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  • Valerie Hope

Ep. 36 - Not Quite Strangers: World Travel And Living Fully With Other Human Beings


Not Quite Strangers | World Travel


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Not Quite Strangers: World Travel And Living Fully With Other Human Beings


Let's start with Ale. Ale, what did you bring?

 

I brought my Up with People host family journal.

 

All right, we're going to dig into that. That’s a thick one, too. Fred, what did you bring?

 

I brought a piece of signed music and it's the Up with People music. I have about twenty pieces of music hanging around the house.

 

We're going to talk about how you branded your space. I don't have my Up with People gear. This is another episode of the show. Every opportunity we can to bring two people together. This is an opportunity to inspire curiosity, build connections, and also disrupt the status quo. There's nothing that says that we can't have meaningful conversations with strangers, and this is no different. I have two amazing people here whom I've had the fortune to meet.

 

In one case, Ale, you and I met. The way I ended up meeting you was when you were a part of the panel that the Up with People Alumni Association. They had a panel. It was all around diversity and inclusion and the experience of traveling and Up with People. There are several things that you said in that panel that I was like, “I think the same thing. I need to talk to this lady.” I reached out to you on LinkedIn and I said, “Can we talk?” You were so generous and so sweet and said yes. I actually invited you to be the first episode of this show. For timing reasons, the other person couldn't make it.

 

I knew what the universe was saying, “You got to reserve her because there's somebody that she needs to meet.” That is Mr. Fred Heismeyer. You and I go back to 1997. Fred was one of my host fathers back in the day. He and his wife, Joyce. I stayed with you for a month in Springdale, Arkansas. My mom's going to get a kick out of this, Fred, but it’s something that you may not know.

 

When I stayed in your home, it was around Thanksgiving time. I was there for a month, and you hosted some of the other members of the Up with People cast and some staff in your home for Thanksgiving, you wanted to do some potluck, and you asked me to prepare a dish from my culture that I could share with a group. That was a time in my life when cooking was not that big. I didn’t have a repertoire. I had no clue.

 

I called my mom, and I said, “I need to learn how to make rice,” because I had no idea how to make it. She was like, “Valerie, I don't know how to tell you. Your aunt is perfect. She'll know exactly what measurements and all that stuff.” I called her, and she said, “Measurements? No, you just put a little bit of this, a little bit of that.” I don't know if anybody got food poisoning. My mom still talks about that like, “Valerie called me from Arkansas because she didn't know how to make rice,” twenty-some-odd years later.

 

“Mom, it's a special rice.”

 

Thank you. It's not just white rice. It was like rice with peas. I'm so grateful for the two of you. I know that people who are reading may not be familiar with Up with People. I'd love one of you to share what Up With People is. How did you get involved? Let's start with that, and then we'll go into the objects.

 

Up with People is an international organization that aims to bring people together from all walks of life, all nations, to increase the understanding, to not make things dramatic, that we're not so different. Basically, it's a lot like your program here. We’re not so much of strangers. We are much alike. Maybe we don't understand each other because we hear things from the news. We hear things when we go to school and start creating pictures of different nations, different people, and so on. That becomes a concept. When you meet each other, you actually say, “We’re just the same. We think the same things. We have the same problems. We have the same challenges. We go through the same things in life.”

 

That is really what Up with People was all about. We do that through music. Music, I believe, is a very powerful tool to bring people together. We performed two hours of show, dance, song, and music from all the different cultures that we represented. I think we were about 102 people all together. I traveled in 1987. We traveled mostly within the States, and then we came to Europe.

 

Music is a very powerful tool to bring people together.

 

I had this show on two hours that we shared. Also, when we came to different places, we were involved in the community to come closer into the environment to share more with the people we met. We also stayed with host families like you stayed with Fred. I stayed with over 100 host families. It was an amazing experience and a very gracious time. It's been very important for me in my life. We were around twenty years old, so it's a springboard for your adulthood life. It's a beautiful thing to do.

 

Fred, what would you like to add?

 

Ale did a great job. I'll tell you my story of getting into the Up with People world. Back when I was 11 years old, in 1967, I was involved with Boy Scouts, and we were at a camp. It's a closing campfire. We were closing the season out. The camp staff did four songs on the docks. It was four Up with People songs. For our audience that might know Up with People, it was The Ride of Paul Revere, Freedom Isn't Free, Which Way America, and Up with People.

 

I had no idea where these songs came from. I'm an eleven-year-old kid. I can remember singing Up with People or what I remembered going home with my mom and dad the day after. As it turned out, my Scoutmaster was also the director of the camp, who then created a local sing-out group called Sing Out Tomorrow.

