Teaching Traveling: Welcome, Michael! Tell us about yourself.
Michael: My name in Michael Xiarhos, I’m 32 years old… I am born and raised in Warwick, Rhode Island. I graduated from Warwick Veterans Memorial High School, got my B.A. from Rhode Island College, my M.A. from Providence College, and I’m currently working towards my Ph.D. at Salve Regina University. I have been teaching history at the high school level for 10 years in Warwick and I just recently started teaching Theology at Salve as well.
My first real travel experience came as a student in my junior year of high school. My Chemistry teacher ran student trips with EF Tours each year and this particular year she was planning on going to Italy and Greece.
My mother who was on her own raising myself and my older sister, figured out a way to send me on this 11 day trip and from that moment I was hooked on traveling. It should also be noted that my mother had also sent my sister to France on an E.F. tour a few years before as well.
During college, In the summer of 2002, I had the opportunity to travel to China as an English teacher. It was a six week trip during which I taught in the Shen Zen province. My students ranged in age from 8-10 years old and some barely spoke English.
In addition to teaching English we were expected to teach aspects of American culture. My choice was to teach and discuss baseball. My students actually performed “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” as part of a school performance. This was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
For the first time I was able to understand what it is really like to be the outsider, to have to rely on the kindness of others when you do not speak the language, and to feel completely helpless in a foreign environment. From the language to the food (I ate scorpion!) I really believe this experience helped me to become more sympathetic and empathetic to people traveling in the States.
Once I became a teacher I knew that I wanted to run student trips. I feel that the world really is the ultimate classroom; that travel opens the minds and hearts of people… it helps to eliminate racism and prejudice and brings people together like no other way that I know. Since I started teaching I have led tours to:
2007: France and England
2009: Spain and Morocco
2010: Italy and Greece
2011: Costa Rica
2012: France, Ireland, England, and Wales
My upcoming tour is Germany and Poland, and then Spain.
A few years ago I started taking more local trips with students as well, trips outside the regular curriculum but which I find to be of enormous value. We always take our trips either on the weekend or after school so the kids don’t miss class time. For the past five years each December we take a day trip to NYC.
We have visited the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Time Square, Central Park, the Museum of Natural History, and most importantly each year we go to Ground Zero. We take over 100 students each time we go and it is one of the most popular activities in the school.
Our Travel Club also takes a trip to Fenway Park each spring and we also seek out unique local restaurants for the kids to try. From local eateries to authentic ethnic restaurants the students often have no idea the great places right in their back yard!
TT: Phenomenal. Tell us more about your travels!
M: Most recently, this past summer, I completed the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. It is difficult to put into words what this means to me… to receive the Compostela from the Cathedral with the other Pilgrims was humbling to say the least.
During the course of my Camino I met people from all over the world… including a person who had walked from Jerusalem to Rome to Santiago. This experience has helped me professionally as well because my research focus for my PhD is on Pilgrimage… both religious and secular.
This trip was particularly powerful as I arrived in Santiago on July 25… the feast day of St. James and in this case the day of the deadly train accident.
The Camino is a 500 mile pilgrimage route from St. Jean in southern France to Santiago in Western Spain. I did my camino following a student tour… last year my wife (a Spanish teacher) returned home with the students and I went on to Spain. I didn’t start in France however, I started roughly half way… as long as one does the last 100k of the Camino it is considered “complete” in the eyes of the Church.
TT: Wow! How did you find this travel opportunity?
M: I became fascinated by the Camino after watching the film “The Way.” I did some research and decided there was no way I was NOT going to take this journey. I was lucky enough to do it with one of my closest friends as well.
TT: How did you find the money to fund this travel?
M: The Camino itself is relatively cheap. Each night you stay in Alburques solely for peregrinos (pilgrims). The average about 5-10 euro a night and often include meals. You carry everything on your back so during the trip so most try to travel light.
Food along the Camino is pretty cheap and other pilgrims tend to share what they have… it truly is a unique experiences during which people treat each other with kindness, love, and charity… the way the world should be. Because I went after my student tour, my flight was covered as a chaperone on the tour… so the expense really was minimal.
