Days of travel, food and fun;Opinion

19th June 1998 at 01:00
BY THE end of May the foreign language assistants have mostly returned home, bearing gifts, sharing cars and hoarding memories of their year in Scotland. Gone are the days when schools had both a French and a German assistant. Instead the meagre ration is typically one assistant shared with two other schools.

Twenty years ago our school's principal teacher of languages timetabled his two assistants to work their required hours from Tuesday to Thursday, on condition that they used long weekends to their travelling advantage.

He had left school aged 14 to become a grocer's message boy in Aberdeen, and he never forgot his transformation at the age of 28 to a language assistant in the French Alps, enjoying coffee and croissants in a corner cafe, before going off climbing. One of our earlier assistants threw herself into the folk scene, travelling to festivals throughout Scotland, before returning with the invariable comment that "the crack was excellent" (these were innocent pre-junkie days).

Sometimes the cross-fertilisation of cultures had its dangers, like the Scottish girl posted to a quiet German village with nothing to do but eat - Kuchen mit Sahne - leading to a gentle February interview with the headmaster's wife. "Any problems, dear? Now if you were pregnant, you would tell us?" Both Lutheran hostess and the good Catholic visitor were equally embarrassed.

Or the teething troubles faced by another Scottish girl. In her village in France the more she brushed her teeth the blacker they got until she realised there was too much fluoride in the toothpaste bought locally.

A less literal approach to washing out the mouth with soap and water occurred with one group of assistants in the early eighties who had an introductory in-service course where all the swear words they might encounter were graded according to a three-point scale of severity. Eminently sensible, but where had the then modern languages adviser heard all these terms of abuse?

Friends of ours in France who were both assistants in the mid-Seventies in Edinburgh recall proudly that their first joint bank account was with the Morningside branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland, and another friend who has now reached the dizzy heights of inspector-general in the French school system proudly returned for his Christmas holidays in Paris wearing a borrowed kilt.

One of the sadder aspects of the cutbacks throughout the past decade has been the shrinking exchange programme between Europe and Scotland. In the month of the Mondial, long live the Entente Cordiale.

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