Before I went to Europe on a Spring Break music tour, I had never left North America. Being able to see just how similar people are across the world was eye-opening. There were also many differences (not limited to languages, customs, food and water), yet it seemed the similarities outweighed the differences.
This past month, a group of 34 students and four chaperones took a trip to Europe, visiting Berlin, Prague, and Rome. The primary focuses of the trip were for the orchestra to perform four times (three of which were at high schools) and for the students to learn about the rich history of Europe. For most of us, this was our first time traveling to Europe, and it was an amazing experience because its history is so abundant. We learned so much more by seeing the Sistine Chapel and Pompeii than we ever could by reading a textbook.
After meeting at the school at 5:30 a.m., traveling for 11 hours by ferry and plane, and then a two-hour bus ride, we arrived jet-lagged and exhausted in Eisenach, Germany. Eisenach is a small town where Johann Sebastian Bach was born and raised, filled with cute bakeries and shops. We had some free time to walk around, buy waffles and gelato, and shop. For dinner, we had a traditional German meal of meat and potatoes in our hotel, an old German building. The next day we visited Bach House, a museum dedicated to the composer. We learned about Bach’s life, family, music and legacy, and we enjoyed a demonstration by a man playing some instruments from Bach’s time. Of course, this being a music tour, we begged to be allowed to play some of the various organs and harpsichords that Bach himself composed on.
Later that day, we took a four-hour bus ride to Cologne. We walked along the Rhine River to the Cologne Cathedral, or Kölner Dom. The intricacy and artistry of the massive cathedral was unlike anything we’d ever seen in North America.
On the third day of our trip, we had our first school visit and performance at Gymnasium Jüchen. After touring the school, we met with some of the kids our age. They performed for us, we performed for them, and we finished off with a collaborative piece featuring instrumentalists from both groups.
We spent the next day in Berlin and stayed at a hotel that really emphasized our idea of a cultural immersion trip. Each unique room is designed by a local artist. They were all decorated to have a theme and each room was special: there was a bright green room, a rainbow room, an asylum room and an airplane room featuring a suspended bed. As a cultural experience that night, we went for dinner at a restaurant where we could take dance lessons after eating.
On our second day in Berlin, we went on a walking tour of the city. We walked around The Tiergarten park, while learning more about the background of the park and its historical significance. We walked to Checkpoint Charlie, saw remains of the Berlin Wall, and visited the Berlin Wall Memorial. It was so interesting to learn about such a significant part of world history, and I know so much more now than I did before the trip.
“I’ve gone on school trips before and came back no different – this trip was not that. I returned to Canada with new friends, new contacts across the world, new experiences, and a new appreciation for history and culture.”
We visited a school in Berlin where we chatted with younger kids who were working on their English language skills. We discussed our favourite sports, our siblings’ names and the weather where we live. I met a girl who has a passion for singing and I am still in touch with her! We performed on a stage at the school and ate lunch with the kids our age. We needed that lunch, because before our performance they put us through a swing dance lesson!
On Day 6 we took a six-hour bus ride to Prague. We spent the following day exploring the ancient and beautiful city. We also performed for some younger kids at Park Lane International School. We went to the opera in the Estates Theatre, a beautiful, magical 233-year-old opera house. We had a few Czech meals and some of us enjoyed a walking tour while others went to see a Jewish Ghetto. As it was nearing Easter, it was very neat to hear our guide share the different Easter traditions they have in the Czech Republic, including young men going around and knocking on all the young women’s doors on Easter.
On day 8 of the trip we took a two-hour bus ride to Regensburg, Germany, where we took a wonderful walking tour. We had dinner with Henry, a former SMUS student who was a German boarder and is now a member of Germany’s U19 rugby team. He taught us about German culture and introduced us to what it’s like to live in Germany. We stayed at a youth hostel, where there were six of us in one room. It was a short visit in Henry’s town, but it was awesome to connect with someone who could help give us a more personal experience.
We flew to Rome the next day, where we stayed in a convent. Over the next few days we visited the Colosseum, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel. Seeing some of the most important buildings in European history was an awe-inspiring experience, something that has definitely stayed with me and I hope stays with each of us.
On the 13th day, we took a three-hour bus ride to Pompeii, where we took a walking tour. It truly is a ghost town. The tracks of the carts from thousands of years ago still line the cobblestones, and the old artwork still lines the walls. We had lunch in Naples and then went to a museum dedicated to the cities that were destroyed, yet preserved, so long ago in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
This group of SMUS students and teachers got to know each other really well over the trip. I met a lot of new people and made so many new friends. Hours of card games, bus rides, and sometimes random rooming arrangements gave us time in between the amazing sights to appreciate each other and build great relationships. I’ve gone on school trips before and came back no different – this trip was not that. I returned to Canada with new friends, new contacts across the world, new experiences, and a new appreciation for history and culture.
I have more appreciation for my new friends, for our wonderful chaperones and for the world, as a result of this trip. I also had an amazing experience making music so far from home, because it made it so clear that music transcends any differences between people. I will always remember this trip.
Co-written by Saje Griffith
(photos by Peter Butterfield, Macy Weymar and John Sun)