Simple Gifts sends local youth on European adventure

Casey Yang in San Gimignano.

One continent, 14 countries, 19 cities, and unlimited memories culminated my spring semester abroad. Ever since the eighth grade, I have always dreamed of traveling to Europe, and within four months, I got a taste of cultures outside of the United States. When people travel and see famous monuments such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Leaning Tower in Pisa, or the Coliseum in Rome, people collect trinkets and souvenirs as memorabilia. My collection however consists of memories made with family, friends, and locals old and new. The memories I made with them will have a lasting impact on my life greater than that of the monuments and places I got to visit.

My journey abroad began on January 15, 2015 when my family and I boarded the plane for our first stop in Schaffhausen, Switzerland. Words could not explain the emotions that were running through my mind as we touched down in Switzerland. I was consumed with excitement, nervousness, and intimidation all at once, but I was ready to embrace what new memories laid ahead. In Switzerland, we reconnected with an American family friend that lived there with his wife, son, and daughter. With a love for learning new languages, I found myself reciting the alphabet in German with his eleven-year-old daughter marking my first attempt at immersing myself into another culture.

After Switzerland, we met another family friend in Paris, France. A recent UNC-Chapel Hill graduate and long-time neighbor teaching high school English in Paris advised me on the “what’s and what not’s” to do of studying abroad. After talking with him, I was relieved and comforted to know I could …

In Paris, we visited the Eiffel Tower, the Arc du Triumphe, the Notre Dame, and other sites. With a full year’s worth of Liberal Studies under my belt, I constantly sited literature, art, and philosophers as we toured each monument. For instance, as we hiked 375 steps to the top of the Notre Dame, I broke down the architecture of the building and its significance during pilgrimages described in The Canterbury Tales.

A similar situation occurred in Rome as we trekked through the Coliseum and the Roman Forum. Although it had been nearly three years since taking a Latin class, I still recalled historical facts and stories that I reiterated to my family as we imagined gladiatorial combats and merchants trading throughout the ruins. As a Roman mythology enthusiast, I was mesmerized by the Roman architecture, and it sparked me to write a postcard to my high school Latin teacher as a thank you for laying the foundation for learning.

A week and a half later, I started my study abroad in Florence (or as the Italians say “Firenze”). As the gates to the NYU campus, or villa, opened, I was met with a scenic view of all of Tuscany. Olive trees, Roman statues, and four-story houses surrounded me as I made my way to class everyday. The best part of it all was that I was able to experience it with one of my best friends, Fergus, whom I met my freshman year. Together, we attempted to converse with the locals in Italian whether it was with Dario the gym instructor, Tony the barber, or Paolo the supermarket owner. As the semester went along, we felt like true Florentines as we greeted everyone with a “Ciao” or “Buongiorno.”

January bloomed into March and spring break was upon us. Our first stop was Dublin, Ireland. My friends studying in Prague, Madrid, Paris, Florence, and even New York flew in to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin. Although not knowing each other before, my friends-old and new- soon became close friends. As we mingled with the friendly folks of Ireland, I felt a sense of community and closeness unlike any other country I have visited. Among all the cities I visited, Dublin felt the most like home while I abroad.

After Dublin, a few of us made our way to Lisbon, Portugal followed by Madrid and Barcelona in Spain. While in Spain, we got to visit the Real Madrid and FC Barcelona soccer stadiums. As a huge soccer fanatic, walking through the trophy rooms and sitting in the bench area of the stadiums almost made my childhood aspirations of being a professional soccer player come true.

Traveling and studying in Europe was an unforgettable adventure. I immersed myself into other cultures and explored different. Although my time abroad has ended, it is only the beginning of a new chapter with new friends that are to come in my final two years of college. Knowing that Simple Gifts has supported my endeavors thus far, I aim to continue a work ethic that is deserving of the honor of being a scholarship recipient.