Saturday, 24 December 2016

Chapter 17 School trips abroad

Chapter 17

School trips abroad

It is, I think, impossible to overstate the extent to which school trips provide opportunities for personal development and growth. Travel, meeting people, experiencing different cultures and coping with various situations and circumstances all provide a stimulus for learning, evolution and the development of interpersonal skills. And that applies to the accompanying staff as much as it does to pupils!

Experience can make an almost subconscious (if, at times, painful) contribution to growth and development, and it can be difficult to analyse and quantify its effect. People accept it and move on often without realising and appreciating the impact an experience has had. However, people do recognise and recall the fun moments of experience and I have taken great pleasure in sharing amusing anecdotes of my travels with pupils in order to encourage them to seek their own moments of fun, experience and growth, and anecdotes from school trips are particularly appealing as pupils can identify with them and aspire to embark on their own school adventures.

In the French department we organised several trips, usually to France, and always by coach as it was the most economical way to travel, it was door to door, and the close proximity of all concerned added to the social element of the venture.

The driver (or drivers) plays an important role in the success (or otherwise) of a school trip. He plays an essential part not just in terms of the safety and security of the participants, but also in the general atmosphere. Drivers I have encountered have almost invariably been friendly, open and interested, and have always made a real contribution to the ambience on a trip.

On one of our early ventures our driver, Andy, was aware of the considerable distance we had to cover to reach the south-east of France, and in order to spare us the fatigue-inducing effects of such a long journey he tended to set a good and steady pace. He was a very good, smooth driver and we were unaware of excessive speed, but we did recognise and appreciate the good time he was making as we trundled along the motorways in Scotland, England and France.

At a payment booth on a motorway not too far from our final destination (with a police station immediately adjacent to it), the French police stopped us for a routine inspection. Andy went quite pale and became almost panicky when asked for his tachograph disc (which recorded the duration of our journey and the speeds at which we travelled). He gesticulated wildly and announced “Kaput!” (which I’m sure was appreciated by the French-speaking police) as he handed over the disc.

The look on the policeman’s face when he examined the disc and read the speed at which we had been travelling was something to behold – his mouth fell open and his eyes widened as he leaned in to the disc to verify what he had already seen two inches farther back, and he gasped.

I don’t know what the reading said, but the policeman looked up, fixed poor Andy in his sights and simply crooked his finger at him, inviting him to follow him as he stepped down from the coach.

Andy was led into the adjacent police station, and we were left without a driver.

Some ten minutes later, more than a little anxious about the situation and the fact we had forty pupils who should have been en route to a hot meal in their hotel and who were instead parked in a driverless coach outside a French police station, Arthur and I went in to the station to inquire what was happening.

Long story short, Andy was to pay an on-the-spot fine of the equivalent of £60 for speeding offences and he had responded by taking from his trouser pocket and slamming down on the sergeant’s desk the equivalent of 75p. It didn’t go down well.

We explained that we desperately needed our driver in order to transport our charges to their hotel where they were due to be fed. The authorities remained completely unmoved. Andy would be released after he had paid his fine, and not before.

Naturally, we continued to express our concern for our pupils and pointed out the consequences on them if we were not allowed to continue our journey, and soon, but all to no avail. They would not budge.

It was then that Arthur had a stroke of genius. He invited the police to keep our driver, but to provide us with another, and that did it! Clearly, they were not willing to go to these lengths and reconsidered the time and effort that was going in to obtaining a £60 fine. They produced a huge tome containing translations into umpteen foreign languages of useful phrases for such situations, dumped it unceremoniously inn front of Andy, found the right page and pointed to a sentence. He was receiving a warning – this time – and he was being released without charge.

Needless to say, there were celebrations among staff and pupils and Andy was extremely grateful, though he was somewhat taken aback when Arthur informed him of his gambit to gain his release as he was none too sure of just how serious Arthur was when he made the suggestion to the police ….

Andy was a very gentle, kind and sincere man who knew very little French. His vocabulary was restricted to “Oui”, “Non”, “Merci” and “Beaucoup”, but he was determined to make use of what he knew. So, when the waitress in the hotel brought him his soup one evening, he was pleased to be able to thank her, saying “Merci beaucoup.”

Unfortunately, due to a magnificent mixture of hesitation (or lack of confidence) and slight mispronunciation (or lack of awareness), he converted “Thanks very much” into “Thanks, nice bum”. Upon hearing this issue from his lips, I feared the worst – I imagined his tomato soup in his lap or in his face, but no …. the lady in question merely went slightly red, smiled appreciatively and gave a short and sweet little giggle. Clearly, she understood what had happened and what Andy had set out to say and chose not to embarrass him, though she did come over to me and suggested I inform Andy of his mistake, presumably in case he came across a waitress who was less understanding. He, of course, went the colour of his tomato soup when I told him of his inadvertent faux pas.

