I started drafting another blog post on travelling alone and why it is a great thing and as I was brainstorming, it got me thinking about my first overseas trip alone. OK, not truly alone as I was with friends and my teachers – but it was my first trip without my parents which was a big thing. It was early 1995 and it was the second leg of my school’s French exchange. It had a profound effect on me – I left as a shy, fearful 14 year-old and came back with a slight swagger thinking I was pretty cool and feeling fearless rather than fearful (It wasn’t long before I felt just as uncool as before, but at least it lasted for a couple of weeks).
Those Sexy French Boys
Our French equivalents had been to stay with us 6 months prior to us travelling to France and were treated to seeing the Queen at Dover Castle (except she didn’t show up as she was ill which almost entirely defeated the object of us being there), various sights in London and wherever else our families chose to take them. We took Aurore, my exchange, to one of the south coast resorts – I think it may have been Worthing? It was a grey but dry day and my overriding memories are of her looking quite sad and miserable and my dad trying to cheer her (and me) up by hiding behind beach huts and jumping out on us. It worked for me, but not her unfortunately. In fact, I think it may have made her feel worse having to not only hang around on a chilly pebble beach in October but also with a mad Englishman.
To be fair this was quite early on in the trip and she had the much harder task of being the first one to go overseas. I remember meeting her for the first time in the throng of all her schoolmates and mine and thinking how incredibly different she was to me…….which she wasn’t really. It was in the same way that all the French boys seemed so exotic and exciting – I think all us English girls fell in love with at least one. However, in both genders there was also the confusing juxtaposition of them having different hair and smoking (which we saw as much cooler than us) and wearing their rucsacs on BOTH shoulders (heaven forbid, that made them instant saddos in our eyes).
Aside from a few moments, the first leg of the trip went pretty well and by the time it ended I did feel like I’d bonded with Aurore. Six months later I had the mix of excitement of going to a different country by myself and seeing her again; but also a terror of how I was supposed to behave in a French household, would I like her family and that my French wouldn’t be good enough.
We got the coach very early one morning from school and then the ferry across the channel and drove down to Montmorillon, a small town in the West of France where the majority of our exchanges lived. I was one of the younger ones on the trip having only just turned 14 – the eldest were 18. I felt looked out for by the older ones though which made me feel a bit more relaxed on the journey down, knowing they were there if I found it all too much…
The first thing I remember was meeting Aurore’s sister (whose name I can’t remember sadly) who reminded me a lot of my own sister – this definitely broke the ice a little. They lived with their mum and step-dad who were both lovely (and very short). They made me feel very welcome and although they spoke very little English, they smiled a lot so I knew everything was OK! They gave me some cordial out what I thought was a very cool metal tin – I think this may have been the first thing I told my mum on the phone that night – and fed me rabbit (not quite so cool as I had a pet one). They asked me if it was OK and of course I said yes – at 14 I was too scared to say anything else. It was served on a plate in the middle of the table and still looked a bit like a rabbit (although probably only because I knew it was). I was rather relieved when I tasted it to find it was pretty similar to chicken.
The second night there I had a bath. I had just got in the bath tub and was letting the taps run for a little longer……and then found I couldn’t turn them off. I tried every way possible but just couldn’t do it. I was beginning to panic as I knew I didn’t have too many more minutes before the bath would start to overflow. As I was getting hotter and hotter (with the amount of hot water as well as the terror), it dawned on me that I would have to call out for help. What would I shout? “Excusez-moi” didn’t seem urgent enough and I couldn’t remember the word for Help. I called Aurore’s name – luckily the door didn’t lock properly so she could come in. Except she couldn’t turn them off either so had to call her step-dad. There was no time to wrap a towel round me so I just sat there trying to cover myself absolutely mortified. In fact so mortified that it’s still the first thing I think of when I think back to the exchange! He was very relaxed and matter-of-fact about it all and went out as if nothing had happened. Little did he know I would never forget it.
Like when they came to the UK, we had days where we would join them for classes in school, days when we would all go on a trip together and days when their families would take us out. We were allowed to go to the local disco one night – this was very exciting as it was in a random building in the middle of town and seemed very grown up. The only discos I’d been to at that point were school ones and the odd one on a campsite with my family. Unfortunately, the music didn’t live up to the expectations that the facade gave us and was a disappointing mixture of slightly outdated American grunge and Euro-pop. The disco we’d put on for them was always going to be way ahead in this regard, it being right in the middle of the Brit-pop era. Even if it was in our school hall and not some local nightspot where the cool kids hang out.
