As the youngest of the four Holmes children I never really bat an eyelid when a random French child would turn up in our house for six months or one of my own siblings would disappear. What I do clearly remember is being massively jealous. Once Matthew and Beth had returned from their exchanges I was the only child who couldn’t speak French, the rest of them had a secret language that I couldn’t join in with. Eventually though, it was my turn and I couldn’t have been more excited.
I remember when Marie turned up at our house. I knew very little French and she knew no English, but there is always one thing that doesn’t need words to bring two young girls together: Barbie. I remember both of us sitting up in my room and us playing for hours. A few months later and Marie’s English was coming along perfectly by Hartlepool standards, she could express that something was ‘shan’ and knew to drop the ‘t’s out of most her words like ‘Bu..er’ and ‘Compu…er’ a skill mastered by all of our exchange partners.
Six months whizzed by and it was soon my turn to head out to France. Life out there was so different to at home. Reunited with Marie I moved to a tiny village called Chanzeaux in North West France, near to Angers. We lived on a farm in the middle of nowhere, caught the minibus to school where the classes were so small that Y5 and Y6 shared a teacher. At first I was a mute, too scared to try out my French in fear of being laughed at, but two months in and there was no shutting me up. I got to try new things like basketball (Marie’s hobby) and even driving a tractor with my French Uncle.
14 years after I first met Marie, and thanks to the wonders of the internet, we are still in close contact. We’ve been through a lot through the years, good and bad. I was there in France when we were woken up in the morning and told that sadly Marie’s Dad (my Papa) had died during the night. I was there when she left Europe for the first time and joined me and my parents for 3 weeks in Malaysia and recently although I wasn’t there in person, I was there in spirit when Marie provided me with my first nephew, Baby Antonin who was born in September.
I can hardly believe that not only was I lucky enough to gain a French sister as great as Marie, I got double lucky because I also have a whole German family too. When I was first asked about doing a German exchange when I was 12 it was a flat out no. I was at the age where popularity in school was everything and I didn’t want to be the weird girl leaving to live with a foreign family, again. A few weeks after though I changed my mind and we started looking into the German families out there and came across the Veselys. Annette, the Mum, was the woman who had suggested me doing the exchange in the first place. She was married to Pedro and they had three children Nora, Niklas and Myrthe. Not long after a quick visit out there to see where they lived and meet the whole family once again I was all packed up and ready to say ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ to my family. I’ll admit it was a lot more daunting being the one leaving first. Things weren’t quite as smooth sailing in Germany, I found it harder fitting in to my school and Myrthe and I didn’t click the same way I had with Marie. Annette was also a lot stricter with my German learning making sure I sat down and did exercises so she could see how I was coming along. By Christmas though we had found our groove as a family and before I knew it, Mum was picking me up and we were flying home for 2 weeks before Myrthe would join us. Again things did not start well for the second half of the exchange. I was finding it hard to fit back into school and didn’t appreciate having to share my friends with somebody (typical selfish teenage behaviour really!) It’s not to say though Myrthe and I didn’t have good times together too, she joined us on a family holiday to Cuba, we celebrated our birthdays 4 days apart, she was even there to console me after my first ever break up. And then she was gone and for the first time in a long time, the Holmes household was only full of Holmes’.
Two years later after not much contact, we were on what I considered a terrible holiday in a caravan in France when Mum suggested if I hated it that much then I could get on a train and go visit Myrthe if I wanted, so I did. So much older and wiser our relationship was instantly better and we both apologised for the way we had treated each other during the exchange.
Another two years later and there I was again in Germany at the Vesely household as if nothing had changed, sleeping in my old room, hanging out with Myrthe and enjoying the city.
Now at 22 I’ve just started my final year at the University of Liverpool reading French and German (surprise, surprise). I could not be more grateful for everything the exchanges have provided me, not only new family, but a career path too. For my year abroad it never fazed me having to move out to France and Germany because I’d already done it once. In Germany I was only an hour or so away from where the Vesely’s lived so when I first moved there I was staying at theirs every weekend until I found my own place to live.
After my final year I plan to move out to Munich, Germany permanently, a situation I highly doubt I’d find myself in if my parents hadn’t read about ALLEF around 17 years ago!