Paris – Maison International

Wednesday 20th February 2019 – Paris

It seems that Harry unlike parents was quite willing to declare a favourite, and it was France that won his favourite country vote. In some ways it is not surprising as it seems like the country after the US where Harry spent most time. In fact he lived in Paris from September 1935 to August 1936 whilst he helped realise the Maison International project.

Part of the draw was Monsieur Auguste Desclos, who was a key player in the starting of the Maison in Paris, and became a very close life long friend of Harry’s. Desclos had grown up in England and spoke perfect English and French and it seems was an engaging soul. He first met Harry in 1927 when he was in charge of all the universities and schools in France came to the US and visited International House in New York.

Harry aged 78 and Monsieur Desclos aged 84 c1961 by the statue of Monsieur Honnorat
Me by the same statue

The Cite Universitaire had been started after WWI by Andre Honnorat with the first ‘maison’ being funded by Emile Deutsch de la Meurthe. This was followed by individual ‘houses’ funded either by wealthy donors or countries including Argentina and Canada. Today the Cite houses around 12,000 post graduate and research students each year and is expanding to add a further 1800 beds through a number of new Houses. Similarly to the International House idea, the underlying philosophy is all about living and working together to create greater understanding. From the start the ‘country’ houses had to mix up students with other ‘countries’ houses so there was some diversity in each house and a huge diversity across the whole site.é_Internationale_Universitaire_de_Paris

The back of Maison International looking out over the large lawn – the Maison was modelled after the Chateau at Fontainebleau

When Desclos visited I-House NYC in 1927 they were looking at how to have a communal building and thought that modelling it along the lines of International House would be beneficial. They were also in need of a donor to fund it so the close relationship between Harry and J.D. Rockefeller would have been a consideration. In fact our tour guide had found the letter in the Rockefeller archives where Mr Desclos asks Harry to approach J.D. to fund the Maison.

The grand entrance hall

The House was finally opened in 1936, this was nearly decade after Rockefeller had originally agreed to fund it. There were a number of false starts and although Rockefeller did not want to get involved in the project, in the end he decided that he would have to and assigned a whole team to its completion, which then happened within two years. The land was given for the site, Rockefeller funded the building of the Maison and then handed it over to the Cite Universitaire Foundation to run it.

In the hallway

The Maison International was to be the central communal building amongst the individual ‘country’ residences and to provide the canteen, sports, arts, practical and library facilities.

The canteen could feed over 5000 students a day and was one of the first self service restaurants in Paris so considered very modern. The pool too included technology from the US so was one of the best in Paris when it opened.

Today the Maison is open to the public as well as students. There is a thriving Theatre, lovely cafe and sports facilities. The Biblioteque (Library) is free for students and open to other paying customers. We were lucky enough to meet Marie-Dominique Loustalot who has been Directrice du Biblioteque for some 30 years. She explained that the library is focused on the study of the French language and literature and they have every type of resource you could imagine along with also having recently acquired, thanks to a large capital donation, an extensive collection of French literature from the former French colonies in Africa and Middle-East.

The Biblioteque (library)
Avenue Rockefeller
The Maison Etas Uni (US House) on the Cite

We were given an excellent tour by Eglantine Pasquier, who is doing her PHD on the philanthropic work of J.D. Rockefeller in France (which includes restoration at Versaille and other key sites as well as funding Maison International). I was joined by Francois Rey who had lived at I-House NYC whilst doing his MBA at Columbia in the 90s and Pierre Gottreaux who has a long association with International Student House London.

If you live in Paris or visit Paris, it is well worth visiting the Cite, the history is fascinating and the park is open to the public all year round. The 40 + residences all have different architecture and many are by now famous architects such as Corbusier.

Pierre (ISH London) and Jany Gottreaux, me, my daughter Millie and Francois Rey (NYC IH)

Harry was also great friends with Jeane Thomas who started as assistant to Monsieur Honnerat when he was overloaded with work and was so capable expanded her role over the years. So when he came to Paris, as he seemed to do frequently, he stayed with either Desclos or Mme. Thomas. The Maison International was always a slight source of frustration to Harry as it was never quite as he had hoped. In his view they never maximised the possibility of interaction between nations and did not have the extensive cultural program of the I-Houses in the US.

Visiting the site I am not sure I agree with him, I think it is a wonderful place offering many opportunities to build international friendship and understanding, it is just being done in its own way.

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.

Leslie, heads up the Music Department at DEREE, the American College of Greece and was taking a number of her students to a concert at the Athens Concert Hall and kindly invited me to come. The hall has amazing acoustics and we enjoyed – Nikos Skalkottas: Symphonic Suite No. 1 and Johannes Brahms: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 83.

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… 

Where we ate: Fillipou


Mrs Frank L Babbott was invited to join the Board of I-House NYC in 1925 and I have a copy of a letter written by her in 1974 to Howard Cook in the run up to the 75th anniversary celebrations.

She writes of a memory of one board meeting: “We were discussing the acceptance or rejection of an offer of the Gideons to put a bible in every bedroom. My naive reaction was an affirmative rely to their generosity. At that point then the Wise Ones (referring in particular to Mr. Cleveland E. Dodge and Mr. Frederick Osborn who were on the board at that time) countered with the suggestion of having re-printed excerpts from the volumes of great religion as included in Dr. Charles Elliot’s “Five Foot Book Shelf”. Therein lay an opportunity to prove our respect for the beliefs of others. Thereby students from non-Christian countries could feel at home among the selections from their own holy book. Because of no tinge of proselytizing the students might be more inclined to explore religions other than their one, finding likeness as well as differences. This passing recollection emphasises the constant fact that every decision was thoughtfully beamed toward international understanding”

As we move into 2019 how will your decisions over the next year be beamed towards international understanding?

Happy New Year!