Students and professors return from ‘Europe by Rail’ trip

Jun 22, 2017
Europe by Rail

Professor of History Kelly McFall, Ph.D., and Associate Professor of Criminal Justice Jill Fort, Ph.D., recently led a group of 12 students on a journey across Europe to experience the sights, sounds, tastes and smells the continent has to offer.

Newman first offered the Europe by Rail trip, led by McFall, to students in 2009. Prior to taking the trip, students are asked to participate in a class, which McFall teaches.

McFall said his class has two main goals. One is to acquaint students with European culture and history, and the other is to teach people the skills they need to know how to travel by themselves.

“I’m teaching them both academically and a more visceral sense of what it is like to live in Europe today,” McFall said. “It is a historical approach but also an attempt to acquaint them with modern Europe, and that’s true politically but also tangibly. I want them to know what it’s like to walk down a street or to understand why Europeans don’t wear shorts.”

Kelly McFall, Ph.D., organizes the Europe by Rail trip every two years to give Newman students the opportunity to travel abroad for 20 days.

McFall taught students how to get to the right place even when looking at train schedules in foreign languages. He also taught them how to navigate subway systems and how to pick a good hostel. Every morning throughout the trip, McFall handed a destination to a student which put them in charge of getting the group there without any help from anyone else or a phone.

“You never know when your phone will go dead, and sometimes you will have to pull out a map and actually do it the old-fashioned way,” he said. McFall also lectured about European history, vocabulary and how to be a good traveler.

“Even so,” he continued, “classroom experience is relatively limited because the important stuff that you learn, you learn on the trip.”

The group visited six cities in 20 days, to include London, Vienna, Krakow, Prague, Budapest, Amsterdam and a side trip to Melk, Austria. McFall took the students on an exploration of various sites, to include churches and museums.

Makaylah Perkins, a criminal justice and psychology double-major, was one of the 12 students to embark on the trip to Europe. As the semester was drawing to a close and finals approached, Perkins had to consider what she was going to take with her as well as what to leave behind.

“I was really excited to go so it wasn’t that much mentally getting ready, it was more just figuring out how to pack everything,” she said. “I like to be ready for any situation, but it was also about finding a balance between not packing too much while making sure to pack enough.”

All of the hostels the group stayed at were different, but overall were homey places, Perkins said. The hostels, which are similar to bed and breakfast establishments, included lobbies with couches, cafes and bar areas. While staying in Vienna, Perkins was surprised when she met some people who were from Texas, her home state.

“There were some very old buildings with really cool architecture,” Perkins said. “In downtown Wichita, we have older looking buildings and architectural flourishes, but nothing near the way they have it in Europe. The buildings there are so old — they look like they’ve probably been there longer than America’s been around.”

Out of all the places they visited, Fort said her favorite is Krakow, Poland.

“The temperature was perfect and I liked the atmosphere,” Fort said. “It’s a very relaxed city that’s not as large as London. I’m a laid-back kind of person so it was much more my speed, being able to go at your own pace and just have fun.”

Fort said that one perk of the big London city is that all of their museums were free. Tourists and natives alike could walk right into any art or history museum and enjoy what London has to offer. She and the group also viewed several churches throughout the expedition, many of which had unique architecture.

Perkins also picked Krakow as her favorite place to visit while traveling across the continent.

“It was busy with people, but it felt more real,” Perkins said. “I loved London, too, but it felt very touristy and you could tell a lot of the people were there to visit, whereas in Krakow the people walking around were people from there. There were lots of yellowish and orangish buildings — you can find a lot of these in Europe — but overall the atmosphere just seemed happier.”

The students eat breakfast at one of the hostels during their stay.

Fort said one visit that especially sticks out in her mind was when the group went to Auschwitz and viewed both concentration camps.

“That was a really heavy day, but it’s an experience I will never forget,” she said. “None of us really wanted to talk at lunch, just because it was so much information.”

Fort explained that actually seeing the locations for yourself is much different than reading about it in a textbook. She said that students could read all day every day about the Holocaust or the wars, but actually going and seeing things that have been experienced or have been impacted by the war is completely different.

“I’ve actually seen the Westminster Abbey, which has a hole from a bomb that went through it,” she said. “It’s stuff you don’t think of and that you actually get to see and witness rather than just reading it in a book.”

Along with new experiences, the trip brought many surprises to the group. People must pay to use public restrooms, there is no such thing as a “free refill” in restaurants — including water — and when visiting a restaurant, you may need to hunt down the waiter if you need another drink, more sauce or want your check.

Perkins explained, “They don’t use air conditioning as much as we do because they do not have much of a need for it, but I am very thankful for air conditioning. I was also surprised to see that water in restaurants was sometimes more expensive than sparkling water. In some places, unless you say, ‘still water,’ they’ll give you sparkling.”

Fort said there was one point when the group was at a restaurant and a student ordered a liver sandwich by accident, not knowing what it was. Needless to say, Fort shared her dinner with him that evening.

“The food experience is also much different when you don’t know what to expect,” she said. “In your head, you’re thinking, ‘Oh, it’s a burger.’ But it could be a liver burger, or it could be something very unique. So it’s not always what you assume it is, but then just going and experiencing it can be a good thing at times.”

