Heidi Addison: BRIDGE-BUILDING STARTS EARLY IN LIFE
WHEN: 7 February 2014
WHERE: Arlington, Virginia
INTERVIEWER: Carl Lankowski
Q: Let’s start with your family background.
HA: It’s interesting on my father’s side. They bounced back and forth between Germany and New York City for many years. On that side, I am technically a fourth generation New Yorker, but not really. What the family would do, when they could afford it, was they would take the woman who was pregnant to America to have the baby, so that the baby could not later be drafted into the Kaiser’s army. There was a lot of this transatlantic going back and forth in my father’s family.
Q: So, we are talking about pre-1914.
HA: Yes, exactly. It helped that they were sailors originally and were used to moving around. They came from Rostock on the Baltic coast. My father’s grandfather came over as a young man, became an American citizen, and started a business in New York City, where he married and had his first son, my grandfather Adolf. A few years later, the German economy picked up, and they all went back to Germany, where they had another son and went back into business.
But the German economy tanked after World War I, and the family returned to the United States for good. All except Adolf. At that time, Adolf was attending a technical university in Bingen am Rhein and didn’t go with them. He married a girl from Bingen and stayed in Germany for two years after he graduated.
He came from a very odd family arrangement, because 16 and 18 years after Adolf was born, his parents had two daughters. There was almost a whole generation between the boys and their sisters. I knew my great-aunts, who both lived into their 90s. They had pronounced New York accents and barely spoke a word of German, while their much older brother Adolf was German through and through. They were little girls when their parents returned to the U.S. and grew up to be 100% American.
Q: What year was that?
HA: My grandfather was born in 1896 and his parents went back to the U.S. in late December 1921.
Q: They were in Germany during WWI?
HA: Yes, and that is one reason the business there didn’t do well.
Q: What kind of business was it?
HA: He had a small shop, selling newspapers and things like that. That is what he did when he came over here, too. But my grandfather stayed in Germany, went to university and got an engineering degree at a TU—Technical University—married my grandmother, and was all prepared to settle in Germany. Then the depression came, much earlier than in the US, and the economy got bad, so he and my grandmother made the transatlantic trip in March of 1924. His father had invited him to try his luck here and he did. My father was born in Manhattan in October 1929, three weeks before the Wall Street crash.
Q: What is his name?
HA: Manfred—he was named after the Red Baron.
Q: And the family name?
HA: Walsmann, Manfred Walsmann. My grandmother had a schoolgirl crush on the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen. They lived in New York City for seven years. My grandmother never learned English and was very homesick. My grandfather then received an offer to run a match factory in a town called Riesa, which is in Saxony, eastern Germany. Grandmother was thrilled, saw it as a great opportunity to go home, so they did. My father went with them—by then he was nearly three years old and almost died on the ship going over after eating the captain’s cigar.
So he grew up in eastern Germany, but he stayed an American citizen. My grandparents never changed it. However, once Hitler came to power, my grandfather changed his own citizenship to German—he gave up his American citizenship that he had by birthright, by having been born in the United States. In Hitler’s Germany, you couldn’t hold the kind of job my grandfather had and be a foreign national.
My father’s sister Anne-Rose was born in Riesa. They all made it through the war (WWII), which was very difficult, what with the Allied bombings and all. There was one winter when they had almost nothing to eat but potatoes.
Q: Where in Saxony was that?
HA: Riesa is about half an hour north of Dresden by train. It was used as a hospital city after the firebombing of February 1945 that leveled Dresden – my dad has vivid memories of that. He was very lucky, because he was born in October of 1929, which meant that he was still 15 when the war ended in May. If he had been born a little bit sooner, he would have been drafted and probably killed.
After the Russians invaded East Germany, his parents said: “Look, Manfred, there is no opportunity here for you. You have American citizenship. Go over to your grandparents.” And he did that in late August of 1946. He was 17 at the time, an American citizen who spoke no English, and he had rickets from malnutrition when he arrived. He had to share a room with a cousin in a tiny New York City apartment. But you did what you had to do.
Meanwhile, my grandfather had no appetite to stay in Germany after the Russians moved in, so he first took a job in Malta for a year and then finally got a position in Sasolburg, South Africa running a factory. He could not get residency in the U.S. because he had renounced his American citizenship.
Q: What did he do in Malta?
HA: I am not sure. It was connected with engineering, but the central point was to get out of eastern Germany and the Soviet occupation.
Q: What sort of engineer was he?
HA: His training was in mechanical engineering. So, he got the job in South Africa and moved with my very reluctant grandmother—leaving Germany again, which she didn’t want to do at all. They stayed in South Africa the rest of their lives, finally settling in Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State. My grandparents are buried there. My father’s sister is married to a South African who is a cousin of the last Apartheid-era president F.W. de Klerk, an architect. My cousins are all South African and continue to live there. One runs a game park.
Q: Have you visited the family there?
HA: Yes, indeed. The OFS looks like Oklahoma. Meantime, my father couldn’t really look to his family for any kind of financial help. He worked his way through college and got a scholarship, earning an engineering degree, like his father.
Q: You mentioned New York City. Which borough?
HA: They started out in an apartment in the Bronx. My father then attended Manhasset High School on Long Island, where he graduated. Then onward to Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pennsylvania—a small school, enrollment-wise, where he had a full scholarship. After graduation, he got a job with Westinghouse. He was one of the last generation who worked for one company his entire career. But he wanted to marry a German girl.
Q: Wait—when did he learn English?
HA: He had to learn in “on the fly” in high school. He was always good in math, where language doesn’t matter so much. That helped in studying engineering. Nowadays, you can hear only a tiny, vestigial accent in his speech. My mother has a much stronger accent. He was extremely strict with my sister and me as far as using proper grammar because learning English had been so difficult for him.
After he graduated from college and started working, he finally had enough money to visit his parents—he hadn’t seen them in 10 years. So in 1956 he bought a ticket to South Africa. En route, he happened to be sitting next to a young German woman. He asked whether he could take her picture. Permission was forthcoming. This was my mother, Rosemarie Walther. We have the picture, still. She was born in a small village in central Germany. It’s called Birstein. My family has lived there for more than 400 years on my grandmother’s side.
Q: Which of the German Länder is that in?
HA: It is in Hesse, not near anything, really. It’s about an hour northeast of Frankfurt am Main, nestled in a small mountain range, the Vogelsberg mountains, not too far from Kassel, and surrounded by forests. It does have a lovely small palace (Schloss), where the dukes of Isenburg lived, and still do to this day. The nearest town of any size would be Gelnhausen. We visited my mom’s family in Birstein many times when I was growing up. For a child, it was like something out of a fairy tale, and I loved it.
My maternal grandfather’s family were all teachers and evangelical Lutheran ministers—professions for which you did not have to pay to be educated, as long as you could pass the qualifying exam. The state paid for it. Many, many generations of the family shared this calling. My grandfather was the village schoolmaster. He was also a writer, composer, and folklorist. He was awarded the Bundesverdienstkreuz [Federal Cross of Merit] in 1974 for service to the nation in recognition of his contributions in local history, music, and writing. Nevertheless, it was a very close environment.
