On their way to their eight-week language course at Hilderstone College in England, a weekend stopover in Germany had been arranged for the four Lao teachers “Keo” (Donekeo), “Mit” (Mittaphone), “Noy” (Phovang), and Souvanh, to visit us, their former tandem-teachers, in Karlsruhe. We certainly wanted to help cushion the transition and make their first days as agreeable as possible. “We” in this case meant us volunteers from Team I, Team II, Team III, Team IV, Johannes Zeck, and Prof. Martin.
It was an exciting weekend for us but even more exiting for the Lao teachers. For three of them, it was the first time that they had ever got on a plane and left Laos. And then it was not only the first time they had secured a visa and were able to visit another country, but then it was another country in Europe straightaway, one that is so enormously different from Laos!
On Friday, 23rd June, they arrived at Frankfurt Airport at 6 a.m. in the morning and got picked up by Johannes Zeck, who drove them to Karlsruhe. On the way to Karlsruhe, the Laotians were amazed by the German highway and how fast one could drive on them. However, this was only the first major difference the Lao teachers experienced. Another observation made on their arrival was how clean and unbroken everything was. For us who had never been to Laos or even Southeast Asia before, during the first days in Laos we were equally overwhelmed by the many new and foreign impressions we were confronted with every minute of the day. Our Lao teachers must have felt the same during the two days they spent with us in Karlsruhe. It is an exhilirating and exhausting experience.
After arriving in Karlsruhe and being officially welcomed by the Chancellor of the University of Education, Ms Ursula Wöll, the Laotians were given a guided tour of the University of Education by Prof. Martin. They were stunned by the resources we have here, like the Library, the English Lending Library, the Centre for Self-Directed Language Learning, or the huge learning kitchen which is part of the Home Economics Department, where Heike Müller welcomed the visitors for an afternoon coffee break. Heike also surprised us with a little rallye app game on our mobiles that made us explore a few locations on and near the campus, to find out about the origins of our food and drinks.
To finish off their first day in Germany, we invited them to a restaurant and explained the unknown food on the menu. Many former and future volunteers joined the dinner, and we were happy to also welcome Stephanie Schädlich and Heike Müller, who had significantly contributed to our project before as well. Very tired from the long journey and the countless new impressions of the first day, the Lao guests finally went home with their hosts to get some rest and sleep because the next day awaited them with many activities.
Saturday, their second day in Germany, started with a guided tour of a central part of Karlsruhe by Daniel Wensauer-Sieber, the nephew of Madame Engel who had first established the contact between Christian Engel and Prof. Martin back in 2015. He is not only an expert on the city history and illuminated the background to many buildings in town for us in the most interesting manner, but also actively supports our work as a member of the AfC foundation council, as does his wife Elke with her expertise and counseling. One more personal part of the 2-hour tour was a visit to the Catholic church St. Stephan, where we showed our visitors the tradition of lighting candles and then where to place them. Here they were able to take private time off to breathe and collect themselves in the serene surroundings, and then, to our great surprise, they started asking the church guardian questions, all by themselves. Being regular visitors to their temples at home, they seemed invigorated by this place of meditation and fortification.
To finish off the tour around the inner city of Karlsruhe, we climbed up the tower of the castle and enjoyed the view of the city from above, towards the Black Forest in the west, and then watched a film about Charles III William of Baden-Durlach, the founder of the city, in the tower visitors’ centre. Mit and Souvanh then signed the guest book of the castle museum, and here are the videos to show you what a Lao thanksgiving looks like for real. (Editor’s note: We cannot ever hope to learn to write as well in Lao as our Lao partners have learnt to write in English over the past two years. Hats off! Chapeau!)
In excellent summer weather, we proceeded to have a picnic in the park in front of the Karlsruhe Castle. Again, many of the former tandem-teachers joined and brought plenty of food so that the Lao guest could taste many different kinds of our food. Delightfully, Ms Beate Pinisch, who was to give a talk on “How to work with your Lao partners” only two weeks later in our seminar (and spent 20 years of her life in Laos), joined us for some time and took the chance to chat in Lao with our guests, who perhaps used this opportunity to clarify a few things they had not understood before. (We would not know.)
The two days passed very quickly and were loaded with many experiences. An article in the local newspaper reported on some of them the following week. We celebrated the last night of the Laotians’ first visit in Germany with a barbecue on the outskirts of town before they took off to the airport again on Sunday morning with “John” (Johannes), who escorted them to their language course at Hilderstone College in England.
We were happy to be able to give back some of the abundant hospitality we experienced in Laos and we are excited to see the four Lao teachers again on their way back home from England to Laos in August and to welcome them to Karlsruhe one more time.
Text by R. Dengler & I. Martin
Photos and video by I. Martin & R. Dengler