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.

Celebrating I-House Birthdays

International House NYC was founded in the autumn of 1924 and ever since every autumn, alumni around the world hold I-House Days to get together and celebrate its founding. Last year there were 21 events in 13 countries and the NYC alumni team are busy connecting with alumni to schedule this year’s events.

The NYC I-House alumni association was started by Harry Edmond’s secretary in 1925 and as Berkeley and Chicago opened it also covered those Houses too. Back in those days they published a little booklet with alumni information in, which was effectively your passport to friendly alumni around the globe. Eventually as the years ticked by and the number of alumni grew, each House started to look after its own alumni. The NYC alumni association grew to a point when in its hey day there were 100 active chapters around the world. To find out what is planned for 2019 visit https://www.ihouse-nyc.org/news_events/ihouseday/ I hope that we can expand the number of events from last year and get even more alumni involved as we get another year closer to the 100th anniversary in 2024.

Berkeley I-House Steps 1931

Meanwhile Berkeley I-House is celebrated its 89th birthday on August 18th and is adding alumni stories to its history pages. http://ihouse.berkeley.edu/stories/

I-House University Alberta founded 4th September 2004

Newer to the International Houses World Wide family is I-House Alberta, which is celebrating its 15th Birthday with an event on the 8th of September. Sadly I cannot attend in person but I am very honoured to have been asked by Leslie Weigl, their current Director, to speak by video link to the students. We are keeping fingers crossed that the technology will work. Alberta welcomes about 150 students a year, from over 40 countries and whilst it is smaller than many other I-Houses has a very active programme and works hard to make it a home away for home for its residents. https://www.ualberta.ca/global-education/international-house

Also celebrating this year is the International House in Romania, Westgate Studios. It is celebrating 10 years since it was inaugurated. It is the largest House in the International Houses World Wide family, being home to around 800 residents. I am very much hoping to visit it soon https://www.westgatestudios.ro/despre-noi

As I have reflected before keeping an International House running effectively takes a brilliant team who attract a diverse set of residents from as many corners of the world as possible and enable them to create international friendships whilst sharing their cultures. I am grateful to every one of those team members for all their work and passion to carry on what Harry and Florence started.

Making the Sunday Papers

Sunday 5th May 2019

I woke up today to a message from a dear friend from my MBA, who lives in Hong Kong, sending me pictures of myself in a newspaper article in the South China Morning Post Sunday Supplement.

Before I even arrived in Hong Kong on my trip the well connected family friend I was staying with had decided that my quest could be of interest to the press and contacted Fionnuala McHugh a freelance journalist for the SCMP. Fionnuala and I met when I arrived in Hong Kong and as the story unfolded over the next few days and she attended my Hong Kong event it became clear that the ‘lonely Chinese student’ was the hook. Writing the article took Fionnuala to the I-House NYC Shanghai gala and also to meeting my cousin (another of Harry’s great granddaughter’s) Mira Edmonds who is currently living in Shanghai.

The full article is at the link below and covers so many aspects of Harry’s and my story. Enjoy…

https://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/long-reads/article/3008511/international-house-how-anonymous-chinese?fbclid=IwAR1XH1PbQICfw4NaSAgFUg11UL6S9NwTIlxG3c3f_8I7DUgImDiOvlM2tV0

A Royal Time at ISH London

Friday 3rd May 2019

International Student House or ISH in London, one of the two members of International Houses World Wide in London, has always had a royal patronage. The Queen Mother was a devoted supporter whilst she was alive and when she died the Queen’s daughter, Princess Anne took over.

To celebrate the 54th birthday of ISH, the wonderful ISH team threw a very British garden party in the gardens adjacent to their beautiful Nash Crescent building right in the heart of London and Her Royal Highness, The Princess Royal was the guest of honour. Luckily for us the promised British weather held off so we could enjoy the delicious food and company.