On arrival at the hotel we were all allocated rooms and Arthur and I set about distributing keys. Within two minutes Andy was back and asked for a different room as he needed to be near his coach (its security was his responsibility, and he had been given a room at the far side of the hotel. Arthur kindly offered to swap and he set off for what had been Andy’s room.

Once there, he checked that Andy hadn’t left behind any of his belongings and in so doing, he glanced under the bed. There, on the floor under the foot of the bed he spotted three polaroid instant photos. Curious, he picked them up and realised, to his horror, that a previous male occupant of the room had photographed himself in the full-length mirror attached to the room’s wardrobe. Why to his horror? Well, the previous occupant was naked and concentrated his photographic efforts on the middle section of his body, strategically placing a pair of large-rimmed black glasses to give the appearance of a face – bespectacled eyes above a nose, if you follow me.

The next morning, Arthur just couldn’t resist teasing the obviously innocent Andy and discreetly passed him the photos over breakfast, inquiring if he had left anything behind in his original room. The poor man just didn’t know what to say – misfortune seemed to be piling on misfortune on this trip, and he was just aghast until Arthur and I could contain our laughter no longer and we were able to reassure him he was in no way considered a suspect.

When travelling abroad, pupils can be a little disorientated and, naturally enough, they will seek what is familiar in order to gain reassurance, but may only find the unfamiliar. For example, before setting off on a trip, one pupil was shocked to discover she would not be able to watch “Top of the pops” on the Thursday evening, and declared she would take her own mini TV with her so she could watch it …., and in Chamonix a young lad approached a member of staff and inquired as to the whereabouts of the nearest R S McColl ….

We therefore attempted to provide background information before leaving, and prepared linguistically for numerous situations in which pupils might find themselves – buying food, drink, clothes, souvenirs, asking for directions or information etc. We prepared vocabulary and structures for several contexts and did role-play in the classroom during the weeks preceding the trip. I was therefore reasonably confident that most of our pupils would be able to get by in most common situations.

While visiting the south-east of France on one trip, we ventured into the north-west of Italy and entered the town of Aosta. The journey into the town centre was quite an adventure in itself as the streets were very narrow and of course we were travelling in a 48-seater coach. Our driver negotiated the “roads” brilliantly and eventually we made it to the charming and relaxing town square in the centre.

Our pupils were reassured to discover that most of the local shopkeepers spoke good French and so they would be able to communicate, and they set off in search of exotic souvenirs for their families.

Toward the end of the allotted “discovery time”, as I was enjoying an Italian coffee on the terrace of a café, one of my younger pupils approached me quite excitedly and said he had found what he wanted to buy, but lacked the confidence to make the purchase.

He wanted to buy a plate which was in a display case immediately below the counter in a shop just around the corner. Reducing the required vocabulary to a bare minimum, I reminded him of how to say various things and how to ask one or two questions – he only needed to know how to indicate what he wanted, ask the price, hand over the money and say thank you.

He was quite anxious, so I accompanied him into the shop which was filled to overflowing with souvenirs and fellow pupils. I could see the plate, exactly as he had described it, and I took up position about ten feet away so I was close enough to hear if he ran into any difficulties.

The young pupil positioned himself directly in front of the desired plate and looked across the counter. The shopkeeper arrived momentarily and asked (in French) if he could help the young lad.

The pupil looked at the plate and then raised his head to address the shopkeeper. I was proud of him already as he drew breath to speak.

“Uuuuhhhh”, he said loudly, pointing clearly at the plate.

“Aaaahhhh”, he added loudly, pointing at himself.

And then, the pièce de résistance – “Ooohhh”, he grunted as he shoved his right hand forward, containing every Italian banknote he possessed.

The shopkeeper carefully withdrew what the lad owed him and wrapped his plate with great care, and as he did so, I left the shop.

I was totally bemused – it shouldn’t have happened, but a successful transaction had taken place and communication had been achieved, yet I couldn’t help but feel a tad superfluous and maybe even a professional failure!

On a trip to Holland, we paid a visit to a theme park in nearby Germany. The big attraction, according to the kids, was a rollercoaster with a difference – it was enclosed and it ran in the pitch black. Most of the accompanying staff joined the kids in the queue and it took half an hour to reach the start point, during which time there was constant discussion of what we could expect, heightening anxieties and building tension and apprehension among those of us who disliked heights, darkness and the unknown.

