To the Poorhouse

 

Ireland 2018 – Part 3

 

I don’t suppose many of you readers will believe me when I say that I really did try to take a break from American politics while on vacation this year. I limited my news inputs to scrolling through headlines, reading a few breaking news alerts and watching one or two MSNBC videos a day. But seeing as how this trip to Ireland included more political content and history lessons than the last one, it was sometimes difficult not to note the occasional parallel or be reminded of current atrocities while learning about past ones.

One of those moments came when we took up my sister’s suggestion to tour the Portumna Workhouse Center. As an added enticement, the center also had an exhibit of works by the Irish sculptor Kieran Touhy,  who uses peat bog oak as his medium.  This is wood that is found underground in the bogs and can be 1000s of years old. The show was called “Dark Shadows” and poignantly conveyed the same themes as the workhouse tour. I’ve scattered some of his works throughout this post.

For my fellow historically-challenged people, I’ll start with a little background information on the workhouse (aka “poorhouse”) system in Ireland . . .

Even before the Potato Famine years (1846-51), Ireland’s problems with poverty, hunger and homelessness were severe and getting worse. Eventually, the government had no option but to find ways of dealing with the problem. Unfortunately, they did not see it as a problem of an inequitable economic system in which increasing numbers of people could not maintain a viable existence no matter how hard they worked. No, those in power and the position to “do something” saw the problem as one of “surplus people”. How do we rid the countryside of them?

One way was to assist emigration to Australia or North America. Another policy led to the construction of “workhouses” throughout the country. People facing starvation who had run out of options could enter these places and work for food and a place to sleep. Unlike those people in English workhouses, this was not stopover on the way to somewhere else – an interim after which they could leave and find work outside again. No, in Ireland, these houses were essentially the end of the road.

After this system was ended in the 1920s, many of these buildings were torn down or re-purposed; the one in Portumna remained abandoned, but largely intact. Now it is slowing being restored and turned into a sort of museum/education center. While touring it, out guide delicately pointed out some misconceptions about the system – making it clear to us why this was the most feared and hated institution ever established in Ireland”  as well as the general situation in the country at that time. One of the most significant points was that even though the potato crop failed, the farms were producing plenty of other crops – but much of that food ended up being sold and shipped off to England while the home population continued to starve.

 

Here, now, are some of pictures from the inside of the workhouse:

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The layout of the place was basically three rows of buildings around two courtyards. There were separate tracts for boys, girls, men, women, and nursing women with kids under 2 years old. The daily routines of the groups ensured that their paths didn’t cross in the courtyards or dining hall. The high windows ensured that they could not see the others when they were outside. The doors were locked in the evenings by the workhouse “managers”. So parents and kids could spend years just 50 or 100 yards apart from one another and never meet up.

At the end of the tour we ended up where we started and I looked again at the first display sign I had read on coming through the front door:

I asked our guide if the people who came here were all at the very end of their rope – desperate and with no more options. She answered yes.

“Can I ask you a personal question?”  I said. She nodded.

“When you hear about what is going on at the southern border of the US right now – about families being separated – does it remind you of this place?” I gestured toward the sign.

“Well, I guess it does . . . although you always want to think that we learn from history and won’t repeat things like this . . .” Her voice trailed off and she looked off into the distance.

 

– – – – – – – –

Back in the car and our way to Dublin, I scrolled through the days breaking news headlines.

“Trump administration falls short on reunifications before deadline”

“Gov’t: 650 children are ‘ineligible” for reunification”

Today, two weeks later, as I write this, there are still hundreds of state-created orphans in the US whose future is up in the air. And the government has just announced plans to put new limits on legal immigration as the second prong in their plan to decrease the surplus population. To rid the country of riffraff.

 

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Westeros

 

(Ireland 2018 – Part 2)

 

Despite having devoured the first 3 books in the series, I cannot really be considered a true “Game of Thrones” fan. Reading to the end of the fourth book ended up feeling like work. I only managed it because of my neurotic need to finish any book I start. The fact is, I never really got over the Red Wedding chapter in Book 3 and I resent that sadist, R.R. Martin, to this day for putting me through it. When it comes to the TV series, I stopped watching somewhere in the first season. I just couldn’t stomach the (seemingly gratuitous) violence and cruelty.

