You might be familiar with World to the Wise Cultural Tours, which my wife Becky and I lead every summer to Europe. A new aspect of this adventure opened up in 2016…
It was our first time to visit the Tuscan hilltop town of Volterra. We had become well familiar with other towns such as San Gimigniano, Sienna, and Monterigione, but we had somehow missed Volterra until we heard Rick Steves recommend it.
We found ourselves in front of a 2,500-year-old Etruscan gate and fascinated by a compelling story of saving the town from Nazi destruction during World War II, as told to us by our tour guide. But I had noticed something out of the corner of my eye: we had passed a small doorway on the steep street, out of which came a chink-chink-chink sound. In the window were a small number of alabaster sculptures and trinkets.
In addition to the distinction of being one of the earliest visitable towns from the ancient Etruscan civilization, Volterra is also a center of alabaster, a soft, light-colored, translucent stone mined in the area. Volterra is filled with shops containing beautiful alabaster creations, from simple items such as decorative wine stoppers and coasters to large, elaborate sculptures.
But this little workshop caught my eye for some reason, so I stopped to peek inside. There was an elderly gentleman working away at his bench, amidst a decades-old clutter of alabaster fragments and finished products. I had to meet this man. There were too many stories in that place for me to just walk on.
His name is Giuliano (pron. Juliano) and he is well into his 90’s. Two things about him struck me immediately: he looks much younger than his age, and his hands! His hands seemed huge in proportion to the rest of his slender, fit body, like MicheIangelo’s David’s — and they were as white as the alabaster he has been working most of his life. I asked if he minded my asking him some questions, and he welcomed me in with no questions asked. He has been working with alabaster for…wait for it…75 years. He was there during that Nazi threat, he was there during the Mussolini days, and he has been there since Tuscany became such a sought-after tourist destination.
A few weeks later, when my wife and I brought one of our tour groups to Volterra, I couldn’t wait to introduce them to Giugliano and hear some of his stories. I popped my head in to greet him. He was as cordial as ever, but it became quickly evident that he didn’t remember our conversation just weeks earlier. No matter, I thought — if he’s still willing to talk to us, we will still enjoy hearing him talk about his beloved home town and his craft. Since his shop is too small to fit more than three or four people, Giugliano came and stood in his doorway while I made my best attempt at interpreting his Italian into English for our group.
Since then, we have taken four more tour groups to Volterra, and you can bet we made it a point to stop and see Giugliano. And no, he doesn’t remember me from one time to the next. But he remains such a delightful person to talk to, and this way we can be sure that he doesn’t tire of answering our questions!
People like Giugliano are what makes travel such a deeply human experience. It’s one thing to admire the stunning Tuscan countryside and wander the quaint streets of towns like Volterra; it’s quite another to meet real people who are among the 12,000 who make their home there, to hear their stories and get a glimpse into how they see the world. You can be sure you’ll come away changed in some small way.
Summer 2019 Tour
GREECE +ITALY + FRANCE!
Plans are already underway for the 2019 World to the Wise Cultural Tour, which promises to be as packed full of adventures as any tour in the past! We will begin with a brief visit to the ancient land of Greece, cradle of Western civilization. We’ll then head to one of our favorite countries, Italy. We just can't get enough of its incredible mix of history, beauty, culture...and food!
We'll also spend time in another non-negotiable destination: Paris. Not only do we see the highlights the city is famous for, we also discover some little known nooks and crannies, plus a day trip to one of France’s most treasured cultural landmarks. (Shh!)
If you’re interested in getting in on the action, just leave your name and email address below to receive information updates.
You may wonder, having just read the subject line, what the heck being a nicer person has to do with learning a foreign language! It turns out that in a 2010 study by the National Institutes of Health, bilingual children were generally found to get along more harmoniously with other children, whether in the school environment or at play.
The human brain is still a vast and mysterious frontier, but researchers believe there is a direct correlation between speaking a second language and expanding one's emotional perspective.
It's all about adaptability. As you stretch and expand your mind to embrace new ways of saying things, you are also developing new ways of seeing things. You learn that there is often more than one way to say the same thing, but perhaps more importantly, more than one way to do something or to understand a particular situation.
To quote the founder of an organization I used to work for, simply put:
Different is not wrong.
This simplistic statement actually packs a powerful punch! It can free us of dogmatic and narrow thinking and open our eyes to whole worlds and other perspectives.
