Friday 29 March 2013

Où sont les Gitanes d'antan?

A ban on letting children on school exchange trips stay with host families abroad because of fears about their safety has been backed by councillors in Ceredigion. (BBC)

Back in the early 1970s Cneifiwr went on a school exchange trip to France. The UK had only just joined what we then called the EEC, and exchange controls were still in place. That meant that you had to take your passport along to the bank when you were buying your Francs, and a bank clerk duly recorded in the back of the passport that I had exchanged £20 and possibly undermined the British economy.

The fact that the Bank of England was interested in Cneifiwr's birthday money and meagre savings made the whole enterprise of travelling abroad seem all the more exciting and fraught with danger.

The exchange trip to France was with a school in a northern mining town. The host family's  toilet was an old-fashioned shed at the bottom of the garden, and like most French families in those days, they did not have a telephone.

Remarkably Cneifiwr was twinned with Laurence, a girl of about the same age, because there were not enough French boys interested in taking part.

The family were very warm and welcoming and took me to a nearby seaside resort in Belgium as a treat. There we were entertained by some elaborate fountains which danced and changed colour to organ music.

It was the first time I had been forced to use my limited French for real, as my exchange pal's parents did not speak English, nor did any of her many younger brothers and sisters. We carried on writing for a few more years, and Laurence went on to study medicine.

A couple of years later, aged 16, Cneifiwr and Tina, a girl from the same French class, won a bursary to go to France, ostensibly to study the chateaux of the Loire. Tina was a bit of a ladette, and we became great friends, united in our efforts to subvert what we considered to be the fascist authoritarian state as embodied by our secondary school.

Tina's parents were called in by the Headmaster who was a little nervous about allowing two teenagers of the opposite sex to travel unchaperoned to France.

They clearly raised no objections because we set off for France with our rucksacks early in the summer of 1975. Both of us had been lectured about the perils of hitch hiking, but the parents' concerns were undermined by the fact that they had let us go with only about £50 between us to survive for two weeks of youth hostelling along the Loire Valley.

We quickly did our sums and realised that we would have to dispense with luxuries such as food and railway tickets if we were to be able to afford the basics of life: Gauloises and wine. France back then still smelled of Gauloises and Gitanes, and smoking French fags was essential back home whenever we sat around the record player listening to Leonard Cohen.

Our survival rations were a big bag of "Alpen" muesli and a tub of milk powder which we mixed up with water to form a kind of gruel. We supplemented that with baguettes and vegetables which we stole from the fields. All washed down with luke warm white wine.

At one point a young woman took pity, and insisted on giving us 100 francs (about £10, I think) to go and buy ourselves a decent meal. We spent it on wine instead.

Hitch hiking was by and large fine, although we did get stuck one very hot day on a road which had very little traffic. In desperation Cneifiwr stood in the middle of the road and flagged down a passing Algerian who took pity on us when I said that Tina had terrible stomach pains and had to get to hospital. She sat in the back of the car and groaned unconvincingly for the half hour ride.

Our last night was spent at what must have been one of the most primitive youth hostels in France. The toilets stank indescribably and were buzzing with flies; it was obvious that desperate hostellers had taken to using the showers as a public toilet.

During the night a cat kept jumping onto Cneifiwr's bunk, and after a couple of hours of chucking the cat off, I gave up and slept. In the morning it turned out that she had settled down on my blanket and given birth to kittens.

Cneifiwr knocked on the door of the concierge's flat and explained to the woman that "votre chat a eu des petites chats sur mon lit". Unfortunately the past participle of naître escaped me, but Madame still understood. She muttered something and appeared minutes later in the dorm with a bucket of water to drown the kittens.

Sad to think that CRB checks and the grandly titled Head of Educational Wellbeing in Ceredigion have put a stop to all that.

One final thought. Imagine how good it would be if teenagers in Wales learning Welsh as a second language could spend 10 days with a Welsh-speaking family, swapping the dull and artificial Welsh of the classroom for a dose of the real thing. But thanks to our risk averse, cotton wool culture of wellbeing, that won't happen either.

1 comment:

Richard Powell said...

A fascinating account, which makes my own French exchange (Nantes/La Vendée) in 1977 seem very dull by comparison. As indeed it seemed at the time.

Of course there would be nothing to stop anyone from arranging private exchanges, would there? Apart perhaps from the difficulty of identifying suitable hosts. Or indeed from going on an adventure similar to yours - apart perhaps from the absence of a suitable bursary. Indeed, it ought to be much safer and easier now, what with mobile phones, cheap flights and so on. Yet such adventures seem to be a thing of the past.

If councils are hypercautious, it is either because they fear litigation, or because they are reflecting the fears of parents - it's not only the authorities who wrap young people in cotton wool.