Brothers Abroad brand

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Foreign Exchange (revisited): Caen 1975 - Letter to John Peel at Radio 4 (Home Truths)

John, belated congratulations to you and the Home Truths posse on your success at the Sony Radio Awards! I attended the ceremony last year for the first time and thought it was a great event - unfortunately, I was away this year.

The subject-matter of this note is by now no doubt well out-of-date in terms of the content management of your show, as it relates to my first and last experience of a ‘‘foreign exchange’’ trip. In fact, as my parents have always lived in Africa, it was thankfully never intended as a reciprocal exercise.


[I was amused by the recent fables of the young Florian from France, visiting an English family and was particularly struck by his habitual 6 a.m. reveille (you’ll appreciate this as an ex-serviceman), which reminded me of that superbly avant-garde episode of ‘‘The Simpsons’’ where Bart is sent off to France to broaden his horizons and finds himself as a child labourer required to rise at the crack of dawn on a remote farm run by what appear to be a couple of Gallic rejects from the cast of the movie ‘‘Deliverance’‘.]

I had the privilege to attend the greatest ever prep school and it was perched on a beautiful hill in the North Downs of deepest Surrey. For reasons unknown to us pupils, our chosen destination was the town of Caen in Normandy. As an eleven year old boy from The Gambia, I was imaginatively billeted to a North African family who were largely indifferent to me and my presence - especially, as is so often the case, the son who had been identified as my chosen companion on the basis of nothing other than his age and his sex. The shiny platinum lining to the general cloud of this potentially awkward, domestic situation was clear for me to see even through my then pre-pubescent eyes: ‘‘my madame ‘’ (for that is how the school referred to the French mothers!), who was a pied noir, Franco-Algerian lady in her mid-thirties, made Isabelle Adjani look positively frumpy. Better still and probably for reasons of pity, she doted on me, gave me special tuition (alas, only in the French language) and made me special meals (where others had to make do with sandwiches) to take on the day-trips for which we occasionally reunited as a school group.

Although my madame’s affection was to prove absolutely priceless, this was not a trip of fantastic dreams and awakenings…. On my first day at the school of her son, I experienced in the lunch queue what I recall (no doubt with some exaggeration) as a mob of kids screaming abuse at me, apparently out of genuine contempt as well as by way of midday sport. For some reason, ‘‘imbecile noir!’’ is the only refrain that still comes back to me when I think of that episode. Relatively mild, you might think, but at that age, in a country foreign to that of my school, with my parents thousands of miles away and with that ‘‘shaky-camera’’ effect of horrendous experiences, it made a very strong impression on me. I was obliged to endure the rest of the school day before returning to the refuge and comfort of my madame, with whom I did not share my story.

Not surprisingly, I was in for a psychologically disturbed night with the anticipation of having to run the gauntlet of the lunch queue again on the following day. It was a night of restlessness and bizarre dreams, but the real nightmare began when I woke up (or at least I thought I was awake) to hear a strange grating and crunching sound, which faded in and out of my semi-consciousness. Eventually, I got up to put the light on and saw to my complete horror and disgust that the family cat had been chewing on the head of a large bird or chicken beside my bed! The sacrificial implications of beheaded chickens were not lost on me, but I did miraculously get back to sleep only to wake up tearful in the morning. I sheepishly explained my predicament to Madame, who insisted that I should stay at home and do my French lessons with her after a pain au chocolat. I feigned reluctant acceptance of her proposition and am pleased to report that French became and remained by far my best subject throughout my school career!

All’s well that ends well!!

Best wishes to you all,

Ayodeji C. R. Mahoney Esq.


Posted by Dej on 03 Aug around 2pm

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