Bringing the world home

Professors Jim and Karla Speer observe sustainability and archaeology while traveling with their young children on a six-month European sabbatical.

Many students at Indiana State University commute for an hour or more to classes — but imagine if you could ride a train to Terre Haute every morning and during that ride, sleep or do homework on the way. Many people dream of a simpler way of life where people would rather walk to the neighborhood grocery store than drive to the supermarket to eat locally grown organic fruit, and much of that is what Jim and Karla Speer found during a recent research sabbatical.

Professor of geography and geology Jim Speer and his wife, Karla Hansen-Speer, a part-time lecturer in Earth and Environmental Sciences, travelled together during Speer’s 2014 sabbatical. They visited 13 different countries during the span of six months in order to observe sustainability programs and visit dendrochronology labs in Europe. Dendrochronology is the scientific method of dating trees based on patterns in their growth rings. Hansen-Speer’s interests are rooted in the ancient archaeology they were bound to observe on this trip and — along with her husband — observing how their two small children would behave in different environments, different cultures, with different food and countless train, plane and automobile rides.

Public Transportation in Turin, Italy (Photo courtesy of Jim Speer)

Public transportation in Turin, Italy (Photo courtesy of Jim Speer)

Public transportation in Switzerland was amazing, Speer said. “On the way to school, how would you like to be able to read or take a nap or get work done? That is the norm throughout Switzerland. Professors would be an hour, hour-and-a-half away from work and just use that time.”

A pre-class nap in exchange for a smaller carbon footprint seems like a fair trade.

“We have a bus system, and we also have all these trains around,” said Speer, “but there is no passenger train anywhere nearby.”

Because of the Schengen Agreement enabling cross-border travel in European Union countries without showing one’s passport or changing currency in every country, Speer and his wife found it incredibly easy to navigate solely by public transportation — taking a train from Germany to Prague, flying to London and taking a train to Scotland — once touching down in Greece.

“Even as foreigners coming in, you could figure it out in 10 minutes,” Speer said. “It’s a lot easier to get around.”

So much went on during these months that it was difficult to choose favorite memories or takeaways. In every country they visited, Speer said he thought he would like to take students to study abroad and further take them on short trips. “And then my question is, out of these 13 countries, where would students want to go?”

Simplicity does have its sacrifices, as they found out during their three months in Greece, where they immediately found it difficult to maintain their multi-tasking lifestyle.

Delphi, Greece (Photo courtesy of Jim Speer)

Delphi, Greece (Photo courtesy of Jim Speer)

“Our dream was to go to an Italian villa or something, or a Greek home, and sit and write in those places — it’s very romantic,” said Speer, “but the electricity wasn’t very stable, so we kept blowing the breakers just by running the clothes washer and the heater at the same time in the house.”

Hansen-Speer added, “It also showed us how our lifestyle in the U.S. is different from places in Europe in that we’re very used to just being able to do pretty much anything we want whenever — like I’ll start a load of laundry and you’ll take showers and I’ll make breakfast, we’re using all this electricity. And in Greece, when we were blowing the breakers people were just telling us, ‘You can’t run the water heater at the same time. Everyone knows that.’ And everyone in Greece does know that. That’s just the way their life is structured, not pulling so much power from the electrical grid.”

“We spent a lot of time just trying to sort those things out besides trying to do the writing,” Speer said. “It was hard to get those things done, but it was also an amazing experience.”

Hansen-Speer mainly entertained the children in Greece (where plenty of cats roamed freely), while Speer spring-boarded to various other countries in Europe.

Speer traveled to Nepal and experienced a similar situation to Greece, except that power was generally limited to homes in the nighttime hours, because people were not expected to run lights or use much electricity during the day. Their tubs and basins — not showers — were also unheated. During a conference and field week, everyone was expected to use generators at the university to power microscopes, projectors and other equipment.

“So you see how different cultures are, and people in different circumstances and it puts our lives into perspective,” Speer said.

Dendrochronologists participate in a field trip at the Tree Rings Archaeology, Climate and Ecology (TRACE) conference in Scotland. (Photo courtesy of Jim Speer)

Dendrochronologists participate in a field trip at the Tree Rings Archaeology, Climate and Ecology (TRACE) conference in Scotland. (Photo courtesy of Jim Speer)

Speer often works with international researchers, but the ability to work with them in their dendrochronology labs has given him an even greater understanding and respect for their techniques, such as how they do cross-dating on trees. Although he still prefers American cross-dating techniques, he would like to adopt some techniques from international researchers and incorporate them into his lessons for students. While he did not get quite the amount of work done that he had wished for — three projects done and 11 projects moved forward out of his intended 22 — this was his main goal and accomplishment of the sabbatical.

