Not all Americans are loud and disruptive, Ilona Schaeg discovered this week. And, she said, we are a lot friendlier and cleaner than we’re depicted on TV, too.
The 59-year-old teacher from Hamm, Germany, is a member of a 16-person delegation from that city visiting Chattanooga as part of the Sister Cities adult exchange program.
Karen Claypool, vice president of the Sister City Hamm program, said the purpose of the exchange is to create goodwill between people by replacing stereotypes about each other with personal relationships.
“I think that’s the only way we develop an understanding,” she said. “We need individually to have personal contact and to think of people not as ‘those folks over there’ but as our friends.”
In addition to visits to the Tennessee Aquarium and Lookout Mountain tourist attractions, the week has included a luncheon with Mayor Ron Littlefield and a concert by Bessie Smith impersonator Neshawn Calloway.
Ms. Schaeg said the openness and friendliness she has encountered has been a pleasant surprise and something she said Germans could learn from Americans.
The downside to American life, Ms. Schaeg said, is how difficult it is to get around compared to Germany.
“We have trams, buses, trains and you can have more connection with friends ... and it’s easier for young people, too,” she said.
Her favorite part of the week, though, was riding her bike along the Tennessee Riverwalk and seeing how family friendly the parks and open spaces are.
Rolf Beckmann, 66, of Dortmund, Germany, said he came on the trip for the chance to experience the South and made light of what struck him as a defining characteristic of the area.
“Chattanooga is the city of churches,” he said. “There are either so many churches because people are so bad, or people are so good they need that many churches.”
The Sister Cities program also offers a longer-term student exchange.
For Alyssa Green, 15, of Hixson, who has been hosting Riccarda Ende, 19, for the past five weeks, the experience has offered the chance to see that Germans are not an aggressive and hard-edged people.
Ms. Ende said she will miss the spontaneity of life in the U.S.
Volkswagon AG’s recent decision to open a plant in Chattanooga, many said, would be a great way to build a relationship between the countries but probably wouldn’t introduce German ways and culture here that much.
“Every city has its own identity,” Ms. Schaeg said. “When I’m in a new country, I will eat their food.”
Chattanoogans Bill and Nancy Prince, who have been involved with the Sister Cities program for almost a decade, however, hope she’s wrong.
“We certainly have a strong contingent of people who will welcome and enjoy meeting people from Germany,” Mrs. Prince added, saying the new plant hopefully will strengthen the relationship between the countries.
On Friday, the members of the delegation will take a bus to Washington, D.C., before finishing their visit in New York City.