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This visit redefines "German unification'

Thomas Scharnetzki of Germany enjoys the freedoms that the reunification of Germany made possible two years ago.

But there's no freedom he treasures more than traveling outside his homeland for the first time in his life and visiting a country where people have been able to come and go as they please for more than two centuries.

"I am glad to be here. America is wonderful," said Scharnetzki, 33.

His first journey outside his native land was made possible by Friendship Force, a worldwide organization formed in 1977 to improve international relations.

A delegation of 24 from the city of Cottbus, which included Scharnetzki and his wife, Romy, arrived in Hernando County on Tuesday for a seven-day stay with members of the Friendship Force of West Coast Florida.

Cottbus, a city of 124,000 about 50 miles southwest of Berlin, founded its Friendship Force club last year.

"We're trying to spoil them as best as we can," said Ruth McGrath, 66, of Spring Hill. She and her husband, Jim, are hosting the Scharnetzkis.

"It's a great pleasure," said Jim McGrath, 64. "It's interesting to discover people are the same even though they come from different countries."

Now that Germany is unified, German children are being taught English and American culture besides their required studies of Germany and Russia.

Doris and Wolfgang Rybka decided to bring their daughters, Jana, 14, and Jenny, 10, to the United States for a journey they had never experienced.

"We wanted them to be exposed to the English language and know the lifestyle of Americans," said Mrs. Rybka, 37.

The Scharnetzkis' 10-year-old son, Stephon, taught them what he had learned in school about the United States in preparation for their trip. But his lessons paled in comparison with their firsthand experience.

They rave about people's houses; they love the warm weather; they are awed by the number of cars on the road; and they find American food to be tasty.

"I love the flowers in Florida," said Mrs. Scharnetzki, 30, a gardener in Cottbus. "And the shopping. There are many shops. All people do is shop, shop, shop."

The Scharnetzkis told their hosts that what impresses them most about America is how people of different nationalities get along.

"They are impressed that so many different people of color and races can live together," Mrs. McGrath said. "They think the racial intolerance here is much more subdued than it is in their country. They have had some hard disturbances between nationalities."

The mission of Friendship Force is to put aside one's cultural, racial, religious and political differences and forge a friendship of peace with others from another nation.

That concept has earned the non-profit group, with 319 clubs worldwide, a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. The group members will receive word later this month on whether they have won.

"We were extremely pleased and surprised that it was in the works," said Bobbie Jones, vice president of operations at Friendship Force's headquarters in Atlanta. "It's a great tribute to the volunteers who have made the organization what it is."

Peggy Hammond, president of Friendship Force of the West Coast Florida, said ambassadors visiting from their native lands spend one week in the home of their host families. Costs and expenses vary depending on the country visited.

Each year, the West Coast club takes one trip abroad in the spring and acts as host for a group from another country in the fall. Hammond said the group will visit Australia in April and will host a group from Brazil next October.

On their tour, the Cottbus group has been presented a key to the city of Brooksville by Mayor Luther Cason, has visited Disney World, has been horseback riding in Ocala and will be given a farewell dinner at the Hernando Beach Yacht Club before departing Tuesday.

"It will be good to go home and see my children," Thomas Scharnetzki said. "But I will miss America."