Early Solo Travels
aka 'French Exchanges'
I'm not sure where I got my motivation to travel from, but if I was to hazard a guess, it might be from my early solo trips to France and Belgium - all carried out in the name of improving my (failing) French-speaking skills. They were fairly straightforward affairs - once signed up you were paired with a similar-aged French lad - I would go stay with him for two weeks over the Easter holidays, while he would come and stay with me for the same period over the Summer. I did two of these, then went to stay with a family at a farmhouse in Belgium for the third trip. Bear in mind these were over thirty years ago, so I don't remember all the details, but I certainly remember a few snippets.
The first two trips were organized through my school, and both to Lyon in southern France. As it was Easter, I guess I would have been 13, almost 14 for the first trip. You could say that buddy selection is a total lottery - in theory you get paired up with someone with similar interests, but I figure most 13/14 year old boys have pretty much the same pubescent interests. We flew on a Friday evening after school - a chartered plane from Birmingham, and once you land in Lyon you meet your family and are whisked away to the unknown.
My unknown was the XXth floor of a block of flats in what would likely be a council estate, where I would be sharing a room with my French buddy Benoit and his brother. My first time away on my own, I was completely over-whelmed, so after a cursory 'bonsoir, je m'appelle Giles' to the family, I got my head down and slept for 24 hours straight. I woke a few times throughout the Saturday, but each time I did, I couldn't face going out of the room, so slept some more. I suppose it was hunger that may have driven me out, and I eventually succumbed on the Saturday evening. The things we do as kids - I must have had the family thinking all sorts of things - is he just tired, is he sick, is he strange?
Anyhow, I suppose I must have acted normally at some point and started to settle in. I don't remember much of the first week, although my buddy was still at school so I had to tag along. I remember the English lesson, learning about the Loch Ness Monster - that's about all I understood I suppose. I also remember hanging round the estate where they lived and being left alone from time-to-time while my buddy went off with his mates - a 13 year old boy, left alone in a foreign country - astonishing and unheard-of now of course. There were drugs around too, but Benoit was pretty sensible - "we are silly, he said, but not stupid".
I don't remember too much of Lyon itself, but I did visit their Roman ruins at one point, and also spent hours scouring the department stores for a pair of Lacoste socks. Brand names were pretty fashionable in the UK at the time, so I was determined to come back with some merchandise and settled for a pair of socks which was all my meagre budget allowed. This was met with general astonishment - this guy is definitely strange.
The second week was a change though, as we headed off into the mountains to stay at his grandmother's chalet for a week of skiing. Benoit was a good skier and as I'd been skiing for 4-5 years already, I held my own on the black runs and mogul-pocked slopes. I did crash at one point , however, and broke my ski. I was so ashamed, I didn't tell anyone and skied on it for another 2-3 days. I thought I'd be in real trouble, but the Dad was pretty cool about it when he found out, and gave me a new pair.
As a teenager I was an animal rights supporter and an active vegetarian, which in France at the time, was probably the most stupid thing they had ever heard. I was literally laughed at pretty much every evening at the dinner table. I was a picky eater too - hardly ate a thing aside from bread and potatoes, but tried to be polite. I remember one pot of stewed spinach that was brought out at successive meal times. After politely accepting it the first night, I was pretty much screwed so had to wolf it down without gagging for many meals on the trot. Once the last spoonful was consumed, I breathed a sigh of relief only to see a brand new pot the very next mealtime. I also remember eating artichoke for the first time, and eating the whole 'leaf' in one go. They found that pretty funny too.
At one point, we went to my buddy's friends house where they had the most amazing Scalextric set up in one of the upstairs rooms. It was massive - they had everything you could ever ask for in a Scalextric set. However, while watching, I noticed a switch on the wall. Just an ordinary light switch, but unfortunately once I flicked it, the whole room lost power. First everyone looked at me, then they cursed at me. Then they explained that I was now responsible to pay for the whole set which was likely frazzled. Fortunately, after some frantic checking, the only thing frazzled was one car, which I was still obliged to pay for. Not sure if I ever did though.
The last snippet of memory was of a rottweiler dog - I think belonging to a friend of the family, which although being affectionate, jumped up and nipped the cheek of a teenage girl. As I said, I can't remember who the dog belonged to, or who the girl was, but I remember the absolute beating that the dog took off its owner. The poor mutt was just being friendly and since then I've always assumed the French are not great animal lovers.
My second French Exchange took me back to Lyon and I was paired with a new buddy - Alain Moulinier - no idea why I still remember his name. I presume we were allowed to be paired with the same buddy, but obviously one of us elected not to be. Alain's house was pretty nice to be honest - a sprawling 'estate' on the edge of the city. Perhaps not so much of an estate, but a lovely old stone house with terraces and small gardens dotted around. Hard to describe, but it was picturesque and I remember it well. I was billeted in my own guest house, which was a big improvement on the previous trip. I was a bit more prepared this time, so none of the major pangs of homesickness and I settled into a more typical French way of life.
