An exchange of hostilities

Youngsters are saying `nein' to living with a strange family abroad, as Diana Hinds discovers
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The Independent Online
As a 16-year-old preparing for O-level Italian, I once spent a fortnight with a sullen, pale-faced girl from Turin. It was one of the longest fortnights I have ever known. Much of it I passed, alone, on the balcony of her flat, where I was confined like a child with its toys, and fed occasional tit-bits from her mama's kitchen. Our one major excursion was to a scrubby mountainside outside Turin: too sick to walk with the others, I was left behind in a mountain cabin, and reduced to reading almost the whole of Women In Love.

And the effect on my Italian? I learnt some new words for things to eat, and was once commended for my use of the subjunctive, but the only extended conversation I had was with Rosangela's three-year-old cousin. I gritted my teeth for her return stay that summer, and afterwards vowed never to see her again.

Foreign exchanges of that kind have, for generations, been cherished by aspiring middle-class parents as the way to give their children a head- start in a language. Provided the two teenagers concerned are approximately the same age, it is assumed that they will be only too happy to spend a month or so in each other's company.

Generally, however, they are not. I have yet to meet anyone who actually liked their "exchange". At best, they are tolerated; at worst, ignored - like the French boy I heard of who spent his entire stay with an English family helping their gardener.

Teenagers are predisposed to dislike anyone outside their own immediate circle, particularly if they do not share the same fads and fashions. It is possibly the worst time in their lives to expect them to strike up a rapport with an outsider - particularly one selected by their parents. "They kept taking me to the beach, and trying to make me windsurf," one man remembers. "But all I wanted to do was read Nietzsche and smoke cigarettes."

Caroline Marsh, as an unsophisticated 15-year-old growing up in the country, was rather dazzled by the smart youth culture and coffee bars of Frankfurt when she went to stay with her exchange, Birgit. "I wouldn't say I enjoyed it, exactly, but I think it did help my German," she says. But Birgit was less impressed by her return visit to Derbyshire. "All she did was lie on her bed, and change her clothes the whole time. We didn't do anything in the evenings, except have nice family suppers and play kick-the-can, and I think she was bored out of her mind."

Kate Pahl enjoyed two stays with the same French family, at 14 and 16, despite not hitting it off particularly well with their daughter. "Nobody really expected us to get on together, which helped," she says. "We both liked being on our own. She was quite awkward and shy, and I was, too. But there were always lots of other people around, and I was terribly flattered to be sometimes included in the family's discussions about politics and things. It made me more confident about speaking French: I was never very good at the grammar, but it gave me the feeling that it was still possible to have conversations."

For families without their own contacts in Europe, there are numerous agencies that will arrange exchanges or "home-stays" (where there is no return visit) for you, most of them promising, marriage-bureau-style, to match your child with another of similar background, interests and personality. Home From Home, published by the Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges, lists such agencies, which vary considerably in terms of registration cost and the amount of insurance provided.

The book also offers tips on how to make an exchange succeed. It emphasises, for instance, the importance of preliminary correspondence "about the family, basic social behaviour and the food", as a way of minimising culture shock and home-sickness. Once there, the youngster should watch children's television and talk to young children as a way of learning the language. Visitors should consider themselves "ambassadors" for their country, be polite and helpful, and refrain from moping around in their bedrooms. "It is tiring to communicate with people who do not speak the same language as you, and coming to terms with another culture can be really difficult ... so it is only natural for you to feel stressed, but do your best not to give in to negative feelings."

Colin Galloway, director of Dragons International, which organises exchanges and home-stays in France and Germany, believes it is extremely advantageous in terms of learning a language to spend time with a family, although it is not, he says, for the faint-hearted. "It is very much a dwindling market, and I think one of the reasons is that children are less adventurous than they were and parents more protective. In the past, parents would have simply said, `this is a good idea, and you are going'. Now they tend to ask their children, `what do you think?' - and the children say `no'."

Other ways of experiencing Europe have become more popular: more families take their holidays there, and even swap homes for the summer; more schools arrange exchanges for groups of children, linking up with a foreign school and arranging accommodation with local families; and commercial tour operators take parties of children on shorter, more touristy trips, to places such as Disneyland Paris.

AFS Intercultural Education Programmes (which began life in 1947 as the American Field Service) arranges year-long stays with volunteer families in 54 countries for youngsters aged 15-18 and reports a constant demand as students have time to immerse themselves in a different culture .

So perhaps the traditional foreign exchange, only ever undertaken by a tiny minority, has very nearly had its day; tomorrow's teenagers may breathe a sigh of relief. "I don't think it is going to come back," Colin Galloway says. "It doesn't have the appeal that it used to, and English seems to have become more rather than less the lingua franca of Europe. But I think we are missing out: this will not help us achieve greater European awareness, and less bigotry".

Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges: 0171 930 8466; Dragons International: 01295 721717; AFS: 01274 560677