My experiences: Germany
How does an international education change you? TV producer Robert Murphy remembers his time at international school in Germany.
In 1986, at the age of twelve, I left my home in Dublin, Ireland, and moved to the small town of Bonn in Germany, then the capital city of a nation still divided between East and West. My father was a diplomat for the Republic of Ireland, and had been given a four year posting, quickly immersing himself in language courses and background research for a prestigious role. My sister and I, though, had more prosaic concerns. Where would we live? What would happen to all our stuff? And more importantly – where would we go to school?
The only thing I knew about Germany was that it was home to the pop singer Nena of ’99 Red Balloons’ fame, so the prospect of moving there felt like a thrilling leap into the unknown. Packing our things into a colossal truck that would make the journey by road, leaving our house for a hotel, flying to a foreign country at the height of the summer holidays, all seemed part of a great adventure. Looking back, however, my parents must have been wracked with anxiety. We were leaving behind cherished friends and family, and schools where we were settled and thriving, for a country where we barely knew how to order a cup of coffee.
"....a United Nations of children..."
After an idyllic few weeks spent in Bonn’s immaculate parks and open air pools, the cold realisation dawned that the first term was about to begin at the British Embassy Preparatory School (‘BEPS’ to everyone), the city’s grandly named international school for juniors. I can still dimly recall the very first day, standing alone in the playground watching a United Nations of children racing around excitedly, and asking myself ‘is that kid really wearing a beret?’
Any concerns I may have had about making friends quickly vanished as hesitant conversations revealed shared interests, from Dungeons and Dragons to computer games, and many shared experiences as well. All of us had had to leave our home country for a new, temporary life abroad, and this created a strong sense of camaraderie. I could soon count kids from Canada, Nigeria, Australia and Finland as friends, with our classroom probably resembling those exuberant Benetton adverts where children of every race and nationality happily coexisted side-by-side. And in truth, people were accepted for who they were, not where they were from or what they looked like.
If I’d expected the educational side of school to be any different, I was to be disappointed. Maths, English, Science, Geography – they were all earnestly taught to the school’s two hundred pupils, just as they had been at home. The teachers at BEPS, and then at the British High School in Bonn, were largely British expats who worked hard to inspire a multicultural mix of pupils with differing abilities, and differing language skills. I can vouch for this, as my mum taught English at the British High School, and I can still remember how rewarding she found it to watch her diverse class gradually connect with Shakespeare and Solzhenitsyn.
It was an environment that seemed to foster a creative spirit in many of us, whether it was setting up a magazine from scratch or staging impromptu concerts and ambitious school plays, usually starring the kid in the beret. And it continued beyond the classroom, with tranquil Bonn as the backdrop for weekend adventures that included long rambles up the daunting Drachenfels mountain, and an attempt to film our own monster movie with an early video camera.
"...brimming with generosity of spirit..."
Once a year, parents and pupils would gather together to mark the quirk of global politics that had bought us all together, with an event known simply as ‘International Day.’ It was a chance to sample traditional dishes at a time when Thai spring rolls seemed impossibly exotic, and to show off national dress – although Ireland did tend to be somewhat upstaged by Nigeria in this department as I recall. In a way, International Day was a microcosm of the school experience – quirky, surprising, a little random maybe, but brimming with generosity of spirit.
Even so, I know it can’t have been easy for everyone. The wrench of leaving behind everything you were familiar with; the struggle to communicate and fit in. The armoured car at the school gates in the morning was a sobering reminder that the parent countries of some pupils had powerful enemies. We struggled in certain classes, we argued and fell out and then made up again, while the soundtrack to Dirty Dancing played in the background.
I’d just turned 16 when our four-year stay in Germany came to an end. After the white-hot intensity of summer exams – in our case, the international version of Britain’s GCSEs – there was the bittersweet farewell to a time we all knew had been pretty special. I’d said goodbye to friends before – an occupational hazard in the transient world of diplomats and expats – but this felt different, with adulthood and grown-up decisions just around the corner.
My experience of international school, though, had set me in good stead. Rousing history lessons instilled a passion for the past that led first to a Cambridge University degree and then to a career in TV production with the BBC. Taking part in those plays taught me that a little fear can be an exhilarating thing. But most importantly, spending four years in the company of children from every corner of the globe showed me that true friendship transcends race, religion and nationality.
I still keep up with the friends I made during those four years in the late 80s, and seeing a familiar name or face appear online always makes me smile. The Japanese linguistics academic and dynamic mother-of-three, the Scottish archaeologist, the German-Lebanese restaurant group MD, the Australian physics professor. That kid in the beret went on to become one of Canada’s top blues musicians and an accomplished actor, holding his own in Hollywood movies. When I saw him in Toronto last summer I was pleased to see that he still had a nice line in hats.
Main picture showing aerial view of Bonn: iStock