With every surprise comes a funny tale to tell later. Perkins said there were several moments throughout the trip when the group bonded over a good laugh or two.

“We were visiting the Tower of London and we saw this plastic bird sitting on a branch,” Perkins said. “Jill knew it was fake but then she said something about seeing one feather move, and then Peggy said, ‘That’s not a natural bird movement.’ So after that, we kept pointing at birds and saying, ‘Hey, Peggy. Is that a natural bird movement?’”

Perkins added, “Kayla was also singing a lot, which was pretty entertaining. There were lots of hills when we were in Vienna, and Kayla really wanted to get on a hill and spin around while singing ‘The Hills are Alive’ from the Sound of Music.”

To ensure everyone was accounted for, Fort started saying “Marco” whenever the group members needed to stop or get closer together.

“I thought it was funny because we would say ‘Marco’ but no one ever said ‘Polo,’” Perkins said. “It was just ‘Marco’ and then everyone stopped.”

“‘Marco’ was kind of my tagline,” Fort added. “Everyone seemed to like it.”

Fort said that it was very effective, except for the one time when a student went to go dispose of her trash and missed the train.

“We got on the train and I said, ‘We only have 11. Why am I only counting 11?’ Then we got off the train and I was like, ‘Maybe I’m just not seeing a specific student. Marco? Marco? Marco! We only have 11 — we’re short one!’ But thanks to cell phones, we got it figured out.”

Perkins said there are many takeaways from the trip. She learned that she wants to travel more in order to experience different places and see different people. She learned that there are a lot of churches in Europe, which makes sense, she said, since they have had a “back and forth” of different religions. She also learned that in the future, she will need more room for souvenirs.

“You can never buy too many souvenirs,” Perkins said. “And you will never have enough room for them.”

Perkins said her experience in Europe has influenced the way she looks at things in America. It is common for people in Europe to not drive as much because they take the Tube or the Tram, and in Amsterdam, for example, everyone bikes to and from their destinations.

Perkins said, “So now when I am thinking about how far away some place is, I say, ‘I could walk there,’ since we walked everywhere we went in Europe. And now I think in certain situations that it’d be so much faster than getting in the car and going somewhere.”

Europe by Rail
The group smiles for a picture as they sail on a boat down the canals of Amsterdam.

Perkins said that she got the “travel bug” after exploring different parts of Europe. Now she wants to go see more places, experience them and try to immerse herself more in the cultural aspect, she said.

“When I was over there my phone didn’t work, and Wi-Fi was limited, so I tried to stay off of Facebook unless I was going to bed. When we visited famous sites, I didn’t want to just take a picture instead of actually experiencing the moment, so I tried to look at it, experience it, and then take the picture. I learned it is so important to try to be more in the moment and to experience the things that are happening around you.”

Fort said she admired that the students challenged themselves to get outside of their comfort zone. She added that she is a picky eater, but was willing to try pretty much everything “except for that liver sandwich, which looked pretty disgusting,” she said.

“I feel like I took my Paris trip for granted when I was younger, but I lived this trip to the fullest,” Fort said. “I got to experience what they experienced by simply seeing those other cultures firsthand and by putting myself out there, and it was amazing.”

Fort said that because she has only been to Paris, she got to experience Europe by Rail as a student experience.

“Dr. McFall does a really good job, and the level of information he has in his head is overwhelming,” she said.

Both Fort and Perkins shared that they would absolutely partake in another trip to Europe in the future, adding more places to their “to-see” lists.

“To anyone who is thinking about traveling, you should do it,” Perkins said. “It’s a really great experience that you won’t forget. If you do travel, push yourself out of your comfort zone. Try new foods, get lost and find your way back.

“I definitely did that a couple of times, not purposefully getting lost, but trying to use a map and did not get where I was supposed to go, but then ended up finding a really cool area of London that was more relaxed, which is something we hadn’t seen yet. You find the best things when you aren’t looking for them.”

Fort added that she highly suggests that anyone experience Europe by Rail if they can because it is worth every dime.

“I think everyone should try another culture at some point as well, and by being immersed in it, you get to experience quite a bit,” she said.

McFall said that this year’s students distinguished themselves from others with their willingness to try new things and their good spirit.

“While all of my students have been eager to learn, this is the group that probably got along the best and embraced the trip the most,” he said.

McFall added, “I think this trip affirms the fact that it is not enough to simply sit in your dorm room and read about faraway places. You learn about the rest of the world in dramatically different and important ways by taking a trip like this, and you get a much richer sense of the rest of the world than you do simply by looking at pictures and talking on Skype.

“I think it is valuable in the short run, and it’s cool to see all these churches, but it’s really valuable in the long term because you develop a sense of empathy for other people,” McFall added. “You increase your own skill set, your skills in understanding by traveling abroad, and you bring back to the United States a more acute awareness of what your own life is like.

“This reaffirms my belief that it really is important to get outside of your comfort zone and that you can go and see and do and experience,” he said. “And it will change your life.”