So it wasn’t “The Game of Thrones” that led me to Northern Ireland, but once there, it was hard to escape the connection. There were all sorts of GoT packages on offer; whole sections of Tourist Information offices were devoted to it. Special maps were made, showing all the locations where scenes from the series had been filmed, like this one (notice all the film camera symbols):

Not surprisingly, a lot of the sites that we had chosen out of old guide books (that predated the show) overlapped with those on the GoT tours. And when they did, we slogged through these sites in a massive convoy of people.

At the Giant’s Causeway it seemed there wouldn’t be enough rocks to hold them all.

At the famous Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge, there weren’t enough hours in the day to let all the people who wanted to cross over.

And at the Dark Hedges (Westeros’s “King’s Road”), well, we could hardly see the trees for the forest of tourists passing under them.

 

 

And now I have to confess to being a bit hyperbolic in what I wrote above. I still enjoyed all of the sites despite the many other tourists. They were cool and beautiful and worth visiting. Then again, when I look back at the trip as a whole, my absolute favorite moments were ones when we were almost alone in some gorgeous location – and that cannot be a coincidence.

First we got to the Mussenden Temple and the mansion ruins in Downhill Demesne before the ticket office opened and could explore the places almost completely on our own.

 

This was one of my favorite moments from the whole trip. Me and the sis being in the moment:

 

It was only after I got home from the trip that I started researching the connections between “Game of Thrones” and Ireland. It took me all of two minutes to find an article showing that the fictional country of Westeros is actually upside-down Ireland with some extras:

 

I suppose this all won’t be news to most GoT fans, but I thought it was incredibly neat. The article went on to say:

“Speaking at Comic Con two years ago, Martin revealed that not only was Co. Kerry perfectly redrawn, but the Fingers at the Vale of Arryn were, in fact, the Dingle Peninsula, and several other major Irish cities share their locations with famous Westeros landmarks: King’s Landing as Galway, Donegal Bay as the Sea of Dorne, Belfast as Old Town and Dublin as Casterly Rock . . . . With thanks to the success of the show, many fans are now traveling to the Northern Irish sets to see the amazing locations for themselves, resulting in the Dark Hedges in Co. Antrim, used as the King’s Road in the show, becoming one of the most photographed tourist attractions in the world.”

Source:  https://www.irishcentral.com/culture/entertainment/rr-martin-reveals-game-of-thrones-westeros-is-an-upside-down-ireland

 Despite the crowds, I think it is great thing that the popularity of GoT has been a boon for northern Irish tourism. For me, the opposite has occurred. While googling “ireland locations game thrones”, I ended up watching a whole bunch of YouTube videos – scenes from the series with backdrops I recognized. I really enjoyed them. I just might start watching the show again . . . . .

A Tale of Two Countries

 

(Ireland 2018 – Part 1)

 

I’ve just returned for the second time from what has become one of my favorite countries in the world: Ireland. The first time I went there was four years ago. When people asked me “How was it?” my two most frequent answers were “Heaven on Earth” (I was talking about Dingle) and “I don’t think I ever came home from a vacation so utterly refreshed . . . physically, mentally, and spiritually!”

That time we toured the southern half of the island, so when we decided to go back this year, naturally we went north. And that means, strictly speaking, we were in two different countries.  But it turns out that the situation is much more complicated than you’d think.

First of all, there is no noticeable border. We picked up our rental car in Dublin (a big nine-seater that immediately got nicknamed “The Beast”) and headed north. At some point, the road signs changed colors, kilometers became miles, and Euros became Pounds. But the Irish stayed Irish. Our first stop was Newgrange – a huge tomb built by Stone Age farmers long before those Egyptian slaves and other sundry folk started working on the pyramids. From there, we drove into Belfast and went straight to the Titanic museum.  Both stops were cool and recommendable, but they didn’t supply us with truly lasting impressions. They didn’t occupy our thoughts and inspire conversations all throughout the next day. No, our final tour of the day did that.

 

We somewhat spontaneously decided to hire a “Black Taxi” and take what is known as “a political tour of Belfast”.  These are also called “Mural Tours” for reasons that will soon become obvious.  These drives go directly into the heart of areas which most travel guides tell you to avoid. They are history lessons about “The Troubles” of Northern Ireland which ended with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 – so almost exactly 20 years ago.

Our guide was a very nice and knowledgeable youngish man whose own father had been one of the Troubles’ many casualties – although he hadn’t learned that until many years later and then through news reports on TV. In the meantime, he had become a father himself and wanted a different world for his own children. One in which Catholics and Protestants can be friends and the Irish can be Irish. One in which politics are not steered by the miniscule radical minority with their sadly contagious resentment and fearmongering. As he guided us through the sites, we could not exactly pin down what his own beliefs were – but he clearly had disdain for the militants and extremists of both sides.