ISH London – is the building visible behind the trees

ISH was founded thanks to the dynamic persistence of Mary Trevelyan, who like my great grandfather Harry Edmonds, encountered lonely international students and chose to do something about their situation. For more background this blog post from the ISH website written by Jilly Borowiecka, who has devoted much of her career to the House, is well worth a read. https://ish.org.uk/the-legacy-of-ish/

Mary shared Harry’s goals of developing tolerance, understanding and international friendship. At the party I was lucky enough to come across The Rev. Tim Brooke, who had worked at ISH in the 1960s, in fact he may well have been there when Harry visited on his trip. Tim worked closely with Mary and so I asked him about her. He described her as being full of energy and enthusiasm, with a love of people rather than the administration and money side of running the House. Luckily for Tim his job was on the people side so he got to see the best of Mary. He shared with me that she always told her team that just talking to residents or alumni was never enough as they must introduce the person they were talking to to at least one other person, only by doing this would they get the ‘snow ball’ effect and ‘the idea’ would spread. I loved this as I thought it was such a simple message but could create such impact.

I spent most of my afternoon talking to current residents. ISH has a mix of undergraduate and graduate students and as you would expect I travelled the world in my conversations from Peru and Colombia, through Ghana, Guinea and Nigeria, to Afghanistan and Iran, onto India and Pakistan and into China and Tibet.

The ISH team are doing an amazing job of growing their scholarship program. This year they have 103 scholars from 44 countries and have plans to go to 120+ next year. Working with partner institutions across London ISH the scholars, who would not normally be able to study in the UK, both their tuition and accommodation at ISH funded. https://ish.org.uk/scholarship/

Alongside this great scholarship programme and the brilliant location of ISH, the thing that stands out for me is the wonderful team that bring the whole experience of ISH to life for their residents. Yesterday I saw them in action, how they love to celebrate and also how they value every member of the team. Princess Anne seemed also to pick up on this as she took the time to acknowledge and chat with those staff members featured in a video about ISH’s work. The team definitely care about the work they do welcoming young people from across the world and making their time in London life changing.


A young academic from Syria gave the speech, he had been helped to come to the UK by CARA (Council for At-Risk Academics) https://www.cara.ngo and was living at ISH. His speech was a touching description of how being at ISH had transformed his life and of gratitude for the love and care of so many and for the new friends he had made from around the world. In his speech he shared this lovely Pericles quote: “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.” Harry and Mary have both left so much woven into the lives of so many….

Nicholas Kahale who I met who is both an ISH and an I-House NYC alum


Good News from Sydney

Thursday 18th April – Maidenhead UK

This week started well with an email binging in with the fantastic news that the University of Sydney leadership have postponed the move of I-House Sydney residents out of their building at the end of 2019 so the current House could be pulled down (with no concrete plans to re-build it).

Whilst the plans for what happens next are not yet clear, at least there is now time for Jessica Caroll, the current I-House Director, and her team to work with the University to shape a clear plan.

Jessica and her very passionate and devoted President of the I-House Sydney Alumni association, Ros Madden, have been galvanising support from alumni and current residents since the announcement last year, to bombard the Vice Chancellor with reasons to re-think. Their hard work and all the very well written and moving letters from alumni seem to have worked, which is wonderful.

I-House Sydney is one of 5 international Houses in Australia (Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney, Wollongong and Darwin). It was opened in June 1967 after a massive fund raising effort by the Rotary clubs across Sydney. The first director was Graeme Graaff. I know that he met with Harry Edmonds on a number of occasions including this one in 1977 at the 50th anniversary of I-House NYC.

On my trip I met with wonderful I-House Sydney alumni in Thailand, Hong-Kong, Manila and Malmo. Whilst the House is smaller than its US counterparts, holding about 200 residents a year, it still has the same impact with its fully catered dining hall helping residents quickly make new international friendships.

My partner Chris, keeps asking when we are going to Australia to see the Houses there, so now we have this good news, hopefully I will get to Sydney and be able to see the House as it is now and then be able to come back in the future and see its next exciting incarnation.

Thank you again to all those who have campaigned to keep this important part of University Sydney and International Houses World Wide open for business.

To find out more about I-House Sydney’s history do visit https://sydney.edu.au/international-house/news/2018/07/17/a-brief-history-of-international-house.html

Or if you are in Sydney do go and visit I am sure you will be made very welcome….

