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Teaching Homer in Homer’s Hometown

Sometimes the Fates intervene. This is one of the life principles we learn from reading the ancient Greeks: sometimes the Fates intervene, usually with tragic consequences.

In the case of my Fulbright experience, however, the consequences were fortunate and happy – at least at first. I have been teaching the ancient Greeks – their art, literature, philosophy, and history – to Capital students for 25 years now. I take groups of Cap students to Greece every four or five years for a short-term study program. I have become a happy Hellenophile. So when my latest sabbatical came on the horizon, it was only natural I should apply for a Fulbright Fellowship to teach for a semester in Greece. The Literature Department at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki invited me to come and teach British modern poetry and my class in detective fiction, and the Fulbright folk approved, so I thought I was on my way. 

Then Fate intervened, this time in the form of budget reductions, here and there both. They needed to cut a couple of their Fellowships, and apparently, Tourism Science trumps Agatha Christie, so I was out. Of course I was disappointed, but a few weeks later Fate intervened yet again when the call came from Fulbright saying they wanted me to go to Turkey instead. Was I interested? Of course, I was delighted.

I had been to Turkey before, on a short visit with several of my Capital colleagues to visit Istanbul, and then again for a few even briefer visits to Ephesus with my traveling Cap students. Memories of splendid dinners at ocean-side taverna, sitting on a roof-top patio on a May evening having a beer and eating pistachios as we listened to the calls to prayer from the Blue Mosque while the sun set over the Hellespont, the taste of hummus and strong Turkish coffee – yes, I was sure I would enjoy Turkey almost as much as I would have enjoyed a semester in Greece. 

My Turkish academic home turned out to be Yasar University in the port city of Izmir. I knew little about either place, but as it turned out, I could hardly have found a more congenial, lovely, interesting place to spend my Fulbright. Yasar is in many ways quite like Capital, an independent, mid-sized, university with students representing a considerable range of academic preparation. Like my English colleagues at Capital, the Yasar English department is a small group of dedicated, humane, intelligent, and amiable people. I made friends in my short time there that I fully expect will last a lifetime.

Yasar students studying English are also a good deal like Capital students – they are quite western in their outlooks, some of them are extremely dedicated students while some of them need a good deal of prodding (yes, some Capital students are like that). They are as much interested in the process of becoming adults and making friends as they are about reading books. As normal as that sounds, I came to be rather in awe of them since every day I was asking them to read challenging texts just like I would have back at Capital, but they were doing it in a second (and sometimes, third!) language, and they rose to the challenge heroically.

Yasar University was not very interested in Detective Fiction, but what they asked me to teach, after perusing my CV, proved to be even more fun for me. They asked me to teach Classical Greek Lit – something I would never have been asked to do at Thessaloniki – in a required first-year course. The bulk of the syllabus was designed to walk them through a slow, detailed reading of Homer’s Odyssey, which was uniquely appropriate in that Izmir, the ancient Ionian city of Smyrna, is thought by many classicists to be Homer’s birthplace: I would be teaching Homer in Homer’s hometown! 

The other class they wanted me to teach was (perhaps) my favorite course to teach here at home: Dante’s The Divine Comedy. My expectation was that it would be a challenge to teach a poem that is very medieval and very Catholic to a group of 21st-century Muslim college students, but I learned that selling them on the importance of reading old books was actually a less difficult case to make for them than it is with my American students. As for the cross-cultural religious difficulties, that too proved to be less fraught than I expected. Izmir is a very European-leaning, largely secular, open-minded city, and my Dante students proved to be much the same. Their insights on some of Dante’s views of theology were as enlightening to me as anything I may have taught them about the medieval Christian worldview or 13th century Florentine poetry.

During my time in Izmir I lived in a ninth-floor flat in Alsancak, one of the oldest parts of this very old city. Alsancak is surrounded on three sides by water and is a QR code of narrow streets lined by cafes, shops, and many, many bars. The air has the scent of spices, strong coffee, and more pizzerias than I had expected to find, as well as the sea: you are never more than about six blocks from the waterfront. One side of Alsancak has a wide park-like promenade where Izmirians come to walk, smoke (lots of smokers!), talk, play bocce, and just watch each other enjoy the outdoors. I did a good deal of that myself. The other side is a working harbor since Izmir is a huge, bustling port town. It reminded me in many ways of my hometown, Seattle, except that while Seattle is barely three times older than I am, Smyrna was been a city for 28 centuries. And Izmir is three times the size of Seattle.

I was just at the point of feeling like I could handle enough survival Turkish and that I knew the city well enough to start having some adventures seeing sights along the Aegean coast when Fate intervened again, this time with less happy results. 

I first started hearing, in early March, rumors of the pandemic on campus because I could get no English language news on TV. When the pandemic was declared, Fulbright told us all we could stay or return home, but we should know that getting home might become difficult in the ensuing months. After chatting with my dean at Yasar and my wife at home, I decided I would ride the plague out where I was. I had so many plans for trips once the weather got a little better – to see Troy, and Pergamum, and go to the islands of Chios and Lesbos – that I was willing to take some risks to get the most out of this once-in-a-lifetime experience. But by the first of April, Fulbright and the State Department took the decision out of our hands and called all the Fulbrighters home.

Ah Fate, as the Greeks taught us centuries ago, life is most precarious when it seems to be at its most rewarding. The early-morning taxi ride to the airport was profoundly bittersweet, because while what we all want, in trying times such as a pandemic, is the comfort of our families, so much of my plans for my Fulbright experience in Turkey were still unrealized. I finished my courses with my students by Zoom, as most professors did all around the world, but that was a pale version of the lovely interaction I had enjoyed with them during the months I could be there in person, and I have yet to get the dust of Troy on traveling shoes.

Reflecting on my Fulbright experience remains a blend of fond memories and a wistful sense of disappointment. Places not visited, friendships cut off just as they were getting off the ground, and not even an opportunity to say an adequate “goodbye and thank you” to my new Turkish friends. 

My students reading The Odyssey were impressed and somewhat baffled by the remarkable hospitality in that story, such as the incident in which Telemachus visits Menelaus and Helen in his search for news of his missing father, Odysseus. They are hosting a palace full of people for the wedding of their daughter, so the steward is inclined to send this unknown young man on his way, but Menelaus intervenes: “How could we have ever made it home from Troy if people had not opened their homes to us? Of course, we should bring them in … ” 

As we discussed this episode in the story, one of my students said that hospitality was the national trait the Turks are most proud of in themselves. I have to say, my experience confirms that. The people I met in Turkey were uniformly warm, friendly, hospitable people. Their country is a land of natural beauty and great historical interest. It should be on everyone’s bucket list. Returning to Turkey is certainly on mine – if the Fates allow.

To learn more about Dr. Summers’ Fulbright experience, read the article by Lily Benedetti in The Chimes, Capital’s student newspaper.