A granddaughter of one of my mother’s dearest friends reached out to me in early October while doing some genealogy research. She was trying to find out more about family and her Greek heritage and sent me some old photos that brought back great memories about a culture and people I hadn’t thought about in a long time.
It was the perfect start to my first attempt at a volunteer vacation. Instead of relaxing on a beach or sightseeing in Athens, I signed up for a two-week stint helping young students learn English in Crete, a program sponsored by Global Volunteers. Since 1984, Global Volunteers (globalvolunteers.org) has been offering a variety of programs in 19 countries, but of course for me the Crete program had a strong personal appeal.
A little background: My father and his family left Crete in 1917, traveling from Athens on the ship Patris for the 10 to 12-week Atlantic crossing to New York’s Ellis Island. Like immigrants from across Europe, his family was poor and was seeking a better life in the U.S. My father was seven years old at the time.
His family settled in New Jersey and he grew up realizing the American dream of four children, an amazing wife and great success in business with “The Spinning Wheel Diner & Cocktail Lounge” in New Brunswick N.J. My father never forgot his homeland and I feel lucky that I have the opportunity to experience the island myself.
Friday – Saturday, October 4-5 – Heading Out
It was a long two days of travel from Tampa to Newark to Brussels and finally to Heraklion, Crete via Aegean Air. In Tampa, I was lucky to be able to use my new U.S. Customs & Border Patrol Global Entry Card, a picture ID that shows that I’ve been pre-screened and can avoid the long security lines. The highlight of the flight was lunch on the last leg of the trip when Aegean Air provided authentic Greek yogurt with a side of spanakopita (spinach pie), the best in-flight meal ever!
Crete is Greece’s largest island and the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. The main industries are agriculture and tourism. As in the rest of Greece, the economy is reeling from budget cuts.
Global Volunteer country leader “Sam” (short for Samantha) met me at the Heraklion International Airport and we drove to the modest hotel where all volunteers stay. Later in the evening, Sam invited me to dinner with the two other volunteers participating in the program, a retired couple from California on their eighth Global Volunteers trip. (The summer programs have 20 or more volunteers, but I deliberately choose October for a more personal, authentic experience.).
Sunday, October 6 – Orientation
After the long day of travel, it was a relief that our program orientation was an informal gathering by the hotel pool. We introduced ourselves, set goals for the two weeks and, after lunch, took off in a teammate’s rental car to visit some local villages. For me it was an opportunity to practice my limited Greek on the locals. During our excursion, we were lucky to see a Greek Orthodox wedding procession heading towards the church, along with, what looks liked, the entire village.
Monday October 7 – Teaching Begins
For the next two weeks, we spent our evenings, 6:30 to 10:30 p.m., at Morfosi School (which means “Knowledge” in Greek), a private school five miles from our hotel in the neighboring town of Gazi. The school’s director, Matina, is a Greek-America New Yorker who visited Crete 20 years ago, fell in love, married a local business man and never returned to the U.S. To prepare for the first class, our small group chatted about how to make the best possible impression and learn as much as possible about the students and their interests. After a wonderful seafood dinner, we made our way to the school and met our students. Each of the three classes had a half-dozen teens and pre-teens, ages nine to 14. We introduced ourselves and then they used their limited English to ask us the type of questions that teens around the world ask Americans. “How much are iPhones in the U.S.?” “What kind of music do you like?” “Are New Yorkers and Americans friendly?” The students were genuine, inquisitive and enthusiastic. It was a successful first encounter.
Tuesday, October 8 – Feeling Like a Local
Our days were mostly free and I was craving a Starbucks so decided to venture to the bigger city, Heraklion. After a 20-minute bus ride, 20-minute walk and a few wrong turns, I spotted the familiar green umbrella. On the way, I passed so many quaint authentic Greek coffee houses with wonderful aromas of baked local specialties that I changed plans. I skipped Starbucks for a local spot, sat outside and enjoyed the morning with Greek coffee, spanakopita and people watching. After a short walk in the afternoon, some reading and Greek pizza for a quick dinner I was off to our after school program.
For the first real evening of teaching, I was working with two boys and one girl, both aged 14. We practiced vocabulary and I asked them to complete sentences. My student, John, had a few struggles but tried hard and was genuinely interested in learning English. At the end of class he asked me if he could bring in his mandolin one night to show me how well he played. I was thrilled he wanted to share his talent with me. We asked teacher Matina and she agreed. It was a fun and very rewarding night.
Wednesday, October 9 – Loving Crete
In the morning I headed back to Heraklion to spend some time at the Historical Museum of Crete, eat the most amazing Greek spinach pies and explore the beautiful port. October weather was gorgeous, 70s dry and a joy to be outdoors with blue sky, mountain backdrop and warm friendly people.
Thursday, October 10
In the evening class I experimented with my iPad mini and the “Endless Alphabet” app. They were excited to try something new and, of course, like all young people, got the “swipe” down instantly. Bright eyed and clearly having fun, the students asked, “Will you be here next week?”
Friday, October 11 – Hospitality
This morning Matina, the school owner, invited me to Heraklion, an easy 20-minute bus ride from our hotel in Amadoura, to get a quick tour of the best places for outstanding Greek cuisine, snacks and sweets. The hospitality and warmth from everyone I encountered was wonderful and heart warming. They were so appreciative of our time and wanted to be sure we also enjoyed ourselves.
Our hotel gave us complete use of the lobby, two computers and WiFi. Breakfast, a hot lunch and traditional Greek dinners were all included. We were treated like family.
Monday, October 14 – Back to Teaching
After a great weekend of fabulous Greek food, an entertaining evening compliments of Matina and her family and some new sightseeing experiences we headed into week two. The children were more open and comfortable working with us. We were told that it’s really helpful for them to hear English from native speakers, something they rarely get to do. This particular area of Greece gets many tourists from all over Europe and Russia but few Americans, so listening and having conversations is a great learning experience.
Tuesday – Friday, October 15-18 – Thinking of My Father
The second week of teaching and sightseeing flew by and soon it was time to say goodbye. It was a great opportunity to live side by side with the locals and gain an understanding of an ancient culture. The people of Crete have modern-day economic difficulties yet they are warm, welcoming and happy to share personal stories with a positive attitude.
We learned a lot from each other and so many times during the trip I thought of my father. I know that I’ll return. To put it simply, I love Crete.
If You Go:
Getting there: I flew United Airlines from Tampa International Airport to Newark and then on to Brussels. From there I transferred to Aegean Air for a direct flight to Heraklion International Airport. The flight cost was $1,350. Transportation from the airport to the Hotel Handakas was provided by Global Volunteers.
Trip details: My two-week Global Volunteers trip to Crete included hotel accommodations, all meals, the teaching orientation and transportation to and from the school each day.
Cost: Costs vary depending on the length of the program and location. The program fees, airfare, visa and related travel expenses are tax deductible and Global Volunteers provides a tax statement for income tax purposes.
Other Global Volunteer tours: Volunteer opportunities of one, two and three weeks are available in many parts of the world, including India, China, Romania, Tanzania, Cuba (not tax deductible), Peru and Vietnam as well as Appalachia in the U.S.
For more information on Global Volunteers programs, go to globalvolunteers.org or call 800-487-1074.