My mother had seen her sister get married to a country boy. She wanted none of that for herself. She had bigger ideas. She had passed the Abitur, but she was a girl, and any money for a college education was earmarked for her younger brother. She went to Frankfurt and took a job with the Dutch airline, KLM. She was a ticket agent, a position that got her free flights. When she met my dad on the plane, she was on her way to visit a boyfriend in Rome, which happened to be the place where my father’s flight was refueling. My father obtained her name and address. He had the pictures and showed up in her office with the photos. A long-distance courtship ensued. At length, she agreed to visit Dad in America to see whether it was to her liking. It passed the test and they were married.
Q: When did that happen?
HA: July 26, 1958. Do you know who Sophie Tucker is?
Q: Ummmm …
HA: She was a singer called “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas”. She happened to be present at the restaurant where the post-wedding celebration was held. The wedding was a very small affair—just the bride, the groom and two witnesses – and they went out to eat afterwards. But Sophie Tucker was there and learned there was a bride in the restaurant and called her over in her deep voice: “Come here, child!” My mother was 30 at the time (laughter). So, she had her picture taken with the last of the red hot mamas.
They lived in Pittsburgh, where my father worked at Westinghouse. My mother took a job as a secretary. Once they could afford a house, they bought one in Greensburg, southeast of Pittsburgh. I was born in Greensburg in 1961 on Christmas Day.
Q: A Christmas baby!
HA: It is my mother’s birthday, too!
Q: Have you always been “Heidi”?
HA: Not always, in fact. I was at first supposed to be Monika. If I meet anyone named Monika around my age in this country, I know that she probably has German parents. That was the hit name in Germany in the 1960s. But my mom, in the hospital right after my birth, on Christmas Day, also her birthday, was all alone, no family, unable to talk to anybody because she couldn’t speak much English yet. Fathers weren’t allowed in the delivery room at that time, and she was craving company. At that moment, she didn’t even know what kind of baby she had had because she had been knocked out during the delivery. Her mind wandered to the classic story about the little Swiss girl who always wanted to go home to the mountains, when my father came into the room, followed by the doctor, carrying me. My father piped up excitedly: “Is that our little Monika?” To which my mother replied: “No! I’ve changed my mind—we’re calling her Heidi.” (laughter) My younger sister got the name, Monika.
Q: The story on your father’s side of transatlantic migration, reverse migration, and reverse, reverse migration is fascinating. The four-century-plus village lineage on your mother’s side is compelling as well. They were in Germany through thick and thin. That must be an interesting story in and of itself. As in the historian Fritz Stern’s book, Five Germanys I Have Known, so it seems to have been with your parents and grandparents: between them, they have experienced five Germanys—the pre-1918 empire, the Weimar Republic, the Hitler Reich, the post-war occupation, and the Federal Republic of Germany—and a sixth, if “reunified” Germany beginning October 3, 1990 is given separate status.
HA: Yes, that’s right. And the war (WWII) was such a part of my childhood, even though it had been long over by the time I arrived, because my parents were teenagers at the time and remember it vividly. It affected them for life. My mother’s oldest brother was lost in Russia. We never knew what happened to him. With a single exception, all of her male cousins who were of age to be drafted were killed. Her family lived in a little country village, so they weren’t in the thick of the action the way my father was, in a city. She was in a boarding school…
Q: Were they in uniform?
HA: Yes, her brother was only 19. The others were not much older. One fell in Romania; another was in the secret service and tortured to death by the Russians. One of my mother’s cousins was killed in an assassination attempt on Himmler at a railroad station, a bombing. She just happened to have been there, a bystander.
During the war, my mother was at boarding school, a former convent that had been taken over by the Nazis. The nuns had been driven out. In the night when the bombing raids came, the girls would have to go and hide in the cemetery among the tombstones of the nuns. Such images were seared into my mother’s memory. I have heard war stories since I was little.
Q: Growing up in the ruined landscape must have been devastating.
HA: Yes. My grandparents were relieved when Mom’s older sister married into a baker’s family, because she would have something to eat. That said, they were lucky, because they were in the zone occupied by the Americans.
Q: Your dad had already left in 1946, but your mom was still there when the Federal Republic was launched in 1949. Do you have a sense of how your mom perceived that development?
HA: Her family was split politically. My mother’s father’s family was very liberal. They had gotten into trouble repeatedly over the generations for their beliefs. One of my great-great grandfathers, a minister, was almost expelled by his parishioners because he refused to deny a church funeral to a suicide. Another great-great grandfather, Johannes Walther, was forbidden to teach because he had participated in a failed revolution, an attempt to transform Germany into a democracy.
Q: The 1848 revolution?
HA: Yes. Hesse was especially ripe for revolution because so many Hessians had emigrated to the US and had sent back news of the freedom and lack of government oppression there. When the Republic was proclaimed in 1848, my great-great grandfather, a teacher, began giving pro-democracy speeches in Hanau. That was the center of the movement in Hesse. He worked with the leaders of the democratic movement, taking their message out to the people. But the revolution was crushed in 1850, and Johannes was put on trial several times. He was forbidden to teach anymore; he had to farm. He wasn’t physically suited for it, and died prematurely.
Then his son, my great-grandfather Friedrich Walther and his wife Karoline were very much supporters of the Weimar Republic and hated Hitler. Friedrich was a school principal and they were both very educated people. Karoline gave birth to 11 children, beginning when she was 30. The Nazis gave medals to mothers with lots of children. You got a gold medal if you had more than 10. When they came to give great-grandmother Karoline the gold medal, she scoffed: “Take it away! I am not a breeding cow and I am not going to be rewarded for milk production!” (laughter) And her eight grown sons tried to silence her – shhhh, shhhh! You could be taken away by the Gestapo for saying things like that.
On my grandmother’s side, however, they had always served the dukes of Isenburg. The men in that family were foresters, overseeing the land owned by the duke and the wild animals on it. When the duke had guests, the forester would show them where to go to hunt. It was almost feudal. The women had very traditional roles, with great pride in their cooking and baking. My grandfather’s family had moved from parish to parish as ministers and teachers do, but my grandmother’s family had stayed in place, as I said, for more than 400 years, and they did not go on to higher education. Their world was very small. They were used to being loyal to a master. Kaiser, Hitler, it didn’t make much difference. They were apolitical.
My mother and her four siblings – there were two boys and three girls — were a combination of both sides. The girls learned all the traditional household skills, but were brought up in a house full of books and music and strong opinions from their father and his many brothers, who would come and go all the time. Both Mom and her older sister, my godmother, got their Abitur, which was not common for girls then. It was equivalent to two years of college in the U.S. My aunt put herself through college at age 32 after her husband died young, and became a teacher like their father.
Q: You have been quite attentive to your family history.
HA: Genealogy is one of my hobbies. I love these stories. When I was little, my mother and my aunt used to tell these stories while they sewed, and I would sit under the sewing table listening to them.
