At 13 I already had a crush on Europe. Sun-drenched island holidays with my family in Greece and Spain acted as a (literal) warm up. But that fondness was about to grow into a lifelong passion for the continent. I fell in love with Europe as a student on the French exchange.
My school, through a European student programme, had arranged for some of us kids from London to embark on a trip to Paris for a week to stay with a French family. I had never been to a European city. I had never been abroad without my parents. I had never stayed with a family who didn’t speak the same language as me.
But these issues were secondary to my main concern. Sarah Jones. Days of trying to catch her eye in the school playground, and nights imagining how it would feel to share a kiss, had been occupying my time for some weeks. She too was coming to France and that was, in my mind, the opportune moment for love to be realised. Where better to experience my first French kiss than in Paris?
Things were not off to a good start. On the early morning ferry crossing from Dover, I had plucked up the courage to finally speak to her in the Duty Free store. Thanks in part to the encouragement of my two friends, Andrew Avery and Phillip Wilkinson. It was perhaps not the most convenient time. The captain was navigating some English Channel swell. My question as to whether or not she was looking forward to eating snails couldn’t be heard over the chinking wine and whisky bottles. She muttered something in the ear of her friend. They laughed in my general direction. That was quickly followed by a derogatory stare, then a wordless departure. My friends, who were standing next to the shelves of extra-large Toblerone, were on hand to ridicule my attempts.
We assembled back on the coach and all vehicles disembarked into a similarly romance-bereft mise-en-scéne – the sea-rusty port of Calais. The sun, hazed by murky cloud, was peeking out from behind highly-stacked freight containers. Despite the seeming lack of difference between this port and the one we’d left behind at Dover, there was the immediate recognition of foreignness. The French port workers seemed to wave traffic through in a different way and had better fitting high viz. Signs were written in words I’d previously only had to decipher in text book exercises. They now existed in tangible form.
Phillip was also trying to grasp the new reality. He turned to me, after observing the sky, and asked with a straight face, ‘Is this the same sun as in England?’ (the playground afforded him the title ‘Wilkinson Sword’ owing to his sharpness).
On the drive to Paris the teachers outlined the agenda on the coach microphone. We were to meet our exchange partners at the school and then head to their individual houses. Our stay with the family would be interspersed with group trips to various tourist attractions and then on the last night a disco. The teacher concluded her speech with, ‘Don’t be afraid to cry tonight if you miss home.’
The school was on the outskirts of the city, almost in the countryside. Mathieu, my French exchange partner, along with his mother and sister, met me at the gates. We drove in their Citroën to their converted farmhouse. Mathieu didn’t say much, not because he was shy, but because it turned out he barely knew any English, which meant we had something in common – I barely knew any French.
His sister Julie on the other hand, was very talkative. The first thing we did was exchange swearwords. At dinner. In front of her parents. This was my first taste of French liberalism. She struggled with the pronunciation of the English version for merde but that didn’t put her off from repeating ‘oh sheeeet, oh sheeeet…’ much to the enjoyment of all present. My introduction to French humour.
And the dinner. I have no idea what we were eating, some kind of mince – was it horsemeat? Then homemade mousse de chocolat. After, the parents relaxed with Gauloises. I was offered one by Mathieu’s father. Was this my second introduction to French humour? Or was this a serious offer? I would be grounded by adults for years if I tried a cigarette at home. And here, an adult was offering me one. I declined. Somehow it felt inappropriate, yet unfettering – the fact I possibly could have had a cigarette was as enjoyable as actually trying one.
Did I cry that night? I was jumping up and down on the bed with unshackled joy. Liberté!
Like so many words in English, ‘liberty’ stems from a Latin derivative, liber, meaning ‘free’. The modern day French verb is libre. I know this now… The following morning there was some time spare before we were to visit the school to speak to Mathieu’s class. Over breakfast – croissants and chocolate milk, drunk from a bowl – his mother asked me what I would like to do. I wanted to answer using the verb lire, to read, but I confused it with the aforementioned.
‘C’est possible libre?’ I asked her.
‘Oui, c’est important en France!’
This gave me the impression at the time that the French highly valued their literature. They do. Along with their freedom. Mathieu showed me his Astérix collection.
