She might have been living in Monte Vista “in the same house with the same man for 51 years”, but Hilda (and husband Bob) have made friends across the world – and many locally – since joining Friendship Force Cape Town in 1997.
Friendship Force International (FF) is a non-profit exchange organisation established in 1977 with its headquarters in Atlanta in the USA. The Cape Town club is one of 345 volunteer-led clubs in 66 countries. The organisation’s mission is to promote global understanding and goodwill. At the core of this are homestays. Typically, members travel in a small group led by an experienced volunteer, called the ED (exchange director). Abroad they are welcomed into the home of a host family for a stay of usually a week. Members gain the opportunity to experience a different culture as a personal guest and not just a tourist.
Since their first FF trip to Turkey in 2000, the Lehmans have visited France, where they stayed in Pau in the Pyrenees, followed by two combination trips to Germany and the Netherlands, and to Romania and the Ukraine.
The local club hosts visitors twice a year, but “when we go, we try and get two countries close together”, says Bob. Because they host twice, they can also do two exchanges, and this year the club is planning to go to Mexico. The Cape Town club recently hosted visitors from Cottbus in Germany from 5 to 12 March.
Hilda says it’s her hobby to keep in contact with all the people they have visited and all who have come here. “That’s all I need a computer for,” she jokes. When a woman with whom they stayed in the Netherlands called to say she would be in Cape Town for a few days before being joined by her daughter, they invited her to come and stay with them independently from the club.
The same scenario happened when they went to Romania and the Ukraine in 2013.
As they flew with Turkish Airlines and had a stopover in Istanbul, they contacted their hosts from 2000. “They said you have got to come and see us, so we took a bus to Ankara and stayed with them for a few days again,” says Bob. “They made it like a little reunion of all the people we saw in 2000; it was so nice,” adds Hilda.
She says she could not be without this club, as it “changes the monotony of your everyday life.”
They had quite an experience staying in a block of communist-style flats in the Ukraine.
“On the 14th floor and with the lift going tick-a-tick, you wonder whether you’re going to make it, and you see the building opposite with concrete crumbling off the top of it and you wonder what this building is like,” recalls Bob.
“I am glad we went,” adds Hilda, explaining they still got to see what it was like before the Russian occupation.
They have pleasant memories of visiting the state theatre, the ballet and opera there, and “the people are still larney – they get all dressed up and will come and take your coat”, says Bob. Their general experience has been that their hosts would go out of their way for them, even if they were not well-off themselves.
The local club used to have 40-odd members, but now it numbers 25.
Bob admits that most of them are 60-plus, as retirees are generally the people who have time to travel. Younger members are most welcome to join, and they are looking for more members.
“Romania is coming in October, so if anyone would be interested in hosting, they should join the club,’’ says Bob.
He explains the host family does not get paid, but the visiting club will pay a hosting fee to Atlanta, and then another fee is paid to the hosting club. This money goes towards a welcoming party and two bus tours for the visitors, one around the Peninsula and one to the winelands.
The Lehmans always enquire with their guests beforehand whether they have any special interests and they will try and arrange something for them. Bob once took a retired fireman to the Goodwood Fire Station where they were quite happy to show him around, he says. They also managed to show a Japanese magistrate the court in town and got a Russian paediatrician ‘‘all scrubbed up” to be allowed into theatre at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital.
“It takes a little bit of effort and phoning around, but they are so appreciative,” says Hilda. And normally when their guests leave, they will say: “Anytime you want to come, you are welcome – besides the club; so you are actually invited privately to go and visit.”
They enjoy hosting. “We enjoy the people’s company; you hear their stories and how they live. And it’s about culture – it doesn’t matter which colour or religion, we accept all; it’s about making friends,” says Hilda.
“If you make a friend, there is one more person you are at peace with,” adds Bob.
“If you go to a hotel in Romania or a hotel in Cape Town, it’s the same. But if you can stay with the people in Romania, it’s totally different.”
Anyone interested in joining can phone the Lehmans on 082 337 6021.
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