A French Exchange

Courleon 2
Courleon: My bedroom was in  the turret on the left

At breakfast this morning, I dipped my toast and marmalade into my coffee. Some people say that is the height of bad manners, but I think it makes the toast, if you judge it right–it mustn’t get soggy− taste better. I don’t think I was allowed to do this as a child, on the other hand, maybe it was because we had porridge or cereal and never toast for breakfast. Mike’s mother certainly thought it was unacceptable, but I remember the delights of bread, toasted and slightly burned, dipped into a bowl of hot chocolate, when I was staying with a French count and his family in their chateau in the Loire Valley.

The chateau, which was tiny by chateau standards, actually belonged to the count’s mother a formidable elderly lady and we were there for only two weeks of my month long French exchange.

Exactly why I was picked out from the rest of my classmates I have no real idea, but because our school was run by a French order of nuns, when Solange’s parents wanted a girl to help their daughter with her English, they wrote to our headmistress.

Perhaps I was chosen because I wasn’t quite British. I was born here, but my parents were Polish and came to England after the Second World War. Maybe the nuns thought with that sort of background I might cope better. Who knows? They certainly didn’t chose badly in terms of culture. Mum, having been also educated by nuns, told me that when I was introduced to Madame la Comtesse, I was to shake her hand and drop a curtsy. Not something many of my contemporaries would have known.

Because this was an individual exchange and not the one organised by the city schools I had to travel on my own, to go by train and ferry was considered too risky, so at fifteen I went on my first flight and for the first and only time in my life I was airsick.

I was met in Paris by the Comte, his wife and his two daughters, Solange, the girl whose English I was to improve, and her sister Nicole. We had a brief drive round the capital then off down to Courleon and Grandmere’s chateau.

As exchanges go it wasn’t the greatest success. Solange and I simply didn’t get on. She was interested in hunting and riding, I was into reading. She was also slightly awkward and determined not to speak English and since we had nothing in common I couldn’t find a good way of communicating with her. I had much more fun with Nicole. And even if Solange learned very little my French got better and better.

Today, I’m not sure how many fifteen year olds would be sent off to foreign country, to a family they did not know, for a month in the summer and expected to get on with it.  For me it was an amazing experience. I don’t remember being homesick even though I only spoke to my parents twice the whole time I was away. I loved being in a completely different world, especially those long, butterfly filled days at Courleon, which began with burnt toast dipped in milky hot chocolate.

Keep safe.

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