Go Figure

I have been crunching some numbers today to try to make sense of Brexit. My burning question: how does a population get manipulated to such an extent that they would drop out of one of the world’s most successful peace projects in order to get more customers for Donald Trump’s new golf course in Scotland? Secondary question: why let the people decide by vote on a subject that literally none of them fully understand? Third question: why are people’s levels of satisfaction inversely proportional to the actual situation they are in?

My first surfing stop was at the OECD’s index on the quality of life (http://www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org  ). Considering a country’s level of housing, income, jobs, community, education, environment, health and safety, the US comes out pretty rosy in 4th place. Germany, Austria, and the UK are #’s 13, 14, and 15 respectively. Of the top 38 countries listed, 22 of them are European Union countries. Only Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Lithuania, Malta, and Romania don’t make the list (but give them time!)

go figure 1


I then jiggered the parameters a bit and some interesting stuff happened. Simply add the category “Life satisfaction” to the mix and this happens: Austria goes up, Germany stays the same, the UK goes down a place and the USA sinks 4 full places:

go figure 2

Click on “Life satisfaction” on its own and it gets worse. Germany and Austria take the lead at places 12 and 13, because the US sinks to #15 and the UK all the way down to #21:

go figure 3

Conventional wisdom, “the experts”, and the pundits all tell us that the Brexit, the Trump phenomena, and the rise of the nationalist right have arisen because of people’s anxieties about the economy and immigration (or the refugee crisis). But numbers simply don’t support this. Economically speaking, of all the countries in the world, the USA and the EU countries monopolize the top spots in all indicators. And yet we are unsatisfied.

So is it the threat of migrants that makes us so insecure?

That idea is also not borne out by the numbers. Everyone knows how many refugees Germany took in – hundreds of thousands. To be precise they took in 587 per 100,000 population in 2015. What few people know is that, in percentage of population, Austria took in almost twice as many – 1027. In contrast, the United Kingdom took in a mere 60 and the United States took in about 70,000 refugees in 2015 – or 22 per 100,000 Americans (if I am doing the math right):

go figure 4

Source: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34131911


Refugee Arrivals

In FY 2015, 69,933 individuals arrived in the United States as refugees, according to data from the State Department’s Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System (WRAPS).

Source: http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/refugees-and-asylees-united-states


So what conclusion do I come to? The level of “life satisfaction” in a country is directly proportional to the generosity and welcome shown to people in need. Germany and Austria moved up in satisfaction rankings and the UK and the US moved down, despite the fact that they are barely affected by the “crisis”.

As I sit here writing this, my husband is upstairs watching a soccer match with Rohulla, Shaban, Hayez and Gedere. Our guys. We originally called them “the refugees”, later “the migrants”, then “our guys”, and now by their names. Despite the fact that this is their third visit, they were excruciatingly polite and very hesitant to even enter the house, much less walk upstairs to the TV room. Later, Gedere dived into the chips with a smile, but he was the exception. The others held back. We eventually had to coerce Rohulla into accepting a simple glass of tap water.

So threatening.


Summer is Coming

It’s good to be back. To hear the occasional whistling sound from my cell phone and read a comment from a forgiving blog friend. I hate to admit, though, that a lot of these comments were along the lines of “Buck up, kiddo!” or “Hang in there, vacation is just around the corner!” I went back and read my last few posts – they really are full of slightly irritating lamentations about how busy I have been. And, who’s NOT busy?! Everyone I know is busy! In fact, if you are not a Republican in Congress, I bet you are busy too.

So, thanks so much – really! – for the sweet comments, but do me a favor. Next time I write one of those posts, please channel my childhood mom and tell me to . . .

stop whining

Greetings from Your Stalker

stalkerEver since my London trip I have been scrambling to catch up on every part of my life – work, family, home maintenance, social obligations  . . . even blogging. You might be surprised to learn which particular area of neglect has caused me the most acute feelings of guilt (I’ll give you a hint: it’s not the third one). Uh oh. Now, the last day of the school year is speeding toward me and the calendar between today and then is filling up fast. The free hours remaining to use for writing end-of-the-year letters to my students are running out (28 English letters and then another 28 in German together with a colleague – ouch!) Realistically, I would almost have to begin this evening if they are to be done on time . . .

