Travel and diversity play roles

Bette Burgess
Bette Burgess

One of the many things I loved about teaching overseas was the closeness of the faculties. Most of us were young, single and lived in the BOQs. We rode to school together, went out to eat in groups and traveled together when our boyfriends were “in the field.”

Schweinfurt, Germany was an Army Base and my main squeeze was Captain Tim Stephens from Florida. When summer came, 3 of my friends and I decided to take a trip to Scandinavia in my vintage Volkswagen bug, Old Blue. On the sly, Tim checked out two pup tents, four winter sleeping bags, four canteens, two small camp stoves and a case of rations.

My bug did not have a radio, an air conditioner, or a gas gauge. When we ran out of gas we got a sputter and a gag, which meant we had to kick over a lever in the floor to let out the reserved gallon and quickly get to the gas station. We had run out of gas before and been stranded, once on our way back from skiing in Garmish. Tim knew this was likely to happen on a longer trip, hence the rations.

My traveling companions were Carolynn Ladd, a joke-telling Baptist black friend from Florida. Next was Judy Kagan, a Jewish, NY, gal who collected everything in sight. Then there was Frederico Arenio, nicknamed Freddie, a Hispanic, Catholic girl from Arizona. Freddie played the piano and sang at the club. I was a lapsed Methodist who owned the car, knew how to change gears and change a tire. When we were together, everything was hilarious.

Frederico and I took turns driving and whoever rode shotgun read a travel/guidebook to the rest of us. We needed to know the history of the country, basic words of the language, main points of interest in the cities that we were approaching, what to eat, the currency, how to recognize gas signs, what to collect and, of course, where the campgrounds were. Most road signs were international and we had the international sign book. We were a traveling library of information. Just like a bunch of teachers.

When we were in cities, we stayed in pensions, very basic, cheap, clean and undecorated rooms with twin beds with hospital white linens and towels. Each room had a lavoratory and at the ends of the halls were bath tubs and commodes. Breakfasts were continental with strong coffee, hard rolls, butter and jam, and sometimes hard-boiled eggs.

While traveling through the green lush country, outside Copenhagen, we stopped at a campground not far from the water.

As we were setting up our pup tents, Carolyn wandered over to the bath house to check out the facilities. Two of our fellow campers, young men who turned out to be from the back fjords of Norway, inquired if Carolyn might be our maid or slave. Judy, Freddie and I suppressed a huge, honking laugh. Carolyn would split her sides over this.

We decided to play along. Judy explained that Carolyn was actually the daughter of an African tribal leader and she held the title of princess. Her father had contacted with us to serve as her protectors and teachers. We were also her guides through Scandinavia and selected countries in Europe.

They asked why we were driving the princess around in such an old Volkswagen and I scrambled to explain that the tribal king wanted his daughter to see the natural side of life, therefore camping, and the poorer side of life, hence the old bug. We told the men that Carolyn was not allowed to speak to men until she was married and we asked them not to try to engage her in conversation.

The men were wide-eyed and enthralled with our story and wanted to hear more, but we excused ourselves to finish setting up camp. While Freddie and I pounded tent stakes, Judy hurried off to find Carolyn. Carolyn was walking into the camp store. Judy relayed the encounter with the Norwegians.

“So if I am a princess, where is my crown?” asked Carolyn, ready to fill her role.

Actually, we fashioned a turban out of a colorful scarf that Freddie brought from Arizona.

We did have fun around the campfire that night with everyone playing along with our African princess story.

We ran out of gas and ate our rations and bathed in icy cold water. We saw the Little Mermaid, the fjords and the wonders of Scandinavia. We met the beautiful, friendly people and celebrated their diversity and they welcomed ours.

Mark Twain says, “Travel is fatal to bigotry, prejudice and narrow mindedness.” Travel and our diversity helps mold us into who we are.

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