When I was 13 I managed to get myself included in my high school’s established exchange scheme with a lycée in Metz. I remember some discussion about whether I was too young to benefit, but off I went.
It is strange to think back about those travel arrangements. Our group went all the way from Edinburgh by train and ferry. No planes. No Eurostar or Channel Tunnel. No TGV. As teenagers I suspect it was all an adventure but it must have been hard work for the teachers.
I stayed with a local family and they were super kind, but communication was a problem. I had been studying French for only 2 years. They took me on excursions to nearby Luxembourg, to the World War I battle site at Verdun, and into the Vosges mountains at Gérardmer.
Some memories remain vivid more than 50 years later.
Verdun is one. It made a lifelong pacifist of me. The key bit for me was the Ossuaire. It is the basement of the memorial building, where they place the bones of unknown soldiers which emerge from the ground as a result of weather or farming. It makes a impression, I assure you.
Luxembourg was great, and I have been back there several times for meetings at the EU Court of Justice and Commission. Crossing the border by car back then was “traditional” with passport and customs checks by both countries.
The city is impressive, being largely surrounded by a deep ravine.
We also visited a steelworks at Longwy… Dante’s Inferno. Quite jaw dropping.
At some stage we went to visit my host’s grandparents on their small farm. The animals lived on the ground floor of the building, and the grandparents up above. The smell was quite something to a child of Edinburgh’s posh suburbs. I remember our lunch there. Tinned sardines on toast.
I also remember having a Sunday lunch in my hosts’ home. It was rabbit – again, not what the good people of Edinburgh’s professional classes would eat. My hosts kept the best bit for me – the head. The idea was to knock the top off the skull like eating a soft boiled egg, and spoon out the brain.
Boy, was I having an enriching cultural experience.
© iain taylor, 2020