A country girl goes to Europe
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Halee Hillyer is a sophomore at Clinton High School. She recently returned from a trip to Europe as part of The People to People Ambassador Program. This is the final part of Halee’s story.
Story and photos by Halee Hillyer
I woke up to my first full day in the Netherlands bound and determined to see my cup half full, not half empty. Yes, half my European adventure was behind me, but I was convinced the best half could be in front of me. And gnawing away in the back of my mind was the idea that I could do something to bring about this change in me that many had spoken of before I left home.
Our first tour of the day was the home of Ann Frank and her family, who hid from the Nazis during World War II. I had read about her in school and looked forward to seeing with my real eyes what I had imagined in my mind’s eye. The house was smaller than I had expected and the neighborhood more crowded. But the story told by the guide was the same one of bravery and courage I had been so impressed with at school.
Next we toured Amsterdam by boat in the canal system that connects much of the city. Once I got used to the fishy smell the trip was pleasant. Hundreds of bridges cross the canals and there always seemed to be traffic, much of it bicycles. Gas is way more expensive than we’re used to, so bicycles are more numerous. Also seemed like they used more color in their buildings than here. The city has a festive and lively feel to it.
Later in the day we learned about two interesting Dutch specialties: wooden shoe (clogs) carving and cheese making. As the demonstrations progressed I kept having this feeling I had been here before, sort of a deja vu thing. Then it came to me: My grandpa had shown me pictures and talked about this place after he had returned from his European tour four years ago. Suddenly my picture of how big the world is became smaller.
Early the next day our coach left Amsterdam for The Hague. In the 13th century The Hague was the site of a hunting lodge for the counts of Holland. Today it is considered one of Europe’s most beautiful cities with fine streets, handsome public buildings and picturesque waterways. Our walking tour passed many stately mansions and regal embassies as we strolled down the grand boulevard to the Peace Palace, where the International Court of Justice is housed.
The Netherlands and Belgium together are about the size of Arkansas so the coach ride to Bruges, Belgium, went quickly. Bruges was founded in the 8th century and was a center of trade with England by the 11th century. The great age of many places I visited was hard to comprehend. I think of my grandma as old, but she’s a spring chicken compared to these places. I guess it’s all relative.
We had a wonderful horse and carriage ride the next day through what is often called the Venice of the North. Bruges’ ornate Historic Center has changed very little in the last 500 years and is designated a World Heritage Site. The architecture is incredibly beautiful.
Afterward we saw a demonstration of how the famous Belgium chocolates are made. The size of the sample was a bit disappointing so I purchased more. That was mostly for my mom who said, “Bring me back some, even if it’s in a puddle.”
Other relatives wanted Belgium lace. Incredibly, I found a lace shop. I mean that was all it sold, with certificates of authenticity. Looking at all the different types of beautiful lace I could see why it is liked so much by so many. As the ancient little man behind the counter slid my small lace samples into a bag, I had no idea that would be the last time I saw them. Somewhere between that little shop and home, sadly, my lace gifts disappeared.
Regret at leaving Burges was quickly replaced with excitement over our next destination — Paris! Along the way we stopped to see the Menin Gate Memorial where the names of 55,000 soldiers who died in World War I are inscribed. Within walking distance was the “In Flanders Fields-Museum” with its many graphic photos and displays about the horrors of World War I. The idea is that by remembering the dreadful consequences of war it’s easier to choose peace.
What can I say about Paris? Everybody knows something about it. I wanted to see the Eiffel Tower. At the 899-foot level the view is incredible and the city seems to go on and on, with maybe a little countryside in the far distance. I was happy to hear it was of more recent construction than many of the castles and buildings I had visited. It was built for the World’s Fair of 1889.
My tour of the Louvre was disappointing. There was too much to see and not enough time. We did see da Vinci’s Mona Lisa but the small painting on the wall did not match the big picture in my mind.
The Palace of Versailles was one of my favorite tours. This is where French kings and queens lived for over a hundred years and it was absolutely beautiful. Sculptures and fountains adorn the extensive grounds and the palace itself has been the model for hundreds of imitations. The age of kings and queens ended here with the French Revolution and the loss of many heads.
There was so much to do in Paris and it seemed we had so little time. But we did visit the historic Montmarte area and the white Basilique du Sacre Coeur, the second highest point in the city. And we experienced the busy, noisy streets with incredible buildings and the sights and sounds of interesting people everywhere.
On our last night in Paris a delegation leader said we should try a favorite French delicacy — escargot. That sounded familar and I hoped it would be a French pastry. I wanted to shriek when the waiter placed a big plate of what looked like stuffed snail shells on the table. My nose was not the only one turned up at the awful sight. Strangely no one made a big deal and slowly we tried our samples. Once past the slimy feel, I decided it didn’t taste so bad. Sort of reminded me of chicken.
Early in the morning I had my last views of a city Ernest Hemingway called a “movable feast,” as we headed for the coast and Normandy. We received a warm welcome from the mayor of Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer and information about the June 6, 1944, event that took place on nearby beaches.
I watched the flag-raising ceremony and walked barefoot on the light colored sand of the beach. I struggled to imagine the magnitude of the battle on this beach as Allied forces attempted to break the Nazi strangle-hold on Europe.
The Normandy American Cemetery is the last resting place of 9,386 soldiers killed in the Battle of Normandy. Feelings bubbled up within me as I walked among the thousands of white crosses looking for soldier from Arkansas. When I found him, I knelt and placed a flower upon his grave. I was overwhelmed with gratitude.
We boarded the overnight ferry to Portsmouth late in the day, so most of our English Channel crossing was in the dark. the ferry was a huge boat with shopping and other amenities. The slight rocking of the ferry put us all to sleep quickly.
London is another huge city. From the top of the London Eye (one of the largest Ferris wheels in the world) we could see many of the city’s major landmarks. This was a clear moment but we were treated to the famous London fog and drizzle later.
The sites in London are impressive: the Changing of the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace; Big Ben; The Tower of London and the Crown Jewels, to name a few. My favorite was Hampton Court Palace. Built in 1515 its most famous resident was King Henry VIII. You know, the guy with all the wives.
It is a huge place and as our tour advanced my mind drifted to what it would have been like to be a queen. I was lost in thought and suddenly realized I was no longer with my group. At first panic gripped me, but then I saw another of our groups coming and knew I wasn’t lost. I pretended I was on my own and continued my own tour. What fun, I thought, this could be just what I need to help me change. It wasn’t, but I did feel more self-confident when I rejoined my group.
The last night we saw a musical in London’s West End. The stage props were well done, the story line and lyrics strong and the singing top notch. I especially loved that the wicked witch in The Land of Oz finally got to tell her side of the story. What a funny twist on an old story.
The next day at the airport I pondered what I would tell the people who had said this trip would change me. I didn’t feel changed. Some had said change can be slow and can take a while to see it for what it is. Yes,maybe that’s how it will be with me. I’ll just have to wait and see.
I sat there watching travelers coming and going. Some in a hurry, some not; some laughing, some angry. A baby cried in a mother’s arms. An old couple greeted each other lovingly. Two young boys were yelled at for playing tag.
Suddenly it hit me. When I started this trip in Zurich and looked at people they were foreigners and strange. But here, at the end of my trip, I was looking at people as people, even though they were still foreigners, but not so strange anymore. I know now that people in other places are not all that different from us and in this awareness I feel the seeds of peace.
I’m proud of my community, my family, my friends. They have contributed to who I am. And now the world has contributed to who I am. I look forward to where this will take me.