That’s why I decided to use tonight to finally start catching up on the last three weeks of my WordPress Reader instead. Some of you – my WP homeys – may have just suffered a minor onslaught of likes and comments. Sorry about that. But, it feels nice to be up to speed again. For the rest of you – prepare for incoming!

And now – it’s back to work . . .

“Dear Anna,
What a year it has been! When I think back on . . . “


Shock and Awe

For the first time in ages, I simply woke up this morning. No chiming alarm made it happen. No doorbell and subsequent dog barking. No telephone ringing. I just . . . woke up.


I came downstairs and greeted my Hungarian cleaning lady, who had arrived an hour earlier, let herself in with the key, taken the dogs for a short walk and fed them. She had also already finished most of the kitchen and the two buckets full of decaying food stood ready to be taken to the compost pile. As we chatted and I made my coffee, I told her that she should not do the master bedroom today – it was so full of piles of laundry in various stages of cleanliness, she wouldn’t have been able to do much anyway. (So . . . no “Yes, yes” followed by a little laugh – this time I made sure she really got the message.) While the coffeemaker worked its magic, I went and turned on my laptop and checked my calendar. Second shock of the day:

shock and awe 1

I can’t even remember the last time my calendar told me that I had the day off.

After going around the house, collecting all the little piles of clothes my family had deposited everywhere and dragging three baskets-full down to the basement, sorting them, and starting the first load, I returned to my laptop to enjoy my first coffee of the day while catching up on the news. Instead of the dreaded stories of Orlando carnage, the first report of the day turned out to be about Mr. Smith Going to Washington. To be honest, I was quite moved – even hopeful by what I heard, and awed by the thought of those 15 hours Senator Murphy stood and spoke through. I got downright nostalgic for the days when immigrant directors made unapologetically patriotic movies about America. I downloaded some graphics of the fictional and real speeches for a possible blog post. Then I reconsidered (or maybe, “woke up” again) after comparing the number of listeners in the backgrounds of these scenes:

shock and awe 2 shock and awe 3

Still, I fully enjoyed two hours of alternate surfing and dabbling at housecleaning. I started really getting into this new day-off feeling . . .

And then came the onslaught.

It started inauspiciously with an email from my boss reminding me to arrange two parent/teacher meetings for next Thursday. I whipped off two text messages and settled back into my surfing.

DING! DING! Mother Number One says Thursday’s not okay. As she had informed us of that already! RING! RING! Panicked mother Number 2 wants to know what is wrong and why we need a meeting. She happens to be one of our more erratic and emotional mothers – lovely in the same way most rollercoasters are. (She is fully aware of it and attributes it to the Egyptian half of her heritage.) Today she was in particularly good form, talking a mile a minute – so about 15 miles in all – while I only managed to get two or three sentences in edgewise. In the midst of this “conversation”, my neighbor showed up at the front door and we gestured back and forth to each other as I held the cell to my ear and rolled my eyes. I let Dog Four out to play with her Collie and we all walked a ways down the road together as Egyptian mom talked about the Cyber Generation and how we all don’t get enough sleep and she doesn’t interfere with her son’s education and he is clearly not being challenged enough, etc. etc. My neighbor gestured to me that she had to get back home and we somehow managed to sign language plans to meet up again in the afternoon for a proper dog walk. I waved goodbye and concentrated on finding a way to calm my Egyptian friend and end the call just as a truck drove up to the house. That’s when I remembered that someone was coming today to buy my husband’s old car. I had been given strict instructions to take the cash and get a signature on the contract before handing over the papers – no more negotiating on price!!

