Living on Old English Workhouse Grounds

Living on Old English Workhouse GroundsWhen I visited my son and his girlfriend in Ampthill England, I felt like I was stepping into a storybook. The crooked narrow, cobblestone streets lined with thatched huts, red brick homes and tiny walk up shops looked like pages out of a Charles Dickens novel. Even their home, a former caretaker’s cottage, was on the grounds of a stately 2-story brick building, which once served as the Ampthill Union Workhouse. Built in 1835, the old “poorhouse,” where penniless paupers worked for porridge, was laid out in an octagonal hub. The rows ended in 3 story blocks with observational windows over the work yards. Renovated into an expensive apartment complex today residents can relax in an inviting, Living on Old English Workhouse Groundspicture perfect English back garden.

In the past, poorhouses often looked and felt like prisons. Funded by the local parish able-bodied inmates toiled in exchange for food and shelter. Workhouses filled with orphans, unmarried mothers, widows, sick, elderly and vagrants who endured the harsh regime, Spartan conditions, and slept in communal dormitories

Behind the wrought iron entry gate, Nic and Larissa’s brick cottage, the size and shape of a shoe box sits at the front of the grounds. It was divided into a small living area, a kitchen galley, a bedroom, bathroom and a dining room with just enough space for a table of four. Apartments in the main Living on Old English Workhouse Groundsbuilding today would cost a pretty penny, but the cottage rental was a steal.

At night spotlights illuminated ancient trees casting shadows and as I wandered the grounds, my imagination ran wild. I expected to see Oliver Twist dart across the courtyard.

As the wind moaned in the treetops, I could hear echoes of the old nursery rhyme that even American children were weaned on. We grew up listening to our mothers’ lament, “oh no, we will be driven to poor house.”

Anonymous verse from Yorkshire.

Many old workhouse buildings became public assistance institutions and continued to provide accommodation for the ill and elderly. In 1942 The Ampthill Workhouse became St. Georges Hospital, and then later the Cedars Old Peoples Home.

But Larissa and Nic’s new abode, filled with light, laughter and good cheer, showed no sign of its grim past. Warm and cozy, we squeezed around the table enjoying the lovely meal they prepared. I gazed out the window and felt grateful that my family members had steady jobs, roofs over their heads and food on their tables.

In the UK the workhouse era ended officially on April 1, 1930. Fortunately poor houses became a thing of the past, but poverty is not. Many homeless people everywhere in the world sleep in the streets under cardboard boxes, rummage through trash bins for scraps and struggle to survive.

Everyone can offer aid. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Work at a food pantry. Contribute to the local charities.

How do you help the poor in your own communities?

downtown Ampthill

European International Schools March Madness

March MadnessAs a basketball aficionado, I miss being in America during the frenzy of the NCAA tournament, but we also have  March Madness during basketball season in European international schools. Every time we hit the road, we enjoy our own form of madness.

Traveling with teens between countries by bus, train, plane and even gondolas in Venice gets crazy. Inevitably someone will forget a passport, misplace a plane ticket, lose a piece of luggage, arrive late for departure or forget a uniform.

For coaches, the journey to and from venues becomes more stressful than coaching those nail-biting basketball games in the tournament itself.

During one trip years ago, my starting point guard left her passport in the pouch at the back of seat in front of her on the plane.March Madness

Another time, due to an electronic glitch, our bus door would not open or close completely. The athletic director in Zurich gave us jump ropes from their PE department and we tied the door closed, crawled over the seats from the driver’s side and rode home shivering as wind and snow blew in from the gap in the door.

Traveling with a group of kids anytime is challenging. They are like those Tamagotchi electronic pets that need to pee, eat and sleep at regular intervals. Wherever we go, someone needs to find a toilet, get a drink or buy a smoothie at the most inopportune moments.

March MadnessOn our trip last weekend, before landing, one middle school girl said, “Every time I land in the Brussels airport, I have to get a smoothie.”

When she asked for permission, Gerald, unaccustomed to travel with teens, said, “Okay.”

