Austausch Reunion - 1996

The following article appeared in the MCB magazine, December 1996


"A long, long time ago, I can still remember .."

On 10 August 1966, 11 of us assembled at Donegall Quay, not quite sure what to expect as we set off on an exchange visit to Kirchhain in West Germany.  It was a long journey as we travelled by boat overnight to Liverpool, then to London - Dover - Ostende - Cologne, and then onto Siegen, Giessen, finally reaching Kirchhain, some 45 hours later.

Our hosts were knowledgeable and affable, and up-to-date - "Did you see that goal (England - W Germany, 1966) ?  "Why was the second track on Revolver called Eleanor Rigby ? (I remember spelling it for someone).  Did we realise that "Troggs" (Wild Thing, With a Girl Like You) really meant "cave dwellers (troglodytes)" ?

I was impressed by German efficiency, and work ethic. At MCB, if we were scheduled extra lessons (double Latin !), we had a "ninth period" added to the day.  When the Germans had to fit in an extra class, they simply rose earlier, and attended a "nullte Periode" (at the start of the day).  With efficiency of language, we were "die Iren" - not "Irländer", as we would have expected (obvious really, Finns come from Finland, Poles come from Poland, ..).

Besides visiting the town hall, the Fulda cathedral, a wallpaper factory, and cruising the Rhine, we also spent a day being shown the Iron Curtain - a deeply felt division to a generation who had known only the Federal Republic.  There was a map of pre-war Germany on a notice board in the school.  It was split, jigsaw-style, into three.  "Soll es so bleiben ?" said the caption poignantly.

After 3 short weeks our visit there had ended. We journeyed together back across Europe, and then it was the Germans' turn to stay with us.  They were surprised to see our uniformed appearance - some other surprises too; double-decker buses, over a dozen cinemas, and many of us, being 17, had access to cars.  We visited the Giant's Causeway, and Dublin.  There was a tour of Stormont, and one or two parties.

The Germans impressed us with their effortless perfection in spoken English.  One, announcing some bit of tom-foolery or other, explained, "and the winner becomes a sausage !"  We laughed at the deliberate double-entendre (bekommen = to receive).  It's one thing to speak someone else's language well; quite another to crack jokes in it !

A further short 3 weeks, and the exchange was over.  We bade our guests a sad farewell at the quayside.  It had all taken place at an impressionable age.  These are my impressions of it.

That was thirty years ago.  I no longer live in N Ireland and had lost touch with all but a few companions from my schooldays.  I had however kept in touch with Wolfgang Stenner, my pen-pal from that time.  I saw him last while visiting Germany a couple of years ago.  Relaxing and reminiscing in his garden, he had enquired of the others from the exchange - " and where are the others ?" he asked me.  I had to admit to having no idea.  Many people leave N Ireland on completing their education, you know, and the troubles haven't helped, I explained.  He rattled off how Michi ran the chemist shop, and Karl-Hans was a judge.  Through some very developed sense of esprit de corps, many of the Germans had obviously kept in touch.

I gradually came to the idea that it would be interesting to see how the others from the exchange were keeping, nearly 30 years on.  Several telephone calls and letters later - to the Belfast Reference Library, the BBC, the Army Records Office, BT Archives, the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper, the French Minitel service, and numerous householders in N Ireland & Scotland, who now either lived at, or next door to, my companions' former addresses - and nearly eight months later, I had traced, and spoken to, them all.  They were scattered across the UK - 3 still live in N Ireland, 1 in the Republic, 2 in Wales, 1 in Gloucester, 1 in Cambridge, and 4 in London.

They were all, of course, totally surprised by the call.  Some had maintained contact with friends from MCB and/or exchange partners; some obviously hadn't.  Many had their own particular recollection to offer. I was able to put some in touch with companions from whom they'd not heard for years.

Practically 30 years to the day, we had a reunion party in London, at the home of Chris Seaward, who had bravely agreed to host the reunion. It was exciting as the guests arrived, and could be identified. (Burckhard, at well over 6 foot, was unmistakable.)  Once you accepted that everyone looked just that little bit older, you realised the people behind the appearance were the same, and conversations resumed where they left off, years before.  We toasted absent friends.

As Iain Mitchell described it,
      On cue, some absent magician
      Turned down the sky,
      Struck up the fairy lights,
      Put time on hold, and conjured
      In slow procession,
      Out of the Dämmerung
      Images of Ireland, the past, another country.
      A voice gone thirty years,
      The faces full of life done,
      But still the unchanged essence
      Of what we were, we thought.
      No longer 46
      Held in no man's time,
      We edged towards the past.

      Minute events, forgotten promises,
      The words we'd used,
      Helped us construct an edifice,
      Of what we knew had been.

      The journey back home
      To Cambridge
      Took forever
      I had a lot of catching up to do
      For lost time.

The reunion carried on the following day, as we visited Hampton Court (our children ran excitedly round the maze).  We cruised down the Thames to Richmond, followed by coffee in Peter Weil's apartment, and an evening meal in a nearby tapas restaurant.  On the Sunday, Ed Seaward, head groundsman for the All England Lawn Tennis Club, treated us to a grand tour of Wimbledon.

All too soon, more farewells.  We promised to keep in touch and to meet again, and we shall.

Michael Clemitson attended MCB 1960-1967.
Married with 2 children, he now lives in Cardiff, where he works for BT.

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