Editor’s Note: Halee Hillyer is a sophomore at Clinton High School, where she participates in basketball and track. She is an honor roll students and actively participates in programs at Grace Church. She lives on the homestead started by her great-grandparents, near the lake, with her extended family, goats, chickens and three dogs. She spends her free time social networking, reading, swimming and enjoying her family. Here Halee shares her experiences with The People To People Ambassador Program.
Story and Photos By Halee Hillyer
In January, when asked if I wanted t go to Europe this summer, I said, "No way! I’ve got too much to do."
But after a classy presentation at The Peabody Little Rock, I was convinced The People To People Ambassador Program was for me. People To People has held to the spirit of President Eisenhower’s vision of peaceful solutions for 50 years by bringing people of different countries together for understanding and friendship.
But how could I raise the money for tuition? Family is a wonderful thing. Offers of assistance began as soon as I shared my intentions. Soon we had a plan and fundraising started. Four months of bake sales, plant sales, candy sales, yard sales, several extra odd jobs and school had me ready for a vacation. It was effort, family and friends, and the generosity of the community that made the trip possible. I am so blessed.
Thirteen of us from Arkansas met the rest of the delegation members from Mississippi and Florida, 38 in all, at the Atlanta airport. One brief white-knuckle experience happened over the Atlantic Ocean as I thought about being thousands of feet above the water moving at hundreds of miles an hour and what that could mean.
It hit me in the Zurich airport in Switzerland. I was in a foreign country, far from family and friends and there were a lot of strange-looking people around. Thank goodness for the delegation leaders. They kept us on track and on time during the entire trip. I came to think of them as mother hens moving us from here to there under their protective wings.
To get us use to the time difference (six hours) and newness of our situation, we went on a walking tour in Zurich. We started in a tidy city park with a sidewalk along a river. I was amazed to see water as clear and clean as any I’ve seen in Arkansas. The hustle and bustle of city life slowed as we departed the main streets. The side streets were lined with small shops, quaint homes and open air cafes. For the most part, the locals ignored us until one inebriated couple approached and wanted to talk about America. I diplomatically corrected their pronunciation of Arkansas and wished them well.
On the way to Scuol, our coach (that’s what they call a bus) stopped in a little village for our first European meal. The pasta and tangy chicken tasted more like home than a far distant land. Dessert was a thin pudding and whipped cream with no sweetness. Yuck! Where was my Cool Whip when I needed it?
Scuol is a the base of many massive peaks, some still with much snow, and I couldn’t help but be impressed. The Alps are just so big!
Our youth hostel was old, quaint and small. History on the village goes back to the 1100s. Fortunately, our cramped room was of more recent construction. We even had our own bathroom. Some rooms had to share.
Our Scuol walking tour was much different than Zurich. First, the village is only a few blocks wide and stretches along the road a far piece. The side streets are quieter and less populated … and steep! It was more like a hike than a walk.
Again, our buffet dinner seemed like home. Choices of familiar fruits and vegetables, breads, soup and entrees. There did seem to be fewer meat choices than at home.
Early the next morning, we met a local named Mike who spoke very good English. He told us about the village’s history and took us on a walk to the nearby village of Ftan. There we toured an operating 400-year-old mill. Mike translated for a cheery little older woman who spoke only German. She told of the mill’s history and how it operated. For a moment, I felt like I had stepped back in time to a far simpler way of life.
While I appreciate history, I can really sink my teeth into whitewater rafting in the Alps, our next activity for the day. I was so excited by the rapids that my enthusiasm flipped me out of the raft into the icy, snow-melt water. Thank goodness for the required wet suit. My exposed skin almost felt burned by the incredible cold. One of my raft-mates was quick to help me out. I was so enlivened by the experience that I later jumped back in for a swim in a calmer section of the river.
It was back to history later with a scavenger hunt in Scuol that had us poking around in more nooks and crannies of the village than I thought possible. But three hours of effort gave our group a victory and bragging right.
The next morning was another early-riser as were most during the trip (sigh). Our service project was to clear hazelnut trees from slopes higher in the mountains. They had become a pest and were crowding out native vegetation. Some of the local people seemed grateful, but I don’t really have a clue what they were saying. There are four official languages in Switzerland.
