The only penfriend I ever had was a boy from Yorkshire. My primary school in Southport had a letter-writing scheme going with his school in Halifax, and I can still remember the excitement with which I opened my first trans-Pennine missive, swiftly followed by the disappointment of discovering that he loved motorbikes and hated football. I mistrusted motorbikes (our 21-year-old next-door neighbour had been killed on one) and adored football. After one letter each, our penfriend-ship fizzled out.
These days, schools are more ambitious. My 12-year-old daughter has a penfriend in Normandy whose basic English has, I'm embarrassed to admit, caused much mirth in our house. "I have the blue eyes and many of the brown hairs", she wrote, and hard though we have tried to impress upon Eleanor that her efforts in French will cause similar hilarity across the Channel, it's hard to read young Marguerite's letter with a straight face.
The next step, in a year or two's time, will be the exchange visit. Even at my grammar school we never did anything like that, although my wife, Jane, has a fund of great stories about the exchanges her sister Jackie did while studying German, such as the one about Jackie's stay in a household near Munich where the father, a fat guy with a bushy moustache, would rapidly finish his own meal and then start spearing pieces of sausage and potato on all the other plates, including Jackie's.
Some friends of ours here in Herefordshire have just had a 15-year-old French boy staying with them on an exchange with their son, Harry. The boy came on a coach with other teenagers from Burgundy and, on the eve of their arrival, the head of the modern-languages department at Harry's school solemnly told parents that they should avoid giving the French kids fizzy drinks, processed food or any flavoured crisps, because theirs was a diet of simple, nutritional fare. This turned out to be as erroneous as my own adolescent belief that every French boy drove a velomoteur. Harry's friend loved crisps of all flavours, wouldn't touch any vegetables, formed a passionate attachment to pork pies, and excitedly took home two bottles of sparkling Vimto for his family to try.
For all I know he might also have eyed up some of the local horseflesh. A friend of mine recalls going to Brecon horse fair, at which a sturdy young pony was introduced to potential buyers with the promise that he was "absolutely bomb-proof". I had never heard the term "bomb-proof" used in an equine sense until we bought our own miniature Shetland pony, not long after arriving in these parts. It means that the creature will not be startled by loud or sudden noises, and can thus be led or ridden in safety. Anyway, my friend was amused when an old Welsh farmer alongside him at the fair muttered dyspeptically: "never mind bomb-proof, it's bloody bullet-proof he needs to be". Several of the most enthusiastic buyers were there to service the French horsemeat market.
To return to school exchange visits, a story I have told before but can't resist repeating concerns my friend Mike who, 30 years ago or so at the tender age of 11, arrived at the rural French home of a boy called Didier. Young Didier had already spent a week at Mike's home in Surrey, and Mike was looking forward to his stay, especially when Didier's mother said that they could spend their first night in the tree-house. Just as they were settling down, however, Didier's mother came tearing down the garden. "Didier," she cried, "papa, il est mort!"
Didier was similarly upset. He and Mike returned to the house, where plans were made the following morning for Mike to return to England. Then, as Mike was eating his breakfast croissant, Didier's father came down the stairs. Mike tugged at Didier's sleeve. "Didier," he said, in the best French he could muster, "c'est ton papa! Il n'est pas mort!" Alas, Didier was not consoled. It turned out that the family were devout Catholics and that the "papa" who had so tragically expired was the Pope.
Tales of the Country, by Brian Viner, is out in paperback (Simon & Schuster, £7.99)Reuse content