The Friendship Force: a foreign exchange for adults

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When Anna Rome signed up to be a Friendship Force "ambassador" she had no idea where she would wind up. All she was told when she paid her $333 was that the 10-day trip could mean living in a mud hut or an igloo.

But the enthusiastic, gray-haired woman had no qualms, even when it was announced a month before the trip that the destination would be Hamburg -- and her knowledge of German was nonexistent.

"I have a mental block on languages," she confided with a grin, "but I firmly believe that a smile and a lost look . . . people stop me right here in Boston and ask me, 'Are you lost? Do you need help?,' so I'm not afraid."

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The Friendship Force is a nonprofit organization chartered in March 1977. Its aim is to promote peace in the world through "the force of friendship" -- by arranging exchange visits between US cities and cities abroad. Headed by the Rev. Wayne Smith (although there is no affiliation with any church), the program is actually an offshoot of a project started in 1973 by the then governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter. He and Mrs. Carter were part of a 10-day, 200-member exchange program involving citizens of Georgia and citizens of the State of Pernambuco, Brazil.

Basically the program works as follows. A planeload of American citizens from one community flies to a city outside the United States. At the same time, an equal number of citizens from that city fly to the originating US community. The travelers stay in the homes of volunteer private citizens who have similar occupations, and join them in their everyday life.

Thus far, 71 exchanges involving over 32,000 "ambassadors" and 55,000 hosts have taken place, with 42 more planned for 1981. Cities involved have included Atlanta gia and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England; Des Moines and Dublin; Harrisburg, Pa., and Mexico City; Helena, Mont., and Seoul; and Madison, Wis., and Zurich.

"I guess I'm prejudiced," Dr. Smith says with a laugh, "but I think we're extremely successful. . . ." He says that most of the cities that have participated have asked to do it again, and some, such as Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Berlin, have had as many as six or seven exchanges, with thousands of people there still eagerly awaiting another chance to participate.

"I know there are high school exchanges such as American Field Service, and international living on the college level, but this is the first time I heard that adults would have a chance to do the same thing," Mrs. Rome says. (Organizations such as Servas International do include adults in such programs, but Friendship Force is one of the first to do so on such a large scale.)

Applicants are carefully screened to determine their adaptability and willingness to take things in stride. One of the questions asked Mrs. Rome was "What would you do if, when you got to the airport or railroad terminal, the host family that was supposed to meet you wasn't there?"

"And being a very honest person," she said laughing, "my answer was, 'I would panic -- but I wouldn't move from there till someone came to claim me.' No, seriously, there's always somebody in a public place like that who can speak English --

Mrs. Rome's outlook seems to be shared by most Friendship Force travelers, says Vera Armen, coordinator of the Boston-Hamburg trip. "The whole reason they came in was because they'd say, 'Hey, this is something I'd really love to do! . . . That's the whole idea of this -- you get people who are adventuresome, spirited, concerned, to bring some of America to other people, and share."

The hosts are just as enthusiastic about sharing their homes with visitors from abroad. Mary Darmstaetter, who has done some traveling herself, was especially excited about being a hostess.

"If you've done any traveling it's so marvelous if you find someone along the way, and you get invited to their house. Even if it's just for coffee and cake, it's great to be able to sit and talk about what your world is like."

Most participants are even more enthusiastic after the program is over. Interviewed a week after her return from Hamburg, Mrs. Rome fairly bubbled with joy as she described her experiences.

"It was fantastic!" she said. "There were the most wonderful people. In fact when all of us were talking together afterward on the plane, the conversation all tended to be about who had the best family."

Mrs. Rome's hosts were an architect and his wife who was a teacher, and their 20-year-old daughter home on vacation from school. They all spoke English, and when they occasionally got stuck for a word Mrs. Rome was usually able to figure it out from the context of what they were saying.

"Everything was so exciting. Each new day brought something different. We went shopping one day in the outdoor local market, and they took me through some of the most beautiful little towns with the most picturesque little side streets. And there were flowers everywhere!"

But her fondest memory is of the people she met. "The wonderful people -- I can't get over them, perfect strangers who opened their homes to us.They could not have done more for us. And we parted in tears because it was too short a meeting. We could have stayed together for much longer."

The same held true for the German contingent here: Ulrike Brendlin and Jurgen Beier, journalists from Hamburg, came over with the group to report on their activities. In their first few days they were given a tour of Boston Harbor by boat, visited various museums, and also had the opportunity of meeting with fellow journalists from Boston newspapers.

Fraulein Brendlin admits one of her strongest impressions was of the openness and hospitality of the Americans she met. And she confesses that she is slightly amazed at Mrs. Rome's fearlessness at going to a foreign country where she wasn't really able to speak the language. But then she attributes it to the sense of independence she says seems to characterize most Americans.

Mary Darmstaetter, on the other hand, found her guest to be just as independent as she herself. After learning that her German visitor really wasn't too interested in doing touristy things, they went driving through some of the small towns west of Boston -- the highlight of one trip being a visit to a local flea market where they found a pair of antique spurs and an old man who told the history of them. Shopping at grocery and department stores took another afternoon, and a backyard barbecue and a Red Sox baseball game were other activities shared.

Though her guest spoke English well, there was one humorous incident caused by a language mix-up. At one point the visitor confessed to a hankering for "morning muffins" which she had discovered on a previous trip to the United States. Admitting that she, too, loved muffins, Miss Darmstaetter bought an assortment of blueberry muffins, corn muffins, bran muffins, and the like. She was rather disappointed the next morning at her guest's response, or rather lack of response, when the muffin feast was set before her. Though her guest agreed that the muffins were indeed very nice, she confessed they weren't quite what she had wanted. After she then tried to describe what she had in mind, Miss Darmstaetter realized that the morning muffin delicacy requested were just English muffins!

The spirit of simple sharing is the heart of the Friendship Force. One German visitor about to return home was asked, "Did you enjoy the experience? -- but I guess you'd almost have to say yes." He smiled and said, "No, I don't have to say yes. But we did have a really good time, all of us. Look around, you can tell it on our faces."

Individuals or community leaders wanting to participate in a Friendship Force trip should write to Dr. Wayne Smith, The Friendship Force, 575 South Omni International, Atlanta, Ga. 30303.

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