A three-mile walk along the Inn River helped me appreciate the forests there. They are lush and green like here after a rainy spring. As we left behind the crashing river and headed toward our coach and a new destination, it became official in my mind. I love this country.
This day’s destination was to be Lenzkirch, Germany, but we went by way of Lucerne, Switzerland. It definitely makes my list of most beautiful places in the world. The Old World city is situated on a gorgeous lake totally surrounded by high mountain peaks almost too numerous to county. Awesome!
Once in Germany, we stopped near Freiburg for an educational presentation on how the famous German cuckoo clocks are made. There is a whole lot more history and information on the subject than I could have imagined.
Traveling can be very tiring, so I was quite happy with the Hotel Schwoerer. It was definitely an upgrade from the youth hostel, with a homey lobby with overstuffed furniture and fireplace. Our room’s bathroom was bigger and nicer, and beds were softer, and … zzzzzzzzzz.
Bright and early the next morning we were at another service project, clearing "touch-me-nots" and "not-a-weed" from the forest floor. These two imports were smothering native growth. The neat part was watching small German kids, probably ages 6 to 8, help with the project. They laughed and played just like kids here. I realized we are not all that different.
Later, I nervously met my German host family. The mother and two teenage daughters all spoke English and welcomed me in a way that really felt like family. My three-night, four-day stay with them was wonderfully eye-opening. Teens in Germany are very much like they are here and they like a lot of the same things. Sophie, the daughter who showed me around, took me to a soccer game (they call it football), shopping (a personal favorite), many local sites and hanging out with friends (result: 18 new Facebook friends).
I was surprised by how much German I learned. Some words are very similar to English, some are not. One night we watched the movie Pretty Woman, a personal favorite of mine. I discovered it is a completely different experience watching Julia Roberts and Richard Gere speaking in Germany. The movie lost something in the translation.
Many tears were shed at our parting. I marveled at how close I had become to these people who I had barely known four days earlier. Sophie reminded me we were only a few key strokes away on the Internet.
The three-hour coach ride to Heidelberg was filled with excited stories about other host families. Many delegates had wonderful experiences, which they shared enthusiastically.
Shopping was my choice for the free time we had when we arrived in Heidelberg. There were just so many quaint and charming shops to be explored. Happily, I found the perfect piece of Polish pottery for my mom.
Our next tour was of the Heidelberg Castle. It was very old and falling apart in places. Our guide said that when used by kings and queens soccer was played in a courtyard that was part of the castle. Our guide droned on and on about the history of the place. I decided I had heard too much history when he started talking about ancient methods of waste disposal.
We had another good hotel that night. Excitement was high in the delegation. We had learned that this place had free WiFi (a wireless way to access the Internet). Finally, we could reconnect with our social networks!
The next day was a cruise on the Rhine River. The boat was big and reassuringly stable and the scenery idyllic. We passed farms that reminded me of home, vineyards, forest and ruined castles. The cruise was pleasantly laid back, a break in the fast-pace we usually kept.
The next day, a short coach ride brought us to the beautiful city of Cologne, Germany. The largest cathedral in Germany is located here. We took all 523 steps to the top of the tallest. As some of my companions huffed and puffed up the stairs, I was thankful for basketball and track practice.
My favorite site here was the Love Bridge. People attach padlocks to the bridge as a symbol of their love. As I examined the names on some of the thousands of locks there, I felt little flutters in my heart. I was moved.
The three-hour coach ride to Utrecht, Netherlands, was an opportunity for most of the delegation to get some sleep. I and another preferred dancing and singing in the aisle. It’s great to be in good shape.
The Hotel Ultecht Bunnik was very nice (with free WiFi — yea!). That night our delegation leader congratulated us on successfully completing the first half of our adventure without problems. What? It’s half over already, I thought. But I don’t feel different yet. Lots of people said I would feel different after this trip. Why don’t I feel different? Is there something I have to do to make this happen? Just what could I do, I wondered, as I fell asleep.
Halee’s trip concludes in next week’s Democrat.