They say that school exchanges are there to open you up to new experiences but, aged 14, in the small town of Pushkin in Russia, I found my limit. It had been a baffling and brilliant week, staying with Masha and family, visiting palaces, eating borscht and not understanding a thing anyone said. One day, for no reason, Masha’s father brought a baby goat into their fifth-floor flat. That was fun.
On the last night, when Masha’s parents announced that we would be having a banya for a goodbye treat, I summoned my best pre-GCSE Russian and said “I do not have a swimsuit” to puzzlement, then laughter. They explained that it was “traditional” to enjoy the family sauna – a shed at the end of the communal garden – as nature intended. I excused myself from the table, looked up “to borrow” in my dictionary and tried again, adding a plaintive “I’m English” for effect. Masha eventually lent me a too-small electric blue bikini and off we trooped through the snow to hit each other with birch twigs in a small, hot wooden shack. I have not forgotten it, nor the words for “borrow” and “bikini” in Russian, since.
In 1997, when I was 13, I went on my first school exchange to France. My school was twinned with one near Paris and we were all looking forward to enjoying the sights. Unfortunately, while all of my friends spent their weekends visiting ice cream parlours and Disneyland, I spent mine entertaining my host family’s pet rat. The rat – which didn’t appear to have a cage – roamed the family’s apartment. Including the dinner table, and everything on it. As disgusting as this was, at least it was contained within the family home. But I will never forget the moment when my self-conscious, melodramatic 13-year-old self looked up to see my pen-pal, Matthieu, remove his baseball cap inside the Louvre to reveal the rat sitting on his head. It has put me off rats – and art – for life.
The entente cordiale was tested immediately on my month-long exchange as a 14-year-old in Pontoise, just outside Paris. I got food poisoning from the French school canteen an hour after arriving and spent my first evening with my host family slumped over their downstairs loo. I think it was the rice in the lukewarm risotto that did for me. French cuisine, eh? Terrible.
I was berated by my French exchange’s mother for introducing her daughter to cigarettes and boys in London, a habit that she was keen to pursue back in the banlieues of Paris. After a month in one another’s company, we’d learnt how to swear in the other’s language and realised that Parisian jazz clubs and hangovers were probably best left to grown-ups. In spite of it all, I aced my French A-Level, and can still remember how to tell someone to eff off.
When I was 15 I went on Russian exchange to St Petersburg. My abiding memories include meat being sneaked into every supposedly vegetarian meal (“It’s just pork”), trying very hard to get served alcohol at a school disco (why there was a bar there in the first place, I’m still not sure) and hanging out in the huge gold an marble apartment of an apparent gangster’s son. I don’t think that I spoke a word of Russian the whole week.
A school exchange is billed as an opportunity to learn a new language, or to discover and fall in love with a different culture. For my school, it was simply a chance to teach a group of incredulous French students how to play British Bulldog. The game took place when we should have been in lessons, on a playground at the back of their college. We split into teams: England versus France was the natural divide. The game was ferocious, bitter, and peppered with illegal tackles and foul moves, but we were all better friends by the end of it. Of course, I’m thrilled to tell you that the English were victorious.
I never went on one myself but I do remember my brother’s French exchange pal staying in our house. He really didn’t seem like he was having the best of times. It was only on the penultimate day of his stay that he politely asked my mum if he could borrow some money because nowhere would accept the English money his parents had given him, which was a load of old one pound notes... and this was 1996.Reuse content