L'ate your food

10th March 2000 at 00:00
Gabrielle Jones recalls a doomed pupil exchange visit

It was when I found myself playing the board game Othello with a sulky French teenager at 1.15am that I realised I had lost all faith in the exchange programme.

Guillaume's preferred interests were "reading, writing and finding out about the world"; my son Ben's were "music, sport and hanging out with my friends". Guillaume was the only child of a well-off couple in a small French town: Ben's family is, er, "laid back".

Guillaume arrived on November 5. He wore horn-rimmed glasses, an open-necked shirt, polished shoes. Ben was wearing baggy jeans and "skateboard shoes". Visually, they did not gell. Soon it became clear that non-gelling was more than skin-deep.

Guillaume did not enjoy our annual fireworks party. He refused: food, the computer ("I 'ate computer games"), tour of the house ("I do not like your 'ouse"), food, chucking wood on the bonfire, a sparkler, food, the chance to retire to his bedroom, watching fireworks and, once again, food.

When the last guest had gone, he asked urgently to phone his teacher from France, on "a personal matter, it is my health". "Guillaume," Mme Marie-Laure explained to me, "is a little bit fragile. He gets depressed very easily. And when he is depressed, he sometimes has - one can call them - fits." I sat down heavily.

Fits! Could I cope with a teenager with fits? "Yes," she continued, "if he becomes upset, he can faint and fall down. We want to avoid that happening." I could only agree.

"It is," she said, "the fault of his mother. She spoils him, gives him everything he wants. And he does not like anything to be different from at home."

I was still trying to digest this unwelcome news when Mme Marie-Laure dropped her final bombshell. "Please can you give him something to eat? He says you have not fed him and he is hungry." Well, really. "And he has a medical condition which means he must have regular meals."

Guillaume did not like our ramshackle house ith the three boys and the dog and the single working mother. He did not hide his feelings. He and Ben set off for school, with money for lunch. In the evening they went off - with my money again - to meet all the others on exchange at the pizza place. The teacher rang. "As I expect you have guessed, Guillaume is not happy, so we have decided it is better if we move him. I hope you understand?" I understood. I was ashamed. We were not good enough for our French exchange. "We hope to move him tonight. The other family has a mother who stays at home more. This is what Guillaume needs." Working-mother guilt: now extended to exchange students.

Back home, a triumphant Guillaume was crestfallen to discover that the "new family" would not collect him from our hell-hole until the next day. At 10.15pm, a subdued Ben disappeared to do homework. Guillaume sat on the sofa and cried.

He cried from 10.20pm until 12.15am.

Obdurate to suggestions that he phone home, that he remember Napoleon, who slept on the retreat from Russia, that he drink water, read his book, have a snack, just sleep, that this night would pass in a flash, he wept. He wept the harder when I told him that my oldest son had a much worse time on his French exchange, when I told him I was tired, that - tartly - Ben was also unhappy now.

Not only did he weep, he began to sob and suck in air and thresh about with his feet. "The fits!" I gulped. I was resolute. "Look, Guillaume, you can make yourself ill and I can take you to the hospital, but you cannot go to anyone else's house, it is too late. No one is awake." He stopped. I went up to bed.

But still, Guillaume could not sleep. And that is how I found myself playing Othello. I am not good at Othello but he was worse, much worse. And it seemed important to let him win. So there we sat until the second game ended at 1.30 am and he said, "Zank you, I can sleep now." Thank you, Guillaume and goodnight. I tell you what, though, his English was very good.

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