Bonds over International Waters | Teen Ink

Bonds over International Waters

September 25, 2007
By Anonymous

Traveling to England, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland with People to People this summer was the most rewarding experience of my life. It provided me with insight to various cultures, making me a much more aware and open-minded person. It allowed me to see places many people only read or dream about. Seeing these places and discovering these cultures shed a new light on certain world matters, giving me a new perspective. Aside from gaining knowledge and understanding, I made lifelong friends. I discovered more than I ever have about myself within this three week period.

I traveled to all of these places in a group of thirty-eight students and four adults. I had been anxiously awaiting this trip for a year, but a feeling of trepidation came over me as I assembled in the Montgomery airport with a group of strangers. We nervously made small talk while checking our luggage, going through security, and boarding our plane to Atlanta. Our flight to Atlanta was rough, and I felt lightheaded the entire time. I had a change of heart once we were over international waters in route to London, England. Watching movies became my source of entertainment on the plane, making me completely content for our nine hour flight. It was not until I exited the plane and went through customs that I realized it was seven o’clock in the morning, and I had been up for twenty-four hours. Our first day in London passed by like a fog; jetlag had defeated me, and I felt like I had taken an overdose of cold medicine. Sleep came easily, and when morning came I knew I could start over with a new beginning. I was well rested and about to explore the enchanting city of London. A sea of endless possibilities were at my disposal, and I planned to use them to my advantage.

The Tower of London and Buckingham Palace quickly overshadowed all of the misfortune that had occurred thus far. Though it brought me a little closer to my peers, we were still withdrawn from one another. Little did I know that we would soon become a huge dysfunctional family full of inside jokes, surreal reminisces, and stories of unfortunate situations that only happen with me. We had great experiences in London, and it drew me to the exciting, fast-paced life that big cities offer. Fish and chips brought us all together on our last night in there before going to see “Blood Brothers,” a show filled with English culture and crude humor. It bluntly presented us with situations and language thought to be profane in America. Their frank, straightforward approach was a major culture shock. This allowed us to bond, and once I started to get to know the people around me I realized that we were more similar than I ever imagined. I actually saw a lot of myself in the people I was talking to. Though we had different passions and opinions, our personalities meshed together to the point where all else became obsolete. Away from home and everything we knew, we attached to one another and formed a bond that would grow stronger with each passing day.

The ferry to France brought seasickness, and my tendency to get carsick did not help with the long, monotonous bus rides we took from place to place. I was drawn to the front seat with Melissa, who took the role of my older sister from then on. Our friendships were firmly established as we scaled the heights of the Eiffel Tower and looked dumbfounded at the prime art rooms in the Louvre. Exhaustion crept up on us at the end of each day as one would expect with a schedule that starts at the crack of dawn and drags on into the night’s late, dark hours. Local color poured out of the subway, better known as the metro, and the local shops. During our free time to explore the city, we selected one another’s clothing in dressing rooms, observed the local art shops, and discovered what would turn into our favorite activity: people watching. I learned more about local culture by simply observing the locals more than any other activity. Who could be a better teacher than the natives that created the very culture we were studying? As we sat at the steps on Notre Dame gazing up at the immense cathedral we had just ventured into, I fell in love with Paris. At that moment I knew that I could sit at a French café sipping coffee, eating French bread, reading, and writing for the rest of my life. People refer to Paris as the City of Love, and I discovered that this is not just in the romantic sense. Lovers of all kinds unite in Paris: lovers of art, lovers of literature, and lovers engrossed with life itself.

Though leaving France broke my heart, passing through Belgium on our way to the Netherlands was not anticlimactic. Eating fries with mayonnaise rather than ketchup and eating Belgian chocolate made directly in front of me is what I miss the most about Belgium. Another country enriched with culture awaited me as we drove to the Netherlands. A second mishap added to my seasickness here. While critiquing a painting in the main lobby of our hotel in the center of the Hague, I stirred a bit of commotion. I was exploring the hotel’s amenities with Zack, one of my new friends, and we were talking about the painting above the elevator. This particular painting consisted of swift brushstrokes of an elderly, unattractive woman. I was unaware that the unappealing, abstract painting I was criticizing was none other than the current queen of the Netherlands. What started as an innocent conversation between Zack and me turned into a verbal scolding by a local man. “You do not talk about our queen like that,” he warned me as I concealed my shock. I never thought these situations occurred in the real world. I tried to recover by saying that it looked like Eleanor Roosevelt, but my efforts went unnoticed. I also learned from this short, burly man that the queen resided only two blocks from our hotel. His words were a bit unsettling considering that they were coming from a strange man in a strange country, but we all learned not to criticize unfamiliar paintings in a public forum. I expected to see my passport photo posted near the gates of the queen’s palace as we drove past on our way to Amsterdam, the most liberal city in the world. We strolled down the streets of Amsterdam in the cold rain all day. Rather than watching for cars as we crossed the street, we had to beware of bikes. Being the main form of transportation in the Netherlands, people of all ages rode bikes; businessmen, businesswomen, school children, shoppers, and pot smokers all used the bike the get them from one place to another. The image I will carry with me forever is of a young man riding a bike, holding an umbrella with one hand, and smoking a joint with the other. There was such a carefree air about him. Aside from interesting housing and countless canals, an abundance of rain, drugs, and lightheartedness sums up Amsterdam.