 

I became enamored with what Up with People was, at least from that little microcosm of what Up with People was. 1969 rolled around, and I was in Idaho at the National Scout Jamboree, and Up with People performed before 35,000 Scouts. I'm 13 going on 14. My Scoutmaster for the Jamboree was also the director of Sing Out Tomorrow. “George, how do you join?” That was the springboard. I joined the Sing Out cast and then just kept going from there. Up with People has been a very integral and interwoven part of my life over the years.

 

What year did you actually join the Sing Out?

 

I joined Sing Out in 1969. I had to be fourteen. I traveled with cast 75A by centennial year. I claim, but no fame for me.

 

You said you were in Idaho when you went to the Jamboree, but where are you from originally, Fred?

 

New Jersey. Right outside New York City.

 

Ale, you didn't add how you got involved. How did you find out about it?

 

I was in Uppsala. Uppsala is North of Stockholm here in Sweden. I grew up in Sweden, and they came there and had a performance. I remember thinking that I knew it. I just knew when I saw that I was going to be a part of it. I have this intuition. I'm just a little bit weird like that. Some things I just know. When I saw it, I knew I was going to be a part of it. They said, “Come behind the scenes, and we're going to speak to you.” I said, “I'm coming.” Everything was just like water. It flowed and I was there. I joined E87.

 

Mine is probably a combination of your two stories because my mom used to have a record that looks very similar to what you have on the wall behind you, Fred. She used to have this Up with People record because, apparently, she was Up with People in Panama before we were born, and we had a record at home. I had heard the song Up with People growing up around the house, but I had no idea what it was. I didn't know it was an organization. I had no clue.

 

Fast forward. I'm in high school. It was my birthday. I think it was my junior year of high school. On the day of my birthday, or maybe leading up to the week of my birthday, my mom said, “Guess what? Up with People is still around, and they're coming to Ozark, Alabama. We should host somebody.” I had a lot of attitude for a sixteen-year-old. I was like, “No, I don’t want to do anything.” She was like, “We’re going to host. It’s going to be so fun.”

 

We hosted a young lady from Canada and another one from Mexico. We had a little NAFTA thing going on. It was interesting. I didn't really connect with them. They were a little bit older than me, in their twenties or whatever, but they were nice enough. They only spent a few days. The show was the day of my birthday. I wanted to go roller skating or something else.

 

My mom said, “No, we're going to support them. We’re the hosts. We’re going to go to the show.” That put me in the worst state ever. “I don't even want to be associated with this organization. It's my birthday. I don't want to go to the show.” I bumped my head a little bit, but just enough so that my mom wouldn't probably join the show. They did the whole like, “Come to the front if you want information.” I'm like, “I’m not interested.”

 

Fast forward. I go to college. I'm in my last year of college, and I'm a senior. I was looking for work, and I sent out 30 resumes all over the place. I hadn't gotten any responses. One of the days I went to check my mailbox in the student center, I ran into my former high school drum major, Keith Davis. He traveled Up with People. He and several other people from my high school ended up going and being a part of the cast.

 

H]e and I weren't friends. We just knew each other from band. I was like, “Keith, I didn't know you were going to school here.” He's like, “I just got here and I traveled with Up With People for a year and I did this and I did that. My girlfriend's in the Netherlands,” and all this stuff.” He was a different man. He was so mature and so worldly. This is not the same kid I remember from high school. I told him, “This is what I'm doing. I'm studying XYZ, and I'm graduating in a few months.” He said, “Call my friend Mary McCullough in the admissions office for Up with People. I think they could use somebody like you.” I was like, “All right.”

 

I called. A few days later, I got a phone call. I got an interview. The next thing I know, “You're going to Colorado for staging. You're going to Florida for training. We're sending you to Venezuela for our first tour there in twenty years.” I worked for Up with People and lived out of a suitcase for five years. Five years of staff the whole time. I lived with about 400-plus host families, traveled to 15 countries, and was absolutely life-changing. I get to meet phenomenal people like the two of you. I want to hear about these objects that you brought. What is the significance of the object? Ale, let's start with you and your big bible there.

 

This one. I haven't read it for so long. I thought this would be a perfect opportunity for me to look through it before I met you guys. I did, and I started crying, actually. It is so powerful. It's such a beautiful thing here, as well as the things that people write and the memories. It's another time, the furniture, the clothes and everything.

 

You can laugh and think, “This is another life.” The innocence, the genuine meetings with people, and the openness and curiosity. Everybody was open to life as we are not as much when we get older. That came through so strongly, and it hit me. That was such a beautiful time. I took this and put it on the shelf. This is filled with so much life and beautiful good things that we should never forget.

 

Thank you for that. I'm going to connect with some people from this book now because we all go into our other lives. You go into the circle and so on, and you forget. We forget, but It's there. We talked about choice. It is a choice to reach out and initiate different things. That's why this means a lot. Also, the first page is my godparents. I stayed with my godparents in San Diego.

