Students broaden their horizons while traveling Italy

Lynlee Derrick

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If the rule that you are what you eat still applies, senior Hannah Derwent would be a slice of authentic pizza and a side of flavorful pasta from her time in Italy this summer.

“I actually didn’t eat pizza or pasta or anything for at least a month after [the Italy trip],” recalled Hannah with a laugh. “I didn’t have the appetite for it.”

This diet of pizza and pasta started on June 18 when a small group of four students, one chaperone, and theater director Robbin DeMeester boarded a flight that took them through the night to Italy. Nerves ran rampant, but excitement remained high as they began to traipse through a country full of culture, history, and delicious cuisine.

In just eleven days, the group traveled all over Italy, including Rome, Assisi, Naples, all the way down to the Amalfi coast, and much more while building close bonds with one another.

As a part of an Education First (EF) tour, the days of this group were spent jam-packed with activities and sightseeing. Education First is a travel company focused on providing educational tours full of experiences. Each tour has a 24-hour tour director who is well versed in the area and able to help with any issues, making the travel pain-free and enjoyable.

In the remarkable city of Rome, the group got to see the Colosseum as a part of the tour. Though they were “packed in like sardines,” being right in front of an amphitheater with so much history was an unforgettable feeling for the group.

The group in front of the Colosseum.

“You always see the pictures, and then all of a sudden, [the Colosseum is] right there,” Hannah said. “It’s always bigger; I always think it will be smaller than it actually is. I know a lot of people will say they’ve seen it in pictures for years, and then it’s a bit disappointing seeing it in real life because it’s kind of a mythical thing. For me, it’s that I always go in there with that kind of impression that it’s not going to be as cool, but then it is as cool.”

This experience was one unavailable anywhere else. For Hannah, it brings textbooks to life and shows more of what the world has to offer outside of the Michigan boundaries. After completing junior year, she had an idea of what Rome was like from studying it in her history classes.

“Traveling just expands your worldview so much,” Hannah said. “I know everyone says it, and it’s kind of cliché; but it really just helps you learn so much about the world, especially when you’ve taken World History. Just going there and seeing those things makes it all just come together.”

Rome brought aspects of history together with classroom knowledge to meld into a more informational stay in the city. Yet 274 km north of Rome, they were able to find a city named Florence where their pace slowed down, and they were able to enjoy all it had to offer.

“It was just a nice, cleaner city,” Hannah said. “Most people would think Rome would be the coolest city, but it’s just really dirty. There’s a lot of people, and it’s much busier. Florence was really nice, and while there were still a lot of people, it was much more open.”

This slow pace allowed for the group to become more integrated with the town. After discovering their favorite cafe, they visited it three times.

By the third time, the staff was able to start remembering their name while the group chowed down on delightful Italian cuisine. Around the table, they were able to reflect about the differences in Italy and grow closer.

“Sitting in a restaurant,” DeMeester said about their time in Florence, “it was just nice to be able to enjoy great food, sit around with our team, laugh, relax, and kind of get to know the wait-staff a little bit beyond just us coming in as patrons because we were there three days in a row.”

The food was exceptionally great there for senior Gretchen Shull. The atmosphere, people, and pizza made the restaurant a favorite with the group, and it kept them coming back.

“Florence was so amazing,” Gretchen said. “We found [a restaurant]; I think it’s my favorite pizza place in the world. It was so good. I would literally [order it on Postmates] from there to here because it’s so good. I don’t care if it’s cold.”

Besides the pizza, a lot of what Florence and Italy had in general resonated with Gretchen. Feelings and experiences there became something that she could use back home, showing her the meaning behind her dad’s words, “Don’t let school get in the way of your education.”

“We went to a church in Florence, and I really connected with an inner part of myself,” Gretchen said. “I found some really cool things and ideas to get into. I had some really great conversations with some really great people. Florence has my heart for sure.”