The first stops were in a predominantly Catholic part of West Belfast. There were many political messages and depictions of the history of the Troubles from this side’s perspective.  We saw the still-militarized police vehicles, heard stories of random shootings and innocent child victims, looked at bullet holes in walls and paintings of hunger strike martyrs. We passed the headquarters of Sinn Fein. We saw memorials to the dead – many of them.

 

A short taxi ride later and we were on the other side. Once again there were huge murals, but this time showing William of Orange and Queen Elisabeth among the many tributes to fallen soldiers and victims of violent Catholic extremists. This side had a more militaristic feel to it and the patriotism was much less subtle – maybe because their big holiday – “The Twelfth” had just happened and all the British flags were still flying. Our guide took us past a large empty lot in the middle of this Shankill area where a huge bonfire is lit as part of the celebration. He said every year the surrounding houses are damaged by sparks and smoke and he wondered if such idiocy was allowed to happen in any other major city. His greater outrage, however, was reserved for a particular memorial of a “soldier”, whom he considered nothing less than a mass murderer of random innocent civilians.

 

As we drove through these streets, I watched the families out in their front yards, the children  playing games, their neighborhoods full of these many huge colorful messages of pain and resentment. One man, leaning on his parked car in front of his house, looked up from his cellphone and our eyes briefly met. He seemed a bit irked by our black taxi and I suddenly felt just a bit guilty about this voyeuristic human safari I was on. I wondered if these people sometimes felt like animals in a zoo . . .

In one sense, they truly were caged. Because in the No Man’s Land between these two neighborhoods, there stands a frigging HUMONGOUS wall.

 

I confess, this was the most shocking and disturbing part of the tour for me. I had had no idea that such walls still existed in European cities – to keep people separate from one another.  Our guide pointed out that there were gates along these walls that were closed and guarded at night (and later we actually caught one of them being closed).  I asked him why the wall was still there, seeing as how the peace agreement had happened 20 years earlier. He said it was because the people living there still wanted them.

It occurred to me that that all the murals and billboards and memorials I had passed also didn’t look 20 years old. They were kept up and mostly freshly (re-)painted. They – and I assume the fears and hatreds behind them – were being consciously maintained. Maybe passed on to the next generation, despite the fact that history had moved in a new direction.

I read somewhere a long time ago that the Troubles of Northern Ireland were centered in specific, fairly small areas of Belfast – maybe a few square kilometers in all – along with select neighborhoods in one or two other cities. And that is how it seemed to me during my four days there. From all the people we met and talked to, the vast majority did not identify with one side or the other and most referred to “the northern part of Ireland” rather than “Northern Ireland”. Our next hosts were a lovely mixed Catholic / Protestant couple. She had owned a restaurant in Belfast that had been bombed and more than once, while he maintained that the whole Black Taxi political tour thing was only there for the tourists. They seemed happy together.

I guess people do have some choice in the matter. Some choose truth, reconciliation and the future. Others remain stuck, still fighting the battles of the 1980s, stoking decrepit fears and resentments till the crowds start chanting.

“Build the Wall!  Build the Wall!”

And who’s going to pay for it?

The next generation.

Form Letter of Rejection

 

After two years of living in our village and waiting for their asylum applications to be processed, our refugee boys were just told that the home they live in is going to be closed down. Apparently it is too expensive for the government to maintain. The 18 boys still living there will have to be relocated. Dispersed. One option is a rooming house at a highway truck stop – in one half of what began as an overly optimistic brothel. (The other half will continue to be used for its original purpose.) We are working on a different arrangement for one of the boys (“H.”) who still wants to attend my husband’s school.

My husband and H. sat in the kitchen discussing his “options” now that he is about to be . . . displaced once again. They sat in their usual spots – my husband at the end of the table and H. around the corner to his left. I have seen them seated like this many times over the past months, as H. told his life story and my husband typed it into story form. They are up to page 6 now, and the story is long from over.