I discovered that Arthur had a fear of heights. Quite an acute fear of heights. He wasn’t happy just climbing the stairways to reach the start point, and he fell almost completely silent – very rare for him.

As we advanced up the stairs, our group mingled with the other guests and so we were separated and placed in a variety of rows in the car when it came to our turn. I was fortunate enough to have a couple of pupils on either side of me (which I found strangely reassuring), and I turned around to see Arthur and another member of staff take their seats two rows behind. I gave Arthur a reassuring smile and he tried to do the same but only managed to produce a rictus-style grin which contained no sincerity whatsoever and indeed rather suggested a fear of imminent death. I noticed he also had a firm grip on the hand rail attached to the seat in front of him. Already.

And then we were off. Suddenly we flew forward and were launched into blackness. Our car climbed steeply at speed, banked abruptly, stopped sharply, and even reversed at one point, all accompanied by screams and calls of “Oh, my God!” I have to say, however, that the enclosed darkness was counterproductive in my case. I can only think that precisely because I couldn’t see anything I felt no genuine fear – there was no build-up of apprehension or dread, no surprise and no shock. I simply felt buffeted as I was transported up and down, right and left. I was more entertained by the reactions of those around me than by the experience itself.

Eventually we pulled in to the well-lit end point and I clambered out of my seat feigning terror and relief as the kids excitedly got out of the car and, noisily comparing moments of terror and fright, they headed for the exit and their next death-defying experience.

As the crowd cleared, I looked for Arthur and finally found him – still in his seat in the car, still wearing a rictus grin and still holding on to the hand rail in front of him, but his fingers had been so tensed up they were now virtually locked in place.

It was hard not to laugh as he gazed, unseeing, before him.

With encouragement from the rest of the staff, he finally managed to unclamp his fingers and exit the car. As we descended the stairway to ground level, he kept his left hand on the hand rail and said not one single word.

Once we were again on terra firma, Arthur went over to a fence surrounding a couple of trees and fumbled for a packet of small cigars and his lighter. I went over and asked if he was alright. He stared me straight in the eye, gave a slight shudder of his head to indicate “no”, and then managed to light his cigar. After a very long draw and an equally long exhalation, he looked at me again and burst out laughing. I was as relieved as he was!

On another trip to France, we decided to pop to Switzerland for a brief visit, if only because we could. We did a little sight-seeing and even stopped for a session in an ice-rink near Geneva, though I have to confess I remember very little about the whole sortie – I had other things on my mind ….

It was going to take two and a half hours to reach our destination in Switzerland from our hotel in the south-east of France, so it was decided to get up and set off early to give us a reasonable amount of time there. Before heading downstairs for breakfast, I laid my passport on the bed so that I wouldn’t forget it (I don’t have a good memory) when I returned to my room for a last-minute spruce-up before setting off for Switzerland.

After breakfast, which took a little longer than expected due to some pupils’ malingering in the bedrooms, the driver was anxious to get started, so we went straight from the dining room to the coach.

On the way, everything was going smoothly – there was lovely countryside to contemplate, it was chilly but remarkably sunny, the driver was coping with the twists and turns of the mountainous and panoramic routes, and the pupils were happily engaged in chatter or card games.

About halfway there and half an hour from the border, as I sat next to another member of staff, a very ugly and overwhelming thought hit me rather abruptly. I let out a totally involuntary and spontaneous oath which expressed my sudden panic and anger at myself as I realised I had left my passport on the bed in my hotel room!

It was far too late to go back. I felt terrible as I reckoned I had jeopardised the entire trip, though I quickly reasoned that in fact only I was affected and that if I was honest at the border I would simply end up kicking my heels at the border post for some four or five hours. However, my absence would also have a knock-on effect on excursion possibilities as we would be short-staffed. Although I am generally very honest, I felt I had to find an alternative to total honesty if I wasn’t to let everyone down.

As we approached the border post and Arthur started gathering the staff passports to present to the authorities along with the group passport for the pupils, I wondered how likely it was that they would check passenger lists and passports individually, or even that they would do a headcount, and I took action.

I got out of my seat and went to join a group of pupils about halfway up the coach. I didn’t want to arouse their suspicion (I was, after all, supposed to set an example AND it struck me that some members of our party might find it amusing to draw attention to me if they knew I was “on the run”), so I sat between two pupils and tried desperately to strike up a conversation or start a game of cards – anything to distract attention from the officials now boarding the coach.

