All the A’s in Athens

Thursday 14thFebruary 2019 – Athens

I am writing this today from Voulas, which is by the Mediterranean at the end of the Athens tram line.  Winding here through the Athens suburbs the bakeries and florists have embraced St Valentine with heart shaped cakes and bread abounding. 

Voulas near Athens

Once again, I have scant detail about Harry’s time here in Athens, but I do know from the letter he wrote at the end of his trip that “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 to dwell on the face of the earth’.” Which he felt was akin to the I-House motto of ‘Let brotherhood prevail’.  So obviously as I set out early to climb up the Acropolis, I stopped at Aerophagus hill which where Harry is referring to.  

The Acropolis from Aerophagus Hill

It was a grey and blustery winter morning and no one else was about.  I climbed up the metal steps as the original marble ones cut into the rock, that Harry would have used, looked a bit slippery and treacherous and paused on the top imagining Harry there with his two friends looking out over the whole of Athens.  I expect there may have been less buildings and more countryside 53 years ago.  It was very peaceful and looking closely there were signs of spring in the surrounding archaeological site, with small yellow flowers and the rosemary bushes blooming. 

Plaque with Apostle Paul’s sermon to the ‘men of Athens’

I love visiting historical or ancient sites and imagining them bustling with people. The structures on the Acropolis have been adapted over the ages to be churches, mosques, temples and houses, so there is plenty to ponder.  That they are still standing at all today is remarkable.  

It was windy up the top…

Finding alumni in Athens had proved one of my more challenging destinations.  However luckily for me Alex Varelas, took a trip down memory lane last March and visited I-House NYC some 30 years after his time there.  Julie Pape from the alumni office showed him round and subsequently connect me to him.  Through a chance meeting Alex re-connected with Kosmas Michail who had also been in the NYC House at the same time.  Kosmas and his wife Leslie Jones are Sakura Sweethearts who met at the House.  Evangelia Avloniti who stayed at International Student House London completed our small but perfectly formed gathering.

Alex’s resident’s card from 1990, obviously he does not look any older…

Alex had chosen a very traditional Greek restaurant in a residential district of Athens.  One of the joys of my trip is that I have eaten in places that as a tourist I would never have visited.  I was instructed to go and inspect what dishes were on offer at the open kitchen viewing area, full of huge pans of delicious stews and vegetables.  

Alex Varelas, Kosmas Michail, Leslie Jones, Evangelia Avloniti & me at Fillipou restaurant

Around the table we had a mix of arts, with Leslie a cellist and Evangelia an art historian turned literary agent and science and business with both Kosmas and Alex originally training to be Electrical Engineers, but the common theme was the breadth and internationality of the time with others in the Houses.  

Istanbul candle went to Leslie who bought the Athens candle which I shall take to Rome

It was a delightful evening and I hope that it will be the start of alumni in Athens re-connecting.

Story Snippets…

Missing match maker– Kosmas Michail and Leslie Jones – When Leslie Jones moved from Oregon to study the Cello in New York, she originally lived in another dorm, but realizing I-House was closer to her school she decided to re-locate.  She already had an established set of friends and was doing long hours of rehearsing for her recitals so she was not one to be found in the pub or socializing.  It was only with much persuasion that her friend Jan Fießig got Leslie to agree to come to his farewell breakfast as he was leaving the House to go back to Germany. He had mentioned to Leslie previously that she should meet Kosmas as he was a wonderful philosopher and Jan felt they would get along.  Jan was right and romance blossomed after his departure and Kosmas and Leslie became a Satura Sweetheart couple.  Sadly, Jan never knew that his matchmaking was successful.  Leslie has tried to trace him a number of times with no luck.  So, they and I are hoping that perhaps someone reading this might know him still and ask him to get in touch.  

Delights of London – Evangelia Avloniti – Evangelia left Greece to go and study Art History at the Courtauld Institute in London and was offered a place in some accommodation that was some way away from there.  Rather than accept it she enquired again about any other options and was pointed in the direction of International Student House London (ISH). She moved in and was captivated by the breadth of nationalities living alongside her counting friends from Ethiopia, Pakistan and India to name but a few.  When her sister came to London they managed to extend their association with ISH by moving into one of the apartments owned by ISH near Marylebone High Street, not a location where students can usually afford to live in London!  She loves being back in Athens, but misses the international dimension of entering a room at ISH and meeting new friends from new countries every day.  