Not Quite Strangers | World Travel
World Travel: It is a choice to reach out and initiate different things.

I am Ethiopian. I was born in Ethiopia. My godparent was a Navy officer who was assigned to Ethiopia way back in the '60s. She became my godmother there, and she has been exactly like a mother to me. I stayed with them, and she followed me during the Up with People time and so on. They are on the first page here, and it opened up many memories. We tend to close our chapters and move on, but it's also good to remember the good things. That's why I cherish this, and I'm happy I got it out.

 

Fred, any reflections on what Ale shared so far before we talk about your object?

 

It's interesting because your memories in that book about host families are something that I cherish as well. When I was being interviewed for the cast, the person who gave my second interview was Dale Penny.

 

Is he still president?

 

He was president and CEO at two different times in its history. What's interesting is that I remember being asked. Up with People has the music, the show, the host families, the travel, and they gave me 3 or 4 different things that make up the fullness of Up with People. I remember saying, “I think it's going to be the host families because it is about making those connections.” I don't know if I said it quite that way. Probably not. It is about those connections. I love that about the treasure that you have there. I wish I had done more of the writing. They did tell us, “Make sure you write stuff down.” I didn't listen to my parents.

 

You didn't keep a host family book, Fred?

 

I kept notes. I didn't have a book, but we had the 3x5 allocation cards and things like that. I have some notes in there, and we have kept a cast journal.

 

That's interesting because I know they told us in our year that you should have some book that you give your families to write a message for you. You predate the cast book.

 

I think when I traveled, we had these big blocks of stone and chisels and hammers, and they thought it'd be too much for the bus. It was too heavy.

 

Tell us a little bit about your object, then. You said you have sheet music from all over your home.

 

I do. The one I picked up off the wall was Up with People. The reason I picked that is because, obviously, it's the key song. It's the song that has spanned the years that Up with People has been around. More importantly, I've got signatures from not only Paul and Ralph Caldwell, but also from Dale Penny, Mr. and Mrs. Belk, Jim McLennan, and Lynn Morris. I hope to get a few more because it's that memory of Up with People and those people that have had an impact on my life. That's why I picked that. There are a lot of memories. Music, for me, triggers a memory. I think it does for all of us in one way or another.

 

I can sit there and listen to a song from the early 1970s called Take Me There. I can remember my Sing Out cast doing an outdoor show, and the phrase, “Take me there,” is repeated. Every time it would repeat, the rain would get harder and harder. None of us on stage moved until our director said, “You can leave the stage.” It was one of those moments that I remember. I can remember so many times singing Where the Roads Come Together. It's a magical piece of music.

 

I'm going to do something quick. I'm curious for you guys. Obviously, we've all talked about having the experience of living with families and the shows and that thing. Fred, you mentioned the music, the way the music does have quite a deep and profound memory. I'm curious about the one story that you love to tell people about your experience in Up with People. What is that story, Ale? Fred, I want to hear the same.

 

I think for me, at that time, it was a meeting with all these different people. I remember so well coming to Arizona. Being in Arizona in itself was a huge thing for me, being in the States. Looking at all the people, all the nations, I remember thinking that I was going to have to be friends with the Japanese, with the French. I was making plans. I was so excited, and I didn't have time enough to get to everybody.

 

I remember we could have a pair up on the buses. You could speak more in-depth with people. I have booked everyone I could. That was so exciting for me to wake up in the morning and knowing that I have a bus date with a Japanese girl. I had never met anybody from Japan. I was so excited to wake up and know that. That excitement is something that is typical for Up with People for me, waking up and knowing that something new is going to happen. I miss that.

 

Wake up and know that something new is going to happen.

 

You're on a path now, you said. This is your first time or second time being on a show. You have an opportunity to start doing new things again.

 

Maybe you're inspiring me to do some things.

 

What about you, Fred?

 

Some of the stories won't make sense unless they become a long story. I'm trying to think of one that's a little bit shorter. I think, for me, one of the go-tos is that the year I traveled was strictly in the United States. Here we are, we're an international cast celebrating the 200th anniversary of the United States, which is a little bit of a disconnect for our international students. It was so cool to be able to have a little bit of a part of this national celebration. The year I traveled, we had three casts of about 150 each, and each cast broke into 3 groups. On any one day, we could have nine shows going on. I always joke that we hit every small community in the United States with these small groups. Flip that around, and we were the first cast to do the Super Bowl, the first of four Super Bowls.

 

We were a cast that did some major events all around the United States, including performing in Indianapolis for a crowd of 10,000, 15,000 people in the streets of Indianapolis on July 4th of 1976. It was that experience. It was travel, show almost the whole year. I had very little "time off" or time away from the show and from the cast and stuff like that.

 

It was amazing how you get into a family and then out and then into the next and then out. It was amazing when you think about it that not many people get to experience that, to come into people's homes in that way.