The men got out of the truck and proceeded to complain about how my husband had given them the wrong phone number and that they had been driving around for 20 minutes trying to find the house. As I tried to identify their accents, they asked for the key so that they could check out the car. They seemed nervous. Then one of them asked me to stay and watch them. They asked various questions about certain discoveries, like the fact that the electronic locking system only worked on the front doors. They commented on my accent and asked me where I was from. My response brought the first smiles. Milwaukee and Harley Davidson were both familiar to them. I asked them where they were from and they said Serbia. (Oops. Luckily they were too young to remember the bombs and soldiers the US sent to former Yugoslavia – mostly to stop Serbian aggression.) They discovered the paint stain on the floor by the back seat and said my husband had failed to mention it and then added how they both dreamed of going to the States – mostly New York, but maybe California, too. “And Las Vegas!” one added with a big smile. They hooked up a computer to the car to do a diagnosis of the engine. They each lit a cigarette and then offered me one. I accepted. We talked some more about America. They asked me which was better – America or Austria? They looked at the computer readings. The particle filter needed replacing they said. That would be expensive. The chief negotiator then offered me $600 less than had been agreed on. But he did it . . . uncomfortably. The smiles we had been sharing were gone again.

Suddenly, I was back in London, negotiating about breakfasts.

I knew my husband was supervising graduation exams in the school and probably wouldn’t answer his phone, but I tried anyway. He actually picked up and I quickly explained the situation. I passed the phone to one of the men and watched in fascination as his voice returned to the original hard-ass tone I had heard at the start – before the first shared smile. He complained about the unpleasant discoveries, he argued about how much it would cost to do unexpected repairs, he listened, and then he passed the phone back to me.

My husband began by apologizing for putting me in this situation. Then he said no price reductions. The particle filter was fine; the light meant that they just needed to do an oil change. The paint stain had been mentioned and shown in the announcement. He had not given them any phone number, much less the wrong one. I should say “Take it or Leave It.” And now he had to go. We hung up and I immediately chose a different negotiation tactic. “I’m sorry,” I said, but it is “Out of My Hands”.

There was a short silence. Then the chief negotiator dropped his arrogant tone and raised his offer. We were now just $100 apart. I countered with a $50  discount on the condition that we kept it our secret. I would add the $50 dollars to the cash they gave me. They could consider it my personal donation to their future trip to New York. That made them smile again.

We had a deal.

As we finished up the paperwork, my phone rang. My Cuban friend (N³) needed to talk about our daughters’ plans for the weekend. As we talked, my cleaning lady tapped me on the shoulder and signaled that she was done. I took the cash from my car buyers and gave a part of it to her while working out the plans for our daughters on the phone and watching the new car owner sign the contract. As I handed over the papers, I noticed the time and realized that I had to pick up my daughter from school in 15 minutes. I said goodbye to my Cuban, waved goodbye to my Hungarian, made a formal farewell to my Serbs, texted “Car sold” to my Austrian, and then raced off to pick up my Ethiopian.

shock and awe 4


A half hour later, sitting in the fitting rooms of H&M and waiting for my daughter, I realized once again how much I hate shopping. I took a second picture to commemorate the moment.

After that came cooking a late lunch, several more loads of laundry, the arranged dog walk with my neighbor, dealing with the clothes piles in my bedroom, and extended negotiations via phone with my elder daughter throughout her shopping trip to Graz about not missing her piano lesson in the evening. Approximately 9 calls were necessary in all. In between, a barrage of organizational work emails came in which went largely ignored. I also made a To Do list for the rest of the weekend.

Starting tomorrow, of course, because today was my free day.

My husband came home around 10 in the evening and we talked through the events of the day. He told me that right before my call that morning, a former student came to see him. She had been the girlfriend of yet another former student who committed suicide two days ago. My husband, she said, had always been a father figure to her. And then she spilled out her heart and all her questions. How could she get the awful images out of her head? Should she go look at his corpse? Should she have known? Was she to blame? He had written a letter saying it was work stress and a sense of hopelessness that drove him to his decision . . . At some point my husband and I realized that we both had spent the very same half-hour giving amateur therapy to distressed people. We talked it through until he couldn’t anymore. He said good night and went to bed. I returned to my laptop.