I-House ‘magic’– Alex Varelas – We were reflecting on the difference between the I-House experience and other multicultural / international study experiences and Alex was comparing his time at I-House with his time at INSEAD business school near Paris, where he studied for his MBA.  ISEAD certainly is international environment with over 40 countries represented in his class. These classmates from all nationalities worked hard and played hard together, but still for Alex it could not compare it to the diversity and cultural understanding he experienced by living at the New York I-House.  Having 70-80 countries represented and sharing a ‘home’ together made it the most international and cross cultural experience for Alex.  Which is the ‘magic’ that Harry described often in his letters to others about living at any of the I-Houses.

Masterclass in Rhetoric – Leslie Jones – Leslie was recalling that Gerald Ford came to speak at the House whilst she was there.  She decided it was an opportunity not to be missed and went along. She recalled what an engaging and charismatic speaker he was but also how when he was done, reflecting on what she had heard, she found that he had not really said anything at all.  An enjoyable masterclass in political rhetoric indeed.  

Post office postscript…

Greece scored highly on the postcard quest.  Postcards are abundant at every tourist spot and stall.  I secured 4 for €1 and there is a handy post office opposite the entrance to the Acropolis.  The lady behind the counter was a bit tardy in opening up and as I waited the post man appeared to collect the cards from the box outside, but he waited for me to buy my stamps and took the cards, speeding off behind the trees in his blue van… 

Delights of Delhi

Thursday 31stJanuary 2019 – Delhi

Way back in the mists of planning this trip, I contacted the Executive Director of I-House Chicago, Denise Jorgens.  She is truly an embodiment of everything my great grandfather would have wanted for someone running one of the Houses.  She immediately embraced my project and when she saw that one of my stops was Delhi, offered for the University of Chicago Centre there to host a tea as my event. https://www.uchicago.in/about-us/

Aditi Mody, who runs the Centre, is an I-House Chicago alumna and so here and her team were equally enthusiastic.  

So, it was that I was warmly welcomed to the U-Chicago Centre.  Being India where attendance is sometimes problematic, even when people have said they would come, Aditi and I were quite prepared for it to be just the two of us having a lovely cup of tea. However, we had the most delightful crowd of alumni and friends of I-Houses join us as well as Bill Mitchel Associate Provost and Exec Director of UC Arts, who was visiting India for the first time. 

I had been particularly excited about meeting two of the I-House NYC alumni, Mr Narendra Jain, who had emailed me that he had met Harry in 1966 when he came to Delhi on his world trip and also Professor P.B. Mangla who had also met Harry when he was at the I-House in the early 1960s. 

Mr. Narendra Jain

Mr Jain, arrived looking about 20 years younger than his 91 years, clutching a plastic folder of carefully preserved papers that he had saved since Harry came 53 years ago! It turned out that Harry’s visit to Delhi was his first ever to India. It was used to inaugurate the Delhi alumni chapter of the I-House and Mr Jain, had the list of names and addresses of the 60 people who became members at that time.  He also had press clippings and the letter outlining Harry’s arrival and the dinner that Harry was to attend to inaugurate the chapter, of which Mr Jain was going to be treasurer.  Finally, he shared a hand written Christmas letter from Harry which had been sent to alumni which he wanted me to keep.  I was quite simply overwhelmed and touched by this wonderful man and the fact that he had so carefully preserved these memories over all these years. 

There used to be a passport to the world of alumni you could visit
Harry’s Christmas letter to Friends around the World in 1977

I have been staying at the YMCA Tourist Hostel which is perhaps not what one would call luxurious, there is a bed and hot water and a simple breakfast.  However, it must have been fate to choose there as it turns out from the letters that Mr Jain shared that that is where Harry’s dinner was held in 1966, with the US ambassador Chester Bowles and his wife attending.  The dinner cost 15 rupees per couple!   (Harry had worked for the YMCA in his early career so that may have had some link too.)