Mariabad – a Hazara enclave

H. was basically a refugee at birth. His young parents were already on the run from both the Taliban and his mother’s family (!) because of their honor–offending Hazara (Shiite)/Sunni love affair which had led to the birth of H.’s older sister. When the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan, they had to leave the country altogether. They ended up in a place called Mariabad which is a sort of enclosed Hazara settlement within the larger Pakistani city of Quetta. H.’s childhood took place here. For ten years or so, the normal elements of early life – school, sports, work, games, family celebrations – were interspersed with police raids, an ever-increasing number of bombings and kidnappings. When H. was 13, his two younger brothers were abducted and severely beaten. Shortly thereafter, his elder sister disappeared while on her way to school. H.’s parents could only suspect that the mother’s family had discovered them. They decided it was too dangerous to stay there any longer. His father left first for Australia, hoping the family could follow, but he tragically drowned in the attempt to get there. Three years after that, H. made the next attempt – this time to Iran – only to be caught, imprisoned for a few months, and then deported. He made it back to his family in Pakistan. They made their next attempt to flee (again to Iran) as an entire family and this time they were successful. From there H. and his younger brother set off toward Germany via Turkey and Greece. Once they reached Austria, they decided to stay and try for asylum here. Almost exactly two years ago, H. arrived in our village . . .

 

It was already harsh for him to find out that he would need to move once again, but then he got a second piece of bad news in the same week: his asylum rejection letter with particularly offensive content and wording:

“Concerning the Reasons for Leaving Your Native Country:

The reasons supplied by you for leaving your native country are not credible. It cannot be established that you had to fear persecution in Afghanistan based on the reasons listed in the Geneva Convention on Refugees or that you are confronted currently with a relevant situation threatening your life or limb.

In connection with the existing information of this office on the general situation in Afghanistan, it could be established beyond a doubt that, in regard to the persecution you claim, flight alternatives within that country’s borders exist which are objectively and subjectively reasonable for you.”

 

This is pretty clearly some kind of standard form letter – it doesn’t make sense in light of H.’s situation. He is like the DACA kids who came to the States as babies due to other people’s decisions. And just like some politicians in the States with their “one size fits all” solution for those kids, it seems the Austrian government is pursuing a similar policy for the refugees. Automatic rejection in the first round.

The question is why they needed two years to come up with this answer.

Schwarzfahren

 

Riding home on the train yesterday, I had a new experience. It was the first time – I think in my whole life (!) – that I rode a train without a ticket. It wasn’t really my fault – neither the machine at the station nor in the train worked, so I had to wait till the fifth stop and its longer stay to get out and buy a ticket. That meant that for those five stops both on the way to the city and the way home again, I was . . . just a . . . hobo hopping trains. Riding the rails. Boxcar Betty. Queen of the Road. A tramp . . .

German speakers call this “Schwarzfahren”. Literally translated, that would be “black riding”. You can find signs in every train car, streetcar or bus warning against it. The most recent campaign imitates warning labels on cigarette packs, listing all the negative health benefits of “Schwarzfahren” – it leads to mood swings and muscle tension, high blood pressure and headaches:

I confess I didn’t suffer any of these consequences, which probably says something less than admirable about me. What is worse, though, is that my daughter accompanied me on my second crime spree. (She has her piano lessons in the city at the same time as my course and we take the train home together.) We met up at the station after our respective gigs and headed toward the train. As we were boarding, an elderly man asked us if we, too, were going to the town in Hungary that was the train’s final destination. I figured he was worried about being on the right one. We all got on, the man turned left, my daughter and I turned right and we took our usual seats.

A few minutes later, the elderly man popped up again. “We seem to be the only people on this train!” he said and then took a seat across the aisle from us. I assured him that we were very early boarders and that more would be coming.

This man was in his 70s I guess and he seemed friendly enough. He took my assurances as an invitation to chat, so in the next 10 minutes we learned all about him. He had been at an art exhibition, but had to leave early to catch this train. It was the last one that would still allow him to catch his connecting train home. He lived in Hungary part time and otherwise in Vienna – where he had many Nigerian friends.  His nationality was Austrian.

He paused while trying to figure out how to formulate his question.

We let him know that I was American and that my daughter had dual citizenship – Austrian American.

“Oh!” he said, clearly surprised. Then followed that up with “That Donald Trump . . . he’s a crazy guy, isn’t he?”

We rolled our eyes and I said “No. No no. We are not going to talk about that man.” And we all sort of half-smiled. There was a short silence as the man looked at my daughter.

He mentioned his Nigerian friends for a second time and was clearly trying to find out the – let’s say “ancestry” – of my brown-skinned daughter. One of us put him out of his misery and said “Ethiopian.”