Q: Let’s return to you. You have a younger sister, Monika and both of you grew up in Greensburg, near Pittsburgh
HA: Yes. My parents felt comfortable in the Pittsburgh area. There were a lot of recent immigrants—a lot of Germans, a lot of Central Europeans. My dad’s best friend was Estonian. We spoke mostly German at home before I went to school.
However, as my father made his career at Westinghouse, he was affected by corporate policy. In the early 1970s, many plants were shuttered. That’s what happened to him. The only job he could get with Westinghouse was in Jefferson City, Missouri. So, we moved there when I was 11. Talk about culture shock. It was the capital of Missouri, but even so…It had a population of about 30,000 then, a small town, really, in the middle of nowhere. And it was very different from Pennsylvania, very southern. Central Missouri has a strong German heritage from the Rhineland, though, and we used to go to Hermann for the annual Maifest.
Q: How long were you there?
HA: We were there about 10 years. My dad got another transfer when I was a junior in college. That transfer was to Baltimore, which is where they live now. I attended the University of Missouri for my undergraduate degree.
Q: What did you study?
HA: German and economics. The situation was not like it is today, where my daughters get to pick their schools. Back then it was: “Well, it’s 20 miles up the road … we think you should go there.” Also, I was only 17 when I went to college, so my parents wanted me close to home. I spent my junior year at the Philipps-Universitaet in Marburg (Germany), where we have had someone in the family study every generation since the 1600s, I think. It was originally a theological faculty, for training evangelical Lutheran ministers. My parents were fine with my studying there, even thought it was far away, because it was “home”.
Q: What years were those?
HA: I graduated from high school in 1979. I was in Marburg in 1981-1982 and graduated from college in 1983. Following that I had the Year-Long Fellowship in German Studies at Indiana University. It was an inter-disciplinary program—history, political science, a lot of things on East Germany, attention to the Holocaust. It had just started then, and there were seven of us fellows.
HA: Yes, and I got another fellowship to go to Berlin right after that. In 1984 in Berlin I was mostly doing Holocaust studies.
Q: Why Holocaust studies?
HA: The fellowships on offer were in this field and I thought it would be great to do that. Also, since my grandfather had 10 brothers and sisters, my mother had many, many cousins. One of her first cousins lives in Berlin and is a Holocaust scholar of some reputation. She was the educational director of the House of the Wannsee Conference for many years. Her name is Annegret Ehmann. She said: “Why are you living in the dorm? Come live with me!” So I did and I got to meet a lot of the Jews who survived the Holocaust in Berlin through her.
Q: In what part of Berlin did she live?
HA: She lived in Onkel Tom’s Hütte. Not far from my dorm in Krumme Lanke, in the Dahlem section. It was a great time to be young, but, wow, it could be scary at times. I was strip- searched once as I was going from West Berlin to East Berlin by the East German authorities. You could visit the East as long as you brought enough money. But they looked in my passport and saw my full name was Heidi Annerose Hedwig Waldtraut. It was an American passport, but my German was accent free. That seemed suspicious to them.
Q: You went through the Wall at Checkpoint Charlie?
HA: That’s right. This was 1984, it was the height of the Reagan era, so it was very difficult, as East-West tensions were high. I wanted to go see Potsdam, but you couldn’t then. I had friends in the program who managed to sneak in, but I was too German. I was brought up to be obedient, so I never did. (laughter)
Q: I was in Germany in ’84, too.
HA: Where were you?
Q: I was in Konstanz doing research on the new Green Party and the social movements and teaching at the university. We moved around some. We actually took a family trip, driving northeast to Hof on the East German border, and then took the Allied transit corridor through East Germany to Berlin. It was dramatic to see all the Soviet soldiers along the way.
HA: The trains were “interesting.” I used to go home to my grandparents in Birstein on the weekends sometimes. The East German authorities would bring dogs onto the train to sniff it out. There was much in the experience that resembled a spy novel. But I enjoyed it.
Annegret still does a good bit of work on Holocaust studies, and sometimes lectures in the U.S. She had met her husband, Christoph Ehmann, while they were both studying in Marburg. He was then the head of Germany’s SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] equivalent. Much later, after the Berlin Wall came down, he served as Undersecretary in the Ministry of Education of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.
Q: A core 68er.
HA: Exactly. When Annegret learned I was studying in Marburg, she exclaimed “Rote Marburg! Wunderbar!” (laughter) I told you that that side of the family is really liberal. So, it was really nice living with her and getting inside the culture.
Q: One of my activities in 1984 was interviewing Protestant ministers on the peace movement in Baden Württemberg. There was great tumult in the congregations, as younger ministers sympathetic to the peace movement protesting the deployment of a new generation of nuclear weapons in Germany West and East, American and Soviet, caused a stir in their more conservative congregations, the older age cohorts of which were more likely to support the deployment of the American missiles and the transatlantic link they represented. Church mediators had to be brought in to sort out the conflicts. So, we were living in Germany at the same time.
What did you do next?
HA: When the fellowship ended I was 24 years old. At that point, I had had enough of school for a while. I decided to work for a bit, not sure of what I would end up doing. I found employment at the offices of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC. I was a secretary.
Q: When were you there?
HA: 1985. Did you know anybody there?
Q: As an academic specializing in European comparative politics and international relations with a special interest in Germany, GMF was always an important address for me. I would be surprised if we didn’t bump into each other then.
HA: Frank Loy (GMF president), Peter Weitz? Marianne Ginsburg (GMF program officer)?
Q: Of course, I know all of them. The office was at 11 Dupont Circle in those days. Sadly, Peter passed away, but I continue to see Frank occasionally and Marianne more frequently.
HA: In the end, I didn’t like secretarial work, and so moved on. I temped for a while and then I joined the executive search firm Korn/Ferry International. First I was with a really small search outfit called Paul Stafford Associates where I learned the search process. It was the ‘80s, you know, and I had studied economics, so I thought maybe business school would be a good idea. So I enrolled in an evening program at George Washington University. I had also just passed the Foreign Service written exam, as well as the oral interviews and the physical, so that was another possibility.
In 1988, when I was living on Quincy Street near the Virginia Square section of Arlington, I was walking near the Metro station…
Q: When did you arrive in Arlington?
HA: In December 1984—this year it will be 30 years. It happened like this. There had been a group of Georgetown University students in my dorm in Marburg and they invited me to visit over Christmas break senior year, so I did. After five minutes in Washington, I vowed to myself: “I am moving here after I am done with college. I am so moving here!” I always knew I would leave the Midwest, and always wanted to come back east, but until then I had not been clear about exactly where to go. I wanted a city with an international focus and a lot of young people around my own age, plus the opportunity to continue my education if I wanted. I have been here ever since.
Arlington was the place for young people without much money to live at the time. Hard to believe now! I lived in various group houses in Arlington with friends until I got married. I have lived in Arlington most of the time since then too, except for one year when my husband and I lived on Capitol Hill.