During the time abroad, Hansen-Speer enjoyed the architectural richness of Europe and found the opportunity to cross the Parthenon and Stonehenge off her bucket-list. She often found her interest split between the breathtaking sites and the curious ways her children got around in their new surroundings. They were familiar to air-travel, but three months in Europe was another matter. Hansen-Speer found that while “they had their low points,” they were extremely well-behaved. It interested Hansen-Speer to see what engaged her children’s interest — 1 and 3 years old at the time — and what did not. She said they were fascinated by the flowers and the rocks and wanted to pick them up everywhere they went. When they went to visit Stonehenge in England, the children were captivated by the sheep on the other side of the fence.

“Not so interested in the architecture and the big buildings, but it was interesting to see how they interacted with people and see how they played on the playground with other little kids and got along with them. Personally, it was a really enlightening experience for me to travel with little kids,” she said.

Hansen-Speer said she was nervous about traveling with her young children, but that it turned out to be very rewarding; her conclusion was concise.

Leif and Lewis Speer looking at a boat on the Aegean Sea in Rafina, Greece. (Photo courtesy of Jim Speer)

Leif and Lewis Speer looking at a boat on the Aegean Sea in Rafina, Greece. (Photo courtesy of Jim Speer)

“(Traveling with children) is just an extension of your whole life with kids. It’s not the same way that you travel when you don’t have kids — but your life isn’t the same as it is when you don’t have kids,” she said.

Hansen-Speer intends to catch up on her blog posts at (, where she would like to incorporate tips into her observations from the sabbatical for mothers who want to travel.

Speer himself has a dendrochronology blog (, where he recorded his findings during the length of the sabbatical and provided much of the photographic evidence of the 13 countries. While walking through the streets of Greece, Speer was struck with an idea for another project.

In Greece, Speer and his family observed buildings from the 1200s and 1600s and visited architectural sites like Mycenae. Greece already had a written language and fully articulated sculptures (with limbs that move) 3,500 years ago. Speer said he was amazed at the pace of cultural advancement within that time frame.

“But then I put that into the perspective of the trees that I work on,” Speer said. “The (bristlecone) pine tree can grow to be 4,000 years old, so I worked with individual trees that are older than this entire development of human culture and human language. I’m amazed with human culture and how far we have come, but that’s all within the lifetime of one tree.”

Venice (Photo courtesy of Jim Speer)

Venice (Photo courtesy of Jim Speer)

On April 6, Speer opened an art exhibit displaying the pictures he had taken during his 2014 sabbatical with the objective of examining human cultural change around the world relative to nature’s time scale. Since Speer has returned, he has also delivered presentations to a few community agencies he is involved with focusing on comparative sustainability, particularly local food and sustainable gardening, and how Terre Haute could use those findings.

For instance, while walking through the streets of Greece, Hansen-Speer was interested in how the structure of the town influenced transportation. They never had a car while living in Greece, because everything — bakeries, grocery stores, vendors, playgrounds, the beach — was within walking distance. The urban sprawl of the United States makes these setups more difficult to achieve, but groups such as Complete Streets strive for greater walkability in city planning, the insertion of bike lanes and other improvements when it is time to repave the roads. These modifications make it easier to establish neighborhood grocery stores and minimize the walking distance, making everything more accessible.

“Being able to live in a place for a while where that’s sort of the norm allows us to see how much it influences people’s lifestyles for making those healthy choices,” Hansen-Speer said. Another surprise came when they walked to the neighborhood grocery store and could not find the fruit-snacks that their children loved so much. Although their children, like most others, had a history of fruit-phobia, they ate fruit with every meal in Greece and enjoyed it. Speer said the fruit came from smaller local farms and did not always look pretty — like the perfectly red, round apples we strive to produce on a large scale in the U.S. — but it tasted delicious.

They also did not expect that their children would be a secret advantage on this long trip. Most people they met in Europe were happy to interact with the kids, say hello to them and it broke a lot of ice and quickly dissolved barriers with people they would not have met. Hansen-Speer noted that in Greece especially, the locals seemed to “love, love, lovethe children. “They wanted to kiss them and hold them, and our kids weren’t so keen to that.”

Leif and Lewis Speer catching a bubble in Prague’s Old Town. (Photo courtesy of Jim Speer)

Leif and Lewis Speer catching a bubble in Prague’s Old Town. (Photo courtesy of Jim Speer)

Speer noted the places they visited might have had more of a communal child-raising process than in the U.S., “so the kids just opened up a lot of those doors and a lot of those interactions wherever we went.”

The many cats of Greece, roaming islands such as Hydra and Mykonos — and dogs in Rafina — also seemed to be taken care of by the townspeople and appeared to be in good health. Some, such as the stray cat that expected food from Speer and his family upon moving into their rental house in Greece, attached themselves to certain buildings as if regular customers.

Although he enjoyed his stay in Europe and was impressed at the sustainability projects, there were things about the U.S. he missed. “It was nice to get back to the United States where everything was familiar. I could continue my work at that point at my normal level of productivity, which was a bit of a relief.”

Hansen-Speer has a much better understanding of the experience of international students who come to Indiana State to study in a different country. “I always tell my students you should go out and travel and see different places and get a feel for different cultures,” she said. “We loved traveling, but it was also very nice to come back home.”

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