Tuesday, July 19, 2011
1980: Throw away you skin-tight mohair drainpipes...
For some reason I really liked German. It was kind of fun, and I didn't find much about schoolwork fun. It was all down to the teacher of course, and Mr King made lessons a laugh a minute, while sneakily making you learn stuff along the way. So when the next year we got a new teacher, it all came crashing down.
But not for long. At first Mrs Bunn - and that was her name - disliked me intensely. An incorrigible disrupter of lessons, her patience had worn wafer thin. So when it came to putting names down for the forthcoming German exchange to Frankfurt, it was no surprise to see that they weren't able to find any suitable match for me.
I was hugely disappointed, and mum thought they simply weren't trying hard enough. A swift word in Mrs Bunn's ear and all was sorted. They'd miraculously found someone. He was called Kai Deutschmann and lived just outside Frankfurt. It was still months away, and in this time, because I was going to Germany - or should I say, West Germany as it was at the time, Mrs Bunn and I started getting on. To this day she remains my favourite ever teacher. I wonder where she is now?
I was really excited about the exchange. It was over the Easter holiday for about two weeks. I was not yet 15 and had never been away from home for any length of time on my own. It was going to be quite an adventure. There were quite a few of us going, probably about 25 in total from two different years and two different schools, and it involved the boat to Belgium and then coach to Frankfurt. It seemed to take days, and every part of it was brilliant.
We arrived in the dead of night, to be matched up with our respected families. Everyone was sorted out, with one person whisked off to Berlin with her family, but there was no sign of mine. Finally the penny dropped when I realised how they were pronouncing my name. In German every letter counts, and my surname to them was Pay-arker. So off we went.
It was all very different. A huge new town quite a way from Frankfurt. As we'd been told, everyone lived in flats, which were small, and I was to share with Kai. One look at him though, and it was clear we were poles apart.
Him: Really clever, really well-behaved, bouffant Leif Garret hair, wooden necklace, bedroom full of 'Nuklear Fission? Nein Danke!' stickers. The hippy was alive and well and living in West Germany. I was into Two-Tone and The Police. We'd never hit it off. And he looked much older than me.
As I dumped my stuff in his room he put on Peter Gabriel's Games Without Frontiers, already a hit at home. Unsure whether we should speak German or English to each other I said: 'Peter Gabriel' in a German accent, gesturing at the hi-fi. He grinned. I was all at sea. We decided to speak English for the duration.
The family were lovely. They embraced me as one of their own. The mother, with her European dyed-red hair and shiny long black plastic coat - she was like the dark one from Abba. The father, short, balding, spoke excellent English and worked for Zimmer, as in the frames. There was a little brother too, who accompanied us everywhere. At the first proper dinner they sat me down and apologised for the war. There was a lot of that from everyone. It was only 35 years ago after all and was fresh in minds. It's like if were today, the war would have ended in 1976. Chew on that.
We had to do endless trips with all the exchangers to castles on the Rhine, and the Taunus mountains, and we went into Frankfurt shopping and dodging beggars. One night in the rough part of town we had knife pulled on us. We went to see his friend Heiko who lived in a nicer flat and kept a rabbit that was allowed the run of it. It was all so different.
But I really got into the swing of things. That was me buying up anti-nuclear badges and car stickers and josticks and wooden beads. And this single by B A Robertson, which was taking the piss out of hippies. How appropriate. (I don't remember hearing any German music whatsoever. But I've more than made up for that now). I can't smell a jostick now without a) it reminding me of that time; and b) feeling sick. We lit far too many in an enclosed space. I can't have them in the house now.
I had a wonderful time though, and it seemed like I was away for ages. I made some lovely friends. Of course, when the exchange came this way, things couldn't have been more different. But that's another story.
But I did win the top prize for my scrapbook.