Virginia Square was my Metro station and one day in 1988 I was walking to work and this guy pops up and says: “Hi! I think we might be neighbors.” (laughter) We continued to walk and talk. I thought to myself it was a little strange, but he was very nice and asked for my name. I gave it to him, but as I walked further I thought: “I’m crazy—I gave this guy my name and he could be a stalker or who knows what!” He called me and asked me for a date and that was Doug, my husband. It turned out that he was living in a basement apartment on my route to work and had watched me walking past every day for several months. His sister finally said: “Look, you are going to have to talk to her.” Two years later, in 1990, we were married.
Our wedding day was September 29, four days before the formal reunification of Germany, and there were lots of jokes and toasts at the reception about unification and reunification, especially because I had one parent who had grown up in East Germany and one in West Germany. I think that was one of the happiest days of my dad’s life, both because of the reunification, and because he was finally getting another man in the family!
Doug is like my dad, career-wise; he has always been at the World Bank. He started in the mail room after he earned his master’s degree in economics. He taught computers and various other things and eventually got a job as an economist and subsequently promoted to senior economist. He has been at the Bank even longer that I have been in Arlington.
Q: What happened next?
HA: I finished my MBA at George Washington University in 1992, but by then I was already 30 and we wanted to have children. Doug traveled a lot for work, first to Africa and later to southeast Asia, and still does. We decided that at least for a while I would stay home with the children. I took my name off the Foreign Service roster. We had our first daughter Elisabeth – Libby – a year later, and three years later we had Caroline, called Callie, named after the great-grandmother who said “I am not a breeding cow.”
We did very well on Doug’s salary and didn’t need another one, and we had great benefits for the whole family through the Bank. It was easier to have one of us at home, and I wanted to be there while my children grew up. In 1999, the Bank sent Doug to the University of Sussex with a grant to get his master’s of philosophy degree in developmental economics, essentially a doctorate without the thesis. We moved to England for a year with the children so he could finish. He did two years of academic work in that one year; it was very intense and for all practical purposes, I was a single parent. After that, the girls were in grade school and I was doing the traditional suburban mom round of soccer practices and school events. So, I never did use the MBA …
Q: Oh, I am sure you did…
HA: Well, it helped to have the economics degree to talk to my husband. There it is: I am one of the last of the dinosaurs: a stay-at-home mother who has always been one. I have done free-lance translating work for the Holocaust Museum and others, free-lance genealogical work, did a lot of volunteering in the schools when the girls were little, but otherwise I’ve been at home.
Q: Now we know how you came to Arlington. What was your path to ASCA?
HA: Both my daughters attended Nottingham Elementary School and I was really excited that there was a German exchange for fifth-graders. At that point, it had only been going for a couple of years, changing every year. A parent would run it, their kid would leave for middle school, and the responsibility would be handed off to somebody else. I thought to myself: “Here is something I can really do,” because none of my predecessors spoke German. I thought it was fantastic that there was an exchange program that my kids could participate in.
So, I went to Tish Jenkins who was running it when my daughter was in 4th grade and asked if I could shadow her. I did that and came to the conclusion that this could really be enjoyable. In that year there were 8 families involved on each side—Arlington and Aachen—and I met Paula Niemietz, who ran the program from Aachen. When Libby was in 5th grade I took over responsibility for the first time. I think we had 11 families involved on each side that year.
Q: What year was that?
HA: That was the 2003-2004 school year.
Q: Aside from Libby’s participation, what motivated you to take on this responsibility?
HA: There were a couple of additional reasons. One was that I wanted to grow the German program in Arlington County. I wanted us to keep it. I knew that if the program stayed on, that there would be more kids possibly interested in pursuing German, so that the German language programs would be there when my daughters were old enough to take it in high school. At the time, I was driving to the German School in Potomac, Maryland every Saturday, so that my kids could take the German classes. First of all, learning a language one day a week doesn’t help all that much, even if my mother was paying them a nickel for every German word they used. For another, I was so tired of doing all that driving, I thought it would just be wonderful if they could get German in high school.
A second additional motivation is what I see as my mission in life, to be a bridge-builder. My mother didn’t speak much English when I was really little and she was anxious about American life, so I was always a bridge between my parents and American life. I developed a desire to serve as a bridge between Americans and European life in the same way. My daughters have an American last name, so no one would know they were half-German unless someone told them, but I knew that the first thing that a lot of Americans think of when they heard “Germany” is “Nazis”. In this respect, too, I wanted a better environment for my kids to grow up in. In whatever small way I could help in that—I just knew that if German and American families would meet, they would understand that there is a lot more to it. It was something I really wanted to do. I didn’t know how big an effect I would have, but at least in some small way I could make it easier for my kids to be half-German.
Q: You have run the program for over 10 years at this point. It has grown, and grown, and grown. Let’s talk about the dimensionality of the program and how it grew.
HA: In the very first year, when Trish Frazier participated in it, it was for Nottingham Elementary School students only, and there were five or six families involved. By the time I assumed responsibility for the program, there were 11. During those first years, we really had to beat the bushes for participating families. I was taking families from private schools, looking everywhere just to meet the minimum threshold for success and get the word out that we existed. We added Tuckahoe Elementary School, because my younger daughter’s best friend went to Tuckahoe and I knew a lot of kids there and knew they were interested. By 2006 we already had 26 families on each side, already a fair jump. There were some ups and downs. The next year we had 17, then it went to 30 in 2008. There was a big jump between 2010 and 2011, when we went from 30 to 41. It has grown consistently ever since.
Part of this trend is because families who move to Arlington usually have kids that they want to educate in the public schools. There are just a lot of kids in this area. When my older daughter started at Nottingham, there were two classes of first graders. Now there are five or six classes, and a new elementary school is being built to handle to overflow.
Q: How did the schools view the program?
HA: Basically, I did it by word-of-mouth, except at Nottingham and Tuckahoe. At Nottingham and Tuckahoe, what we would do is right after the kids came back from Aachen in the spring, we would have a few of them go in and talk to the 4th graders and tell them a little bit about what they experienced and what it was like. I scheduled the orientation meeting the week after that, so the 4th graders would go home and say: “Mom, this is interesting—I’d like to do this.” And we would strike while the iron was hot. Once it really caught on, we stopped doing that, because we already had so much interest, it was no longer necessary. At some point, knowledge about the exchange mushroomed, to the point that now, as someone told me last year, that she has a friend who bought her house in this particular area only because the exchange program was primarily for the school her kid would be attending. So, I don’t have to actively recruit anymore.
Q: What a tribute to success! You need to interact with the school personnel. What has that been like?
HA: Every principal has a different style. Mary Beth Pelosky at Nottingham is very involved and interested. She has actually been to Aachen and participated in the program herself. Her predecessor was not interested at all. The Tuckahoe principal, Cynthia Brown, is not quite as actively involved as Ms. Pelosky. She is more hands-off. But she is always there to do the welcome and happy to talk to the kids. Basically, she lets me run it the way that I want to. As for the other schools, we have a few kids from Arlington Traditional School participating; next year we will have two from Rivendell, which is a private school. They are in it because we have a policy of alumni preference. If the family has participated before, they get preference to participate again and sometimes their younger child attends a different school than the first child did.
