It turns out that having THE BEST DAY OF YOUR LIFE at twelve years old is quite overwhelming. Having let a little adventure into my life, however unwillingly, I retreated into my own thoughts and back to the comfort of the sofa again, where I spent as much time as I could over the next few years. Most of the other things I did during this time were either obligatory, like school, or in the name of ‘fun’. As the inverted commas suggest, this was not my definition of fun (these were largely activities foisted upon me by my ever-optimistic, outdoors-loving parents). If I’d had my way, I’d have spent my time almost exclusively reading and conjuring pointless scenarios in my brain such as what would happen if I found Narnia in the back of my wardrobe, or if I had a watch like ‘Bernard’s Watch’-the name of a popular kids TV show at the time- which allowed me to stop time whenever I wanted.
I also spent a lot of time absorbing some of the less interesting prime-time TV shows of which my mother was quite fond. By ‘quite fond’, I mean that if anyone suggested we might change the channel and put something more exciting on, something like, say, ‘Bernard’s Watch’ for instance, they would be thrown a withering glance and promptly ejected from the room. My father was also very aware of the unwritten rule of the living room and knew better than to try to change the channel if a football match happened to coincide with one of mum’s programmes. Instead, he would slope off to the pub or community centre to sit and watch it in solidarity with other men whose wives had probably also banished them from the house.
Our weekly TV scheduling mostly revolved around ‘Blind Date'(cringe-worthy dating show) ‘Antiques Roadshow’ (old people discussing/valuing even older things) ‘Changing Rooms’ (camp home make over show) and a program called ‘Wish You Were Here’, which often featured the teak stained visage of one Judith Chalmers. A lady famous on British television for making a career out of taking holidays and being very, very tanned. Given my slightly lazy nature and my budding interest in adventure (as long as it was lived vicariously through others), the woman quickly became something of an idol to me. Slowly my mum’s shows seeped into my consciousness, mostly against my will, as I sat there, not daring to suggest changing the channel. But I found myself looking forward to the holiday programs. Each week, I couldn’t wait to tune in to see where they were. I loved marveling at the picturesque scenes, the food, places I’d never seen before. I was transfixed by them. And by the ever-darkening orange hue of Judith’s skin.
That you could go on holiday for your job was a revelation to me. All the other careers I’d ever considered seemed like a lot of hard work and not much fun. But taking holidays seemed like quite a relaxing occupation. I made a decision right then that I was going to try a bit of this traveling stuff. I was going to forego my comfortable couch, evenings at home with my books and TV and I was going to go OUT. Somewhere. But being around 14 at this time, my budget was somewhat limited. Far more limited than my imagination which was already conjuring up images of me in the Caribbean, St Lucia, Egypt, Kenya, Australia…
Australia was my main obsession for a variety of reasons, which I will explain later. I vowed that I would see it and eventually, I did go to live there for a while. But in the meantime, I asked for a globe for Christmas. It lit up like a lamp and became one of my new favourite things. My mum had always been enjoyed travel herself and encouraged my interest. As we watched more and more holiday programs, and I checked my globe for new places and, new names, my enthusiasm grew. We had driven to France as a family and traveled a little as a family, but I was suddenly gripped by the travel bug and felt keen to spread my wings. I wanted a trip without the parents, to their delight or dismay….I’m not sure which. I suspect holidays with me had been a mixture of pleasure and frustration for the parents, as for most parents. In the days before I could read, I had famously ruined several of my parents’ holidays by demanding we leave the beach early so I could be read to back at the hotel or caravan. Being the baby of the family by quite a long way (my two older sisters are 13 and 14 years older than me and I am the youngest of my 35 first cousins), I was something of a diva.
As luck would have it, several school trips became available around this time. A ski trip to Italy and a German language exchange. The ski trip was instantly struck off my list for two main reasons 1) It was expensive 2) It required me to have some kind of physical grace and control over my limbs. I knew I did not possess this. But languages. Languages I could do. Couldn’t I? Much less chance of me breaking something, anyway. So I signed up for the trip.
As a shy, introverted, physically awkward teenager, going abroad for a few weeks to live in an unfamiliar environment was quite a step for me in many ways. To live with a strange family whose language I could barely speak was stepping outside of my comfort zone in a way that I rarely had before. But something about the idea of being ABROAD, a word which I loved, which came to have some kind of magic for me because it seemed synonymous with adventure and new stories. This word hypnotised me into forgetting my fears.
I arrived in Germany at a time when European farming was having a crisis due to foot and mouth disease. England was one of the places affected most by this and Germans were therefore keen to keep British meat and dairy products from entering the country. Shortly after being searched and having all chocolate and dairy products removed from my person, (yes, I was carrying chocolate and dairy products. An open bar of Galaxy and a cheese sandwich to be precise. Did I mention I was chubby then?) I was picked up from the airport by my exchange partner’s father. A man who was intimidatingly handsome and spoke in very, very rapid German. Oh dear. He seemed to be under the impression that I was fluent and I had absolutely no idea how to convince him otherwise, given my lack of German and the fact that the man had not paused for breath since I got into the car. So I let him continue. On arrival to the house, he turned on the news. Images of farm animals being burned flicked across the screen and he talked of ‘munt und clawe’ which I was able to deduce from the context (and the accompanying bizarre diseased animal impression) meant, foot and mouth disease. HURRAH! My first new German words. Exchanging ideas with people of another culture. It was all very exciting. I don’t know how useful those words have proved to me since, but at the time I was thrilled with them.
