Bursting the bubble

I’ve just been reading this piece on European Schools by Vincent Manancourt, and I thought I’d offer some reflections.

Vincent explains that he usually says he’s from Luxembourg, since that’s where he was brought up and lives, but that he doesn’t really believe it. He’s actually English, and just lives in Luxembourg, yet he’s not ‘really English’ either.

He suggests that his nationality crisis is due to his having attended the European School in Luxembourg. People from the school didn’t speak the language of the host country and didn’t need to mix with the locals (although he himself did mix to some extent), and in general there wasn’t a sense of permanency in his friends’ residency in Luxembourg. This, he feels, created a tense relationship between the school and the host country. He sums it up by saying that the school exists in a bubble, and the school community is like a stream that flows through Luxembourg but doesn’t have a permanent presence there.

Now, I don’t know Luxembourg and I was not lucky enough to attend a European School myself. But I have travelled and lived in different countries, and I currently teach in a European School (in Heraklion, Crete). And, like Vincent, I feel confused about my national identity. For as long as I can remember I have always felt ill at ease when asked where I was from. It didn’t matter where I was living at the time, what age I was, or who was asking.

I felt people wanted to place me, get the measure of me, and reduce me to a familiar stereotype they could deal with. That might be convenient for them, but it’s simplistic and short-sighted. I knew that a simple answer (even if I could give one) wouldn’t really be helpful to them or fair to me. We are not merely products or representatives of a country, and there is so much more to us, to each one of us, than a birthplace. Someone’s origin was never important to me, no more than their religion, gender, or ethnicity. People are complex collections of experiences, attitudes, beliefs, and desires, and a person’s country of origin is just one of a huge number of parameters — and not the most important one. In fact, it would make more sense to ask what food I prefer or what music I like than to ask about my country of origin.

Of course, our connections with countries do colour our habits and attitudes to some extent. But we are not connected only to our birthplaces, and the great benefit of being able to travel and live in different countries is that one can build more connections and enrich one’s outlook.

European Schools facilitate this — they bring different national perspectives together in a natural way. And the school environment need not be an artificial bubble cultivating imported attitudes, but a meeting place, where different cultures can co-exist and flourish together, and where individuals can choose the elements that are most meaningful to them. In this way, students can create their own individual European personalities, drawing on the continent’s rich cultural palette, rather than being defined by their birth certificate.

So at our school, we sing Greek folk songs and bake Swedish pancakes, we dye eggs for Easter and carve pumpkins for Halloween. We study Shakespeare, read Hans Christian Andersen, and recite Cavafy. Some might say it’s a cultural soup – and perhaps it is, but it’s a very nourishing one, and one that builds more strength than some stodgy local diets!

I certainly don’t feel I live in a bubble. Working at the school, I have built up a network of friends across Europe — former pupils, parents, colleagues, and visitors. We keep in touch, they come back to visit, and we visit them. If it’s a bubble, it’s one that includes the whole continent!

Is the school community a transient stream? In a sense, yes — people come and go. But that’s not bad; that’s life. Steams are living things and the school brings new people and new life to Heraklion and carries the culture of Crete and Greece out to the rest of Europe. We need more streams like this!

But maybe others think we live in a bubble? Maybe they think that, since we do not thoroughly assimilate into the host culture, we remain outsiders? Certainly, there is some resistance to the school here and occasional accusations of elitism. But I think such attitudes are misplaced. We do not reject the host culture. Far from it! We embrace it and celebrate it and work on many projects with the local community. But we embrace much more too. We embrace the cultures of the children who have moved here, of the teachers who work here, and of the other schools across Europe with whom we have contacts. If anything, it’s our critics who live in a bubble, shut off from this wider European culture.

Of course, none of this is aimed at Vincent – but rather at the attitudes that make him feel uncomfortable. Moreover, Vincent is absolutely right about one thing – namely that ignorance of the local language keeps you in a bubble. Language is the key to culture, and the more languages you have, the wider your horizons will be. And we should all make an effort to learn the language of the country we are living in, or even just visiting. But, again, the European Schools are helping to puncture these linguistic bubbles. Second languages are learnt from first grade and third languages in high school. Many of my students speak three or four languages and many take extra classes in Greek.

So we need more people to burst out of their bubbles and share the spirit of the European Schools. We need more European Schools; indeed I’d like to see all the schools in Europe become European Schools! Then we can leave our national bubbles, be ourselves, and feel at home everywhere.

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