Prof. P.B. Mangla, had come to study at the Library and Information Technology school at Columbia on a scholarship in the early 1960s which set him off on a career that saw him live in 8 countries and travel to over 50. He has long been associated with University of Delhi and held many positions including Dean of the Faculty of Arts.  His time at I-House helped him navigate the cultures of the countries he worked in and visited and as he recounted often found him meeting I-House alumni in far flung locations.  

Vikram Mathur (ISH), Prof. P.B. Mangla (IH NYC)

It was very lovely to have a mix of I-House NYC and Chicago alumni which allowed them to share stories and similarities and differences between the Houses.  We were also joined by Vickram Mathur who lived at ISH London and is now one of their Trustees.  The ISH alumni are very active still in Delhi (and elsewhere), at a recent event they had around 60 attendees.

After I had shared some of mine and Harry’s story, we went around the room so everyone could introduce themselves and share some of their I-House stories.  I always love this bit as with a range of ages and careers it is so fascinating.  Once again the emotional connection to the Houses as a homes away from home, even many years after leaving was washing around us as well as the images and stories from lifelong friendships made over food, whilst dancing, playing ping pong or surviving snow storms in Chicago.  

Lots of candles at this stop, we had Mr Jain and Prof Mangla light them
Arant Nath – Editor of the Caravan giving me his book

I left the U-Chicago event with a huge smile on my face, so glad to have met such wonderful alumni and so touched that Harry meant so much to those who met him.  

My next stop was a Speakers Dinner for the One Globe Forum https://www.oneglobeforum.comwhich was being hosted by Harjiv Singh an NYC alum. He and his German Sakura Sweetheart wife, Julia, met at I-House in the 1980s.  Julia had taken me out to lunch the previous day and had shared their love story, which has partly informed her first novel ‘Leap of Faith’. https://www.amazon.com/Leap-Faith-Julia-Regul-Singh/dp/8129124807?fbclid=IwAR1lRftV0nlwfyqdWvrJjACaK5iGwmhwx_R-Bjp7TEZo5w3rGWQZ70h6uGg  Julia was 24 and coming to do her Masters in Urban Planning at Columbia.  Arriving at I-House the first person she met after being greeted by Romeo on reception was Harjiv.   She went up in the elevator to her floor and as the doors open there was Harjiv and his roommate in their room opposite ‘checking out’ everyone arriving on the floor. Despite Julia’s view that she was too young to get into a serious relationship and consider marriage, romance blossomed and they now have 3 children and are happily navingating a wonderfully complex cross cultural life in Delhi.   Because Julia was not always to be found in her room at I-House, it seems that it was used to accommodate a variety of visitors, many of whom I met during the evening, which gave others the opportunity to experience the House even if not official residents!

Harjiv and Julia Singh

I must also mention the lovely dinner that Anil Chauhan and his wife took me for the night I arrived in Delhi.  Anil, also a NYC alum, was off to Bangalore on business so could not attend the other events.  Anil promotes India Biotech and was wonderful at bringing me up to date with India politics and economics.  Anju teaches home economics and so was a brilliant guide to try all the things on the buffet that I would not normally have done.  I went back to my hotel feeling very full. 

Anil and Anju Chauhan

In the press article Mr Jain shared, Harry is quoted as saying “This is is my first visit to India. I have been round the world three times by ship but never touched an Indian Port.  I now regret not having been here before and not being able to stay long enough now.  I’m too old to cover the whole country, but perhaps in a year or two I will make a special trip to India.” Sadly, I don’t think he ever did but he was certainly warmly welcomed on his visit.

Story Snippets…

Chai and Samosas– Shahana Basu – Chicago I-House has culture hours and one of the ones in Ishaan’s time that was most popular was the ones hosted by the Indian residents which featured Chai and Samosas.  She also recalled how when the I-House Chicago was under threat of closure the alumni rallied round and reversed the decision through a concerted campaign of letter writing about the importance of the I-House to the student life at the University. 

International Students’ House Delhi– Tista Bagchi – Tista shared the work of Anjani Kumar Sinha Ph.D (1935-2018) who set up International Students’ House at Delhi University and modelled a lot of activities on the I-House in Chicago where he was a resident in the late 1960s. Mr. Sinha died in 2018 after a career which saw him promote the I-House ideals of tolerance, understanding and international friendship. 

