It was a simple decision, really.
When Christopher Bakken, poet, travel writer, and professor at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, came to a Food Tourism conference in Providence, RI to speak about food writing, I was hooked from his opening question: "What is the difference between a traveler and a tourist?"
I've thought about this question before, identifying myself as a "traveler" (nobody wants to be a tourist), but what is the difference? I enjoy seeing the Eiffel Tower as much as the next person, but there's an attitude shift; there's a distinction between assimilating and standing on the outside. Bakken made the point that tourists seek out sights and experiences without desiring to be changed. They look into the looking glass, and that is enough. Travelers, however, go further. They want to be transformed, to step through the looking glass, and challenge their own levels of comfort and familiarity in order to grow. He said that one place to start, as far as understanding another's culture, is around the table; life happens around food. So, it may come as no surprise that at this point, I was ready to follow Bakken wherever he may lead me.
It turns out that Bakken takes a small cohort of writers with him to an island in Greece to study food and travel writing. There are other cohorts there, too, studying poetry, prose, and (in 2016) spiritual writing. He takes his students to restaurants that DON'T have menus written in English, Greek, and German–the mark of a truly commercialized experience–but instead goes to places that have no menu at all; the waiter simply tells you, "This is the fish we caught today–these are the vegetables we picked today–these are the specials we have in the oven today." While he explained these things, I got the same butterflies one gets when one is falling in love. I guess you could say he had me at "food and travel writing."
Just as a bit of background of who I am: I am research assistant at a university, I teach fitness classes, and I write for a local magazine about food and drink in Rhode Island. I earned a graduate degree in creative writing, but I didn't take a single writing course as an undergraduate (I majored in biology). It was only by God's grace that I was given the opportunity to write for a magazine, and it was because of this magazine that I found myself at a Food Tourism conference listening to Chistopher Bakken speak about Greece. I knew I couldn't pass up the opportunity to join him, not only to travel and to eat, but also to improve my writing. It was the perfect combination of everything I love to do.
And so I went. I had no idea what would become of me at the hands of Greece. Greece had always been a place I wanted to visit, but I didn't have posters of Santorini hanging on my wall or list Greece as the number one destination on my bucket list. It just happened to be a desirable location in which to write, I thought, and I was excited to travel under the care of a group. (My international adventures have always been solo. The fact that I didn't have to figure out where I was staying or how I would get there offered the most amazing feeling of relief!) So what happened next came as a bit of a surprise.
The morning I woke up on the island of Thassos and stood on my balcony, staring over the Aegean sea, a misty layer of blue lifting from the water with the rising sun, I felt as thought I had been there forever. It was as if I had no past–no America and no life I could remember–this place was all I had ever known. It was somehow a part of me, and I was discovering for the first time who I really was.
That's quite a revelation for the first waking moments in a new place, and yet my discoveries were only getting started. For the remaining 24 days, I lived a life that seems like a dream. We would meet for workshop Monday-Thursday, 10am-1pm. There were six people in my travel and food writing cohort, 22 total, ranging in age from 18-78. We read Henry Miller and wrote character sketches. We blindly tasted foods and described them without seeing them–a challenge that taught me to question what it means to "taste like a peach." We milked sheep and made yogurt from the milk. We baked bread from prozimi that we created from soaking the leaves and herbs in water, adding a touch of honey. We met the bee keeper who showed us his hives and shared his harvest. We even made pizza in the wood oven at Archondissa, the hotel/restaurant where we stayed.
Archodissa is how I imagine Heaven will be. The welcome that we received was more than just professional courtesy–we were welcomed as family. Kyrio Stamatis took us fishing at sunrise, we went octopus hunting with Tassos of Thassos, and at the end of the day, after they showed us more generosity than we deserved, they still wanted nothing more than to serve us. Our cups never ran dry, in every way possible. We danced to live music, amid napkins floating in the air, and we toasted "Yia mas" more times in a single night than I can count. This writing workshop was about more than just learning to write better. It was about discovering what it means to truly be alive.