Education: Culture shocks at the breakfast table

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The Independent Online
A foreign exchange is like a blind date: the participant can fall in love with their host country, or the experience can scar them for life. The effect on the host family can be equally dramatic. Yet a sojourn with a strange family is a time-honoured way of learning a country's lore and language.

Celia Dodd asked participants on both sides - a mother coping with looking after two foreign teenagers, and a 15-year-old staying with a German family - to record their progress over an Easter exchange. Here are their diaries.

For 10 days the Tucker family - Jenny, Tom and their children Alex, 12, Alisa, 15, Ross, 16 and Heather, 17 - hosted 12-year-old Yohan (Alex's French exchange) and 14-year-old Diego (Alisa's Spanish exchange). The visits were arranged by two village comprehensives, Fairfield and Weobly, both nearly 30 minutes' drive from the Tuckers' home in Hereford. Jenny had to organise her part-time work, as administrator of the Natural Health Centre in Hereford, around the visitors. And then there was the jet-lag...

Monday 20 April: 3.20pm: Arrive home after a three-week holiday in California. 3.40pm: Open mail and discover that Yohan, Alex's exchange, arrives in just over one hour. And the school is 30 minutes' drive away! (Before we left, dates weren't confirmed.) Put away luggage, mop up flood in bathroom - it stinks! - and sort out sleeping arrangements (complicated, because Alisa and her male exchange can't share).

5.10pm: Get to school. Yohan has been waiting for 25 minutes all by himself, poor little chap. He must have felt abandoned, but he seems immediately relaxed, and Alex and Alisa chat away to him on the way home.

Am sinking with jet lag, but force myself to shop. I can't subject Yohan to baked beans.

Tuesday 21 April: Yohan takes ages eating breakfast - cornflakes with drinking chocolate - and showering. (We only have one bathroom, so operate a tight schedule in the mornings.) Am so anxious they'll miss the school bus that I shout at Alex. It's not his fault, but don't want to scare Yohan off!

Wednesday 22 April: Alex and Yohan miss the bus. Tom drives them to school and has to start work an hour late. I'm still struggling with jet lag. Thank God for flexitime at work. Yohan seems settled - he's always smiling and says thank you with such a wonderful accent.

Tomorrow afternoon Alisa's exchange, Diego, arrives. I can't meet him because I've got to collect Alex and Yohan. So Alisa is taking him to a friend's and then on to the school disco.

Thursday 23 April: Diego seems tense and tongue-tied - hopefully it's just tiredness (Tom picked them up at 10pm). Alisa is embarrassed when I show him the bathroom - "It stinks in here!" she cries. She's right, despite my efforts with the fan heater. Diego seems nervous about not understanding much. Alisa is defensive on his behalf and keeps saying "Mum, slow down, stop talking."

Friday 24 April: Alisa says, "I think this is going to be a bit awkward, mum." She is finding Diego rather uncommunicative. At breakfast he only eats sliced brown bread (no butter), and refuses bread in his lunchbox. I used to take it personally when visitors hated English food, but I'm much more mature about it now.

After school, the kids play football, volleyball, etc, and Diego is in his element. It really loosens him up. Alex's friend Sam is staying the weekend and he gets on well with Diego.

Saturday 25 April: Go to Tesco and buy a variety of bread - naan, pitta, white rolls, brown rustic cob - plus unsalted butter in an attempt to satisfy Diego. I thought I'd grown up, but here I am feeling insecure and accommodating like mad! I can't bear to see Diego struggling, even though I tell myself that this is England and he should adapt. I've had to shop every day this week, which is a pain. Slight feeling of panic that I've got to satisfy each person's needs.

I am inundated with washing. The washing line breaks twice, then the cat sprays on the washing basket.

By 3.30 I'm ready to take the younger boys to the Mappa Mundi exhibition - rather dull. On the way home we rent a couple of Mr Bean videos (international humour). After dinner I drag out table skittles, we get into teams and have a competition - a great success.

Sunday 26 April: Diego asks to spend the day with the other Spanish kids - it's difficult for him because they're all staying near Peterchurch, which is 20 minutes' drive away - so Alisa goes with him. She is getting a little weary - she finds Diego rather immature, but is aware of her obligation to befriend him.

Meanwhile Tom takes Yohan, Alex and his friend Sam to the West Midlands Safari Park while I enjoy some much-needed personal space. The timing of these exchanges has been difficult. But the boys are happy and gaining a lot - as are my children, and indeed I am too.

I then cook a large traditional roast dinner. Diego rejects my apple crumble!

He seldom says please or thank you, and while I'm aware such formalities are rare in Spanish, it still gets to me.

Monday 27 April: I rush from work to collect Alex and Yohan from a day's walking in the Elan Valley. Alex is beginning to show signs of tiredness. Exchanges are very demanding on the kids.

Alisa and Diego have a good day at Alton Towers. I set up the table tennis, which they all really enjoy. After dinner all the kids are tired and crash out in front of the box, which suits me! I hate to admit that I'm looking forward to everyone going so we can just be a family together.

Tuesday 28 April: Get home from work to discover Alex with raging temperature - tonsilitis.

Alisa admits she will be pleased when Diego goes as she is finding it a strain. It's not the same as having a girl, and the age difference is a problem. She wants time on her own, time with her friends and time to concentrate on homework.

Wednesday 29 April: Alex too ill to go to school, so Tom drives Yohan to the bus stop. Alex's friend Sam agrees to bring Yohan home tonight.

Thursday 30 April: Last day! Diego and Yohan have to be at their schools at 8.45am - a logistical nightmare, particularly since Tom has an appointment so can't help. Rearrange work so I can drive Yohan; Diego takes his suitcase on the school bus.

We say goodbye at home. I am looking forward to a rest and a chance to get the house straight - it's a tip! But I feel a tinge of sadness. Yohan and Alex have become good friends.

TIPS FOR HOSTING A SUCCESSFUL EXCHANGE

Don't speak too quickly or too much, especially when your guests first arrive. Don't expect them to want to talk to adults that much.

The best icebreakers are often younger siblings. They have fewer inhibitions and the foreign student won't worry so much about making mistakes with them.

Games help break the ice: any sport - football, table tennis, volleyball, etc. Do non-verbal indoor games (Ludo, skittles, cards, Pictionary, etc). And, of course, computer games...

Rent videos of popular films they've already seen in their own language. The international humour of Mr Bean is a pretty safe bet.

Plan a few trips which are pure fun (ie, no overt educational value) - Alton Towers, safari parks, bowling, etc.

Don't cook traditional English food if you don't usually eat it. Buy a few familiar things, such as unsalted butter and continental bread.

Leave a basket of fruit and some chocolate in their room.

Don't be surprised if offers of baths and showers are declined: bathroom habits differ as much as the language.

Assume they are having a great time unless they are actually in tears.

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