Category Archives: Teaching Abroad

Finding New Perspectives on Familiar Places

It can be difficult to find new angles through which to view places you already know well. Human nature being what is, it takes a conscious effort to see anything through new eyes. We tend to see only what we’re familiar with, and what strikes our vision on the most surface levels: the old buildings, the people, the streets, the here-and-now bustle that is so easy to get caught up in. But shifting our approach is sometimes needed if we are to really appreciate all the layers and the richness any place has to offer.

As a travel writer I’m always forced to do this, and though it’s challenging, it always rewards me with a much deeper perspective of a city’s beating heart and long-hidden scars.

For example, trying to find a topic in which to write about can suddenly have me thinking thematically. In the case of Amsterdam, I was recently casting about for a theme. The picturesque canals and predictable clichés are worn out. I wanted to go deeper.

Go deeper; don't settle for the surface.
Go deeper; don’t settle for the surface.

Of course, a well-deserved reputation for religious tolerance in previously intolerant times is a strong undercurrent in the city’s history, shaping its character. But everyone knows about the city’s lenient attitude towards marijuana and prostitution. The pot-selling “coffeshops” and the brightly painted brothels of the Red Light District are hard to miss, and at any rate weed and sex are not exactly major taboos anymore. So, in doing this “personality profile”, as I like to view travel writing, I decided to focus on the less well-known, more hidden-in-plain-sight landmarks that quietly but effectively tell the story of Amsterdam’s legacy of tolerance in intolerant times.

The point is, looking around the city for these things forced me to look through fresh eyes. I began to notice things I hadn’t paid much attention to before. Statues and plaques commemorating Amsterdam’s history—normally easy to pass over in the bustling, thoroughly modern city—began to emerge from the background, as if reaching out through the centuries to educate me with a silent power.

Paying attention to these small reminders eventually told a story, a long and rich narrative, of how the city’s philosophy of tolerance became a beacon for many persecuted people seeking a safe refuge from their own country’s intolerance in a way that the pot bars and sex shops could not. Small churches emerged from the urban crush and hordes of camera-toting tourists, inviting me into their quiet, solemn interior just as they’d invited minority sects whose beliefs had marked them out for discrimination. Small Catholic churches in times of Protestant intolerance (and vice versa) thrived here, as did humble little synagogues that operated without interference or malice from the city’s fathers.

Around a corner from a busy street, a small brick building in a quiet courtyard bears a faded plaque indicating that English pilgrims came here to worship before heading to the New World. They prayed here, and then boarded the Mayflower to escape persecution in their home country.  They were made to feel comfortable here.

The remnants of more recent times came to the fore as well. I begin to notice the many houses bearing historical plaques indicating that the occupants courageously sheltered Jewish families during the Second Word War.

Not far away a statue of a portly, none-too-attractive dockworker seems at first glance to be a forgettable, bland post-war tribute to laborers. Look closer and you’ll find an inscription indicating that it memorializes the brave stand of the Amsterdam’s dockworkers, who staged the first strike undertaken in Occupied Europe to protest the mistreatment of the city’s Jews by the Nazis.

The strike, held a few days after 400 Jewish men were herded together on the spot where the statue now stands, was brutally put down by the SS within hours, and is remembered by few today. The statue’s rotund subject was a real-life non-Jewish dockworker who participated in the strike because he felt it was the right thing to do.

The Dockworker statue commemorating the Strike of 1941
The Dockworker statue commemorating the Strike of 1941

A small room in the city’s historic Dutch Theatre, once a point of assembly for Jews about to be shipped off to concentration camps, holds a humble memorial of three little stones. The memorial seems unimportant. Search for the true story, however, and you’ll find that the three stones represent a local man named Walter Suskind, his wife and small daughter. Suskind was the hero who smuggled 1,200 Jewish children to safety during the war. In 1945 his activities were discovered by the Nazis and he and his family were themselves sent to Auschwitz, never to return.

