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Nichols: Travels with students led to tense moments

POSTED: September 27, 2010 1:00 a.m.

The first time I heard the Latin phrase "in loco parentis" I turned to a student who wisecracked, "It means that parents are crazy or just plain loco."

When my dean used the term as I was about to take students on a January term study tour abroad, it was serious. It meant that I was in place of their parents and had a responsibility of making certain that the students all returned safely home.

That was very much easier said than done.

In 1972, on my first tour with 50 students (25 males and 25 females) with three faculty leaders, we were the first group of American students ever invited for a briefing on Soviet-Mexican relations (diplomatic and economic) to be given inside the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City.

At a break in the presentation, we were served demitasse coffee with silver teaspoons with hammer and cycle embossed emblem of the Soviet government. The next day, just before a similar briefing at the
Brazilian embassy, I received an urgent phone call. The Russians had counted the silverware and were missing five teaspoons, which had obviously been stolen by our students.

I offered to pay for the missing spoons.

No, they were state property. The Russians wanted them returned "or else."

I gathered the students and told them of the missing spoons. I appointed one male student to contact every male on the tour to find the spoons. I gave the same task to a female student to ask if any of the women had taken a souvenir.

Later that evening, I received a call from the female student. In tears, she told me she could not find a single spoon. Soon the male student called and told me he had all five. The next day, he went with me to return the spoons to the Russians.

I received an angry note from an American embassy official in Mexico. He calmed down when I reported that all of the spoons had been returned. The U.S. official was relieved that we had not had an incident that might harm the growing détente with the Soviets Union. This was back in 1972 and relations between the Soviet Union and the U.S. were indeed fragile.

Several years later in Moscow, our Russian tour guide asked me if I was leader of students who tried to take the Russian spoons as souvenirs in Mexico. I admitted that I was and added that we returned the spoons with our deepest apology.

Another incident occurred when my students left Russia after three weeks and took a side tour of Poland and the Czech Republic. In Prague, I gave students an afternoon off to tour as they liked. One older student (an ex-Marine) returned with some marijuana cigarettes.

I caught him smoking one of those cigarettes while walking around a public square. When I ordered him to extinguish the cigarette before the police arrived, he replied " Oh, they cannot touch me because I am an
American citizen."

I pointed to the experience of Billy Hayes, who had visited our campus before the movie "Midnight Express" was shown nationwide. He told of being caught with a VW bus filled with marijuana stuffed behind the upholstery. His treatment in a Turkish jail was horrible. My ex-Marine did not smoke drugs in public at any subsequent eastern European city that we visited.

I was glad that I did not have to visit any student in jail.

On another study tour of Russia, students asked if they could go to a Moscow night club. At that time, all establishments were closed by 9 p.m. The only place still open late was the Arbat. I was told by other tour leaders that the Arbat was notorious as a place of crime, gambling and prostitution, not what I wanted my students to study.

So I told them strongly that I did not want them going to the Arbat.

Consequently as soon as I retired for the night, the entire group of disobedient students went to that place. When they tried to enter the doorkeeper looking at their American clothing, said "NYET," or "no" in Russian.

"Amerikanskis, keep out."

One of the students shouted back "But we are Polish."

When the doorkeeper replied with a question in Polish, nobody in the group could answer anything in Polish. So my students had to return empty-handed to our hotel.

I was glad the gatekeeper had denied admission to the students.

Dr. Tom Nichols is a retired college professor who lives in Gainesville. His column appears regularly on Mondays and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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