Anyone who has ever worked with kids knows that if one student gets a smoothie then everybody gets a smoothie. Sixteen smoothies later, we finally pulled our bags off the conveyor belt in baggage claims. We were ready to be picked up by buses from the host school when another girl cries out, “Oh no, I left my purse at the smoothie stand.”

Once you have exited the arrival terminal, you can’t go back, so she and Gerald ran to the front of the airport’s departure gate. There, security staff insisted you could not re-enter the terminal without a plane ticket. By the time they were finally allowed to access, the purse was long gone.

By far the worst incident happened years ago when I coached in Paris where we often traveled with 4 teams – JV and varsity girls and boys. One time on our return train trip from Vienna, an exhausted guard moved away from his noisy teammates to another car to sleep. However, at some stops on long haul trips, the trains may split off to different destinations. Only after we arrived home in Paris did the coach realize he was missing a player. That poor boy fell asleep in Austria and woke up in Italy.March Madness

Every time we arrived home safely with our teams, I breathe a sigh of relief. We never remember who blew a lay up, shot an air ball or missed a free throw, but we never forget the time we almost missed our flight, lost our passport, rode a broken bus, bought a smoothie in Brussels and all the other hilarious incidents –though not funny at the time – in retrospect made our international travels during European March Madness so memorable.

Stop Senseless Tragic School Shootings

No more. Enough. Stop senseless tragic school shootings. Since 2013, there have been nearly 300 school shootings in America — an average of about one a week.

Yet in the aftermath of the horrific massacre in Parkland Florida, our leaders still refuse to discuss changing gun control policy to protect our most vulnerable citizens – American youth.

When did sending your child to school become as dangerous as playing Russian roulette?

To Europeans, the solution to America’s gun violence seems like a no-brainer. Fewer guns in circulation equals less gun fatalities.

In hindsight experts analyze the red flags, and suggest school personnel should have recognized the warning signs, which is like passing the responsibility for the crime to the victim.

The students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School practiced code red lockdown drills, took proper precautions and followed safety measures, but no training can prepare one to intervene at the right instance to prevent another tragedy. Human nature is too unpredictable.

Do we really want to turn our schools into gated fortresses patrolled by armed guards?

We cannot eliminate violence. We cannot eradicate mental illness. We cannot foresee the exact instance when a troubled teen tips to the dark side.

But we can do more to keep guns out of the hands of children.

Other nations have done so successfully. In May 1996, just weeks after a deadly shooting in a shop in Port Aurthur Tasmania, Australia enacted a nationwide gun law reform. Since then mass shootings dropped to zero. Like Australia, Great Britain enacted some of the world’s strictest gun-control measures following mass shootings in the late ‘80s and ‘90s to curtail violence.

Part of the American dichotomy baffling Europeans is our obsession with the 2nd amendment – the right to keep and bear arms. Back in 1791, when the constitution was drawn up, this amendment made sense considering the political situation and risks faced by our young nation. That logic makes no sense today.

What kind of world are we creating when people feel a need to carry a gun to the grocery store, corner cafe, and local school for safety?

As a nation, we need to rethink our deeply ingrained notions of individual rights for the greater good of humanity. We need to set political differences aside and calmly discuss ways in which gun law reforms can curtail violence.

I am not talking about weapons used for hunting. There is a huge difference between inheriting grandpa’s old Winchester for tracking deer in the Wisconsin wilderness and aiming an AR-15 semi automatic rifle at a classroom of children. No one except for military and law enforcement officers needs to own assault weapons.

We have to stop pointing fingers of blame at the school. Coming from a long line of educators, I believe wholeheartedly in value of education. Having taught 30 years in the US and European international schools, I witnessed firsthand societal changes within the school setting in four different countries. Working with troubled teens goes with the territory, but we cannot blame the students, teachers, and other officials for failing to intervene in time to prevent deadly shoot-outs.

Even with the best training, adequate safety measures, and ample information sharing, we will never be able to predict human behavior.