So next time you sit down to study that foreign language, just remember that the more you're able to express yourself in another language, the greater chances of your becoming a more flexible, adaptable, and, hopefully, kind person!
Since my philosophy of language teaching is to equip people for LIFE, and not a merely academic exercise, that means you have to be willing to step out INTO real life at the risk of making mistakes. It helps not to take yourself too seriously and trust that other people are more understanding than you might think!
In fact, some of my favorite chuckles are language faux pas (which literally means "false steps" in French), both my own and those of others! Although it's tempting to tell about others' (!), I'll share one of my own with you to start off your week:
I was in Amsterdam, where my wife and I lived for five years. I was having a conversation in Dutch, and was doing pretty well overall. But there are fine points and nuances in every language, and I wasn't quite to that stage of learning yet. A lady and I were talking and discovered we had a mutual friend. The lady said, "He's married now, isn't he?" to which I replied, "Yes, with a baby!"
She died laughing, and I quickly realized what I had done. In English, we say someone is "married, with children". But in Dutch, the prepositions work a bit differently, and what I meant to mean "he is married and has a baby" came out meaning "he is married to a baby"!
Although I suppose faux pas can get a person in trouble every now and then, most of the time, in the long run, they only provide a humorous side to the adventure of learning another language, providing chuckles and great memories for years to come!
My wife and I teach a class called Global Studies, and I have to say it's more fun than should be legal! In it we study not only the different cultures of the world, grouped in "clusters", but also contemporary global issues such as the current refugee crisis.
We always tell our students that these things will have MUCH more impact if they actually take the step of imagining themselves in the position of a refugee...or whatever else we happen to be studying. Otherwise, it remains only head knowledge.
Speaking of refugees, one of the biggest challenges they face when arriving in another country is, obviously, the language. Imagine yourself in that position: you have literally fled for your life from your home country, and you find yourself being expected to assimilate into a new culture...and language.
I've had the privilege of meeting a number of refugees who faced that very situation. One of my heroes is named Muhannad, a Syrian scholar of English literature who fled the horrors of the Syrian war as the only way to avoid fighting in Assad's army. Muhannad now lives in Germany, has learned German, and now has a job at one of the most prestigious concert halls in the country, welcoming and serving artists and musicians who come to perform there. And he does it with a smile and with grace.
I of course hope you never find yourself in the position of a refugee. But if you imagine yourself in a situation where your livelihood literally depends on your acquisition of a new language, you might be a little more motivated, right?
Remember, even if you're studying a language to fulfill a requirement, you're really learning for life.
You can do this!
The one thing I enjoy most about teaching is the transformation I often see in my students. So many of them start off with the deer-in-the-headlights look, only to find themselves falling in love with whatever it is they're learning, whether Spanish, French, or Global Studies. Especially with my quasi-immersion approach to foreign language, many of them probably have second thoughts at the beginning about signing up for my class.
But to their credit, they [almost] always stick with it. And time and time again they are rewarded with a surprise grasp of the language after a relatively short time.
Max is the perfect example. As he himself confesses in this short video, he had "little to no interest" in foreign language coming into my class. Now you can't shut the kid up! He's a Spanish machine, soaking up every bit of Spanish he can possibly learn.
What am I doing! I should let you hear Max tell about it himself!
Of course Max is exceptional -- he literally looks for every opportunity to increase his proficiency in Spanish. But I wish I had time to tell you all of the success stories I've seen. I WILL be back to tell you a couple more.
Big news! We have decided to include GREECE as our first destination of the 2018 World to the Wise Cultural Tour! As you may know, Becky and I have had the opportunity to spend time there the last two summers, primarily in the context of the international refugee crisis. We fell in love with Athens and with many of the people we met, and we're looking forward to introducing our tour participants to one of the world's most ancient civilizations. Are you one of those?
This tour is open to the public, although it will primarily be students and some parents. Students under the age of sixteen must be accompanied by a parent or guardian.
In addition to visiting the ancient sites in Athens, our time in Greece will also include a day trip to the ancient city of Corinth as well as a cruise to one of the fabled Greek islands.
From Athens we'll fly to Rome, where we'll kick off an 8-day adventure through one of the most popular destination countries of our tour alumni.
We'll finish the tour in Paris. How can we not?
For detailed information on the tour, including pricing and dates, click here.
To register for the tour, click here.
