By Ashleigh Hicks
Ashleigh Hicks was a Summer Internship with the Westside Gazette in 2011, now she is a Journalism student at the University of Florida where she joined the National Association of Black Journalists and writes for the UF chapter’s publication, Zion Magazine. Ashleigh states,
“Because of my experience working with you in 2011 and the knowledge and confidence that I acquired as a student journalist I would like the opportunity to work with you and your staff again. Thank you for allowing me to write another piece for the Westside Gazette. I really enjoyed my time abroad and I’m happy to be able to share my experience with others.”
When I was little, I used to fantasize about giant medieval castles, historic wonders of the world, cobblestone streets filled with diverse people and dialects, and majestic sights that most would only see on postcards. Instead of drifting to sleep or running outside to play like most kids, I often grabbed a juice box, sat and watched a History Channel special on kings and queens and the plethora of cultures that make up our world. Little did I know that more than a decade later, I would be going to some of the places I’d only seen on television or in textbooks.
On May 5, 2014, I found myself in Miami getting ready to catch a nine-hour flight to Paris, France with about 80 other students from the University of Florida’s College of Journalism & Communications. Before the month was over, I would visit Paris and Normandy, France, the French coast, London, England and Barcelona, Spain. I had an idea of what my experience would be like in Europe, but I couldn’t imagine how much I would learn or how much fun I would have with my classmates.
It didn’t quite hit me that I was in Paris until a couple of days after arriving. At first, it just seemed like Washington D.C. with French-speaking people, but after seeing some of the sights, including the Palais Garnier Opera House, the Arc de Triomphe and none other than the Eiffel Tower, I truly felt like I was in the City of Lights. On an average day, we would travel by subway to class and then spend the rest of the day taking in sights, eating delicious cuisine (the French eat bread with everything) and attempting to converse with locals.
We took a trip to the Louvre Museum, a former French palace, and went through exhibits filled with magnificent sculptures, paintings and architecture from cultures ranging from the ancient Greeks to the French Revolution. As a fan of ancient Egyptian culture and art, I was excited when we stopped at a large Sphinx sculpture. Our tour guide then told us that we wouldn’t have time to go through the massive Egypt exhibit because we had to go through the Greek and Roman exhibits as well as others. I looked at that man like he had three heads. I had already planned to spend time in the Egypt exhibit and wasn’t happy that it wasn’t deemed important enough to be a part of our tour. I decided to go back to the Louvre two days later and see as much of the exhibit as I could before the museum closed. I returned the following day ready to finish exploring the rest of it. The collection of Egyptian artwork-statues, hieroglyphics, sarcophaguses and paintings-were some of the most beautiful pieces of architecture I have ever laid eyes on and well worth returning twice to see. As great as my experience at the Louvre was, it still wasn’t my favorite part of France.
On the sunny spring day of May 13, our group traveled to the town of Versailles, 30 minutes outside of Paris, to see the home of the last king of France, Louis XVI, and his queen, Marie Antoinette. I’m not sure I quite know how to describe the palace, but to say it was majestic, enormous and completely extravagant, emphasis on extra. The opulent palace has more color, bling and gold than one could see anywhere else and the gardens of perfectly aligned tree paths, flowerbeds, lakes and meadows are 2,000 acres of pure bliss. It’s not hard to understand why Marie Antoinette didn’t leave much.
The rest of Paris pretty much lived up to expectations. I thoroughly enjoyed venturing off to tour Notre Dame Cathedral, climbing to the top of the Arc de Triomphe, simply walking down random streets and people watching from quaint French bistros. Did I mention the pastries are to die for? I even indulged in some shopping on the world famous Champs-Elysées street made complete with world famous macaroons from Ladurée bakery. It wasn’t long before it was time to say goodbye to Paris and head northwest to the coast of France.
After a five-hour bus ride, our group spent the night in the sleepy beachside town of St. Malo. I, along with the rest of the students, explored the massive fortress on the beach and then enjoyed delicious seafood at one of the collection of restaurants in town. The next day, we packed up and left for Mont St. Michel Monastery, where we spent half of the day climbing to the top and exploring the 247-acre island.
Later, we went to the city of Caen, another nice small town. Unfortunately our time here wasn’t as great because of our accommodations that featured no air conditioning, no elevators, community floors with no locks and most tragically, no Wi-Fi. If you ever want to see a bunch of communications students flip out, take away their Internet connection.
While in Caen, we took a bus trip to Normandy where American troops fought against German forces in what is known as D-Day. We went to Omaha Beach, the American Cemetery, a small church, a bombing site and the house where the 1st U.S. Army press camp was located. The entire day really put into perspective how much people sacrificed so that people around the world could live in peace.
The next day, all of the students gleefully packed their bags and headed to the port for departure to England. After a five hour boat ride, we arrived in Portsmouth where we were then transported to London. As much as I loved France, I knew that London would be my favorite city on the trip.
For about two weeks, we took classes at the University of London. Like in Paris, we took the subway to class every day. After class, many of us would gather in the common area to discuss our plans of exploring the city. A few of the sites I visited in London include The British Museum (complete with another amazing ancient Egypt exhibit), Buckingham Palace, the Beatles recording studio and the Tower of London, which holds the Crowned Jewels. I also discovered some great restaurants, everything from Indian to Italian. I tried to sample as much as I could, but for some of my classmates and I, nothing compared to the hot grilled delicious chicken we discovered at Nando’s restaurant. The variety of food is just one of the city’s great qualities.
London itself, is a city like no other. It is arguably the most diverse place on Earth, with hundreds of spoken languages, ethnicities and cultures in one place. People take great pride in their style of dress, whatever it may be. I’ve never seen so many well-dressed people of color in one place. While walking up and down the bustling streets, I couldn’t help but gaze at the trendy dresses and well-tailored suits. Not to mention that every block is complete with at least two Starbucks coffee shops to go along with the others. Plays are the biggest attractions in town for locals and tourists alike. Our entire group went to see Wicked one night. And of course one can’t talk about London, without mentioning the British accent. It’s so wonderful that I’m currently working on mine.
After the first week in London, I along with a few other students hopped on a plane to Barcelona, Spain for a weekend trip. I’ve been learning Spanish since I was 10 and couldn’t wait to practice speaking. With the perfect blend of modern technology and old Spanish architecture, the city was a visual marvel. We stayed in a hostel, which was nice despite having to share a room with seven rowdy Irish boys who enjoyed serenading us with folk songs. While there, we went to Park Güell and the famous church La Sagrada Familia, one of the most uniquely designed cathedrals in the world. Architect Antonio Gaudi created both. Afterwards, we took a stroll down Las Ramblas, a long, colorful street with a lot of shops, much like the Champs Elysees in Paris. At the end of the street was a gorgeous marina and beach where we hung out for a few hours. Later, we went to a rooftop restaurant and ate bowls of fresh seafood paella and creamy Tiramisu to top our day off. Our flight back to London was at six the next morning. Although I was sad to leave so soon, Barcelona was a great weekend getaway, I was excited to get back to London for another week of exploring.
At the end of the fourth week, my European adventure came to an end. Spending two weeks in France, two weeks in London, and a weekend in Barcelona, Spain made for an eventful start to my summer. My passion for world traveling and cultures has become much stronger and I am so grateful for the opportunity to visit such incredible places. Catholic priest St. Augustine of Hippo said, “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” If you ever have the chance to visit another country, even one that may have significant cultural differences from your own, take a leap of faith, expand your horizons, and read a few more pages.