My mind went backward through the day. My momentarily overworked husband, over-extended and exhausted daughter, all the mundane domestic work that never ends, the wheeling and dealing done to save or make a few bucks, the social obligations that fill up every empty space, my Arabic-speaking mom/interpreter who went from unemployment to a 70 hour work week overnight when the refugees started coming, the fact that part of our jobs as teachers now apparently includes being an amateur psychologist, that the Washington current Mr. Smith goes to is an empty room, the fact that waking up naturally in the morning is now a disquieting experience . . .

. . .that the system is making us sick and our world is in a sorry state.

But there are people who are willing to stand up for 15 hours and shout some small part of that fact to anyone who will listen or no one at all.

That is something. And I will take it.

Sister Ambassador

Having a lawyer in the family comes in handy sometimes. As I am trying to get everything done for my daughter’s high school exchange year, my lawyer sister has done a lot of the heavy lifting (legal guardianship contract, health care power of attorney, repairing the mess I made with the online registration . . .) Unfortunately, I am going to have to take care of the visa situation myself and it is a bit of a nightmare.

embassyThe last time I visited the US Embassy in Vienna was pre-9/11. I just walked in the front door, showed my passport to the one guard and traipsed upstairs to ask for an appointment. I wanted to find out about citizenship for my newly adopted daughter – assuming that she was guaranteed the same rights as a biological child who would automatically be American. I got a convoluted story about how she needed to reside in the States first. If she went to live there, they said, she could apply for citizenship on her first day.

In the 15 years since a lot has changed. The place is now a fortress with soldiers and their machine guns patrolling outside. The website warns over and over again not to show up without a written invitation. All their citizen services are done online and by mail now. I spent several hours reading through all the visa information, but my daughter’s particular circumstances aren’t covered, so I started searching for a telephone number, which wasn’t easy to find.

As I wrote to my sister in her birthday email yesterday:

“I first had to go through 15 recorded messages (“Press One if you are requesting information about a F1, M1, or J1 non-immigrant visa” . . .) until I finally got a human being. Then that human had some kind of Asian accent I could barely understand, and she answered every question I had by telling me to visit some website. I am tempted to just go to Vienna and show up unannounced at the American Embassy (rather than waiting to receive my appointment date and time after making the payment, setting up my “Customer Support” account using the code provided on my payment received notifvisa processication, submitting the I-20 form, and then making an online application for an F1 non-immigrant visa), but I am sort of afraid someone will shoot me.”


As a birthday present, I’m seriously considering flying my sister over here so that she can take care of this for me too.


Monty – (Reunions – Fast Forward)

We got an unexpected phone call a few days ago. Our Ethiopian friend, Monty – the same one I am currently writing about in the next chapter of my adoption story – was in Austria and wanted to know if there was any way we could meet up before she flew home. Of course there was a way. This was, after all, the woman who saved my younger daughter’s life. I will love her till the day I die. My husband saw her two years ago on his school trip to Ethiopia, but it had been six years for my daughters and me. Here’s a shot of that last visit:


So instead of a lazy Sunday, we all jumped in the car and drove for two hours to see her. We sort of crashed a party being given for her by four Viennese families (and ended up monopolizing her a bit) but they were all gracious about it. They had had her for two days and we only had two hours. It was such a wonderful reunion. Just too short.

As we said goodbye, Monty stuttered out, “Miss C., you . . . your lovely family . . . the most . . . all of you . . . my heart . . . you know what I am saying . . .”

I knew.


Where I Was Going With That – (MYoM – Part 30)

My last blog post veered off in its own direction and, eventually, I was too darn tired to coax it back toward the original idea. So here, now, is “Hissy Fits – The Sequel”.


schooldeskWe rolled with my elder daughter’s “hyperactivity” in her younger years – we developed strategies and coped. It only became a real issue once she started school.

