Have you ever sat back, kicked your shoes off and said, ‘That was really great fun, we should have done that years ago…’? If you know that feeling and you enjoy good food, good company and a glass or two of vin rouge, then you really should consider joining the village twinning association…
Friday 24th May 6pm
I arrive home to discover that, despite my texts threatening to make her clean the loos if nothing has been done by the time I get back, my teenage daughter is asleep on the sofa in front of some appalling TV music channel. I dump down two shopping bags on the floor.
‘That particular movement, with so scant clothing to cover it, would have been classed as soft porn in the 70s,’ I comment, with my head on one side.
‘What’s that, Mum, the 1870s?’
‘No, back then it would have been classed as depraved immorality leading men into acts of lewdness and would’ve been punishable by criminal institutionalisation,’ I pause, ‘particularly that.’ I draw back from the screen. Now, come and help me unload the shopping.’
‘But I’m in my pyjamas!’
I arch my eyebrows and inhale deeply.
‘All right, all right – err, you did say you’d pay me, didn’t you?’
The next three hours are spent hovering, tidying and making up beds for a family of five French guests we have never met before and who are completely new to twinning themselves.
‘What are their names again, Mum?’
‘Julien, Sophie, Emilie, who’s 11, Nicholas, who’s 7 and Timothy, who’s 5.’
‘The children are quite young then?’
‘Yes, but I’m sure they’ll all be nice, anyone who’s prepared to get involved with twinning usually is; it does take a certain type of brass nerve on both sides which then breeds a sense of camaraderie as you get to know each other. Most people who do it end up hosting the same family and visiting them in Juziers for years on end.’
‘Hmm, that could be quite nice.’
Saturday 25th May 2.30pm
[On the phone]
‘Mum, Mum, they’re here! Are you still in Tesco?’
‘Yes, but I am at the checkout, where are you, you sound breathless?’
‘Andrea phoned; I’m on my way down to the pavilion. Mum, please come quickly, I’m scared!’
‘Oh darling, you’ll be fine.’
‘But I don’t speak French!’
‘I did German, Mum, remember?’
‘Oh, so you did. Well just smile and kiss their cheeks and, and I’ll be there in twenty seconds.’
I dash madly back to the village and creep into the back of the champagne reception still in time for the speeches. Zoe points out Julien to me and he quietly greets me while we listen. Sophie says hello and I apologise for being late, feeling like a naughty school child, but they don’t seem worried.
After the cordial speeches comes a little humour and gifts for the hosts families from the Juziers Twinning Association. We troop outside into the sun and listen to an Uckfield youth band play some music while we start to chat a little. I am surprised and frustrated at how rusty my memory seems to be and relieved to discover that both Julien and Sophie speak better English than I do French.
A fish and chip supper is on offer to those who have booked at The Foresters but with children so young who have been up since 4am, I have planned a family meal at home.
Julien and Sophie prove very easy to talk to. As is the norm with these things, they speak in English and I answer in broken French, occasionally lapsing into English, which they kindly tolerate. I dig out an old Thunderbirds toy with figures and a belly which pops out hiding a smaller vehicle and between this and the ‘boules’ in the garden everyone seems content while I cook a little, chat a little.
The children are enchanting and very well-mannered over supper. Emilie comments in French that my gravy is superb and she even understands my French, when I tell her very earnestly indeed, that if she thinks my cooking is superb, she may visit us again. The first of much laughter.
By the time fruit salad is served, Timothy is nodding into his bowl but determined to eat all of his share before he finds sleep.
Julien reads ‘The Owl and the Pussy Cat’ to Nicholas while Zoe and I clear the decks and I have to explain to him why he cannot find all of the words in his French/English dictionary. Very strange, English people, he comments, after I have returned to the opened door kitchen.
With the children asleep and a glass of wine in our hands, we discover a common link in Uganda. I worked for a summer out in Uganda three years ago and have raised money for Bungokho Rural Development Centre ever since. Julien, it transpires, with his family, is about to embark on a three year stint in Uganda as an operations manager for Total. We spend the evening pawing over a map of Uganda and photographs of the same discussing why, with its troubled history in the 70s, Uganda is now such a great place to invest time, money and care in because the people understand the importance of (and continue to vote for) stability. I tell them of the rich family culture in Uganda and the warmth of the welcome you receive wherever you go, of the work ethic and the entrepreneurial spirit of self-help and micro-business groups and we share an understanding of a rapidly developing economic country in a very grass roots and human way.
We retire for the night as newfound friends.
Sunday 26th May
I awake to the sound of my door being pushed slowly over the carpet in stealthy stages. I open one eye and spy two smiling boys’ faces poking around the side.
‘Bon jour,’ I say and they giggle, retreating back noisily to their mother upstairs.
I’m not sure why (perhaps owing to our family’s love of pain au chocolat) but without thinking, I have prepared for and bought a typically French breakfast. With hot chocolate in large mugs, croissants, pain au chocolat, homemade jam (which they are mad over) brioche and more besides, Julien declares it a breakfast fit for a king. A French king, of course. We giggle. Why hadn’t I thought of an English breakfast? Silly me. Oh well, next time.
We take a stroll around the village in the morning sun and the children play on the village field, while I explain a little of the history of Henry VIII to Julien and Sophie, as we are headed for Anne of Cleves House for the afternoon.
Lewes is bathed in sunlight as the children delight in grinding down herbs using pestles in mortars, dressing up in Tudor clothes, playing in the gardens and wondering at the smell dubious blind guesses at Anne of Cleves House before we head off for afternoon tea in the Grange Gardens. The weather is idyllic and Sophie insists on photographs of herself and her English hosts taking afternoon tea and cakes in the garden of an historic English Grange.
The children play and chase squirrels. We talk comfortably, my memory of French having quite wonderfully re-established itself by this time, beyond my belief. Memory is a funny thing. Julien teases. His wife tells me to take no notice, declaring that she never has. There is a sense of easy peace.
Reluctantly, for the French spring has been disappointing also, we drag ourselves away from the gardens’ sun in order to prepare for the main Twinning Association Supper in the village hall.
We are not, however, disappointed. The food and the company are excellent, firm friends more acquainted with each other than we are, are in evidence all around us and in lieu of the fact that they will be in Uganda by the time of the return visit to Juziers next spring, we are invited to spend a weekend with the Viguiers in August.
We retire for the night as firm friends.
Monday 27th May
Being English, I shall not dwell on the fond and, oh so affectionate farewells of the morning or the length of their duration, not at all. Nor shall I comment in the slightest that they are of any great length; suffice to say, that Julien, Sophie and I all notice that all the gathered company of twinning friends and families appear to have enjoyed their weekends very well indeed.
The weekend has been set, I am about to book the tickets from Portsmouth to Le Havre, where Julien will kindly pick us up (as I am not confident enough to drive in France). After that, there is talk of meeting up in Kampala. Who knows where a twinning will take you? Or the richness in friendship it may bring?