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"Getting a bit technical". So says my closest friend, and she's pretty technical at times. "A lot of PHP and Python". Yes, there has been a lot of PHP and Python for the last couple of weeks, so now for something completely different.

Yesterday I was recalling how we had a school visit about 12 years ago from an exchange student from France. Peter was a bit of an oddball, and initially we put this down to the culture of where he was being brought up - in a quite remote cottage in an off-the-beaten-track corner of the Alps. But when, half way through the exchange, we met up with the teachers and other parents we were rather taken aback by solicitous questions "how are you managing with Peter?". It seems that Peter was considered to be a difficult visitor to place and we had been specially selected - without our knowledge - as being the best able to cope.

A barbecue in a beautifully manicured garden in Frome. Many of the parent were there in posh finery, and all the English and French young ladies and gentlemen were being cultured. "Afternoon tea" in the English style - except of course for Peter, who was intent on climbing a very beautiful tree that could scarce support his weight in what was our host's award-winning grounds. Of course, the teachers were there for a social and it fell to me "in loco parentis" - to take appropriate action on which, no doubt, the others present judged me.

I recall that Peter was very forceful in requiring the TV to be turned to the channel that he wanted to watch, and that he would routinely read through any personal papers that were around; really we had nothing to hide, but we found ourselves locking up things like bank statements and breaking from our usual habit of leaving the day's opened (but needing attention) post on a counter top. "Do you read everyone else's letters at home" we asked. "Yes" he replied, apparently not comprehending that his actions were causing offense and weren't fitting in with the English way of life he had come to learn.

Should we have treated Peter "like one of our own", or should we have treated him differently? Does and exchange student coming in to a house get treated as a guest / customer who can do no wrong, no different to anyone else as he's a member of the family, or as someone who has to be licked into British shape in just a few short weeks? We opted for the middle option - treating Peter as one of the family - yet modifying that treatment a little to be more understanding of times when we would have suggested to our own that they were out of line, and to provide additional guidance in areas where he couldn't / didn't appreciate how things worked around here. Alas - a pretty thankless task. "You're telling me that because I'm adopted". "You're asking me to stop doing that because of the colour of my skin". No, Peter - we're asking and telling you in just the same way that we would ask and tell each other. The reason that you may feel at time that you're to only one being told to do something - such as get down from that tree - is because you're the only one climbing it and in danger of causing damage, expense and upset. But - gee - those explanations and maintaining the calm was hard.

One final memory of Peter was his shower. I think he had come with an instruction to shower well and long ... but he had overlooked it for the majority of his stay and was starting to get a little aromatic. We were quite relieved when he announced a day of two before his return that he would take our advise, and a shower. And what a shower it turned out to be. He must have been in there over an hour. And he came out ... complaining ... that there wasn't enough hot water and he'd had to finish early.

A dozen years after, I can still recall some of the aspects of Peter's visit; I wouldn't describe it as enjoyable, nor fun, nor a walk in the park. I would describe it as character building for all concerned, and a learning experience for all concerned. And from that view point, the objective of the exchange was achieved. And I look back and think "yes, I'm glad I went through that".
(written 2006-11-11, updated 2006-11-12)

 
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