They are listening intently, the 12 freshmen, paying attention to every word as their Penn classmate reads aloud the first sentence of his personal tale.
“As my father nervously rummaged through his clunky backpack looking for the can of bug spray, I was reminded of how traveling with my family of seven always feels like a cheaper-by-the-dozen experience: we’re messy, slow, and always the spectacle of other travelers.”
At the head of the table is English professor David Wallace, creator of this travel-writing course. Himself a world traveler, Wallace teaches two filled sections of the class, one a freshman seminar and the other for upperclassmen.
The assignment at hand: a travel piece about an experience during Spring Break.
Reading is Yonathan Gutenmacher, known as Yoni, from Queens in New York City, the fourth of five brothers in an Orthodox Jewish family. His story is about the journey to discover their mother’s childhood in Brazil and about her own realizations along the way.
Line by line, paragraph by paragraph, the students read the story aloud in turns. After each section they discuss the story and also the writing.
“I know you probably caught this, but I really like the colon,” said student Avni Kataria about a sentence describing the family’s first taxi ride through the streets of Sao Paulo that ended, “…my mother was doing what she does best: talking.”
Turns out Wallace loves colons. “It’s a very good one, isn’t it?” he said.
The craft of writing is emphasized in this freshman seminar. “It’s about the techniques of writing and trying to improve your writing; catch things in your first year, and clean them up, and then they will be good forever,” Wallace told the class.
“During the first seven weeks of class the students have studied intensively short works by some of the greatest living travel writers,” he said. “Now they are turned loose; it is their turn.”
Wallace is an author, and a traveler, originally from England. Over several years, he visited nearly 100 places to write the definitive “Europe: A Literary History, 1348 to 1418,” which runs 1,675 pages in two volumes. At Penn since 1996, he is also a regular lecturer on the Penn Alumni Travel tours, the next a trip on the Danube River in October.
For the students, the first writing assignment did not require extensive travel. Called “Crossing Walnut Bridge,” they literally had to cross the Walnut Street Bridge into Center City Philadelphia and write about their experience.
“Two of them couldn’t find Walnut Bridge,” he continued, laughing. “One of them ended up underneath it, looking up.”
It is just that new discovery that makes the class experience so engaging, he said.
“When you are younger, seeing things for very first time, there’s a freshness and a vividness and an immediacy in the experience, which you want them to transmit to paper,” Wallace said.
The class is also uniquely personal. “We talk about our experiences, and what we’ve been through, and write what we want to write. We really get to know each other,” said Gutenmacher, who might major in English and computer science. “I think my writing has gotten a lot better. It’s the most enjoyable class I have taken.”
Kataria, who is from New Delhi, said she has been surprised by how well the students know each other now.
“When I leave the class, the stories stay with me, so when I see people outside of the class, I know some of most intimate experiences and what they were thinking about them because they wrote a story about it,” Kataria said. “Even though I don’t see them every minute of my life, I just feel connected to everyone. I think it is a really good thing.”
Students wrote about adventures near and far for the Spring Break assignment, Wallace said, in both the freshman seminar and the class for older students. “The seniors are much more confident because for them it’s their last experience of Spring Break,” he said. “It’s their last experience of being a student.”
In this course, academic competition takes a different form. “They are competing to make each person’s writing as good as it can be. They have to be constructive of one another,” Wallace said. “Class participation means something because you are helping somebody else perform better.”
Punctuated by several discussions about word choice and sentence construction, Gutenmacher’s story unfolded in the sunny classroom on the top floor of the main library on College Green.
After the family arrives in Brazil covered with American bug spray because of yellow fever reports, they make their way through sweltering Sao Paulo, hearing the stories of their mother’s memories, touring her high school, sampling favorite treats at the corner chocolate shop, walking the streets of the upper-class neighborhood where she grew up with maids and drivers.
“It was on the last night that I saw my mother in a new light.”
While at lunch at the home of her best friend, his mother encountered the maid sequestered in a bathroom because there were no traditional maid’s quarters. When questioned, her friend said maids were on a “different level” and had to be separated.
“I saw realization in the face of my mother, as it relaxed and she swallowed hard… That conversation forced her to come to terms with her relationship between the two parts of her identity, as a New Yorker and as a Paulista.”
An earlier passage in the story described his mother hesitating to accept a friend request on Facebook from their housekeeper, even though they were personally close, the enormous social strata from her native country still so engrained.
Gutenmacher explained that his mother’s parents were both Jewish immigrants to South America from Europe. His grandmother’s family went to Uruguay from Poland just before World War II. His grandfather’s family, from Hungary, was sent to concentration camps by the Nazis. Those who survived resettled, and he eventually moved to Sao Paulo, where he met his wife and had three children.
All of his mother’s family eventually left Brazil, going to Israel, Europe, the United States. She chose to go to New York City to marry after attending college in Israel. It had been 25 years since she had returned to Brazil.
On that last evening at the airport, his mother waited in the customs line for those with Brazilian passports, and the rest of them were in the line for those with foreign passports.
“Although we waved and smiled from across the room, the separation felt real. After all she was a New Yorker like the rest of us, just one who clutched two passports at the airport and carried Sao Paulo wherever she went.”
“I think it’s a beautiful ending,” Wallace said. “The ending means the whole thing is good. It is like sticking the landing.”