Inter-Cultural Nightmare


How a regional exchange between France (Lorraine) and Germany (Rhineland Palatinate) turned into a nightmare


Trier, 9 October 2009 - Yesterday our French exchange student went home two days early. She left as she came - in a flood of tears. She had been packing for 48 hours before she left and counting the hours, telling us how she was counting the hours the last few days. Secretly we were all relieved that she left. But on the other hand she left me feeling like Cruella de Vil.

 In the last week unless we spoke French to her, all communication effectively broke down. If we asked here anything simple in German, like “Schmeckt es?”; or “Hast Du gut geschlafen?”, her eyes darted to my husband or older daughter for a French translation. She made no effort and made it clear she was her on sufferance and NOT to learn German.

 And yet it started off so hopefully 12 days earlier. We cleaned her room, put in a welcome note and my daughter made German language cards on every object from the fridge to her bed, pasting them in each room of the house. We baked German and South African cakes and invited the Algerian-born parents over for Sunday afternoon tea. It was a golden and warm autumn afternoon as we sat on our patio, a Provencal table cloth brightening the scene. We were positive and there was a feel-good atmosphere! I asked whether she ate only Halaal meat, but was assured as long as it was not pork it was fine.

 When we suggested showing them around our historic Roman area afterwards, they made their excuses that they had to get back to France. Taking leave of their daughter there was a flood of tears from Mom and let’s call her Rachita.  Mom asked whether she could call her every night. We said off course.

 Rosemarie, my daughter tried to distract her with a Wii game, normally only allowed in special circumstances.  That evening we all practised our French at the dinner table as she understood no German. We told her it would be probably difficult the first few days, but she will manage and we were there for her.

 On Day One, my fluent French speaking husband left for a Congress and I was left to do the German bit. We were invited to my neighbour that afternoon for her birthday. Rachida sat there at the carefully laid table looking very sad, with down-turned eyes and not answering when people addressed her. She was only present in body, not soul. I cheerfully told her this is how Germans celebrate their birthdays

 We went back to our house for supper, instead of joining the neighbours. We could hear her heart rendering cries as she spoke to her mother in her room. My daughter and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes. My daughter said “She is sad all day, Mom, but it is not our fault”. I stayed at home instead of returning to the party where the American cousin of my neighbour who had read and enjoyed my book in San Francisco, wanted to talk to me.

 That evening, my daughter and I decided a busy child has less time to think about missing home. So my daughter and those German pupils who also had French exchange students spent the next few afternoons taking them to see some of our eight UNESCO Cultural Heritages sites in Trier. They ate in town, did the tourist train ride, went up the Roman Gate, the Porta Nigra and shopped. Then they invited their French guests to ice-creams from their own pocket money.

 About 12 French and German girls spent the Thursday afternoon when school finished at 11 at our house, making pizza’s and watching French films with German subtitles, pandering to the needs of their guests. A nightmare for me working from home, I had to discard writing! Before coming home that day they all visited the Imperial Baths.

 Friday afternoon, we booked the special (and more expensive) Gladiator tour of our first century Roman amphitheatre. Instead of thanking us Rachita told us, she could not understand the German at all. She and another French exchange student were standing at the back of the tour, chatting away. My husband told me I had wasted my money.

 On Friday evening we watched another French film with her because German television just made her send more text messages to her 32 cousins in France, instead of watching it.

Eltz Castle (c) Anli Serfontein 2009

On Saturday we drove 100 km to Eltz Castle, a well-preserved medieval castle set beautifully in the woods behind the Moselle valley. The poor man’s Neuschwanstein. We opted for the English tour as she said her English is much better than her German. She told us she was the best in English in her class and it was her first foreign language. The tour guide, a Dutch guy offered in French to also take questions in French.

 Asking her whether she would want a French flyer with all the information, she looked sulky and did not deem a reply in order. She was rubbing me up the wrong way. I had enough work to not spend a day trapezing through a Castle I had visited four times before.

 By now I was questioning the wisdom of our trip, as she stood around staring into nothingness. She told us history does not interest her. It was clear we were forcing her up and down dirty medieval stairs. Over lunch at the Castle, we decided that our plans to go down to the Moselle village of Cochem, would be an utter waste of time.

 As we hiked the 30 minutes back up the hill to the car through the colourful autumn woods, on a sunny afternoon, she told us in appreciation of the day-outing that it was only another week before she could go home to France. I decided it was a waste saying anything about woods, hiking and German culture.

 Saturday evening, as I was busy cooking, exhausted from our day-trip she was via my husband, as her interpreter, insistently demanding to know at what time I would drop her on Saturday morning in France. The earlier the better! I was starting to feel used. I was still in vain waiting for a thank you for the “nice” outing. We started to practise those phrases in French with our daughter.

 By Sunday inter-cultural communication started to deteriorate beyond repair. My daughter had been playing the perfect hostess to such an extent that her school work suffered and she had French and Maths exams coming up in Week Two to learn for. Our French pupil came without any school books or even a dictionary. So while my daughter did homework she texted her friends and vast family. Writing down the German words of objects in our house was a thought she shunned, when I suggested it. Our big library of English, German, French and Italian books and cartoons bored her. My husband’s suggestion that he learnt French via cartoon books was met with a downward glance of the eyes.

 Sunday morning as we went to Church in the historic Basilica, once Constantine’s Throne Room, she declined to go along, (her right) and watched TV. Earlier in the week, she tried to refuse to go to the Religion Class in my daughter’s Catholic school, saying she was a Muslim. My daughter told her we knew that. The religion teacher, a Protestant pastor, invited her to prepare a talk about Muslim religion.We told her our daughter would like to go with her to a mosque in France.

