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Wednesday, 1 June 2022

Belgian Youth Abroad

(New month old post: first posted 13th January 2015)

Hugo, my foreign language exchange partner, thought himself the Belgian equivalent of Dick Rivers “the French Elvis Presley”. He dressed like Dick Rivers, sang like Dick Rivers and combed his hair like Dick Rivers. And like his role model, he was fascinated by popular American culture.

I think that was the main reason he wanted to visit England – he thought it was like America. English fashion and music were taking over the world. ‘Swinging’ London was also the fictional home of Hugo’s other hero, ‘The Saint’, alias “the famous Simon Templar”, played by the young and debonair Roger Moore, recently syndicated with subtitles on Belgian television. He looked so good I could almost have fancied him myself.

The foreign language exchange scheme, ‘La Jeunesse Belge à l'Étranger’ (Belgian Youth Abroad), made England easily accessible. It paired Belgian and English teenagers to stay with each other and their families.

And so, one sunny July afternoon in the mid nineteen-sixties, Hugo, and around thirty other excited Belgian teenagers, travelled north on a train to Yorkshire. As they rattled over the river and canal bridges, those that had been in previous years knew they had reached their destination.

Meanwhile, waiting expectantly on the station platform, their exchange partners squinted into the glare to catch a first glimpse of the approaching train. The clatter and thump of railway gates locking against their stops, and the clunk of railway signals bouncing into the clear position, announced its imminent arrival. I was oddly distracted by the image of Wendy Godley standing quietly at the end of the platform with the sun shining straight through her thin summer dress.

How on earth would we match Hugo’s expectations? It wasn’t Elvis Presley or Roger Moore that had recently performed in our town, it was Wilfred Pickles and his quiz and interview show ‘Have A Go!’, broadcast on the Light Programme, the most old-fashioned and parochially working-class show on the wireless. Its mainly elderly audience always joined in to sing the opening theme song: 

Have a go, Joe, come on and have a go, You can’t lose owt, it costs you nowt, To make yourself some dough. So hurry up and join us, don’t be shy and don't be slow. Come on Joe, have a go!
Hugo would surely be bored out of his mind.

The train drew up in a hiss of hot steam, a whiff of coal smoke and the turmoil of slamming doors, waving, cheek-kissing and excited foreign accents. I found Hugo and helped carry his luggage to our house.

I need not have worried. A big difference between our own trip abroad and Hugo’s to England was that whereas we had stayed mainly with families dispersed across French-speaking Belgium, the Belgians stayed close together in our small Yorkshire town. At the same time we were hosts to a similar number of German exchange students. So we had thirty Belgian teenagers and thirty German teenagers, many for the first time away from their parents, all in effect on holiday together with their sixty English hosts. There would be no difficulty in finding things for them to do; they would create their own entertainment. Indeed, Hugo had already been hard at work creating distractions of his own.

“Zehre was zees gehrl on zee trhrain,” he said, “Marie-Christine. Vehry byutifurl. She stay ‘ere en England too. She stay weedz an Engleesh gehrl called Wendee. You know whehre she leev?”

That disclosed Hugo’s main preoccupation for the next two and a half weeks. Whereas my activities in Belgium had depended almost entirely on Hugo and his family, Hugo quickly started to organize things for himself. As a handsome, energetic combination of Dick Rivers and the famous Simon Templar, he was irresistible to Belgian, German and English girls alike, and all their friends and sisters too. He worked through them one by one, sometimes in twos and threes, greatly assisted by my dad’s ancient bicycle which he had commandeered to give himself a level of independence that often left me to my own devices. Hugo was entirely different to how he had been at home in Belgium: “un garçon sérieux,” his parents had said.

Most afternoons, groups of Belgian, German and English teenagers congregated in the park, played tennis or football, and wandered around visiting each others’ houses or drinking Coca Cola in coffee bars. Most evenings there were lively parties, some still remembered for entirely the wrong reasons. I got to participate too. Such an intensity of social activity was completely new to me. I had to learn quickly.

One afternoon, Hugo having gone off somewhere with Wendy Godley and Marie-Christine, I found myself on my own at the park with Wendy’s sister, Sandra, who was also ‘vehry byutifurl’. Whereas Wendy had always completely ignore me, Sandra was the opposite. She kept asking me things that seemed to mean more than just the words she used. With reference to the pictures (cinema): did I think it cosy at the Carlton? Would I like a ‘Wonderful Life’? Had I thought about ‘A Hard Day’s Night’? Would I enjoy ‘Sex and the Single Girl’? She was forever touching me, walking near enough to brush hands, and sitting so our knees came into contact.

That day in the park, I was sitting on my bicycle with hands on the brakes, and Sandra stood so closely that, oh so casually and accidentally, her tummy pressed firmly against my fingers. She felt warm through the softness of her strikingly red top. Then, with mischievous blue eyes looking straight into mine in a way that was impossible to refuse, she asked whether she could have a ride, pausing excessively before adding “on your bike, I mean.” I got off, she got on, wobbled a bit because it was too big for her, and then rode off towards the park exit, her ample bottom astride my saddle. I followed on foot, but she had disappeared. To be truthful, I was rather annoyed. If I wanted my bike back, I had to go get it.

