School French exchange left me yearning for my own lovely part of world

Torbay Weekly

When I was a teenager, I participated in a foreign exchange program through my school, for my French GCSE course.

I had inherited my mother's love of the language when I started studying it in the first year of secondary school.

That excellent woman had been employed on the French telephone exchange in her youth, a position which seems impossibly romantic and impressive, but about which she is typically modest.

Thanks to her own easy linguistic expertise, I possessed a natural flair for the French tongue, able to appreciate its complexities and rich nuances.

My instinctive ear for the accent and innate ability with pronunciation were purely genetic and required little effort on my part, and, though they stood me in good stead with my French teachers, I suspect my peers thought I was insufferably smug when I showed off a proficiency not wholly learned in class - I irritate myself just thinking about it.

Approximately halfway through the two-year syllabus, the exchange program was effected.

My peers and I were informed that we would be paired up with students from a school in Brittany.

None of us had heard of the town itself, and an aura of slight disappointment settled over us - I think we had all been secretly hoping that glamorous Cannes or sophisticated Paris would be the host destination.

We discovered we would be visited by our foreign counterparts in the first instance; they would return the hospitality a few months later.

In the meantime, we were encouraged to develop written correspondence with our future guests, to establish a friendly rapport before they descended upon us.

There was a hubbub of expectation as we were each handed a picture and personal details about our designated partner.

I scrutinised my photo: its subject, Natalie, looked a little intimidating, and I remember nervously wondering how we would get along.

The information provided suggested we had little in common; she was sporty, had a stepdad and a married elder sister, and was tall and Gallicly charming.

My initial flutter of anxiety was somewhat soothed when I learned that her best friend, Cathérine, had been allocated to one of my closest allies - we would muddle through together.

Weeks dragged past but finally, at the appointed hour, the English cohort gathered at the coach station to welcome our guests, who duly arrived, tired after a protracted period of travelling.

First impressions were cautiously optimistic, for me at least; thankfully, Natalie soon settled in at home and we began to be friends.

She was a proficient English speaker, but we naturally conversed in a melding of the two languages, a linguistic manipulation affectionately named 'Franglais' by our French teacher.

Natalie and Co. attended school with us, and we were encouraged to socialise in our free time, too.

There were a large number of us who rubbed along together quite amiably during that visit; peers of mine with whom I had never previously exchanged a single word suddenly became good friends, united as we were by a common experience and two languages.

We gravitated to McDonald's, a venue with which our foreign counterparts were curiously enamoured.

A devout vegetarian at this point, I was alarmed to find myself haunting the restaurant with disconcerting frequency, though there was little on the menu, in those pre-woke days, to tempt me.

Days passed, and foreign friendships blossomed but the visit was all too soon over, and we bade a fond farewell to these strangers who had temporarily enriched our lives.

Attention turned immediately towards the reciprocal trip, and when that happy day arrived, we boarded the ferry - my first time on such a huge vessel - at Plymouth, heading for Quimper.

As we disembarked, my pleasure at seeing Natalie again seemed mutual, and we quickly settled back into a comfortably familiar rhythm.

Although a little shy with her family, I was able to demonstrate a sufficient knowledge of French to satisfy their patriotic sensibilities.

As for our environs, it soon became clear why our French chums had displayed such enthusiasm for our tourist amenities - the local area was singularly lacking in anything diverting.

It was a sleepy, sedate little village that left little lasting impression on my consciousness.

I have brief flashes of memory: a precarious car ride with a huge hairy dog-owning stranger; a school dance where I accepted the dutiful hand of a French boy instructed to show courtesy to the English students; the vast athletics stadium where my sporty partner competed on the final day of my visit.

I was sad to bid adieu to Natalie the following morning, but longed to return to my own lovely part of the world, for which I had cultivated a renewed appreciation - even McDonald's held a strange allure.

Natalie and I maintained correspondence for a short while, but the letters eventually dwindled and dried up, as did my fluency in French conversation and comprehension.

Regrettably, none of my children has expressed much enthusiasm for the language, although the youngest has developed a penchant for singing the numbers one to 10 in French to the tune of 'A partridge in a pear tree' - music to my ears.

I wonder whether Natalie has an eight-year-old son who'd like to visit England one day...