Soon I begin to understand how many centuries’ worth of brave Amsterdammers have risked it all to welcome and aid minorities in dark times, and that courage was common place in the face of tyranny. It underscores the strength of Amsterdam’s heritage of tolerance more than any fashionable pot bar or cheesy sex shop ever could.

My point is, the “what” that you look for isn’t nearly as important as the act of searching for new ways to connect to a city’s unique DNA. The important thing is looking from a thematic perspective, searching for that thread of history that informs its culture. This can provide the prism through which you can see through the here-and-now veneer and access the richness of a city’s historical character, forged in the crucible of time and trial.

Tour Guiding

Originally published on Vagablogging. Direct link here.

This week I returned from a month and a half overseas working as a tour guide, helping to lead two different groups on an epic Best-of-Europe grand tour. The experience was a new one for me; after years of exploring the continent’s cobbled backstreets and ancient cities as a solo travel writer, I found myself with the unique opportunity of being a guide for one of America’s most well-respected touring companies.

A couple of concerns dogged me as I flew over the Arctic Circle, the plane making its slow path from my home base of Seattle to the tour departure point of Amsterdam. Questions like, how would I be able to handle a large group as we steam across the continent day in and day out? And, how will the mechanics of moving groups from one site to the other in an efficient way? But these concerns paled next to the most significant challenge: Helping the scores of American travelers connect to the history and culture of the places they came so far to experience.

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Staring out my window at the endless expanse of the north Atlantic, I began to feel the weight of the responsibility settle into my gut. How do I curate this experience for our flock? I’d always done it for myself just fine; teaching others how to appreciate the richness of Europe was something I’d never needed to do beyond my writing. It was easy enough to crank out articles about the places I’d visited and about the treasures—the food, the history, the people, all the things that make up the culture—those places had to offer. Would I be able to help our travelers connect to them and appreciate them in the same way that I did?

The teaching I’d done before—giving free travel talks at public libraries to would-be travelers who were interested in learning how to create their own independent European adventure—was indispensable. The classes I’d taught had given me a sense of what tickled a traveler’s fancy and what common-sense issues they worried about. This gave me the advantage of being able to anticipate questions and concerns, sometime before the group members even knew they had them.

The true challenge was facilitating the tour member’s experience of the culture. It was in trying to cast new food experiences as a part of good travel, as “sightseeing for your palate”. It was in helping them fend off museum overload by urging them to see the art of the Louvre and the Accademia with their hearts rather than their mind.

It was in not rushing through another “check the box” locale (don’t rush through St. Mark’s square, I counseled, just take your time and find your own way to relate to the space). And it was in fending off cathedral overload by teaching that architecture was art we walk through—art that took generations of devoted believers and craftsman to create—rather than just another drafty old building.

Finally I kept the old teacher’s maxim close to my heart: “The task of the teacher is to honor the integrity of fact while at the same time igniting the student’s imagination.”

Over the course of the following weeks I’d work on striking that balance, always trying to bring long-ago stories and long-dead people to Technicolor life. Success for the tour guide also means the tourists returning home knowing that the struggles, the tragedies and triumphs of those who inhabited the majestic castles and cobbled city streets so long ago set the stage for the world as we know it today.

The trick to achieving that was helping them forge an emotional connection to the events a given site had witnessed; that its history was not just a collection of faceless dates and facts, but human beings with hopes and dreams who lived in similarly dramatic times of war, economic uncertainty and dramatic social change. Those folks tried to make the best of it, and somehow got through it. We can too.

But more than just the appreciation of history, it’s the appreciation of the culture that really informs a successful travel experience. My hope is that the tour members came away with a renewed perspective on how Europe’s endlessly varied tapestry of cultures, while wonderfully diverse, are similar to our own in the most fundamentally human ways.

If you ever find yourself in the trying but satisfying role as tour guide, I think you’ll find that those lessons are your tour members’ best souvenirs.

