A few days ago, I returned from a two-week trip to Europe.
It was a World War II tour that was organized through my school and included one of my best friends, and a whole bunch of new friends, with my two favorite teachers and my French teacher’s sister.
Our chaperones were wonderful, constantly making jokes, telling us stories about their college days, and ensuring that we had clean “underbunders” (underwear) on. It was to the United Kingdom, France and Germany, with a brief stops in Austria and Belgium.
I would say that it was amazing, beyond amazing, wonderful, fantastic, enriching, educating, fascinating, and altogether fun, but that wouldn’t do it justice. No, it was a trip beyond my wildest dreams. It was a trip that took us through history into modern-day Europe. And it was quite interesting to watch a group of kids from Illinois and Wisconsin struggle with the culture shock.
Of course, there were the language barriers. But it was a group of French and German students, with our language teachers, our multilingual and wonderful tour guide, Simon, and many Europeans speak two or three languages. It was hard for French students in Germany and German students in France, and I was completely dumbfounded in central London, but we all made friends and made it through.
Foreign food was another issue. The British are not necessarily famous for their cuisine, so we had to make do on sandwiches from pharmacies with chunks of meat, not slices, and candies.
I tried fish and chips and was delighted to find that it tasted like anything else fried beyond recognition. French food was easy to grow accustomed to, and their street stands offering sandwiches, croissants, paninis, and crepes – made in front of your eyes – were heavenly.
The food in Germany was exactly what I expected – not my favorite but definitely good, other than two separate nights on which we were served two separate dishes of horrendous and disgusting German pudding. (I don’t know if all German pudding is watery and separated by layers of ingredients, or if they just give the tourists the bad pudding.)
I tried as hard as I could to not look “tourist-y”, though I did wear my Notre Dame Fighting Irish sweatpants to Notre Dame de Paris.
Most of the time, our group was cordial to the locals, stepping aside on their subways and not chanting “USA! USA!” in hotel hallways.
Although we had our completely American slip ups, including – but not limited to – wearing pajama pants in public and not knowing where or how to properly pay after a meal, we weren’t the worst tour group ever. We loudly cheered when Germany beat Greece in the Euros and quietly paid our respects at places like Omaha Beach, the American cemeteries in Normandy and Belgium, and at Dachau. It was at those places where we learned the things that weren’t taught in textbooks, things about life and death that only sitting quietly amongst 9,387 American graves can teach you.
See, we can read textbooks until our eyes shut from exhaustion, or watch “Saving Private Ryan,” but looking over Omaha Beach teaches you something different. It’s just like practicing ordering at a French restaurant, only to have your waitress’ accent be completely unrecognizable and you quickly have to learn new things. Our tour guide, Simon, said, “We pay our respects to the dead by living.” And live we did.
• Courtney Phelan is a junior at Geneva High School. She is an outgoing and energetic young writer who likes to swim, read and participate in general teenage activities. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.