Traveling around with 72 companions might seem crazy, but it actually can work. We know, because we just did it! UH Honors and UH Clear Lake combined their forces for a two-week tour of Greece, which ranged on land from Athens to Delphi, Olympia, Mycenae and Epidaurus, and on sea from Hydra, Poros, and Aegina to Mykonos, Samos, Patmos, Rhodes, Crete and the overwhelmingly gorgeous jewel of the Aegean, Santorini. It was an excellent introduction to the beauty, vitality, and diversity of Greek culture and its incomparable landscape.
The planning started two years in advance, with a team of professors plotting the tour: Richard Armstrong and Jonathan Zecher from UH Honors; Casey Hackney from MCL/CLASS, and Sarah Costello from UH Clear Lake (along with her husband, Leo Costello, a professor of Art History at Rice University). After student enrollment on the trip grew beyond expectations, Helen Valier and Aaron Reynolds from the Honors Medicine & Society Program joined the crew, as did Tatiana Zecher as our official trip nurse. On tour, we had amazing leadership from our EF Tours professional guides, John Tziouvelis and Julie Georgakas, who kept us on track during this wonderfully exhausting adventure.
Students came from a variety of disciplines, and included some recent graduates like Troy Loftin, who says, “Greece 2016 was the trip of a lifetime. More than ancient ruins and beautiful islands, Greece gave me life experience, unforgettable memories, and new friendships that will last even as souvenirs get thrown away or lost in the corner of some closet. In fact, I already hear the Siren song calling me back.”
Brooke Tolle comments, “Going to Greece with the Honors College was an unforgettable and incredible experience. The scenery was gorgeous, the history was palpable, and the professors’ and tour guides’ knowledge was a constant reminder of the rich culture surrounding us.”
Of course, it was quite difficult to pose all 73 of us for group photos—though we did manage to stretch across the starting line at the original Olympic stadium in Olympia (see featured photo above). The subsequent race, cheered on by Greek school children, was won by rising Junior Victor Yau, with second place going to Carolina Barron and third to Aubrey Swilling. Victor the Victor comments, “When studying abroad, it’s always good to bond with fellow travelers through friendly athletic competition. Racing the Olympia Stadion gave us the opportunity to run the path of ancient champions! It also provided a harsh reality check as to whether we had been eating too much and exercising too little on our vacation. Getting crowned with a laurel wreath and being presented with a miniature Discobolus was pretty awesome though.”
The professors certainly felt it was worth the long effort of putting the tour together. Dr. Hackney, waxing Homeric, says, “It was amazing to have the chance to visit so many of Greece’s spectacular historical sites, everything from Bronze Age palaces to Medieval monasteries, in such a short period of time (less than two weeks). Greece is notoriously difficult to travel around—it is mountainous and contains thousands of islands. This tour transported us through time and across mountains and seas and made it seem easy. Like Odysseus who sleeps deeply on the ship of the Phaeacians and wakes up upon reaching Ithaca at last, so too did we awake each morning to a wonderful new adventure.”
Dr. Reynolds remarks, “It was wonderful to see dozens of students well-versed in a variety of disciplines — art history, archaeology, classical studies, and more — go straight to the source to visit so many sites, collections, and cultural touchstones in Greece. Whether modern or ancient, on the mainland or various islands, urban or amidst the countryside, the scenery was always stunning, and the learning experiences were immense.” Dr. Costello sums it up this way: “It was such a thrill to bring our two campuses together for this adventure in Greece. Every day brought us unforgettable moments at ancient monuments, modern cities, in interactions in restaurants, and learning from our many guides. Students learned about the education system in Greece, the economic crisis, and saw the deep depths of Greek hospitality in the face of the refugee crisis [a reference to our visit with the Greek NGO Metadrasi, see more].” Dawn Armstrong agrees, “The people are as beautiful as the land: hospitable and warm.”
The professors all feel that we were certainly fortunate in our students on this trip, on whom none of the experience was lost. Dr. Zecher observed, “I was struck by how easily the students slipped into deep and difficult conversations in Greece. I would come across them talking about the nature of citizenship in the Acropolis Museum, about free choice and fate at lunch in Delphi, or about economies and crises as we sailed off of Samos, with the Turkish coast only a mile away. One day three of them discussed Byzantine Christianity in a cab-ride across Athens. These moments—and I often felt like a witness to them rather than a facilitator—testified to our students’ love of learning and their aptitude for Greece as a place.”
Given the Honors College’s focus on the great books of Greek culture, it’s certainly logical that Greece will remain an important offering for our study abroad tours. But next time…maybe we won’t drag 73 people all over the place. I’m thinking more of a less exhausting, more in-depth trip to a single place where history, natural beauty, great food and unforgettable people coincide.
In a word: Crete.
—Richard H. Armstrong