Q: Tell us about the content of the program. What do you do on the exchanges and how has that developed over the course of time?
HA: Let me answer by taking you through the year, starting in the spring. In the spring, once the kids have come back from Aachen, that is when we start with the orientation for the next group. I put together an information sheet and FAQ. I email that to anyone who inquires. Announcements are then made at Nottingham and Tuckahoe that we will have an orientation meeting on such and such a night. Often, a family that has already participated will lend their house for the meeting; otherwise I will just do it at one of the schools in the library. People who attend will ask questions…
Q: In the last five years, that must be quite a crowd.
HA: It is indeed.
Q: Is it really possible to do it in a house?
HA: We did! One time we had the meeting in the house just across the street from ours. They have a roomy addition. Some people had to stand, but it was fine.
Q: Did you serve refreshments?
HA: If it’s in a house, yes. Hosts have been lovely. If I do it at the school, I usually don’t bother with refreshments, because I do it in the evening right after dinner and nobody is hungry anyway. It’s very nice. People are enthused. Oftentimes people come who have done it more than once, and they talk about their experiences for the benefit of the newbies. I think the record is four times—there is a family with four daughters who all went – but we have another family coming up who have six children.
Q: If the 5th graders are 10 years old, is it the case that the parents are likely to be around 40?
HA: In Arlington, in this community, they are often even older. You have to be very careful in Arlington not to assume that someone is a grandparent. They could well be a parent. There aren’t a whole lot of really young parents in Arlington. Frequently, we will have groups of friends who all want to participate in the program, all with kids the same age.
Q: What is the next stage?
HA: Registration for the program is done on the Internet. In advance, a time is announced on a certain date, that registration will open and I will begin taking applications.
Q: Sounds like ticket sales for a rock concert…
HA: Yes, it is a bit like that, because the system is first come, first served, albeit with an alumni preference. At 10:00 a.m., you can watch the applications flood in on the computer. I try to accommodate as many people as I can. Mostly, I can find a way of accommodating all interested parties, because our German counterpart, Reinhard Germ, has so many more who are interested. The German parents know that a good knowledge of English is essential for success in the modern world, and they want this opportunity for their kids. I believe he had 95 applications last year. He is selective, so the number will be less than those who apply. In any event, I don’t know that we could even handle as many as 95 families on each side.
Once registration is complete, I send each set of parents a questionnaire with questions about life-style, what their child likes to do with their leisure time, what the family likes to do together, and of course allergies and attitudes toward pets, etc. Reinhard does the same. Then, in a quiet week, usually when my kids were at camp, I shut myself in with all the applications, both American and German, for about four days and work on matching them. It is like a huge jigsaw puzzle. I put a lot of effort into matching families who have things in common, and who I think will like each other.
Most of the time, it works well, sometimes even better than I expected. On occasion, amazing coincidences pop up once the matched families get in touch with each other – we’ve had partner families who found they had identical-looking cats, families where both mothers shared a birthday, right down to the same year. Of course, there are also usually one or two partnerships that don’t hit it off so well.
Q: So, this is essentially an exchange of home-stays.
HA: Exactly. In the autumn, the Germans come here and stay with their partner families. In the spring the Americans go to Aachen and each family stays with the German family they hosted the previous fall. In the summer, after the matching process is finished, Reinhard and I give everybody the email addresses of their partners. It is interesting to see how all of this evolved, because when we started, all you could do was email your partners. Nowadays, in addition to email, they Skype, the kids will play video games with each other before they have even met. It’s just amazing how the technology has changed this.
Q: I guess you are lucky you started in 2003; if it were 10 years earlier, you wouldn’t even have had email.
HA: This exchange program would be inconceivable without email.
Q: What is it about 10-year-olds and their parents that want them to have this experience just then at that point in their lives?
HA: It’s the perfect age. It could not be more perfect. They have had enough school and enough education that they are ready to learn. And they are ready to learn by doing. It is just the age that the world is really starting to open up to them, but they are still very literal. So, if you tell them about something, it is not the same thing as experiencing it. Experiencing life in another country at that age makes an impact like nothing else. It’s all fresh; it’s all new to them. And at that age, they are still close enough to their parents that they are not offended by their parents coming with them. If you were to wait just another year or two, they would just want to hang out with each other and not with their parents. So, you really have to do it then.
And for the parents, a lot of them are really excited to be able to share something that is very important to them. We have had a lot of parents who have had European experiences. Or, alternatively, some of them are excited to be able to make this discovery together with the child. They have never done it and to do it in a relatively sheltered environment. You are living with a family as opposed to staying in a hotel. You need not think out what you are going to do. Your schedule is planned for you; you are taken care of. Your host family takes care of your meals, your transportation, your event tickets. You have a week where you do not have to shop for groceries, don’t have to go to soccer practice, don’t have to work at your job while you try to squeeze your time with your child into your leisure hours. All your needs are taken care of and you are in this beautiful place, which Aachen is, learning all these new things. It’s a great thing, and although Arlington can’t compete with Aachen in terms of architectural beauty, it’s still a wonderful experience for the German parents as well.
Q: Let’s talk about that. The kids are taken out of their environments. What do they do? What sort of activities do you plan for them? How do they respond?
HA: There are as many ways to respond as there are kids. Some are shy and clingy. Others just want to get right out there. Boys and girls are different also. Girls are much more verbal, so sometimes it can be much more difficult for the girls to get communication going because they rely so much on language. Whereas the boys, as long as they have a computer game, or a soccer field, they don’t really need to talk.
What we want to offer the children with this is to really experience everyday life in another country. There is plenty of touring of monuments and historical places and all that, but what we really want is to make them a part of our daily life. They go to scout meetings; they go to soccer practices and family dinners. Going to the Washington Monument or the Spy Museum is fun for them, but surprisingly touring is not the biggest hit. The biggest hit every year are the small group dinners, where families get together every night, maybe three or four families at a time, and just hang out and have dinner together. That way, everybody doesn’t have to cook every night; you don’t have to carry the conversation all by yourself—there are other people. It’s great for the Americans, too, as they are getting to know other American parents better than they would normally have time to do.
Q: How did you come to this focus? Did you plan it this way from the start, or did it happen accidentally?
HA: In the first couple of years, the hosts just hung out with their guests and didn’t do so many dinners. But once a few people did it—and we always do a debriefing at the end—the “best practice” emerged—“These get-togethers are great!” Then we started to do them deliberately. And now, every night is a party. Sometimes people throw a big party. My neighbor down the street is from Texas; she has participated three times now; they throw a big Texas hoedown every time they do it. That’s great. Another participant is a member of The Grandsons, our local musical group here in Arlington. He had performed with the band in Aachen before participating in the exchange with his kids. They do a musical evening. One family last year hired a taco truck to provide dinner for their guests. There are all different kinds. Even if you are just sitting around your dining room table with a few other families, it’s fun and there is so much to talk about. For the kids, too, it’s usually fun for them to run around in big groups; we usually have great weather. I make sure that Reinhard is invited to a different dinner every night, so that he gets to know many families. Of course, I go too.
