Unlike running and photography, both of which I picked up later in my youth, travelling has been a staple in my life almost since birth. Taking trips as a kid was as normal to us as Peanut Butter and Jelly (also a staple in my life). Whether it was a drive across the country, a trip up to the family farm in Massachusetts or summer vacations at the Jersey Shore, we were always going somewhere on an adventure.

My parents and I in Vail, Colorado visiting family. (1981)

My first big trip was a road trip from Pennsylvania to Colorado to visit my uncle. I was only six months old. I’m sure this seemed like a good idea at the time. Of course what they didn’t know was that I had hip dysplasia, and much to their dismay, I screamed most of the drive out and back. You’re welcome Mom and Dad!

My parents and I in Colorado visiting family. (1981)

After high school I attended Lock Haven University, a small state school in central Pennsylvania, which thankfully despite its size put a big emphasis on international travel. At the time, they had numerous semester abroad programs, as well as shorter seminar classes available all over the world.

While I did have high hopes for a semester abroad in Australia, a variety of logistics (mainly a guaranteed fifth and maybe sixth year in college) prevented that. Probably for the better, as I am terrified of little spiders…let alone spiders bigger than your head!

As a studio art major earning a liberal arts degree, you were required to take three seminar style classes as part of the curriculum. With a semester abroad in Australia firmly off the table, I jumped at the chance to take the Art Humanities Seminar that is held in Paris and London in every year.

While the class was through Lock Haven University, a wonderful company called EF Tours organized the travel, hotels and meals, as well as a few of the sightseeing activities. The EF stands for Education First, and they host a variety of tours for students worldwide, with an emphasis on learning via experience and cultural immersion. Aside from handling all of the logistics, they also make it incredibly easy to extend your trip. This allows you to easily stay behind and travel on your own once the scheduled portion is over. I took full advantage of this opportunity! I chose to extend my trip by an extra two weeks and head to Germany to visit a friend who was an exchange student at Lock Haven two years prior.

So as not to conflict with other classes, the seminar class occurs in early summer, after the spring semester has finished. Living closer to New York City than to Lock Haven, I met the group up at JFK Airport for our departure to Paris. While I had traveled within the United States without my family before, this was my first time out of the country, and as such was understandably a bit apprehensive.

Our school group checking out the view from Sacre Coeur in Paris, France (2003)

The trip was a good mix of schoolwork and fun! For the class portion, we had to study numerous works of art before leaving for the trip, then lead group discussions on a couple of them in the museums while abroad and then write a ten page paper once home on the experience. 

The works of art we had to study are all housed in either The Musee du Louvre, The Musee d’Orsay, The National Gallery London or the Tate Britain, some of the most famous art museums in the world. 

An important part of this trip was contacting these museums, to ensure the works we were going to discuss would actually be in the museum on display, during the dates we would be there. Let’s just say I maaaaay have dropped the ball on this and all of my prepared works maaaaay have either been out on loan to other museums OR the one museum was closed thanks to a French union strike.

These group discussions were a large part of our grade, so I was kind of up you know what without a paddle. Thankfully for me, one of my friends on the trip had over prepared and kindly gave me some of her notes to learn new works of art at the last minute, and not miserably fail the class. So off everyone else went to the bars at night to have fun and there I sat, alone, in the hotel lobby, studying. Lesson learned!

Sacre Coeur as seen from a roof top cafe in Paris, France. (2003)
The pyramids at the Louvre in Paris, France. (2003)

While the class part of the trip turned out to be a bit of a nightmare, the fun part without a doubt made up for it! A trip up the Eiffel Tower, Boat rides down the Seine, a tour of the Palace of Versailles (so worth the trip out if you are heading to Paris!!), Moulin Rouge, Changing of the Guard in London, Trafalgar Square and a spontaneous visit to Oxford University with some of the students from the other school we were paired with. It was about as much fun as you could cram into 10 days…and the trip was only half over!

Trafalgar Square in London, England. (2003)
Colored facades in Oxford, England. (2003)

After one intentionally missed flight (see the aforementioned spontaneous trip to Oxford University), one accidentally cancelled credit card, one very expensive call home, one extra night sleeping on a hotel floor in London and one not as cheap re-scheduled flight to Germany, I was on my way and landed at the tiny Dusseldorf Niederrhein Airport. When I say tiny, I mean TINY! Like you walked off the plane, onto the tarmac and into an old American Military Base hanger where you picked up your bag from the heaping pile they dumped in the middle of the floor, TINY. Thankfully it seems since then, they have built a proper building however, it was quite the welcome!

Enjoying a night out in Paderborn, Germany. (2003)

Despite my friend also being a student and still having to attend classes while I was there, we made the best of my visit! I attended a few of his English classes and I met some of the American students studying there. We took a trip to Heidelberg and toured the Castle, which I now know is called a schloss! We went drunk “swimming” in the Padder “River” (not really a river… and no you can’t really swim in it, but we tried) in the wee hours of the morning, followed up by a 4am emergency room visit for a cut foot (not mine thankfully) and watched the sun come up walking home. We went camping for the weekend at a beach in the Netherlands and even ran a road race at an American Old West themed amusement park called Fort de Fun! Spoiler alert…1st Platz overall Female! Extra spoiler alert…the German military, with the big scary guns at the airport, WILL rip your bag apart when you try to take a trophy through security that vaguely resembles an explosive device (minus all the wires and explosive bits of course). In their defense, I was on a flight inbound to NYC only a year and a half after 9/11. Thank you kind traveler who helped translate, after they weren’t following along with my failed game of charades. It’s a phrase, three words…NOT A BOMB! 

On the start line (far left in the white tank top) of the Fort de Fun race!
1st place overall female! (2003)
The red roofs of Heidelberg, Germany as seen from a lookout in the Castle. (2003)

As much fun as I had, I was also getting very homesick. I understood absolutely nothing outside of conversations with my friend. Not…a…word. It made things very difficult. Being young and in major culture shock and also having what turned out to be a fairly bad ear infection, I wanted to go home…badly!

Looking back, I now laugh at this, as my trips there now are the complete opposite. They have to practically force me onto the plane home kicking and screaming.

One of many churches inside the old city wall in Paderborn, Germany. (2003)

As much of a roller coaster ride as this trip was; it holds a special place in my heart as my first big international adventure. I have since taken that seminar trip two more times, but smartly as more of a chaperone this time instead of a student. I traveled to Paris for my 30thBirthday, toured Ireland…alone, have gone to Germany so many times I’ve lost track and have even seen the closed off walls of Cuba!

You see; travel is this magical thing. It takes you around the world where you learn about new cultures, new languages, try new foods and just experience daily life from another perspective. I personally find traveling makes you happier, more intelligent and more tolerant to those who may be different to you, and who wouldn’t want that! So even if it’s just one trip, get out there and go see the world! I can guarantee you won’t regret it!