I started today thinking about the exchange visit I did back in the summer of 1980 with a French lad called Olivier. It was arranged through our schools but despite us being a similar age, my over-riding memory of Olivier is of a very serious young man who seemed a good couple of years older than me. He came over to Scotland first and arrived while I was coming to the end of my term at school. I don’t remember much of his visit though I think we went swimming at the Commonwealth Pool and did some of the tourist things like visit Edinburgh Castle. I also have a photograph of us, along with my cousin Gillian, visiting some tourist attraction further north with me and Gillian looking a good few years younger than our French companion who wore a raincoat whereas we had anoraks on.
We left Edinburgh and stopped off in London, staying with my aunt, on our way to Calais and the ferry crossing to France. I wasn’t much of a teenage rebel but do remember taking a packet of cigarettes with me and smoking one on the ferry as we headed over the Channel. Olivier said that we would carry on speaking English until we got on to French soil and I remember being on the Metro on the day we arrived in Paris.
Oliver’s family were quite wealthy and had an apartment close to the Champs-Élysées. When we arrived there, I was greeted by the sight of his younger brother and his German exchange running around the flat. Presently his father returned from work and collapsed in a chair in front of the TV. While Olivier had been in Edinburgh my dad discovered that monsieur liked his Scotch. So, I was given a bottle of malt to give to Oliver’s dad on my arrival. I will be forever grateful to my dad for this as it was the best possible present I could have arrived with. Olivier had introduced me to his father, but he had barely acknowledged my presence until I presented him with this gift from Scotland, saying in my best schoolboy French, “Un cadeaux pour vous, Monsieur.” His eyes lighted up. Suddenly I was his best friend and he started speaking English to me. Unlike his son or wife, he was concerned that I would find it difficult to start speaking French right away and spoke English to me for the first few days.
Olivier and I visited the Eiffel Tower, we went down the Seine on a boat one evening but what stuck in my mind was the day we went to the Sacré-Cœur with the German lad. It was an overcast day and after climbing all the steps to the roof we were greeted with torrential rain so had to return below without seeing the views. Back down in the “body of the kirk”, as we’d say in Scotland, Olivier left the German lad and myself while he went and prayed. I can’t remember the lad’s name, but we realised that French was our common language so had a stilted conversation in French as my German wasn’t too great and I don’t think he spoke much English.
It was this conversation that came to my mind this morning while hearing of the problems Angela Merkel is having forming a government in Germany just now and the on-going Brexit negotiations. I was lucky that I had the opportunity to meet fellow Europeans when I was a teenager. Maybe if there was more contact between kids from different countries not so mnay people would have voted to leave the EU last year. But to use a quote from the comedy series WIA, we are where we are and that's never a good place to be.