What does it mean for an experience to be authentic?
When we travel to other countries, we tend to enter our foreign endeavors with romanticized ideas of the ‘authentic study-abroad experience.’ We all have preconceived notions of what the major idealized European cities should be like: Paris is the city of love; Vienna is the hub of art and elegance; Rome is the center of great architecture and Athens the birthplace of democracy and the scene of antiquity. But what does it mean to experience one of these European cultural centers authentically?
The ‘tourist gaze’ is a socially constructed concept that impacts how we visualize and interpret our surroundings, while also influencing the local portrayal of a city. For example, the diffusion of street vendors selling souvenirs and knickknacks target tourists who are looking for what they consider to be an authentic travel experience in an exotic city center. If these vendors did not fill the city streets, wouldn’t our image of the city change? As a result of the tourist industry, haven’t our perceptions and visualizations of the city altered? Can you picture a large cultural city center without vendors and crowds of people surrounding them?
I know I can’t.
So how can we ever know if we are experiencing real authenticity if everything we encounter we interpret through the lens of the tourist gaze?
These questions have been brought to my attention during CYA’s field trip to Crete this past week. As we traveled from site to site, across the island, I found myself encountering many situations in which I questioned the genuine quality of my experiences and whether or not I was just another tourist walking through the streets, expecting the city to shape itself around my preconceptions. In exploring these thoughts, however, what I have found is that the authentic lies at the point where engagement and awareness meet. I sincerely believe that the CYA experience serves as a guide to the acquisition of this ideal perspective.
Here are a few examples of these experiences:
At Knossos, a lesson on the reconstructive and restorative histories of this particular archaeological site led to a conversation of how the restoration of these structures has currently valued above the accuracy of its restoration. As a result, archaeologists cannot correct historical inaccuracies, because the preservation of the restored building is more highly valued, regardless of how some may consider this to be an unauthentic representation.Yet, in interacting and engaging with these archaeological sites, the CYA experience has allowed students to form their own opinions surrounding the controversial subject of authenticity.
In Heraklio, students had the unique opportunity of enjoying an evening of Cretan foods with Professors Diamant and Ozturk. Rather than resorting to the popular and inexpensive street gyro, CYA professors took students to a Cretan taverna dinner, in which the students ate a wide selection of foods chosen for them. These included mushrooms, muscles, Greek dakos, shrimp, octopus, and raki. What a great experience!
We also took an eight kilometer, two and a half hour walk through the beautiful Imbros Gorge. Not only did we collectively shed a few pounds, but we got to follow very experienced Cretan hikers, from one end to the other, really disconnecting for a good chuck of the morning.
During our time in Crete, CYA students received multiple on-site lectures at Knossos, Phaistos, Fourni, Vathypetro, Archanes and the Arkadi Monastery. Whether it be with food or with academics, the CYA experience creates an environment in which students can freely explore their perceptions of authenticity and adventure.
And Crete was only the beginning…