 Thankfully the shops were open on Sunday afternoon. So I visited the impressive, fourth century Cathedral of Trier with her which bored her even more, bought her a French guide of Trier that she never glanced at and then let her shop with my student daughter, who was happy to after a two year break, to practise her French again. Meantime Rosemarie was learning for exams at home.

 On Sunday evening after calling her Mom, she informed us she was leaving on Thursday because the aunt that we all understood was visiting for four weeks from Algeria, was now suddenly going home after a week via Marseille on Saturday. We did not believe her, it reminded me of Africa, but were starting to be relieved. My husband told her in French that I could not be there on Thursday afternoon when her parents wanted to fetch her, as my daughter had to be dropped for an extra-mural activity. She also told us the other pupil in her school on an exchange to Germany, had returned a week early. The message was getting clear.

 We were now into Week Two – traditionally the week of French pupils flexing their muscles and the BIG SULK.

 The French pupils, nine of them in my daughter’s class - were not following the German classes and have noted the more liberal school system. So instead of sitting next to their German partners, they were chatting away at the back of the class, the day before a major Maths exam. The German pupils were irritable with the disruption as they could not hear the teacher. The Germans pleaded with them to come and sit next to their partners, the French refused. Tensions were rising and the fronts drawn. Some teachers just chucked them out, which made the French happy, as they had free time, but is surely not the purpose of such a cultural exchange.

 The German pupils who will be visiting their host schools in France in November have already organised who will email their homework to them. They know when they get back; there will be tests and exams waiting. The French did nothing while they were here, they saw it as a break from school.

 Unfortunately for the French there was a case of swine flu in the class of a girl with an exchange pupil from France. The French girl was also quarantined. Some of the other German pupils were also getting sick and had to let their French partners go to school on their own. The other German pupils did try and take care of them and there was a lot of organising for their French partners.

 I had a sense of déjà vu. I had seen all of this with my older daughter who was in a bilingual French class in another school. The French pupils are used to enormous pressure at school and when they come to Germany and the pressure and the tightly organised school structure falls away they are initially lost, before they start to exploit it. They only seem to only be able to operate with pressure from the top.

 So now into the BIG SULK week, Rachita could no longer wait for Mommy to call but was starting to call from my phone. It was the only time she could speak German – requesting the phone. Mommy was getting more hostile by the day when she spoke to me at times when Rachita was still with my older daughter. I am waiting for my phone bill!

 By now my younger daughter had joined the sick army and was at home the last two days. I drove Rachita to school and fetched her. My older daughter in the afternoon went to town with her and another French pupil. With all this going on I one day forgot to give her sandwiches along for school! Luckily the German girls shared with her in the break.

 We did not know what she was telling Mommy. She was by now not communicating with us, not answering questions, texting people on her mobile when we were talking to her and not looking us in the eye.

 Our French were all rapidly improving. She was telling us every day how much better the weather was in France and how terrible it was in Trier. Now the sun may have been out on the Cote d’Azur or even Lyon, maybe even in Loire Atlantique. But only 60 kilometres away in the former coal region of North-eastern France, I doubt whether it was even one degree more. My husband retorted that it was also 23C in Trier and that in October. That was not the point; the point was everything is better in France!!

 Our frustration levels were rising. My husband spoke to another host father at the University who had a similar story to lament – their family’s French were also improving.

 And that is the point: no amount of preparation by the local hosts seem to be able to compensate for pupils ill-prepared for a fortnight in a foreign country. And the same applies to German pupils. I know of a German girl, an only child, who in Dijon occupied the bathroom for 45 minutes in the morning and could not understand that her French hosts were upset.

 We thought we were the perfect host parents with our foreign languages and our experiences living in foreign lands. We had both studied in foreign countries; my husband’s first wife was French; 33 years ago I myself was an exchange student to Trier and because of that friendship I landed here. We expressed sympathy and understanding with Rachita talking to her about the learning process of languages and the sheer exhaustion of it.

 But that is the crunch: the combination of homesickness on the one hand, and her passive and active resistance to opening up to another culture, lacking the will to learn another language and showing absolute no interest in another way of life; in German culture and cuisine and music and history was making a mockery of all our best efforts. Thinking back of the wealth of knowledge and experiences that I acquired from my German host family all those years ago, I feel as if all our best intentions were in vain, our energies wasted.

 Advising her younger sister, my older daughter philosophically said: normally it is better in France because they are on their home turf. My kids certainly were and are happy to escape my rules and regulations, but maybe they are also more self-confident. Rachida could only demonstrate her love for her mother by telling her how awful it was in our home; how awful Germany is and by crying buckets of tears to make her Mom feel wanted and loved. In the end it was her problem not ours, and all our efforts to make her feel at home, to make her experience the real Germany had no chance of ever really succeeding.

 For now my nightmare is over. But what she had told her parents and how it will affect our daughter’s fortnight remain worrying.  One thing is for sure - they have cats in the house and my daughter is allergic against cat hair, something she put on her application form. So wait for the sequel in November!

 And after 12 days of no pork in our fridges out of consideration for our Muslim guest and only drinking a glass of wine a night, I drank the better part of a bottle of French wine, ate pork salami (saucisson) with French chévre, in absolute defiance. And in celebration of having my own life back!

(c) Anli Serfontein, 2009 - Excerpt from unpublished manuscript From Rock to Kraut the Sequel.All rights reserved.