The Transformative Power of Immersive Vacations


The year after college, when most of my friends were backpacking through Europe, zigzagging their way across the Continent in an if-this-is-Thursday-it-must-be-Belgium kind of way, I spent a half-year in Italy.

Northern Italy, to be exact: in six months, I never made it south of Florence. Or north of the Veneto. I never even saw a coastline. While my friends were squeezing in as many cultures, cuisines and dialects as possible, I stuck to just one. I wanted to lose myself in a particular region — to watch the seasons change and the rain fall across the Emilian plain, muting the region’s sunny hues; to cultivate relationships so that my conversations evolved beyond the platitudes of cross-cultural niceties; to learn the local jokes about mama’s boys and to become enough of a fixture that when I didn’t show up at the gelato cart on Via dell’Independenza, the proprietors would ask the bus driver if “la Americana” was OK.

Having missed out on the opportunity to study abroad in college, I wanted a second chance to immerse into a foreign context. And if I couldn’t actually pick up and move to another country, enrolling in an Italian-language school seemed the next closest thing.

Studying a language is, of course, only one of myriad strategies for travel that goes beneath the surface of a given culture. Learning anything from the natives can be a marvelously effective way to understand what motivates, entertains and preoccupies our foreign counterparts. Wanting to know more, I contacted the school in Bologna where I studied nearly 20 years ago, as well as several other programs that promise to show their visitors the Nepal, Israel and Tuscany that most tourists never see.

Italian For Beginners

When I contacted Cultura Italiana, now one of Italy’s leading scuole per stranieri (schools for foreigners), Massimo Maracci’s email came back bubbling with enthusiasm. “Che bella notizia!” — What great news! — “Do you remember me? The old director, bold and with glasses!” he wrote. I did remember, and I was glad he agreed to answer my questions in English — although, as I happily let him know, the Italian I learned at his school has served me well through many a vacation since.

Then and now, CI advertised a location far from mass tourism and therefore ideal for learning Italian. I was the only American in my class of perhaps a dozen European and Japanese students — mostly women, as is often the case with travel-study programs — so I was forced to put my middling Italian to work immediately, starting with my roommate from Tokyo, who peppered me with questions about New York.

Every afternoon, I employed the verbs I’d studied in class that morning as I shopped for pastries or explored a medieval landmark. I encountered horsemeat for the first time on a restaurant menu and wondered whether I was translating correctly: Could cavallo possibly be a pasta shape? A more critical bit of vocabulary was sciopero — strike — which prompted me to learn not only the bus schedules, but a variety of alternate walking routes should not a single bus be in service that day. As my Italian improved, I employed it in negotiations with professional flirts at Bologna’s summer-garden discos, bouncing nights away to dubbed-Italian versions of the Backstreet Boys.

“The Italian language course in Italy works as a vacation,” Maracci confirmed. “A language course has many advantages — to know deeply a city, how people live, meeting a lot of different Italian people and a lot of foreigners with the same interest.” Still one of the few language schools run exclusively by Italians, Cultura Italiana has expanded its language-in-context offerings to include classes tailored to specific fields — medicine, marketing, architecture, even classical singing. In the afternoons and on weekends, teachers lead students on excursions — entirely in Italian, of course — to local wine bars, the Ducati motorcycle plant, around medieval landmarks or hiking in the Appenines.

“The students enter in the history, living and learning in Middle Age buildings,” said Maracci. “It is good stimulation for the brain to be a student, communicating in another language. Living in Italy in the same place for a long time produces social relationships; that is culture.”

Kibbutz Life, Then and Now

What better way to learn about Israeli culture than to stay at a kibbutz? I imagined days mingling with the suntanned, hardworking kibbutzniks and evenings singing Hebrew songs around the fire. In fact, about 40 percent of the country’s kibbutzim offer some kind of tourism — but, as I learned, most of these iconic villages have privatized, and few offer the kind of purely communal, back-to-the-land experience that travelers romanticize.

But Ein Harod, a community east of Haifa that calls itself the country’s first kibbutz, “is still a kibbutz, as they say, by the book. And as such, it preserves a lot of the traditions,” said Dorit Vishenko, a kibbutz member who oversees reservations and web content. (Though, as she explained of her role: “This is a kibbutz, so all of us are doing the same things.”)

With one of Israel’s largest dairy farms, fish ponds and a factory that manufactures night-vision lenses for NASA, Ein Harod offers visitors an up-close look at both a historic settlement and the modern Israeli economy. Travelers can choose among three types of accommodations, from standard rooms in renovated kibbutz buildings to wooden chalets and luxury suites with Jacuzzis and private gardens; all have swimming pools and views over the Jezreel Valley. Tourism, along with agriculture and manufacturing, is a significant source of income these days.

“You can visit the working farm, you can see the kindergarten and the little children running around, you can join kibbutz meals and see what it’s like to have lunch with us,” said Vishenko. Currently, there are 650 residents at Ein Harod; members all contribute their salaries to the community pool and receive a budget for expenses. “You might be a minister in the Cabinet, and when you come home, you still have to work in the dining room on weekends,” said Vishenko. “Many members speak various languages and are happy to give tours.” The kibbutz also has two museums: One spotlights local history and geography; the other showcases rotating exhibits by Israeli artists.

