We are so proud of all of the hard work they are putting in and they are putting together some incredible essays. As students finish their course and share some of their experience and work with their parents, we check in with them to see what they thought of the course. Here are excerpts from two recent emails, both from parents with students who have been in our Crash Courses this summer.
I would like to commend you on your program. It is absolutely amazing that an 18 year old teenage male can attend a 5 day class from 9 to 4 and only come home with positive comments about the course. WOW! He is so relieved to have his college essays behind him. The process of writing and critiquing his essays was an empowering process which he will be able to utilize for a lifetime. He enjoyed the class and feels he has control of the application process. As a mother of two going to college at the same time, your course allows me to be a mom and not nag them about getting essays written and applications completed. I am a Speech-Language Pathologist with my own private practice, but I also have the burden of fighting Lyme Disease and Malaria so I do not have much extra energy for all of the college stress. Thank you so much for simplifying the process for me as a parent and for empowering my kids to be self sufficient!
– 2014 Summer Crash Course Parent
I am very pleased with the outcome of the class. Going in I was nervous that she would be jet lagged upon her return from Spain and wouldn’t make the investment in the class I hoped for. I was much relieved after speaking to her and seeing the results. Not only did she put in the time and effort she actually enjoyed it! She loved working with you. She actually said that signing her up for the class was the best decision we ever made. Bottom line I am very pleased with the class outcome and think this was some of the best money I ever spent. A great outcome and stress reliever for the entire family!
– 2014 Summer Crash Course Parent
It is so rewarding to work with so many amazing students and to hear from their happy families after their course – it is such a wonderful feeling!