One of my favorite evenings was one which was co-hosted by a family with a Filipino mom and another with a South American mom, with cuisine from both countries. The Germans loved it. Many of our Arlington families have had one or both parents who are immigrants, and that adds an extra layer to the experience for the Aachen families. They know we are a country of immigrants, but they can see that the process is ongoing even now.
Q: You have been talking mostly about what happens here. What happens in Aachen?
HA: They do the same thing. I guess there are more trips further afield. A trip to Monschau is scheduled every year, as well as Cologne. And of course, in Aachen itself they have special tours of the cathedral where Charlemagne was crowned and the beautiful historic town hall. It is different than in Arlington, in large part because here the families all live in tight geographic proximity. Nottingham and Tuckahoe are adjacent school districts, so everybody is within a few square miles of everyone else, whereas, in Aachen, we draw from six or seven or more schools. Some families live in Belgium, some in Aachen, some in suburb towns of Aachen; they are all over the place. It is a different type of experience. If you have an evening get-together, people maybe have to travel to get there. And you get to see another part of the area that you haven’t seen before.
Q: What time of year are the exchanges scheduled?
HA: We have the Germans come to Arlington in the fall, the best time. We are lucky that the German kids get a long break from school then. We can pretty much count on having at least some decent weather here. Usually, we are very fortunate. There have been one or two years where we have had rain for four or five days, but mostly we have sunshine and mild temperatures.
In Aachen, though, it varies considerably. We have to travel there during our kids’ spring break, which is different every year depending on when Easter falls. Sometimes that is as early as the third week of March, requiring winter coats and boots. Other years it is the second week of April, when it is beautiful and all the flowers are blooming. It is just the luck of the draw what you actually get. Fortunately, there is so much great stuff indoors over there, with all the great buildings and artwork, that that is not an issue. Here, it would be a shame if the German kids missed out on the preparations for Halloween, which is a huge thing for kids that age, and involves a lot of time outdoors. They go on hay rides, they go to the pumpkin patch, and to Party City to look at costumes. And they walk or drive around to look at all the decorated houses, so it’s lucky for us that it’s usually nice at that time of year.
Q: Do you deliberately try to schedule around Halloween?
HA: No, we can’t do that; we have to go by the German school calendar. They are never here on Halloween, but this last year is as close as we have gotten. We actually threw a Halloween party as our farewell dinner last time, which was a big success. Some of the kids brought costumes from Germany — since Aachen is a big center for Fasching (Carnival), they all had Fasching costumes – and others waited to get here and buy theirs at Party City. We did all the traditional things like bobbing for apples. I think we are going to do it again this year, because it was such a hit.
Q: You have welcoming and farewell dinners…
HA: We have a welcome breakfast. It is on the first Saturday they are here. They arrive on Thursday night and they are very tired. We give them a day to recover and then Saturday morning we have a welcome breakfast. Nowadays, we hold it at a middle school, because it is the only place big enough.
Q: Say something about that. I have attended a few of these and it is always astounding to come through the door and see that many people. How many is that these days?
HA: Now it is getting up to 200 or more. Not only did we have 46 families in October 2013—at least two people from each family on the German side, plus at least three or more on the American side. Plus, a lot of alumni families attend. On the German side they come over to stay with their old families, or alumni on this side who have former families participating with a younger child. They want to come and see them, and since it’s fall break over there, they have several weeks of vacation from school. Then there are the teachers, the principals, the speakers, and Arlington County people—so it really gets up there.
Q: It is impressive and complicated. It is a huge event to put together. How do you organize it?
HA: Oh my gosh—I could never do it without the 5th grade mothers! The type of people that participate in this exchange are the kind that can put on a PTA event for several hundred people and not bat an eye. I am just amazed every year. These women could be professional event planners, decorators and everything else. I organize them and put the committees together and they take the bit in their teeth and run with it.
Q: How many are usually in the closer circle who actually do the organizing, setting up, and the rest of it?
HA: There are usually eight to ten who are really into it. Clearly, some people have really demanding jobs and can’t do this. But everybody manages to contribute in some way. We are usually fortunate enough to have some families who are involved in the media. We have had Washington Post reporter families a couple of times. The families where somebody works for a congressperson or the White House are great, because we have gotten private tours and special privileges that we wouldn’t have otherwise had. We had the musician family—that was just an awesome thing, because there were so many Germans who enjoyed music. There are so many different ways people can participate in this. Everybody does something. That’s what makes it great.
Q: I expect that not every community would be able to do something like this. First of all, it would require someone like you, and you are rare enough. But it would require more than that. It takes a certain wherewithal, also financially, to send your kid and yourself across the Atlantic for a week.
HA: It does. That’s true. Although I am trying as far as I can not to make this a “doctor and lawyer only” exchange, Arlington is headed in that direction. Just in the ten years I have been doing this, the composition of the participants has changed so much. But I am seeing it in the Aachen side as well. We are getting a lot more doctors and lawyers than we used to. I want it to be possible for teachers, small business people to participate, and we do have those. But it’s not cheap.
That said, it is still a cheaper way to go to Germany than almost anything else I can imagine. The way we do it is that when the Germans are in the United States, the Americans pay for all their expenses outside of their flight, the gifts that they buy, and any incidental personal expenses. We pay for all of their food, their entertainment, all of their tickets for whatever activities they are participating in. And it is the same thing when we are over there. I tried to take my German family to dinner in Aachen and they were adamant that I couldn’t pay for anything. That is the norm. They take care of everything on that side. So it comes out even. And you don’t have to worry about the exchange rate.
Q: Geographically, you are working with a small network—you talked about a few square miles. We touched already on the implication for the socioeconomic profile of the participants. I imagine that it would be difficult to do a program that reaches beyond and attempts to involve another kind of person, for example people from the immigrant stream in Arlington.
HA: Yes. We tried to do that some years ago. We took two families from Hoffman-Boston Elementary School …
Q: What is that?
HA: Hoffman-Boston is an elementary school in South Arlington. I can’t remember whether they hosted or not, but the kids went to Germany.
Q: Is that a school with a large minority population?
Q: Is it primarily Afro-American, Hispanic, or what?
HA: More Hispanic and Asian then. It was some years ago. I knew one of the kids quite well; he is graduating this spring with my younger daughter. But it is difficult for them being in the program with all these wealthy kids. You want to be fair and have them participate in all the same activities, so it was suggested that we set up a scholarship fund. It was an experiment that we haven’t done again, but I hope we will.
Q: With all the other facets of the program to attend to, it is an added, complicating factor.