The first few parent-teacher conferences were happy affairs. Glowing compliments on her social nature and enthusiasm assured us that our daughter was mastering the First Grade with ease. So it was all the more surprising when, shortly after mid-year, her teacher hinted at the idea of letting her repeat the Grade. I suppose every parent is shocked to hear this and we were no different. “She’s flunking?! Not MY child! There must be some mistake!”

The Austrian school system has a policy that every child is allowed three years to finish the First and Second Grades. I know now how sensible this is. In Kindergarten, we lived by natural rhythms. We got there when we got there. We ate when we were hungry. We sat when we felt like it and moved around when we needed to. Then came the first day of school and suddenly we lived by the clock. There were all these places to be at specific times.

“Get up, Mitzi. You have to go to school.”

“Hurry up, Mitzi. The bus is coming any second now.”

“Let’s go, Mitzi! We are late for your music lesson.”

“Eat up, Mitzi. Time is running out and you still have to finish your homework.”

“Time to go to sleep, Mitzi. Tomorrow is a school day.”

After a half year of this, my daughter started . . . shutting down. Passive resistance became her way of dealing with the time pressures – she simply didn’t hear us anymore. It wasn’t that she couldn’t handle the academic part of school; she just couldn’t fit herself into the rigid schedule.

Part of the decision-making process (to repeat or not to repeat?) was taking her to a school psychologist. She had to draw a picture and take a 10 minute test and then the diagnosis was proclaimed. ADHD. We should consider putting her on Ritalin.

I stared at this “doctor” wondering how old she was – maybe 25? Surely not 30 yet. I must have had a fairly scary expression on my face because she immediately got nervous and started walking back the diagnosis. Maybe it wasn’t full blown Attention Deficit, maybe it was just “Cognitive Impulsiveness”. I asked her what other options there were besides medication and she began to search in the internet for alternate treatments. “Well, I could do that on my own!” I thought. I looked at the picture my daughter had drawn and folded it in half. That’s when I noticed the sentence she had written on the back.

“Are you mad at me?” it said.

That poor girl! My heartstrings had been tugged so taut they nearly snapped. I thanked the psychologist for her expert advice and we left. The drive home was spent reassuring Mitzi that she had done nothing wrong and we just wanted her to be happy.

A week later we had a conference with her teacher and the Grade School principal, which we went into still undecided. They pointed out to us that Mitzi was the youngest kid in her current class and that if she started over with a new First Grade group the following year, she would still not be the oldest. They shared their experiences of other kids and families who had decided one way or the other. And then the sentence came that made the decision suddenly easy. The principal said, “You know, you can see it as a gift. You are giving her a whole extra year of childhood.”

When I heard that, I just knew it was what I wanted to do. I wanted to take the pressure off of my daughter and let her be a carefree kid again.

In the years since, everything has reconfirmed our feeling that we made the right decision. Mitzi restarted the First Grade and never complained that she had already learned this or that. She was emotionally in sync with her new classmates and quickly found her groove. I can hardly imagine how the past 9 school years would have been for her had she been continually reeling and trying to play catch up. No slots on the honor roll, just constant feelings that she was “bad in school”.


When I look at the kids in my little alternative school, it seems to me that many of them would have the same experience as my daughter in the normal school system. There would be many rough parent / teacher conferences and school psychologists. There would be testing and prescriptions for medications. There would be bad grades and disciplinary measures.

In our school, the kids almost never have to sit at their desks unless they choose to. (A lot of them prefer to work on the floor.) They can get up and move whenever they feel the need to. They can learn the basics at their own tempos. They can get individual help whenever they need it. No one is counting up their mistakes, passing judgment on the basis of the sum total, and putting the kids into a comparative hierarchy from best to worst.

People often ask me how the classroom can possibly work if there are no tests and grades. I’ve discovered over the past five years that these things are completely unnecessary to get kids to learn. Kids like learning. Their motivation comes from inside them. They naturally observe closely, mimic, repeat, experiment, and they ask a thousand questions. We just have to let them do those things and then steer them deftly in the direction of the next logical materials.