TT: Tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly powerful, interesting, or funny.
M: This is difficult to choose from… but, it 2010 I went alone to Jerusalem after a student tour. The trip is filled with funny/interesting events… but it started before I even reached Israel. As my student group left with the other Chaperones, I made my way to the El Al airline desk in order to check in and what ensued was one of the most intense airport experiences of my life.
My trip to Jerusalem actually began at the airport in Athens. I had just finished leading my yearly European trip I take with students and the plan was for them to travel back to the states with the other chaperone, while I traveled ahead to Israel. This year’s student trip took us to Italy and Greece with stops in Rome, Florence, Capri, Naples, Pompeii, Delphi, and Athens.
With religion not my real focus on this pilgrimage, what was I really looking for in one of the most holy cities on Earth? I had no idea. But that was the question on my mind as I sat at Gate 7 of Athens International Airport. My mind was split in all directions.
What was my purpose for traveling to Israel and Jerusalem in particular? I had no idea why, but I knew that Jerusalem was where I needed to go. I thought about it while I sat on the floor of the airport in front of the El Al airline counter waiting for it to open. What was my purpose?
Not being able to answer this question for myself proved to be frustrating, for though I could not answer it, I also felt that I needed to go; it was not an option.
Then I actually heard the question, “Sir what is your purpose. Sir, what is your purpose in Israel?”
It was the question on my mind, and now it was also the question the nice, but somewhat intimidating, fairly attractive security employee asked me before I even made it to the ticket counter.
This short, mid thirties employee was standing at a small podium at the entrance to the line leading to the check in station. She had long dark hair, glasses, and if she ever smiled, may actually have been pretty, but working for the national airline of Israel may not lead to many smiles.
She continued, “We are a high risk, high profile company, I need to ask you some questions. We need to make sure there are no bombs.” I knew security would be tighter when traveling to Isra… did she just say bomb? What the hell? Hasn’t she ever seen Meet the Parents?
You can’t say bomb! And just to add a little more flavor to the dish, as I looked around, I noticed that not everyone was getting such a warm welcome; apparently I was of particular interest.
This security officer was the second line of defense. The first was a pair of “Good Fellas” looking guys. The two guys came from behind the counter and approached me. They were wearing matching suits which would make Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones proud.
There was no good morning, no smiles, just an aggressive approach, an aggressive stare-down, and a very one sided conversation. One did not speak, he just stood there with his sunglasses on, sunglasses inside by the way, with his hands folded in front of him in the classic security guy stance. The other one got right to the point, “Passport Please. You are traveling alone?”
“Yes” I hand him my passport.
“These people are not with you?” He motions to a small group of people in the line behind me.
“No.” He looks at my passport, then back to me, then back to the passport.
“You are Greek?” I thought this was good!
“Yes” It wasn’t…
“Do you have a Greek Passport”
“No, I’m a U.S. citizen.”
“Do you speak Greek?”
At this point I’m not really sure what to say. The nice-scary airport man with the gun wants to know why this American Greek guy doesn’t speak the language of his ancestors… I wanted to say, “I’m American! That’s why I don’t speak any other languages. I don’t have to… doesn’t everyone else speak English anyway?”
What I said was something more along the lines of, “My mother is not Greek, my father did not speak it in the house, I’m sorry.” I’m sorry? I actually apologized, apologized for what, I’m not sure, but I did.
This was my second time traveling to Greece, and I was used to the Greeks being somewhat disappointed in me for not speaking the mother tongue! Years ago, going through customs, the agent saw my passport, gave me the warmest, most welcoming smile, and said, “Kadmerra.”
Huh? Not sure what to do, I simply smiled and shook my head, the classic smile and head-shake that every foreign person uses when they are traveling… I was guilty of the greatest sin any son of Hellas could ever possibly commit, I was not Greek enough! I will pause now for you to gasp. If you have ever seen the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding… yeah, it’s something like that.
So at this point I was indeed used to disappointing people from Greece, this however was my first time insulting an Israeli in Greece for not being Greek enough.
“Wait here.” Was the only response from security.
