Postcard from Europe: From Paris to Geneva to Munich

The world is the best classroom.

Sophia McCarron (right), with Luis Einmeier (tall boy on left) and his siblings, in Germani. Luis is an exchange student Sophia hosted on Martha's Vineyard.

Times intern Sophia McCarron traveled Europe for several weeks, and has just returned to the Island. She filed this story from Munich.

Three weeks ago, the farthest I’d traveled without parental supervision was one time to the orthodontist off-Island. A week ago I left to go to Europe with my friend. So far, I’ve been to Paris, Geneva, and now Munich. I’m 17 years old, and who knows how I got my parents to agree to letting us travel on our own for three weeks on the other side of the Atlantic, but here we are.

First stop was Paris. It’s one of the most famous cities in the world, and millions of people visit it every year to see the sights. The thing is, though, there is so much more to Paris than the language, or the style, or the Louvre. It’s a city with a pulse that goes beyond the cruise ships parading down the Seine. It’s chasing after that pulse and trying to capture it in a few days that makes Paris so appealing to me.

To be fair, we did see some of the typical tourist sights such as Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower, but my favorite parts of the trip were when we got far off the tourist track. This typically happened in search of a cheap restaurant for dinner, and when we found one, we would just sit and watch people go by, off on their own courses. Paris is an ideal city for people watching; even the cafe tables are facing the street so that their occupants can look out, and yet Parisians seem to care little about how on display they are on the streets. It’s as if the cafes and the chatter fade into the background in order for them to continue on with their day.

We left Paris and headed to Geneva after four days. The train ride down to Switzerland was gorgeous. Although some may reject the idea of getting away from Paris for a day or two, the French countryside deserves some serious attention. I overlooked this portion of the country when I was planning my trip, but just seeing it fly by from my train window has shown me how I need to stop thinking of France as consisting solely of Paris. Imagine deep blue lakes ringed by dramatic green mountains and gorges with streams racing down at the bottom, only two hours outside the city. I couldn’t believe that what I was seeing was real life and hadn’t been taken out of a Poland Springs water ad.

Geneva proved to be somewhat less picturesque. Although the Old Town was beautiful, the rest of the city was a jumble of severe concrete apartments crowding over older structures reminiscent of Paris. It was hard to get a feel for this city; were we in the suburbs or metropolis? There were fields and villas 15 minutes by tram from the city’s main train station. It was as if the city was made up of sections that didn’t quite fit together. Although being home to the United Nations, the city didn’t seem as connected with the embassies and delegations as I expected. It was as if they were an entity operating entirely separate from the day-to-day workings of the city, aloof and unaware. We spent another four days in Geneva exploring Old Town and various museums.

Then we caught a train to Munich. We spent two days exploring the city, and although it doesn’t get quite as much credit, I’d call it only a step down from Paris in terms of architecture. We stayed with some family friends, and on our last day in Munich, they took us for a hike in the Alps. This was one of my favorite things that I’ve done on this trip to date. We got out of the city and did something different. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved looking through art museums and wandering through a maze of European streets, but when we were walking up the mountain, all I could think about was how I’m not going to get a chance to do something like this again on this trip. The air was dry and cool, as if we had somehow skipped summer and were just getting into fall. We got up to a field on the mountainside, and the clouds, which had threatened all day to soak us, cleared away so that the mountain lake could reflect the blue sky. We stopped for lunch, eating bread, cheese, and sausages while cows munched on grass around us, their bells tinkling to the swaying of their heads.

One of the our roommates at the Geneva hostel said, “Travel is the only expense that makes you richer.” I don’t think I would have believed her a week ago. Going to Europe hasn’t changed my life in any earthshattering way, but I have a better understanding of what possibilities are out there for me if I take them seriously.

I wish I had realized this before my senior year of high school. I always thought of foreign exchanges as an option, but not something that I would have to do right away. I had this mentality going into freshman year, and before I knew it, three years had slipped by, and now I’m staring graduation and college in the face. I’m almost out of time to do a year abroad before I go to college.

The Island is a wonderful place to grow up, but in some ways it can be too comfortable, too isolating. People always say how lucky I am to live here, and it swelled my head. I had a mindset where Martha’s Vineyard is one of the best places to live, and this idea was enforced by the water surrounding the Island, which acts as a barrier to the rest of the world. I’ve never known anywhere else, and never thought that I needed to know anywhere else. Most people I’ve met have said how much they love the Vineyard, and for good reason. Leaving Martha’s Vineyard represented three weeks of beach days, working, and hanging out with my friends that I would miss out on.

Of course I was excited, but what this trip showed me was how small the Island really is. There needs to be more encouragement for students to travel. The language department and various clubs at the regional high school sponsor trips every year; these are a great beginning that needs to be built on. There are numerous service trips and foreign exchanges that students should be encouraged to go on.

College shouldn’t be seen as people’s first opportunity to get off the Island with some measure of independence. An argument often heard in the classroom is, It’s going to be harder in the real world. Up to this point, I have spent my entire life preparing for the real world behind my desk in a classroom. I know how to write an essay and multiply, but what about how to navigate a crowded train station or unfamiliar city? I’m not trying to argue that after three weeks in Europe I’m fit to give advice on how to be an adult, or that I now have my life together. That’s not true. This trip gave me perspective. It showed me how it really does come in handy to know a foreign language; it showed me why I’ve spent my entire life in a classroom, and how much more I need to learn.