Hope – Action – Dialogue – Curiosity

Tuesday 19th March 2019 – Maidenhead UK

Signs of spring were all around my walking route this morning; magnolias, fruit blossom, daffodils and catkins. I was out to see if the rhythm of putting one foot in front of the other would help me organise my many many thoughts as I reflect on my trip. Finding myself static with no plane to catch and a self imposed need to shape a plan for what next, is somewhat different to my last three months. The fresh air of the grey English morning did allow the space to organise several themes that echoed through my experience…

Hope

Harry’s I-House idea was born out of hope. Hope that by having future leaders live together and interact day to day they would bit by bit shed their prejudices and limiting beliefs about ‘the other’. The stories I heard as I travelled and what I saw at each of the I-Houses I visited, showed me that Harry’s hope was well placed and for the majority what he hoped for does happen. In fact I believe that what actually happens is beyond what Harry had hoped for.

My hope as I set off on my trip was that I would be able to, in some small way, pass the light on of tolerance, understanding and international friendship and I feel that was achieved. Out of that hope, I think a new a bigger hope has emerged which is a hope that the International House idea can be spread further and more Houses can offer future leaders from around the world the opportunity to expand their view beyond what they have known.

Action

One of the things I most admire about Harry is that he was a man of action. In my work I coach business leaders who are often wrestling with challenging or complex situations, one thing we often discuss is about action and choice. Choosing to do something or even actively not to do something, will produce a result, sometimes good, sometimes not what we expected, but not choosing or passively not doing anything or even just talking about doing something but then not actually doing it, will not usually result in anything to move you forward. I could have waited to do my trip and perhaps it would have achieved more, but more likely it might never have happened. Creating momentum by starting or trying something I think is very critical to many I-House stories not just mine or Harry’s.

I did not get to meet Sofia Corradi, who with her sister Gemma lived at I-House NYC, but Gemma attended my Rome event and spoke passionately about Sofia’s work. Sofia is known as ‘Mamma Erasmus’ as she was a driving force behind the Erasmus European student exchange program which she cites was as a direct result of her time at the NYC House. Not an easy thing to do but Sofia again was a woman of action and bit by bit pieced together the network needed to enable the exchanges.

Also in Rome, Claudia Pelicano shared with Gemma and I one of her favourite Gothe quotes “At the moment of commitment, the Universe conspires to assist you.” Gothe sums up well my experience of having stepped forward and taken on this personal pilgrimage.

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”
–Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

Dialogue & Curiosity

I-House folk, ask questions, lots of questions and they listen, they want to explore your perspective. They are comfortable not agreeing with it and expressing why that is or what their perspective is. Their questions can be searching right from the start, they make you think, they show you other ways to see things. They know that we can’t always like everyone but with some give and take that we can find ways to live alongside them and are willing find a way through the bumps to get there. They are open to re-exploring and also admitting they have changed their mind.

I don’t believe that everyone arrives at an I-House is pre-disposed to this by being part of a self selecting group. On my travels many I met had arrived at the House randomly, or with less research or understanding of what they were about to experience than you might imagine. However once there eating together and being surrounded by such diversity, their curiosity came to the fore. Many described how being at the house opened up possibilities beyond what they had ever imagined. I love this.

Morgan Randall an I-House Berkeley alum came to my Berlin event, he recently made this 2 minute video for the Berkeley Big Give, which I think summarises the I-House experience brilliantly https://youtu.be/51nJGhurr_A

 A continuing journey – As I have talked about Harry devoted the whole of his long life to the I-House idea and whilst I have come somewhat late to my journey, having just been 50, I feel I am at the beginning so there will be more….

Passing the light on – inspired by the Candlelight Ceremony that is held each year at the 3 original Rockefeller Houses, I wanted to pass the light on of understanding, tolerance and international friendship. So I bought one big candle which travelled the whole world with me. Then in each destination I was given a new candle to take to the next stop and I left the candle from the previous stop and so on in a relay.