HA: That’s right. I have just heard that Nottingham is setting up a Costa Rica exchange modeled on ours. It is set to start this coming year. And the Costa Ricans are not necessarily as well off as the people in Aachen, so it will be interesting to see how that develops.
Q: Who is leading that initiative?
HA: It is a group of parents. Ms. Pelosky had done an exchange with Costa Rica before. She did it for one year and then the county shut it down at the last minute the next year. I believe the problem was the issue of insurance coverage. The kids went without their parents.
Q: And they were also 10-year olds?
HA: Yes, whereas, if you had the parents along, that problem would not arise. That is one of the great things about this program. The Costa Rica initiative is working with a particular school, one to which Ms. Pelosky may have a connection.
Q: Tell us about your partnership with the Aachen colleagues.
HA: Dr. Paula Niemietz founded the program with us in the early aughts, and she ran it on the Aachen side for several years. Reinhard Germ, a previous parent participant, took over with the 2006-2007 exchange, once Paula took a full-time professorial position at RWTU.
To make something like this work, you really need a bilingual person on each side. It is difficult if you do not have a good command of both languages, as the questionnaires are in both languages and you have to watch out for things like allergies when matching the families. Also, there are some cultural differences that one needs to be aware of to avoid misunderstandings. Germans tend to be very direct, for instance, which Americans sometimes mistake for brusqueness, while Americans often say things out of politeness which Germans take too literally.
That was the wonderful thing about Paula when we were getting the exchange off the ground, because she and I were perfectly complementary, symmetrically positioned. She is an American, born and raised in Arizona, who had married a German and was living in Germany. And I was effectively raised German by Germans, but live here, married to an American. We were both bilingual and also raising our kids that way. It worked very well. Now, Reinhard is not a native speaker, but fortunately his English is pretty good, and he has no trouble communicating. He reads the American news in English every day, so he’s current with what is going on here.
Q: Despite the fact that, for obvious reasons, the elementary exchange has been overwhelmingly your primary ASCA activity, your participation has not been limited to that exchange. You have been serving on the ASCA board of directors for many years and have even served as ad interim president of the Aachen committee.
HA: After I took over the exchange from Tish, Jim Rowland contacted me and proposed that I join the board. I had no knowledge about the board then. After sitting in on a couple of meetings, I agreed to join it. I thought it was a good connection for the exchange to have. In addition, I had always tried to make the elementary exchange entirely self-financing, not asking ASCA for money. But Jim was able to provide money to rent the school space for the welcome breakfast and that did help us. Prior to that, I had no board experience of any kind.
Q: By now, you are an important stabilizing influence on the board, providing continuity. You have been on the board longer than almost anyone in ASCA’s 20 year history.
HA: I think Karl Van Newkirk has been on the board longer than I.
Q: He may be the one person on the 25-member board who has served longer that you.
HA: Bernie Chapnick has also been on much longer. Then we have our members-emeritae, now in or very near nonagenarian status: Harry Amos, Wade Gregory, and Karl Liewer.
Q: I think you have exceeded their active status years. You have been a constant presence as a working board member. You also served as president of the Aachen committee.
HA: It was for a short time, triggered by Jim Rowland’s resignation and Sandy MacDonald’s unavailability for the role just then. We needed somebody in that position. I was not enthused about taking it on. I still had young children and life was crazy. I had a husband who travelled a lot. I took no major initiatives; I agreed to it as a stabilizing measure for the good of the order. Eventually, Bernie Chapnick took on the role for a while, then Sandy, and then, at last, our search produced you in 2008.
Q: The Woody Allen syndrome: showing up is 90% of success. (laughter)
HA: Showing up is an important matter. Somewhat in contrast to ASCA’s style, our German partners expect a greater formality. It is just part of the culture. To have us playing musical chairs could not have been very inspiring for them. Instability in that position would make them nervous, understandably.
Q: It may be that there is still some misunderstanding in Aachen about how we are constituted. We have committee presidents and an ASCA chairman/woman. Aachen’s city committees are, in contrast, entirely independent, each one of them a civil association with its own charter.
HA: It is a funny thing. The German perspective is my default, since I was raised that way. But at the same time, that is not necessarily how things are done here. Our decentralized, looser tradition of association is one of those differences that make our transatlantic partnership so interesting. Moreover, there is the advantage of strength in numbers of a larger, more diversified, heterogeneous board. Heavy lifting can be shared out to some degree. Withal, Aachen is still the flagship exchange.
Q: There is no question about that, though at this point ASCA’s Reims committee probably has more participation in the high school exchanges. This situation leads to the question of why, when so many participate in the Aachen elementary exchange, do we see relatively few in comparison taking advantage of the Aachen high school exchange?
HA: A major factor is that the German language program in Arlington public schools has been decimated. It has been really sad for me to witness this. One of the main reasons for my participation was to contribute to the viability of that program. It has been eviscerated in the last few years. I am just thankful that my older daughter got through before it happened. Nowadays, German language instruction is mostly distance learning. The kids get to see an actual teacher once a week or so. The people in the computer room do not know any German. It is just not a way you can learn a foreign language. Even my younger daughter, who loves German dearly, has stopped taking it in school. Her school had a fantastic teacher, who left for a Fairfax County school because she didn’t want to teach via distance learning. It is a shame. At least there is still French instruction. For now. I don’t know what to expect down the road. Apparently, the school system is prioritizing Chinese and Arabic.
Q: At least some languages remain.
HA: I am concerned about trends in curriculum development. There seems to be a Gleichschaltung taking place in the Arlington public school system. The next target is H-B Woodlawn—where both of my daughters went to high school. It is a small program. Each class is 60 kids—a contrast to the mega-high schools in the area. You get in by lottery and by lottery only, except for a few students who are accepted because they are being bullied at their old high schools. Teachers are called by their first names. Curriculum initiatives come from the kids—if you want a class on, say, Astronomy, if you can get together a minimum enrollment, the class will be organized. There is a town meeting in which the students take part in school governance. Teachers and students really get to know each other and bond. It is a different kind of school, and wonderful, especially with the pressure these days to teach to the test, increasing standardization, and difficulty in getting into college. Most people can’t afford private colleges, and if you are from Arlington — each high school has only a certain number of slots reserved for its graduates at UVA, William & Mary, and some of the more competitive state schools. It’s very difficult and very tough on the kids. HB has a completely different approach. The discourse highlights the need for change there because of overcrowding, but I suspect they are trying to get rid of it.
Q: Ecosystems are stronger when there is a diversity of species…
HA: I don’t think that schools should be run on a business model, because they are not businesses. I am grateful that my younger one is now finishing. There is a lot of passion on all sides. The schools are indeed overcrowded. I don’t see how eliminating languages, even European languages, serves the students.
Q: Maybe Arlington County is a little like the German economy—success turns to failure as the county attracts more families than its systems can handle.
HA: No one would be crazy enough to pay this much for a house, unless you had kids you wanted to attend a good public school. Parents see the test scores and they are very high. The price the kids pay for these test scores is another ball game entirely. There were two suicides in the Langley community in this past week. Seniors. Within 24 hours of each other. It is very tough for everybody.
