A recent post by fellow expat blogger Nikki about the sort of silly questions you get asked as an exchange student reminded me of a long-forgotten story that happened to me as a child. But go on, read Nikki's story first, as I'm sure you'll want to know how blow jobs and vegemite sandwiches can possibly be related to each other, and then get back here for my story.
I was thirteen, perhaps fourteen years old. A few years earlier, my mother, a big believer in exchange programs and learning languages, but also a big believer in doing it on the cheap, had - through some family connections - reached out to this family in Rouen, France, and from then on we were constantly exchanging kids one way or the other. My older brother stayed with them for a summer, their oldest boy came to see us the next break, and so forth, until it was my turn to go.
I was on the train back home after my second summer in France, still flush from the experience of living with other people who are interesting and exciting and, most importantly, never nag you. I was speaking French like a local with only a trace of an accent and was making friends with this French boy in my compartment. I can't remember where he was going or what he looked like, but the memory of meeting him is seared in my brain because he - gasp! - told me that "tu es tres mignonne." No one had ever told me I was cute - I wasn't - and it was probably just a silly pickup line, but nevertheless we had a grand old time on that train, talking about this and that and joking around until he felt the need to ask me a question.
Did I like Itlaire, he wanted to know.
Now, you have to understand that I had a pretty sheltered childhood. Not overprotected, mind you - after all, here I was doing this trip all by myself at such a young age, crossing international borders no less, and this being Europe in the 1970s most parents weren't particularly alarmed about any possible dangers lurking out there. No, what I mean is that despite my travels I was not very worldly, especially in terms of pop culture. Our family didn't possess a TV, and even radios were only introduced into our household when I was well into my teens. My mother disdained what she called hott 'n' tott music and for years my home entertainment was confined to listening to Peter and the Wolf on our old roundtable record player, as well as reading illicit Donald Duck comics under the bedcovers by flashlight.
My son complains that driving a Nissan Leaf to school is not cool at all and that it gives rise to constant teasing. I want to smack him over the head. Aside from telling him that he is saving tons of money on gas and that driving any car must surely beat having to ride the bus, but that he is welcome to resort back to that mode of transport any time if he so pleases, I'd like to tell him about my hardscrabble childhood. About how I walked to school barefoot in the snow for miles... Okay, sorry, wrong line. But does he know how difficult it is to compete with kids who watch every television show out there every single night, who are allowed to have posters of Leif Garrett* on their wall, and who own every ABBA and Pink Floyd album under the sun? I'd like for him to understand how hard it is not to be teased in that environment! I mean, could I ever invite anyone to our house and face the horrors of them seeing my record collection of Peter and the Wolf and Räuber Hotzenplotz?
Like any kid would, I became quite the expert at masking my shortcomings. I quickly learned the names of songs that were popular at the time, even though I'd never heard them, so that I could write Another Brick in the Wall in yearbooks where questions about favorite songs and such were asked. I learned to nod knowingly when hot actors were discussed, and I successfully faked my way through any conversations about groups or movies unknown to me.
Which takes me back to the pretty boy on the Paris-Stuttgart train. I was sure Itlaire must be yet another popstar I didn't know, and of course I couldn't admit my ignorance. I decided to bluff.
"Yeah, he's not too bad," I said, and nodded vaguely. I'm pretty sure I didn't say "I just love Itlaire" because, when you're faking it, you never want to come out too strongly for or against anything. But I do remember giving my approval.
After that, it wasn't the same. I must have said the wrong thing, because the boy faded away, never to be seen again. The train ride wasn't going to last forever, and perhaps at that moment we arrived at our destinations and had to part ways. That's what I told myself for years when recalling that memory of the first stirrings of romance in my life, immediately followed by the first stinging disappointment.
Not until years later did it come to me, I think it must have been when I was watching a French movie with subtitles: Itlaire, you see, is how the French pronounce Hitler. I, a German girl, had confessed to a French boy I was trying to impress that I thought Hitler was pretty cool! I still cringe at the memory 30 plus years later. I probably set back Franco-German relations by a decade with that comment alone.
And it's all my mom's fault for not letting me listen to the Hitparade.
Come to think of it, it's ALWAYS the mom's fault.
* So I had to go on Wikipedia to figure out how to spell Leif Garrett, and there was a picture of him as he looks today. Yikes! what happened to that pretty boy?
Other musings about my exchange student days:
Memoirs of an Exchange Student: I'm Leeeeeeeaving, on a Jet Plane...Culture Shock Circa 1983: They Have Phones Without Cords in America!