Introducing travelers to Europe’s riches

This summer I’ll be spending several weeks helping to guide travelers through Europe’s best sights. A dream job to be sure, but the stakes are high; the task of introducing people to the richness of Europe can be a heavy burden. Being in charge of a group’s travel safety and general exposure to the rich cultural treasures of any place is a daunting responsibility.

I adore this French village in Alsace region.
I adore this French village in Alsace region.

Curating a group’s travel experience is not for the faint of heart. The question is always how best to introduce people to the buzzing urban intensity of Rome, the humid, decadent decay of Venice and the vertigo-inducing heights of the chilly Swiss Alps. One person’s death march through the hot, crowded streets of Florence is another’s carnival of once-in-a-lifetime Renaissance sights. On the other hand, consider that same tour member’s restless boredom in an ancient half-timbered German hamlet. It’s another’s perfect medieval village vacation under the shadow of a ruined castle looming in the hills above.

The main task of any good tour guide is, of course, to help people connect to the history, the people and the culture of the place they’ve come so far to see. And different people connect to the culture in different ways. Some come for the food, while others could care less about the cuisine scene. Some just want to take in the sights, while still others need every historical detail you can offer them. One tour member’s Michelangelo is another’s gelato; it’s not right or wrong. It’s just different, because people are different.

A good guide can gently expose a conservative American mom to the permissive hedonism of canal-laced Amsterdam, and inspire her to think about the Dutch culture’s success in keeping drug abuse and teen pregnancy to record lows compared to our nation’s sad stats. Or bring the history of an otherwise lifeless site to life through a well-rendered story detailing the intense human drama it witnessed. The same guide can introduce the tired, indifferent sightseer to the majesty of the Louvre and the Uffizi Gallery, and walk out with a convert to the flashy, fleshy vividness of Renaissance humanist art.

So the tour guide’s other main challenge, then, is to help one connect to the place in their own way, on their terms. In other words, help them find what they’re looking for—and sometimes what they didn’t know they were looking for. Some come for enlightenment and some come for a good time. There is no reason they can’t leave with both, their bag filled with insights and fun memories that will last a lifetime.

 

Volunteering Abroad: Another Great Way to Travel

The past few posts in the “summer work abroad” series have dealt with teaching ESL and work-stays as avenues to make a buck abroad in the summer months (or any month, really).

This third entry will be a bit different. In the rare case that you don’t need to make cash while spending a month or a season abroad, volunteering can be a helpful way to experience a culture first-hand in the process of doing some good. In recent years this approach to travel has gained in popularity. Volunteering’s three-for-the-price-of-one deal is attractive: The opportunity to get to know a culture, make new friendships, and have an adventure while doing a noble deed that’ll look good on the CV when the summer’s over.

And you might even get a nice tan.

Generally, volunteers don’t need special skills, except for medical projects in the Third World. Most programs are just searching for diligent, enthusiastic helpers looking to make a difference to those in need around the globe.

Opportunities can range from building homes for flood victims in humid Southeast Asia to planting crops and digging wells for clean drinking water in parched African villages. Positions helping with conservation and wildlife programs are available too.

Some first-rate organizations always looking for volunteers around the globe are Peace Corps, Doctors Without Borders, American Red Cross, and United Nations Volunteers among others. They seek volunteers to fill a critical void in the fields of environmental research, conservation, education, and community development.

More culturally-related opportunities can be in had too, especially in Europe, like digging at an archeological site. I did this at the Shakespeare Home archeological excavation at the writer’s former homestead in Stratford-upon-Avon, England (more about this cool experience in a future post). I made friends I otherwise wouldn’t have met and held a long-buried piece of the legendary author’s home in my hand.

There are dozens of helpful websites that can help you sort through the enormous menu of options. Many of them can parse the possibilities for people looking to volunteer in everything from medical assistance to woman’s empowerment for a week, a whole year or anywhere in between in scores of countries.

