What do a girl who signs all her travelers checks before going to the bank and a boy who, against regulations, photographs an East German border guard have in common? Each was a member of one of my 30 student travel groups.
My adolescent travel mates brought unanticipated adventure to our exchange trips – plus gray hairs aplenty to this teacher/chaperone/occasional mother figure.
I could write volumes about the international understanding developed by Graham’s German exchange program or about what more than a generation of kids who crossed the Atlantic with me learned about German culture. This week, however, I choose to share some of those adventures I experienced with my teenage traveling companions.
Chaperones have always had to deal with the teenage hunger that plagues any trip. Our ravenous American/German group returning from a weekend in Paris was no exception. My friend Ingrid had planned a fantastic excursion including all the sights and bites: Eiffel Tower, croissants, Versailles, baguettes, Notre Dame. Not part of her plan was the farmers’ strike that closed an extended section of the French interstate. While I happily exchanged panoramic scenes along the super highway for more intimate, up-close views from a smaller road, there were fewer options for refreshment breaks to satisfy our group of 50 people.
We finally found a modest grocery store on the edge of a small French town. Hungry kids of both nationalities took the place by storm, eventually returning to the bus toting bags and bottles of every imaginable snack food and beverage. The teen shopping spree, while undoubtedly welcome, could be compared only to a swarm of locusts descending upon the store shelves and stunning the unsuspecting clerks working there.
Getting just the right photograph was also high on my students’ priority lists. Once we traveled south from Munich in a minibus to tour areas in the shadow of the Alps. Oh, there was nothing wrong with the large tour buses in which we typically traveled to the picturesque Neuschwanstein and Linderhof castles. But as the only occupants of the minibus, we could stop wherever and whenever we chose.
Our tiny bus was full of 4-Hers and FFA members begging to stop at a field in which people were stacking loose hay. Although the kids wanted me to translate their English requests into German posing instructions, I insisted they practice their own German.
Suddenly they took off running across the small field toward a grandmother, two children, and a couple of young men who appeared to be teens themselves – all of whom had begun their farm work that morning unaware of impending foreign invasion. The elderly lady hustled the children away; but the teens accommodated every picture request and, to this very day, are probably recounting their brush with adventure.
I try to envision local reaction if a tour bus pulled into the IGA parking lot in St. Paris and dispensed a gaggle of teens speaking in foreign tongues while buying every cookie and chip in sight. I similarly wonder what a Champaign County farmer might do if a group of foreigners came running across his cornfield, cameras in hand.
What do a girl who loses her passport on travel day home from Germany and a girl who loses her passport on travel day enroute to Germany have in common? Both were members of my exchange groups.
Sightseeing was also an important and popular part of our travels. Just as the German kids toured our nation’s capital during their USA visit, my groups and I spent time in Berlin. Although Bonn was the official capital of West Germany during the years of the Berlin Wall, it was in Berlin where the kids really learned about historical events and postwar political realities.
Each year, I cautiously led my students under the “You Are Now Leaving the American Sector” warning sign to begin the walk from Checkpoint Charlie through communist East Berlin to the Alexanderplatz. There, in addition to a visible military presence, we saw the World Clock and the TV tower while watching East Berliners relax by the fountain or queue up to buy cheap goods more readily available back home.
For a glimpse of daily life away from the popular square, we once took a short tram trip to the outskirts of the city and back. At that time, East Germans who spoke with people from the West – like us – were regularly reported to Communist authorities. Thus, our presence on the streetcar was somewhat problematic and certainly troublesome. As I watched my bubbly charges being their typical, open selves, I also observed our East Berlin tram mates: to a person, each stared silently at the floor of the streetcar for the entire duration of the ride – a sobering lesson about life under Communism during the Cold War.
What do kids who run a lap in the Berlin Stadium on the same track where Jesse Owens won Olympic gold for the USA in 1936 and kids who chisel out their own pieces of the fallen Berlin Wall to lug home in their suitcases have in common? All were my travel partners.
I could not have been more fortunate to have shared such eventful and memorable travels, all the while experiencing the world through the eyes and hearts of almost 500 teenage tourists. It was the education of a lifetime – for all of us.