 

It's not common. We were literally meeting strangers regularly. I remember I was in Freiburg, Germany, and staying with a host family. We were only there for 3 or 4 days or something like that. Although I was a staff member, I stayed with host families as much as I could, so I loved that experience.

 

I love Latin dancing. I'm originally from Panama, so I love salsa dancing. My host mom found out that was something I was interested in. She's like, "I think we have a salsa club here. Do you want to go?” My roommate from Mexico and I were like, “Yes, let's go. That'd be so fun.” We're in this little town in Germany. We go to the salsa club. They're playing with a DJ or something. I think it was live music. We're hanging out, the three of us, host mom, my Up with People friend, and me, sitting around and talking. All of a sudden, this woman came across the room and walked up to me. She said, “Valerie? Valerie Hope?”

 

I don't know anybody in Germany. Who is this? I can't remember her name right now. She's said, “It's me from Sweden, from Up with People.” I said, “What?” She used to travel in Up with People a couple of years prior, and I worked with her cast for a bit. She's from Sweden but was studying in Freiburg. She saw me at this disco and came over to say hi. She introduced me to a friend of hers who is named Michael from Dallas, Texas. It was like one of those surreal moments. It's a joke around because, in the song, it says, “You meet them wherever you go.” It's so true. I've had some of the most random encounters. That's one of the many examples.

 

As we talk about host families, one of the most interesting things was being hosted by a host family I never met. They gave the key to a neighbor. The neighbor picked us up, got us to the house, handed us the key, and said, “There you go.” I'm thinking to myself, “Would I do that? No.” There were 2 or 3 of us. They had written us a note saying there's food in the refrigerator and all that stuff that we need to know. “Our neighbor will pick you up and take you to the show.” It was interesting.

 

I'm going to ask you your favorite story. What's your favorite Up with People question to ask? I'm curious what questions do you ask other cast members or people that you know have traveled?

 

I wanted to know whoever I met in the cast who they were. Where do they come from? How do they think? How do they reason? How do they see the world? I think that was the most important thing. When you meet people on that level, you start to understand that there are cultural differences as well as personal profiles. That's what I felt was very interesting. Who are you?

Not Quite Strangers | World Travel
World Travel: When you get to meet people on that level, you start understanding that there are cultural differences but also personal profiles.

Would you ask that question?

 

Yes. I always ask very strange questions. My favorite question to ask to this day is if I don't know a person, I always ask them, “Don’t tell me your name. Don’t tell me where you come from, what you work with, where you live. Nothing of that nature. If you take all that away, how would you describe yourself?”

 

Fred, I think that's a legit question. How would you describe yourself?

 

I would describe myself as being caring and fun-loving. I love to have a good time. As a trainer, one of the things I always bring to the sessions is, “Are we going to have fun today?” Whether we're doing a sit-down supervisory training for top managers or whether we're doing a ropes course or whether we're doing something with college students, it's all about we're going to have fun, and we're going to learn.

 

You're consistent.

 

You didn't even get stressed by the question. Many people get stressed out by that question.

 

Fred, I could have said the same thing from when I met you back in '97. Caring and fun-loving. You're the only trainer that used hula hoops, and you had a bag of tricks, and you were always so generous with us. Truth be told, you and Joyce are the only two in my host family experiences that I've remained in continuous contact with over the years.

 

Thank you.

 

No, thank you. It was huge for me. Ale, how would you answer that question?

 

I would answer it in the same way as Fred did. Ultimately, it's our nature without having to put any external labels on it. It's who are you? I'm very childish. I love to joke around. It's not serious. It shouldn't be serious. It's light. We are energetic beings anyway, all of us. Popcorn-y energy feeling that nothing is very heavy. You can joke. I think that's it. Fun and also supportive.

 

All of us are energetic beings.

I think I come with a very supportive energy. That's the nature I come with. I feel responsible for making a comfortable environment many times. It's important for me when I get somewhere that everyone is comfortable, have the popcorn feeling as fast as possible. I can't let go of anything that is externally labeled and relax. If people lay on the sofa with their feet, I feel like, “Great.”

 

Make them comfortable.

 

Ale, should we let Valerie off the hook? Doesn't she have to answer that question?

 

For sure.

 

Deep and brief. I would say curious. That's a huge one for me, obviously. I love asking questions. This is how I got so close and connected with people in Up with People in the host families. Give me three hours with somebody. I think similar to the two of you, playful. I think there's a bit of play. I found that being curious could also turn people off if it doesn't come from a place of engagement like the popcorn-y thing that you shared, Ale. I think people sometimes can feel a little confronted when you're getting too personal so quickly. Being playful and curious worked to my advantage.

 

What else?