Young people are not stupid. They may not have guessed exactly why I was among them at that particular time and place, but they knew something bizarre was going on. Nonetheless, they played my game and went along with my scheme as the officials looked swiftly at the passports, chatted jovially with the driver and even called out “Have a good trip” to all of us before they left the coach and allowed us to continue on our way.

Feeling mightily relieved, I made my excuses to the now clearly suspicious and curious pupils and re-joined the staff who were all highly amused at my situation.

I can recall very little of the excursion. I vaguely remember accompanying pupils to the ice-rink, but the whole time I was preoccupied with thoughts of my illegal status and my criminality – I just couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel room, or at least out of this country again!

On the return journey, I desperately tried to think what to do. I couldn’t repeat the same strategy – it was tempting fate, would be too obvious and the pupils would know for certain there was a problem. As we approached the border and Arthur once again collected the passports, I did the only thing I could think of and I headed for the on-board toilet. I know it’s obvious, but I was desperate (for a plan, not the toilet). As I made my way to the toilet there were winks, knowing smiles, giggles and a variety of comments. They knew, and I had to endure the embarrassment as I climbed down the steps and hid in the toilet.

The worst thing? The coach wasn’t even stopped – we were waved through and I had hidden for nothing. I heard a cry of “You can come out now, sir”, and I walked along the aisle to my seat accompanied by a few slaps on the back and any number of giggles.

Never have I been so glad to return to a hotel room and to see my passport. I have never forgotten it since.

In 2009 the school participated in an exchange with a secondary school in Brescia, in northern Italy. The Italian party came to us in March, attended various classes in the mornings and visited several landmarks in the afternoons. Although I accompanied the group on a couple of occasions, I wasn’t part of the organising team, but when a colleague fell ill I was invited to take her place on the return leg of the exchange. And so, in September we embarked on a highly enjoyable trip to Brescia.

The staff and pupils were very welcoming and organised all sorts of cultural activities and excursions for us. Two of us, Karen and myself, were given accommodation with an Italian teacher of English and her husband, Mariagrazia and Sergio. Sergio spoke little English, but what little he spoke was considerably better than my highly limited Italian. He was a social worker whose main hobby seemed to be singing. He was part of a choir and one of his ambitions was to perform in a large and prestigious venue such as the Teatro Grande, the Opera House in Brescia.

As it happened, the mother of one of the Italian exchange students worked in the Teatro Grande and kindly organised a tour of the newly-refurbished opera house for our group. It was a beautifully furnished and ornate building with lush red velvet seats and a huge stage. We were treated to an extensive tour and, as several of our party occupied the seats in one of the boxes, I couldn’t resist the temptation of exercising my powerful (if tremendously flawed) vocal instrument.

I made my way through the wings to the enormous stage and took my place in the centre. I was somewhat taken aback by the distance from the others in the box and I called out to them to check out the acoustics. I found we could converse at a perfectly normal level despite the distance and the angle. What fantastic planning and engineering had gone into the designing of that place.

When it came to singing a song, I realised there was really only one I had “rehearsed” enough to sing in such surroundings – Happy Birthday, so I launched into a vaguely operatic rendition of Happy Birthday and dedicated it to Mariagrazia whose birthday had fallen, by happy coincidence, just four days before. Needless to say, the event was captured on a number of mobile phone cameras and I left the stage a very happy man having sung on the stage of a famous opera house, and the “performance” can still be seen on YouTube.

Of course, I could barely contain myself when I saw Sergio and told him of my performance in the Teatro Grande. The poor man was a little upset as this was one of his great ambitions, yet this upstart foreigner had achieved that about which he had only dreamt. I did try to make him feel better by pointing out that I had only sung Happy Birthday – badly – to an audience of about eight, and they laughed at me!

A few days later, as we attended a farewell party for our group, Sergio and I stepped outside into the dark, chilly evening and sang a duet – our shortened version of “Nessun Dorma” (from Puccini’s “Turandot”, don’t you know). We gave it our all and encouraged one another to hold the final note as long as we could. Not only were we happy with ourselves, but a solitary drunken figure in a corner of the car park where we sang actually applauded us! I shall hold on to that moment of singing success forever …. no need to spoil it with the truth!

On one of the excursions, we made our way up an incline that wasn’t too steep but was very long, to be greeted at the top by a beautiful panorama which made the journey worthwhile. However, what I remember most is a brief conversation I had with a German tourist in a small open-air café which looked out on to the magnificent view.

After our efforts to reach this vantage point, Mariagrazia, a pupil called Rebecca and I felt the need for some refreshment so we ordered a couple of coffees and a coke, and sat next to a middle-aged German chap and his wife.

