“It's the best feeling: having a little bit of independence when you don't usually. When you get that little bit of freedom, it's liberating. That marked my growth as I matured into a young adult.”
When Claire Smerdon was 15-years-old, she spent seven weeks during the summer — two with her parents and five by herself — traveling to 10 countries in Europe. During that time, she visited famous landmarks, reconnected with friends and relatives and developed a new perspective about the world.
“I loved seeing all these new places, meeting new people and hearing just about how different people’s lives are from mine,” she said.
Although Claire’s parents were initially worried about her traveling alone, Claire convinced them to trust that she was responsible enough to take care of herself.
“I’ve always had the attitude that I’m not going to let my parents stop me, so I didn't let their work schedules impede on my opportunities,” Claire said. “This trip was the first time where I really had independence. I loved it.”
London: first taste of freedom
Claire began her journey in London, where she stayed with a friend she had met at a Stanford summer math camp two years prior. Every day for two weeks, the two explored the city, visiting famous landmarks such as Oxford University and Big Ben.
Being able to create daily itineraries and decide what areas of the city to explore gave Claire a taste of freedom. She said it was exhilarating to have complete control over her own decisions.
“It's the best feeling: having a little bit of independence when you don't usually,” Claire said. “When you get that little bit of freedom, it's liberating. That marked my growth as I matured into a young adult.”
Claire in front of Westminster Abbey (left) and the Horse Guards Palace (right) in London
Wexford County, Ireland: a family reunion
Although Claire was sad to leave London, she was excited for the next 2 weeks in a tiny town in County Wexford, Ireland with her “chaotic and crazy” relatives. Unlike in her hometown in the Silicon Valley, Claire said that the culture in Ireland is based around spontaneity, so people generally focus less on creating and sticking to a plan.
While there, Claire stayed in a three-bedroom trailer parked in a caravan site (like a mobile trailer park) with eight of her relatives.
“Ireland is completely different than my life at home where I have a much higher access to opportunities,” she said, “but I had more fun that summer there than I would have if I was in my house at that time.”
Every day from morning to late night, she would hang out with the other kids, enjoying simple experiences like playing soccer on the street, spending time at the beach and going to a local pub called The Anchor.
“My trip to Ireland was humbling,” Claire said. “I had an amazing time and it showed me I didn't need all these big extras in my life. You don’t need material items to have fun.”
Claire's cousins and the other neighborhood kids in front of the trailer
Frankfurt, Germany: the escalator disaster
Claire then flew to Frankfurt, where she spent two hours trying to find her parents in the hot, stuffy airport. Sweating through several layers of clothing, she fruitlessly tried to navigate; she couldn’t understand any of the signs or connect to the WiFi, so she was getting more frustrated with each passing minute.
At one point, her luggage — a bulky suitcase weighed down by an overstuffed duffel bag — tipped over and tumbled down an escalator. Claire felt “waves of embarrassment and shame” as the people around her yelled in German and gave her dirty looks.
“For me, that was a great moment of determination and maturity because I had to go through it by myself and I couldn’t turn to anyone and I had to accept that and be okay with it,” Claire said. “I was getting frustrated, but I just had to keep going because I had to meet my parents.”
Dubrovnik, Croatia: island-hopping
After finding each other in the airport, Claire and her parents flew to Dubrovnik, Croatia, where their family friends took them island-hopping on their boat.
Because of their friends, Claire was able to see the best local spots rather than just the typical tourist destinations. Her favorite part of the half-week trip was sailing through the clear blue water inside the coves of small uninhabited islands.
Claire and her father looking over Dubrovnik (left) and Claire floating in the Adriatic Sea (right)
Przedbórz, Poland: a culture shock
For her uncle’s wedding, Claire then traveled to Przedbórz, a small town of 3,600 people in the historic Lesser Poland province, for half a week. The town had only one ATM (which was out of money when Claire’s dad tried to use it) and one restaurant.
According to Claire, the kids there would hang out all day and late into the night, typically not caring about receiving Cs and Ds in school classes.
“I got a culture shock seeing this carefree attitude,” Claire said. “At home, part of the reason that people excel so much is because everyone around them is doing great things and it's inspiring. In this town the norm is to not really care about school and so to push past that would be really difficult.”
Claire at her uncle's wedding in Przedbórz, Poland
Cruise on the Danube River from Germany to Austria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary: a global education
In Germany, Claire’s family embarked on a cruise that took them to the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria and Hungary in 1 ½ weeks. Traveling around these Eastern European countries, Claire saw firsthand the lingering effects of communism through the dull, unvaried architecture she observed and the personal stories she heard.
The tour guides and the locals she met discussed how their families traveled outside their countries only with specific permission, faced shortages of products like bananas and toilet paper and felt the economic decline from lower productivity levels.
“You don't appreciate normality until you see how that could be disrupted,” Claire said. “Because I'm a visual learner, it’s a lot easier for me to understand and process information when I can visually see the outcomes of it.”
St. Stephen's Basilica in Budapest,Hungary (left); Claire and her mom in Dürnstein, Austria (right)
Travel’s impact on Claire's life
Traveling exposed Claire to countless unique attitudes, lifestyles and people and allowed her to receive a global education. She discovered how different the culture in the Bay Area is from other places around the world.
“If you go across the world, you meet people with completely different stories and backgrounds and ideas,” Claire said. “It’s an amazing experience to have that exposure.”