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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Normal for Now

I was sitting in the bar area of the Barfleur on its way into Cherbourg, reading Sally Rooney’s ‘Normal People’ when I glanced up as we were gliding past the Irish ferry, ‘W B Yeats’.

I’d just reached the part in the novel where Trinity student Connell gets totally wasted during his summer break and is lured back to the flat of his former secondary school teacher where she has the intention of ravishing him [until the excess of alcohol precludes the act].

I got to thinking, then that I’m pushed to recall the names of any of my secondary school teachers. I can remember my very first teacher, Miss Hunter, who I loved. I can almost   remember the name of my next teacher, in the juniors, Mrs  Someone. We moved. I know who my next teacher in the juniors was because it was my dad.

I passed the ’11 plus’ and had the dubious reward of going to Wisbech High School, where our newbie form was ruled over by an austere and frightening Scottish woman whose name escapes me, but might have been ‘Miss MacFarlane’. I was anxious the entire time, for two terms. Then we moved again and there was a plethora of remote characters who entered classrooms, delivered their notes and left.

In the sixth form, studying English literature, among other things W B Yeats was on the syllabus. I developed a lifelong dislike of W B Yeats’ work and to this day I shudder when I hear mention of ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. We were never given a chance to explore and enjoy the work; never had the background explained or saw how it related to Irish history and politics-let alone to my own, teenage self.

‘Normal People’ explores a teenage love story from more contemporary times. In the story Connell connects much more to the texts he is studying. As students, he and Marianne drink, do drugs, party in much the same way that I did during my 70s student-dom in London. How long ago it all seems now-and it is!

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Now here we are in Avranches in the warm sunshine of an April evening, having driven off the ferry to travel hopefully and with the relief of the Brexit delay wrapped around us like a snug blanket-for now. It is pleasant enough to sit outside in the square with a beer and survey the elegant decadence that is commonplace in French architecture.

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When we pulled into the ‘aire’ there were already French motorhomes in place. We reversed back just as a couple were leaving to walk the few hundred metres into town. They turned, smiled and waved in greeting and I realised I was almost holding my breath until this moment. Maybe, just maybe we are still as welcome as ever in the places we love and will always love to go…

Playing Host to the Beast

In what is clearly a gift to 24-hour news broadcasters, newspapers and weather people, ‘The Beast from the East’ has chosen to visit the UK. I’m sceptical. I’m inclined to think that this blanket of snow, ice and bitter winds has been engendered by the Russians [or to be clearer, Putin] in order to further de-stabilise poor, beleaguered Europe; to undermine the infra-structures, to disrupt our transport systems, to bring manufacturing to a halt.
Once all this has happened, Russia can flood our [and for the purposes of this post I’m considering we are part of Europe-mere wishful thinking on my part] markets with their own products. So along with the eventual thaw we can expect a deluge of potatoes, petrol, samovars, beetroot and nesting Russian dolls. This is fortunate for me, since I’m partial to beetroot and potatoes and have two small granddaughters, although there is a limit to the quantity of petrol our lawn mower can consume in one season.
Conspiracy theories apart, this late spell of winter sparks the usual flurry of journalistic activity, producing every kind of article from ‘how to care for the homeless’ to ‘what to wear in cold conditions’ to ‘what to carry in the boot of your car in the event of becoming stuck in snow’. This is all very useful and informative-to someone who has recently moved here from Death Valley, California or the Australian Outback. The rest of us are only too aware of what to put on [layers of woolly clothes], how to provide for the homeless [inviting them in to your spare bedroom, lobbying your local council/contributing to homeless charities/adding blankets and scarves to their belongings] and what we should put in our vehicles [hot drinks/blankets/spades].
I know I’m risking eye-rolling as I mention it, but anyone who was born before the 1960s and especially in a rural location will have experienced winter weather in a home without central heating and perhaps without a bathroom. Ice on the insides of windows and across the surface of the cess pit outside in the garden latrine was the norm. We did, of course have lovely, sooty coal fires to sit around and even to bath in front of.
As a child I loved snowy, icy days; loved splintering up the ice on a frozen puddle and making footprints in virgin snow. School playtimes were a riot of fun without any health and safety guidelines or gritting procedures as we worked together to manufacture the longest, smoothest, glassiest, most slippery ice slide imaginable in a diagonal strip that we queued up for whenever we were released from the classroom. We’d return to find our beautiful little, third-of-a-pint milk bottles were filled with lumps of ice so large they had pushed the foil lids up.
This morning we woke in our centrally heated house to find glassy ice had frosted all the windows, creating an interesting, bathroom-type effect; not the fancy, curly patterns I used to find on my bedroom windows as a child but at least this ice is on the outside, which is progress.

Speaking the Lingo and Talking the Talk-

A language cannot be hard to learn. A child can do it.

