I’ve had a blog for a very long time. Over 15 years. Recently I’ve been thinking how it’d be nice to bring back some of the better old posts, once a week. I’m starting with a series that I did back in 2009, before Blood on the Motorway was but a twinkle in my eye. I’d asked for seven one blog topics from people on Twitter and got some of my best blog material as a result. Here’s the second, a suggestion from @tylermassey, who’s gone on to become a tremendous singer-songwriter. Well, he was probably one then, too, but he definitely is now. This post was first published August 26th, 2009.
As regular visitors to this site will know, I was educated at boarding school. During my time at my first such school, I went on a French exchange trip. I don’t ever remember the French coming over to us, so maybe it was one way, but this was one of my strongest memories of childhood, so I shall relate to you the story of my one week in the small French town of Condom.
The trip itself was the first time I had ever been away without my parents, and the other people I was going with were all excited by the possibility of the French contraband they would be stocking up with on the trip. The possibilities seemed exacerbated by the fact that the town we were visiting had a name which was to us a very rude word. We had all heard of the plurality of french merchants of ninja stars and pornography, which overwhelmed any sense we had that we were going to be stuck in a foreign country of whose language all of us had only the basest grip.
Once we stepped off the bus, however, all of our inhibitions were tempered by the harsh reality that we were being lined up to be matched up with families we had previously no contact with. We surveyed the children in front of us, who seemed as scared as us. I was paired up with a pretty blonde girl and counted my lucky stars as the thoughts of romance blossomed in my pre-pubescent mind.
My happiness was short-lived, however. At my school I was always singled out by the powers that be as the son of a publican, not truly deserving of the heritage that the school had, and as such was predictably paired off with the one desperately poor family. They ran a small eaterie in the town itself, and by the end of the first night, it was clear that the parents of my new friend expected me to earn my keep. The whole of the first night was spent washing dishes and picking up and cleaning the mess of the clientele.
The family I was with spoke no English at all, and since my French was broken at best, they spent most of their time barking their orders at me in the same way you can see British tourists doing whenever they go abroad.
My predicament was not helped by the fact that whenever we all met back at the school the next day, everybody else seemed to be having a whale of a time, with lovely families who did nothing but feed them exotic food and sneaking them wine while taking them out on bike trips. By the third night, I was broken, and called my parents in floods of tears, proclaiming how I wished to come home immediately.
The next day I was taken aside by one of my school’s teachers and told that I would be moving families, presumably after my parents had been in contact to kick up a fuss. The teacher didn’t seem too happy about it but I was overjoyed, even more so when I realised I was moving to be with two of my friends, who were already at the same house with a pair of French boy twins.
As I arrived at the new house, I was startled by the change. This was the kind of France I had heard about, a beautiful cottage seemingly hewn into luxuriant countryside, and a kitchen that seemed to be always issuing the smell of tantalising baked goods. Even the weather improved as soon as we got there.
Once I had put my stuff into what was now the most crowded bedroom in France, the kind matronly mother pulled me aside and spoke to me in perfect English. She told me that everyone was going on a bike ride together, but that unfortunately all of the new bikes were taken, and would I mind joining them on one of the older bikes they had locked in the garage? Of course, I immediately agreed, eager to finally start what had so far been a pitiful trip.
I sized up the gigantic and ancient racing bike they pulled out for me and, refusing to be left behind, awkwardly mounted it. It wobbled constantly and I felt completely unsafe, but I gritted my teeth and followed everyone out onto the long gravel driveway. The other kids sped out in front of us, and the parents quickly followed them.
I focused on the road in front of me, and although the others were soon out of sight the downhill momentum meant I was soon picking up speed. Not far down, just as I was approaching top speed, the front wheel hit an unexpected bump and the handlebars jerked. I went flying over them and landed hard on my side. The momentum carried me forward, my bare leg scraping against the gravel road and leaving a thin red trail behind me. I was screaming in pain before I even stopped.
The group ahead must have heard my screams because soon they were back. The father lifted me in his arms and took me into the house. He informed me that I wasn’t to worry, that his wife was a nurse, and she would look after me. She cleaned out the wound as best she could and dressed it.
This understandably put a dampener on the rest of the week, my leg throbbing constantly. I was cheered slightly by the discovery that the vending machine in the school was confused by our currency, so you could buy a Crunch bar for 4p, but nonetheless, it was not a good time.
Not nearly as bad a time as when I got home though. It turns out that my French nurse had declined to think to change my bandages in the whole four days I had been there, and the gauze was now a part of the giant scab I now had. It took my Dad 6 hours to remove it in a warm bath, my screams so loud that by the end I couldn’t speak.
Thankfully, the next school trip was to Disneyland, and I returned from that one with nothing more severe than a pack of pornographic playing cards and a ninja throwing star.