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No trollies? Lenin had it easy

I have been in Switzerland now for two weeks preparing for my new job as director-general of the International School of Geneva.

With 3,400 students, three separate schools spread across two cantons, and a fourth school due to open in September 2005, it is quite a challenge.

As a historian I am bound to be conscious that Geneva has been a magnet over the years to foreigners. One follows in the footsteps of Gibbon, Voltaire, Shelley, Stendhal and Borges. Byron wrote The Prisoner of Chillon here, Dostoevsky wrote The Idiot, and Lenin planned the Bolshevik Revolution. What none of my distinguished predecessors had to cope with, however, were the modern complications of changing one's country of residence: acquiring a work permit, choosing a medical insurance policy, trying to get into one's old email account, following opaque French instructions on how to operate the hot water system, puzzling over the bus ticket machines. The ultimate humiliation was having to be shown how to release a supermarket trolley. Planning the Russian Revolution must have been a doddle by comparison.

The school provides an excellent service for new staff coming from abroad.

There is an induction counsellor who welcomes new staff, goes with them to help them open a bank account, demonstrates how they can pay their bills electronically, and is available for advice on everything under the sun.

The intention is that we should all have some emotional energy left for the reason why we came here in the first place: to do a job. What has not changed, since the days of Byron and Shelley, is that acute sense, for an Englishman, of being at the centre of the Continent.

Being British and not having land borders between us and other states, I have always been fascinated by frontiers and am disappointed that the one between France and Switzerland now hardly counts. Our house is less than a kilometre from the French border and just down the road is an old douane that used to control traffic between the two countries. Now you can walk and cycle into France without interruption. During the Second World War German troops patrolled and at night refugees came down from the mountains desperately hoping to gain admission to the one country in central Europe still free from Nazi control. There is a palpable sense of past menace that one never experiences at home.

I have been reading the history of the school which was established in 1924 for the children of officials at the new League of Nations.Its international outlook led staff, during the 1930s, to view with increasing distress the triumph of extreme nationalism. The school kept going throughout the war and the small community of French, Swiss, German, Italian, Dutch, English, Iranian, American and Chinese children provided a unique model of international tolerance. Imagine their shock and incomprehension in 1945 when, having gone into the streets of Geneva to persuade US soldiers to come back to the school for a celebratory party they found that the white US soldiers refused to be in the same room as the black. It was one more reminder that the values of the school could not be assumed to extend very far beyond its gates.

The school's commitment to internationalism has remained a constant theme throughout its history. Today there are more than a hundred nationalities represented among the pupils. Daily contact with people of different cultures from all over the world remains one of the most important benefits of an International School of Geneva education. The other distinctive feature is the school's promotion of Anglo-French bilingualism. This is not an Anglo-American international school, even though English speakers are the most numerous group. The great cultural benefit for the English-speaking pupils, in a world increasingly dominated by the English language and US-based mass media, is their introduction to the language and alternative world outlook of la francophonie.

This means that the new director-general has to set a good example. After an immersion course at the French Institute in South Kensington, I am much more fluent than I was but have a long way to go. Although I can talk at length about educational and political matters, simple words and phrases to do with the house or the office still elude me. Thanks to the globalisation of English, some of it, however, is now quite easy. Having come to the end of this brief letter from Geneva, je vais la photocopier et la faxer au TES.

Nick Tate has moved to Geneva after three years as head of Winchester College. He was previously chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority

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