It started during my year abroad. In the academic year 1972-73 I spent six months in Rennes in France and six months in Stuttgart.
Rennes was a little tricky: they put all of the foreign students together and we started speaking a sort of creolised French. In order to get to know French people I joined a choir, started learning Breton and played basketball. In the Breton class I got to know a young French woman who invited me and a classmate back to her home at weekends several times. She eventually came over to the UK and worked for a short while as a French assistant in Scotland. We visited each other for years.
When I went to Stuttgart I was fortunate enough to have some instant friends in the children of my future mother-in-law’s best friend. I then also shared a flat with a German girl. I met more people by playing chess.
Then I became a secondary school teacher and the French and German exchanges began. We gained some close friends though our local twinning association. I also worked with the teachers professionally. What a joy when one day when we were on holiday in the Netherlands, near the German border, they suddenly turned up with a cake from a good cake shop we’d mentioned. And it was funny when our children, on the same holiday, went back to stay with them and their hamster ate our daughter’s jeans.
One delightful French couple stayed with us at the last minute when my colleague had several family problems. They loved the tennis and they were here during Wimbledon weeks. I would actually come home from school each day and find them with the curtains drawn, and the television on. And they always supplied the strawberries. Well, it was easy in Hampshire in those days when the strawberry fields still existed.
Later, when the French exchange teacher from another school was looking at the horoscopes in the Sunday Times magazine, we discussed birthdays and found that we were just twelve hours apart in age.
We are all still in contact.
My greatest joy perhaps was when I was in Germany and bumped into a former student and her German partner shopping together two years after she’d left our school. They still visited each other regularly. Their friendship had endured. I was delighted also to hear my student speaking fluent German.
Difficult / impossible to go to war when you’re friends, isn’t it?
In the days leading up to the 23 June 2016 referendum, several people on the mainland flew the union flag and said “Please stay”. Have we slapped them in the face? Guys, I didn’t vote to leave. I apologise for letting it happen.