Wait here? Wait here? Why? For how long? What did I do? Why am I going to Jerusalem!?!?!
They walk over to the lady who will end up doing round two with me. They walk back, “you must see that woman. She will search you.” The hits just keep on coming.
“Why are you going to Israel?” tricky question…
“I’m a history teacher and I want to learn more about Jerusalem.”
“Why only Jerusalem?” Now I’m worried that I’ve offended her by not wanting to see more of her country.
“I only have a few days, and I wanted to keep the cost as low as possible.”
“Do you know anyone in Israel?” Uh oh…
“Then why are you going.” Wait a second… I already had this question…
“I want to learn more about the city.” I don’t think she is buying it…
“Why are you in Greece?” okay, an easy one.
“I was leading a student tour.”
“Where are the students now?” easy again,
“They flew home with the other chaperone.”
“Where did you go with the students?”
“Italy and Greece.” I have all the answers now!
“When did the trip start?”
“Do you have any proof that you are a teacher?” Proof? It’s not like we get a badge or anything, and silly me I left my Warwick Teacher’s Union card at home. Clearly I should have known that the Israeli, level two security agent working in Athens would like proof that I teach in Rhode Island.
“I’m sorry ma’am, I don’t have any proof that I’m a teacher. I’m not sure what you are looking for.”
“Do you have proof you traveled with these students”
“Only my camera.” I start to take my camera out of my pants pocket, apparently too quickly. As I reached into the pocket she stepped away from me, and my two friends from earlier, who I just noticed were still watching me with great interest, took a few steps towards me.
Terrified now, I took my hands out of my pocket and then asked permission to go into my pocket to get my camera. She nodded and I told her that I have over a thousand pictures on here with my students from our educational tour. At this point, please keep in mind, I have still not even reached the ticket counter, I’m still in the main lobby area of the airport.
She takes my camera and begins to scroll through the photos from the past two weeks. There are pictures of myself and my students in front of the Coliseum, our night at the Trevi Fountain, the Vatican, the Oracle of Delphi, and the Acropolis. She asked me questions about each place, checked the dates to ensure they matched up with the timeline I gave her.
Then she snapped a few pictures to make sure the date matched the current date. More questions followed, questions I had already answered. The most troubling issue for her as well as for my two other security friends, was the fact that I would travel to Israel alone, with no contacts in the country, speaking no language other than English (and a little Spanish, which would prove crucial later on my journey).
“Unpack your bag, all of it please.” I unpack that which I had so recently and painstakingly packed. She very carefully and very deliberately unfolds and unrolls each piece of clothing.
She takes out my laptop computer and examines it very carefully. My small carry on luggage bag was taken to a different table and examined with its contents still sitting on the table in front of me. The bag is returned and I am told I may repack my bag.
“Why do you only have this small bag? Why no luggage to check?”
“I am only staying for a few days, I wanted to travel as light as possible.”
“Why is your stay such a short one?”
Really? Haven’t we already covered this one? I went through my reasons once again for traveling to Israel and to Jerusalem in particular. Then she asked me the only question which really made me nervous, “What religion are you?”
For an American to have to consider his religion as a key issue to traveling anywhere or to really do anything is such a foreign concept. My natural American bread instincts told me to inquire as to how this was relevant in anyway? What did my religion have to do with anything?
Then, it dawned on me… You’re going to Israel! You’re going to Jerusalem! What did religion have to do with it…really? Religion has everything to do with it. I was raised Baptist, I’m a white American so “Christian” would be the response causing the least shock and suspicion.
But wait.. would Greek Orthodox be better because of my last name? Ugh… I took a deep breath, exhaled, looked in right in the eyes and clearly said… “why?”
WHY?!?!?!?!?!? Did I really just say why?
I think it was pure shock, shock and American ignorance.
“We need to ensure the safety of all our passengers. What religion are you?” At this point, I decided to stop asking questions, and get on with the answering. So, with my most peaceful, apologetic voice I could summon, I said,
“Why are you going to Israel? “ It was like I was stuck in Groundhog Day. I tried to explain to her, yet again, that I was a history teacher, I was fascinated with the story of Jerusalem, and wanted to see and experience it firsthand. I wanted to stand at the site of such passion, emotion, and yes violence, in order to try to better understand what Jerusalem really was, what it really means.
