“When is the past the past?”

AREAL dog shelter

“The past is never dead.  It’s not even past”  William Faulkner

“To cut Queen Victoria’s umbilical cord” Tony Benn speaking about why Britain should be a part of Europe in 1967.

Last Saturday in the National History Museum in Chisinau I found myself doing what I have always loved, talking to students about History. British students at that as well. We spent the day with the staff and students of Chichester Free School, introducing them to Chisinau as they arrived here on what was the first school exchange visit between a UK school and Moldova.

The trajectory of my career in education over the last decade or so, as a school leader, has meant I haven’t always done the very thing I went into education for, to teach. The paradox of being able to speak easily and freely about the history of Moldova and Bessarabia but also, with some degree of difficulty, especially in front of my colleague from Moldova, was not lost on me in that moment. I have found myself falling back on my own constructed narrative a few times to explain a complex and disputed history of Moldova, which neatly falls into a couple of lines: “an ancient land, but a post Soviet, modern country at the crossroads of Europe”.

I devoured Charles King’s history narrative from 1999, “The Moldovans”, before I came out here, but a book by an American political science scholar, from 20 years ago, hasn’t always helped a great deal in trying to understand this country now and, more importantly, to try to see where it is going. In the National History Museum I think I more or less fell back on my own constructed narrative again as we walked around the exhibits and saw a Moldovan version of Macaulay and the inevitable progress, Whig version of history. So why does this matter and wouldn’t it be a lot easier to adopt a more existentialist view about things in Moldova and completely ignore the past as some seem to do in order to move forward?

Well, the simple answer lies in the quote from Faulkner at the start of this blog, that I used to have in my classroom in Bristol when I was a head of history. The past is not even past.  In the last few weeks of this decade before we move into the 2020s understanding our society, who we are and where we are from becomes even more imperative, especially when you work in an international school in a country as complex as Moldova.

It was fascinating to watch the UK students try to talk about British identity in Heritage International School with my students, struggling to explain the often ugly, nationalistic forces unleashed by Brexit and Britain’s struggle with its past, as the former Labour minister Tony Benn so graphically described in 1967, as “severing the maternal link to a mangled view of the past in order to move the UK forward”.

It was equally fascinating to watch Russian speaking students explain their Moldovan identity in contrast to Romanian speaking students and then the other 20 or so nationalities we have in school explain their respective identities.  But this is precisely why we are in an international school, with young people from across Europe talking to one another about identity as part of global education. It was a joy to behold and when my Heritage students serenaded the British school goodbye with Russian and Romanian songs it was one of the best things I had witnessed in a school for a long time.

I had a long conversation with some of my Russian speaking students in the earlier part of the week talking about why it is important to know our own culture, history, language and that being proud of that is compatible with being in a global society as a global citizen. This generation of young people shouldn’t be saddled with this false dichotomy going into a new decade.

I am hoping the British students have gone back to the UK not only knowing something about a corner of Europe so unknown in Britain that John Lewis even sell a board game called “Where is Moldova?”, but they can talk about the places they saw like Old Orhei and the conversations and the lives they participated in as they stayed with Moldovan families.  

It’s ironic outside of the election fervour (should that be fever?) in the UK right now, that for me, it is at strange moments in “exile” that it is much easier to talk about Britain from afar.  There aren’t many Brits in Moldova, around 50 or so, who live and work here like me, and it was at a reception, I was invited to a couple of weeks ago by the British ambassador, that I found myself feeling very British, in a good way, and talking about Britain in a good way.  Since June 2016, talking about Britain to anyone from the country and especially not from the country, has been difficult to say the least. The British students were kindly invited to the UK Embassy for tea and got a unique opportunity to ask questions about diplomacy, the UK, Moldova, how much diplomats earn, all drinking tea with milk, under a portrait of the Queen, in a room with a mock red phone box and a cardboard cut out of Paddington bear.  Afterwards, some said they felt similar to how I had felt at the ambassador’s reception. Except when the one English guy said he missed Branston Pickle.  And to think we once owned a quarter of the globe…

At Heritage we offer a snapshot of Britain’s history, just in the variety of forms of English we have on offer amongst the staff and students, including; American, Canadian, Indian, South African and British English.  That in itself tells quite a history story in a globalised World. A point not lost on students and parents when they ask about accents and which English sounds the best and is the most appropriate. In the words of George Gershwin, “tomato, tomato”.

There were two moments in November for me, when disputed legacy could be put aside a little and we marked both Remembrance Day and Thanksgiving. Both events were special this year.  The students explored through art and poetry the significance of the poppy and the significance around remembrance in Anglo-French societies, the French taking the blue cornflower as a symbol of the cornflower generation they lost in the senseless slaughter of the trenches. My American teacher colleagues, Mike, Mike and Andy, did a great job in presenting and teaching to the nationalities of the school in the assemblies the reasons for Thanksgiving and especially what to do with the leftovers.  Great and simple moments in an international school.  I have spent many memorable Thanksgiving meals with Americans colleagues and schools over the years: singing all 8 minutes of “American Pie” on karaoke with my dear friend, Brian Bassett, after a full turkey dinner in front of our IB students, is definitely up there. I’ve always appreciated the idea of giving thanks in our lives, and it was an honour (spelt with a U) to be invited to the American Thanksgiving meal in Moldova on the 28th November. I have especially enjoyed the wonderful American-Moldovan fusion of pumpkin placinte, and my friend and colleague, Tatiana Popa’s mother makes the very best I have had here.  Spectacular Moldovan food and wine as a unifier that all the population can agree on is one of the best adverts for the country.  A fact not lost on the Brits – except the one wanting Branston pickle.

