Spectator: Happiness is lost in translation

Happiness is lost in translation for Lucy Baring.

Apparently, the foreign-exchange trip is on the wane, with numbers of British pupils dropping year on year. I have mixed feelings about this, having vowed to never ever send my children on one. We’ve been bottom of the European league when it comes to speaking a foreign language for many years—we should all be embarrassed.

I’m ashamed that it took me about a week to learn ‘thank you’ in Turkish. I bought Italian language tapes and listened to them in the car in the run-up to a summer holiday to little effect. Being ashamed does not, however, mean that I’ll be booking anyone in for a week with a family abroad. The painful memories of these excursions run deep within the family, on all sides.

My sister-in-law was sent, at the age of 14, to stay with a German family as they embarked on their annual holiday and found herself in a nudist colony for a week. She spent all day swimming in order to avoid volleyball and, when too tired to continue, lay herself face down on a beach towel. On the fourth day, she heard somebody say ‘Good Lord, is that Lucinda?’ and looked up, only to be faced, full frontal, with an English neighbour, who invited her to go for a walk.

She gave up German, but continued with swimming and now enjoys long distances, such as crossing the Solent using the front crawl.

My sister came home from her exchange saying the host family didn’t have a bath. Or at least she never found one and didn’t know how to ask. ¿Dónde está el cuarto de baño? is much underlined in my grandmother’s phrasebook from 1946, so she hadn’t had the same problem.

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Breakfast, magazines and train tickets were all mastered, along with other crucial phrases such as ¿Podria ver algunas cami- sas-pantalon? (May I see some cami-knickers?) and Me gusta el cuello alto con un cuello de encaje (I like a high neck with a lace collar), which just shows how priorities have changed. ‘Do you speak English?’ isn’t even in the Spanish phrasebook unlike ‘What is this word in French?’.

I went to France, twice. Both weeks were among the grimmest I can remember. The first family shouted all the time while telling me this was the French way and that they were incredibly happy. They also served raw mince.

The second family left me to my own devices until their daughter realised I could write down all the Beatles lyrics while she pressed play/pause on the tape recorder. She wouldn’t let me go to bed until I’d finished Let It Be.

I wasn’t, at the time, speaking much even in English, so I don’t suppose I uttered a word in French and they were quite right to consider me unbearably dreary.

The exchange in reverse is almost as bad. Trips to Windsor Castle and trying to converse with the silent foreigner. Sometimes it looked up, such as the time a friend of mine was sent a beautiful Italian boy—but Marco discovered Reading train station on the second day and absconded to London, from where he sent a message that he’d met up with friends and wouldn’t be returning.

Owing to hazy memories of delicious food and being taught how to kiss, Zam tried to convince me that our children ought to be packed off in the run-up to GCSEs. I stood firm.

Happily, in return for a cheque, their schools offered a better alternative, a quasi-exchange in which they get billeted in pairs, attend school, negotiate public transport, feel like independent global citizens, drink quite a lot of wine and learn how to ride pillion on bicycles.

They came home elated. Vive la difference!

* More from Country Life’s Spectator