Q: I can only imagine. I am so sorry to hear about these tragedies.
HA: I am hoping that the elementary exchange goes on. Now that my youngest is graduating from high school, I will continue my engagement for a while, though I don’t know how much longer. I am surprised at how the program has grown and really happy about it. It is unique in many ways. There are not many elementary schools that have anything like this. We have actually been getting inquiries about the elementary exchange from other states. One key to success is Aachen itself: it is such a welcoming and beautiful place, also three hours from Paris, London, Amsterdam, an hour to Brussels.
The most rewarding thing to me is that bridges have been built, that innumerable families have stayed friends, some of them for six or seven years. Some of them see each other every summer. Either the Germans come here, or the Americans go there. It is amazing the friendships that have developed and having had a part in that is deeply satisfying. It is one reason I take so much care with the matching of families, because who knows what will eventually come of this, what these children will grow up to be. To have them know and love Germany on our side, and to understand America on the other side…It would be wonderful if we could have a program like this with Iraq or Afghanistan. I do think that this program has in some small way helped these kids think of other things than swastikas when Germany is mentioned.
Q: It may also help in leading German visitors to frame the American experience in ways other than the near extinction of Native Americans.
HA: Just so. I have a first cousin in Germany who refuses to visit here because of what “we” did to the Native Americans. There are people like that on both sides. If our program can help to achieve a more rounded picture of the other, then it is a good thing.
Q: We have clearly already made the transition to the final phase of our conversation, in which you evaluate the aspirations and effect, not only of your program, but of the sister city concept more generally. I wanted to return to the question of what makes things like this happen. You had mentioned something earlier that I did not catch in other interviews I have conducted for this project so far. Namely, you pointed to a factor for success that is tied to technology of the 21st century, even though the sister city idea was launched in this country in the 1950s by President Eisenhower. You mentioned the centrality of the quintessential technology of our time: the Internet and communication channels, especially E-mail, that presuppose the Internet. So, the question is: Is the sister city idea obsolete because of globalization and instantaneous communication?
HA: I think it is just the opposite. These technologies facilitate the sister city relationship. Like I said, I could not do this without E-mail. The advances in allied forms of communication, like Skype real-time Internet audio-video links, have amplified the effectiveness of the program. By the time these families actually meet face-to-face in September—you can tell the difference: in the early years of the program when families emerged from Customs and Immigration at the airport, they would be really nervous. They were meeting people with which they had previously shared some E-mail messages and photos, but did not yet know them.
Nowadays, many have been in contact by Skype for months. They are meeting their partners in the flesh for the first time, but it isn’t at all like they are meeting for the first time. They are already at least acquaintances, if not yet friends. That changes things fundamentally. Everything is so much easier, especially for the children. You are dealing with varying capacities—some Germans already have excellent English, for example, and some not so excellent. Most of the children have only had one year of English. So, the more lead-time you can give them, the better. These forms of communication serve to add excitement to the program.
And as far as organizing the huge or smaller events is concerned, I don’t know how it could be done without E-mail. We use a variety of communications applications, like listservs, Signup Genius, and the like; there is an array of on-line tools to facilitate event planning. And I have to keep au courant, as every year or two some totally new software program breaks through for use. I may not yet have heard of applications that the parents are already using.
Q: You have a successful program; the Internet helps. But CNN and other content providers put us all in touch with many things that are happening, trending, globally and locally.
HA: True. But that only adds to the effect. Are you familiar with ArlingtonNow.com? Many Aacheners who have visited here keep up with it, commenting on local events: “Oh my gosh, there was a bank robbery in my neighborhood…” Parents here may not have been particularly interested in German politics before, but now they have meaning, because they have friends there who are affected by it. The personal is the political in this case. If you hear about something that is happening in a country where you don’t know anyone, that’s a very different thing from hearing about something that affects someone you have had dinner with, have traded stories about adolescent rebellion with.
Q: What is your prognosis for these sorts of programs? I suppose this is another way of asking how unique your program is, and how contingent on local, perhaps passing, factors.
HA: I have not heard of another program like this. Our program just evolved. Paula is the one who started it. I hope it will continue. I don’t see why it wouldn’t. What you do need is a dedicated volunteer on each side. Neither person earns a salary from this, so you need to have people in it for other reasons. I am hoping there will be a parent with a German background and/or love for Germany who will be interested in taking this over when I am finished with it, if say, Doug is transferred overseas for a couple of years. So far, demand continues to increase for the elementary exchange. There is a new elementary school under construction on the Williamsburg campus, because Nottingham and Tuckahoe are getting too crowded. At the planning meeting people were asking: “What does this mean for the Aachen exchange? Are we going to get preference, because our kids would have gone to Nottingham or Tuckahoe?” So, there certainly is enough enthusiasm. The question is whether you are going to have people interested enough in keeping it going.
Q: It is clear to see that participants love the program. How do you think it resonates in the rest of the community?
HA: I know that it is talked about. People I don’t know will approach me about it. There is a significant word-of-mouth effect. Also, participants will invite their friends to the dinner parties that are part of the program, so they learn about it first-hand. More broadly, the type of people who settle in Arlington tend to be those that have an international perspective anyway. I think people are glad to have this happening in our midst. We have had County Board member Paul Ferguson participate with both of his sons. We’ve had the family of Representative Robert Aderholt participate, a congressman from Alabama—his daughter has already participated and his son will participate this coming year. That’s another factor. Just because of where we live, when people who make and implement our laws participate in this program, I like to think that it also provides them a different perspective on their own work.
Q: And yet, you have to make the program work in an environment that is not altogether friendly. How much help do you need from the school system to make this work?
HA: The curriculum discussion has characteristics of an arms race: how much more can we squeeze into the curriculum? How much more homework can we assign? How many more tests can we give? How much higher can we force our test scores? These are elementary school kids. These are 10-year olds. They are not going to college for eight more years. But we do have parents who are concerned about how much curriculum time they might be missing, because they have to take three or four extra days off from school to go to Aachen. The teachers are concerned, because the test scores affect their standing and their salaries. Are the kids going to perform well on the tests they are going to take later? School support is really important.
Everyone is concerned about how the scores are going to come out at the end of the year, with the “no child left behind” policy.
Q: Perhaps we should be thankful that we are not yet on the quarterly corporate performance schedule.
HA: Not yet, though it is somehow indicative that high school kids here are known to compare their levels of anti-depressant medication. It is astounding and not healthy. There is this fear that the child will be flipping burgers if they do not pass these tests.
Q: Out of that comes a natural rationale for a program like yours. It is a means to separate them from the constant pressure for a brief moment.
HA: Not only for the kids, but for the parents, as well. I have had parents say: “This is the first time I have had extended one-on-one time with my child” since he or she was born—in an environment just with this one child; the siblings are not present, where they can really just concentrate on this child, free of other daily distractions. The program would be valuable for that alone. I just think to get them out of the pressure cooker for even one week is a wonderful thing.