Exchange- not always Fair

The cross channel ferry, in this last week of summer term is full of excitable teenagers; two groups, seemingly, occupying every part of the ship, circulating round and round, galumphing through the bars and lounges, spreading over seating areas, thronging into the tiny shop, the games area and the restaurant, exclaiming, playing music, shrieking when they see each other. They rush past us in twos and threes. ‘I wanna buy something!’ ‘Let’s go outside!’ ‘What shall we do now?’
After coffee we descend to the salon with its recliner seats to catch up on some sleep, but it is full of adolescents, rucksacks, sweet wrappers. We are rushed at by their beleaguered teachers, whose dubious pleasure it is to shepherd their charges and bring them back unscathed.
Foreign exchanges were available when I was a schoolgirl, too; only as my parents were unwilling to pay for them, I’d be among the handful of girls who stayed behind and attended school. I can’t recall what we did, we leftovers. Revision, perhaps or some extra language study and conversation. I pity the poor teachers who were saddled with us, who had to find us something to do!
I offered my own offspring an exchange each, which was rejected by Offspring One, who harboured fears of being incarcerated with a strange family and having to eat a sensible, healthy diet. He chose to be a leftover. Offspring Two, however waited for the optimum moment to remind me I’d agreed to a French exchange, then when I enquired the destination, coolly told me ‘Canada’.
The exchangee came to us first. Catherine. She was not Canadian, but American, from Texas originally. She was tall, world-weary, unimpressed. She was an ocean away from my daughter. We served meals, attempted chat, remained polite while she chewed and made acerbic remarks.
Husband suggested a weekend trip to Paris. We packed our tiny Peugeot 5 and took a ferry across the English Channel then drove down, stopping on the outskirts of France’s capital in a budget hotel and taking two rooms. We got a double decker train into Paris to take in the sights: The Louvre, The Tuilleries, Notre Dame and The Tour Eiffel-sending the girls up and staying down ourselves to save money. They trudged after us as if dragged on leads. Next day we visited Fontainebleau and Versailles before heading home the way we’d come.
On the return ferry we bought meals from the self-service restaurant, where Catherine [and also Offspring, who followed suit] chose a meal and a desert. At the table our protégé ate one or two mouthfuls of the meal and pushed it away before tucking into the pudding.
‘Are we gonna eat again on the ferry?’ she drawled, chewing.
Husband frowned into his newspaper. ‘No’ he said, without looking up.
At last we arrived at Portsmouth. ‘That was cool!’ she suddenly said as the wheels rumbled down the ramp, showing enthusiasm for the first time. If we’d known she was to enjoy our descent from the gaping mouth of the ferry so much we could have saved ourselves a packet.
We did nothing else with Catherine, leaving entertainment to the school to provide. Offspring confided that Catherine had raved and boasted to her classmates about her French trip.
After she departed, Offspring prepared to make her own visit to the host family-Catherine’s own parents and sister. I sat down with her to share my hopes for her ambassadorial role, expressing my desire that she behave with impeccable manners, a desire that she asserted she understood very well. She went.
Catherine’s parents were charming to my daughter, taking her out and about, to Niagara, amongst other places. Offspring got on very well with Catherine’s younger sister as well as most of the Canadian schoolgirls and had a most enjoyable time.
And that was that; many lessons learned-and not only French!

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Where is Your Threshold?

At a party last January a fellow guest, on asking if I was retired wanted to know how I ‘filled my days’. Fill my days? I found this question startling, for my concern is not ‘filling days’ but rather, how to cling on to each day ‘Carpe Diem’ fashion when there are to be less and less of them.

But it is true that many fear retirement for the boredom that may ensue. Most ‘take up’ activities, golf, good works or learning something. You hear stories of failing marriages as couples get under each other’s feet when precipitated into close proximity for so much of the time.

The Offspring are fond of recalling well-known phrases and sayings from their childhood that seem to have been uttered by their mother with monotonous regularity. Among these is ‘I wish I had time to be bored’-my retort to any complaints regarding ennui they may have had. And I did wish it. With a full-time teaching post, two small children and a house to renovate I did fantasise about having the time to play solitaire, file my nails or watch the gloss drying on the skirting boards.

The fact is, as a generation I think we were taught as children to tolerate boredom. I have early memories of rising on Sunday mornings, polishing my shoes and traipsing down through the village with my brothers to Sunday School. I realise now, of course that this was no more than a cunning ruse on the part of my parents, who felt no need to accompany us, to snatch a sneaky child-free hour or two. Sunday School was deadly dull and set the bar for Church, which ensued when we became too old for Bible stories in the vestry.

Church services were a masterclass in boredom. What was there to do, once you’d scrutinised your fellow worshippers, found the hymns in the book, fiddled with the tassels on the hassock, shredded the sweet wrapper in your pocket?

School assemblies came close and were exacerbated by the excruciating discomfort of sitting for aeons on a cold, hard floor. But the boredom they provided amounted to a theme park ride compared to the crushing tedium that was ‘Speech Day’-thankfully only once a year, but a feast for connoisseurs of monotony.

School lessons themselves seemed to have been planned with boredom in mind. A gowned teacher would appear in the room, at which we would stand up; they would mount a small podium and sit, at which we would sit. They would open a file and read ‘notes’ from it, demanding that we, the unhappy, captive addressees would write it all down in our ‘rough’ books. What an impressive frittering of time it all was! Compare this method to teaching strategies of today, where teachers must compete with screens, swing from chandeliers, use fancy dress or formulate elaborate scenes to grab children’s attention!

That today’s preoccupation with saving children from boredom is laudable is in no doubt-nevertheless I, personally have never found the occupation of time to be a problem, so maybe it was all that early training?