In My Opinion
by Caroline Porter

Exchange students show unusual courage, flexibility.

One of my responsibilities in Galesburg SunRise Rotary is to communicate with our exchange students abroad. It's a wonderful way for a grandmother to keep in touch with unusually talented and courageous young people. It's hard for me to comprehend the wonders of e-mail when I can communicate immediately with students in Brazil and now, the Czech Republic. Heidi Blaine, of Galesburg, is spending the year in Pisek, Czech Republic and her E-mails and letters reveal her enthusiasm and positive attitude, but frustration over learning the language.

Her parents know much more than I about her experience, but as a former exchange student myself, I can relate to her excitement and drawing on every talent she has to communicate and get along.

After about eight years of listening to and watching Rotary in-bound and outbound students, I asked if I could speak about my experience as an exchange student.

It was during the summer of 1953, when I was 17 years old. World War II had ended only eight years before I became one of the first American Field Service exchange students from Kewanee. My brother accompanied me on the train to Chicago, where I met a large group of other AFS students. We traveled overnight by bus to Montreal, where we met another contingent which had traveled from New York. There were about 250 of us heading for Europe. Then we boarded an old Word War II troop ship for a hair-raising trip over the Northern Atlantic to South Hampton, England.

Some of the kids spent the entire trip on the top deck, green and cold. For a child who often felt carsick on long trips, I fared amazingly well. I sold my Dramamine for 10 cents apiece. It was great sport to dance because all we had to do was stand there and the floor would move for us.

The trip across the English channel was worse yet. We were grateful to arrive at Le Havre, France, only to get onto another bus to travel through France and Belgium - most of us were headed for Germany. The other student from Kewanee was Joe Quagliano, who wanted to go to Italy, but found out on the ship that he was assigned to a family in West Berlin. In 1953, this was not good news. There was an uprising against Communist rule by the East Germans which was quelled by tanks on June 17, 1953, just about the time we were leaving. The East German zone encircled West Berlin and Joe and other exchange students were instructed to hide under blankets and coats on the train while they passed through Communist territory.

Germany hosted by far the most exchange students, 201, as opposed to the rest scattered to Austria, Belgium, Finland, Denmark, France, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. The German-bound students reached Dusseldorf and separated from there. Five of us had a long train trip to Schweinfurt, in Bavaria. On the train a couple of us started to talk to some American soldiers. After some probing, I found out two of them were from Kewanee and were stationed in Schweinfurt. In fact 40,000 American soldiers were stationed there, in a town of 50,000 - the second most heavily bombed town in Germany during the War.

The reason? Schweinfurt harbored a ball-bearing factory. I would find out later that my German father was the chief engineer of the ball bearing factory, which was still functioning. I lived with a family of five children, one of who was grown and gone. My German sister was 18, I was 17, the maid was 16, Walter was 15, Klaus - 14 and Werner was 10. My German sister had been to America the year before and knew English, thank God. I had no German language instruction. Like many small American schools, Kewanee High School did not teach German.

There's a reason we send our young as exchange students and ambassadors. They don't have preconceived ideas and opinions about other people and countries. I knew we had fought Germany in the world war, but I was open-minded and eager to learn. I saw demolished buildings and maimed people. Reminders of the war were constant. I stayed in a room on the third floor of the Merkle's house, where two older women (probably younger than I am now) rented an apartment. They had been injured during an American air raid and weren't too sure about me for awhile.

I took dance lessons, went to a military ball, drank wine for the first time, visited Wurzburg University for a day with a couple of good-looking male students I met on the train on the way home from the ball and I took a trip to Passau with my German parents and their rather grumpy chauffeur. The family did not own a car. Mr. Merkle was picked up by a company car every day for work. After we left my parents in Passau for their vacation, I rode back with the chauffeur. Boy, was that a quiet trip.

The movie ''Snows of Kilimanjaro'' with Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner was a hoot because somehow ''Ich liebe dich'' didn't sound very romantic. The American soldiers visited me once. We sat stiffly in the living room, which was closed at all times except for visitors. We discovered we really had nothing in common except being from Kewanee and I never saw them again. Besides, they were awfully old, like 22 or something. I spent most of my time with my German siblings, who were a lot of fun.

My whole approach to food changed that summer. I had been a picky eater, but my mother warned me that I'd better eat everything given to me because the Germans had been starving for years. I followed her advice and gained 24 pounds, probably out of sheer nerves. My German family loved the idea of fattening up an American girl.

I had a wonderful time. I have never seen my German family again after that summer, but my parents and brother visited them in 1958. We communicated for many years, but unfortunately, not for the last several decades.

Memories of that trip are still vivid and the experience was an important part of my growing up. I'm eager to see Heidi and hear the story of her year in the Czech Republic. I lived abroad for only a summer. The courage and ambassadorial abilities of these young exchange students is truly impressive.

Caroline Porter is a freelance writer from Galesburg who can be reached at (309) 342-1337 or

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online February 28, 2001

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