A few years ago, author, critic, and translator Daniel Mendelsohn was teaching the epic Greek poem The Odyssey when his father decided to take his class.
Jay Mendelsohn, a retired research scientist, wanted to understand his son better, and understand his life's work. When Daniel decided he wanted to retrace one of the most epic journeys of Greek literature, Jay became his travel partner.
Daniel, a professor at Bard College in New York, wrote about the trip for the April 2012 issue of Travel and Leisure Magazine. His father did not like the character of Odysseus in the first place, Daniel tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz.
"He said, 'How can this guy be a hero? You know, he lies, he tricks people, he cheats on his wife, he cries' — my father didn't like that at all," Daniel remembers – "How can you make this guy the center of a poem,'" Daniel remembers.
But Jay did love Homer's first poem, The Iliad, and he wanted to learn more about Homer and Ancient Greece. So, they partnered up and began cruising the Mediterranean, starting in the ancient city of Troy in modern Turkey – the city where Odysseus' journey begins.
"One certainly gets a sense of the cultural power and authority of the Homeric poems, both The Iliad and The Odyssey," he says, "from the fact that already in antiquity, it was a tourist destination to go to Troy." Even Alexander The Great visited the city as a tourist, he says.
Of course, Daniel and Jay didn't stop there. They visited places throughout Greece and the Mediterranean associated with locations in Homer's The Odyssey. There's a lot of speculation, however, about whether these sites are truly the places mentioned in these epic poems.
"A lot of these sites," Daniel says, "like Calypso's cave on Malta, one definitely feels like they were sort of invented — or at least hyped." Jay got a big kick out of each location anyway, Daniel says, even the phoniest ones.
The two companions traveled the ancient world on a cruise ship, which offered lectures by academics and archeologists. It was a small cruise ship, with about 80 passengers on board, but that didn't stop them from having unlikely encounters.
"The Odyssey is, of course, about funny encounters and unexpected coincidences and meetings that are too good to be true," Daniel says. "We got to talking with a couple that we had seen a couple times, and it turns out he had been the CEO of my dad's company," he says.
Some of the people they met even had an uncanny resemblance to characters from The Odyssey.
For example: There's one key moment in The Odyssey when Odysseus returns to his palace in Ithaca — in disguise, to slay all the suitors who had been courting his wife while he was away. Once at the palace, however, he's recognized by a scar on his leg from a childhood wound.
Coincidentally, Daniel was sunbathing on the deck when he noticed a Dutch man with a scar on his leg and an extraordinary story.
During World War II, this man was a starving teenager. He was weak and malnourished and ended up injuring himself while chopping firewood, swinging the axe into his own leg. This wound almost cost him his life.
"A family friend, who was a classicist, helped him get through this illness in part by reading The Odyssey to him," Mendelsohn says. "Even though he was not a classic student, he recited to me, on the deck of this ship as an elderly man, lines from The Odyssey in Greek," he says.
The man told Daniel he was on the cruise because he had vowed to see what Odysseus saw before he died.
All in all, it was a good trip for both father and son — and an especially poignant one. On April 6, 2012, Jay Mendelsohn passed away.
"I can't travel with him anymore," Daniel says, "but in a lot of ways, he will stay with me during the remaining trips that I am making and the readings I am making of these texts," he says. "That just became a different kind of odyssey."