NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – For almost as long as I can remember, I have been an avid traveler. My family has taken a vacation pretty much every summer since I was in elementary school.
But while I have become familiar with much of the United States, it wasn’t until the European Choir Tour this past January that I was able to expand my traveling to much of Europe as well. While I had been to Germany once before to visit some relatives and spend a few days in Berlin, Poland, Switzerland, France and The Netherlands were completely new experiences.
I thought Poland was going to feel the most “foreign.” It was the one country about which I knew virtually nothing, and I didn’t (and still don’t) speak a word of Polish.
But when we arrived in Gdansk for our first night in Europe, I was surprised at how much I had to keep reminding myself we were in Europe. Maybe it was because I was traveling with 45 other Americans, but I actually felt more “at home” than I ever would have expected. It didn’t even matter that the signs were in a language I had no hope of being able to read or that many of the people couldn’t speak English.
At our first concert, the audience was very receptive and at least as appreciative as any audience we have had on tour in the United States – they even demanded several encores. Though we knew many of them couldn’t understand the words to our pieces, we were still able to speak to them through our music. It was also fun to sing “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly,” a Polish carol, in Polish and see them smiling as they sang along.
Germany was another highlight of the trip. Berlin was our first stop. Even with it being my second visit, I was amazed at how much there is to see and do there. The German Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate, the Berliner Dom and the Pergamon Museum were just a few of the attractions we visited. We also got a tour of the State Prison, where people persecuted for their beliefs before German reunification were imprisoned and tortured. I was glad to have a chance to practice my German, although many Germans would switch to English as soon as they figured out I was American – I guess they wanted to practice their English on me.
Our time in Switzerland and France was fairly brief. We had our first home stay in Switzerland, where many of us first experienced staying with people who did not speak English. Another choir member and I stayed with a couple who spoke only German and French. Luckily, we were able to get by with my rudimentary knowledge of German.
France was another highlight of the trip. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the French people because I had always heard that the French do not like Americans and are not always very polite to them. However, based on our experiences in Montbéliard, Straβburg and Geisberg, this proved to be completely wrong.
They were some of the sweetest people we met on this trip. I think my favorite home stay was in Montbéliard, where I stayed with a young married couple with a small child. They didn’t speak English well, but between what they knew and my high school French, we were able to communicate just fine. There were also a couple of articles written in local French newspapers after our concerts in Montbéliard and Geisberg – front page.
The Netherlands was our last stop, with most of our time in Amsterdam. My favorite parts were going to the Van Gogh Museum and the Anne Frank House. I had read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl back in eighth grade and learned a lot about her story and the Holocaust, so it was amazing to have the opportunity to tour the house. I found that museums are a lot more interesting when one already has background knowledge.
Overall, I had a wonderful time in Europe, and it was difficult to have to return home after several weeks there. Though there were some differences between Europe and the United States, I can’t remember ever feeling too far out of my element. Sometimes language was a barrier, but it mostly felt just like any other vacation: Everything looked different, yet somehow I felt the same as I would anywhere else.
Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in Forbes.com’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2009 and one of only two Kansas colleges listed in Colleges of Distinction 2008-09. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.
Monica Schmidt is a junior from Mount Hope. She was one of 44 members of the Bethel College Concert Choir who spent the January interterm touring in Europe and singing in 15 different venues in five countries, accompanied by Merle Schlabaugh, professor of German, and William Eash, professor of music and choir director.