Lost in translation? Sister counties view travel costs differently
We had an impromptu visit from our German sister county Oct. 23. That day members of the string orchestra at the Christian-Rauch School in Bad Arolsen, Germany, performed a concert at Badger High School. Bad Arolsen is a community located in Walworth County’s sister county or “Landkreis,” Waldeck-Frankenberg. The German students were on a three-week tour of the United States as part of a school exchange program with the high school in New Glarus. Because they were on their way to O’Hare for their return flight, they gave their last American performance in Lake Geneva.
Staff at Badger High School couldn’t have been more accommodating, making all of the necessary arrangements for the last-minute concert. In addition to preparing the auditorium and changing student schedules, Badger’s orchestra director, Loni Gornick, supplied numerous instruments needed by the group. Apparently, cellos, kettle drums and string basses don’t travel as well as violins and trumpets. The loan of these larger instruments permitted the 45-member group to put on a show over the lunch hour.
I haven’t written much about our sister county lately. In fact, looking through my old files, the last column I could find was written on the occasion of my German counterpart’s retirement in December 2009. It was no coincidence that my last column coincided with Helmut Eichenlaub’s last day of work. Shortly after the county executive (“Landrat,” in German) left office, several scandals involving his administration came to light. Even with my limited German skills, I could piece together parts of the story by reading their online newspapers. Headlines like “Der tiefe Fall des Helmut Eichenlaub” (The deep fall of Helmut Eichenlaub) made it clear to me that my old friend was in some hot water back in Germany. Among the many issues raised by the new Landrat, who, incidentally was from a competing political party, was Helmut’s “Reiselust.” I’m not sure if Reiselust, which roughly translates to “travel lust,” was an actual German word before Helmut took office, but I would guess that his picture may appear next to the word in future Berlitz textbooks. From what I could piece together, Helmut’s travel expenses were alleged to have been in the neighborhood of six figures (US) in 2008 and 2009 alone. Because Walworth County was one of der Landrat’s many destinations, travel here by Landkreis officials is now apparently taboo. I discovered that a few years ago when I was hoping that someone from Germany would travel here to promote our “honor county” designation at Milwaukee’s Germanfest.
Fortunately, visits by students have been unaffected by the travel ban. Elkhorn Area High School has an active student exchange with a “Gymnasium” (German high school) in Korbach, which is the county seat of Waldeck-Frankenberg.
I don’t know exactly what to make of Helmut’s various scandals. Politics was clearly part of the equation. When his opponents “broke” the travel story, I was reminded of the feigned shock expressed by Claude Rains in the movie “Casablanca” when he learned that gambling had been taking place at Rick’s. Landkreis residents surely had an inkling, at the time, that travel like this was occurring. We certainly did. A 10-person German entourage, for example, visited our county in 2002 to begin the partnership process. We were puzzled then, thinking that the amount of time and money that the Germans spent on partnership activities was due to differences between U.S. and German culture. In retrospect, culture was only part of the explanation. Landrat Eichenlaub was a larger than life character; that fact, undoubtedly, contributed to his downfall.
Our board, on the other hand, made it clear that any travel to Germany by Walworth County officials would not be made at public expense. I visited their county four times, on my own dime, and never regretted one of the trips. Although he never complained, I knew that some of the accommodations that I made for Helmut during his short visits to our county were different than what he experienced in his own county. His company car in Germany, for example, was a chauffeur-driven Audi. Here he had to settle for rides in my Plymouth minivan. Feeling a little self-conscious about my relative frugality, one day, I raised the issue with Elkhorn’s German teacher, Kyle Gorden. Kyle, who had been involved in school exchanges for years, gave me some great advice about the partnership when he told me that you just have to “be yourself.” After that pep talk I felt better about the relationship. In retrospect, Kyle probably should have advised Helmut to be less like himself; had he followed that advice, he might still be in office today.
I doubt whether I will ever learn the whole story about Helmut’s “deep fall.” Few people who I know there are willing to talk about it, and my German skills are too poor to understand the nuances of exactly what took place by reading German newspapers. While I still support the partnership, we always kept it in perspective. At some point, I’m sure our German partners will lift their U.S. travel ban. Until then, I’m happy that the school exchanges are taking place. If students from our county can benefit from the relationship, it was well worth the effort.