A lot of our kids are also like Mitzi in that they are auditory learners and autodidacts. Two years into lessons to learn the recorder, I noticed one day while she was practicing that she wasn’t looking at the notes at all. I asked her if she could even read them. She couldn’t. She had learned every song so far with her ears and her memory. Years later, my 90 year old, fairly deaf stepfather tried to teach her to play guitar and that didn’t work out too well. But a few years later, after she heard the news that he had died, she took a guitar up into her room and stayed there for several hours. Then she came down and played a song for me. Apparently she had used a few YouTube videos to teach herself how to play. She also learned to accompany herself on the piano when singing the same way.

At our school, we accommodate the auditory and autodidacts as much as possible, giving them the freedom to choose from a variety of offerings. There are assignments to do, but they can decide when and where they do them in any given week. Sometimes one of the kids hands me his assignment with a pronouncement: “I skipped Point #3 ‘cuz I didn’t like it. It was no fun.” To which I answer “OK.” There should always be some space for the kids to make their own decisions.

school10One of our school-leavers wrote an article for the school magazine. She had gone to Kindergarten and all 8 years with us. She wrote: “It’s not really like a school at all. It’s like a second home.”

Hissy Fits

When my elder daughter was very young and started to get worked up about something, it always had the potential to get pretty dramatic. She was born theatrical and emotional. She did everything with flair. She was a sunny happy child 90 % of the time, but when there was a problem, it was . . .  a big deal. A little boo-boo would set her off screaming as if she were in the throes of death. When we once insisted that she actually taste a new food item before categorically rejecting it, she allowed a minuscule tidbit to touch her tongue and then immediately emptied the entire contents of her stomach right there in the kitchen. Tears streamed down her face as we said goodbye at the door of the nursery school; once we were out of sight, those tears ended as if the faucet had been turned off and my daughter ran happily off to play with the other kids. (Or so the teachers told us.)

We got used to it. We even got blasé about it. Sometimes we shocked random strangers passing by when we basically shrugged off or coolly commented on the theatrical cries of our ostensibly traumatized child.

We learned coping mechanisms.

One example: she could never sit still through a meal. She would jump up out of her chair and run out of the room. Or, she rocked her chair. She spilled things – a lot!. At first we asked her to sit still and eat. That worked . . . not. Sometimes we scolded her. Sometimes I even thought (but thankfully never said) “What is wrong with you?!”

At some point, I suddenly realized that there was nothing wrong with her. She just needed to keep moving and sitting through mealtimes was tough for her. I could either stick to the customary dinner table rules or I could accommodate her need to move. I chose the second. From that point on, I started finding ways for allowing her to get up and leave the table. I would purposely “forget” things (napkins, spoons, salt . . .) when I set the table and then ask her to get them for us during the meal. I would ask her to refill my water glass. In a pinch, I would purposely push my fork off the table and then ask her to get me a new one.

She always appreciated the chance to get off her chair – it wasn’t as if she were constantly being given chores. She was able to leave the table while doing something helpful and good, not fidgety and bad.

Away from the dinner table, in moments when she was getting herself more and more worked up, I learned to just stare at her intently. Quietly. When her eyes met mine, I would make a hint of a smile. She would look at me again, and for longer.  I would spread my arms in a “Come hug me” gesture. She came. We hugged. I felt her whole body relaxing. Hissy fit averted. No words necessary.


She is almost 16 now. More words, of course, are necessary. But sometimes, the wordless hug still does the trick.

Today was one of those days.

