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Finding Friendship in Foreign Places
The wheels of flight DAL22 left the ground as the plane rocketed into the sky. It was 6:06 in the evening on the twenty-third of June. Solid earth fell rapidly away from the fuselage. The view of Atlanta, Georgia, diminished to a matchbox miniature that quickly gave way to clouds. The Boeing 767 was only minutes into a flight that would last over eight hours. 33,000 feet above the surface of the planet, those on flight DAL22 headed north on a trans-Atlantic trajectory. I was among them. However, I did not make the 4,400-mile journey alone. My travel companions included 40 teenagers from around Berks County, Pennsylvania, the majority of whom I did not know. We made up a large, maroon clump on the plane, as we were all in matching uniform shirts, each bearing the logo of People To People Student Ambassador Programs. At that time I was wondering how I could have ever ended up on a plane headed for a European country with a group of almost complete strangers. Traveling abroad had always been one of my dreams, and going with People To People seemed like the perfect opportunity.
Ten months prior to that night, I received a very special letter informing me I had been nominated to travel with People To People. After applying and being accepted to the program, I began attending monthly meetings of my delegation that was to travel to France, Italy and Greece. Many of the delegates were extremely excited about the trip, while I was as calm as ever. Even though I was packing a suitcase, it didn’t really occur to me where that suitcase would be going. Even though I had read my entire itinerary, it didn’t even faze me. On some level, I still didn’t believe I was really going. Probably closer to the truth is the fact that the departure date had snuck up on me so fast, I hadn’t had time to think about what I was doing and therefore had simply accepted it. That was why, on the night before I was to leave, I went to bed just as if it was any other night, not my last in the country. Nothing seemed different; nothing was there to indicate the beginning of a great journey other than my packed luggage sitting at the door. In the morning I got up as if I was just going to the grocery store. In truth, I hadn’t been counting down the minutes to that day and hadn’t been eagerly awaiting its arrival. The day had simply come, so I awoke and faced it as I would any other. My parents took me to Governor Mifflin High School so I could get on the bus that would take my delegation to the airport. That morning in the car, we could have been going anywhere. We could have been going to the mall or the movies. There was nothing to indicate that June 23, 2007, would be different from any other day in my life.
After leaving my parents, I boarded the bus with my group and we rode in silence to Philadelphia International Airport. I was excited to be at an airport again, because I love checking in, being screened by security, and finding the proper gate. Those are just things for which I live. After we arrived at our gate I was spared from boredom by the announcement of our flight to Atlanta. Our arrival in Georgia signaled the start of more down time during the layover between our two flights. Later on as we headed for the door to the jet way, two thoughts crossed my mind. The first was surprise at how much fun we were having and how well we were getting along. The second was realization that I was standing on American soil for what would be the last time in three weeks.
Our parents were under the impression that we, the ambassadors, would not be able to sleep on the overnight flight due to extreme excitement. This could not have been farther from the truth. The flight itself, despite food and movies, was painfully monotonous. Attempting to sleep was futile, so all we could do was wait for morning. The most difficult part of the trip was probably the night spent restlessly awaiting arrival in Paris. On a plane, time seems to stand still. Hurtling above the clouds, I didn’t feel like I was actually moving at all. Essentially, I sat in a chair for eight hours until someone told me I could leave. When we were finally permitted to disembark, none of us were concerned with where we were or what we were about to do. All we were thinking about was getting off the plane and being able to stand. As we crossed the tarmac, the sky above was a pale grey. Internally, I felt like I had fallen into a void where time ceased to exist. I had no idea what hour of the day it was supposed to be. Charles De Gaulle International Airport was so characteristically busy, that it could have been an airport in any major city of the world. It was full of people hastily trying to be anywhere but there. As a first-time ambassador, I was searching for some big sign, some clue that would announce, “This is France,” however, I found nothing.
My delegation passed through customs, left the airport, and boarded a bus as if we did these things in Paris every day. For all those around us knew, perhaps we did. Traveling down a highway in France, I couldn’t get the thought out of my head that it looked just like home. All I could see was the road, the cars, and various trees and shrubs. It would have been easy to convince myself that I was on the way to Reading, Pennsylvania. My eyes kept traveling up to the sun in the sky; a sun that I had seen countless times before, but never from that part of the world. There I was in a different hemisphere, on a different continent, and yet nothing indicated the difference at all. It was both maddening and awe-inspiring.
As my delegation began our exploration of Paris over the next couple of days, we certainly felt a loyalty to each other as Americans, Pennsylvanians, and residents of Berks County. However, at the top of the Eiffel Tower I was so caught up in my photography that I didn’t notice when most of my group went back down. As friends we were still loosely connected and not worried about one another’s whereabouts.
Towards the end of our delegation’s stay in Paris, my fellow delegates and I began to grow somewhat closer. Our next adventure was the overnight train out of France. It was quite fascinating, but sleep was very hard to accomplish. By the time we hit Venice, Italy, we spent a lot of time in smaller groups. Everyone was still looking out for themselves, in some ways. When we went on gondola rides, I wasn’t quick enough to find a group and found myself shoved in with whoever was left. Yet, it really did surprise me how easily we all accepted each other. I think it had something to do with the fact that there were so few of us, and our contact with Americans was limited to our delegation. However, our American contact was about to become even more limited.
