#51: Host a French exchange student

We have thrown our hats in with the Village Twinning Association, and are taking on a range of rather random experiences as a result.

A bus load of French 10 year olds came last week to visit our village. They were all to be squirrelled away among any families that had failed to make an excuse quickly enough – of which we were one. Volunteers were thin on the ground so the French were placed in twos and threes, rather than singly.

I absolutely take my hat off to all the kids who came. It seems a massive ask of a 10 year old: they were travelling without their families, had no idea what they were coming to, and many had only been learning English for a half hour a week, for a year or two. It was a heroic mission.

I collected our two from the coach, at 9.30pm on Monday. They had been travelling for about 12 hours. We walked back round the corner, approached the driveway to our squalid quarters, and only at that point did I realise what an imbecilic idea it was, to try to accommodate 7 people who couldn’t really converse in a 2 bedroom bungalow. I had imagined the French girls happily bunking in with my 3, for a week-long festival of sleepover madness. As ever, there was a large gulf between fantasy and reality. These two both looked absolutely terrified. Too baffled and shy to accept anything to eat or drink, or to say anything, in any language. Mmm. Difficult.

I suggested they might prefer to sleep together in the lounge, away from the fearsome trio of small English girls. The relief on both faces was unmistakeable. I fashioned 2 beds for them, but when I said goodnight half an hour later, they were both snuggled up in one. For the entire week, I barely saw a sliver of daylight pass between the two of them. They showered together, toileted together, slept together, ate together.

My children have roughly 10 words of French between them. The French girls, if they knew more English, did not reveal the fact. Mealtimes were mildly excruciating. Dave, undaunted, pressed on with cheerful chat. He asked everyone first in English, then in French, about their pets, hobbies, and siblings. 5 young faces stared back at him, featuring disdain, amusement, and total astonishment by turns. Responses were monosyllabic, at best. I have never been so happy to busy myself with housework.

It became clear that we needed to leave the house, a lot. Day trips were already planned for the French class, but we would need some evening entertainment. Soft play was a triumph, as it required no communication, and a play date with another twinning family also ensured safety in numbers for everyone concerned. With those things in place, a good time was had by all!

Our French guests retired early, and since they were sleeping in our only living space, so did we! Dave simply shook his head in my general direction, as we settled for the night at 8pm. The whole thing, his face clearly conveyed, had been my idea. I reminded him we do not like to operate a culture of blame.

And still, the overall experience was worthwhile. We have met other hosting families. We have practised our French, and hugely boosted the children’s enthusiasm for language learning. We have had a new experience! We hopefully offered the French some insights into English life (though I think their main discovery will be of the unimaginable quantity of breakfast consumed by English 5 year olds).

And by the time our young visitors left us, I like to think a degree of fondness had developed on all sides. We exchanged gifts. My kids made them cards saying ‘au revoir’. The French girls hugged and kissed us all. We photographed one another extensively.

They also took photographs of every room in my house, and I now live in fear of French social workers turning up here, to question the keeping of foreign children in a condemned building. On the plus side, the house feels immeasurably bigger since they left!

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