A.L. High School choir tours England

Published 10:56 am Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Column: Sara Aeikens, Creative Connections

About 40 years ago, not long after I returned from a two-year Peace Corps stint serving for the U.S. government in Venezuela, I set a goal to satisfy my traveling addiction. I decided to visit a different location at least once a year, including our United States, but preferably a foreign country. I managed to touch base in several dozen countries but was sorely disappointed when I nowhere near qualified for the Travelers’ Century Club, which has a chapter in Phoenix, where we vacationed in March of this year.

Sara Aeikens

On Sundays when I can’t get out of town, I sometimes take a very short half-block trip for a leisurely visit with our Vine Avenue neighbors Mark and Teresa Anderson. On one of these non-serious sessions they mentioned Teresa planned to accompany her son, Erick, on his Albert Lea High School choir tour to England and Scotland. On our honeymoon to Germany 44 years ago, we spent a day delayed in London for emergency repairs on one of our jet engines, while waiting for parts flown in from America.

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We visited Windsor Castle, ate on an island on the Thames River, and I pointed out someone who looked like the star Twiggy, if you are old enough to recall the famous idol. My husband reminded me it was the real Twiggy, noting that we were in the London airport and that England is her home country.

I could say I’ve been in England by accident and never to Scotland. So I asked the Andersons what they thought about my going along. Of course, they thought it worth asking Diane Heaney, the choir director. Her response came back with a kind but firm no. A few weeks later after I’d forgotten my request, an invite message came on my answering machine.

At the first trip meeting Diane greeted me by saying, “You will be our official photographer, right?” She approved my student photo contest idea with one word — “cool” — so I had to go, right? Sometimes life opens up opportunities that seem impossible, especially if you are afraid to ask or get a no.

Sara Aeikens in London. The Albert Lea High School choir’s trip to England and Scotland was June 6-16.

Mrs. Heaney told the choir trip students their experience would unfold as transformative. She arranged five choir concerts in cathedrals, plus singing “Loch Lomond” by the waters of Loch Lomond. The ethereal-like performances of choir music to fit the awe-inspiring locations moved both local church-goers as well as parent chaperones, including a few three-generation families.

The schedule was tight, the rules clear and the choices for activities numerous, thus giving many chances for growth and learning for anyone on the journey. Having a new Canon camera, I appreciated photo shoot guidance from another Canon-weilding parent. I practiced clicking photos faster, on the move and more often, all outside my comfort zone. Students pointing out photo suggestions and noticing cultural oddities from American viewpoints turned work into fun, with almost everyone joining in for excellent photo shoots.

Grassy countryside fields, grazed by oodles of sheep hemmed in with hand-built ancient stone fences, unfolded to the sea as the group headed north, to Scotland for castles and cathedrals. Three busloads of Albert Lea travelers spanning at least six decades of age highlighted music in a mystical historical atmosphere for their 11 days together.

The trip coordination, also directed by Mrs. Heaney, contained an incredulous element of assurance and support for new travelers and the diverse groups on the tour. In the exotic food tasting department instead of complaints, all in a group of about eight willingly visited an Indian restaurant and took part in a tasting session. Of course, many tried fish and chips, pot pies and potato sausage, but the final night transpired with super burgers at the Hard Rock Cafe in London.

The helpfulness of several students, both boys and girls, in different groups allowed me to keep up on subways and walks to the theater. They took my arm for unexpected step changes, crossing streets with confusing opposite direction for traffic movement and treks to buses and river cruise tours.

The contrast in the five lodging facilities gave another chance to compare cultural values. Space efficiency and environmental concerns stand out as priorities. Using one door to close off two different rooms, depending on need, is a clever invention perhaps not found in the United States. Four choices of bins for recycling stand on many nearby street corners. Napkins are printed with recycling messages and many traditional restaurants use cloth napkins. On our walk to the Tower Bridge and the glorified Ferris wheel called the Eye, a recycling barge floated by urging strollers to keep the Thames River clean.

My favorite random happening occurred when we met a Finnish couple on the subway. They offered to show us the way out of the tube station but not without a small bit of fanfare. A tiny, full-scale, bright harmonica about an inch in length hung around a chain on the husband’s neck. He led us out loudly to the tune of the classic Finlandia.

We just followed the music.

An unlikely visit to the Salvation Army International Headquarters in London became a reality well worth the time, due to a choir student’s specific request. The foremost memory of harmony-hewn notes of choir songs still plays in my brain when dreaming. I hope the choir puts out a CD so I can actually listen to the lovely music often.

Sara Aeikens is an Albert Lea resident.