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

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

Harry’s Trip Reflections

Thursday 14th March 2019 – Maidenhead UK

After an uneventful but not quite long enough to get any proper sleep, flight from NYC to London Heathrow, I am home after 73 days.

Harry’s home was Lyons in upstate New York, so he returned there at the end of his trip.

Back at home on the 20th of April 1966 her wrote a letter reflecting on his trip….

Dear Friends around the World:

You who have been following my journey, and whom I have seen so recently, will be glad to know that I arrived in New York April 19, and that I am quite well, though, as might be expected, a little tired. Otherwise no worse for wear, and quite ready to make another trip when there is a new International House to dedicate.

Although I have been a seasoned traveler for half my life, these 100 days top them all. For I saw so many hundreds of you in such a short time in your own countries and capitals –

New York, Berkeley, Honolulu, Tokyo, Taipei, Manila, Hong Kong, Bangkok, New Delhi, Karachi, Tehran, Beirut, Istanbul, Athens, Rome, Paris, Berlin, Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki, London – New York.

Your kindness, and hospitality and enthusiasm for International House, and its ideals, were far beyond measure, and my ability to thank you.

What were the high points of my travels?

Well, every stop, every country, every city, every Person I saw was a high point.

However there were three times when I was greatly stirred.

  1. Going with two Greek friends up the Acropolis, I saw the exact spot where the Apostle Paul made his famous speech to the “men of Athens” in which he said, “God hath made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on the face of the earth.”
  2. In Paris, opposite the U.S. House at the Cite Universitaire, is the statue of Tom Paine, who had such an influence on the American and French revolution; he said “The world is my country,” and “My religion is to do good.”
  3. In Westminster Abbey, London, is a Plaque of the brothers John and Charles Wesley, Founders of Methodism, with the inscription, “The world is our parish.”
Athens Greece – the plaque about Apostle Paul’s speech
US House at Cite Universitaire, the garden was being renovated so it was not possible to see the Tom Paine statue
Wesley plaque at Westminster Abbey

All these are akin to the motto of International House “That Brotherhood May Prevail.”

Will Brotherhood ever prevail?

Yes, I believe man is rapidly approaching that point. Brotherhood must prevail, or else!

Again, thank you for everything. There are enough happy experiences stored in my memory to last a thousand years!

With sincere and affectionate regards,

Harry Edmonds

Ending and Beginning – Redding CT

Tuesday 12th March 2019 – Redding CT

When I was planning my trip, I imagined that I might need a bit of space between my final event and going home to decompress and process what I had done. So I thought ending up in very rural Redding CT, where Harry and Florence had a place and Harry lived on and off in his life would be a good choice.

Having been away from home for pretty much 9 weeks, visited 18 countries, met with over 400 wonderful strangers i.e. alumni, from 7 different I-Houses and connected with even more over the multiple digital channels, taken 26 flights travelling over 34,000 miles, I think this was a good piece of forward planning.

It has not sunk in that I did ‘it’ yet. I met my goal of meeting at least one alumni in each destination and overall surpassed my expectations many times.

So it was that on my birthday, after a short and very lovely coffee with the I-House NYC Development and Alumni team of Julie Pape and Emily Wakeling, that Chris my partner took a happy but tired and somewhat emotional me off to find a hire car and drove me out of town.

Stopping for a very delicious birthday lunch at L’Escale in Greenwich, we then headed north to Redding CT. It is a tiny town close to some very pretty reservoirs which were still largely frozen. We were staying above a Yoga centre in the woods, I am not quite sure how we would have reached it in fresh snow, but as the weather gods have been pretty much with me all the way, we had beautiful ornamental rather than hazardous snow. The only noises as we stood in the woods were the running of a small river, the gentle crackle and drip of melting snow and the slight russell of the tree branches in the breeze. Perfect for a pause.

Sandy Edmonds, Harry ‘s granddaughter, who had joined me in Beirut, grew up in Redding in the house that Florence’s parents bought. Built in 1783 it sits on the green by the First Church of Christ Congregational. With Sandy’s encouragement via WhatsApp from Vermont, we broke all British reserve and knocked on the door. The rather surprised Associate Minister who lives there, Jane Moran, very kindly showed us around. The house has been very lovingly restored keeping the wonderful polished wooden plank floor, hand cut beams, as well as the fireplace which is huge, as it was used for cooking over and still has the original bread oven to the right hand side of it.

Also on Sandy’s suggestion we headed off to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, which is near Tarrytown NY, to find Harry and Florence’s graves. As well as being the subject of a Hollywood film about a headless horseman, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is the burial ground for many famous people. I have been told that J.D. Rockefeller paid for Florence to be buried there in 1933. It is close to his country home at Kykuit.

Finding a grave on the site is not an easy thing, but with the help of multiple maps from the office we negotiated the many small roads to the right spot. Harry and two of his wives, Florence and Marie are buried together, however only Harry has a stone, which has “That brotherhood may prevail” inscribed on it.

Harry Edmonds’ memorial stone

I had a short ‘chat’ with Harry, thanking him from everyone I have met and all those I have not, who have ever lived at the Houses for putting his idea into action and transforming lives. I looked around at the snowy graves and thought his was certainly a life well lived. He was 96 when he died and his legacy lives on. I wondered if I will do enough that my great grandchildren will come looking for my legacy.

Where Harry’s plot is at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

It seemed a good place to end my trip and begin what ever comes next. I am convinced that the International House idea is as relevant now as it ever has been and that the original Houses need to keep flourishing.

The light needs to keep being passed on, so this is not the end but a beginning too. I don’t know exactly what happens next but although I will have to get some gainful employment again, I will be continuing to tell Harry’s story and celebrating the residents who have passed through the Houses.

There is some finishing off of this trip to be done when I get home to England and reflections on travelling the world to share.

I know I will see many of those I have met again and who knows what ripples are yet to happen as a result of our meeting, that is the exciting part.

To my partner Chris, thank you for your love and support in my quest

Where we ate:

L’Escale in Greenwich http://lescalerestaurant.com

Main Street Sweets (Family Run Ice Cream shop) in Tarrytown – https://www.tarrytownicecream.com