All posts by Asher Rolfe

Operating in a Foreign Land

In addition to the amazing places we get to see on this trip (today we visited Paestum and Herculaneum), one of the most valuable experiences for the students is being somewhere very different from home. This forces the kids to leave their comfort zones in many ways. Take gelato, for example. One of Mrs. Pollio’s rules is that students must order their own gelato, and as long as she is in earshot, she insists they do so in Italian. Some of the kids embrace the challenge and wade into the verbal exchange. Others order the same flavor every time having just a passing command the bare minimum for ordering it. The money is different, and the new look of the coins can cause confusion as can the local practice of paying first and then taking the receipt to the counter to select your flavors.


We’ve also been working on the metric system. Most hotels do not run the air conditioners in the rooms until the room is occupied, and some are wired to not allow the air conditioners to run unless you are physically in the room. Two days ago we returned to warm rooms, and some groups dropped their thermostats to 16° celsius (the minimum) hoping to cool the rooms quickly. They went so sleep and all woke up shivering in search of extra blankets and the thermostat remote since their rooms had finally hit 16°C. No realized ahead of time that 16° is 60°F. Tomorrow the forecast is a hot 32°C, and since we still aren’t too familiar with Celsius, a few students believed me when I said that was twice 16, so 120°F.


Students have ordered produce in the market in kilograms or grams. Our driving distances are in kilometers, and even numbers are conveyed differently. The symbols of the decimal point and commas are the opposite here of what we are used to in the U.S. So a brioche con gelato that costs three and a half Euros will be listed as 3,50.  Each student navigates the challenges slightly differently, and then they spend a few minutes on the bus recounting to their friends their successes or failures of communication. The real beauty of the trip is that this informal debrief on the bus builds their confidence and their leadership. I’m not sure that any of the students intended on developing leadership by ordering ice cream, but the process is clear to watch. The successful share their knowledge, offer advice, support their peers, and everyone eats more gelato.

Gelato man at “Ragno D’Oro” (Golden Spider) Gelateria

Geologically New Things and More

Today we visited Mt. Etna and spent the day walking some of its craters, learning about its lava formations and listening to the vast wealth of knowledge our guide, Eddie, had to offer. Eddie (short for Eduardo) is from nearby Taormina and has studied Mt. Etna for over fifteen years. 

From a geological perspective, Etna is a young volcano- about 500,000 years old. It formed in what used to be a bay on the eastern coast of the island. Now Mt. Etna is over ten thousand feet tall. Eddie described for us the difference between types of lava flows versus explosions of gas and ash. We hiked though the craters from a series of eruptions in 1865 and saw how lava flows from fissures in the mountain create channels down the slopes. 

Later we descended into a lava tube formed as the exterior of a lava flow hardens as it reacts with oxygen and cool ambient temperatures. Because volcanic rock is an excellent insulator, the crust of the tube keeps the rest of the lava from cooling and the flow pushes downhill. Eventually, the flow ends, and the remaining lava cools and can form layers of thin rock visible in the tube. 

After lunch we drove down to the coast and saw the area where Etna first began rising out of the sea and then had granita with brioche. At that point, we had a bus full of tired but happy students. 

Swimming in the Ionian Sea
On Thursday while we were in Syracuse, we went swimming in the Ionian Sea. We tried to go swimming in the place other students had in years past, but it was closed. We continued walking to another beach about 1/5 mile from our hotel, Hotel Gutkowski. When we reached the pebbly beach, it was very crowded but everyone was anxious to get into the clear, sparkling, blue water. It was filled with many huge rocks, which cut many of us when we climbed on them. Many of us were afraid of fuzzy crabs which crawled in the holes of the rocks, and others feared the plants growing in the water. Much of our time was spent searching for sea glass as well as learning how to skip rocks on the water/onto people’s heads. Overall, we had a great experience in the Ionian Sea and loved having this opportunity!! – Olivia, Abby, Eliza, and Cate
The Open Air Market
The market at Syracuse was a sight to behold—we could walk down the middle and browse many types of food including fruit, vegetables, cheeses, fish, meat, and cookies. The atmosphere of the market is something one cannot find in America. Salesmen call out their wares, and costumers barter with them for the price they believe is right. Fishermen are cutting fish open, women are making juices, and bakers are letting people sample their products. The market at Syracuse was a fascinating place to spend time.

