I am interrupting this gallop through memories of West Africa to mark something of an occasion.
In 1961, when I was eleven years old, I managed to pass the infamous ’11-Plus’ examination and gained a place at the Bishop Gore Grammar School in Swansea. So at the beginning of September 1961, in my new short trousers, school blazer and cap, I was ready for my first day in big school. I packed my brand new geometry set into my squeaky new satchel, straightened my smart red and yellow striped school tie and set off on my new adventure.
I had forgotten that we had a sixteen year old German kid staying with us at the time. His name was Winfried.
The 1960 and 70s were the heyday of town twinning all over Europe. Twinning arrangements often started as alcohol-fuelled official junkets for civic dignitaries from the respective countries but many of them also resulted links being established between schools. Thousands of school children took part in exchange visits with kids in various European countries, particularly in Germany and France. Swansea, where I spent most of my childhood, was twinned with Mannheim and my elder brother, Andrew, had already spent a couple of weeks with Winfried’s family. That’s why Winfried was at my house the day I started secondary school.
To say that Winfried and my brother were ill-matched would be an understatement. Winfried was studious and serious and already had a good idea about the career he wanted to pursue. He studied hard at school and at the end of his secondary education, went on to medical school and became a gynaecologist. My brother played bass guitar in a pop group called the Strollers, to the eventual detriment of his A-levels and went into chain-store management. The two boys had very little in common and, as soon as the exchange visits were over, they both lost interest in keeping in touch with each other. Fortunately, Winfried kept alive his contact with our family.
Fast forward four years. My school also took part in the Mannheim exchange and since I had chosen German as one of my GCE subjects, I signed up for the exchange. By this time I had only been learning German for a couple of months and therefore I was fairly sure that I wouldn’t understand much of what was going on around me.
The first thing I saw, as our train pulled into Mannheim station at about 4.00am on our first day, was a big red neon sign that said “Trink Coca Cola.” I began to think that German wasn’t quite as complicated as I had imagined. I was met on the platform by my host student, Wolfgang Schlicker, and his father, who drove us back to their apartment in Mannheim. I was soon to be disabused of the notion that learning German was going to be easy!
Wolfgang’s mother had got up early to welcome me and give me some breakfast and, realising that I did not have any usable German, she tried her hardest to dredge up from her memory the English that she had learned at school. By now it was about 5am and I had spent the night sitting in a railway carriage with a bunch of teenagers getting very little sleep. I will never forget her opening words to me. They were “Welcome in Mannheim, Robert. Did you have a good …..”
At this point it was clear that she couldn’t remember the English word ‘journey’, so she just substituted the German word in its place. The German word for ‘journey’ is ‘Fahrt’! That was a lot to cope with at 5 o’clock in the morning after a sleepless night!
Wolfgang and I were about as well-matched as Winfried and my brother had been. Wolfgang was tall, muscular and an ardent and committed sportsman. during my first week in Mannheim he took me along to attend one of his hockey matches. Now up until that moment I had never even seen a hockey match and just knew that it was a sport that girls played. I imagined it was going to be something like a gentle game of croquet. What I witnessed on that pitch that afternoon was an education for me. The game was fast, furious, merciless and bloody. Wolfgang staggered off the field exhausted, covered in cuts and bruises but triumphant about his team’s victory.
As part of his training for hockey and to build up his upper arm strength, Wolfgang would spend hours rowing in what I can only describe as a concrete rowing boat, built in several feet of water in an old shed. Apparently, this was fun.
I was into amateur theatre and singing. Not exactly a close skill match.
The exchange visit to Mannheim was to last two weeks an, despite their kindness, because my German was so minimal, I found being ‘en famille’ with the Schlickers very tiring. Week 1 was going very slowly.
Then Winfried turned up! Even though he had lost contact with my elder brother, he had remained in touch with my parents and had visited them on several occasions. He contacted the Schlicker family and asked if he could take me out for the day at the weekend. I was delighted! Not only did Winfried speak excellent English, which was a great relief, he also offered to take me to the cinema to see ‘My Fair Lady’, which was being shown in Mannheim in English! I can still remember the joy of sitting in that cinema luxuriating in Julie Andrews’ shaky cockney accent and Rex Harrison’s impeccable upper class English, as my own language just flowed over me!
Two years later, I took it into my head to plan a hitch-hiking trip to Germany with my schoolfriend, Peter James. We were seventeen years old at the time and, at the last minute, Peter’s parents, perhaps wisely, decided that the whole idea of two young teenagers hitchhiking through Europe was just fraught with danger, so Peter dropped out of the venture. My parents had no such misgivings, or, if they did, they didn’t express them. My planning for the trip went ahead. I decided that I would hitch through Germany to Lucerne in Switzerland. (Thinking about this now, more than 50 years later, it seems unbelievable that I could contemplate such a mad-cap escapade and even more incredible that my parents would have allowed me to go ahead with it, but the 1960s were different times.)
At that time I was already going out with Linda and I had an after-school job in a local chemist shop. If there were any medicines to deliver to elderly customers, I would deliver them, and then, if time allowed, I would work in the stock room with Ieuan Jones. When he heard about myplan to hitch to Lucerne, Ieuan gave me a five pound note and told me that, if I ever reached Lucerne, – which he doubted – I could spend his £5.00 on the cable car up Mount Pilatus. The deal was that if I failed to get there, or abandoned the trip, I would have to return his £5.00. That cemented my resolve. There was no way he was going to get his £5 note back!
