Sep. 25, 2006: Looking At Georgia Through The Eyes Of Visitors

The Scottish bard Robert Burns once opined, “O would some Power the gift to give us: To see ourselves as others see us.” Bobby Burns may be a little difficult to decipher, but his point is a good one. In the past couple of weeks, I have seen Georgia anew through the eyes of Peter and Lesley Taylor, our friends from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England.

My wife and I met the Taylors in 1977 and were guests in their home during the inaugural Friendship Force trip, an innovative cultural exchange program created by the late Rev. Wayne Smith, a Presbyterian minister in Atlanta. The idea behind the Friendship Force is for visitors from different countries to spend time with host families in other countries for one or two weeks. Since the program began 29 years ago, nearly half a million people have participated in more than 3,000 exchanges. I am proud to have been a part of the very first one between Newcastle and Atlanta.

We had visited the Taylors in Newcastle a couple of times since 1977, but this was their first trip to Georgia, and we felt obliged to show them around the state. What began as an obligation turned out to be a great experience for them — and for me. I had an opportunity to see my state as others see us, and was reminded once again why Ray Charles never sang “Ohio on My Mind.” Georgia has it all.

Our English friends saw the sun rise over the white sandy beaches of St. Simons Island, ate a little corn-fried you-know-what at the exquisite little you-know-where, and watched the sun set over St. Simons Sound while listening to a bagpiper play “Amazing Grace” and sipping fine wine on the veranda of the Sea Island Lodge. Try that in Iowa.

We had hoped to dazzle them with our state’s storied history when we visited Savannah, but then realized that they have buildings in Newcastle that go back to the 11th century. Bragging about our founding in 1733 probably wouldn’t have overwhelmed them. Frankly, I think they were more impressed by the enormous redevelopment taking place in the city today than about what went on almost three hundred years ago.

The weirdest part of our trip to Savannah was a bus tour of the city conducted by a loud-talking, wise-cracking driver from — of all places — New Jersey. I don’t mean to sound provincial, but having a Yankee escort you around Savannah is like having Eminem conducting a tour of Carnegie Hall. It just doesn’t seem right. James Oglethorpe must be whirling in his grave.

Even Atlanta — aka Malfunction Junction — looks better when viewed by newcomers. I see a city with a decaying sewer system, racial demagogues and a blowhard business community that doesn’t walk its talk. The Taylors saw gleaming new skyscrapers, lots of trees and parks and vibrant intown neighborhoods. Maybe I need to take another look.

They visited Centennial Olympic Park, perhaps Billy Payne’s most lasting legacy from the 1996 Olympic Games, and marveled at the contrast between children playing in the park’s dancing fountains and the shrapnel from the infamous bombing imbedded in the park’s statues. Now that you mention it, I marvel at it, too.

The closest thing to a bad experience occurred during a visit to the Georgia Aquarium, when a gum-chewing security guard confiscated two sticks of — you guessed it — chewing gum from Lesley Taylor’s handbag and wasn’t particularly pleasant about it. I assume the aquarium doesn’t want their Beluga whales smacking on the Juicy Fruit, just the security guards.

All in all, it was a great visit and a reminder that the concept of the Friendship Force is sound and enduring. The Taylors and Yarbroughs have enjoyed a three-decade-long friendship thanks to this unique organization, and our experience has been replicated thousands of times over by other families around the world. Thank you, Friendship Force.

The bonus was having the opportunity to get a fresh look at my beloved State of Georgia and to see ourselves as others see us. I think the Taylors would tell you we look pretty damn good. Ray Charles would be pleased.