When Harold Closter leaves work at the Performing Arts Division of the Smithsonian, he often takes a foreign visitor home with him. After seeing Closter leave with French, Danish and Italian visitors over several months, a fellow office worker could no longer restrain herself.
"How can any person," she asked, "have so many foreign friends?"
Closter belongs to the international organization Servas, whose members open their homes to foreign visitors and are guests of hosts abroad.
"Servas not only gets the world into your living room," says Closter, 33, of Annandale, "it also lets you get into the living rooms of the world."
The 34-year-old, nonprofit, volunteer organization has hosts and travelers in 80 countries, Australia to Zambia. There are about 3,000 members in this country. The name Servas in Esperanto means "to serve." Its goal, when founded after World War II by a group of international students in Denmark, was to further international peace and understanding.
"With every true friendship," says the Gandhi quote on Servas leaflets, "we build more firmly the foundation on which the peace of the whole world rests." A bonus: free accommodations--after a minimal "contribution"--in hospitable and interesting homes. The usual visit is about two days, but members stress that they like to keep the pace leisurely, allowing plenty of time for conversation.
Visitors tend to be well-educated, share an interest in current affairs and have a love of travel, according to Letitia Grant, Washington Servas representative and one of about 30 hosts in the area. Among Washington visitors: an Australian angora sheep farmer, a Danish toy designer and an Italian woman architect.
Not all visitors, however, are so colorful. "You get a little bit of everything," says Grant. "Not all visitors are fascinating, not all are dull."
Travelers may choose their hosts according to their professions, interests and language abilities indicated on the host lists. Hosts learn about travelers' backgrounds and interests from an introduction letter signed by Servas, which also serves as proof of membership. Some visitors mail a copy of the letter to a host with their initial inquiry.
"We get established professionals as well as people a few years out of graduate school," says Grant.
Most visitors, she says, are Europeans, including some from Eastern European countries. Although several Eastern European countries have a host system, only Yugoslavia provides a host list.
"We rely mainly on host coordinators, because it is still dangerous for Eastern Europeans to have their names listed," says a New York Servas representative.
To be a host or visitor, "I can't stress flexibility enough," says Gerald H. Deighton, 42, Rockville. The federal government administrator and his wife, Sandie, a computer-program analyst, have been area host coordinators for eight years.
Deighton and others mention that the program--mainly because of housing space in some countries--probably works best for one or two travelers. "But as a host, it's been wonderful to have whole families with children that our children can get to know."
Visitors are expected to arrange visits in advance by letter or phone; each host indicates preference for notice of arrival. "Advance-notice requirements range from 10 days to one, and some hosts do not ask for any," says Deighton.
Communications, hosts admit, have been known to break down, particularly on heavily traveled routes like Washington.
"We ask people to give us 10 days' notice, but we do get calls from people who want to stay with us the same day," says educator Lorraine Goldman of Capitol Hill, who with her family has hosted visitors from at least 12 different countries. "That would be no problem, except that we want it to be a real exchange. We don't look at our homes as just a place to crash."
Area hosts claim they are not reluctant to turn down a traveler, but usually help to find an alternate host or accommodation.
Although hosts are expected to provide food and lodging, they are not obligated to make special arrangements. Servas encourages travelers to help with household chores during their stay.
"We want visitors to share our life," says Deighton. "We don't feel we have to be typical anything."
"I like to think," says Closter, "that I am sending foreign travelers away with perhaps a more true and accurate idea of what Americans are like. In my three years with Servas, I have always felt visitors wanted more than a free accommodation."
Although hosts and travelers are screened and interviewed, the inevitable misunderstandings occur. (Servas representatives say they do not know of any serious incidents.) Hosts are encouraged to first talk to the guest about a misunderstanding. If that fails to alleviate the problem, Servas representatives may be contacted. In an extreme case, the traveler's membership and letter of introduction could be withdrawn.