After writing about an unpleasant memory yesterday, I thought to counter that with a pleasant one. Like most very old memories of mine, good or bad, they pop up uninvited, and I have no control over them.
In 1967, my parents had moved us out of London to the Kent borders, the village of Bexley, which has since become part of a much larger London borough. I was doing quite well at school, especially in French, and it was suggested that we take part in a student exchange scheme being run through my school in London. (I was commuting by train after the move.)
Mum and dad agreed to having a French boy stay during the Easter holidays, and in return I would stay at his house for two weeks that summer. He lived in Courbevoie, a district of Paris. I had already been to Paris by then, but was keen to experience the city accompanied by someone who lived there.
My dad had to drive me to Peckham Civic Centre on a Saturday morning, to collect the schoolboy chosen to stay with us. I discovered that all the French kids were sixteen or older, so somewhat older than me. We were matched with a tall and heavy-looking boy whose name was the rather ordinary Jean Brun. (John Brown) He was chatty and extrovert, and told me two of his best friends were also on the trip.
We got to meet the rest of the group, and I was very taken with one of the girls. She had an Arabic appearance, and the most beautiful eyes. She told me her name was Nicole Zaoui, and that we would all meet again at the farewell dance when the exchange was over. On the way home in the car, Jean, who spoke no English at all, told me that I should not have talked to her. “You don’t want to be seen with her, Pete. She’s a blackie”. He said all this in French of course, and I had to constantly translate for my dad, who insisted on knowing what we were saying.
Before we arrived back in Bexley, I had already decided I didn’t like this boy one bit.
Various trips had been arranged by my parents. We took him to some seaside towns, and up to London to see sights like The Tower of London and other tourist spots. But he was hard work. He didn’t like our food, got easily bored on the trips, smoked heavily throughout, and kept asking me to fix him up with a girl. He told me that he had a motor scooter in Paris, a large group of friends, and had been with many girls. Much of it was probably boasting, but I didn’t care either way.
More importantly given the nature of the trip, he made no attempt to speak English, other than “Thank you”. So the evenings were long, as he couldn’t watch TV, and didn’t enjoy listening to most of the records I had, which were predominantly Soul and Motown. “Why do you only have blackie music? You should have some good white groups too”. I was at a loss to understand why he was even on the exchange, to be honest.
And I had already decided to turn down the return trip to Courbevoie.
With the farewell dance coming up, I was relieved that it would all soon be over. They were all leaving after the dance, taking a coach down to Dover to get a night ferry, then driving on to Paris. Their luggage was stored in the Civic Centre, and the disco started at around seven, for three hours. Before that, some teachers made speeches about the value of language trips and student exchanges. The teachers who had come from France had stayed with teachers from my school, all over London. Then there was some buffet food and soft drinks, in a rather awkward atmosphere.
I spotted Nicole standing alone against the wall, and went over to talk to her. She also lived in Courbevoie, and her parents had moved to France from Algeria, many years before she was born. I didn’t mention Jean being so rude about her, and he had gone off to be with his mates anyway. After a couple of slow dances, we went and sat on the stairs outside the hall, and I was enraptured by her looks, and her quiet manner. She asked for my address so she could write to me, and jotted that down in a small notebook she had in her handbag.
Like Jean, she spoke very little English, certainly not enough for any normal conversation, so we had to speak in French throughout. When it came time to leave, she asked me very politely, “Please kiss me, I want to remember your kiss. I will write to you next week”. I stood outside watching them board the coach, and waved to her as it drove off. My mum and dad had arrived to take me home, after visiting my Aunt’s pub nearby. When he saw Nicole on the coach, he smiled and said “She’s a real beauty”. I was sure that I was in love with her, overwhelmed by how exotically beautiful she seemed to me, and by how genuine I felt she was.
She did indeed write as promised. Very romantic letters, sent by air mail. She wanted me to visit her in France, but warned that I would have to stay in a hotel, as her parents were strict, and were also muslims. I replied to her letters with great fondness, often using my French/English dictionary to find the right words.
After turning down the exchange with Jean Brun’s family, I signed up for a different trip to France. A smaller group, two teachers and just four boys, travelling by train to Perpignan, where we would stay in a boarding school that was empty for the summer. One of the other teachers was going to drive down later in his camper van, and when he got there, we could go out and explore the area. I wrote to Nicole telling her about the trip, and gave her the details just out of interest.
It was a blisteringly hot summer down in the south of France, and we had a great time. Nothing was structured or organised except the meals, and there were other groups from all over the world staying at the boarding school, including some American girls from Chicago, and another mixed group from Montreal, Canada. One late afternoon when we had returned from the beach, the school caretaker came with a message. There was a French girl at the main entrance, asking for me by name.
I was staggered to see Nicole standing there. An older man was standing by a Peugeot car, looking grumpy. She introduced me to her father, who shook my hand and gave me a look that could kill a houseplant. Nicole told me that we could go for a walk on our own, but only somewhere public. We could hold hands, but must not let her dad see us kissing. We strolled to a cafe near the river, and sat down. I ordered two coca-colas, and she told me how she had got there.
“We are visiting relatives in Marseille for a summer holiday. I kept asking my dad if I could come and see you here in Perpignan, but he said it was too far. I was so upset I couldn’t stop crying, so he agreed to bring me today. But I can only stay for two hours, then we have to drive back to my mother and younger brother. My relatives think I am crazy to like an English boy so much, and it has caused a big argument”.
That was a distance of 200 miles, and it had taken over three and a half hours to drive it that day. After two hours in Perpignan, they faced the same drive back to their family. And all the arguments involved too. Just to see me! I was mightily impressed. We sipped our drinks feeling sad that we would have such a short time together, and when it was time to go back to the boarding school, she kissed me very passionately and told me she was in love with me, but that her family would never allow us to have a relationship.
As her dad drove off, she waved to me through the car window, tears running down her lovely face. She never wrote to me again, and I sometimes wonder how her life turned out.
I hope she was always happy.