The memory of your first visit to France stays with you says Liz Cleere, a finalist in our 2014 writing contest. Liz reveals that the memories of a school exchange visit to Miramas in Provence have stayed with her – the scents, sounds and sights…
I crash into the painted wardrobe and slide to the floor. My handstands are at best unpredictable, but this one has been a spectacular failure. I pick myself up. The second attempt is better: legs up straight, a moment of perfect balance, then a sideways tumble into the bedside table. I plonk the frilly shade back on its base and listen.
The first time I went abroad without my family was in the late 1960s on a school exchange to France. I was 10. As I watched my parents waving goodbye from the receding platform, the unwelcome thought that I wouldn’t see them for the next fortnight began to roll around inside my head. To stop it from gaining momentum, I pulled out the food parcel Mum had packed for me: fishpaste and cucumber sandwiches, a boiled egg wrapped in silver foil, two small bars of chocolate, a tomato, an apple and a banana. Knowing that I didn’t like fizzy drinks, she had included surprise miniature bottles of fruit juice. I opened one of them.
The sound of snivelling filled our end of the compartment. My friend Cindy smirked. “Richard’s homesick,” she said. I nodded in mutual disapproval, closed my eyes and savoured the apricot nectar flooding into my mouth. Délicieux.
I pictured Mum shopping in the drizzle for me. With a headscarf tied under her chin, she looked like a cross between the Queen and the lady who worked at the greengrocer’s. Telltale tears formed at the back of my eyes. I squeezed my lids tighter.
“Feeling a bit homesick too?” said Cindy. I looked through the rain-stained window at the passing railway cutting. “I wonder if it’s raining in France?” I said to the cutting.
We arrived in Miramas by coach. The roads were dusty and empty. Unlike London, there were no traffic jams, hardly any parked cars, no cats eyes between white lines and no advertisement hoardings.
“Où sont les bicyclettes?” I wondered.
It was quiet. And sunny. A sandy patina infused everything, from the roads and pavements to the buildings and trees. Blue enamel tiles with white numbers stood out on the walls of each house; odd that everyone used the same method for numbering their home. In Streatham all the houses had different signs in clashing colours. Ivy and Derek Parker had a plaque saying ‘Ivander’.
The coach stopped in a deserted road. We got out and were paired off with our French exchange partners. Standing to attention with a mouth full of braces, Christiane seemed shy.
“Bonjour?” I said. “Hello,” she whispered.
As echoes of my crash fade, I wait for the door to open. Christiane is in the kitchen at the back of the house with her mum, helping to prepare tea. No-one comes. Perhaps they haven’t heard me. I decide to have one more attempt at the perfect handstand. It is a success. I remain upside down with my feet against the bedroom wall. I look around: pink roses on the carpet slide across the floor into my hair; more flowers grow up the wallpaper, twirl their way across the bedspread, and form posies on the pale cotton curtains; on the window ledge, white, glossy paint shines beneath pottery animals.
I practise my French. Très jolie, comme un jardin. Un chambre des fleurs.
It’s the antithesis of the red walls of my room at home, where the shelves are filled with books, comics, felt-tip pens, pencils, notepads, dolls with severe haircuts, talcum powder, bits of wood, shells and significant stones. Tears begin to prick, and because I am upside down, they fall up my face into my eyebrows. I spring upright. And am face to face with a dark brown mark on the wallpaper.
Oh no, my shoes!
I check the soles, they are rimmed with mud. I rub at the dirty patch with my sponge. Now it looks worse: a dark stain, a foot long, stretches across the pristine wallpaper.
I reach the landing and close the door to my room as she nears the top of the stairs. She lets me herd her back down.
The scent of fresh coffee, underpinned by a smell I don’t recognise, permeates the ground floor. Christiane’s Dad and young brother are at the dining table. Her mum places a bowl of soup in front of me. I look inside at beans lodged in lumpy brown goo; they aren’t baked beans.
“Du peng?” says Christiane’s Dad. I don’t understand. He points at the bread.
“Du pain?” I say in my best classroom accent. They laugh.
“Yes, Elisabet, but here it is ‘peng’; different to how you learn in school.”
I accept a chunk of soft white bread and try the soup. It tastes like the smell I can’t identify. I like it, but I’m not hungry. I imagine the stain growing, obliterating the flowers on the wallpaper. Too scared and embarrassed to say anything about the damage upstairs, I explain I am tired after the journey and would like to go to bed. I tell them not to worry and that I’ll be OK seeing myself to my room.
“Bonne nuit,” I say, trying to smile.
The stain is still there, at least it isn’t any bigger. I turn off the light and cry myself to sleep, vowing never to do another handstand.
Next morning the mark has gone. I waste no time wondering how or why (it will be years before I realise it evaporated during the warm Provençal night), and my joy is so overpowering that I do a handstand on the spot. In bare feet.
Later, in the dining room, Christiane’s dad greets me, coffee in hand.
“Salut Elisabet, ça va?” he says.
“Ça va très bien, merci!”
I eat everything Christiane’s mum lays in front of me: Corn Flakes, hot chocolate, chunks of ‘peng’ from a long white loaf, honey, orange juice. And it’s all delicious, just like home.
Liz Cleere is editor of the Itinerant Writers Club and contributes to Wanderlust magazine and Sailing Today. She lives on board sailing yacht Esper with her partner, Jamie Furlong, and Millie-the-cat. They have been sailing round the world from the UK since 2006 but have only got as far as Thailand.