Earl Hall NYC

Candle Donors New York starting candle – Susan Storms, I-House Berkeley – Angela Raunch, Honolulu – Francis Wong, Tokyo – Mami Urano, Taipei – Grace Cheng-Huei, Manila – Leah Jordano, Hong Kong – Nelson Fung, Bangkok – Book Mongkol Jarujanya, Delhi – Aditi Mody, Mumbai – Nidhi Shah, Beirut – Dirk Kunze, Istanbul – Nilgun Okay, Athens – Alex Varelas, Rome – Claudia Pelicano, Paris – Isabelle Sionniere, Berlin – Katrin Schomaker, Stockholm – Anders Paulsson, Oslo – Anders Garbom Backe, Helsinki – Anna-Maij Lindholm, Copenhagen – Jack Pederson, London – Patricia Hamzahee, Chicago – Denise Jorgens, New York finishing candle – Anita Haravon

We hope to reunite all or some of the candles at the 100 year celebration for I-House NYC in 2024.

Back in Maidenhead having been round the world

Round the World

Monday 18th March 2019 – Maidenhead UK

I find returning home after a long trip a mixed blessing, on the one hand comfortingly nothing has really changed and we still have not sorted Brexit! On the other it is easy to be lulled back into old routines and patterns which new experiences from the trip could fracture and open up new possibilities. So whilst I ponder the deeper reflections on my trip and work out my next steps, I offer up some thoughts and observations from travelling to 18 countries in succession.

Plastic

Being itinerant and basically not cooking a meal for 11 weeks, I became very aware of the amount of single use plastic and other packaging that is associated with food on the go and also food waste. Despite new legislation particularly in India, there is a long way to go to reduce packaging and recycle more. As I moved out of Asia / India into Europe I certainly felt that there was more opportunity to decline over packaged goods and also a greater focus on recycling and finding new solutions.

Beach near Athens

Airport immigration 

  • Worst – JFK 2.5 hours at the start of my trip and Istanbul 1 hour 
  • Best – Tokyo – 2 minutes with extra staff poised to help if any line appeared 

Baggage

  • Best – Mumbai from Delhi – got off plane and walked c 5 minutes to the baggage hall and the bags were already going round
  • Worst – Berlin – the baggage hall was in sight of the airplane but still took over 45 minutes to start arriving
Oslo Fjord

Airport transfers to centre of town

  • Cheapest – Delhi Metro to Connaught Place price approximately 3 English Pence or about 4 US Cents
  • Most Expensive – Arlanda Express in Sweden! 

Water 

  • Least available tap water (in a country where the water is safe to drink) – Berlin – even though the water from the tap is perfectly safe to drink, no one seems to and restaurants are reluctant to let you have some as they like to charge about €6 per bottle!  
  • Most available – Stockholm and Norway – where you are encouraged to not use single use plastic bottles and there are always water fountains or jugs at every restaurant available to use for free. 
  • In Denmark they charge you for tap water in restaurants sometimes €3 or €4, but I learnt from my Danish friends that they cannot charge you if you go in and ask for it without ice! 
Berlin

Hotel amenities 

  • Great – Tokyo – the hotel gave us a ‘pocket wifi’ to use while we stayed in the city, you connected your devices to it and then carried it about with you so you were always online

Ticket processes for public transport

  • Worst – San Francisco BART – the machine was so confusing that we needed considerable help from a very kind local to work out how to choose the ticket and pay
  • Most trusting – Berlin S-Bhan – not a ticket barrier in site, you buy a ticket from the machine and validate it and there are no other checks (although I assume there must be occasional ticket inspector checks somewhere) – also if you have a monthly season ticket you can take a friend for free at the weekends or late evenings.
  • Challenging – everywhere that the machines were supposed to take bank notes – mostly they spat them back out as they did not like their texture, wrinkles or tears! 
  • Curious – Paris – the ticket machine has a strange roller you use to select what you want to buy and then you confirm with another button.
  • Frustrating – Istanbul – If you buy a single 5 Lira ticket for the Metro you cannot transfer between lines, an Istanbul Kart is a must.
Leaf in the woods in Conneticut

Transport Infrastructure

  • Worst – Manila – still very much work in progress
  • Delightful – Athens – you can take the tram from central Athens all the way through the suburbs and then along the coast to the beach all for €4.5 getting off and on as many times as you want during the day 
  • Crime challenged – Paris – the Metro seems to have a real problem with pick pockets – I nearly had my purse and phone stolen even with my backpack on my front rather than back, luckily I was alert to the guy ‘accidentally’ bumping me at a station stop and then realised what he was up to, but we met others who had not been so lucky.  