 

I think connected. I feel connected to people. It doesn't have to be over a particular period of time or over a particular thing. I think once I connect with somebody soul to soul, even if it's that one time, I feel that it has made an impression on my soul in some way, shape, or form. I feel I have little soul prints of people that I connect with. I never said that before, but it does feel that way a bit. I'm curious about questions that you guys would ask each other. I know this is a very dynamic pairing.

 

You mentioned running into somebody from Sweden when you were in Germany and so forth. Ale, do you know Anna Karlberg by any chance? Have you met her?

 

No.

 

Anna is a castmate of mine. She's stayed with Up with People for a couple of years. I'm not exactly sure as staff, but she's in Stockholm. I didn't know if it was through maybe a Stockholm or Sweden alumni get-together.

 

I'm sure she is a part of it. I have not been very active.

 

I do love Stockholm. Joyce and I were there and didn't have nearly as much time as we would like. We would like to get to other parts of the country, but we enjoyed Stockholm.

 

It's beautiful.

 

Sweden is great. We did two tours of Sweden. One of the different casts that I've traveled in went there twice. Actually, we were in the Nordics for three months each time. In January. In the middle of winter. It was beautiful. I remember going to Piteå. It was a phenomenal experience seeing the rain there. You name it, I think we got to do in the snow. I brought a spark. I have pictures of this almost like a sled thing that people use up North to even go to the grocery store or whatever.

 

I had so many cultural experiences. I'm curious about, for the two of you, thinking back to an experience that you've had either with a host family or with another cast member or someplace that you traveled to where you experienced some culture shock of some version of what's going on here. Anything like that? Good or bad, by the way.

 

I never saw it as a shock, though. I was so curious, anyway, to ask what I was going to meet. One experience that I always took with me was a woman who had been homeless all her life. She got her first home. It was a small home, but she invited us. She wanted to host us because she was so happy. That was such a beautiful meeting with that lady. She told us she was very grateful and happy and was so happy to share. Of coursem, there are differences always, but what an opportunity to meet a person like that and to come so close and for the generosity in inviting us into her home. I will never forget that meeting. It was beautiful.

 

Where was that?

 

It was somewhere in the States. I don't remember. I always take that with me. Of course, we also stayed with the host families that owned half of the city, which you couldn't imagine. That was also a shock on the other side. It was what it was. It was interesting to be a part of different households. I remember thinking you can live your life in so many different ways. It was a unique way of exposing yourself to see things differently. Also, I spoke very much with my host families about how it was to live, the challenges, the children, and things like that.

Not Quite Strangers | World Travel
World Travel: You can live your life in so many different ways.

Fred?

 

I think for me, because our cast never went outside the US, the type of cultural differences that you hope for when traveling to a different country or the world didn't happen. There are two stories that come to mind. One happened with my Sing Out cast. We were doing a small, acoustic-style show, for a group of parents and their kids. All of their kids had developmental needs. It was a come in and do it to 20, 30 minutes, interact a little bit, and leave. No big setup, nothing like that.

 

By the way, I guess I need to preface this by saying this is within the first couple of months I'm part of Sing Out. I'm nervous about performing. There's this kiddo in the front row who's making a lot of grunting noises, sounds, things like that, reacting to the music, but we could tell he didn't have verbal skills.

 

His mom's sitting there and holding him, making sure he doesn't move too much or whatever. At the end of the show, we're out talking. His mom says, “Can you bring the cast together?” We brought the cast together. With tears in her eyes, she said, “My son was never verbal, was never interactive until tonight.” To this day, I still get chills thinking about this kiddo. What we thought was a quick do them, get them up, get them done kind of show had that impact.

 

The other one was with Up with People. That was going into the Mormon country of the United States, which we didn't know much about. I didn't know much about it. We had a drummer who happened to be part of the church. He gave us some information about it. I realized that even as different as the religions are and so forth, we're all the same. That goes back to that cultural experience that you were talking about, Ale. We are all the same. We don't need to be fearful. We don't need to be standoffish. We need to embrace. I thought that was a great experience.

 

Of course, I have my own experiences in my head, but what a unique privilege to have seen so many walks of life. Ale, I love what you said about living life. People live life in so many different ways. We were privy to a glimpse anyway. When you're only for a day or three or so, you don't necessarily get the full experience. You get a moment in time with something or someone or in a culture that you would have never thought of.

 

I know I was the only and first Black person in many people's homes. Most of my host families were not Black. I could count on one hand how many I had in the five years that I traveled. There were other families who hosted who were Black around the world, but for some reason, it wasn't me. It was interesting how I felt that I had the privilege to give them an experience and allow them to ask questions. Maybe they're not able to ask other people or don't feel the confidence to do so. I found myself going pretty deep with people, especially the young children.

 

That's where the fear comes from. The fear comes from not knowing that we are all the same. That's why it's so important to empower individual people on an individual level. Once each and every individual knows who they are, then that won't be an issue anymore.