Germany was a short drive from Amsterdam, and I was unaware that problems and predicaments awaited me from the moment I stepped onto the Rhine River cruise boat. Rain drops streaked down the windows, and the constant swaying from the wind made me feel like I was atop the rough, choppy English Channel once again. Though the mystical castles made a bold statement against the ominous sky, it offered little relief to my queasiness. After eating a questionable German lunch, I ventured outside for fresh air. The cold, wet, splattering raindrops on my face were instantly chilled by the frigid, relentless wind. I watched the scenery roll by until we stopped at our port, which was only a short drive from our home stays. During our home stays each of us stayed with a local family for four days, giving us the opportunity to live the life of a German teenager. I thought that a short period of separation was much needed for all of us, but I had never longed to be with a group of people more. The language barrier and disgusting food combined with the most memorable mishap to create this longing. While most others thought their home stay to be pleasant and rewarding, I look back on hostility and complications. Basically, my home stay sister took me to a party in the middle of a forest and left me with a group of German guys that I did not know. Thankfully, two of my friends were there and came to my rescue. Laura and John David were both there. Laura and I were not friends before this incident, but became sisters during this time. John David and I had been close friends, so he took the role of my protector. He never left my side, and Laura let me stay with her family for the remainder of our home stay. Despite my abrupt invasion at one o’clock in the morning, Laura’s family took me in with open arms and succeeded in making up for the troubles I had gone through in their country. My former family reacted with hostility when I was removed from their home, making me feel incredibly guilty. Nevertheless, I look back on Germany and am thankful for the friendly, caring people that watched after me.

Being reunited with my group could not have come soon enough. I tackled Melissa and the friends I had so deeply missed like we had been separated for much longer than four days. We sat at a small, quaint café in Heidelberg sharing our experiences all morning. Warm croissants and hot coffee rejuvenated our cold, damp spirits as we went through the high points of everyone’s home stay. Though mine definitely wasn’t the most pleasant of experiences, it was the most eventful. People rarely get removed from their home stays, which contributed to my problem causing tendencies in a unique way. Not everyone gets to experience the day in the life of German teenager by partying in the forest with a group of suspicious people. Once we started to tour Heidelberg, the rain came back to visit us. The rain in Germany was unlike any rain that I have ever experienced. The wind blew with an unyielding force, and the rain itself fell persistently in heavy sheets without relief. Though it was not accompanied by thunder, lightening or tornadoes, it was worse than rain in the South. Without rain jackets we all scrambled under shared umbrellas throughout the city. Rain was dripping off of my soaking wet jeans and over worn Vanderbilt sweatshirt as I climbed into the bus that evening. Melissa and I struggled to warm our numb bodies under the one beach towel she had brought. I do not think we had ever been so ready to leave a country as we were when we left Germany.

Sighs of relief came over all of us as the guards collected our passports and allowed us to cross the Swiss border. Though we were excited to be off German soil, the dreaded thought of going back to America and saying goodbye was in the back of all of our minds. That must have been the reason that our time in Switzerland stood out among all the rest. I roomed with my two best friends, Julia and Mary Martha, and we decided to savor every moment we had left. Julia, Mary Martha and I had been close friends since that last night in London, so being with them at the end of the trip was special. This resulted in even later nights filled with food, talks, and laughs. We took advantage of every free night we had out on the town, even if we just sat and people watched. On our last day we scaled the heights of Mount Pilatus on a cogwheel railway cart. Our breath was taken away as we gazed out at the never ending Swiss Alps. God’s glory and beauty has never shone so brightly as it did in that moment. The snow that rested on each mountain peak along with individual wooden crosses contributed to this. As we bobsledded halfway down the mountain, the wind rushed through my hair and the vivid scenery brushed past me. The exhilaration I got from this helped me get through the terrifying gondola ride the rest of the way down. Our trip could not have ended with a better activity, and it was not until we were riding the bus back to the hotel that I was overcome with sadness. I was half asleep on Melissa’s shoulder when I realized that the daily conversations, naps, and snacks we shared on the bus were virtually over. I knew that this would be one of the last times our group as a whole would be congregated together. I forced these thoughts out of my head and decided to make our last night memorable. Rather than sitting in the hall filled with depression, we went to the club room in our hotel and danced the night away. We did this until we were forced back into our rooms at one o’clock that morning. Knowing that we had to get up in three hours to catch our plane, Mary Martha, Julia and I spent the rest of our night eating the snacks we still had and talking about whatever popped into our heads. We did this for as long as we could to prolong going to bed, because we knew that there was a plane waiting for us after we awoke.

Boarding our plane to Atlanta was the hardest thing I had to do the entire trip. I felt as if the plane was heading in the wrong direction. Though it was heading towards my home, I had no desire to separate from the people and places I had grown to love. I blocked these thoughts out of my mind and fell asleep for six of the ten hours. This was not difficult considering my lack of sleep the previous night. The Dramamine I had taken blocked out the chaos of getting through customs and nearly missing our flight to Montgomery. Once in Montgomery we reluctantly said goodbye and reunited with our true families. Though we went back to different houses and different cities, we took a piece of each other with us. A day does not go by when I do not talk to my friends. The pictures help to piece the places together, but it does not do it much justice. Traveling changed me for the better, and the insights, culture, and friendships I gained surpass all else.

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