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European Diary 2

Lynn Ross, Ms

hen I read about what's happening currently to women in Afghanistan, and the struggle that women in many parts of the world have to the rights that we in the 'West' often now take for granted, I'm reminded that our relative freedom was hard won by women in the late 19th and early 20th century and that it is important for us 'older women' to document our experience and provide a benchmark for what is possible, even though we often feel we haven't come far enough.

Coincidentally on my 50th birthday in January 1996 I was asked to take part in a European Commission project as a representative of a rural, island community to make recommendations on the needs and desires of women from 50 to 70 and how they could be addressed. The team consisted of older women from Scotland, Austria, Italy & Germany.

Changing Track at Third Age - the international team

The project was called Changing Track at Third Age. The first meeting was held in Graz in Austria. We attended a series of workshops and lectures by women aged from 50 to over 70, still active in their careers with inspiring wisdom and insight.

These women lived through World War II in Austria and related how difficult it was to live with their men who came back from the front, defeated.

Ironically I remember how difficult it was for my mother living with my father - I was born nine months after he came back from the war, victorious. It seems there are no winners in the experience of war.

What the Austrian women wanted for the younger women in their own families and in society in general were opportunities. They wanted opportunities for education, self-development and a healthy measure of emotional and financial independence, to be able to make informed choices about their own lives.

The discussions were about how to achieve this and what policies we as a group thought should be put in place by the European Parliament.

Mercy Sisters

Appropriately enough, the workshops were held at the retreat house for the Sisters of Mercy in Graz where we also had very beautiful and basic accommodation. The house itself was a stunning Jugendstil building in the middle of town, with a large snow-covered garden in the middle. It was certainly a bonus for me to have a week where I could think about who I was in the context of the discussions, and a welcome break from a hectic work and family life at home.

As well as discussion, there was much laughter and singing, including inevitably the choruses from 'The Sound of Music' which the nuns had actually never heard before.

One other incident demonstrated the healing skill of the Sisters. Several of us caught a tummy bug which gave us a rough night - we each thought we were the only sufferer until the morning.

The Mother Superior heard about our predicament and sent down a measure of her medicinal schnapps for each of us. The recovery time was amazing. Although a bit weak, we made it to the afternoon workshop, which would have been unthinkable in the morning. Unfortunately, we couldn't find out the secret ingredient.

Guests at the Opera

An important feature of the meetings was to introduce our own culture to the visiting team members. As the year progressed I remember being so impressed by the similarities between us as women, rather than the differences I had expected. Communication often transcended language. Laughter and body language go a long way to understanding each other. That sense of the universal experience of women has stayed with me ever since.

The highlight of our trip to Graz was a night at the Opera House to see a performance of Strauss/Rosenkavalier. We were in the royal box, dressed in our finest, on red velvet seats. A magical experience.

The visit to Graz not only gave us an insight into the lives of older Austrian women, their needs and desires, it set the tone for the meetings which would take place in Italy, Germany and Scotland throughout 1996, gradually revealing the tremendous resource which is the older woman in our community.

A resource and wealth of experience which should be tapped into and not ignored.


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