The Exchange – Part One

10 Oct

Over fourteen years ago, I took part in a quintessentially British rite of passage, the French Exchange. It was an experience both memorable and highly awkward, as I, an ungainly teenager, tried to simultaneously navigate the unfamiliar environs of France and associating with the male sex. Whilst this account endeavours to capture some of the true events of the trip, needless to say some artistic licence has been taken where memory has become hazy. With that, I apologise in advance to those who were there, and indeed the French nation, for any misrepresentation on my part. And now, let us begin. 

Le Voyage

It’s February 2001, and I’m sitting on a coach wearing a bright blue fleece and a pair of jeans that doesn’t quite fit. The world is innocent right now and so am I, fourteen years old and blessed with a pair of overgrown eyebrows and limp hair that’s rapidly heading for dishwater blonde. Around me, other girls in head-to-toe Tammy and clutching drawstring Nike sacks and Jane Norman carrier bags are checking their make-up. We’re off to France, but we can’t leave without the boys. We’re picking them up from the school down the road, and this is probably the most exciting thing since the Junior Choir got a male drummer for the Christmas Concert.

Their arrival is announced by the smell of Lynx and hair gel as the bus doors open and they pile in, settling like crows in the spaces we’ve left. Some of them are well known, others have a lingering aura of boys’ school awkwardness that I find endearing. Not that I make eye contact with any of them, because, hello, boys are terrifying.

As the bus pulls away, however, I realise I’m going to have to talk to one of them. I reach into my bag and pull out a folded piece of paper, liberally scented with Charlie body spray and decorated with pastel gel-pen hearts framing the word ‘Daniel’. He’s three rows ahead of me, blond, pink-cheeked and still stuck in that pre-growth spurt stage that means he’s shorter than most of the girls here. I reach through the gap in the seats and tap the shoulder of the boy in front of me.

“Can you pass this to Daniel, please?”

It’s probably the longest sentence I’ve said to a boy since I left primary school. He nods and takes it. I shrink back into obscurity. Daniel grabs the piece of paper before anyone else can open it, glances at the front and blushes deeply.

The note is not from me – let’s just be clear about that. It’s from his girlfriend, my classmate, who spent a lunchtime last week leaving him loud, saucy voicemails that were mostly for our ears rather than his. But I’m pleased I’ve been given the honour of playing Cupid. Maybe it’ll make my name among the boys.

I take out my portable cassette player and plug in the headphones. I’ve brought two tapes with me: Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and a recording of a random afternoon on Capital Radio, just in case anyone asks what I’m listening to. I figure it will give me an air of cool, although it’s a shame I don’t have a CD Walkman or MiniDisc player like some people.

The first song is ‘Teenage Dirtbag’. Perfect. I close my eyes, sink into the guitar riff and hope I’m giving off ‘mysterious rock chick’. Perhaps this holiday with boys thing is going to work out.

A few hours later, we’re at the airport and waiting for our gate to be announced. I take my book out and settle on the grubby lino, legs crossed. I’ve brought a history of the Knights Templar with me, because nothing could be better for attracting my ideal cute, geeky guy, right?

The boys’ teacher proclaims me to be setting a wonderful example. I shift uncomfortably in my spot. It’s nice to be praised but I don’t think it’s going to do anything for my street cred.

Then we get the news: our flight is delayed. So delayed, we’re going to have to spend the night in a hotel and travel the following morning.

Everyone’s quite cheerful because there’s free food involved and a chance to cause havoc in the hotel. When we get there, our French teacher, a fifty-something woman who preserves a 1970s kind of Parisienne chic, asks us girls to divide up into pairs in order to sign up for rooms. My heart sinks. I’m the only one here from my class, and with an odd number, I’m bound to be the odd-one-out.

Sure enough, I have to take a room on my own. A few of the other girls come in with me to say goodnight, and one peeps behind the thick curtain.

“A serial killer could easily hide in here, you know.”


When they leave, I sit up in bed, shivering and imagining all kinds of axe-murdering, knife-wielding psychopaths in every corner of the room, until I can’t bear it any more. I go and knock on the door of two of the girls I know best, and find they’re watching Sex and the City. I’ve never watched it before and it sounds quite grown-up, but the other alternative is going back to the murder room on my own, so I sit with them for a bit. When the raunchiest character goes to a guy’s flat and finds some weird paraphernalia in there, my friend puts her hand over my eyes.

“You don’t need to see this,” she says.

The soundtrack is enough to convince me she’s right.

Eventually I have to go back to the room and try to sleep, because we’re supposed to be up at five to get the plane. There’s no option but to lie there with all the lights on and try to shut my eyes. Apparently there’s a crowd in a room down the hall who have managed to smuggle some boys in and order up room service, but knocking on that door would be mortifying.

I screw my eyelids shut and pull the covers up to my chin. Demain, La France. And only a few hours to get through before then.

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