There ought to be a special word for the type of nostalgia one can feel about an experience that you hated at the time, and still remember hating, but want to inflict on your children none the less. Perhaps the French have a mot juste for it; but if so, it didn’t come up during the two weeks I spent with a family of total strangers in rural France in 1985, attempting to learn their language.
Even now, looking back through the soft-glow lens of middle age, I feel sorry for my 14-year-old self. So nervous, so tongue-tied, so incredibly homesick. My host family were kind enough, but they lived in a bungalow that looked like it had been decorated by a repressed serial killer: shiny brown wood panelling, plastic covers on the three-piece suite, crochet doilies anxiously deployed everywhere. This is how I still think of France, almost four decades later. A country of brown houses, where you have to be very careful where you put your glass.
The foreign language exchange was a rite of passage for my generation: dreaded but meekly endured, because everyone did it. Now, though, only 25 per cent of state schools offer their pupils the opportunity to do an exchange, and MPs warned this week that numbers are sliding fast. Post-Brexit paperwork is to blame, on top of a risk-averse culture that demands meticulous accountability.
British schools have to ensure that every adult member of a host family, including older siblings, has a DBS check (even in countries where no such system of background checks exists). Host families, meanwhile, have to fill in detailed forms stating that, for example, they have a lock on their bathroom door. Every foreign trip requires around 47 hours of staff time spent on the bureaucracy of safeguarding.
On top of the cost and palaver, there is the low-level hum of unspecified neuroticism that now afflicts schools almost as much as parents. My two older children did get offered the chance to do an exchange, but it was not compulsory, and not – to my mind – the real deal. They would have been paired up with a classmate for the duration of their stay, presumably in order to provide an extra layer of security and reassurance.
But being lonely and out of your depth is what makes a foreign exchange so effective. You have no choice but to speak the language of your hosts, however embarrassing it sounds inside your head. You can’t maintain any ironic, conspiratorial distance from your situation: immersion is the only option.
Even in the brown bungalow, there were happy moments to be had. The teenage daughter of the house shared my passion for Morten Harket from A-ha, who we agreed was hyper-chouette. Her granny took me shopping at the hypermarché – so much bigger than anything I had ever seen in England – and bought me little pots of crème anglaise to make me feel at home.
I left France feeling braver, worldlier and more resilient than when I arrived. And most importantly – given the deplorable state of foreign language learning in this country – I came away with a smattering of useable French.
These days, I do Duolingo lessons every day to stop my brain atrophying. But nothing much goes in. Almost every word that I understand instinctively, without having to think about it, I learnt during that lonely, homesick, character-building fortnight in 1985.