Sticks in the mind

“We are all going as a family to the swimming pool today, Alex, you will love it,” said Michael, his German friend.

So there he was, 15 years old, naked, in a public sauna in Germany, with Michael and Michael’s mother, father and older sister, also all naked.  Nude.  Undressed.  He didn’t know where to look.

Six months earlier Alex’s German teacher had announced that this year’s exchange programme was going ahead as usual, and consisted of two weeks in Germany with a host family during the Easter holiday, followed by two weeks in the summer in England when your exchange partner would stay with your family.  There would be 20 places on the exchange, first come first served.  There was a minimum charge for travel expenses and day trips, and some spending money would be needed, but that was it.

The other thing was that there would be 20 girls from another school nearby on the exchange too.  His best friends at school were up for it.  He was up for it, and he managed to talk his parents into it pretty easily:  they were committed Europeans and keen for him to speak languages and be international.  This was going to be one hell of an adventure.

Alex was a clever, but very shy teenager, a bit of a loner.  This exchange was a daunting prospect but also exciting.  His German would get better, he would get a trip abroad, he would be with his friends.  Perfect.  What he had not realised was that this experience would change his life in so many ways.

The time in Germany was great, but he did feel homesick a few times, particularly when there was no group trip arranged for a particular day or evening.  He stayed with the family of Michael, a German boy of his own age, whose parents were older than his own.  Michael’s father had been a prisoner of war in Wales, and could say nothing bad about the Brits.  They had a big house in Koblenz and Alex spent a lot of time in the guest room which was in the attic.  They would meet up with Michael’s friends from school, but he had trouble keeping up with the German when they spoke so fast.  But he loved the group trips.  They went down the Rhine on a boat, they visited Koln and its famous cathedral and a huge record shop called Saturn where he bought his first album ever (Fleetwood Mac, Rumours), they saw vineyards, and the capital Bonn.  Friendships grew with his British chums, and some started with the girls too.

After the exchange, back in Kent, the British students stayed together as a large group, girls and boys, and his social life went from zero to a whirl in no time.  His shyness, especially around girls, was a thing of the past.  He was happy, for the first time as a teenager.  Looking back he would realise that this was the biggest impact of that exchange programme.

At the time of course, the sauna experience was the only thing he could think or talk about for months.

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