The Cool Kid on a Moped
In fact, Blur’s Parklife was my soundtrack for the trip as I was obsessed with the album and used to play it over and over on my white Sony walkman. Still now, when I listen to some of the more obscure tracks on the album, it takes me right back to that time and my very first (proper) kiss. He was called Christophe, was 17, rode a moped and smoked like a chimney. All of those facts made him incredibly cool in my 14 year-old mind. He didn’t speak any English and I didn’t understand enough French to know what he was saying but it eventually transpired (Aurore had to translate and mime) that he wanted a kiss. Which he got. No, that wasn’t good enough – a PROPER kiss. A proper French kiss. I remember thinking how brilliant it was to have my first ‘french’ kiss in France. That old adage about doing the things in the place you’re supposed to do them in comes to mind now.
It all started when Aurore and I would hang out with the other kids in her neighbourhood after school. They were all really cool – she was friends with (what seemed like at the time) a very diverse group of people, different races, backgrounds and ages. Obviously I was automatically cool because I was British. What they also got obsessed with (especially the younger ones) were my shiny silver, black felt and white plastic platform trainers from TopShop that I absolutely loved. The little ones would come up to me and touch the toes as they were the silver bit and stood out against the brown walled houses of the neighbourhood. I was half embarrassed, half proud. This style obviously hadn’t made it across the channel yet. And probably never did. They were my “piece de resistance” (sorry but I had to get a French phrase in here somewhere) – when all other elements of style are not the best (as they definitely weren’t back then), if your shoes are good shoes this counts for a lot. Still my mantra today.
Anyway, I don’t know if it was the shoes that interested Christophe but he started riding up and down the road on his moped getting closer to me each time, trying to catch my attention. He eventually succeeded and asked me to hop on the back. I thought I was incredibly cool now and couldn’t keep the beam from my face. We had our fist kiss in Aurore’s garden and didn’t stop until her mum called us in for tea. I think there may have been a few more occurrences but that was the best by far. Dinner that night was steak. It was cooked rare, almost blue. Which incidentally is my preferred option these days, but back then I had never seen steak like that. I didn’t understand what I was supposed to do. It was chopped up, in a bowl by itself. I tried my hardest to chew and swallow it. I sat there for what seemed like an eternity….but I just couldn’t do it. I felt terrible. They ended up feeding it to the dog.
Her Scary Dad
We went to stay with Aurore’s Dad for a couple of nights. He lived on the other side of town on his own. I have no idea why but I found him quite scary – maybe it was the moustache or the fact that he used to swear lots in the car when we were driving (I only knew one swear word but he used that one a lot). He just seemed stressed a lot of the time and I felt like I couldn’t relax around him. He was harmless though and made an effort with me which is more than a couple of people on the exchange had which was a shame. He took us on a few outings, one of which was a trip to the coast which I particularly enjoyed. Although you couldn’t tell that from the pictures. I had that half-hearted attempt at a smile that teenagers often have. Aurore and her sister didn’t look particularly happy either so at least I wasn’t the only one. Maybe it was a subconscious balancing in lieu of that day at Worthing. Or the fact that I secretly knew my dress sense was terrible.
It was typical nineties gear – baggy pinstripe trousers, a second-hand bomber jacket, itchy ribbed tops, baggy checked shirts and a chunky silver cross on a black cord. Aurore, of course being French, had a far more refined style with her fitted poppered navy jacket and patterned scarf. The few photos that exist from the trip are obviously pre-digital and taken on an old camera so are of very grainy quality. Otherwise I promise you I would have put them on here (OK, maybe I still wouldn’t have, they are pretty dire).
Speaking French virtually the whole time was such a good way to feel totally immersed in it – in fact, by the end of the trip I was actually thinking in French which was pretty amazing. It’s a shame I eventually lost touch with Aurore – I think we still wrote to each other up until we were 18….but I didn’t take French any further than GCSE and it begun to seem like too much effort writing to each other. I think about her and her family from time to time and wonder what she’s up to now. I still remember a lot of French words and phrases but have lost the ability to construct proper sentences now. But the trip did far more for me than improve my French – it gave me confidence, a curiosity of other cultures and mitigated my fear of the unknown. As well as a story to tell.