Cash or Card

  • Most cash based – Manila – you could not even pay by card in Seven Eleven stores, then Bangkok 
  • ATM Charges – Bangkok every ATM charges you at least £5 per transaction + any exchange rate charges 
  • Cash free – I survived in Oslo and Copenhagen completely cash free – the Nordics are particularly digitally enabled
Gardent at International House Japan

Useful Apps 

  • GRAB – where UBER is not in Asia – sometimes GRAB is and whilst the fare may be sometimes a bit more expensive at least it is negotiated for you 
  • Maps.Me – Has good downloadable offline maps for when you are not on WIFI

Most Musical Transport Systems

  • Tokyo – every subway station has a different jingle to signal arrival and the doors closing
  • Berlin – high quality buskers in the carriages

Pedestrian Crossings

  • Taiwan – the green man is animated and gets faster and faster to indicate that the lights will go red soon
  • Berlin – have East and West figures left over when there was an East and West Berlin – apparently, people like the East figures better so all lights will have these in the future
  • Athens – the lights assume that you can walk very fast as they change very quickly 
Thai temple roof

Visas 

  • I only had to buy visas for Turkey and India and ESTA for the USA
  • Everywhere else was visa on arrival or exempt as in EU or for short stays

Airport security

  • Worst – Mumbai international airport at 5am in the morning – one man supervising the scanner and people putting their stuff on the conveyor

Public cleanliness

  • Best – Tokyo – everything is super shiny and you see people cleaning all aspects of the subway and other public spaces 
  • Grubby – Paris – whilst not covered in litter Paris gives the impression of being dirty and in need of a good clean
  • Delhi and Mumbai – Mumbai is cleaner than it used to be but still commercial, building and personal waste and rubbish are still a major issue here and in Delhi. 

Walking

  • Most challenging – Delhi, not only because of the state of the pavements but also because of the tuk-tuk and taxi drivers looking for a ride or the young men who want to chat or sell you something the moment you slow your step or look like you don’t know where you are going 
  • Most challenging with wheelie luggage – Oslo, Stockholm and Helsinki, which all had their winter gravel out to prevent pedestrians slipping but it makes wheeling a bag even short distances challenging.
  • Overall I walked most places in most cities rather than taking public transport, I love seeing the day to day life of people and how the different areas change. 
Rome

Postal Service 

  • Most challenging – Beirut very hard to find a post office that would send my cards, they did however arrive in the UK eventually
  • Most expensive stamp – Copenhagen, a whopping 30kr or £3.50 for a postcard stamp hotly followed by Stockholm, 21kr or about £2 for a postcard stamp, the Swedish postcard did arrive in the UK in 2 days so at least it was speedy
Hong Kong

Shopping

I was very struck by the sheer volume of shopping space currently in place and being built pretty much everywhere I visited but particularly in Asia. In fact I found it somewhat depressing, whilst economies rely on us buying stuff, I was left wondering if we really need so much stuff and imagining that so much of it would shortly find its way into landfill. The other trend which I found sad was the desire to move away from more traditional shops or street markets and bring everything inside air conditioned shopping malls. Although people may be more comfortable shopping in the cooled environment I think interaction and experience will be poorer for it.

Food

  • Best Mango – Bangkok
  • Best Fish – Hawaii
  • Best Carbonara – Rome
  • Best ‘seasonal bun’ – Stockholm, Oslo and Helsinki where the Semla pre-Lent buns were in ‘season’, they involve a lot of cream and sugar so not really slimming
  • Fanciest meal – Mandarin Oriental for lunch with Larry Kwok – everything was delicious and beautifully presented
  • Bread and Pastries – as the world’s food seems to be over run by global brands, it is the bread and pastries that seem to stay local and loved in each county.