 

The fear comes from not knowing that we are all the same.

 

We have to go deep enough to your point. It’s like the question that you ask, “Without telling me about where you're from or what you do or whatever.” If we have the opportunity to go deep enough, we get to that. Otherwise, I think the outer shell is very distracting for people. Where you live, how you dress, your ethnicity, your accent, or any of those elements that distinguish people.

 

Your attention is limited. You have so much to take care of. All these labels have to be considered every day, 24/7. Unless you have a tool and an awareness about the other dimension of yourself, how are you supposed to find that? I think that is key. I'm very passionate about individual empowerment. We're talking so much about sustainability, sustainable this, sustainable that, but whatever is sustainable out there reflects sustainable individuals. If we can focus on making the individual sustainable, we will reflect the outer world in a sustainable world. To come back to what you said, Fred, about the fear. The fear comes out of not knowing that there is nothing to be fearful about.

 

Up with People, in a sense, you also said, Valerie gave us the opportunity to show other dimensions that there is nothing to be fearful about. It's not easy for people that are scared of certain things. If they never get to see another side, how are they supposed to find another way? It's sad from that perspective as well. It's hard to judge anybody. Everybody's doing the best that they can from the situation we are in. I like the thing that if everyone at least can talk to themselves and say, “Let me take away all my labels,” sooner or later, they will come to this.

 

That's all there's left. That's what's left. I remember being in Estonia. I stayed with a host family there too. Luckily, the son had traveled in Up with People a year or two before, and I knew him, so he and his parents hosted me. We walked around. His name’s Sven. He’s six foot tall, blonde, very fair skinned, as my niece likes to call pink skin. I'm brown, Ale, you’re tan, and Fred, you're pink.”

 

We're walking around in Tallinn, Estonia, the capital. We had to ride on public transportation. People were staring straight up at me like they'd never seen a person of my color before. It wasn't scary. First of all, I'm glad I was with Sven because if anyone said anything in Estonian that I didn't understand, he could support me there.

 

No one said anything. I found it flattering. Actually, that evening, the cast got together at a local pub. When I was there, several random people wanted to come and take a photo with me. I had this photo with these two Russian guys. I felt like Janet Jackson for a moment. This is positive attention. I think we both mentioned this idea of checking our assumptions, not only our assumptions about other people. Allowing whatever assumptions people have when they are ready to challenge them gives them enough space to do it.

 

I think that's what Up with People taught me. I knew that I would have experiences. By saying, “Yes, you can come and stay in my house,” it was like I need to make myself open enough and accepting enough with whatever shows up to give them an experience of themselves that they may not have otherwise. I learned so much about how to allow and how to be very gracious. I had some crazy people. I'm going to ask you guys, are there any crazy host families or crazy travel stories that you're allowed to say in public in mixed company? There's a little bit of a cheeky side to Up with People.

 

You go, Fred.

 

I was pretty fortunate with host families. I can't think of anybody that I would call off one way or the other. My host family in Tucson, for staging, was a woman about 60 years old or something like that. I think she was retired. She had told Up with People, “I could only take 2 students for 2 weeks out of the 5-week staging because I was going to be gone.” Up with People said sure.

 

At the end of the two weeks, she said, “You guys stay here.” She left us food, and she said, “Here you go. It's your house.” That's cool. I do remember a bus breaking down. Many of us have that story. You have to sit on the side of the road or whatever. I guess there are a lot of those stories that, unless you live through them, it's hard to relate how funny or how interesting they are.

Not Quite Strangers | World Travel
World Travel: Some stories, unless you live through them, are hard to relate to in how funny or interesting they are.

I don't think I have anything, nothing that I feel was terrible. I wasn't judgmental, either. I took everyone as they were. I never had any expectations. I was like, “Where am I coming now? This is how they do it here. This is how they live here.” I learned. It felt like opening a window. It's like reading a book or watching it. You don't judge it. You accept. “This is how they're doing it here. How interesting.” I tried to ask as many questions as I could.

 

I did become close to my whole family during dinner and so on. I always stayed up and talked. No, I have gracious memories and very positive memories. I can't even remember. It's up to us. If we judge it, if we want to judge, we will find strange things because we will start judging from our expectations and our experiences how we think it should be. There's nothing that should be, but we have our own concepts. From there, you can start reading all sorts of strange stories, if you want.

 

Not to diminish this, but I think not only has it been a long time, but you're spending one year in that very intensive experience. Now, with the perspective of maturity, there are certain things that fall into place and may have a grander or deeper meaning. There are some crazy people. I was on the staff, so we are privy to some crazy stuff. College-age students, a year together.

