My first real taste of France was a school French exchange trip. I found myself paired with Dorothé, a fearless, Amazonian girl of the same age from Villeneuve-d’Ascq, a new town in northern France.
Infinitely more sophisticated than me, Dorothé was a revelation. At twelve years old, she had a boyfriend at home in France. She also managed to acquire another one whilst in Yorkshire. Puritanical rules weren’t going to hold Dorothé back from fully immersing herself in English culture. The epitome of Frenchness, she didn’t give a flying fig. I spent the entire duration of her stay agog, mouth open at her fabulously couldn’t give a merde approach to life.
From Yorkshire to Villeneuve-d-Ascq
For the Yorkshire to France leg of the exchange, teenagers from all over the county assembled at Elland Road football stadium in Leeds, ready to be bussed to northern France. Pre Climate Extinction Rebellion, why no one thought to fly, I still can’t tell you.
Prior to boarding I was required to present a bundle of crumpled paperwork. My French teacher, Ms Baxter (aka ‘Biddy’) had completed it grading my family ‘B-‘. From what I could make out, the damning B- represented our social class in order to match me to a ‘suitable’ family.
Ms Baxter rarely spoke to me, had never visited my home and probably couldn’t identify my parents in a line up of the usual suspects from once yearly parents evenings. I struggled to fathom how she had so arbitrarily arrived at a B-.
The girl sitting next to me on the bus was a C-. We looked at each other, compared notes and guffawed incredulously at the stupidity of our teachers until we were distracted by our chaperone’s dress. “By ‘eck. They’re belting flowers!” she announced wide eyed at the woman’s floral ensemble.
Villeneuve-d’Asq was quieter than I’d expected. Dorothé was so larger than life that I’d half expected her to live in the Moulin Rouge or the Folie Bergere. Villeneuve-d’Asq, the town planning equivalent of Milton Keynes was, well a bit of a disappointment if I’m honest.
Graffiti and Le Pen
It was the summer of Vanessa Paradis’s ‘Joe Le Taxi’ and the first time I was offered wine with lunch. Obviously “Don’t mind if I do” is the only polite answer to that question. It was also my first taste of Jean Marie Le Pen’s National Front, or Front National, in French.
Driving past ‘Le Pen’ graffiti daubed on a wall one morning, I asked Dorothé’s mum for a translation. She shook her head, telling me that Le Pen represented the far right and that Dorothé was “Half Arab. We don’t tell people.” she added “They don’t like it.”
I’d never heard of the Front National or the far right. I had even less idea about what they stood for. My pre pubescent world was full of ‘Smash Hits’, make up and the top 40. It came as something of a shock to learn that there were people in the world who hated pretty much everyone who wasn’t just like them. My broken French tried to get to the bottom of the Front National but with patchy French and English between us, we couldn’t. All these years later and with a translator, I’m still not convinced we’d come up with an answer.