Trying New Things (Part 2: The Ancient World Version)

Today is our second day in Siracusa (Syracuse), and yesterday evening we walked through the oldest portion of the city called Ortigia. We stopped for several minutes and talked about the Temple of Apollo that was built by the Greek colonists in the 700s BC. Apollo’s temple here was considered to be the first Doric temple built out of stone in the whole Greek world (in fact Greek colonies in Sicily led the way into stone-built temples before Greek city-states around the Aegean). When asked by Dr. Pollio what architectural innovations this temple exhibited, the students identified several details. First, the columns are monolithic instead of being constructed from drums of stone stacked together. Additionally, the builders were conservative in their spacing of the columns, reflecting an uncertainty in the carrying capacity of their materials. Other early temples (like the one honoring Hercules in Agrigento) have similar small spacing between the columns compared with later temples. The visible development of temple building is a good reminder that in the ancient world, people pushed their boundaries of what was possible.

Two days ago we walked up the ridge in Agrigento known as the Valley of Temples (why it’s called a valley is beyond us). We began our walk at the bottom of the valley among several temples dedicated to the chthonic gods- those dealing with earthly matters like Demeter and Hestia. The design of the temples and the chronology of their construction show how the people of Agrigento’s attention began with their immediate, earthly concerns and then grew to include the Olympic gods. The builders worked their way up the ridge building as they went. 

Just above the chthonic area is a temple to Hercules. It is an early temple (evidenced by its construction). Then a huge temple built to honor Zeus. Although only the foundation is intact, the monumental size of the temple is evident. Huge columns carved in the figure of Atlas survive as does the foundation for the large altar outside the temple’s entrance. 

As we continued our walk up the hill we saw the Temple of Concordia (later converted into a church, which contributed to its excellent preservation) and a temple dedicated to Hera at the top of the ridge. 

The development and building on the ridge are reminders that even in antiquity, the Greeks felt pressure to push onwards, to grow, and to aspire to new things. Yesterday we were at Neapolis, which was an ancient Greek city built just outside Siracusa. It overlooks the Great Harbor where the Athenian expedition met its demise during the Peloponnesian War. As we walked through the quarry in which the thousands of Athenian captives were worked to death as slaves, Dr. Pollio and I impersonated Nicias and Alcibiades to reenact the debate over sending the Athenian expedition during the War. 


Alcibiades was a brash, young, handsome Olympic Champion arguing that Athens should extend itself and push to expand its empire. Nicias was the elder statesman and argued that Athens should be wary of extending itself instead arguing that restoring order and strength at home was more important. The story of the rivalry between them is fascinating, but Alcibiades carries the day in the debate. The decision is a fateful one and ultimately leads to the Athenian fall from the top of the Greek world. All this raises the important question of knowing how to push oneself without going too far. For this the Greeks would need to turn to philosophy for wisdom about how to live and rule and avoid the dangers of demagoguery in a democracy.

Trying New Things

One of the goals of the Odyssey trip is to push students’ comfort zones. For this year’s group, we’ve bumped into the edge of our comfort zones with food several times. Some of our group isn’t quite as comfortable with seafood, some with new vegetables, and some with foods that aren’t immediately recognized. But Sicily offers a wide variety of new foods for the student, and we’re trying to encourage as much exploration of Sicilian cuisine as possible.

This morning at breakfast, for example, there was fresh ricotta, which is heavenly. Only two takers. Tonight we had cassata for dessert. Cassata is a cake made with layers of traditional cake separated by layers of sweet ricotta cheese. We didn’t tell anyone what was in the middle, and everyone loved it. Sometimes it’s best just to jump right in and ask questions later.

After breakfast we walked though the market that is just around the corner from our hotel. Vendors shout out their wares, the fish mongers tout the day’s catch, and the produce stands offer you samples to lure you.

We shared fresh cherries later in the day to wide approval. We thought we were buying pistachios from Bronte (a local specialty), but it turns out the market vendor duped us and gave us normal ones (our kind driver and guide, Salvatore, pointed out our folly to help tomorrow’s purchases), but most everyone liked them anyway. Some students tried pieces of a mini cantaloupe. The truly brave tried pieces of cedro. Cedro is a citrus fruit that looks like a large lemon, but the fleshy part is much smaller than expected and instead most of its interior looks like the pith. However, you eat the pith with just a bit of the flesh.

We also stopped by Ragno D’Oro (The Golden Spider), which is the best gelateria in Sicily. It’s home of dozens of flavors including the famous setti veli (seven veils) seven-layer gelato flavor. Many tried their gelato on a brioche roll, which was a much easier sell than tonight’s caponata (a mixture of cooked eggplant, peppers, and celery).

Look for updates soon about the ancient history portion of the trip. Our days are so full of adventure, finding time to have the students author posts is as much of a challenge as the planned challenges at the sites. Ciao.

