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Kayla O'Connell's takes trip to Central Europe

Accommodations fit for a queen ... Kayla O’Connell views King Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein Castle in Austria. Said to be the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Fantasyland Castle, “It is a fancier castle and is filled with pictures and figurines of swans,” said O’Connell.

Kayla O'Connell, a junior at Philip High School and daughter of Roger and Teresa O'Connell, is back from her learning experience in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Liechtenstein.

The whirlwind tour began June 9 and continued through June 22. The overnight, trans-Atlantic flight had an hour lay-over in Greenland. "I couldn't see the ocean," said O'Connell. "Though I did sleep some on the plane, we began the first day's itinerary right away." Because of lack of sleep and jet lag, O'Connell considers that first day the hardest day of the trip.

O'Connell and her Philip High School German instructor, Betty Berry, joined with 10 Brookings students and their instructor. Adding to the tour group were 30 more students and chaperones from North Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota.

Walking, bicycling, bussing, boating and sight-seeing by train, the group visited the Olympic grounds of the 1972 Summer Games, a Swiss car-free town, the Black Forest in Rhine Falls, medieval and modern sections of major cities, the interior of a salt mine, the "Sound of Music" city of Salzburg, elaborate gardens and historic castles.

The first stop was the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, which illustrates the building of the Berlin Wall and the many attempts the East Germans made to cross over, under and through the wall. "There's now a wall around the remains of the Berlin Wall," observed O'Connell. "At night, tourists would chip away at it for souvineers."

"The bicycle tours in Berlin and in Munich were a lot better than the bus tours, even though one was 10 miles long," said O'Connell, "because you couldn't sleep and they included more walking around of the sites."

"We spoke very little German while there, mostly "Dankanshein" (thank you). The majority of people there spoke English. I tried to listen to what they were saying when they did speak German, but they talked way too fast and I had to ask our teachers what was being said."

"We didn't have time to think about getting homesick. I barely noticed being away from home. The group became a big family. When we got back to the youth hostels (hotels), we were very tired, but still stayed up and talked. I liked the busy schedule, because you didn't have to sit down and think about what to do next."

It was hard for O'Connell to say much about the Dachau Concentration Camp. "It's a place where you can get up-close and personal about World War II." At Dachau, the group viewed the crematorium and barracks. "The toilets were disgusting; rusty and falling apart. You can read about anything, but being there opens your eyes. Maybe, if my friends and school classes get on the subject, I'll talk about it ... maybe."

"Breakfasts were the same everyday - corn flakes, a bun with jam and sometimes sliced meat and cheese, which didn't taste good early in the morning."

The group had some free time on some of the evenings. "We played soccer since soccer fields were all over. We couldn't find a basketball court."

"Most of the postcards and other pictures available are of buildings such as churches, city halls and houses like Mozart's home. They are decorated with nice hand carvings, though not overly fancy."

"It was really pretty up in the Alps. It wasn't actually cold and I had only a sweatshirt. At the Alpine Slide, we rode individual carts on a rail down the mountain."

One of the highlights for O'Connell was Munich's English Gardens, where people surfboard on the waves of the river. "It was really hot out and jumping in the water was refreshing, cold and fun."

Some mixed observations from O'Connell. "Most people didn't seem to be as friendly as Americans; they could tell we were tourists and wouldn't say anything. You have to take your own sacks to the grocery stores. Swiss chocolate is better than German chocolate. German pizza is different - not tasty. There are a lot of ice cream "eis" stands; it's different but in a good way."

"My mom was a little nervous because it was so far away and for so long, but both she and dad were supportive," concluded O'Connell.

Her mother said, "It was hard letting her go for two weeks and not hearing from her. (Cell-phones were not recommended.) But, seeing the excitement on her face when she returned made it worthwhile." O'Connell has worked, and will work, extra summer jobs to help pay for the adventure. Her parents permitted the trip; though concerned about using college savings, they knew it would be a once in a lifetime opportunity.

O'Connell said, "I'd like to go back to Europe somewhere, though, I don't know if I'd go back to the exact same places."