Some good resources include: a great site with over 27,000 opportunities abroad updated daily, a non-political, non-religious organization running over 100 programs in 25 countries, this site will help to find a project in most categories in up to 40 countries, and this well-run site with links to lots of excellent organizations and projects.

If this piques your interest, find a place and a position to plug into and get going. You’ll get as much out of it as you’re willing to put into it. Be ready to get your hands dirty and sweat for free, and make a difference.

Work-Stays: A Great Option For Travelers

As most travelers probably know, there’s more than one way to get yourself a great adventure abroad. Last week I wrote a bit about teaching ESL in a foreign country. One in particular is a work-stay arrangement.

Lots of establishments—ranging from host farms (organic and non-organic), lodges, B&Bs, backpackers hostels, and just plain homes—invite travelers to help out in exchange for accommodation and meals. The short-term “guests” pitch in some light labor (usually four hours or so a day) while getting meals, a bed, and a great big dose of the local culture in the process.

Due to the seasonal nature of agriculture, helping out on a farm bailing hay, picking grapes in a vineyard, or picking berries at an orchard can be a great way to survive a summer aboard on little to no money.

The old system was a casual arrangement whereby owners of farms asked for help by putting up a flyer on hostel notice boards. Word of mouth spread the work-stay gospel as well, and travelers soon began swapping information on the best locations, working conditions, and employers.

As like everything else, the method of finding the opportunities changed with the arrival of the internet. Now the web is loaded with good sites functioning as a digital, world-wide hostel notice board. Any traveler with a connection can find good opportunities, get advice, and interact with prospective employers around the globe.

Some helpful resources aimed at connecting travelers to work-stay opportunities include: one of the original work-stay info hubs, jobs geared toward resort work, a pretty comprehensive site with lots of opportunities, and another good site loaded with helpful links.

Skills like agriculture, animal care, boat-crewing, and carpentry are sought after in various pockets of the globe. Being a certified instructor of boating, tennis, or scuba diving are sought-after skills as well in resorts. Regardless of the monetary savings aside, the opportunity to live with the locals and participate in their day-to-day life is well worth the work, regardless of the monetary savings.

Skills like agriculture, animal care, boat-crewing, and carpentry are sought after in various pockets of the globe. Being a certified instructor of boating, tennis, or scuba diving are valuable in resorts. Aside from the monetary savings, the opportunity to live with the locals and participate in their day-to-day life is well worth the work.

Teaching Abroad: A Great Way To Travel

It’s a fact that travel dreams begin to intensify when summer is around the corner. For me and most other inveterate travelers I know, every fiber is starting to vibrate with an anxious need to hatch a plan pack a bag, and head off to far-flung places. The passport sings to us, asking to be paroled out of the drawer it’s been kept in for months. The question is, where and how? Money is tight, and gas prices are pushing plane fares upward. There are still great deals to be found, of course, but this summer it’s especially important to find ways to supplement income during the travels.

Teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) can be a great way to meet people and get steady pay. Tutoring locals interested in gaining a better grasp of the most commonly used language in the world can lead to great friendships, not just a few more Euros or Yuan. Often the job comes with low pay but great opportunities to experience a culture, travel widely, and meet some fascinating people.

Your chances of obtaining a decent ESL summer teaching gig are good in Asia. China is hungry for teachers to instruct adults. Their exploding economy means many professionals are looking to acquire a stronger command of English in order to be more competitive in the global marketplace. Japan, Thailand, and Korea have a vibrant market also despite less powerful economies.

The garden spots of Europe, however, are a tougher gig to land. Thriving Prague is a hot ticket. Gorgeous, cheap, and fun, the historic city is inundated with American, British and Australian college students eager to spend the summer tutoring by day and living it up at night. Dozens of private schools cater to the ever-more-Western business set looking to bolster their English skills. More easy-to-land opportunities can be found in the less-glamorous Polish and Russian cities.

If you’re on the search for ESL opportunities abroad, or have done it and want to share your insights and advice, please leave a comment!