Rivals- Segesta and Selinunte

Today was a big day in many ways. After a much-needed night’s rest, we met for breakfast around 8 to prepare for a day visiting two rival cities on Sicily- Segesta and Selinunte. Our first full day in Sicily involved hiking, climbing, exploring, and the usual set of challenges awaiting each team.


We first traveled to Segesta to see the partially finished temple as well as the mountain top theater. The Segestans courted different allies in antiquity to help then in their centuries long rivalry with Selinunte. In the 400s BC, they appealed to the Athenians for assistance and support. Athens was trying to consolidate its influence in the Greek world amidst its tensions from its conflict with the Peloponnesian war. Consequently, the Athenians were interested in a wealthy ally in northwestern Sicily. But as Thucydides tells it, the Segestans were not quite as wealthy as they appeared. In fact, Thucydides describes how the Segestans tricked Athens with false displays of wealth in order to gain its support.


The temple in Segesta was begun around this time, but construction never finished. Each team had to document two things about the temple that prove construction never finished. Among the options available are the lack of fluting on the columns and the bosses on the bottom stones used for levering them into place.


After seeing the temple, we went to the top of the mountain and saw the theater. The view looking from the theater across the Sicilian countryside is breathtaking, but the teams were more focused on exploring the acoustics of the space. Sitting about fifty feet away in the stands, one can easily hear whispers from the stage area. Mrs. Pollio led the groups through a discussion about the important role of the theater in Greek like emphasizing the way the plays allowed people to share experience, learn, have catharsis and ultimately live as a more cohesive community.


From Segesta, we drove to the southern plain of Sicily to see Cave di Cusa and Selinunte. Cave di Cusa is a quarry that the people of Selinunte used to construct their temples. When the Carthaginians invaded and sacked Selinunte in 409 BC, the slaves working in the quarry fled. Visiting the quarry today, you can see the drums of future columns partially excavated from the bed rock and ones that were excavated but never transported.


Selinunte’s temples were largely destroyed during the invasion. Hera’s temple has enjoyed reconstruction over the last sixty years or so, but the other two temples we saw are in ruins. The larger, referred to as Temple G since its patron deity remains unknown, was one of the largest temples built anywhere in the Greek world. Today it is in ruins with fig trees and brambles growing amongst the toppled stones. It does provide a wonderful physical outlet for the teams as they navigated their way through the ruins.


Tonight we stay on the southern coast of the island with a view of the Mediterranean from our hotel windows. Tomorrow we are off to Agrigento and the Valley of Temples.

Our Odyssey Begins

Our odyssey started yesterday morning when we gathered at Norfolk airport. We flew through Atlanta and Rome before touching down in Palermo, Sicily around noon local time. We gathered our bags, loaded into our bus and left for Erice. The students will put together a post with some pictures soon.

In the meantime, consider this image. It is the triskelion, the symbol of Sicily. The three legs represent the three sides of the triangular-shaped island.

The students are divided into three teams during the trip, and each day the teams compete with one another to complete the challenges for each site. This year, each team created its own logo or symbol during the days leading up to the trip. Here are the symbols from each team and a brief explanation of their meanings.


The sign of Alpha is represented by two golden swords joined at the middle by a laurel wreath to create the letter A. Each sword is spearing the sign of another group: beta or gamma. The motto states “now numquam cedamus” (we will never yield). The circle ring surrounding the outside represents the infinity of alpha!


The Beta Team seal displays a beta fish inside a magisterial tank. Embedded in the beta fish is the second letter of the Greek alphabet, the beta. The fish is also wearing a liberty cap and holding a liberty spear in its gills which symbolizes freedom and liberation. Behind the beta fish there are fasces, which are column like structures That represent strength and togetherness. Our motto: non turistae sed viatores (not tourists but travelers) defines what will be the goal of our trip: to dive fully into the rich Italian culture.

Team Gamma choose to use a giraffe as our team mascot because they stand tall and use what they have to their fullest advantage. Rather than having the giraffe wearing a liberty cap, which is common in many seals, our giraffe wears a party hat to symbolize gamma being fun-loving and free. The dotted border around the seal represents discipline and order. Additionally, the Latin words, ex nihilo ad omnia, translates to “from nothing to everything” which is our motto, stating that anyone can rise up from the ashes.

Odyssey 2018

A quick welcome to everyone who will be following the Odyssey 2018 group on its journey. We’re through security and awaiting the first leg of our trip from ORF to Atlanta. We’ll fly through the night to Rome and then take a quick flight from there to Palermo, Sicily. In Palermo we will link up with Salvatore (our driver, guide, and friend) and head to Erice for our first real site. More pictures and details to follow once we’re in Italy.

Follow along with the International Programs Twitter or Instagram feeds, which you can find on the left side of this page.

