In 1978, we had moved to a house in Wimbledon, an affluent suburb of South London. The mortgage was manageable, but with interest rates above 12% and climbing, any help with finances was always appreciated. My first wife, then working as a college lecturer, had planned to take on examination marking during the holidays; a temporary, albeit well-paid extra job. I was working as a company representative, on a fair salary, with a new car supplied. Still, we had to run the other car, and the house needed repainting, as well as some other minor jobs. We considered our options to generate extra income, and they were few. My wife noticed an advertisement in the local newspaper. Host families required, for French students visiting the area, to improve their English skills. The remuneration offered was £40 a week, almost 70% of what I was getting, as an acceptable salary. It was only for two-three weeks at a time, but should last for up to eight weeks, depending on demand. This meant a tax-free income of £320 for the summer period, which would pay for the house painting, or tax both cars, with cash to spare. My wife applied immediately.
We were visited a few days later, by a serious man, with a beard and sombre demeanour. He inspected the house and facilities on offer, and declared that he would prefer us to have had children of a similar age to the students. As we were both only 26 years old at the time, this was impossible. However, he was swayed by my decent skills in the French language, and the fact that my wife would be at home. He signed us up, and said that we would be collecting our first visitor the following week. We asked for a girl, so as not to compromise my wife at home, and he confirmed that this would be OK, and that she would be with us for three weeks. We went to the Language School one evening, and met a pleasant 15 year old French girl, who would be staying with us. The brief was to supply accommodation, English food, conversation, and a ‘normal’ life; interaction with our friends and family, and involvement in our everyday lives. The school arranged lots of visits and excursions, as well as language classes most afternoons. There were also evening trips, to the cinema, theatre, and arranged events. Our responsibility would be mostly during and after dinner, and at weekends. We also had to provide a packed lunch, in addition to breakfast, and an evening meal.
My wife had reasoned that it would not cost a lot more to provide the lunch, and one more place at dinner. We should be at least £300 pounds in profit at the end of the summer, a substantial sum in those days. We had a comfortable home, an Edwardian terraced house, with lots of original features. We had a large living room, a dining room of similar size, and two large bedrooms, with the third bedroom being so small, it was used as a study. There was a small neat garden, and parking was on-street, with no garages. This was a very sought-after area, a stones throw from the famous tennis courts, with an underground station nearby, and Wimbledon main line only fifteen minutes walk. We considered it to be an excellent place to live, and the house to be substantial, and desirable.
The first student was somewhat underwhelmed. We had no en-suite bathroom for her use, and no bidet. She thought the house was ‘small’, and her bedroom ‘basic’. I explained to her (in good French) that she could consider herself lucky to be here, but she was unimpressed. It was only after a few days, that she realised her good fortune, as her classmates described being accommodated in shared rooms, in bunk beds, with up to three other children, mostly very young. We could not warm to her. She was sulky and withdrawn, spending all her spare time in her room. There was no point attempting to use the weekends to broaden her experience, as she declined to go anywhere with us, which meant that we had to stay home. At the end of her time with us, we were pleased to see her go, and doubtful that we wanted to continue. The school asked us to try again, saying that they had someone much livelier, and that it would be more rewarding. The second girl was a nightmare. She thought that she was a punk, and acted as if she was. After one day, I managed to ascertain that she was from a very affluent bohemian background in Paris. She lived in a huge apartment in a fashionable area of that city, with her own two rooms, separate bathroom, and the home had servants as well; a housekeeper, and a cleaner. Indulged by her habitually absent parents, she more or less behaved as she liked, an attitude she brought to our home.
Talking to her in the evenings, when she could be bothered to interact, I found out some interesting facts. As well as the fees for studying English, the parents were paying almost £150 a week for meals and accommodation. This was more than three times what we were receiving. We later discovered that this girl was stashing all the packed lunches we gave her under the bed, as she did not like the bread, or the fillings, but did not want to say so. She was unhappy generally, almost never saw her parents, and had her own bank account, buying and spending whatever she wanted. She was a spoiled rich kid, in every sense of the word. Her English was appalling, and she made no effort to improve, alleging that our accents were impenetrable. This could not be said of my wife, who spoke and enunciated perfectly, with what we English would call a ‘posh accent’. I was having to speak French constantly, and although this actually improved my skills, this was far from the point of the exercise. The climax came, when my wife went to change the bed. Thinking to turn the mattress for comfort, she found the underside completely stained by blood, as the girl had simply had her period over a few days, before turning it herself; at no time bothering to explain the situation to my wife, or bothering to sleep in pads. We had to involve the school, who removed the girl, before paying for a new double mattress, with some reluctance.
We advised them that we would not be taking any more students, as it was simply not worth the effort. The man came to see us, and pleaded with us to take one more, for two weeks, as he had already arranged it. He pledged to deal with any issues, and offered us an increase in the fee. With some trepidation, we eventually agreed. The last girl was so different from the others, and we took to her within minutes. She spoke good English, and wanted to as well. She had a lovely demeanour, a friendly personality, and she literally lit up our lives. This sixteen year old girl was from Marseille, so she did not have Parisian street cred, or the attitude that went with it. She was not only keen to learn, she wanted to be part of our life, and to go out with us, meet our families, and participate in social events. Despite the fact that her father was an important official in local government, and she lived in a luxurious apartment outside the city, she loved our suburban house, and fitted in perfectly with our lifestyle. She was soon accompanying us to the cinema, and to restaurants, also meeting friends, and going shopping with my wife. Although we were only ten years older, she became like a cherished daughter to us.
At the end of her stay, we were sorry to say farewell to her, and invited her to return, as a non-paying guest. We informed the language school that we were very happy with her, but that we would not be staying on their books, as one out of three was not worth it. The next year, she came back to visit us, this time for four weeks, as a treasured friend. The year after, we went to stay with her and her parents, in their lovely flat in Marseille. They laid on a wonderful programme of events for us, and we had a marvellous time. The following year, we rented a gite in Brittany, and she came up to stay with us, for two weeks. Our friendship was sealed. I am happy to report that I am still friends with her today, After three marriages, and long absences, we have never lost touch, and never neglected our friendship. She is now fifty years old, looks thirty, and is as vivacious as ever. I also stayed with her in 1990, in her flat in Paris, where she moved for her job. She lives there to this day, now married to a successful lawyer, with two sons. She runs her own company, and retains her wonderful bubbly personality. I last saw her before I moved to Norfolk, and it was as if we had met the previous week.
So, taking in the foreign students had its ups and downs. In her case, it was an up; one that lasted a lifetime.