Former exchange students become hosts
By ANDREA VARGO
"We didn't know where to go for our 25th anniversary trip," said Neil Sideen of Howard Lake.
Carol, his wife, wanted to go on an Alaskan cruise, but they had always talked about taking Carol's parents, Martha and Bud Jagusch of Red Wing, to Europe.
Bud, 79, fought in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II and had recently started talking about the war.
Taking everything into consideration, when her parents indicated they would like to go to Europe, the decision was made to travel to Germany and the Czech Republic.
As long as they were going to be in the area, the Sideens made plans to see six of their eight foreign exchange students from past years.
Neil and Carol are both teachers, and they have hosted eight foreign exchange students through Grace Pederson of Monticello, ASSE exchange student program representative.
The students asked that Martha and Bud come along, as they thought of them as grandparents.
"So, we did a lot of things at one time," he said.
"Many people think a month in Europe is some kind of grandiose vacation," stated Carol.
It was a hurried, hectic time, they said.
"We spent only two or three days with each exchange student or their parents. There was so much travel time, and so much to see," she said.
One family postponed an Italian vacation; another postponed a business trip to Taiwan with family to be with Carol and Neil.
All their exchange students went to the local Howard Lake high school and keep in touch with the Sideens and other friends by e-mail and the Internet, said Neil.
Martin Belkert and Thomas Gothlin live in Sweden. The Sideens stayed with each of their families for a few days.
Neil has relatives in the Stockholm area, said Carol, and they also visited with them.
Treats and gifts
When they came to Europe, the Sideens brought things for gifts that their exchange students can't get at home.
For Belkert in Sweden, it was Kraft macaroni and cheese in a box. His mom makes it from scratch, but it just doesn't have the good old Kraft flavor, said Neil.
Of course, they bring Minnesota things, like wild rice and loon t-shirts, but cereal is also a popular item.
"The shelves here are full of cereal choices from top to bottom and on both sides of the aisle. In European stores, there is just a small section," said Carol.
Upon visiting a Byerly's grocery store on the way to Howard Lake from the airport, Per Bjalkander of Sweden said, "You have more varieties of hard tack here than I do at home."
Europeans can't buy baseballs, and golf balls are really expensive, so Neil and Carol brought a few of those.
Other treats they brought were salt water taffy and holiday colors M&Ms, she said.
In Germany, exchange student Jan Roth of Holzminden, Rudiger Hansel, Per Bjalkander, and their families were hosts for the Sideens and Jaguschs, and some of those students met each other for the first time.
"Everyone went out of their way to treat us really well and see that we got to visit a lot of places," said Carol.
"History is a palpable thing in this part of the world. You can feel it," said Neil.
"It really hit me in Prague. We saw some of the old Roman aqueducts and barracks for soldiers.
"We don't preserve history here in this country; we tear it down," he said.
All the hand labor that went into the building of the beautiful churches and other buildings is really amazing, said Neil.
But, as Per told him, "When the labor is free (serfs) and you don't worry about what happens to those people hauling those stone blocks up the hills, it . . . makes it easier."
Visiting some of those places and buildings, Carol's father remembered WWII.
He received special treatment at several of the museums, because he was a WWII veteran.
People, including the families of the exchange students, expressed appreciation that he was part of the effort to save their country, said Neil.
When the Sideens have an exchange student, they try to take him to as many parts of the country as they can.
Each time they passed into Mexico or Canada, the students always want their passports stamped to prove they were there.
So, when Neil and Carol went to the different countries in Europe, they also wanted their passports stamped.
Unfortunately, it turned out to be quite a project at times, and the exchange students had to search long and hard to find someone to stamp their passports.
Many of the border stations are no longer manned full-time, due to the political changes that have taken place.
In fact, one of the tenets of the European Common Market countries is free passage across the borders.
Rudy Hansel, the exchange student from Badsoden, Germany, has a grandmother who lives right across the street in that city from Jeff Pettit, brother to Joel Pettit of Howard Lake.
When the Sideens dined at an Italian restaurant in Badsoden, they were told it hosts lots of Americans.
It turns out "lots of Americans" are Jeff Pettit and guests.
This particular establishment served steak on a rock, said Neil. A volcanic rock is heated and a slab of steak is placed on it.
"You turn it over at the table when you want and control the doneness of your meat," said Neil. "It was great."
It is an international world, but the people in the United States aren't taught enough foreign languages, she said.
"People in other countries know English," she said, "but do we know any of their languages?"
As a teacher, Carol was interested in the elementary literature. She brought back story books and typical fairy tales for her elementary classes.
Part of the fun, she said, was having the families they stayed with translate the books into English.
Per Bjalkander went with the Sideens to visit Daniel Boehm and his parents in the Czech Republic.
The home was right on the river border between the Czech Republic and Slovacia.
The Czechs are a very proud people, said Neil, and don't accept help easily.
"They need medical equipment for their clinics. Some of the things we take for granted are impossible for them to get," said Neil.
The Sideens would like to help get some of that medical equipment, but that is a future project, said Neil.
"They have e-mail and have heard of cell phones, but they haven't heard of pagers.
"They have a lot of catching up to do, but they will make it," he said.
One of the things they are not so proud of is the black market trade in liquor.
Neil said he noticed streams of people moving down the sidewalk in front of the house where they were staying to the one-way bridge and the check point going into Slovacia.
He asked their host what was happening and was told about the black market liquor trade.
"It seems the Czech people can go into Slovacia and purchase 10 bottles of liquor without paying a duty on them," said Neil.
"So they go across, as many as 10 times a day, to get a shopping bag of liquor, come back a half mile down the river on another bridge, and sell it in the Czech Republic, as a way to make a living," he said.
One count had 10,000 crossings made in an eight-hour period.
The people in the Czech Republic will have to pay for electricity for the first time this month, since communism was eliminated from the country, said Neil.
"The stores only have about half their lights on, and if you want to see something, you have to take it over to a lighted area," he said.
All over Europe, there is a lack of product variety in the stores, that Americans are not accustomed to.
"Where we find aisles of cold and hot cereals, they have one little section with only a few choices," said Carol.
The Sideens found those fewer choices to be a minor thing, given the wonderful buildings and people that made their European vacation a lifetime memory.
Of course, 19 rolls of pictures will help them all remember the families and places that they visited.
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