Room with a View

Somewhere in this blog, I have surely mentioned that I take a train to Graz once a week to teach a university course. It’s part of a program that helps people without high school diplomas get accepted into college (and I really love teaching it!) Over 29 years, the numbers of participants in the program/course has gone up and down. There were times when 50 people showed up in the first week. One year it was only 7. Lately, I usually have between 15 and 20 at the start, half of which are there voluntarily (meaning that they will be examined by someone other than me). Certain developments happen every year:

  • The number of people in my course goes up and down for a while as the late enrollees arrive and the program dropouts depart. The number then stabilizes midyear.
  • Attendance drops dramatically in the two weeks before Christmas break.
  • I lose about a third of the group when they pass the exam on the first test date in February.
  • As the academic year nears the end, all the students who are not tested by me start to drop away, leaving the hard core survivalists in the final weeks.

With two weeks to go, we are now at the hard core stage: I have my four remaining exam candidates who show up religiously each week and no one else.

But one thing has been new this year. The program’s current secretary (who makes the schedule and reserves the rooms) was utterly incompetent. She waited so long to do the work that all the usual course rooms were already booked. (Don’t you just hate procrastinators?!)  So each week, my course meets in a different place and sometimes at a different time. This week – today – was the best. Here’s the room the secretary booked for me and my four students:

lecture hall 1 lecture hall 2

The Remains of the Days

After two night’s worth of good sleep, it’s time to finish the London posts. I would have done it yesterday, but we were hosting an exceptionally well-timed family celebration with 25 guests. That meant I spent the first post-London morning doing a “mother-in-law housecleaning” (Sorry, Omili!) and helping to set up pavilions, tables and chairs in the yard. The first guests and the first gusts of the approaching thunderstorm arrived almost simultaneously, so we all quickly relocated everything to inside the house, dismantled the tents and, finally, stowed the ping pong table under the porch just as the first drops began to fall. It actually was a really nice party, despite the weather’s uncooperative-ness. First we all patted ourselves on the back for making the right decision and in time. Then the torrential rains harmonized well with the soft and jazzy background music. Later the candlelight (after the electricity went out) made it sort of cozy while the gas and charcoal grills guaranteed that we would still get warm food. I got to catch up with nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles . . .  A nice day all around.

Anyhooo . . . this is supposed to be about London. Where was I?


Full Day Two

(London Eye, Hyde Park Corner, Natural History Museum, Kensington Palace and Gardens, Notting Hill Gate):


The kids were great all day long and we all came back to the hostel exhausted and happy. Unfortunately what followed for me was a really irritating Round Two of the “Did-we-or-did-we-not-already-pay-for-breakfast?” negotiations with various hostel staff members. The one person I really wanted to talk to – hostel manager – wouldn’t be there till the next morning, unfortunately. I showed a different woman the various emails sent back and forth over the months which clearly mentioned breakfast and room prices. I showed her my calculations of what the total price would be without breakfast and the receipts from my bank transfers showing I had paid about £200 more than that – about the same amount three days of breakfast cost. Three other young men in the staff listened to our discussion and I could tell they were tending toward believing me. The woman stuck to her position, though, and added that I would have to pay for all three days of breakfasts right then and there or they wouldn’t serve us the next day. That pissed me off. I felt my face flushing red and then suddenly remembered one of the tips I used to tell students back in the days when I taught negotiation courses: “Don’t discuss things when you are angry. Find a way to take a break to calm down.” I told the woman I would go talk to my colleague and come back later.

I spent the time going over all the emails and math again. Barb helped me strategize a bit and I told her I was going to try the “Divide and Conquer” tactic. (I had passed one of the staff members in the hall and he had apologized and said he understood my view of things.) The only other tactic useful for this situation that I could remember was how to deal with “Or Else!” threats. I kept that one up my sleeve. I went back to the desk.

Luckily, Mean Lady wasn’t there. I talked to the three guys and said that I needed to see proof in black and white, maybe an itemized invoice, and some math, before I would be willing to pay more. That is when it became clear that they had no detailed information, only the final sum. All three basically admitted that they totally understood my point of view and one added that none of them were senior enough to make decisions of this kind (including the Mean Lady – she was following the orders of a Group Booking manager). One guy was a big jolly looking type wearing a huge black turban and he started speaking in German to me. We chatted for a while and he told me his mother was a teacher too. He was sorry that this situation was causing me stress after spending the whole day with a group of school kids. I replied it wasn’t that bad, just that I didn’t like the extortion: fork over the cash or kids won’t eat tomorrow . . . He nodded. He apologized again for not being able to fix this and the faces of the others showed that they felt the same. Turban Guy said his hands were tied. He could only order the breakfast for us after it was paid for. He was embarrassed.

