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Peace Corps Volunteer, 65, Returns Home : Bette Goldenring spent two years teaching English in Hungary. 'It was the young kids who couldn't cut the mustard,' she says of her training.

July 22, 1993|ROBYN LOEWENTHAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When I rang the doorbell of Bette Goldenring's cozy two-story Ventura beach house recently, anticipation mingled with a sense of deja vu; two years had transpired since Goldenring and I had gotten together to discuss what was then her forthcoming stint as a Peace Corps volunteer. And we were getting together again.

As I emerged from a narrow, dark staircase into her sun-filled spacious dining and family area, I was greeted by an enviable view of the ocean.

Delightful vermilion, cobalt and earth hues leaped off the white walls in the form of ceramics and myriad mementos from Goldenring's travels. And a pile of Hungarian, Russian and Turkish books spilled across the white tablecloth, a further suggestion of her latest adventure.

The real-life Mrs. Pollifax returned last month from Hungary, where she spent the past two years teaching English. Since our first encounter in April, 1991, the 65-year-old grandmother had changed little.

Clad casually in T-shirt and shorts, with no thought to her disheveled hair, the ever-effusive and barefooted Goldenring greeted me with a hug. Then she introduced her guests, Edith Pipicz, a 47-year-old language teacher and her 51-year-old husband, Imre, a dentist. The couple was emerging from the bedroom in a jet-lagged state, having arrived from Hungary just hours before.

Though Goldenring returned a week earlier, she remained giddy with adventure and eager to share her experiences.

Bette's Excellent Adventure began with an 11-week intensive language and cross-cultural training session involving about 60 people.

"The mean age in my group was 52. One 85-year-old man extended his tour. And there were people in their 30s up to 80s. Only two of the 10 we lost were over 50. And they left because of medical and family problems," Goldenring said.

"So we oldies stuck it out. It was the young kids who couldn't cut the mustard," she added with a laugh.

After the training session, Goldenring lived with the Pipiczes in Kecskemet, a small town of 40,000 in the center of Hungary, 17 kilometers from Budapest.

Her primary duty was to supplement the efforts of five English teachers by emphasizing English conversation. She worked with 513 students at the "gymnasium" or high school of her colleague Edith Pipicz.

Goldenring also created an award-winning drama group, a baseball team, a cultural club and an environmental awareness event on United Nations International Green Day.

"The children are so burdened academically that there is little time for hobbies or cultural activities," she said. "The pressure is tremendous to gain a seat in the university."

So she incorporated lessons on American culture and civics by showing American films including "Home Alone," and a favorite--"Rebel Without a Cause"--in her home during the Sunday meetings of the culture club.

She also managed to tour England with the school choir, visit several European countries, and learn to play the zitara, a Hungarian folk instrument resembling a zither.

Teaching English in Hungary was just the latest in a lifetime of volunteer efforts for Goldenring, who earned a bachelor's degree in social welfare in 1977.

In the past, she has worked with mentally disabled children and those with other learning disabilities. Before her departure for Hungary in June, 1991, she tutored two adults through the Laubach Literacy Program, assisted in an English-as-a-second-language class at Buenaventura High School, and was a member of the Ventura Klezmer Band.

In addition, she has taught guitar and Jewish community education workshops over the years. And she spent the summers of 1982-84 as an archeological worker in Jerusalem.

The death of Goldenring's husband's 6 1/2 years ago spurred her decision to join the Peace Corps. "My husband, Ira, and I always wanted our children to understand there's a time for taking and a time for giving," she said.

Still basking in the afterglow of her travels, Goldenring indicated the motto from Cervantes emblazoned on a poster on her refrigerator: "Make it thy business to know thyself, which is the most difficult lesson in the world."

"I had a marvelous adventure," Goldenring said. "I think we all have a tendency to put invisible boundaries around ourselves. And I learned that I was able to push those boundaries out far beyond my expectations."

* FYI

The nearest Peace Corps Recruiting Office is located at 11000 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 8104, Los Angeles, 90024, (310) 575-7444.

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