For an outsider, the history of Moldova is fascinating.  I spent a recent Sunday walking around what would have been the Jewish Chisinau ghetto, seeing the memorial to those who lost their lives to a senseless racism in World War II and then visiting the Jewish cemetery in Orhei. This is one of the oldest and largest in Europe and where Chisinau, Orhei and the Tsarist 19th century province of Bessarabia had one of the largest and oldest Jewish communities in Europe, now there are virtually none left.  As a history teacher, it is imperative that an international school in Moldova educates its students in this history; lest we ever forget.  I would recommend the two Radio Free Europe short pieces in the Chisinau Ghetto and the Orhei Jewish cemetery:

Chisinau Ghetto

The Jewish Cemetery at Orhei

The hardest issue for me has been I am both an insider and outsider to Moldova’s past, present and future. When Maia Sandu’s government fell in a vote of no confidence a few weeks ago, it didnt seem an event for me from the otherside of Europe, featuring only at the back of the Guardian’s International section.

The 1st December is the national day of Romania and in a largely Romanian speaking country, this is a significant event.  There was a commemoration in the centre of Chisinau, near the Christmas market and huge festive tree, by the Stefan Cel Mare statute and the 1st Dec is linked directly to the Treaty of Trianon and the creation of Romania Mare after World War I. Directly near my apartment in Chisinau is Bucharest Street and the 31st August 1989 Street, a date that saw the Romanian Latin alphabet and language return to the soon to be post Soviet republic of Moldova.

The 30th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall has also been commemorated and in school I presented an assembly on the Wall and the legacy.  It has a personal poignancy for me because by chance we had a school trip to Berlin just after the Wall came down.  There are few prouder moments when you catch up with an ex-student and when Danny Bird, a student I taught A Level History and Politics to in Bristol many years ago, got in touch to share his article he had written for History Today on the fall of the Wall, it confirmed again that the decision to be a teacher was absolutely the right one.


After my assembly, I went into the iGCSE class and some of the students were heavily engaged about the rights and wrongs of border guards at the time who were ordered to shoot people who tried to cross.  One of our parents, Claudia Muir, who was a teenager living next to the Wall at the time, also came into school and offered a fantastic first hand account to the iGCSE students, all of them born in the 21st century where 1989 is as much a date in history to them as 1945, 1918 or 1789. In the disputed legacy of a post Soviet country like Moldova, where Francis Fukoyama’s “End of History” never quite materialised, at least this next generation can be more detached from these events that are part of their parents’ timeline and see the past with perhaps less identity emotion.  

We had two fascinating lectures given respectively by the Latvian and Slovakian ambassadors, around the events of 1989 their impact in their respective countries.  H.E. Ambassador Mikuts, spoke about “The Baltic way” when over a million people joined hands across the Baltic states in peaceful protest and eventual independence.  H.E. Dr Dacho, gave a first hand account of being in Prague at the time of the Velvet Revolution.  Sitting in both talks, as well as the Latvian Embassy reception for the 101st anniversary of independence, made me realise the amazing opportunities our young people at Heritage have to truly learn and be educated about these events as they go forward in education, hopefully avoiding the sort of mangled view of history groups like the Brexiteers have put forward in the UK as a historical narrative.

I have been asked to give two keynote talks early next year at international education conferences in London and Cairo.  There have been moments in the last few months when I have despaired at what is happening as we come to the end of this decade. I have questioned whether we are going to carry the enmity, anger and nationalism forward into the 2020s. Nevertheless, I don’t want this to be the subject of my talks, as I reflect on Moldova or the UK.  There are always so many moments that refute such negativity when you work in education and speak to young people daily.  

The work of the UNDP in Moldova around SDGs was highlighted this week in the Founders’ Lecture by its deputy Head and Heritage parent, Andrea Cuyova, as she spoke to students about the incredible projects they are involved in here.  The same feeling happened when Anatolii Sandu, a partner of the school who is involved in green energy and technology, called in for 10 minutes to say hello to me and gave an impromptu science lecture, a talk to the British students about modern Moldova and gave wonderful creative model making sets to the primary school. It was last Friday that gave me such hope watching young Russian, Romanian and International students go out to the AREAL Animal rescue centre near Chisinau and deliver the huge school community collection of food, blankets and toys for the winter and they played with the dogs in the field in the fading November milky sunshine. Cicero said to be ignorant of the past was to remain a child but he might have also added to be constantly bogged down means one never actually grows up.  

What I am seeing more and more of in my time as an international educator in Moldova is a global generation comfortable in their identity, their technology and their present, but are more worried about solving the very real problems of the future, instead of being stuck in unwinnable national interpretations of the past.

Rob Ford

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