DRACUT -- For Dracut High senior Reid Kapala, the first of his immediate family to travel far from home, his 19-day trip through six European nations in August was "wicked" impressive, slightly shocking and included an alarming overdose of Swiss cowbell.
Senior Gabrielle Grant's first European odyssey with the same student group yielded a sampling of the strangest "potato" she had ever tasted, and gave her a geocultural crush on the one country where she now yearns to spend at least one college semester studying abroad.
Kapala and Grant were among a group of 18 Dracut High students and one Greater Lowell Technical High School student on a tour-guided and chaperoned "Education First" company-designed trip through Europe, organized and led by Dracut High School history teacher Caleb Hand.
Their nearly three weeks in Europe proved eye-opening and life-changing for most of the students, just as Mr. Hand promised it would be, according to Kapala and Reid. Kapala said he also hopes to study abroad in college by revisiting the country he enjoyed most: Germany.
"I'm trying to get the kids to expand their horizons and see what else is out there," said Hand, an eighth-year history teacher at Dracut High, during an after-school interview in his classroom. At the front of the room, beneath a sign that asks students "Where have you been?," a collage of photos taken on student-group trips that Hand has previously led or chaperoned surround push pins on a world map that marks the faraway locations visited.
"In the 1990s, I was working for an Internet company and was not liking how it was going, sitting in a cube every day. In 2000, I decided I was going on a trip to Europe for eight weeks," Hand recalled. "When I got over there, I was blown away by what I saw."
Hand said it's become one of his greatest teaching joys -- to witness similar looks of wide-eyed wonder on the faces of students he's escorted overseas.
"I enjoy opening them up, like I got opened up to the world around us," said Hand. "When I went back to school after traveling to Europe, I went back for history because I had gone and seen these places, and I learned that I only knew half the stories behind them."
Hand has traveled to Europe a half-dozen times, he said, including Germany each time he's gone, either with his student groups or solo.
Frankfurt, Germany, is where Hand's latest student-travel group's plane disembarked to begin their nearly three-week bus tour of the continent.
"For one our first stops, our tour director took us to a tiny village in Rothenberg, Germany, and it was perfect, because it was the epitome of what you think of 'old-world,' almost medieval Europe," said Hand.
"The village had been kept pristine, untouched by the wars, with small, cobble-stoned roads, and small houses with timbers on the outside. And suddenly the kids are saying, 'Oh, my God. I'm in Germany. I'm really not in America anymore.'"
The kids wore the same looks on their faces as he once expressed, he said.
"They're walking around, eyes bulging, mouths open, smiling and loving it," said Hand. "And they began experiencing the food, which is very different, obviously."
Europe's endless variety of "different" food was often deliciously memorable, but sometimes made the students wish for the familiar and more easily identifiable fare of home, according to Kapala and Grant.
"When it comes to food, I'll try everything at least once," said Grant. "But this one dish we had in Germany, it was supposed to be a potato dumpling, only we weren't sure. The texture was so weird, like a sponge."
No one ate the spongy spud, according to Grant, except for the few bites she took. "I tried it, and it was gross. Our tour director found out it was supposed to be a potato."
Olive Garden and Papa Gino's are not the places to go if one seeks to learn what the everyday food choices in Italy truly taste like, Kapala discovered.
"I don't like gravy and it seemed everything over there (in Europe), especially in Italy, has gravies on it," said Kapala. "I was expecting Italy to be amazing but it was so not good. The pizza was OK, but the pasta was just... awkward."
Hearing about his students' most "awkward" and enjoyable moments was music to Hand's ears as he routinely visited with them, from the front to the back of the bus, as they traveled, to quiz them about each day's highs and lows, he said.
The most comical low point involved getting all the cowbell they never wanted to hear during a three-day stay at a quaint hotel in Switzerland -- at the crack of dawn, Kapala said.
"There was a cow farm across the street from our hotel in Switzerland and (the herd) all had these little bells attached to them. They'd wake us up at 5 o'clock in the morning each day. I was so angry!" said Kapala, laughing.
Such 4-D smells, sights and sounds cannot be found in a classroom or textbook, Hand pointed out. On the other hand, classroom study isn't as physically risky as world travel, Kapala found.
"Also in Switzerland, we followed a llama and herd of yaks, and I leaned on a fence to get a better picture of them -- and got shocked," Kapala said. "Turned out it was an electric fence."
For Grant, Switzerland and England were her favorite countries, and she plans to return to England to study abroad in college, she said. Attending a performance of the hit musical Wicked at the Apollo Victoria Theatre in London was a highlight for all students who chose to go, Grant said.
The cost of her trip, including airfare, food and expenses, totaled about $3,500, Grant said.
It was the second student-group excursion to Europe that Hand has led, following a World-War II-themed trip taken over April school vacation in 2011. This fall, Hand is busy offering to escort interested students from all high schools in the area, not only Dracut, on a 16-day Education First trip to Ireland, England and Scotland next summer.
Hand believes for each student to get a truly well-rounded, modern high-school education, they ought to get a passport stamped on a trip outside the United States.
"I'm hoping to build the program to the point where kids from the area recognize that, at one point during their high-school career, they really should go and experience one of these trips," said.
To help accomplish that goal, Hand has set up a Facebook page, "Dracut Young Adult Travelers," to provide more information about past and future trips.
"We need to make people aware it's worthwhile, maybe in their sophomore or junior years, or as a graduation present as a senior," said Hand. "I want to get these kids to go out there and see what else is available besides just Dracut, just the Merrimack Valley.
"It's been a good time for all so far, and I'm hoping to continue doing it."
Follow John Collins on Twitter at johncolowellsun.