I reminded him that I would be clearing up the situation with the manager the next day and then we came up with a compromise. I would pay for the one breakfast in advance (and hopefully get it refunded the next day). That worked for everyone and we did it. I was about to leave when Mean Lady reappeared and insisted I pay for all three days. All three men jumped in saying “NO! We have it worked out.” And then they all started to argue. A fourth guy showed up and asked me politely if I could give them some space while they hashed it out among themselves.

As far as I was concerned this discussion was over for me. I got beers for Barb and me and sat down to wait for her. (She had been taking care of the kids all this time.) Out of the corner of my eye I followed the really long discussion at the front desk. I was exhausted. And then it hit me. I still had to do the nerve-wracking task of 14 online check-ins for our return flight! On my cell phone! I felt like crying. Suddenly, Turban Guy came over to my table and said he wanted to tell me – again – how sorry he was. He mentioned – again – that his mother is a teacher and so he knows how much work it is to be on a school trip. He hoped this hassle wasn’t ruining things for me.  That was so sweet and really made me feel better. Then Barb showed up and sat next to me, offering her moral support as I navigated the group check-in on my cell. I don’t know what I would have done without her – and not just then, but the entire time! When I finally went to my room after midnight, a letter from the manager had been printed and taped to my door. She wrote she would come in earlier the next day so that we wouldn’t have to wait for her. It was a friendly but non-committal letter.


Full Day Three

The day began with our (prepaid!) breakfast, during which the hostel manager came up to me and introduced herself. She was ready to sit down with me whenever I was. Round Three of the Breakfast Negotiations began sort of dodgy, but she was nice and seemed to care about happy customers. She also admitted that a lot of mistakes had been made on their part during the booking process. She went through the computer listings and found extra charges for unused beds in our rooms – something I hadn’t been informed of. It offered her a way to reduce the amount. Success! Refund! Smiles! I asked her if she preferred red or white wine. She laughed and said neither. I asked her if she liked chocolate. She did. Now I could take off with the kids on our final day of touring London.

(King’s Cross / Platform 9 ¾, a Tube ride, Camden Town, Camden Lock Market, Hamley’s Toy Store, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, Soho, and Oxford Street):

Near the end of our final walking tour, the kids made a lot of questionable last-minute purchases in awful tourist trap shops – one of which I stepped in and prevented (see above – the poor kid had no idea what “hash” meant or what that plant was.) Once back at the hostel, we had a quick meeting about how to prepare for our 4:45 am departure the next morning (packing everything that night, returning towels, filling water bottles, setting alarms . . .) and then all the kids took off to their rooms. I gave the nice hostel manager the box of chocolates I had bought in Camden and then Barb and I had our traditional end-of-the-day beer as we compared notes on the events of the day. We both confessed to getting lax about the head counting  (“. . . nine, ten, . . . eleven, . . . close enough”) and then laughed about it. A hostel worker walked past and thanked me for the chocolates. He said they were delicious. Barb marveled at how great the kids had been. There had been almost no complaining or whining. No arguments. No one was left out or distanced themselves from the others. I told her I wasn’t surprised at all. It’s all about trust. That and the fact that they were more afraid of getting lost in this strange place than we were. “It’s like when you take your pets to the vet and suddenly they are well-behaved,” I said. At some point, a hostel worker handed me the printed out boarding passes and a wave of relief washed over me. My last organizational hurdle had been traversed. For some reason, Barb and I talked forever, leaving us only about 3 ½  hours to sleep before . . .

Departure Day

The kids’ last British adventure mirrored their first one . . .

In the airport shuttle
In the airport shuttle

Goodbye, London. And Thanks!