VENICE, Italy — So he can recognize me on the steps of the Santa Lucia train station in Venice, I send Ron Engbrecht a recent photo and needlessly add that I am the guy with the white hair, sorta longish white hair.
He texts back: “I’ll be the one in the grey jacket, grey glasses, grey hair, grey outlook. Looked for my old UND hat but I think it’s in the States.”
I wonder if he’s just good at alliteration or if I’m in for a dismal, uncooperative and altogether gray interview. It is mid-December and the very high floodwaters from a month earlier have receded, though the waves from passing vaporettos (public waterbuses) on the Grand Canal still lap over the steps and adjacent walkways.
Having recognized each other on the steps, we’ve boarded one of those same vaporettos, two guys from North Dakota on our way to St. Mark’s Square to have tea at Cafe Florian. The weather was gray, but the company wasn’t.
I had thought, considering the terrible weather and the recent flooding, that the square would be nearly deserted. Wrong. There was a crowd, a big crowd, and the portico along the edge of the vast square that leads to Cafe Florian was nearly impassable (the rain pushed a lot of that crowd under it for some shelter).
The reason was a rather poignant one, considering that Ron has spent most of his life as a teacher: it was graduation day for many Venetian students. So all those people were celebrating a milestone with their families and friends, wearing mortarboards and beautiful natural laurel wreaths on their heads, like Caesar's. Happy and beautiful.
It’s quite rare to see that many Italians together in St. Mark’s Square, since it’s usually completely overrun by tourists. What a delight!
We eventually make our way into Cafe Florian only to realize it is so crowded and noisy that the recording device on my phone had difficulty picking up our conversation. After a cup of tea and an aborted attempt at recording, we decide to decamp to the famous Harry’s bar around the corner, thinking it has to be quieter. Not much, but a little less crowded.
Harry’s was a beloved hangout of Hemingway, Hitchcock and Orson Welles, among others, where Giuseppe Cipriani, the head bartender, invented the Bellini in 1948. A Bellini is made from prosecco and pureed white peaches, its name referring to the color of a toga in a famous painting by Giovanni Bellini. The color of the drink matches the toga in the painting. Only in Italy.
A pretty weird place for two guys from little towns in North Dakota to find themselves ordering coffee, rather than a Bellini. But there we were, seated next to a table of cosmetically enhanced (and surgically perfected) ladies who had unusually large and ostentatious rings and a plethora of jewelry. An unlikely place to start talking about growing up in less-than-ostentatious circumstances in a small town on the prairie.
Ron Engbrecht was born in New Rockford. He and his family moved to Cooperstown when he was 7 (in second grade). His father ran the dry cleaners, and Ron was occasionally the popcorn man at the shop next door, among many other jobs and pastimes, until he got out of high school. They lived on the very north side of town with an unobstructed view over the prairie.
He was a good student, a quick learner and a wrestler. At 77, he is still quite fit. Graduating from high school in 1960, he attended the University of North Dakota on the five-year plan, wondering what to do when he made it through. Being a trained professional chemist looking for a job, he surmised, with some soul-searching, that it was not the best of times to work for a big controversial chemical company that manufactured all manner of nefarious concoctions to be used in the Vietnam War, like napalm.
He has a conscience and, as a result, pretty good survival skills. He got a job teaching at Grand Forks Central for two years, then for a year at the newly opened Red River High School in Grand Forks.
“I still wanted to serve my country, and I thought, 'How could I do that without shooting somebody or getting shot at myself?' I thought of joining the Peace Corps; it seemed exciting and new at the time. But then I thought, 'I’m a teacher. Maybe I can teach students in the military, see the world and serve that way.'”
He applied, got accepted and after a suffocating round of required inoculations ordered from Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, he arrived in Okinawa, Japan, for his first teaching job. Delayed by the inoculations, he found out when he arrived that the physics teacher who got there before him would rather teach chemistry, so they gave it to him, and Ron ended up teaching physics instead. Which he rather liked, so he kept doing it.
He soon met a young woman from Binghamton, N.Y., who was also teaching in the program and they hit it off right away, traveling in December 1968 to Southeast Asia, ending up in Cambodia just before Pol Pot took over and closed the gates. They got married in the fall of 1969, and they’re still married, celebrating their 50th anniversary this year.
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In 1969, they transferred to Berlin, Germany. The Berlin Wall was very much a physical and psychological presence in the '60s, and while anyone connected with the military found it quite easy to cross over to East Berlin, tourists and the general population found it much more difficult.
On one of those excursions, they were coming out of the Pergamon Museum and discovered their car had vanished. Berlin being a haven of spies and conspiracies and all the incumbent tensions of East and West, they rather suspected the worst. After searching adjacent streets and alleys, they finally encountered some security people who seemed to be providing assistance to what appeared to be a film crew.
Asked if they had seen their car, the guards replied that yes, they had. In fact they, the guards had carefully moved it a few streets away because it was in the background of a scene being filmed. Their car was much too new to fit it a scene about a World War II movie. A rather prosaic, yet satisfying, outcome to what they had initially feared.
After Berlin it was on to Izmir, Turkey. Their first son was born in Izmir, but it didn’t feel quite right. Although Izmir is a fantastic place, and Turks are a welcoming people, they were ready for a more rural setting. In the city, “the only animals you see are stray pigeons and broken-down carriage horses.”
Once the decision to move was made, they set about, rather methodically, to determine where the next best place would be to raise a family. Studying a map of all the Department of Defense bases in the world where they might live, they narrowed it to southern Spain for the nearby sea, the beautiful rugged landscape and the gorgeous mountains. The other choice was northern Italy, for many of the same reasons.
The Adriatic Sea is close, as is Venice, but what attracted them more than anything was the proximity to the Alps, a short drive north from Aviano, home to an American Air Force base. Their second son was born there, and both boys became almost completely Italian. They’ve been there ever since.
Ron retired in 2014, but chose to stay for the life they built there. He answers the "Why?" question by reciting the old saw about the difference between America and Europe: “Europeans work to live, Americans live to work. You really find out this is true, and why it is true, after you’ve been here a while.”
It was making that final move to Aviano that really brought everything together — the choice to stay there and the stability it provided to raise a family with purpose, and to expand the breadth of teaching experience and opportunities. Chemistry, physics, biology, math and computer science.
“I was a district computer coordinator for Southern Europe for many years and a primary coordinator of the Presidential Initiative in Technology. We developed a course, which was adopted by the overseas school system worldwide, where students became facilitators and helped teachers to integrate technology into their programs,” he remembers.
All of this development and progress in education for overseas military base schools furthered their mission: to provide an educational experience equivalent or superior to what a student would get stateside. “I contributed to making this happen,” he says.
“My mother came to visit us after we’d been in Italy for five or six years, and as usual, she asked when I’d be moving ‘home.’ When would I come to my senses, stop this vagabonding around and get serious. A few days later we were touring around and stopped at a little gelateria near a lovely hotel on a beautiful square in the middle of one of those perfect Italian villages. My mother ordered a small bowl of coconut ice cream and as she was sitting overlooking a picture-perfect town square, eating her bowl of ‘gelato,’ she looked up at me and said, 'Now I know why you live here.'"
Tales From Afar is an occasional series of profiles and portraits by photographer Murray Lemley of folks with ties to North Dakota and Minnesota now living abroad. Look for more installments in The Forum’s Life section in the coming months, and contact Lemley at email@example.com.