The family were welcoming, but didn’t speak English, with the exception of Sabrina (my exchange partner) whose English put my German to shame. Meal time conversations were filled with confusion, but the family had a great sense of humour. However, soon several things about them began to trouble me. Firstly, they were all very sporty. They played tennis, went jogging and were determined to involve me in these exercise rituals. I didn’t know how to refuse so I spent several hours of my free time in Germany looking like a sweaty, bloated tomato. The other troubling thing was the nudity. Yes. I said nudity. German people seemed quite comfortable with nudity. I don’t think anyone had told them that you are supposed to be ashamed of your body and try to always cover the rude bits up AT ALL COSTS. But I, being British, knew this very well. I was startled one morning as I went down to breakfast to see Sabrina’s father walking from the bathroom to the bedroom completely naked. This was momentous for me. The first time I had ever seen a completely naked man. I felt flustered as I went down to breakfast. Maybe I shouldn’t have been on the stairs at that moment and seen what I had seen. Was it really okay that I just saw my exchange partner’s dad completely naked? I was about to get even more flustered. The family came downstairs and we exchanged greetings. I think my face must have still been red from what I had seen, because Sabrina’s mother asked me if I was okay. I tried to explain in German that I was hot. But this is where I made one of many errors in German and also, the day where I realised the extreme importance of German grammar. I said, in German, ‘Ich bin heisse.’ Literally translated this means ‘I am hot’. At this point in my life I had studied German for less than one year. My literal translation made perfect sense to me. Unfortunately, in German, what I had just said meant ‘I’m horny.’ The family laughed. I had no idea why. But I felt uncomfortable all the same and turned a shade redder. It wasn’t until later that day when we were away from the house that Sabrina explained my mistake. I don’t think I managed to look Sabrina’s father in the eye for the rest of my stay.
So, with the exception of their love of sport and a tendency to nudity, the family were great. School however, was a different story. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. I wasn’t too fond of school in general. But school in German added a whole new level of anxiety to the experience. The first lesson on my first day was music. My heart leapt with relief as I noticed this on the timetable. P.E., maths, physics. These were sources of dread to me in my day to day school life. But music -that was one of my subjects! Having been selected to take free violin lessons and loaned a violin for three years in primary school (the local education authority’s attempt to get gifted children in failing areas into music) I had become interested in music and begun studying the clarinet as well. I was fully prepared for music class to be fun. To be a breeze.
I was not, however, prepared for this.
Walking into the classroom, I took in the stony faces of the German students, seated and ready for class. I took in the music teacher. She gave a tight smile and greeted me without much warmth. She was marginally less scary, though no more feminine than Ricky Martin teacher. She asked me to stand at the front and introduce myself. I was not a confident teenager and as I did this, I could feel my face reddening and my hands and knees starting to shake. This was another way in which my body often failed me. I had little control over many of its functions. It did things that I expressly willed it not to. Especially when I could feel other people’s eyes on me. Being looked at was something I tried to avoid. It was at this moment that I think she smelled my fear. And I think she enjoyed it.
Then she threw down the gauntlet.
People back home had warned me that Germans were a cruel race, but I had never expected this; SHE ASKED ME TO SING FOR THEM. The British national anthem to be precise. Instantly my body experienced an almost allergic reaction to the suggestion. My skin began to itch and my palms began to sweat. The shaking increased in intensity. Two thoughts occurred to me at that moment 1) I didn’t sing (well, I did. All the time in fact but SECRETLY. Like in the shower or when I had the radio turned up really loud.) 2) With the exception of the lines ‘God save our gracious queen’ and, ‘God save the queen ‘ I DID NOT KNOW MY OWN NATIONAL ANTHEM. It was not something I had ever considered important enough to allow it space in my brain . But I was regretting that now. Part of me was tempted to just run out. But this was a time for new experiences. Judith Chalmers did not shy away from the unknown. Judith would embrace such an opportunity for cultural exchange. So, with her as my guide, I took my cue from the music teacher and began singing the few lines that I knew over and over. The music teacher looked grim as she steadily accompanied me on the keyboard with a sense of resignation with which I suspect she approached her entire career. I noticed that most students weren’t looking at me or even looking up, but were slumped at their desks with their eyes down. I felt myself relax a little and even started getting into the experience! Certainly, I sensed I was enjoying it far more than they were. They weren’t looking at me! I didn’t know these people! I WOULD NEVER SEE THEM AGAIN! I felt something bordering on elation. Then suddenly it was all over and I was directed to my seat. The next 45 minutes or so were lost on me, but judging from the faces of the other students, it didn’t seem like I was missing much.
The rest of the trip passed pleasantly and I quickly discovered that life in Germany was not all bad. For one thing, I found some excellent chocolate to replace the stuff that had been confiscated. Secondly, and even more excitingly, on one glorious, sunny afternoon, I discovered that German McDdonalds served BEER and that Germany had something called BEER HALLS. And, even better, the legal age for drinking beer was 14. The rest of the afternoon passed, with several other students also on exchange exchange from my high school, in a happy blur and culminated in me taking an evening nap back at my German family’s home after ‘getting too much sun’. Lovely.
At the end of the trip, a quick inventory:
naked men: 1
enjoyable sporting activities: 0
public vocal performances: 1
So, to sum up:
1) Germans like nudity, sport and beer (I would later discovery that these three things are in fact universally popular. But it was Germany which first introduced me to them).
2) German grammar is very boring but can be very important, especially if you don’t want to come across a hormone-driven, sex-crazed teenager at the breakfast table.
A photograph of Heidelberg, the city where I stayed.