The Duomo, one of Florence’s cathedral, is filled with religious paintings, mosaic pavements, and authentic ancient Italian and gothic architecture. All of this artwork is meant to inspire and connect with the viewer, which Gretchen felt.

The feelings of being in such an old building with religious ties dating back to its construction in the late 13th century convey a monumental encounter that only Florence could provide for the group. For Gretchen, it opened up a part of herself with the distinct energy of the church.

“It was sort of enlightening, in a sense,” Gretchen said. “I felt like I knew myself a little bit more, and it was really cool to see how I have developed throughout all my years of being me. It’s cool to realize different things and find things out about yourself.”

Gretchen was able to delve into deeper conversations with a close friend also on the trip, FHC graduate Amanda Riffe, after being able to experience these Italian churches that hold history.

To capture the more tangible moments outside of personal revelations, Gretchen filmed a video of the group’s time there. From everyone’s stories, the video was a blockbuster hit with them.

“I filmed a funny video, and I edited it every night,” Gretchen recalled, “and then we would watch it in the morning and giggle over it because it was us just messing around. Not doing anything disrespectful, but just us dancing around different areas to this silly Italian music. It was all the shambly moments: we left our key in the door, I took a video of the chicken because that chicken was good, and just weird little things.”

This video contains all the jokes and memories of the Italy trip and the small, yet close, group while serving as a walk down memory lane. Though it began as a tribute to her love of the food, Gretchen created a video for the group to watch to be taken back to their unforgettable time.

“It’s a great memory for the team,” DeMeester said. “It won’t mean much to people watching other than they are going to laugh at all the food. She started because she wanted to video all the different foods we were eating, and it kind of morphed into other stuff, but it’s awesome.”

What the laughs and memories between the team don’t capture are the lessons taught while traveling on this trip. Whether they are historical or about thinking on-the-spot, DeMeester and the group learned life lessons while traveling.

“Getting out of your comfort zone, especially when things don’t go well, like losing your luggage or all the things that can happen on a trip that you could let ruin it, you have to [move on],” DeMeester said. “It teaches me to be flexible, more so than what I am, and to adapt to different cultures. I really feel like that’s important. It’s just fun to see places that you’ve read about. Typically, you get there and you’re like, ‘Wow, this is crazy awesome.’”

With being such a close group by the end of the trip, they were able to share their experiences with each other after spending eleven days together. The eleven days spent in a whole other country taught the group about themselves, their passions, and the country.

By having real-life experiences abroad, perspectives and ideas can change which is something DeMeester is very passionate about helping kids explore. This Italy trip will be her third summer trip with some of her students which helps her and them experience all that the world has to offer.

“If kids can afford to travel during high school, like [in] the summer or do these kinds of trips,” DeMeester shared, “it’s awesome because kids will go on one of these trips, and then they’ll go, ‘I’m going to do a study abroad in this country because I want to sink in to Austria,’ or ‘I want to sink in to Iceland,’ or ‘I want to sink in to Germany’ for a semester. Until you’ve touched a [few] different things, you don’t know where you might want to plant yourself for a while, whether it’s college because you’re doing a study abroad, or you’re just doing some kind of your own gap year thing post-high school. I think it really has it’s advantages there.”

These advantages help widen the scope of someone’s view into new territory. As we often hear about the infamous FH bubble, traveling or just trying to understand others pops that mindset.

“People around here talk a lot about [the bubble], but for me, I feel like it’s only a bubble if you make it a bubble,” DeMeester said. “I don’t feel like I live in a bubble because I get downtown, or [to] different parts of Grand Rapids, or [to] different parts of Michigan, and I explore my state, whether it’s way north or Detroit, or over to Holland, or down south [of] Kalamazoo. A place is only as small as you make it, and it can be big —  you [have] to create that for yourself. It’s just whether you have the ‘get up and go’ to make it happen for yourself. The bubble is only there if you decide to live in it.”