Come From Away

I recently joined around 70 I-House NYC alumni and friends in Essen for the annual european alumni reunion. Like most attending I would not normally go to Essen but we came with open minds of true I-Housers and were not disappointed. The beautiful autumn weather helped as we had blue skies for the whole weekend.

Baldeneysee Lake near Essen

Some who joined us had grown up locally and remembered how, as children, a fine black dust covered most things and the air was polluted. Today the area is one of the greenest in Germany and has a great infrastructure of cycle paths and parks. The change in the environment has mirrored huge social change as traditional industries have closed and new employment has had to be created.

Villa Hugel

It is this transition that followed us through our weekend as we visited Villa Hugel home to the Krupp steel family, the Zollverein coal mine (a UNESCO Heritage site) and Museum Folkwang. Albert Krupp was only 14 when he inherited the family steel business with a handful of employees and massive debts. Undeterred he transformed the business to the point where just 10 years laters they had many 1000s of employees across the area. He sounded like a challenging man to live with but he was someone who valued his employees and wanted to ensure they had access to medical facilities and be able to enjoy time outdoors with their families.

It was interesting to learn that we were not unusual in ‘coming from away’ to the area. Now home to over 150 different nationalities, the Rhur area, is one of the most diverse and integrated regions in Germany.

I love a factory so I found Zollverein fascinating, the scale is overwhelming and as we walked through the now silent coking plant and our guide described the process, it was hard to imagine just how awful the working conditions would have been. As 5m square slabs of burning coke tipped into railway cars, breaking up into millions of pieces as they did so before going to be cooled by vast volumes of water. Steam, smoke, dust, intense heat, noise… I doubt my children would survive even a single shift in that environment.

Puja Merchant speaking at the Freunde Des International House meeting

At dinner sat next to a Dutch, American man who I nearly met in Oslo on my trip earlier in the year, but now lives in Austria with his Thai, Austrian girlfriend, I listened to a trio of alumni musicians played Mozart to us and looked around the room. I imagined how proud Harry would be of everything that the weekend had been curiosity, connection, care, joy, continuity and conversation. The light was certainly passing on….

A few weeks later, I joined a Friends of I-House UK trip to see Come From Away. A musical written by I-House alumni writing team Irene Sankoff and David Hein about the landing of 38 flights with 7000 passengers from all over the world in Gander Newfoundland on 9/11.

We never know on any one day what might happen and as in the play it is all down to what we do next when something out of the ordinary does happen. It is a play about the generosity and diversity of humanity as well as the darker side of fear of the other and how experiences good and bad shape us. The choices we make in the moment to reach out and find out more or move away or on.

On my way home from the play there was a young girl not much older than my daughter sitting on the bench on the tube stop throwing up. I stopped and asked her if she was ok, she was very drunk but knew where she was headed, what train she needed so I kept an eye on her until I boarded my train home.

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