When guns are as readily accessible as candy at the nearest five and dime, when laws defending gun ownership are greater than those protecting individual safety and when school shootings continue to rise at alarming rates, we need make some changes.

When our President blames mental illness for school shootings instead of addressing gun control issues about firearm accessibility and lethality, we have to question our leadership.

When active shooter safety drills become a mandatory part of the curriculum, we are all in deep trouble.

What are we, as a society, teaching our children?

This Holiday Season Take Time to Play

ChristmasAfter the Black Friday blitz, which surprisingly arrived in Europe, even though Thanksgiving doesn’t exist here, I wonder if anyone else longs for that era when gifts were simpler and often times homemade? Back in the good old days when even adults took time out during the holiday season to play.

Can you remember your favorite childhood Christmas present?

I still cherish Christmas as a six-year-old: my big brother got a stamp collection book, my middle sister a fashion doll, my little sister a Barbie doll case, and I received a pop rifle.

ChristmasThough I may be an anti gun advocate now, back then a toy rifle meant that my family accepted gender equity long before society got around to it. My parents let me be free to play cowboys and kick ball. If I ever wanted I could also play dolls with my younger sisters.

Unlike the electronic games of today, our toys of yesteryear were designed to encourage social interaction, develop creativity and inspire make believe. They taught children how to share, to take turns, to cooperate and to help each other.

How different from the expensive Santa’s wish lists of today with things like Costzon Infrared Remote Controlled Robots, Electric Dog BeatBowWow Interactive Learning Toys, Self Balancing Electric Scooters, Xtremepower Hover boards and LovaBella Baby Dolls that can recite a hundred words and mimic their owners actions.

What does that leave to old-fashioned imagination?

ChristmasIn the 60’s my siblings and I invented games around the Christmas theme. We set up present wrapping stations and cookie baking shops. We enacted mystery stories by pretending to steal “magic” light bulbs from the Christmas tree.

We spent entire days setting up our Lincoln logs, dollhouses or train sets.

We loved it when three generations sat around the kitchen table coloring, drawing or playing cards, especially when Grandpa Mac tried to get our bluff.

Have we lost our ability to play?

Wouldn’t it be more rewarding to engage in a game with a human being instead of an activator?Christmas

As the holiday season arrives with the usual media fueled, materialistic commercialization, find a way to curtail the frenzy, to roll on the floor and wrestle around with your kids.

Take time out to play. Have a pillow fight, a tickle fest, a story swap.

Play an antique game of Twister, Clue, Monopoly, Life or Mouse Trap.

Turn off computers, cell phones, electronic games, tune out social media and focus on family and friends.

 

Have Yourselves a Merry Little Christmas.

Slow down, step back, savor the season. Have fun! I’ll be back in 2 weeks.

British Life Begins and Ends at the Pub

On a recent visit to England I discovered that British life begins and ends at the pub. The centuries old custom of pub going means more than frequenting the local watering hole where you can wet your whistle. The pub, a center of community life, is a place where social barriers break down, class distinctions disappear and everyone is treated equally. Even dogs.

Visiting a traditional pub with a native helps you interpret the pub going protocol. We would still be waiting to be served if it weren’t for Larissa our son’s British girlfriend. When she took us to her hometown favorite The Embankment, a trendy place in Bedford, she explained that you must go to the bar to order and pick up drinks.

This renovated, wood-timbered Victorian era pub built in 1891 across from the River Great Ouse down from the Rowing Club reflected its roots. Though it retains its old world charm, there is nothing stuffy about this place. Divided rooms cater for dinner parties and crowds, but the heart and soul of the establishment remains the front room’s long wooden bar.

A local patron, a jovial mate stood there reading a newspaper knocking back his first beer at 10 am. He greets the steady stream of clients by bending to pet every pooch that entered the premises while his own dog dozes in a stuffed chair by the door.