Phillip ‘Wilkinson Sword’ and Andrew were already at the front of the class when I arrived, looking sheepish as the French pupils stared at the two of them with intrigue. Luckily for us it was the English class so we were here to answer questions in a language we were more au fait with. I noticed there was no school uniform. They could wear what they wanted. More freedom, this time of expression. That said, most had opted for jean jackets and neck scarves.
One of the girls introduced herself as Adeline and asked me, ‘Izzit true that, er, you eet your peas with a fork?’
I was baffled. ‘How else is there?’ I replied. The pupils found this amusing. The three of us looked at each other – what do they do with their peas?
‘Merci Dominique,’ said Adeline. She was smiling at me. Her look lingered. Was my foreignness… attractive to her?
Our city sightseeing day arrived a few days later, having spent time with our respective families in between. I became close with Mathieu and Julie in that period. We discovered our commonalities and took interest in our differences. Often playfully. I got called rosbif and they froggies. And through this mix of pleasure and curiosity came friendship. Fraternité.
Sarah was on the coach with the rest of the English pupils. More evil stares. I hadn’t been pining for her the past few days. If anything, my mind was occupied by the mysterious Adeline from the class. Perhaps not mysterious, but alluring.
The highlight of the sightseeing trip was to be the Eiffel Tower. After messy chocolate crepes from a street vendor at its base we boarded the lifts to the top. Contrary to most people’s preconception of the Eiffel Tower I had never seen it as a representation for love. Before the trip I had just wanted to see where they filmed James Bond’s A View To A Kill. But I was changing.
As I looked out over the arondissements of Paris I could indeed feel something of a love. For the city. And of the experience I was having in it. Everything here was so different, so new and exciting for me. I looked out towards the horizon. Beyond Paris was the rest of France, and beyond France was the rest of Europe. I wanted to explore it all. What else was out there? What else could I learn from these different cultures? How many ways were there to eat peas? A View To A Kill became A View To A Life. My new life. My raison d’être. Here in Europe.
Disco night arrived. A group of the French pupils were gathered outside smoking their Gauloises. Among them I was surprised to see Phillip and Andrew doing the same, albeit with less finesse – each drag of the cigarette led to a fit of coughing and spluttering. More French amusement.
Inside the building the music was eclectic: the DJ was making sure that for every two English-language songs he played a French one. To the French students it didn’t matter, they danced to it all. The English sat on the side lines watching, bemused by how adult the French seemed. When the DJ played Edith Piaf’s ‘Non je ne regrette rien’ they sung all the words with such conviction. Surely they weren’t old enough to have regrets but the sentiment francais was theirs for the taking.
Through the ensemble I caught a glimpse of someone I recognised, the alluring Adeline from class. She was walking in my direction. I stood up and she greeted me. Two cheek kisses. She was a lot taller than me, dressed in a black number à la Chanel, au naturellement. (The French are relentlessly fashionable in their inimitable way)
‘Bonsoir Dominique’ came her greeting.
‘Bonsoir Adeline’ I replied. ‘Did you eat your peas today?’
She laughed, tilting her head back as she did so. Adeline belonged in Cannes. She then grabbed my chin, looked down into my eyes, and said, ‘I like you, mon petit pois,’ and kissed me on the lips before disappearing back into the mêleé.
I turned to Phillip and Andrew. They were staring, open-mouthed.
‘I think gentlemen, that’s classed as a French kiss,’ came my announcement.
Je ne regrette rien.
On the ferry back to England we waved goodbye to Calais from the top deck and discussed our post-trip goals. Andrew wanted to learn how to smoke properly. Phillip ‘Wilkinson Sword’ had requested a new nickname: ‘Call me Gillette.’
For me the goal was clear.
I walked to the shop to buy some Toblerone and there was Sarah. She was now looking at me with interest instead of disdain. Why? Did she now see someone different? Had the experience released in me something that she was now attracted to? Confidence perhaps? Or was it my new neck scarf? Whatever it was, I wasn’t interested in her anymore. All I wanted was to fulfil the plan I had conceived on the Eiffel Tower: to see more of Europe, to meet more people from other cultures. Like Adeline. And maybe they too will be interested in me.
From Europe I had garnered one of my first travel-learnings: if we all share an interest in each other’s differences, as well as valuing our similarities, then we can’t fail to have something in common. And from commonality comes concord. A union. Love and peas.
I will forever love you Europe and all you stand for. And I hope British school children still get the opportunity to learn from you, and you from them. I hope that there is still a sense of union, now that Britain is officially no longer part of it.