A Holiday Away from Home in Good Company
There is something about being “home for the holidays” that is especially comforting. Whether it’s putting up holiday decorations, baking or just being in good company with family and friends, celebrating the season with loved ones seems to make the holidays special. While most Gonzaga students struggled to return home from Spokane this holiday break due to the snowstorms, many Gonzaga-in-Florence (GIF) students also embarked on a two-week holiday tour to the snowy climes of Scandinavia and Russia.
How did the Florence students manage to spend the holidays away from family and loved ones? Speaking from experience, it’s not easy. The previous Christmas (2007) I greatly missed my family’s Christmas Eve celebration, White Elephant gift exchange, and decorating the tree with my mom. I soon realized, however, the opportunity to spend a holiday in China, let alone ever return to the country, was highly unlikely. The good company of close friends and peers who also were homesick made me value the importance of the relationships I had formed while abroad.
Unlike past years, this two-week holiday tour was optional for the Florence students. While some students traveled on their own or went home to visit their families, GIF students traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark, Stockholm, Sweden, Helsinki, Finland and St. Petersburg, Russia.
“It was a ‘small’ group – 56 students – that felt like family, and I think everyone had friends around who helped ease the melancholy of being away from their real families for the holidays,” said GIF Student Life Coordinator Shelley Story.
When choosing a location for Christmas tour, Gonzaga’s Student Life tries to select a place or places that will appeal to students, and are destinations most students would not travel to on their own, Story said.
“We have to balance the location appeal with safety, cost, logistics, etc.,” she said. “This group of destinations seemed to fit the bill better than any other alternatives we considered.”
Starting their tour in Copenhagen, students were able to visit several historical sites including the Amalienborg Palace, the Copenhagen Opera House, the Little Mermaid Sculpture and the Tivoli Amusement Park, a home to gorgeous gardens, ancient trees and the Tivoli Lake, in addition to a two-story carousel and several rollercoasters. Student Life also planned a special Christmas Eve dinner and Chaplain Fr. Bryan Pham, S.J., held Mass in the hotel before a smaller group of 25 students attended midnight Mass in Danish at St. Ansgars Cathedral.
On Christmas Day, many students experienced their first “white Christmas” as they boarded a train for a snowy ride to Stockholm. Students then attended a group dinner in the hotel and took advantage of free Internet to contact their families. In Stockholm, students also had the opportunity to visit several tourist hot spots including the Skansen Open Air Museum and the Vasa Museum, which houses one of Europe’s great archeological treasures, an almost undamaged 17th century warship, raised from the sea after three centuries underwater. After taking a “ghost walk” through Old Town, students also had the option of attending a pro ice hockey game and taking a lesson in curling. Gonzaga junior Miles Miller enjoyed his curling session saying, “It was completely different from any other sport I have tried.”
From Stockholm, students took an overnight ferry to Helsinki where they spent a day visiting several sites, including: Senate Square, the Sibelius Park & monument (honoring national composer Jean Sibelius) and Rock Church, which was built entirely underground with a ceiling made of copper. The students rang in the New Year in St. Petersburg where they attended an extravagant gala in their hotel. In St. Petersburg, students also had the chance to visit several touristic locations including the Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood; Nevsky Prospekt, the most famous street in Russia, renowned for its splendid architecture; St. Isaak's Cathedral; the State Hermitage Museum and Winter Palace; and the Naval St. Nicholas Cathedral of the Epiphany.
How does Student Life plan activities they believe will appeal to students, anyway?
“On the tour, we had such a nice variety of activities planned that I think there was something to keep everyone busy, but also enough free time for relaxing and recovering,” Story said. Traveling itself can be exhausting, especially when going from country to country without any real downtime. By providing students with the option of attending several kinds of activities, from a walking tour to a lesson in curling, the Gonzaga-in-Florence students had the opportunity to choose how they spent their holiday break.
When discussing the favorite parts of their holiday tour, many Gonzaga students were happy to see the cities fully decorated for the holidays, which made them feel a bit more like they were at home.
“My favorite part of the trip was bonding with new people and seeing parts of Europe that I would probably never have the opportunity to visit otherwise,” said Laura Maher.
Student Life helped plan trips to destinations most students would not have seen otherwise, memorable places indeed. Not many people, let alone young college students, can say they have spent Christmas Day aboard a snowy train ride to Sweden, or counted down the New Year at a gala in Russia.
These memories are truly one-of-a-kind, and won’t be forgotten.
Miles Miller said he was delighted with the tour.
“Before the trip I had some reservations about spending my Christmas abroad,” Miller said. “But after reflecting on my experience, it was definitely a fantastic time and the right choice. It was a little difficult being away from home knowing all the good food and family that I was missing, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I probably won’t have the opportunity to spend a Christmas like that again.”
While the Gonzaga-in-Florence students might have thought they missed out on Christmas this year — I did while in China for Christmas 2007 — one thing is certain: spending time in good company can make the holidays much more than memorable, fantastic.
The students came to realize that no matter where they are, the spirit of Christmas lives in each of us.
As Charles Dickens wrote:
But I am sure that I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round . . . as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely. – A Christmas Carol
Stay tuned for more updates coming from Firenze!
Click the following link to view a slideshow of the places the Gonzaga-in-Florence students visited.