by Jean Mann
As a longtime member of ACB, and somebody who has attended more than 30 conventions, I’ve had many experiences I would otherwise not have had: visiting the Grand Canyon at sunrise, attending a concert by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in Temple Square, riding the cable cars in San Francisco, and visiting Graceland, to name a few. But the best trip I ever took was the week I spent in Germany as part of a delegation of ACB members.
We were attending a Leadership Conference in Hartford, Connecticut in early spring of 1994. Oral Miller, who was our national representative at the time, took me aside and suggested that I apply for a passport if I didn’t already have one, as I would probably be chosen to spend a week in Germany with him, President LeRoy Saunders, and Dana Walker, who was on the BOP at the time. We would be hosted by two different organizations; one was the German Federation of the Blind, and I don’t remember the name of other one; I’ve long since lost my notes from the trip.
In those days, delegations from other countries often visited the United States, and ACB occasionally was invited to send representatives to those countries. I never found out how I was chosen to go to Germany; I was on the Board of Directors at the time, and my claim to fame was running the convention office, which handled much of what the Information Desk does today and took care of problems when the convention coordinator was out handling other matters.
So, on a Saturday in early June, I boarded a plane and flew from Albany, New York where I live to Washington, D.C., where I met up with Oral. We boarded the next plane, and I started out in an aisle seat, with another woman sitting by the window. A flight attendant asked her if she’d mind moving so a mother and daughter could sit together. She hesitated, having already spread out papers to do some work, so I volunteered to move, which turned out to be a smart decision on my part; I ended up sitting in business class instead of coach!
We flew to Heathrow Airport in England where we met up with LeRoy and Dana, and it was a short flight from there to Bonn, Germany, where we met up with our first hosts, with whom we spent the majority of the week.
We were presented with braille and print copies of the itinerary they had planned for us. They took us to our hotel where we settled in, and later went to dinner in a restaurant next door.
For the next four days, they took us to various sites — a couple rehab facilities for the blind, the Cologne Cathedral, Beethoven’s house, several historic churches and castles, and a resort where many blind Germans spent their vacations. I bought souvenirs every place we went. Having never been to Europe before, I wanted to bring something back for every family member and friend. I became known by our hosts as “the shopper.” They also presented us with gifts; chocolates (the ones wrapped in paper contained whiskey), CDs of Beethoven’s music, and a statue of the Cologne Cathedral.
Our driver and one of our guides was a young man named Christian. He had been a foreign exchange student in the United States and his English was excellent. In Germany, if you chose not to join the military, you were required to spend a year working for a service organization, and that’s what he was doing.
The hotel had been advised ahead of time of our visit and made sure our rooms were near each other. There was a continental breakfast each morning. The staff there learned right away what we liked and didn’t like, and made sure we had what we needed. We went out to dinner every night, except one with our hosts; every meal started with wine or beer and ended with schnapps. I drank my first glass of Riesling wine, and it’s still my favorite.
One night we were left to our own devices. We found a little restaurant near the hotel. We spoke no German and our waiter spoke no English, so when he asked, “Pizza and beer?” we said yes!
We spent the last two days of our trip in Marburg, Germany, where we visited a combination school for the blind and store with all kinds of aids and appliances. If I remember correctly, Marburg is known all over Germany for its braillewriters. Students at the school were high school students who were considered to be college material. We didn’t visit with any of them as they didn’t want to disturb their school routine, but we did see some of them in passing. We learned that they lived in co-ed houses on the campus. Very progressive for the times. We also learned that the city of Marburg was pretty much left alone during World War II, so it must have been the safest place to be in Germany.
Everything in Marburg closed down at noon on Saturday, so we went to the offices of our hosts for lunch and talked about our two countries and our organizations. We ended our visit with a barbecue that night. The next day we went back to Bonn and flew home.
I still have fond memories of that trip, and still remember a few things I observed while we were there. When we visited the agencies for the blind, one of the most popular vocations being taught was massage therapy. And while everybody in the U.S. was using speech with their computers, everybody I saw in Germany was using a braille display.
We learned that blind German citizens were given monthly stipends by the German government from the time they were born. I don’t remember the amount.
We found that drinks, except for coffee and tea, were served at room temperature — Coke, beer, everything! And the glasses in our hotel rooms were meant to hold our toothbrushes, not for drinking water. It was hot that week and we were thirsty, so one day while in Bonn, we went to the offices of our hosts, and they served us ice cold apple juice! Nothing ever tasted so good!
As I said before, I’m not sure how I got chosen to take that trip, but I’m sure glad I did. Sometimes in life wonderful surprises you don’t expect come your way, and that was one of them. So thanks, ACB! I’ve never been on a cruise, so if you ever need somebody to represent our organization on one of those, I’m available!