Young xenophobes create a Shakespearean drama

4th March 2005 at 00:00
It is a mistake to tell the catering trainees that a party of French students has booked into the training restaurant. An international football tournment is underway. The French, of course, are enemy number one.

The trainees immediately ask to abandon their waiters' uniforms for England football shirts. They demand to know how they are supposed to communicate and say they will have to resort to pointing. I assure them that many French people can speak excellent English.

So they move onto the Second World War, which has been in the news recently as another anniversary passes. I can hardly believe it when the students declare that if the French had fought harder, the English wouldn't have had to get involved at all. But I know it is only provocation.

One of the (apparently) more vociferous xenophobes has just landed a year's work placement in a French hotel and is the secret envy of them all.

I call a halt and try to settle them down to work. Writing up theory does not come easily to this group, yet Shakespeare would have found inspiration amongst them: the ranting of Lear, the prejudices of the Merchant, the mistrust of Othello. Why, we even have Romeo and Juliet! Here they sit, side by side. Juliet has difficulty with her theory paper and I offer to help, but she prefers to turn her big eyes to Romeo, who will explain what to put - with spelling which is no better than Shakespeare's.

I am about to explain that the words in catering are often difficult to spell because so many of them derive from French - but then I think better of it!

Literacy is my main area, but at a push, I can help with English for speakers of other languages. And so it is that I meet Nadia. I turn up in her class and she leans towards me."'I am Rhussian," she confides in the husky voice of a James Bond temptress. I can't find out much more, other than "one yhear", which I guess is how long she has been here. But I get a sudden insight into her past as she crosses the room to collect her work from the printer. I notice she is extraordinarily light on her feet and agile in her movements, and I have seen young women like this before.

"Are you a gymnast, Nadia?" I inquire. She beams. "I heff fotos" she says, diving into her bag. She comes up with pictures of a rather younger Nadia, posing in neon Lycra, with limbs posed in ways not normally seen - posed, in fact, in an arrangement that I did not think humanly possible.

But something else is not quite right. It's the sequins. I recall the Big Top that was in town before Christmas. Could it be that it left town without one of its high flyers? "Were you in the circus?" I ask. Now circus is surely a word every Russian knows. Aren't "bread and circuses" synonymous with Communist society?

But we are post-Soviet now, and Nadia is obviously deeply offended. She feigns not to understand my question, but pouts and shrugs a very Soviet shrug. However, like the bad girls in a Bond movie, I think this one understands more than she is letting on.

"Gwen Kelly" (not her real name ) works at a college in the Midlands

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