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It was our privilege at World to the Wise Cultural Tours to partner recently with Journey Arts Collective in Brentwood, Tennessee to create a very special experience for a group of ten creatives from the greater Nashville area.
Led by Australian Brett Mabury, whose home town of Perth is where I started school as a five-year-old, the Journey group consisted of writers, poets, photographers, songwriters and musicians. At each stop along the two-week journey, Brett had prepared meditations and exercises for reflection that enhanced the already impacting experience of some of Europe's richest sights.
We began the adventure in Paris. Yes, we did take in many of the obligatory landmarks, but we also left space in the schedule for the travelers to explore on their own -- or sit and reflect or create. Our time also included a day trip to the Norman village of Giverny, where renowned impressionist painter Claude Monet made his home and painted his famous gardens for 43 years. We also enjoyed an evening with other creatives from the Paris area who are part of their own arts collective called La Fonderie.
Next stop was Lausanne, Switzerland, where I lived on two separate occasions for a total of six years. The weather that greeted us was unusually, incredibly mild and sunny, and we couldn't resist spending time by Lake Geneva (Lac Léman to the Lausannois). Over a traditional Swiss fondue in a restaurant overlooking the
lake and the Alps beyond, my good friend Luc Zbinden shared with the group a little about Swiss culture and the challenges facing today's Switzerland. The next evening was spent with yet another group of creatives, this time hosted by Psalmodia, a music school with multiple locations in Switzerland and France and where I taught voice at one time.
We then made our way by train to the Italian region of Tuscany, a land that has become dear to my wife and me over the years. We base ourselves at a retreat center a half hour's drive west of Florence, hosted by the Ammirabile family and the caretaker, Luca. Staying here in the heart of the Tuscan countryside, with home cooked meals and warm conversation, affords an experience that is simply not possible staying in a hotel in a city where we know no one. We make day trips to places like Pisa, the Tuscan hill towns of Volterra and San Gimignano, and of course the heart of the Italian Renaissance, Florence. Whether taking in the artistic genius of the Renaissance artists or simply admiring the Florentine sunset over the Arno River from the overlook at Piazzale Michelangelo, one comes away with few words and lots of sighs.
I didn't even catch his name.
But this gentleman left quite an impression on us, and I can't wait to see him again the next time we're in the Tuscan hill town of Volterra. We were making our way down a steep street toward an ancient Etruscan city gate when we saw him sitting outside his workshop. Both Becky and I were immediately drawn to his hands. They seemed unusually large and were white as alabaster. He has been working with this beautiful, porous stone for...wait for it...seventy years, and his hands have become a permanent reminder of his craft. He takes the four main colors of alabaster, mined in the surrounding hills for thousands of years, and carves figurines, eggs, wine stoppers, and more...all beautiful and worth their modest price. Volterra is considered the alabaster capital of the world, not to mention one of the most charming places I've been in all of Italy.
I engaged him in conversation, asking about his business, about the magical hilltop city he's lived in all his life...and he was only too happy to answer my questions.
If I am half that good-natured when I'm in my nineties, well, let's just say I'll be a joy to be around.
The next time we take a group to Volterra, you can be sure I'll get his name this time.
In 1983 I was touring with Karen Lafferty when we played a concert in this historic hall called the Hall of the Five Hundred in Florence's 600-year-old Palazzo Vecchio. 34 years later I get to show it to my wife and the World to the Wise tour group.
Rome. Few places evoke such wonder and awe. And yet as you stroll the ornate halls of the Vatican Museum or gaze up at the incomparable dome of St Peter's Basilica, you're faced with the mixed stories of grandeur and corruption, glory and greed, piety and pettiness of the past. Have things changed? Are we better?
You perhaps already know my blog, or my podcast, or maybe the cultural tours my wife Becky and I lead in the summers. In the same vein of promoting cultural intelligence, we are happy to announce World to the Wise Academy, where we will initially be offering courses on foreign language learning, and later various other aspects of cultural intelligence. Just click here to take a peek -- after you watch this video!
You may remember hearing in the news about a family from the Kurdish area of Northern Iraq, who were on their way to make a new life in the United States when they were turned away at the Cairo airport as a result of President Trump’s executive order, in February 2017, banning immigrants from seven majority Muslim countries. Fuad Sharif Suleman had been employed by the US government, through a third party contractor, as a translator and interpreter in Northern Iraq, and was traveling to the US on a perfectly legitimate Special Immigration Visa.