“I had an Ethiopian girlfriend!” he blurted out excitedly. “For about three years. She was married off very young to a man that her father chose. That’s what those people do. She wanted to stay with me, but eventually she had to go back to her husband.”

I mentioned that Ethiopian customs differed a lot all over the country and then asked a few polite questions to figure out what kind of character we were dealing with here. The “romance” had happened years earlier when he was 57 and she was 25.  And, yes, he had wanted to marry her.

There was a lull in the conversation. He watched my daughter dig around in her backpack for her headphones. He started talking again:

“I saw a documentary once on Ethiopian TV about a young girl who left her family and went to work in a shoe factory. She lived in a tiny, dirty little house and earned just enough to feed herself. I thought, if I knew who she was, I would go save her. She could come live with me. Do some housework. Have a better life. . .”

My daughter piped up: “You know it often seems to us like all poorer people are miserable. But a lot of them know very little about how we live. They don’t have much, but neither do their friends and neighbors. They can still be happy. They don’t want to be saved.”

“Well,” replied the man, “I guess there wouldn’t be enough room here for all of them anyway.”

My daughter and I exchanged glances and then both chose that moment to insert our headphones and start the music (or in my case, podcast). I sat there marveling at my daughter’s grace and composure. She managed to stick up for herself and others confidently without being rude or provoking. She had shut the man down and was now shutting him out.

A new understanding rushed over me of how . . .  simply being in this world must feel to her at times. And then I thought of all those signs again, warning that “Schwarzfahren” can lead to headaches and high blood pressure and mood swings. It occurred to me that the word could also be translated as “Riding While Black” . . .  and the signs would still be true.

Sh**thole American

 

Although I sometimes feel like one, I should explain upfront that the title of this blog post does not refer to me personally . . . .

. . . yet.

 

As the mother of two African children who became proud American citizens just six months ago today, I scream out to that whole continent:

“I am sorry!”

 

To the one Haitian American I know, a wonderful woman named Nancy, who just happens to be a judge in my hometown now and who invited us to watch an incredibly moving naturalization ceremony (an experience I consider a privilege to have had to  this day), I yell out:

“I am sorry!”

 

I am ashamed of our president.

It remains to be seen if I become ashamed of my country.

Country Mice, City Rats

 

(My Years of Montessori – Part 40)

 

A few blog reading friends have expressed concern about my slow countrification as evidenced in recent posts. In the last few months it has been all checking chickens, migrating mice, and hoeing hedgehogs. I even got a short-lived crush on a donkey. But never fear! In a cosmically orchestrated twist, I get to reverse this recent trend and relate my adventures in the big city (Vienna) with 24 young country bumpkins (Hummingbird School kids) in tow.

While planning the trip with my three fellow teachers, we concentrated on things like Schönbrunn or Belvedere? Technical or natural history museum? Lunch packets from the hostel or supermarket stops?  What we didn’t think so much about was:

  • how do you get 28 people on and off a crowded city bus or tram in one go?
  • do our kids know the rules of city sidewalks?
  • do our kids know how to walk in pairs for more than 30 seconds?
  • will they be capable of standing still long enough for us to get a headcount?
  • will our more free-wheeling kids take our statements as instructions or mere suggestions?

Our first inkling that these things would be issues came when we changed trains on our way there. All twenty-four kids made it on to the connecting train, but only twenty-two of the suitcases did too. Mark grabbed the abandoned bags and tossed them inside before getting on himself. It took the guilty parties almost a half hour to realize what they had done.  The next sign that we were in for some troubles came during the walk from the train station to the hostel. Our kids walked in packs of five or six, taking up the entire sidewalk, practically plowing down other perplexed and/or peeved pedestrians. And not only that – they kept jostling around, shoving or trying to trip one another. They were excited and laughing loudly in the way pubescent kids do when nothing is truly funny. They were oblivious to the sights and sounds around them.  Despite having no idea where they were going, they just took off in any old direction with inexplicable confidence.