The day of my departure arrived and a neighbour had arranged my first lift in a large lorry as far as Croydon, just outside London, leaving at about 10.00 pm. I can remember kissing Linda farewell on the doorstep of our house in Swansea. I was so full of the excitement about my impending adventure, that it never even crossed my mind that she might have wanted to come with me!
To cut a very long story short, I did succeed in ensuring that Ieuan did not get his £5 back. The journies to and from Lucerne were not without their adventures. Just outside of Ostende I found that I had inadvertently wandered onto the motorway. A lorry driver spotted me on the side of the road, brought his truck to a screeching halt and urgently gestured to me up to get into his cab before I either got arrested by the police or killed by the traffic. And then, on the return journey I got a lift in a shiny, two-seater Mercedes sportscar, with a driver wearing dark glasses and leather gloves. We hurtled down the Autobahn at 230 km per hour. I eventually calculated that to be just over 140 mph!
I reached Lucerne, pitched my little tent on a campsite next to a very friendly British family, spent Ieuan’s fiver on a trip to the top of Mt Pilatus and started to plan my return trip. The British family couldn’t quite believe that I had hitched all the way from Swansea on my own and, despite having very little space in their estate car, they offered me a lift, sitting cross-legged on top of their camping equipment, back onto the German Autobahn network.
Next stop Würzburg in Bavaria, where guess who was working as a newly qualified doctor? Yes, you guessed it -Winfried! It was just as well that he was a doctor, because by this time I had picked up a sore throat and was feeling very sorry for myself.
After a few days R&R at Winfried’s house, he drove me to Aschaffenburg just outside Frankfurt and dropped me off on a motorway slip road, where I stood for most of the day before someone picked me up and I was able to continue my journey homewards.
Eventually, I made my tortuous way home to what must have been a mightily relieved couple of parents.
Fast forward another year and Winfried once again turns up unexpectedly in Swansea, this time with his wife, Gisela, who spoke reasonable English, but was quite reluctant to use it, and his parents, who spoke no English at all. He invited us all, my Mum and Dad, my seven year old sister, Jane, and Linda to have dinner with them at the very posh Osbourne Hotel on the Gower Peninsular just outside Swansea. This was in the days before most people had a telephone at home, so I had to get the bus down to Linda’s house to warn her that she had an unexpected dinner engagement that evening. She had been out all day playing, ironically, hockey for the school and had only just enough time to get dressed up in her finery before Winfried turned up at her gate in his Mercedes to whisk her away.
I should point out that Linda’s parents’ house was in a part of Swansea, between the gasworks and the prison, where only the brave or the foolhardy dared to venture. Certainly not many Mercedes were seen in the area and if they were, they would be unlikely to stop for fear of losing their hubcaps!
By way of contrast, when I described the Osbourne Hotel as ‘posh’, I was not exaggerating. We didn’t just have a waiter attending our table, we had the ‘Head Waiter’! He picked up on the fact that my little sister was getting bored sitting at the grown-ups table and was making conversation between the adults even more difficult than it was already. He quietly took her off to the residents’ lounge, sat her in a big leather armchair in front of a huge TV screen and kept her supplied with snacks and orange juice for the rest of the evening. Part of the reason why my sister was happy to sit on her own for the next couple of hours was that the hotel boasted an actual colour television – one of the very first to be installed in Britain!
We sat around one large table, Winfried, Gisela and my parents at one end of the table and Linda and myself with Winfried’s mother and father at the other. For Winfried this was a comfortable arrangement. He spoke excellent English and by now regarded my parents as old friends. However, at the other end of the table, things were very different. I was stretching my two years of school German to the absolute limit trying to make conversation with Winfried’s parents. All I can remember now is that by the end of the evening, I was absolutely brain-dead!
Over the years that followed, the links with Winfried continued to develop. When our son, Tom, was one year old we planned a camping holiday in Germany and a visit to Winfried was, of course, part of the trip. Subsequent years saw us in Germany on many occasions and touching base with Winfried and his family was almost always part of the itinerary. We watched each others’ children arrive on this earth, go to school, grow up and quit their respective familial nests as the years rolled on.
Fast forward again, this time through the decades, to the present day.
Last week I reached the grand old age of 71. My phone rang. It was Winfried wishing me a happy birthday!
This has been a friendship that has endured for sixty years! A friendship that, though the medium of the school exchange, brought together two families from two countries that had been at war with each other twice within the space of 40 years.
These days school exchanges are almost a thing of the past. When I was a teacher I did organise an exchange with a school in Hannover, and I know that several long-standing friendships resulted from it, but it was against a background that, on all levels, was very hostile to the idea of taking school students to foreign countries and letting them stay with foreign families. And that was long before Brexit began to spread its xenophobic poison into our national psyche.
Now, of course, the covid pandemic has made any such exchanges impossible. My fear is, however, that even if we do eventually succeed in taming the covid monster and relegating it to the same status as yellow fever or flu, the days of young teenagers going abroad, spending time out of their personal comfort zones, experiencing different cultures and ways of looking at the world are probably gone for ever.
And I think we will be immeasurably poorer for it.