When I was just out of middle school, I got to embark on a two-week tour of Europe. However, the timing was such that I signed up late, and my travel accommodations were different from that of the rest of my group.
Getting the opportunity to go was in and of itself a neat thing. I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would have that opportunity. I remember my 9th-grade German teacher, a Mrs. Martin I believe, told us that she would often take a group of kids to Europe every couple of years, and the next one was that upcoming summer. I would have been fifteen, putting this in 2002.
I thought that was the coolest idea, and I knew that I was going to bring it home and share it with my family. Still, I also knew that the chances of me going were next to zero because we didn’t have a lot of money. In fact, I wasn’t expecting my parents to pay for it; I honestly just wanted to share a cool idea with them and then focus on getting on with my life.
I wasn’t heartbroken or hurt, just realistic.
And just like I figured, I shared it with them, and they didn’t pursue it or show any sign of hope or offering. So I let it lie and forgot about it.
Then, something like a week or two later, my mom and dad approached me and said that I should go and put up the $2000 for the cost of the two weeks. In those days, that $2000 covered airfare, hotels, dinner every night, the bus and necessary gas fees, the tour guide fees, and almost any other fee imaginable for two weeks. All except for breakfasts, lunches, and any souvenirs and odd purchases I wanted to make.
When I heard this, I almost couldn’t believe it, but I knew when my parents were being straight with me. They didn’t often joke about money. When I saw that they were “for real,” it sent me over the moon.
Because of this, I was the last to sign up, but I made it in time. Flying over there, I was with the rest of my group on the plane, though I sat in a different section on both flights. I believe we landed in Germany or Switzerland to start with. I have pictures of this trip, but they were all taken on disposable cameras, and their quality is not very good at all.
The countries I got to see were Germany, Switzerland, Austria, France, and England. Our Salt Lake crew was somewhere around ten or so individuals. When we landed in Germany, we met up with what would be our group for the whole two weeks: a total of four school groups from across the United States, varying in ages from middle school to high school.
And would you believe it, we hit it off immediately. Both kids and parents. We all found friends and buddies with different backgrounds and lives. We never feared to be in the company of other adults, and everyone looked out for each other. To me, as a young, impressionable teenager from Salt Lake City, Utah, this has been one of my biggest and most enjoyable takeaways from Europe. It was effortless for us to get along, and everything was enhanced because of it.
I don’t know how many parts this blog will take up, but I imagine I’ll be jumping around as I tell it.
There are some things I can still recall vividly, but most are condensed into that weird, mind-map we have in our brains that connects to emotions and our senses. Those are hard to describe. Before I start listing some of my favorite experiences, I want to talk a bit more about the group.
I was lucky to have a group of boys going from my grade and class that I got along with. I believe that made for a much better trip for all of us. But for context, we didn’t really hang out or talk much back home. I consider our positive association an opportunity of circumstance that we did great with. Still, when we got home, that association ended.
I don’t remember everyone from our group, and I haven’t kept in contact with any of them since.
The kids and chaperones from the other schools also seemed pretty close to each other and got along well. Some of them were really close friends, and others were like us, put together, and along for the ride.
Naturally, I was most interested in if any cute girls would be joining us for the two weeks, and there definitely were some. However, none were interested in any romantic, teenage, two-week adventure, so friends are how we stayed.
I remember, in particular, a young lady and her parents from somewhere in the Great Lakes region that I really got along with. All the time spent walking and observing gave ample chance to learn more about each other. This girl and I would have some great talks ranging in interests, to religion, to a similar sense of humor, and beyond. Out of all the people I met on that trip, over the years, I regret not keeping in touch with her the most.
The adults were also easy to talk to and very helpful. I remember, in particular, a man from the South Carolina group that loved to joke, and we would riff off each other and laugh. He was essentially an adult teenager, but super friendly, and very attentive.
And this brings me to our tour guide, Sasha, and bus driver, Charlie, who were a fantastic combo. Sasha spoke like five languages, wasn’t dry or overbearing, and he knew his stuff. On top of being fun, honest, and engaging, he and Charlie would take us to locations outside of the itinerary if we had the time. And it seems like they made the time for it because they really went out of their way to accommodate us.
Wherever we went, and no matter what the circumstance, they handled everything with poise and confidence, and nothing seemed to exist outside of their plan. Even when we would take breaks to go walk around or be left on our own for lunch, they provided us meeting spots and landmarks that kept us centered, comfortable, and able to navigate.
Personally, I had many unique and influential moments with them throughout this trip, and I was amazed at how they’d take the time to pay attention to someone like me. They did this with everyone, too, which was terrific. We were all important, and they showed us that.
So as I end part one, and I want to share some of what I learned as a whole.
Being a religious kid from Salt Lake City, and growing up in what many people term the “Mormon Bubble,” I had no idea what to expect with this trip. I was never afraid to go, and even while there, I never felt fear or concern for my well-being or my company. But I was naive, and I was put so far outside of my comfort zone that I never had the chance to recover.
Honestly, I’m most grateful for that.
I was proud of myself on this trip. I kept to my morals. I represented myself, my group, and my faith respectfully, but I also allowed new things in. I asked questions, engaged with people who don’t share my perspectives or upbringing, saw how other people lived and carried out their day-to-day activities. Because I found a way to open up and enjoy what was before me, I feel like I walked away with so much.
Being outside my “bubble” not only expanded it, but I personally believe it to have popped. My eyes were opened, and the knowledge and experience I encountered exceeded any potential expectation I could have set. As I’ve had the opportunity to travel to other places throughout the world, I look back and see this trip as the pivot point for any navigational success.
Nowadays our world is seen as small because of the internet, but this is just not true. When someone who hasn’t been exposed to any sense of “other” views it in a controlled and comfortable space, they now have that moment but on their terms. This is not the way to experience the world. If you can allow the influence of something outside of yourself into play, you’ll find more than you ever could “on your own.” Playing it safe is not a horrible thing, but trying to “control safe” will stunt your life in harmful ways.
Why my parents suddenly decided to let me go on this trip, I’ve never known. I honestly don’t think I will, because this was eighteen years ago. When I returned home, I did my best to thank them repeatedly for their gift, so I hope they know my gratitude. I also hope they could see what I received because of it.
We protect our children so fiercely in our current age, and I feel sad for both the children and the parents. When you try to hold so tightly, and control with such suppression, pain, exhaustion, fear, and loss are all you’ll ever find.
Even the strongest man or woman has their limit. Even the wisest cannot see all ends (thanks Tolkien for that line!).
I was fifteen years old, in Europe, for two weeks, with other stupid teenagers, and surrounded by strangers. My parents could not interact with me, except when I would call them at the end of the day. They had to trust so many things to go right.
But, they also had to trust me. I had to trust me. I had to learn what it was like to have mainly myself to rely on in a foreign land with foreign people. I eventually gained some great relationships and made new friends. Still, as I’ve stated, I have no idea where these people are now. They were a two-week experiment that succeeded.
This, above all else, is why I’m grateful to have had a small moment in Europe at fifteen years old. This is why I believe that all teenagers should have the opportunity to visit a land so unlike their own, just to live in it and have their eyes opened. I wish that for them, but I don’t lose sleep at night if they don’t.
Part two of this blog will be forthcoming, and I’ll dive into some of my favorite places, memories, and what we actually did.
On with the show.