Before slipping on his Teva sandals and setting out on a 1,500-mile walk across Europe for college credit last semester, junior Matt Soule took a deep breath and thought to himself, "Should I be worried about being an American in Europe?"
After all, the US wasn't exactly winning popularity votes among its European allies with the war in Iraq. Would he be caught in the crossfire of anti-American sentiment?
As it turned out, Matt and his peers from Franklin Pierce College in Rindge, N.H., had little to worry about. From the lush Burgundy area of France to the dry, hilly region of Tuscany, Italy, they encountered friendly faces, homecooked meals, and endless hospitality. It wasn't unusual for the locals to bring cakes, plates of cheese, and bowls of homemade soup to their tents.
"We'd ask a farmer if we could sleep on his land, he'd say yes, tell us where to find water, then never come check on us again," says Mr. Soule. "Sometimes I felt like there should have been a catch with some of these people, they were almost too nice."
True, the paths they chose were often country roads, where they were more likely to run into cows, boars, and donkeys than people. But that didn't stop program coordinator Taylor Morris from worrying about their safety.
"I had a little bit more apprehension going this year than I ever had before, simply because of the war in Iraq. But I still found that in general, Europeans are more sophisticated politically, and they are able separate people from their government," says Mr. Morris, who has logged more than 15,000 miles over 13 years on the various walks.
Over 3-1/2 months, 44 students, leaders, and assistants walked 12 to 15 miles a day along the country roads of several European countries (see map, left). The students pitched a tent on a different farm every night and carted a ton and a half of equipment in a large Avis truck. It was part of Franklin Pierce's "Walk in Europe" program. Now in its 35th year, the walk is offered every fall semester, and the route changes each time.
While walking their way toward 15 credits and conversing with the locals, many students were embarrassed to learn that European students were well versed in US politics.
"We had no clue about anything that was going on in their government, and they knew everything about ours," says Soule. "I never realized how massively the United States affects the rest of the world. People came up to us and started talking to us about [President] Bush and the election. They were explaining to us that Europeans don't hate Americans, they just don't agree with the government."
"Walk in Europe" differs from traditional study-abroad programs in that it's set mostly in the countryside. "Students are forced to interact with the locals because they are responsible for everything - all of the logistical requirements," says Morris, adding that the group must find a different site every night for their 30- by 30-foot tent, map out a route, and cook meals.
One of the most intimidating jobs, students found, was knocking on a stranger's door to ask if they could spend the night in their backyard. "I didn't go over there with [many] language skills," says sophomore Taylor Peraner. "But it got easier once we got accustomed to their culture."
To help students learn the language of the land, Franklin Pierce offered a "Language for Travelers" course before the trip, which taught basic communication skills. They prepared a letter of introduction in French and Italian, but students were encouraged to carry on a conversation in the native language. "There is a certain kind of charm in making conversation, rather than thrusting a letter in someone's face," says Morris.
Every morning, students folded their tent, cleaned the stoves, and loaded their equipment into the van. Every eight days, three students were assigned to "van team," during which time they were responsible for driving the truck, finding a campsite, handing out directions to the next destination, and cooking dinner.
This wasn't the first time Franklin Pierce students have been overseas during times of international tension. Rachel Garceau learned about the terrorist attacks on America on 9/11 while camping on the island of Corsica with other students.
The next day, the group headed to Florence. "We were walking around the city and people were very compassionate and very sorry. There was a handwritten sign in English hanging in the window of a jewelry shop: 'We give our support to the Americans.' "
Ms. Garceau encountered a slightly more hostile climate two years later in 2003, when she returned on the walk as an assistant. When she arrived in southern France, the college grad noticed more graffiti, one of which said "Go Home America." She was a bit more nervous about the trip - and so were her parents.
"That's when it was Freedom Fries, everything was anti-French in America, and we were going to be spending a lot of time in France," says Garceau. "It was pretty obvious at times that they didn't like what our country was doing politically, but we had a place to camp every night. They were very giving.
"If we had been more in heavily populated areas, I would have felt a little differently." But, she added, "there was a realization to me in 2003, something bad could happen. In 2001, that thought never crossed my mind."
It's amazing in this day and age that this program can continue, says Morris. "The project hinges on the kindness of strangers out there. It's very idealistic in its goal, and it's something the students feel proud of."
Mr. Peraner says this trip opened up his eyes to the world around him and made him realize that other people are more accepting than he'd realized.
"Americans are close-minded to think that the world hates us because they're not backing us in this situation right now. I think that's really naive of us. The world is a lot more accepting than we tend to be toward people."