OK, although most linguistics experts agree that children are quicker and learn new languages with ease than adults.

Of course there are some notoriously difficult languages, such as Japanese and many of the obscure African languages that utilise clicks and other sounds that are not in our sound vocabulary, but where European languages are concerned I don’t believe there is anyone who cannot become familiar enough to understand and make themselves understood in a relatively short space of time. And while heavy work is made of conjugating verbs and swatting up vocabulary lists in schools it is only necessary to spend some time living, working or travelling in a country to learn the basics of that country’s language.

For some, however even the radical step of moving to a new country does not lead to language acquisition-you have only to visit some of the areas of the Spanish Mediterranean with large concentrations of British to see this. Many ex-pats remain solely English-speakers in spite of adopting a new land. Heaven knows what the Spanish think of this…

Our latest trip covered a number of countries and languages, prompting some challenging demands on my inconsistent language skills. As a schoolgirl I learned French, German, Latin and Spanish with varying degrees of success. That I had most success with French I attribute to long summer camping holidays in France with non-French-speaking parents. Like many I gave up on Latin early, seeing no point in continuing and I was a miserable failure at German, whose grammar mystified me [and still does]. The Spanish was an add-on to A-levels, and seemed easy for being similar to French.

We travelled across Northern France into Germany, then Austria. Unlike the French, Germans are not only excellent English speakers but are also happy to speak in English-particularly, at this time on the subject of Brexit. ‘We DO NOT understand the Brexit!’ they told us on more than one occasion. What are we to say? We could only agree that, no, neither could we. On then to Italy. Italian is a most beautiful and musical-sounding language, enough to make anyone want to learn it for the sheer pleasure of speaking it, but for anyone who has learned Spanish the similarity between the two languages leads to much initial confusion. I consistently muddled my ‘grazie’ with my ‘gracias’, my ‘due’ with my ‘duo’ and my ‘per favore’ with my ‘por favor’ etc. After a week or so I fared better and, armed with the ‘Lonely Planet Phrase Book’ was able to stumble through some phrases. I felt inordinately proud when my much practised ‘lavatrice giettone, per favore’ resulted in the swift handing over of a washing machine token, more so when ‘prego’ was the response to my ‘grazie’.

Of course most people understand a nod or a shake of the head and when one set of words doesn’t work another way of saying something often does. And we are yet to meet anyone who doesn’t understand a smile-

 

Not the Lover that Rhymes with Cover…

I’ve begun to notice interesting developments on social media recently. Some conversation threads have started to engage and pull in Facebook contacts from different spheres.

Take, for instance a news snippet concerning Lover. Lover [correctly pronounced Low-ver and rhyming with Dover] is a tiny satellite hamlet and part of a much smaller village called Redlynch, in the county of Wiltshire, England. For many years Lover post office has cashed in on its oft mis-pronounced name whenever Valentine’s Day became a distant speck on the horizon of February. Would-be beaux, belles and partners have made a habit of flocking to this backwater to post their cards and declarations of love in order to have ‘Lover’ stamped upon the outside of their envelopes.

In 1957, at the age of four I began school life in Lover, walking down through the village with my mother on the very first day only and after that having to accompany my brothers. There was no soft, part-time option, no lollipop person to see us across roads [there was no traffic either], no inside toilets-[a bucket under a wooden seat in a building across the playground sufficed], only two classes-infants and juniors-and thirty seven or so children altogether. We played all together in the playground [schoolyard], did country dancing to the accompaniment of a wind-up record player and played rounders on the field at the back which was shared by a farmer’s dairy herd. Anyone succeeding in attaining a rounder would have to run the gauntlet of cow deposits as well as fielders.

I loved my infant teacher, Miss Hunter with a devotion matched only by my fear of the head-teacher and junior class teacher, Mrs Reardon. Miss Hunter taught us fractions by bringing in a beautiful Battenburg cake that demonstrated halves and quarters. Mrs Reardon violated my fragile confidence by shaming me in front of the class for my ignorance in the mysteries of tracing. Miss Hunter took us for nature walks, holding hands with our partners in a long, snaking crocodile as we learned the names of trees and wild flowers. Mrs Reardon applied soap to the mouth of a small, swearing boy so that he ran around the playground crying and frothing at the lips.

I was in the junior class for a short period, probably no more than a year and yet I spent a good deal of it sitting by an older girl to help her with her grey, English workbook-mortifying for her and tedious for me. Distractions were provided by newts inserted into inkwells [we had to dip our pens into them, never managing to write without the inevitable blot] or someone’s misdemeanour prompting a few whacks across their palms. I laboured over sums involving pounds, shillings and pence or stones, pounds and ounces or yards, feet and inches.