The family friendly pub welcomes kids and pets. Everyone can lounge around over breakfast, lunch or dinner on cozy banquettes and sofa chairs in front of a log fire. The din of adult’s chatter, children’s laughter, and dogs’ barking, creates a convivial carnival like atmosphere.

“It is the opposite of America,” my Frenchman quipped, “In England dogs are welcome, but no guns allowed.”

With people watching at a premium I reveled in the view. At the round table next to ours, a posh couple coddling a poodle ordered a morning whiskey and Baileys on ice with a side of coffee. I nudged my husband and whispered “They brought dog biscuits in a mini Tupperware.”

“That’s nothing,” Gérald said. “The local chap at the bar has a box of kibble that he hands out to visiting pets.”

For the price of a drink you can linger and savor the show all day.

After our morning coffee, as soon as a table freed up in front of the fire, Larissa ushered us to comfier seats where we ordered lunch. The menu? What else – fish and chips. In keeping with British tradition, we doused our thick-cut fries and fried cod with a dash of cider vinegar.

But by far the biggest celebrity to parade into the pub was Guinness, Larissa’s sister and brother-in-law’s dog. The fluffy, black labradoodle stole the show when he loped in on gangly legs while everyone cooed in delight.

Dining on fish and chips in a real pub made us feel ever so British. In addition to greeting new arrivals, the man at the front of the bar put a fresh log on the fire as soon as the flame grew low. As if we were royalty sitting in his front parlor, he shared a kind word with each of us on our way out.

We felt like honorary guests in a British private home… until it was time to pay the bill.

Explaining Thanksgiving to Europeans

Americans know the story of how Native Americans saved Pilgrims from starvation back in 1620 by teaching them to tap maple trees, plant corn and fertilize soil, but I have been trying to explain Thanksgiving to Europeans for decades. They remain bewildered by our Thanksgiving, a journée de remerciements. They think it is the only day of the year where Americans prepare a hot meal and eat slow food.

Decades ago when I moved to Europe, I was a pilgrim at the mercy of my French teammates who taught me their language and customs.

A year later, I became indebted to German friends who shared their homes and meals. Accepted by marriage into my French family, adopted into Swiss culture where I now live, I have always been a guest in someone else’s country.

Yet I remain loyal to my roots. Though every feast I have prepared has been a fiasco, Thanksgivings with my Franco American family has always been sacred.

“Are any European celebrations similar to Thanksgiving,” I once asked my husband. He looked at me incredulous.

“Of course not,” he said. “Native Americans are the only people on the planet gracious enough to thank their conquerors.”

No matter what the circumstances or who shows up at the table, T-day is one tradition I cherish.

My first year abroad I invited French teammates to dinner and much to my chagrin they ate the meal in courses, one dish at a time. The next year in Germany, the team turnout was so great, there was standing room only; we never sat down to dine.

When I introduced the custom to my French family, my mother-in-law served raw oysters first and insisted a turkey was too big; chicken would suffice.

If left to their own devices, Europeans could butcher our day of thanks.

What American celebrates Thanksgiving by eating an seven-course meal standing up? Who replaces Tom Turkey with Chicken Little to eliminate leftovers? Leftovers are Thanksgiving.

Born in the Land of Lincoln, I consider it my patriotic duty to give thanks on the fourth Thursday of the month, the day Abe appointed as a national holiday in 1863 when he gave gratitude for an instrumental Union Army victory at Gettsyburg.

Expats everywhere create their own special ties to their heritage.

When my Norwegian grandfather immigrated to America, he insisted on keeping the Norwegian tradition of eating lutefisk and lingonberry on Christmas Eve.

“My dad brought strangers home to dinner,” my mom said. “He’d say ‘so many people helped me when I arrived in the United States, I want to return the favor.’”

Every Thanksgiving, I gather family, friends and “foreigners” in a feast honoring my Norwegian ancestors, my American homeland and my host country. To avoid offending guests, I whisper thanks to the Great Spirit who watches over all of us regardless of our religious, national, or ethic affinity.

Apparently, like our Native American friends, she sees the good in man, even in the conquistador.