 

I remember a newspaper article. I was promoting host families and the show and everything in Canada someplace. They completely took some of the words. I had that experience in the media where you say something, but when it's written, it's not what you said. Do you guys know rule number nine? Remember rule number nine? I don't know if you had that. Rule number nine was that there was no fraternization between cast members, no sexual, especially the sexual piece.

 

That was rule number nine, that there should be no hanky punky at all throughout the year. This was prior to the whole focus on harassment. We didn't talk about that, but I'm sure that was born out of it. I remember this article was written. I was asked questions about the group, how we met and traveled, and all that good stuff. The reporter said, “What is this rule number nine?”

 

I was like, “What am I supposed to say?” I said, “It’s for the good of the students and the experience.” I put on my best PR spin on it or whatever. The article said something about cast members being prohibited from knocking boots. I’m like, “I never said knocking boots. Who says that in an article?” There are definitely some moments that had me challenged.

 

My last question about Up with People then I want to start by looking at the experience of the two of you meeting. Knowing what you know about yourselves from that lens and from that experience, how does it inform who you are in the world now? We have a lot of things going on in this world, especially in the last couple of years, around how workplaces, communities, and organizations could do more, be more, extend themselves more, and be more inclusive. Helping people feel more belonging and being more diverse. I'm curious about the experiences that you had. How do they inform you about how you move in the world now as it relates to what's been happening the last couple of years?

 

For me, that was such an important experience for self-awareness and being comfortable with who I am, understanding, and having a wider perspective. I am solid in who I am, what I believe in, and what I can do to reach out to people. Being more comfortable doing what is right from that perspective is important.

 

Can you give an example, Ale? Give us an example of how it shows up.

 

Not being afraid. I think that is a central part of everything. Not being afraid of people you meet, not being afraid of addressing issues, and having the tools to address them in a good and functional way. Understanding people, that there's nuance. You learn to be able to feel yourself into different people and how people perceive things. You become more diplomatic and be able to walk with ease and neutrally and not take things so personally. That all comes through understanding yourself and others and that things are the way they are. Not because people are bad but because people have had certain conditions.

 

Understand yourself, understand others, and understand that things are the way they are not because people are bad, but because people have had certain conditions.

 

I'm going to put one more layer back. Give us an example of something you've experienced. Tell us a story of where you've had to be that diplomatic and get centered and be more conscious of yourself and your reaction.

 

There was a situation I can take about German people, for instance. There was a pretty harsh belief about German people, and I had close friends who were German. I felt that they were carrying a burden from their history that they couldn't take responsibility for. I was able to make the other group that was against this group understand and also the German group to not take that responsibility because it was a heavy burden on that side as well. Having that conversation on both sides was changing, not fully, but a small step forward. We all can do that. Nothing has changed overnight, but we can help always, like you say, peel off something. I felt that situation made a difference because we had a friendship on both sides.

 

You were the peacemaker, at least to help them hear each other.

 

I wasn't afraid either because many people were like, “I don't want to go there. Don't mention that.” We do need to mention that in a calm and neutral way.

 

Fred?

 

I think my life has been so intertwined with the values of Up with People and the values of a couple of other organizations that have been vital to my life. It continues. I'll say in the past several years, one of the places where my experience with Up with People has come about is hosting some business people from Russia, Armenia, Panama, and Argentina.

 

Especially with the hosting of our Russian friends. They came into our home only for a week, but again, you realize that what we hear through our politicians on both sides and what we hear through the media is not the full story. Yes, there are differences. Yes, there is some conflict between them, but when you  get down to it, it is that one-on-one relationship.

 

A quick story about that. Our first hosting of a Russian contingent was a young lady from St. Petersburg. After the week of being together, their contingent said, “You guys need to come over to Russia.” There were five of us who said, “We’ll come over next year.” We did. It was the first time that a full contingent of the United States went over to visit their host kids. They weren't kids, but they were adults.

 

Anyway, we got over to Russia and met up with the person we hosted. She runs a little children's theater. We met her mom, her daughter, her best friend and her best friend's daughter. Tatiana's girl and her friend did a beautiful dance in the middle of this park for us to say thank you with music. We have people stopping watching this. We get down to Moscow, and the rest of the contingent meets us.

 

One woman traveled 24 hours by train to get to Moscow to meet us. It was great. The Up with People experience helped me better understand the relationship we were developing. I've had that happen to me now in China several times. Valerie, when you were talking about pictures in Estonia, I was thinking of the kids in Shanghai or wherever in China I would travel. The kids would run up to you and want to talk, even though they could maybe say only hi and bye or something like thank you. They want to get a picture. It's so wonderful.

 

I think those are the experiences that everyone needs to have. Going back to the choice to step in into an experience where you are in a different culture or bringing someone else to meet you. I thank my parents. We've been hosting people. If we weren't hosting them at home, we would invite the foreign exchange students to dinner. We somehow befriended them and their family or whatever. That was how we rolled, especially my mom. I think that has been an opportunity to keep extending, keep meeting, keep saying hello.