At age seven my family moved to a different part of the country for my father to take up a promotion. There I attended another two-class primary school in a rural area-this time almost remote enough to be another country-but that is altogether another story…

The Horrors of Rentrer d’Ecole

My school friend, Paula Booth and I were much taken with everything French. My parents took us camping in the Vendee-a long strip of beach-laden coast devoted almost entirely to camp sites and all things holiday. These days very little has altered there from those sixties summers. Paula and I were earnest students of the French language, revelling in all opportunities to practise the discipline. Opportunities came thick and fast due to my parents’ knowledge of the language being confined to what could be written on the back of un timbre sur un carte postale.

We loved the department stores, spending hours wandering around ‘Monoprix’ or ‘Au Printemps’ searching for small gifts to take home and lusting after the clothes. Back then French clothing was expensive.

But even then one element of the shopping experience was tantamount to torture for us; there would always be large banners plastered over every window bearing the words: ‘Rentrer d’Ecole’. Horrors! No sooner had we escaped into our own summer adventure than we’d be dragged back to reality by this sinister reminder.

Becoming a teacher did little to assuage the ‘back to school’ syndrome. You’d flog your way through the last, painful weeks of the summer term buoyed only by the prospect of the long break. You would manage the last days, despatch the little charges to their disgruntled mamas, pack up everything, recycle the ‘best teacher’ mugs and the scented candles then set off in a haze of exhaustion and euphoria-only to drive past a plethora of shop signs bearing the hated exhortation to purchase the Autumn term’s necessities.

[This is the point that elicits, from those in non-education related occupations a deluge of remarks about ‘easy life’ where the teaching community is concerned. ‘9-3’, ‘part-time job’, ‘nothing but holidays’-yes, yes. My one answer to all of those is ‘why aren’t you doing it, then?’]

And while the ‘taking them out of school’ debate rages on Husband and I are finally able to take advantage of the off-season benefits that others enjoy after careers of being stuck with peak season prices. I’m not launching into a diatribe this time about why children shouldn’t miss school, but it always seemed to me that it was the parents who wanted the Spanish beach or the Disney park. Frankly-most kids like nothing better than messing around in a rocky stream in wellie boots or riding round a camp site in a pack of bikes. Most parents of young children would agree that to be a success, adult and child holidays have to be centred on the children.

So if you want a holiday like you had pre-children your options are a] leave them behind with a doting relation or b] wait until they are grown up.

Since Husband and I are in our dotage we fall into the latter category. Not only can we holiday when we please but also where. Hooray! We are off to Europe!

 

 

 

The Death of the Pen

Who writes in longhand these days? Well-according to Google [such that it must be true] many famous writers prefer to apply themselves via pen and paper rather than keyboard and screen. In my ignorance I should confess to not having heard of all of these acclaimed authors but some I know of and some I’ve read, even. Neil Gaiman, Amy Tan, J K Rowling and Danielle Steele are some, as is Quentin Tarantino. Those who do prefer hand writing cite more romantic or abstract reasons for wanting to do it this way over practical concerns.

Since letter writing is a dying art, postcards are no longer sent and email and social networking are taking the place of paper communication the skill of making squiggly marks is slowly becoming redundant. How much longer will handwriting be taught in schools? When I began my teaching career in what was then a somewhat tempestuous area of Lambeth, London I learned that I could more or less guarantee a period of peace and calm by chalking something on the blackboard to be copied by all as ‘handwriting practise’.

As a young child in the 1950s I loved the act of writing. I adored all aspects of written work presentation. At school we entered competitions run by the Osmiroid fountain pen company, when a beautiful fountain pen would be the prize for copying a poem in curly cursive script and presenting it without blots or mistakes and surrounded by a hand-designed frame in coloured pencil.

At secondary school they cared little for coloured borders around the writing, wanting only swift note taking into a scruffy ‘rough’ book.

Later I learned calligraphy and produced a number of works as part of my A level art course using a calligraphy pen with a slanting nib and illuminating the first letter of each piece-the entire activity a satisfying kind of escapism that I’ve subsequently forgotten all about.

I am sorry to say that my handwriting, rather than improving with age has deteriorated due to lack of practice. Young members of my family are unlikely to receive cards and letters written in immaculate copperplate as I did from maiden aunts or grandparents on birthdays and at Christmas. Handwriting can be an indicator of age, becoming more wobbly and spidery with the writer’s advancing years so that you can imagine the knobbly, liver spotted, arthritic fingers that laboured over it.

Something strange and magical does happen though, when pen is put to paper. There have been occasions while away and deprived of internet when I’ve been obliged to take to scribbling in a notebook rather than tapping on a keyboard and it has had the wondrous effect of dragging me from the quicksand of writer’s block. Of course I’ve had to decipher the weird and incomprehensible scrawl once returned to the civilised environment of connectivity, but still…