Paestum and Herculaneum

By Jessie

Today I woke up and walked out onto our terrace to see the beautiful view of Paestum. We ate breakfast then departed for the first place. It was a Greek and Roman colony with three temples and a town. The temples were to Athena and Hera (two for Hera, you can see them at the end of this post). There was another possible temple dedicated to the Capitoline Triad. We found places in the forum for commercial, religious, and political. Two of the temples were for Hera, the mother goddess, and the other was for Athena. We explored the temples and completed the assignments. We then had some delicious gelato on the site.

We then traveled to Herculaneum and had lunch before we explored the ancient city. We first went to the boat houses, which were filled with skeletons. It was disturbing but cool.

We were then set free to finish our assignments. We had to find some mosaics, a bakery, and a tavern. My group, Team Gamma, the best team, recreated a scene that possibly occurred in the tavern.

We finished our assignments early and had extra time. I found this awesome drinking fountain that had the spout as the mouth of a man.

We only explored 1/4 of the city because the rest of it was covered by the volcanic ash and the new city. Visiting this ancient wonder was such a great experience because I had learned about it last year. Today was one of the best days of the trip so far.

Below are Hera’s temples at Paestum.

Mt. Etna (Part II)

By Maddie and Haley

We woke up at 8AM and went down to the lobby to have breakfast. After breakfast we went to board the bus where we prepared for a long drive up to Mount Etna. During the ride, our volcanologist Salvo spoke to us about charting volcanoes and the history of Etna. Our first stop was in the woods and we went in a lava tube. It was a cave underground where lava had flowed in the past.

After that we got back on the bus and drove a little ways to go to our next hiking station. On our way we were surrounded by endless volcanic rock from a 2002 eruption from the active volcano. Our trail to walk was completely volcanic material and Salvo talked about the rocks and the buildings that were destroyed due to the close proximity, including a hotel with 48 rooms that was crushed by lava twice.


After that we rode up a little higher, and found picnic tables to have lunch. We went to a little vendor to get souvenirs after we ate. Then we rode up a little bit more and did the majority of the hiking for the day. We walked on spiny steep roads to see the four main craters.

After we hiked back down, with all of our collected lava rocks, we hopped on the bus and headed to see the birthplace of Etna, which was 45 minutes away. We saw the site and then we got granitas and brioche for a snack. We headed back to the hotel to swim in the pool. We played silent and it was really fun!! Then we went in to shower and go to another 3-course dinner in the hotel. After dinner, we did our picture competitions, badges, and team points. Finally, sleep was GREATLY needed, so we went straight to bed.

The Mountain

Today we headed to Mt. Etna. Everyone here calls it “The Mountain” or a Sicilian word that translates as “Majesty.” The origin of the name comes from an ancient Phoenecian word meaning “smoking chimney” and fits with the ever-present plume of smoke present at the mountain’s highest craters. We were guided by a volcanologist named Salvo who also is referred to as Salvo-pedia because he knows so much about the mountain. He’s been eye-witness to almost every eruption of Etna in the last 30 years, and that means he has seen hundreds of eruptions.

Etna is about 800 square miles and is the largest active volcano in Europe. It is so tall that the ecosystems change several times as you ascend the slopes. The lower slopes look like the rest of this part of Sicily, but heading up takes you through coniferous forests, then there is a band of deciduous forests dominated by birch trees. On the higher slopes the vegetation is interrupted in places by recent eruptions’ lava flows that look more like a lunar landscape.  The highest parts are volcanic rock with no vegetation.

In order to monitor the mountain, the Italian government has hundreds of sensors measuring all sorts of things. The system reports data to stations in Catania in order to disseminate the information. 

In addition to monitoring the volcano to protect nearby towns, the sensors also provide warning to the air traffic controllers to keep planes from flying through volcanic ash sent into the atmosphere. The engines of a plane can re-liquify volcanic ash and rocks only to have them solidify before completely leaving the engine. Unsurprisingly, pilots don’t like having rocks in their engines.

After an eruption, the volcanic flows take centuries to break down. It takes nearly 1000 years for the a lava flow to return to thick forest. The first plant to sprout is a small flowering bush called Broom. Its roots are strong enough to break apart the volcanic rock, paving the the way for other plants. 

A plant the locals call “Mother-in-law’s pillow” is another early sprouter. It has soft looking green foliage that masks viscous thorns underneath. None of the students understood why Salvo giggled when he translated the name into English.

After a day of hiking around the mountain, the group was exhausted. We went down to the coast and saw the location of the eruption that  brought the mountain above sea level hundreds of thousand of years ago. Then we went around the corner for granita and brioche. Tomorrow we head for Messina to catch a ferry to the mainland.