House Hunting – Sonal Shah – When Sonal arrived in NYC to study she was all set to find a flat to live in for her time there. She had looked around and had found a potential flat mate. However she then heard about I-House from friends. Encouraged to apply she was excited when she got a place, but slightly worried that the potential flatmate would be annoyed, however apparently she was very understanding and so Sonal was able to go off and enjoy her time at the House without feeling bad.

A Bengali Welcome – Aditi Mody – When Aditi arrived at I-House Chicago on her first day to her surprise she was welcomed by the then President of the I-House, Professor Ralph Nicholas, in perfect Bengali. Aditi had grown up in the State of West Bengal speaking Bengali so Prof. Nicholas made her feel immediately like I-House would be home for the next few years. Prof. Nicholas area of expertise was in South Asian societies and cultures with an emphasis on Bengal. Aditi did say that her Bengali heritage may have been why she often enjoyed meals with the Professor and his wife during her time at the house, creating warm wonderful memories. https://anthropology.uchicago.edu/people/emeritus-faculty/ralph-w-nicholas

Bangkok meet-up

Sunday 27th January 2019 – Bangkok

Bangkok has been one of my tricker stops to find alumni, so when I made contact with Jyoti Sarinthorn an alumni from I-House Sydney, I was very excited. I prepared her for a dinner a deux, however in the end we mustered 4 alumni for dinner.

As my ‘Thai Trip Inspiration’ blog post describes, Bangkok was a significant stop for Harry. As I do not have edition No. 2 of the iHouse World Newsletters for the stops beyond Hong Kong, apart from staying with Vidura for two weeks I do not know much about Harry’s time here. There was no I-House to visit but I am assuming there were Thai alumni to meet.

Bangkok was a first in that I had my first ISH alumni, Charles (originally from the USA) join an event. Charles studied for his undergrad in NYC so had also visited I-House NYC to listen to illustrious speakers meaning he understood the set up there. Book and Jomphong from I-House NYC completed the party.

Whilst eating the delicious Thai food, the facilities, activities and layout of the different Houses was compared. It seems that ISH and I-House both have the all important Pub, whilst I-House Sydney residents, having none resort to taking over the Pub across the road!

I passed on Nelson Fung’s Hong Kong candle with its delicious sent to Book, who gave me a very interesting candle to take on to Delhi. It is a candle from his friends wedding. They are a couple who met doing Cheer-Leading and married in 2015 – which in Thai years is 58.

The candle has some Buddhist thoughts for both husbands and wives – a top 5 for each which go something along the lines of…. (for those who speak Thai you will be better off reading what it says!)

For the Women 1) Be a good organiser of the household, 2) Be supportive of your husband, 3) Don’t cheat i.e. have an affair, 4) Keep the property and money you have safe, 5) Work hard

For the Man 1) Give complements and support, 2) No sarcasm, 3) No affairs, 4) Give respect, 5) Give jewellery!

Thank you to my Thai Gentleman and Lady for continuing the hospitality of Thailand that was shown to Harry on his trip.

Story Snippets…

Thai Boxing – Book Mongkol Jarujanya – I was asking questions about the different Thai sports and Jomphong was trying to persuade me that I should go to a Thai Boxing lesson at the Gym before I leave, when Book shares with us that whilst at I-House NYC he learnt Thai boxing from a Mexican! Not something he had done before in Thailand and it helped him feel confident walking the streets of NYC late at night.

Turning a London Experience Around – Charles – When Charles arrived in London for his Post Grad study, he was assigned accommodation by the Institution he was studying at. However when he arrived and went to see it it was grim, dirty, miles from anywhere, no other student near by and generally miserable. Charles went back to the accommodation office and said that he could not live there and they said they would pay him to live there (which shows how bad it must have been). Charles was depressed as his time in London was not working out as he had visioned it. Shortly after he came across International Student House by Regents Park. It was evening but he went in and got chatting to the residents and decided this was the place for him. Approaching the admissions team, he was told that there were no places so he would not be able to escape the dreaded student housing he was in. He stood firm and insisted that he really did need to move and they then said that if he was willing to share in a double or triple he could come. Charles goal was to meet people so this was ideal! He had a very happy time at ISH and learnt how to drink like an Englishman at the Pub amongst many other cultural lessons.