No school this time, so I had an idyllic first week, playing tennis, swimming and hanging out in my room. I remember bringing only one cassette tape, U2's The Joshua Tree on one side and a Christian band on the other. I listened to both sides, over and over again and even now when I listen to The Joshua Tree, I still expect 'Mothers of the Disappeared' to finish early, as the album overran the 45-min tape.
I also remember going to a wedding and was pretty taken aback with a delightful rendition of Ave Maria by somebody or other. I must have been told about this in advance, as I brought along my only suit - I thought I was the bees knees back then, but the blue/grey fabric with multi-colored flecks would likely be looked upon differently now. It was a lovely occasion though, the reception was in the grounds of the house and was an enjoyable family affair.
For the second week, we drove down to the South of France and stayed in an apartment just along the coast from Cannes. I was never good in the sun, so spent a lot of time indoors after getting burnt early on in the week. I shared a room with my buddy and I remember him insisting on opening the windows each night to let in the fresh air. And the mosquitos. He insisted that his plug-in device would keep them at bay, but I tossed and turned all night listening to the little bastards dive bombing me, while he slept soundly without even a bite. Cannes was lovely, I remember walking along the promenade and eating a pizza with a small hole in the middle where they cracked open an egg. Must have been a French thing, but delicious all the same.
Upon my return to Lyon before flying home, I was greeted with a wonderfully affectionate hug from Alain's sister. She was lovely and I can only look back on an opportunity squandered - I must have missed all the signs!
My last attempt to learn some decent French saw me heading over to Brussels to stay on the farm of some friends of friends of my parents. To be fair, Mimi and Michou were lovely, although Farmer Michou was a hard taskmaster - in his eyes, I was there only to work! The trip over was one of the most memorable journeys I have taken, and unfortunately not in a good way. I took the direct coach from Birmingham to Brussels, which should have been pretty straightforward. At Dover, we took the hovercraft over the Channel - my first and last hovercraft, as I was as sick as a dog so haven't taken one since.
It's when I got to Brussels that things became interesting. My hosts were meant to meet me straight off the coach, so once it pulled up, I exited and waited right there. And I waited. Whether I got off at the wrong stop, or the end point was not exactly as described, I still don't know. All I know is that I stood pat for 3-4 hours and no-one showed up to collect me. I had very little money with me and I didn't actually formulate a plan, but even though it was getting dark, I didn't allow myself to panic as I contemplated spending the night on the streets. Remember this was the time before mobile phones, so I was pretty much on my own. Finally though, as things were getting critical, I decided to walk a little and within a block or two, I miraculously stumbled upon my hosts who were waiting for me in the right/wrong place - who knows. Quite a relief.
The farm was delightful, and was located next to a lovely chateau. At the farm itself, it was 'la moisson' or harvest-time, so I was pretty much put to work straight away. My first task was to exterminate all the weeds on the property by use of this high powered spray which I carried on my back. It was a great job as I blasted weedkiller everywhere - at the weeds of course, but also on a whole lot more. I pretty much shot at any plant that moved. All was well and good until the next day, when the weedkiller turned white and my handiwork was revealed to all. Michou was not best pleased, and soon found me another task. His basement was leaking, and he had a hunch that there was a burst water pipe causing it. Unfortunately it was two metres down, so that was my next task, digging holes in the tightly packed courtyard to find the leak. After a couple of days of digging, I was congratulated in finding the leak, and once repaired I filled up the hole, which fortunately went faster than the digging.
My reward for the leak-finding was well worth it. We went for a walk in the woods and told me about his Grandmother who owned the Chateau during the German occupation of Belgium in WWII. Although the Germans took over the Chateau, she was allowed to stay close by. One rule she had was to insist that the soldiers left their rifles outside the Chateau, and during the course of the occupation, she managed to pinch one and hide it until the end of the war. Writing this now, WWII is a long time ago, but back then in around 1987, we were only forty years removed so it's a pretty believable story. Anyhow, Michou loaded up the rifle and allowed me to shoot at a stream in the ravine, I guess around 150m away. The first shot was the best - a direct hit as the water sprayed up, while the rest were off target. Crazy, irresponsible fun that you probably couldn't get away with now.
The rest of the stay was pretty uneventful. I remember visiting Brussels itself and seeing the Grand Place and The Manneken Pis, places I took the family to see during our visit 30 years later. I also remember having a crush on the family's nanny which I think was mutual, although of course I missed the signs and squandered my chance.
As I said, who knows if these trips were the start of my penchant for travel, but despite the challenges, I made it through and the experiences seem to have set me up well for my future travels. My spoken French improved a little, and as a confirmed Francophile, I am determined to live there, or at least in a French-speaking country some day.