In the summer of 2014, I had the opportunity to travel to Europe with People to People Student Ambassadors, a study abroad program created by President Eisenhower. With a group of 36 high school students and 4 teachers from Georgia, I travelled to seven countries—Switzerland, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and England.
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In the Alps of Austria, I felt unbelievably small. The mountains rose up like gentle giants with evergreen-spiked backs and bald, snow-dotted heads. Our bus turned on perilously narrow roads, traveling up and up the mountain until we reached a cable car that took us higher. We stepped out of the cableway station, and before us was the Lünersee, a lake with glittering turquoise water nestled between the mountains. It was a magical realm, too beautiful to be real. The mountain tops, wrapped in foggy clouds, looked like secret dragon lairs.
In Germany, I felt connected. Each person in my delegation had a three-day homestay with a German family. When I stepped off the bus, Christina greeted me with a radiant smile and a tight embrace. She was beautiful, tall with golden hair, and she and her family welcomed me into their home, a lovely little house the color of dandelions. Her mother was thoughtful and caring, and though her father was quiet because he didn’t speak much English, I could see kindness in his eyes when he smiled. Over the next three days, Christina taught me about German culture and showed me around Koblenz, her town, with some students her age who were also hosting Americans from my delegation. On our last afternoon together, the group of us took a train to Trier, Germany’s oldest city. On the way home, we sat on the train floor so we could all talk. Our laughter brought us together, connecting us as teenagers despite the language barrier, and the world felt strangely small. I found myself crying when we had to say goodbye the next morning.
Towards the end of our trip, on Omaha Beach in France, I felt the power of death. The salty air was heavy as I walked across the sand where 9,386 soldiers died, each surviving for an average of seven seconds before being shot down by the Germans on the ridge above. I could see that ridge behind me. Then we went to the American Cemetery, dedicated to those D-Day invaders, and had a small ceremony. The National Anthem played, and we all started to sing, quietly as first, our voices growing as we became more confident. Involuntary tears streamed down my face. When we had time to walk around the graves, I continued to sob, speechless, staring at endless rows of white crosses.
During the last two days of our trip, in London, I felt the weight of the past. We toured Hampton Court Palace, King Henry VII’s favorite castle, and I walked the same halls that my ancestors, the Boleyns, walked nearly five centuries ago. When we visited the Tower of London, I saw where Anne Boleyn and so many other innocents had been executed. The Tower itself is nearly a thousand years old, an age impossible for me to grasp.
Due to these experiences, I understand the power of travel. The Earth contains such an unbelievable variety of people and cultures, and the best way to learn about them is to experience them. By travelling, we can reach a better understanding of this world and of ourselves.
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