Reel communication began when Helmut talked about maggots

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The Independent Online
It was to be the Summer of the Silent Stranger: the toughest challenge which the schools exchange programme could devise. Helmut the Terrified arrived in a flurry of gift-wrapped sausage and expensive-looking trainers and vanished almost immediately to his room to unpack. We didn't see him for an hour.

Dinner seemed to last forever. Amid nervous smiles and small outbursts of unnatural laughter, we covered hobbies, school, pets and holidays all in exceptionally abbreviated form. Then, in desperation, family members talked to each other with unusual courtesy and clarity, paying grim attention to every nuance of anecdotal detail (which took longer). A sense of alarm and hysteria was rising. Helmut's English was shrivelling visibly, our son's GCSE German had fled in fright, and the rest of us could muster no more then Achtung Baby! and Vorsprung durch Technik. We had all just bumped into the language barrier.

Without language, people do strange things. Negotiating old trainers for the school sailing afternoon was a challenge too far. He could borrow some of ours, but what size? Blank. What number? He looked at his feet. Two? he suggested. In desperation I sidled up to him, put my calf against his and aligned our feet. He looked alarmed. Seeing we were about the same size, I triumphantly produced from the garage a pair of tatty pumps. He fixed me with a cool eye. It is not necessary, he said.

Helmut was 15 and was matched, by the respective schools, with our son William. Matched? In every respect, from family background to interests, they were light-years apart: William sporty and sociable; Helmut, a fisherman. Apart from being biologically driven towards the girls at the youth club, the two had nothing in common. And it rained and rained.

Doggedly we began our programme-of-interesting-places- to-take-a-visitor. But castles, museums, concerts and the Cotswolds left Helmut expressionless and bored. "Don't you like old buildings Helmut?" we asked. "No," he replied. "I like fishing."

But Helmut was not just a casual Sunday fisherman who could take it or leave it. He was Serious. Photographs of self holding very large pike were produced, followed by a cunning retractable fishing rod (concealed hitherto in his suitcase), a box of lovingly tied flies and a sleek reel which purred smoothly when demonstrated. He then unfolded a small piece of paper on which was written a single word: "maggots". He smiled for the first time, disarmingly. "It is necessary to have ... maggots."

A river-board licence was purchased and unlikely acquaintances made with neighbours who knew about such things. Maggots were acquired and kept, as recommended, in the fridge (clearly labelled). Lakes, canals, reservoirs and evil-looking ponds were located. And still it rained. To be sociable, William went along a few times, but caught only an overhanging ash tree and a sock.

But the thing about fishing is the silence. Not a word is spoken, not English, not German. Helmut could sit immobile in solitude for hours, never complaining in the rain, never bored. Old buildings, the prizes of English culture, caused him to glaze over within seconds; staring at a dull red float on a grey pool enchanted him. He could have been anywhere, I thought miserably: it was not necessary to come to England to do this. And all round the dreary lakes and lining the canal banks were other men who had also escaped not, maybe, from the terrors of linguistic contact, but from the washing-up and the childcare and the irritations of squashed living.

We hit upon a new technique. Today, I announced, we go to Stratford- on-Avon (Helmut looked blank). Shakespeare? (Helmut looked slightly less blank). Fishing? (Helmut smiled). First we look at old buildings, then we fish, I said sweetly. Why old buildings? asked Helmut. Because they are good for you, I said.

And that's how it was. Half an hour of English heritage, three hours of fishing. Postcards purchased in all famous places so that his parents would see that we had tried, and a moderately happy Helmut.

Funny though. He never caught a thing. Despite the maggots.