If I were to utter the words “school exchange trip”, I would be very curious to find out what thoughts first go through your head. Some of you who have had positive experiences will regale family and friends with whimsical tales of taking a short walk across the cobbles of some rural French town and popping into “le patisserie” for “un baguette”. Others of you with less positive experiences will shudder at the prospect of revisiting the memories of strange food, stranger people and the altogether disturbing fashion sense of our continental cousins.
For me, my foreign exchange trips were largely a positive experience. Having preferred German as a subject and a language rather than what I thought was a nasally and over complicated language in French, I signed up for various exchange trips. Upon signing up for exchange trips there is always the anxious and nail biting wait to find out who you are to be paired with. This pot luck decision will ultimately determine whether you’ll have a good summer playing football, hanging out with girls and learning foreign swear words or whether your summer will be largely spent indoors watching a 14 year old German boy, adorned in full microphone-air-traffic-controller headset play computer games with his next door neighbour over the internet.
I was very fortunate with my allocation of exchange partner for my first trip in 2004. His name was Karim Wolfsteller and he was a year older than I was. He came to visit in the October of 2003 and we hit it off like you wouldn’t believe. He stepped off the coach at our school on a cold and brisk October morning and as soon as he greeted me with what is now considered the normal hand-shake-slap-grab-and-pull-into-the-chest-almost-like-a-half-hug type embrace I knew he was quite possibly the coolest person I had ever met. This was definitely saying something as the list of cool people I had previously met/saw had included ex Newcastle goalkeeper, Shaka Hislop. The one slight downside to Karim was that he did have a very stereotypical German hairstyle. The only comparison I can find that seems fair and accurate is to say that he had hair very much like the Russian bad guy boxer in Rocky IV, Ivan Drago. The similarities stop there. As far as I’m aware he wasn’t into boxing, has never been hooked on anabolic steroids and has never met, let alone had a 12 round brawl with Sylvester Stallone.
Karim’s week in England flew by and it ended with one of my school’s trademark “lunchtime discos”. This essentially consisted of drawing the curtains and playing medium volume music so we didn’t disturb the surrounding classes. They were largely dire affairs, but the German contingent lapped it up, primarily after the “DJ” had played “99 Red Balloons” for a fourth time.
The months between October and July were spent looking forward to the return leg of the trip. The day arrived and after some warnings from my parents to take care crossing the road as “the traffic comes from the other way over there”, I sarcastically reminded them that I was 16 and we headed off down the motorway on the coach.
In previous coach trips to Europe my trip-to-vomit ratio hadn’t been massively in my favour. On a trip to France a few years earlier I had managed to projectile vomit all over the aisle of the coach before we had even lost sight of the school. However this time I was older and my stomach had become the rigid and sturdy food tank that it is today.
My fellow exchangees were a diverse and peculiar bunch. There was Christian, a younger, rotund lad who had a penchant for eating coins. On a 32 hour coach trip this certainly managed to keep us entertained yet slightly puzzled as to what happened when he decided to make a withdrawal from his gastric bank account. There was a girl whose name I can’t remember, whose sole mission on the trip was to see how many German boys she could “get off with”, and finally there was the usual bunch of degenerates whose idea of a good trip to continental Europe was draping the bus windows with the cross of St George, singing anti-German football songs and sticking their hands down the front of their pants to play with their testicles – mid conversation.
After a largely vomit free journey (at Calais Christian did vomit up about £1.35), we arrived in the Black Forest town of Karlsruhe, a town famous for its rich architecture, national importance and pretzels. Having spent the best part of 36 hours awake on a coach, I had planned to be very courteous and polite to my host family but then in my best German explain that I was very tired and I would love to get a bit of sleep.
However, before I could even utter the word “ich”, I was given a schedule for the week, including a vast amount of activities scheduled for that day. As I didn’t know the words to say “You must be having a laugh” and to keep in line with my polite and genial manner, I smiled and went along with the plan for the day.
The day was spent traipsing around town, stopping every so often to soak up some of the culture of the little food stalls and try local delicacies like the aforementioned pretzels and the world famous bratwurst.
Morning slowly led into afternoon and afternoon staggered into evening. The day culminated in a trip to “das Kino” to see the latest blockbuster “Spiderman”. Having already seen this film in English and been largely unimpressed by it, I was of the opinion that this would be a completely pointless and futile exercise. However, my host family paid for my ticket and along with Karim and his family we were joined by Karim’s girlfriend, her friend, her boyfriend and a few others. The 12 of us occupied a whole row somewhere near the centre of the cinema and I settled in for the upcoming pointless two hours.
As with every dubbed foreign film, the novelty of someone else speaking the lines in a different language wore off after about 30-40 seconds. After that, boredom and an increasing sense of tiredness crept in, to the point that I was feeling my eyes drawing shut on a regular basis. This was the last thing I can remember.
I awoke approximately two hours later, groggy and drowsy but aware that something wasn’t quite as it should be. The house lighting was on and where there should be the backs of people’s heads, there were six or seven sniggering German youths stood in front of me, cameras in hand.
It appears that what had transpired in the two hours leading up to this point is that I had fallen into a coma-like sleep that despite the best attempts of those around me, I had not been able to be woken from. This in itself was an embarrassment, as the cinema was now completely empty apart from our party and a team of cleaners. However, more embarrassing than this was the position I had taken to sleep in.
Instead of adopting the head back, airplane style sleeping position I had decided to opt for the arms round the waist, snuggle in for the night, holding on for dear life arrangement. This was an embarrassment only intensified by the fact that I was sitting next to Karim’s mum. As I came to, I was in said position; head nestled up nicely between her shoulder and her left breast. It was probably a testament to Frau Wolfsteller’s comfortable chest that I managed to get such a protracted and satisfying nap time. As soon as I gained a semblance of reality, I jolted upright in my seat leaving a zip wire of saliva from my mouth down to the now increasingly annoyed German woman’s chest. I had managed to leave copious amounts of dribble down the front of her shirt to the point that if you weren’t aware of the situation, you could have been led to believe that she had sprung a leak.
I tried to apologise at the time in my best German that I hadn’t intended to rest my head on Frau Wolfsteller’s breasts, however as this wasn’t a topic regularly covered in GCSE language classes my attempt was feeble and grammatically awful.
Once I had returned home, I lost all contact with Karim and his family which is probably for the best.
I hope in time they will be able to look back and laugh at that evening and find it in their hearts to forgive me. German’s have a good sense of humour right?