Twin Town: From Margate to Les Mureaux

Memories of Travelling to Margate’s Twin Town

Karen with her sister’s hosts in Les Mureaux
Karen with her sister’s host family, waiting for the coaches to go home. Supplied by the author

In 1973 I was a 15-year-old schoolgirl living in Margate. I was so excited to be chosen to compete in an Athletics tournament in our Twin Town of Les Mureaux, 35.9 km from the centre of Paris.  We were also twinned with Idar-Oberstein in Germany, and their team also travelled to France to take part in the competition.

My 11-year-old sister was also invited to compete, and my parents allowed us to attend on the understanding we would be staying together with the same host family.

Crossing the Channel

We travelled by ferry and coach, and it was extremely exciting for us.  I had only been on holiday once before without my parents, and that was a disappointing week organised by The Girls Brigade and staying in a spooky church hall in Slough.

A trip across the Channel to France seemed amazing.  I had seen tantalising glimpses of France from Dover on a clear day. Why wouldn’t you want to go and visit your nearest neighbours?  We were given an opportunity to meet our European friends.

When we arrived, my little sister was selected to stay with a large family who couldn’t take me as well.  The organisers ignored our pleas to stay together so we went our separate ways.

Guest of the Mayor

I discovered my host was the Mayor of Les Mureaux.  After a short journey with lots of shouting from the Mayor, and his entourage treating him like royalty, we finally arrived at the family apartment, where I was made to feel welcome by his wife and daughter who was slightly older than me. I knew very little French but we managed to communicate. My sister’s  welfare slipped to the back of my teenage brain as I was so happy with my host family.

We accompanied the Mayor to all the Civic functions. I can’t remember much about it but it was a very long day: however I do remember being shocked when the Mayor stopped to relieve himself and I heard the sound before realising what he was doing. My Dad would never have done that so publicly. I thought it was quite embarrassing but also funny.

I was treated like a grown-up. Before our evening meal I was offered an aperitif and we had wine. I felt very sophisticated.  I was careful as I needed to run fast the next day.

Separated Sisters

Meanwhile my younger sister was beside herself with homesickness. She couldn’t understand why the family only seemed to eat bread and cold meats for every meal.

She hadn’t met the father but when he did arrive home she remembers him shouting.  The poor girl was too scared to go to the bathroom, and this added to her discomfort.

There were no CRB or DBS checks back then and no mobile phones to stay in touch. Such different times.

I eventually caught up with her on the day of the Athletics event, with the bands playing and dignitaries making speeches. I thought I was in ‘It’s a Knockout’.

My Poor Little Sister!

My poor little sister was not only scared  that she would never see me again, she was also  crying and very uncomfortable as her stomach was distended, and she was suffering like the bloated sheep I remembered in the film ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’.  She was being looked after by the First Aiders and unable to take part in her race.

No dietary requirements or allergy checks were required in the 70s, and years later we found out she was a Coeliac. She has never forgotten her traumatic trip to Les Mureaux.

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Du beau, du bon, …

My experience was different: I came third in my 100 metres and our team won the relay.  Maybe I shouldn’t have had that Dubonnet after all?

“United in Diversity”

Even though life in both Towns appeared similar, I loved the differences I experienced between Margate and Les Mureaux. I lived in a small house with a garden; my hosts had a compact apartment with a lift. I ate Ready Brek for breakfast. In France I ate le pain with glorious unsalted butter and confiture.  My French family served proper coffee. Suddenly toasted Sunblest bread and Golden Shred with instant Nescafé seemed so boring.

My lovely French bubble was about to burst! We needed to return home.

Heading for Home

There was a very strong wind in the channel and we were warned to stay on the lower decks. My sister was now reunited with her friends and it was my turn to feel ill. I spent the whole journey against the rules hanging over the rails of the freezing ferry being very seasick. A boy from my school tried to help me as my tangled hair got caught up in the relentless vomiting.

By the time we arrived at Dover I was a shivering mess. I was so weak the next day and my sister was equally exhausted so we were allowed to have a day off school.

I’m in my mid-60s now, and I still feel as European as ever.  That first trip through the Twinned Towns system to Les Mureaux  started my many years of exploring and falling in love with France.