 

The other thing I think of with people that was brilliant for me is that there's no one to tell me, “I didn't have enough time to go see, do,” whatever. Give me two hours, I can go someplace and do some damage. Not damage, but the idea of having to travel someplace and it's not worth it if you can't go for two weeks or more, that's not true. Give me give me 1 or 2 days and I'll make the best out of that time.

 

I think Up with People helped me go deep, fast, and then be adventurous. I went to Japan a few years ago. My brother was stationed in Okinawa with his family. I stayed with them for about 10 days, and then I spent 3 days in Tokyo. I ended up meeting one of my former cast mates in Tokyo. She and I spent the day together, and it happened to be this huge festival. It's a beautiful culture and experience.

 

Next, I was like, “I want to go to Hiroshima.” She said, “That's far from Tokyo. Most people go in a day or two. It’s a longer trip.” I was like, “ I think I can make something happen.” It so happened I could take the bullet train. It takes four hours to get there by bullet train. The next day, I went there, got there at noon, and spent the day by myself, checking everything that I wanted to check out. I took the last train back to Tokyo, and I was like, “Thank you, Up with People.” I don't let anything stop me from experiencing something that's meaningful. That's what I experienced in those years.

 

One thing I'd like to add to that is also what Up with People taught me, which is to see everyone the same. I think that is also a skill or an awareness. When you get to this a-ha, then you see everyone. We have a function, of course. Somebody has this or that title, but I view everyone the same.

 

Speaking of viewing everyone the same, how did you guys experience this? This is the second time being on a show like this, meeting a stranger and having these conversations. I'm curious. What's your experience been like?

 

Interesting, nice, fun. Fred doesn't feel very much like a stranger.

 

Same with Ale. It feels like we've known each other. The beauty of Up with People is you make those connections. My experience through seeing Up with People has gone through not quite 55 years, but pretty darn close. I have friends who were in the original casts in the early '60s all the way up through the present.

 

The last cast I worked with was in 2008.

 

Having been on the IAA board, the International Alumni Association board, allowed me to have connection points through the eras. As much as we are ages apart, by physical age or by actual age, we are so close in our experiences. The cast that went in 1965 to Watts in LA and experienced that and the casts that have been in major spots where there's been conflict in the '90s and the 2000s and so forth, those experiences are so palpable and so similar to each other. It shows that even generationally, we are very much alike as much as we try to have that wall.

 

Do you have a lot of connections with your old castmates?

 

I do have some connection with my cast from ‘75. We do some Zoom meetings and so forth. I also have connections with my Sing Out castmates over the years because I was in Sing Out for almost ten years. I also have connections with people that I met along the way through the years, through my work with the IAA. Some of the most important people I know who have had the most impact on my life are through Up with People in one way or another, including my wife. She did not travel. Her best friend was in a Sing Out cast, and that was the connection point.

 

You have been a part of many Up with People casts and groups and so on. That's what I meant, not that you’re old.

 

As we're wrapping up this conversation, Ale, what are you taking away from this conversation?

 

That it was a new thing for me to do. I stepped out of my box and did something I hadn't done before. Appreciating your choice of doing things that you think are necessary on some level. Meeting Fred, getting to know Fred and enjoying the conversation in a new way. Thank you so much.

 

Thank you.

 

Thank you for stepping out. Fred, anything else you're taking out of this conversation, taking away from this experience?

 

It was a pleasure. I feel like we're in our living room, talking with the three of us. I  do. Valerie, thank you for making that possible. Ale, thank you for coming into my living room to have this conversation. It's so much fun to be able to talk and laugh with people and not have to worry about whether I'm going to say the right thing or the wrong thing. Thank you for this.

 

You guys have been amazing. I know we can talk for hours. I'm sure, at some other point, we can continue the conversation beyond the show. I'm grateful for the two of you having said yes and for being as generous with your stories, ideas, and experiences as you have been with not only me but also with each other, as well as anyone who might be listening and tuning in. Don't take for granted that it takes something to say yes to this and then share something personal about yourself in the process.

 

Of course. Thank you so much and thank you for creating this opportunity. It's up to us to create and you did.

 

There's more to come. Anybody that's tuning in right now, if you're interested in subscribing to www.NotQuiteStrangers.com, you will get a notification anytime a new episode is available through email. You can also subscribe on YouTube or any of your favorite platforms and be notified that way. I'm so excited that you all had an opportunity to meet these phenomenal human beings out in the world doing their thing and the rest of the world that they brought along with them in this conversation. I think people got a chance to travel with us. Thanks for joining us.

 

Thank you so much.

 

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From: Ethiopia/Sweden & New Jersey/ Kansas, USA

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Alemnesh Belatchew

 

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