School Exchange Visits Abroad

school exchange friends
Author to the left, her friend Agnes to the right. Photo by author

School exchange UK – France

My mother was a French teacher, which is hardly surprising, because she was (she’s dead now) a French speaking Belgian. She taught at the corresponding Catholic boy’s grammar school that was aligned to my Catholic girl’s school.

Mine was a school for “young ladies” apparently (according to the headmistress – a very intimidating nun). We were required to wear white nylon gloves(!) with our striped blazers and (to our utmost humiliation) straw boaters. This wasn’t the 1930s, this was the middle of the swinging 60s – just not “swinging” for us!

The two Catholic schools in this northern town liaised quite a lot and I suspect that it may have been something of an embarrassment to my mother that I wasn’t bilingual. I did speak quite reasonable French but, of course, considering who my mother was, I can understand that I was “letting the side down” by not being fluent… or at least better.

School Exchange to improve my French

Then, towards the end of the summer term, when I was 14, my mother had come up with a plan. I would go on an exchange visit. A French girl would come and stay with us, and I would go back with her to Paris. I met Agnes (my French exchange/pen friend) just before we took her on holiday with us to Wales.

My parents were very keen on taking me to Wales because it was away from my crowd of friends and the exciting (I thought) social life I was having. There was no socialising to be had in Wales surrounded by cows and sheep.

Agnes, I, and Gauloise

I remember that first evening as we went for a walk in the Welsh countryside; Agnes produced a packet of Gauloise cigarettes, casually took a cigarette out and lit up.

I should point out at this stage, that Agnes (although a year older than me at 15) was less than five foot tall and probably looked about twelve, so the whole situation must have looked incongruous. She nonchalantly proffered the packet in my direction and asked, “Do you smoke?” I answered “Of course!”

And so there we were, at the end of a field in mid Wales, smoking away like a couple of experienced smokers, when in fact, neither of us had ever smoked before. We were each trying to impress the other. Thus began my relationship with cigarettes which went on until I met my future husband, who was a science teacher and extremely (understandably) anti smoking. He provided the final push to make me relinquish the habit. 

School exchange friendships and adventure

Agnes and I continued to see each other for the next four summers. We had some wonderful times together: going on various visits; seeing some amazing sights; Le Sacre Coeur, Montmartre, Le Champs Elysees, Notre Dame Cathedral, walking along by the side of La Seine and drinking coffees, and also doing many things secretly that we weren’t supposed to be doing – that our parents had absolutely no idea we were doing – but all the time we were talking: in French in France and in English in England.

To get to France (or England) we used to travel on old rickety cross channel ferries; they swayed so much as they crossed the Channel that often people were sick, many people also fell over on a rough crossing. These boats bore no resemblance to the ships that cross the channel today. To climb a flight of metal steps up to (or down to) the next deck, one really felt you could be taking your life in your hands.

There were many young people doing these exchange trips, many students travelling over to the continent to travel and explore. I remember on one very rough crossing, I slipped at the top of a flight of stairs and landed at the bottom in a heap – with my underwear in full view in front of a crowd of students: mortifying.

My time with Agnes in Paris

Agnes’s father had been the Mayor of Paris many years before and they lived in a large apartment in Paris. I shared a bedroom with Agnes and had an old mahogany double bed that folded upwards against the wall! I’ve only see beds like this in France.

Agnes was the youngest of six; her mother was a plump friendly woman who was the epitome of kindness. She would give Agnes money for us to go to Le Louvre, and Agnes would take us to a coffee bar instead to meet her friends. (I’d have actually LIKED to go to the Louvre.)

Summer romance in 1968

The years passed: Agnes had a boyfriend in my home town which I seem to remember continued sporadically for a couple of years but, like many teenage romances, it ended in tears. 

I remember that in 1968 I arrived in Paris at the end of the student demonstrations: there were upturned railings and ripped out fencing to be seen in different corners of the city. The city hadn’t really recovered. That summer we met two French boys in the park who were on National Service; they were about 18 or 19, just a little older than us: they were called Didier and Claude. Nothing much happened but we spent a happy day together – the four of us. A fairly innocent romance that lasted just a day.

On my last visit (I was 18) Agnes had a new, much older boyfriend (he was 30 which seemed at the time very much older than we were). He was pleasant enough, but our relationship had subtly shifted because she was having more adult conversations with him about politics, the “meaning of life”, and all of the other topics that young people discuss as a rite of passage. When I left Paris that last summer, I was looking forward to living and working in Madrid as part of my gap year.

Agnes and I wrote to each other many times, but our relationship ended when my mother opened one of her letters that revealed that she was smoking pot and having sex with her 30 year old boyfriend. So, unfortunately that was that.

I always wished I’d gone behind my mother’s back and kept in touch with Agnes, but I lost her address in the fallout. I was furious with my mother for reading my letters but she stubbornly refused to acknowledge that she had done any wrong, so we reached an unhappy impasse.

Discovering a world out there and developing confidence

I learnt so much about French life. I saw Paris not as a tourist but, after four years, as someone who lived there. My French improved enormously and my spoken French was almost fluent. I’d met all of Agnes’s married brothers and sisters, had presents and little gifts on my feast day (the feast of St Claire) and I’d spent time every summer at their holiday home in Fontainebleau.

I had discovered that there was a world out there and I wanted to see more of it. The biggest benefit of these trips abroad was the social confidence I developed: the confidence to talk to anyone from whatever background and whatever nationality and, although I probably wouldn’t always know the language, I’d always have the confidence to try and communicate.

School exchange in my home

Later in my life, after my older children had grown up and left home and when just my youngest was at home, we (my husband and I) started having foreign students in the holidays. I worked for an excellent organisation that paid me to teach them (I am/was an English teacher by profession) and the organisation also paid for me to take my students out: to London, to places of interest, to the cinema.

We had wonderful students from France, Germany, Russia, Japan. Many came back several times, many are still in touch with us: via What’s App, phone calls, emails, etc.

Disbelief about Brexit and a country that has changed

They were all in disbelief about Brexit and the implications for our country. They sympathised with my family’s grief and anger. Some wanted to come again to see us, but were very reluctant to come to England; in other words, they wanted to see us and our family, but they were very hesitant to come to a country that had changed.

They saw the foreign news, they read the newspapers, they could see a different unrecognisable country emerging. We will stay in touch; we have happy memories of better times when “things” were different.

“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”

Saint Augustine

Life enhancing opportunity denied our grand children

With huge overwhelming sadness, I realised that my grandchildren would be most unlikely to go on a school exchange as I had, or as these students that we had hosted had. The bureaucracy now to make such a visit – or to have someone visit in return – is daunting and off-putting; and also there is a prevailing view that English people don’t like foreigners and may even be racist.

So, yet another life enhancing, educationally valuable opportunity has been denied my grandchildren. Unforgivable and so tragic for a generation that already has so many odds stacked against them.