With its verdant topography and temperate climate — when we spoke recently, Meir Doron, Ein Harod’s tourism manager, said it was sunny and 70 degrees — the Jezreel Valley is an ideal base for exploring a part of northern Israel that many never see. Its rolling mountain landscape is dotted with kibbutzim and antiquities, including Beit Alfa, which has an ancient synagogue, and Beit Shean, the site of an excavated Roman town. Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee are easy excursions.

Doron said guests include “a lot of Europeans” like the British ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, who recently took his family to spend a real kibbutz weekend and was “hugely impressed,” he wrote, by Ein Harod’s traditional values, modern technology and hospitality. “People here are very friendly,” said Vishenko. “And there are many ways you can integrate with the kibbutz.”

The Way to a Culture’s Heart

Many people, including me, eat their way through foreign countries. Some travelers, like Becky and Brian Becker of Atlanta, take the next step and sign up for culinary vacations. These increasingly popular tours promise to whisk guests behind the scenes of a national cuisine for a hands-on exploration of local ingredients, techniques and dishes — all in a picturesque setting.

The Beckers have returned three times to Italy with Culture Discovery Vacations, a Florida- and Italy-based outfit that promises a week of total immersion into Italian gastronomy. While learn-to-cook vacations are widespread, Italy is a favorite destination for reasons few other countries can equal: Its cuisine is broadly appealing, familiar and accessible, and its many beguiling villages are catnip to vacationers.

The owners of Culture Discovery, an American husband and an Italian wife, so enjoyed the weeks they spent entertaining overseas friends at their Lazio homestead that they expanded the concept as a business. But they wanted to retain the feeling of being among friends, said manager Rocky Cohen, so the weeklong tours are all-inclusive, and frequent correspondence begins long before guests arrive at one of the company’s six locations — including Chianti, Barolo, Sicily, the Amalfi Coast and a village north of Rome.

Participants — mostly women in their 40s to 70s — stay in their own apartments, “so you have breakfast each day at the same café with regulars who don’t speak English,” Cohen said. “You get to know the old woman who is shopping every day for her ragú.” In between cooking classes, you might visit an olive mill, go on a truffle hunt or make cheese with shepherds.

For Becky Becker, more than any recipe she learned, it was the dinners in private homes that prompted her to rebook: The couple is now planning their fourth tour. “You really get a chance to mix with the locals,” she said of the trips, which have included an anniversary celebration with Italian wedding cake and a cheese lesson from a Sicilian goatherd. “You’re not going to places that have 12 tours set up each day. You’re going into someone’s home where a 65-year-old woman greets you with a glass of wine and a fabulous dinner.”

The Meaning of Life, in Just 14 Days

Mike Current was not looking for a meaningful cultural experience when he signed up with Yoga Nepal, a Washington, D.C.-based program that offers immersive two-week excursions into the heart of an ancient tradition.

He was talked into it by a friend who happened to be the trip’s yoga instructor. Even at the airport, he struggled with feelings of fear and disorientation. “I was a real skeptic,” he recalled. “There were 15 people and I was the only guy, and people were from all over the world. And I didn’t know anybody.”

Now, Current — who owns a D.C. construction company — is thinking of going back to Kathmandu for six months or more, perhaps to work with children in a monastery. Such was the impression left by the two weeks he spent in meditation, dialogue with monks, poetry readings, witnessing a ritual cremation and generally having his mind expanded by interaction with Nepalese who, he recalled, “had not seen or talked to people in years, or who didn’t use bathrooms.”

“It was life-changing. It was unbelievable,” reflected Current, who said the experience reframed his perspective so that he is able to live in the present, thanks to his time spent “up in the mountains, in some of the most spiritual, karmic places in the world.” By the fourth day, Current had put away his phone. By the 14th, he recalled, “I just did not want to leave. I started to get acclimated to that lifestyle, and I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to come home.”

Marni Kravitz, who runs Yoga Nepal, felt a similar connection during her early visits to that country, where she studied Buddhism for several years before discovering yoga. Joining her passions for the land and its sacred practices, Kravitz launched Yoga Nepal to introduce others to a place she considers a spiritual home.

“People are hungry for meaning in their lives, and that includes travel,” reflected Kravitz. “I think the real reason people choose to travel is that they want to experience a shift in perspective.”

Whether that perspective comes in the form of a language, a yoga pose or a technique for artisanal cheese, people “want to learn about the world — and themselves,” explained Kravitz. “They’re seeking experiences that allow them to make deeper connections to both the people and the cultures they’ve come to explore.”

Hilary Danailova is Inside’s chief travel correspondent. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.


A typical view while hiking the Appenines in northern Italy

The view from guest lodgings at Ein Harod kibbutz

Learning to cook in Tuscany Courtesy Culture Discovery

Practicing yoga in Nepal Courtesy yoga nepal


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