Thanks to the work of a number of organizations and TN congressman Jim Cooper, Fuad, his wife, and three children were finally cleared to set out once again for their final destination of Nashville, where a crowd of around 200 were waiting for them at the airport with signs and chants of “Welcome home.” My wife Becky and I were in that crowd. A couple of months later, after numerous attempts to track them down, I was able to sit down with Fuad and all but one member of his family. I know you’ll enjoy meeting them.
This is the final episode of Season 2 of this podcast. We’ve had a great time taking you to people and places near and far, and look forward to much more in Season 3.
In the meantime, in just over a week, my wife Becky and I will be leaving for the Greek island of Lesvos, where we will be leading a team from the US to work for a week in a refugee camp run by the UN and the Greek government. After that, we will be welcoming the 2017 World to the Wise cultural tour group in Rome for an unforgettable cultural feast through Italy, Paris, and Amsterdam. You can follow our experiences on the World to the Wise Facebook page (have you liked that page yet?) and here on my blog.
The Republic of South Africa has had a tumultuous history since its inception, dominated for so long by the cloud of apartheid. In 1994 Nelson Mandela, who had been imprisoned for 27 years, was elected as president of the first truly democratic South Africa. But in 2017, four years since Mandela’s death, many in South Africa feel the country has taken more than one step back, racially and economically speaking.
I sat down on Skype with Rolf Weichardt, a white Afrikaner who has spent the better part of his life working on behalf of racial justice and reconciliation. He shared very openly about his country’s steps forward as well as backward, and how he sees South Africa moving forward.
How do you see post-apartheid South Africa? Are you from there or do have experience there? As always, your comments are welcome below.
Thanks, as always, for listening.
241 years ago, this new country called the United States of America was regarded by many in Great Britain as nothing more than an ungrateful child. Today the relationship between the two nations is arguably the closest relationship the US has. But just because we speak the same language doesn’t mean the two cultures are identical, by any means.
I sat down this week on Skype with Dan and Rachel Wheeler, who have just recently made a big move from the county of Sussex in southern England to Nashville, Tennessee. We had a light-hearted conversation about their adjustment process, any surprises that awaited them despite the fact they had traveled to the States many times, how Brits view the British monarchy on this the Queen’s birthday, the Downton Abbey phenomenon... and we also had a few chuckles about the endlessly entertaining differences between British and American vocabulary.
I hope you enjoy meeting Dan and Rachel Wheeler.
You'll hear Rachel mention the recent book by Queen Elizabeth, entitled The Servant Queen and the King She Serves. You can find that book right here:
We’re nearing the end (already) of Season 2 of this podcast, but have some great interviews lined up before we take a break, so stay tuned. Thanks as always for listening … and please consider becoming a Patron of this podcast so we can continue to bring you great content!
I live in Nashville, which is in the middle of a boom. People are moving here in droves, cranes dot the skyline, and we currently bear the moniker of “It City.” In the trendy, extremely gentrified neighborhood called 12 South, among the hip restaurants, bars, and coffee shops, is a building some might consider out of place: the Islamic Center of Nashville.
This is where I met up with this week’s guest. I walked in the front door and took my shoes off, like everyone else, to the sound of prayers being chanted (in Arabic, of course), and a handful of men at the front of the carpeted main room standing with heads bowed. There was no way I was going to go unnoticed here. I sat down on a chair in the small lobby to wait for Rashed Fakhruddin, President of the Islamic Center. But before he came and ushered me into the office just off the lobby, a number of men invited me inside to where the prayer was happening. “It’s OK, please come in!”
Rashed, a mild-mannered brown-skinned man with an easy smile, arrived and we settled in for what I hope for you is an enlightening and interesting conversation on Islam, being a Muslim in America, and common misconceptions many non-Muslims have. Meet Rashed Fakhruddin.
If the end of the interview sounds a little abrupt, it’s because Rashed heard another call to prayer in the main room of the mosque and had to rush in to participate. I’m not sure whether that was because he is president, or just that as a faithful Muslim he is very committed to showing up for prayer five times a day. Whatever the case, I’m sure our paths will cross again, and I’ll likely have more questions for him. Do you have questions about Islam? Comments? Have we sent you running the other direction? Let us know by leaving a comment on this page.
And while you’re here, please consider becoming a patron so we can continue the work of fostering cultural curiosity.
Thanks for listening!