I had tried the truth, I had tried questioning the questioner, I had tried smiling, frustration, and humor, I didn’t know what to say… I looked at her feeling completely defeated and helpless. Her words were simply, “Here. Don’t lose this.” She handed me a yellow piece of paper which read, “tetxn”… not exactly sage-like, but hey, she let me go.
I repacked my bag, and walked to the ticket counter. This exchange was like any other between passenger and airline employee. “Bag’s to check?”
“No, just one carry on.”
“Passport please” She swipes my passport as she would a credit card. “What is your final destination?”
“Do you have seat preference.”
“Window please.” She hands me my boarding pass alone with a warm friendly smile.
“Enjoy your flight.”
And I’m on my way to the gate… or so I thought. Before I am allowed to go through regular airport security and out to the terminal, I must first pass through another level of El Al security. I was beginning to get pretty nervous about all these precautions, I mean, are these people really that nervous about some sort of attack?
Put simply, of course they are. After that momentary surge of fear, I became a little more relaxed, I mean, it seemed pretty unlikely that anybody would be able to get anything on one of these planes, they are rated one of the safest airlines in the world, and it is due to these extreme security measures.
That and they are the only airline in world whose planes are equipped with double and triple layers of protection from surface to air attacks, as well as the maneuvering capabilities to evade those same attacks. So, yeah, I would say all of these extra measures, while annoying and nerve-racking, are worth it.
The next stage of security was an x-ray machine. I had to unpack my carry on yet again, and put my clothes on the conveyor belt, followed by my little laptop, and the bag itself.
I put all of my items on the belt and tried to walk around the machine when a large, suited arm came between me and my desired path, “wait here.” They would look at my bag, and go through my belongings without my being able to see it. I suppose if I objected to any of this, I could choose simply to not fly to Jerusalem.
When I finally got to the gate, there ended up being a delay. I looked up, noticed some security officials and a representative from the airline stopping and talking to groups of the waiting passengers. Curious, I made my way over and learned that there were about twenty or so passengers that could not make it to the ticket counter.
This delay was due to a protest at the ticket counter. A protest over Israel’s occupation of Gaza. I thought to myself, “already.” I was already dealing with the realities of life for Israel. Greek Muslims, along with some sympathetic Christian Greeks had apparently formed some sort of barricade which blocked the El Al ticket counter.
I asked the airline representative if there was any danger of violence, and if the employees from the airline were okay or if anyone had been hurt. She looked at me with the sort of look adults look at children when they do not understand a concept which is simply beyond them.
“No one is hurt. This is a peaceful protest. They are Athenians who disagree with some of Israeli and American policies.” She winked at me as she said American, “They often protest simply to cause delays, then peacefully move away once the police arrive. It’s quite common here.”
Common? This sort of thing is not so common to me. Back home in Warwick, Rhode Island, about an hour south of Boston, we do not have too many political protests concerning the occupation of Gaza.
TT: What a story! Wow. How have your travels impacted you as a teacher?
M: I think traveling gives me a level of credibility I would otherwise not have. It’s one thing to talk about these places and people, it’s a very different thing to bring first person experience… especially in regards to places like China and Israel… places that my students think of as so far being their own realities.
TT: How have your travels impacted you as a person?
M: This is such a huge question… I literally cannot imagine what I would be without travel. It is so much a part of who I am as an individual, a professional, and it even helps to define my relationship with my wife. We fell in love while traveling, I proposed in Barcelona on New Year’s Eve… Without my travels I don’t know who I would be.
TT: What advice do you have for teachers who are dreaming of travel, or travelers dreaming of teaching?
M: EF Tours has been amazing to work with. They make the experience easy and almost carefree. I have nothing but good things to say about that company.
Generally speaking, if you want to travel.. travel. Stop waiting for the “right time.” Life will always get in the way… the world may always be there, but we won’t.
TT: Thanks so much, Michael! Readers, what questions or comments do you have?