Schönbrunn Palace and the technical museum were planned for the arrival day. Halfway through the palace gardens, Mark and David were already prepared to start sending this or that kid home early. By the time we left the museum, I, too, had the first name on my own mental list of potential early departers.  (Lucy of “Power Girls and Hoodies” fame. Panting, sweating and with a face flushed red, she declared that I was unfair for accusing her of running through the museum – right before tearing off again.) Later, back in the hostel, as the kids played “Spin the Bottle”, argued the superiority of their respective hostel rooms, and planned their nighttime visits, we four teachers began a second list: “Things We Will Do Better the Next Time We Plan a Vienna Trip”. Not only were the questions above on the list, but also some new issues including:

  • should we confiscate the energy drinks (to be returned) or just toss them?
  • what should we do about kids with way more money than agreed on (or worse yet, ATM cards) and who were already starting to make loans to others?
  • should we teach them how to put sheets on a bed in advance? (as most of them have clearly never had to do this before)
  • what do we do about the kids with unlimited internet access on their cell phones?

 

Had Day 2 gone similarly to Day 1, we may very well have ended the trip early. But, as kids often tend to do, they surprised us the next morning by suddenly behaving themselves. Our system of forming groups of 8 for bus and tram rides worked almost flawlessly. On approaching a bus stop, seven of my eight magically appeared around me. They started calling me their “Vienna Mama”. (The eighth kid was Moritz of “Hummingbird Report Cards” fame.) He kept wandering off and joining other groups. “Where is Moritz?” became a mantra of our group. They watched out for him along with me. When Moritz got off the tram one stop early on our last ride, the entire group screamed his name. He heard, turned, and got back on the tram at the last second.

Back to Day Two.  The vast majority of the kids were attentive and interested during our inner city tour (thanks to a fabulous guide who adapted her content for a 12-13 year old audience). They did surprisingly little complaining about the fact that it was really cold, and when they did get a bit tired and cranky, it turned out that the cure was a playground in the City Park where they ran around like wildlings until they were no longer tired.

Memorial to Maria Christina in the Augustinian Chapel in Hofburg:
In the park:

 

The final stop on Day Two was Time Travel Vienna which is an attraction like the London Dungeon – an entertaining introduction to the history of the city. The kids were generally enthused, but also pretty sophisticated in their critiques of the experience. (Some of it really was a bit cheesy.) Only our autistic Katy had major problems dealing with this part of our trip. She couldn’t handle the 3D film and didn’t know enough to simply close her eyes (which I did half of the time).  In one part we saw rats running through medieval streets and then puffs of air blew around our feet in the theater, making it seem like rats were running past us. Poor Katy kept talking about it for hours afterward – with tears running down her eyes; it was real for her. She was so afraid we were all going to come down with the Plague . . .

Another point for our mental list of what to do better next time:

  • consider what activities are okay for our spectrum kids.

 

Day Three had only one activity – the kids could decide between the natural history and the art history museums. A week earlier at school, two thirds decided for art, but as we were standing there between them, the “Dogs and Cats” exhibit sign on the natural history museum made many kids change their minds. I ended up taking only five of them with me through the art history one.

It was probably for the best.

The Egyptian mummies and hieroglyphs held their attention for about fifteen minutes, but from then on they spent most of the time giggling and taking cell phone pics of historic breasts and butts and penises. 2000 years’ worth of them. But even that got old. At one point we sat in front of a huge painting of Prometheus having his liver ripped out by a bird and I told them the myth. I was surprised when one of them asked me if it was a true story.

I suddenly saw the masterpieces in this museum through the eyes of a 13 year old country bumpkin. When Moritz proclaimed on leaving the museum that people in the past were “sick in the head and disgusting”, I couldn’t really disagree. At least by modern standards. It was a nice reminder that, despite all the trouble in the world right now, there has never been a better time to live in than now. I mean . . . there is no Camelot time in the past when people – generally – had it better than we do. The best lesson of most history is reminding us of how lucky we are to be beyond it.

 

While standing outside the museums again, waiting for the final stragglers to return from the bathrooms so that we could make our way back to the train station and home, Mark fell into conversation with another teacher in charge of a nearby school group. He had only about 15 kids with him and all of them were 8th Graders. He had noticed how we had so many kids and of mixed ages  (the oldest 14 and the youngest 10). He asked us how we managed them all.

What we learned from that conversation is that “Vienna Week” is a staple of the Austrian junior high school curriculum. In most cases, schools all over the country simply apply to the Education Ministry and get their excursion to Vienna organized and implemented for them by professional guides. A few teachers go along for the ride, but don’t have a lot of responsibility. The costs are minimal.

Go figure.

Should we decide to do this again, I’m not sure we are going to need our mental list about “What to Do Better Next Time”. Or maybe that will be the only list we need. We will deal with the energy drinks and the spectrum kids; someone else will deal with the Lucies and Moritzes.