Back to School

26th February 2016 – Greenwich, Connecticut, USA

My day began with an early bird stroll along the Hudson River. The morning was crystal clear and the Manhattan skyline was as spectacular as ever. A very friendly couple, guarded by a pair of Red Setters and enjoying what looked to be a dubious roll-up agreed, with some vigour, to take a picture or two of yours truly, in situ, for blog enhancement. We have them to thank for these.

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A very friendly couple, guarded by a pair of Red Setters and enjoying what looked to be a dubious roll-up agreed, with some vigour, to take a picture or two of yours truly, in situ, for blog enhancement. We have them to thank for these

2016-02-25 12.35.542016-02-25 12.36.19I made my way into Manhattan and headed for Grand Central station, to board the Stamford train to Greenwich, Connecticut. Grand Central is truly wonderful, resplendent in its Beaux-Arts style and buzzing, magnificently, with the excitement of a million journeys to come.

I stood a while, watching the varying methods being employed to “coolly” run for a train that’s just in reach and puzzling at the countless individuals taking endless “selfies” to post about the social networking town. In front of those three triumphant arches, I felt a deep and unshakable need not to be counted amongst the latter group on this morning, in this locale.

As there were no dubious rollie-smoking, harmless, and urgent appointment-less natives on hand, I’m afraid we have only a snap of this station itself to share. You’ll just have to take my word for it that I was there too.2016-02-26 21.48.34

This landmark harks back to a time when the journey was truly the meat and potatoes of the adventure. The station itself was built in 1871. That’s very same year that Henry Morton Stanley (with at least partial funding from the New York Herald) found our man Dave Livingston and coined that timeless phrase, “Dr Livingston, I presume?” which would be printed in the aforementioned paper and many, many others the following year. I should add that whether or not he actually said it is fiercely contested, not that it makes the blindest smidgen of difference.

It seems utterly strange how we trot the globe now, filing one by one into an enormous aircraft with our headphones on, sporting neck pillows and eye masks. It’s hardly John Wayne stuff is it? What happened to the tough and the adventurous? What would Theodore Roosevelt think of all this molly coddling in light of his own “great admiration for men who were fearless and who could hold their own in the world”?

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Sorry Teddy, but we’re not heading anywhere without wifi, a Starbucks and a blister or two of Xanax on hand.

My own destination is the Greenwich Academy, the oldest girls’ school in Connecticut. I’m giving a short presentation to members of their “global scholars program” about our own experiences working and travelling so far away from the countries in which we both grew up. It is adaptation away from the wildlife-travel presentation and I’ve been so frazzled in the build up to this trip that to a large extent I’ll be playing this one by ear.

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The School and its’ surroundings are really beautiful. Connie Blunden, the director of global initiatives and the lady that booked me for this particular gig, explained that William A. Rockefeller previously owned part of the school estate, In fact the lawn that I’m standing in front of remains, as a prerequisite in the deeds, entirely unchanged from that time.

I’m giving the presentation in the Ruth West Campbell hall and while I wait for the poor few, sentenced to a lunchtime appointment on a glorious day, I notice the school motto written on one of the yearbooks.

Ad ingenium faciendum: “Toward the Building of Character”.

Well, well, well! This is a different brand of character building entirely, and not one I’m at all used to. The phrase “it builds character” has been wielded as an infallible weapon in defence against frontal assaults on the necessity of the compulsory, unpleasant activity.

It can be used as a retort to the child disputing a demand that he or she finish the enormous bowl of brussels sprouts, boiled yellow and paraded at Christmas, regardless of the poor blighter’s involuntary gag reflex.

With equal success my own father, a British weatherman – born in Lancashire, employed the term whenever one suggested that a driving sideways rain was, in one school of thinking, not the best weather for walking to the bus stop. Or that a frosty December Saturday could be spent in better comfort, with a happier result, if one avoided a rock solid field and stopped risking the excruciating slap of a cold wet rugby ball on an unprepared and unprotected thigh.

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I’m a little nervous as they begin arriving and taking their seats. The battle armour I’ve chosen for this particular performance is a brown, tweed three piece with a knitted tie that my brother gave to me last week. I’m going for the eccentric Englishman in a big way and I’m honest with them about this from the start. They seem happy with the efforts and that breaks a certain amount of the inevitable teenage ice.

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Their questions were fantastic and this curiosity made the presentation easy and fun to deliver. We ran out of time which seemed bound to happen, young people here are seriously busy, but at the end they humoured me with a group photograph, which is by far my favourite American Souvenir.

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I sincerely hope that it inspires one or two of them into an African adventure of their own in future, or at the very least, that it was marginally better than a steaming bowl of yellow Brussels Sprouts.

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