The next portion of my delegation’s journey involved each of us leaving the group for home stays. I was nervous and sad to depart from the group, even though we’d been together for barely a week. My home stay family included two parents who did not speak English, a college-age son who also did not speak English, and a 14-year-old daughter who spoke English quite well. They were very warm and welcoming overall. My primary companion was the daughter, Arianna. We were able to learn a lot about each other over the four days I resided with her family. For the first time in my life, I knew what it felt like to be a foreign exchange student. I was amazed when everyone wanted to meet and talk to me, the American girl. It was a little unnerving being unable to speak with the Italians and understand what they were saying. Most frequently people I met would look at me, laugh, and say something about Americana. I gained a lot of insight about the Italian culture and learned that they know much more about us than we know about them. While it was a very enriching experience, I did not become as attached to my home stay family as other delegates did. I was a little saddened to be leaving my family, for we had shared so much together, but ultimately I felt that I belonged back with my group. I was very surprised by how much I had missed my fellow ambassadors. Although we had only been apart for four days, it felt like it had been weeks. Once back together, we instantly fell into our old routines as though we had known them forever. I think the separation and reunion of our group made us much closer, and gave us new appreciation of each other as individuals.
Our delegation continued our amazing journey by traveling to Florence and Pisa. We spent a day in Assisi working on teamwork and cooperation by completing the Full-On program. The program was designed to inspire trust and lead us out of our comfort zones, something that included rappelling down a tower that was 100 feet high. Our day in Assisi also gave us a chance to focus on each other because we were placed into random groups. I learned that although we all preferred to stay with our own kind, so to speak, none of my peers were openly hostile to one another. This led me to believe that those I traveled with were truly decent, respectable people.
Our next destination was Rome, the capital city of Italy. We spent quite a lot of time touring the sights, but almost just as much time was devoted to shopping on our own. The whole group began meshing together really well. Our entire delegation was having a fabulous time exploring the great cities of the world. Along with things like the Roman Forum and the Coliseum, we also visited Vatican City. I found myself with a much tighter core of travel companions most of the time. The group had grown to care not only for themselves, but also for each other.
The trip began its home stretch as we traveled on to Mt. Vesuvius and Pompeii. Each day brought better things. We soon boarded an overnight ferry bound for Greece. It was so amazing to be able to go anywhere on the ship. For once on the trip, we were the ones planning what we did, when we did it, and with whom we did it. Although we had been growing closer throughout the whole trip, it was that night on the ferry that my group of five other delegates became rock-solid friends. We dubbed ourselves “The Crew” and spent every minute possible together after that. We stood out on the deck and gazed up at stars that were ten times clearer than those at home. Something magical happened, and we were fated to be together.
Greece brought with it a delightful change in food. Our delegation finally got a taste of fruit and vegetables after eating mainly pasta and meat in Italy. The days in Athens were sunny and warm, and the entire tempo of the trip seemed to be slowing down, allowing us to finally relax a little. Our group toured the Acropolis, and we completed our People To People service requirement by aiding in the return of a sea turtle to the ocean. We finally got some American cuisine at the Hard Rock Cafe and took in a little local culture by learning Greek dances and then seeing a show. Something about our time together was a bit surreal, because we were so far removed from everything we’d ever known.
Our delegation set off for one last perfect day in Greece. We took a small ferry to the island of Aegina, where we spent most of the day relaxing on the beach. The sun was bright and hot on our backs, while the clear water was delightfully cool. The sky was a deep blue, in contrast to the bleach-white houses. Our time was absorbed by swimming, eating ice cream, and just lying around doing nothing, which is something we had not done in a long while. I spent the rest of the day shopping and lounging in little cafes with my friends. At the end of that last day we boarded the ferry for the mainland. I sat with my friends while the sea breeze blew through my hair, and the sun set behind us.
The next day we had to pack our suitcases and fly back home. It seemed sad that something that had lasted so long had to end so quickly. On July 12, 2007, our delegation left the country of Greece. The sun was shining when we left, and it was still shining 12 hours later when we arrived in Atlanta, Georgia. The two-hour run between Atlanta and Philadelphia seemed quick in comparison. No one was watching as a group of half-dead teenagers got on a bus and left the airport at midnight. We were all stuck somewhere between tired and wired, which made for a both interesting and uneventful ride. I spent the last hour of my trip in near silence with my friends. Upon arrival at Governor Mifflin High School we were thrust into the arms of parents we had almost forgotten, yet remembered each day. In that one minute everything I had left behind three weeks earlier returned to me in a rush. It seemed so unreal that I was back where I had started and that was probably partly because mentally and emotionally I was so far from where I had been. It was very hard to part from friends that I had essentially lived with for almost a month. We had become so close, possibly closer than I’d ever been with anyone before. In the end there were hugs and tears, which is exactly what there had been at our departure, only so much had changed in the interim.
Some may choose to believe that it is impossible to form a close relationship in three weeks. I disagree because I did it, and not just once, but five times over. It has been proven that often the closest bonds are formed in a short amount of time when the individuals involved are experiencing something extreme. On my People To People trip we did experience something extreme, and we experienced it all together, which will forever make it all the more memorable to me. I am partial to the belief that what we shared is what binds us, and that the close state of our friendship could not have been reached anywhere but halfway across the world, under a magical star-filled sky.