Hoz qbout q post totqlly unrelqted to Chris;t;qs?
That’s better. I’ve now managed to fool the keyboard into thinking it is French.
Sorting through a box of the few remaining things I keep at my parents’ house last night (teenage diaries, letters, photos), I happened to find a photo of my French penfriend, Florence. I met Florence for the first and last time fifteen years ago.
Everyone at school went on French exchanges. From the moment I started learning the language at the age of eleven at the girls’ grammar, the French exchange was all I could think about. Imagine being able to go to France and speak French with real French people (as opposed to doing listening comprehensions from Tricolore with headphones on in the language lab).
How my hopes were to be cruelly dashed. My mother, who could be described as something of a pessimist (a gross understatement), avoided the issue until the letter from school arrived asking parents if they would be allowing their children to participate in the upcoming French exchange. And finally came clean and said what she must have been thinking all along, whenever the subject was mentioned: I was not allowed to go. In her defence she recounted every horror story and urban legend she had ever heard about poor English girls expected to sleep in unheated, rat infested sheds/haylofts/attics and forced to eat live snails and puppy dogs’ tails (or something similar). I suspect these were embellished a little for extra dramatic effect.
I think what actually worried my parents the most was reciprocating: they were unwilling to welcome into the family home a complete (and rather foreign) stranger who might conceivably demand to eat raw cows for breakfast and or have novel ideas about what constituted personal hygiene. And might sport webbed feet/a tail. Or all of the above.
I was devastated. But no matter how much I cried and moaned that ‘everyone else was allowed to go except me’ and ‘it wasn’t fair’ , no matter how much I raged that my evil parents were ruining my chances of passing GCSE French and compromising my very future, they remained insensitive to my pleas and stood their ground. I watched my classmates leave, with the sinking feeling that I would no longer be top of the class when they returned and that the girls would all meet handsome French beaus and return fluent in both the French language and the art of kissing with tongues.
Needless to say GCSE French (Pour aller à la gare s’il vous plaît?) did not prove to be a difficult proposition even without participating in the French exchange. However once I was at Sixth Form College studying A-Level French, the thorny subject had to be broached once more. With the same results. And this time my teachers seemed to think students who did not participate would struggle to do well in the French oral exam.
Determined to find a way to get myself to France, because my one day trip to St Malo during a family holiday to Jersey was clearly woefully inadequate for French oral purposes, I managed to find a penfriend through a magazine. We corresponded. She seemed pleasant enough and her letters were actually quite amusing. Finally I hit the jackpot: she invited me to stay with her family near Lyon. I was seventeen at the time. My parents were still not at all keen on the idea, but I bought the plane ticket with my own hard earned Saturday job cash and there wasn’t an awful lot they could do to prevent me from going. Boarding a National Express coach in Leeds, I made my way slowly and tediously down to Heathrow (with only my cassette walkman for company) and flew from there to Lyon. Which if you are English, you may wish to spell with an extra ‘s’. (I, for one, have never understood the point of that ‘s’. It looks wrong.)
Staying with Florence was an eye-opener. She lived with her father, a widower, and several brothers, some married with children of their own, in a village called St Symporien sur Coise. She pretty much ran wild with her big gang of friends. We could drink, smoke and stay out as late as we liked. The welcoming committee she brought to the airport to meet my flight consisted of several of these friends, and I was rather taken aback when I realised the plan was to hitch to her village from Lyon with my rather large suitcase, as her father was at work. It was a very good thing my parents hadn’t known about that.
Then there was the issue of where to sleep. It transpired that Florence, who smoke a packet of Galloises a day, and I were to be sharing her double bed. She snored like a rhinoceros. Something she had omitted to tell me in her letters.
My only other memories of my stay with Florence and her family are of the food, which I recall being very simple but tastier than anything I had ever eaten at home, and of being chased down the street by a gang of boys who had removed all their clothes (after a few drinks in a local restaurant). Oh and seeing men peeing in village urinals without doors. And against walls. In full view of anyone who happened to be passing by. All in all it was a very positive experience, my irrational love of all things French undiminished.
When I returned to college my teacher was suitably impressed with my new found fluency in French, my extensive slang repertoire and my pronunciation of the word ‘oui’, which now resembled ‘ouais’.
As Florence showed no interest in coming over to England to visit (and probably couldn’t afford to), my parents were equally happy. We continued to exchange letters for a while, but then lost touch when I went to university. I think the last I heard she had dropped out of school and gone to work in the local sausage factory with her father.
Maybe I’ll try and look her up.