I walked the half-mile to the Godleys’ house wondering what to say. The front door opened and Sandra waved me inside. She was alone in the house and had changed out of her red top into what looked like a flimsy nightdress. I wasn’t sure where I should look. Then, in one of those instants when different choices could have taken my life along a very different course, “I made my excuses and left” as newspaper reporters used to say. “Fled” would be a better word.

I often wondered how things might have turned out otherwise. It would have been good for me at that stage of my life to have had a very special friend, especially someone so funny, lovely and ‘byutifurl’. My coldness must have been hurtful. But we weren’t in ‘swinging’ London. The ‘swinging sixties’ did not reach our part of Yorkshire until the nineteen seventies or eighties. We would have become the subjects of the kind of nudges, winks and whispers that circulated round town for weeks.

There was one other thing too. It sounds terrible now, but Sandra went to the Secondary Modern School. Grammar school boys did not go out with modern school girls. We were turned into arrogant snobs.

I didn’t tell Hugo. Goodness knows what he would have made of it.  

31 comments:

  1. Wilfred Pickles! I clearly remember that song, in fact I couldn't help singing it along. He, was such a, well, never mind, when he had his chummy working class voice for his punters and his posh vowels for his interviews.. Mabel at least didn't talk!

    We had visiting German students in the late forties, very young and homesick

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    1. I knew Wilfred Pickles would get some people going. Sources say that sometimes it was a pre-Ena-Sharples Violet Carson rather than Pickles' wife Mabel who played the piano. It epitomises the kind of entertainment enjoyed by my grandparents' generation in the two decades after WWII once they had retired. Very northern, very working class. The song has been going through my head for a couple of days now.

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  2. Gosh I did not know where the story with Sandra was going, luckily you fled at the last minute! I bet there was a great deal of excitement in your town with all these young foreigners.

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    1. It was certainly an experience for those involved, but they created mayhem. The park keepers, for example, got very annoyed when they started racing on bicycles over the bowling greens.

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  3. I was expecting Sandra to turn out to be Kevin Godley's sister.

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  4. Perhaps you had a lucky escape after all.

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    1. In retrospect that's right - see response to River below.

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  5. I enjoyed this peak into your past. It took me back to my teenage life in the 1960s. Your wonderfully descriptive writing always paints a perfect picture of the memory.

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    1. Thank you. My memories of the town, the railway, the foreign accents, the cinema and so on still shine so vividly, but I wouldn't really want to go back. I'm not nostalgic.

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  6. Well, Sandra was a definite missed opportunity, I'd say.

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    1. She eventually found someone much less sensitive than me.

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  7. Nice post. I had never heard of Wilfred Pickles was until I did a rock climb in Northumberland which was called Wilfred Prickles (with an R added) because you had to climb through a gorse bush half way up! Gosh that was a long time ago...

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    1. Just googled it and it's still there, along with the bush. I wonder where those who do it now know the origin of the name. Who names these climbs?

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  8. Tenderly written and enjoyable to read.

    P.S. "My coldness must was been hurtful".

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  9. So sometimes the male brain can overcome urges and opportunities.

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  10. My older daughter promoted having exchange students. I swear I hosted a revolving door of them in the early eighties!

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    1. We hosted a French girl for our daughter. It didn't feel as much fun as my own experience.

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  11. Personally, I have never taken part in a Student Exchange, but of course we had them here, too. Not sure I would have wanted to be one of the girls Hugo "worked through".
    Did your and Sandra's paths ever cross again?

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  12. Looks like my comment went straight into spam...

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    1. Well, this one didn't, so I'll try again and repeat what I said earlier:

      Personally, I have never participated in a student exchange, although we had them here (and at our school), too.
      As for Hugo - I would not have wanted to be one of the girls he "worked through"... it certainly does not make him sound like good boyfriend material. I wonder how he turned out in later years!
      Did your and Sandra's paths ever cross again after that?

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    2. It didn't spam, but Blogger seems to be inconsistent with it at the moment.
      I saw Sandra a few times afterwards on the way home from school, and she usually tried to chat me up - the warm tummy against fingers on bicycle handlebars was actually taken from one of these later incidents. I suppose it was quite flattering.
      As for Hugo, it was all an act really - possibly overcompensation for shyness. We are still in touch and he turned out to be a sensible and likeable chap.

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    3. Ah, just found it - it was indeed in spam. Thanks Blogger!

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  13. I'm rather glad you fled the clutches of Sandra, your life could have been so very different and maybe not in a good way.

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    1. I'm sure now that you are right. Later she married and had children quite early. My life could indeed have been very different - unimaginative job, remaining in same town, and so on, all possible outcomes.

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  14. Oh my goodness. What a tale! You barely escaped her clutches. I wonder how she would relate this story.

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    1. If she ever reads it, the part of the tale about riding off on my bike, which is true, is fairly unmistakable. You've got me worried now.

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    2. You've nothing to fear. If she shows up on your doorstep, I'm quite sure Mrs. Tasker will send her packing in a hurry!

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