The ever fabulous Michèle has reminded me, thanks to this gorgeous château blog entry, about my trip to la belle France in 1987.
I took part in an exchange programme organised by my school. A boy, Fred, came to stay with me and my Mother in Bournemouth over the Easter holiday. Although we were the same age, I was physically more mature than him. I found him childish and irritating.
A short time after he returned home, I went to stay with his family; him, his Mum and Dad. Two parents. Quite the novelty.
The Father, Michel, asked me how to say merde in English. I felt like I was one of us, not one of them, practically adult. Mostly, I think, because at that time, I was fourteen, my Mother would have still slapped me if I'd sworn. Oh, and add to the fact that Michel asked me to tell him that word out of earshot of his young son.
My Mum had a thing about the French. She still does. She comments, quite often about them giving in to the Germans. I think I understand why she harbours this contempt. She was evacuated to the North of England from her home in Guernsey in 1940. Boats were few and far between. This meant that a lot of her family had to stay behind. While she was in England, her Grandfather died along with a few others, people she didn't have a chance to say goodbye to. If there had been more boats, her Grandfather might have been able to get to England, too. But there were not more boats, no, because they were being used picking up soldiers in retreat from the German army on the beaches of Northern France.
So I think that's why she has a thing about the French.
Young boys are like sponges. They soak things up. I soaked lots of things up from my Mother. I thought it was right to vote Tory and I thought the French weren't to be trusted.
But Michel changed that. He was so kind to me, walked with me, tried to explain jokes to me with my schoolboy French and his very limited English. Dity jokes. And he took me to a beach on the Normandy coast. Not a beach where British soldiers were picked up, but where they landed, from where they went on to take France back for the French. I felt some kind of unity with Michel. We both read from an information point, he in French, me in English. I finished and looked at him as he lifted his head up from the words. He smiled. We hugged.
Something happened that day. I don't know what, a road to Damascus event, perhaps. I don't know. I realised the fallibility of my Mother, that it was alright to have different opinions from her and that thinking for myself was a good idea.
The next day, we went to Château de Falaise. William The Conqueror was born there. I looked at Michel and wondered about him. I thought about what we had in common. If there were things dividing us, I didn't think about them and if I had thought about them, I don't think they'd have mattered.
I liked the feeling of unity, I liked the fact that someone cared about me and I liked the fact that I'd grown to care about someone else. The first person, I think, with whom I'd developed some kind of bond and realised this as it was happening. Neither of us cared where we'd come from, what our Nationality was.
I practically never think of Fred. I do though, sometimes, think of his Father.