By Chris Hopcraft
12 March 2018
Italy. Italia. The land of the Romans. This is now my third excursion into ancient territory, perhaps built by the Gods themselves eons ago.
I remember my first trip here as if it were yesterday. I was only barely 22; only a child in the grand scheme of the world. I was one of the privileged few to participate in the “Grand Tour,” which was simply a life-changing experience brought to me by CMU’s own Department of History. My guides? Drs. Smith and Harsanyi, two esteemed professors from which I have learned so many valuable lessons about the world.
Back then, I was a little shy, one could say. At least, the rest of the trip participants who were to be my best friends over the next three weeks would have said so. Indeed, I had no ability to attend the “meet and greet” sessions offered prior to the trip; therefore, I met all of them for the first time on the day of departure.
It was midday in May, which is in my opinion the best month of the year based on temperature alone. It was, by many standards, perfect. I remember seeing a large group of people wearing CMU attire, and I began to walk up to them. They had to be my study abroad group. Now, as part of my shy behavior, I do find myself to be exceedingly sheepish in situations like this, that is, meeting groups of people for the first time. To this end, I decided to, perhaps somewhat awkwardly, ask my new friends if I could leave my bag with them while I explored the airport. While it earned me some curious stares, they happily obliged. My shyness sort of, but not entirely, went away right after this, as my new friends were immediately accepting of me. Not long after, we boarded a flight for Rome via Amsterdam.
Our first foray into the fast pace of Rome was to immediately be swept into a taxicab against the advice of our esteemed doctors of history, who had suggested the Leonardo Express as the best option to transit into the city centre. The driver, though smooth-talking and fast-moving, did not take advantage of us in any way; we were safely deposited in front of our hostel in short order with each of our wallets having fourteen less Euros in them.
Now, this was my first experience with international travel altogether, much less in a hostel. Between the noise, the somewhat unkempt demeanor of the place, and the curt behavior of the staff, I believe that I found myself being quite angrily critical of the lodging in the journal which we were to keep daily. How foolish I was! Nine years later, I can look back and laugh at my attitude back then. I didn't realize it at the time, but the lodging was adequate; probably I was only out of my comfort zone.
We began our Grand Tour the following morning, quite early in fact. I for one had not become accustomed to the time difference yet, but we had to push on. Our entire class was at stake. Fatigue became a thing of unimportance as we entered the Roman Forum and began our first lecture by Drs. Smith and Harsanyi. We had, ourselves, become a part of history at that moment, for only a small percentage of the world can ever say that they could see history come to life in the way that it did on that morning.
Indeed, I had never experienced anything quite like that before or since. It was simply breathtaking to have the ancient monuments looming overhead while our esteemed professors were placing them in the framework of our class. I am convinced that if all classes were presented in this manner, the entire graduating class of every year would be the Valedictorian.
As I write this now, I have the distinct pleasure of doing this same thing for my wife in just two days. How amazing it will be to take what I had learned in the Forum nearly nine years ago and provide for her the same experience that I had. For her, things will come alive as they did for me.
Back in my own Grand Tour of nine years ago, by the time in which we transited from the more chaotic atmosphere of Rome to Florence, I started feeling more at ease. It was here that I began to become great friends with my classmates.
Each lecture seemed to be more engaging than the last, as the settings for each meeting became even more grandiose and awe-inspiring. I remember quite clearly a time when we were to read passages from Forster’s A Room with a View and discuss them, and of course the breathtaking place at which we held our class discussion was perhaps the best view in the entire world at that moment: a location named Fiesole. Our professors, in choosing that exact place, had again succeeded in bringing history alive before our very eyes. It was the type of thing that CMU’s numerous study abroad programs were known for, and this was no exception.
At some point further down the road, our group had traveled to Nîmes, France, as a continuance of the Grand Tour. It was around this time that I had become a bit homesick, and quite weary of the differences between the United States and the European Union. “My God,” I thought. “How can people survive without free refills? Will these portion sizes ever increase? What of this cellular service? Surely, this is not the third world.” Follies and ignorant thoughts by a first-time traveler.
All of these years later, I suppose that things haven’t changed much. There are still no free refills, and the portions are the same. The cellular networks, however, are much improved and data-friendly these days. As one exits their comfort zone and makes an attempt to experience a culture different from their own, it becomes a gratifying experience in which one’s own cultural awareness is heightened and enriched. These differences, though jarring at first, ultimately became a testament to my own ability to adapt.
And in fact, as our tour drew to an end, I found myself coming to terms with the differences I had found between the United States and Europe. Perhaps the beauty of the sites had something to do with it. It might have been the real-life lectures and discussions we had participated in, on the steps of so many timeless monuments. I do know that without the opportunity to participate in this program with my beloved History department, I would have never had the chance to broaden my horizons in that way.
Since my fabled CMU Grand Tour of 2009, I have been back to Europe six separate times. I graduated from CMU with a Bachelor’s of Science in History and could not be prouder to say so. I got married, and I now have the pleasure of sharing this experience with my wife in many of the same ways that I did so many years ago, down to staying in the same area in Rome as we originally did.
Where would I be without my original Grand Tour? Perhaps many dollars richer, and certainly a less well-rounded off individual. It was an experience that could never be repeated or replaced; one of the heart that stays with a person for their entire life. As I pass this experience on to my wife, and later to my children, I have the distinct happiness of always remembering where I came from: from the hallowed corridors of Powers Hall, Central Michigan University. Together, we all made history.
Chris Hopcraft graduated from CMU with a Bachelor’s of Science in History in 2011. His interests include filmmaking, photography, and entrepreneurship. He owns his own sales business specializing in satellite phones and other satellite communications equipment. He is currently developing several film projects and in the process of creating his own media company.