He heard us speaking English and clearly wanted to practise his reasonable, if fairly limited, English (though miles better than my smattering of German), and so he asked where we were from and what we were doing there. I provided the details, but he wasn’t sure where Imvergordon was, so I knew I had to give him a landmark he might recognise. People have nearly always heard of Inverness, but frequently can’t place it on a map, while if you mention Loch Ness there is usually a glimmer of recognition and a finding of geographical bearings.

And so, I told this German chap about our relative proximity to Loch Ness and his eyes lit up. He became quite animated and obviously had some knowledge of Loch Ness. I prepared myself for the usual conversation about the Loch Ness Monster, the arguments for and against its existence and its effect on tourism. He looked me in the eye and was struggling to find the vocabulary to express what he so clearly wanted to say.

“Loch Ness. I have read about this. It is where they have giant ….”

I didn’t really want to be rude and supply the missing word “monsters”, though he was taking so long to get there, I took a breath to say the word when suddenly he finished his own sentence.

“ …. potatoes!”

I was stunned and surprised, but most of all highly amused by this information that was so far removed from what I expected to hear. So surprised and amused that I couldn’t contain my laughter. I turned to Rebecca who had clearly thought along the same lines as I had and was struggling to stifle a laugh of her own, and the look on my face didn’t help.

The chap started to explain that he had read in some scientific publication about agricultural experiments that were taking place near Loch Ness, but I had to stop him to apologise for my reaction to what he had said. Fortunately, he had a good sense of humour and was equally amused when I explained what had tickled me. I never did make inquiries about those giant potatoes ….

During their time with us in Invergordon, the Italian group received some training in Scottish country dancing before taking part in a ceilidh held in their honour. They loved it and were very taken with the dynamic dancing involved and the social aspect of the event. Consequently, on our leg of the exchange they were keen to reciprocate and they organised an intense training session in traditional Italian dances led by professional dancers. This was followed by some social dancing involving the whole exchange group – pupils, staff and some parents. It took place one afternoon after lessons in the school courtyard.

Just as with singing, I have little (if any) talent for dancing, but what I lack in ability and fitness, I try to compensate with enthusiasm, so I threw myself into the dances in a bid to encourage others to join in and simply to help the event go well. However, my enthusiastic participation may have been a trifle excessive as, at the end of the session, a pupil approached me and advised me to have a shower, adding “You REALLY need one!” Frankly, I was more concerned by my wildly racing heart rate and the fact I struggled to catch my breath and could barely speak a full five minutes after the music stopped. As death seemed imminent, I couldn’t have cared less about my personal hygiene, but of course I eventually recovered and came to consider the sense of smell of others and had a shower at the earliest opportunity.

My only other dalliance with dancing came at the farewell party held the evening before our departure. Abundant food and light drinks were laid on and music was provided in the shape of disco equipment. But no-one was dancing – this group that had shared so many experiences and had helped one another get through homesickness, anxiety and apprehension to become more rounded, sympathetic and understanding young people just weren’t willing (or able) to cast aside their inhibitions to dance together at their farewell party, and I felt it was my duty to get the ball rolling ….

I had never done this before (and I am unlikely to ever do it again), but I got up on a table and started gyrating to the music in an attempt to break the ice. This is really not typical of me and I don’t know what made me do it, but I swivelled my hips and tried to produce elegant lines with my arms and hands to the best of my ability. Strictly Come Dancing it was not, and to my surprise and disquiet, my “dancing” did not have the desired effect and the pupils simply gathered around me to enjoy the spectacle of this teacher who was making a fool of himself! Fortunately, one or two eventually felt some pity and started swaying to the beat of the music and that was enough for me – I jumped down from my table-top and joined in with the others until I could discreetly withdraw altogether.

The things teachers do to inspire their charges ….

Incidentally, and rather embarrassingly, short footage exists of both these dancing interludes on YouTube.

There are, of course, many other memories of trips abroad such as the time I thought I lost 14 pupils on the second floor of the Eiffel Tower and spent 45 minutes hunting for them, only to discover they (and a member of staff) had taken the lift to the third floor without telling me.

There was the time a colleague, Sean, and I shared a room and couldn’t get to sleep as we recounted stories from the day and laughed so hard we had to resort to taking painkillers at 1 a.m. to rid ourselves of the headaches we had induced through intense giggling, and then nearly got another colleague banned from Holland when we shared some of our stories with a Passport Control officer as we left the country.

Or the time I crept up behind a pupil on a ferry as she sat next to her friend, and waited for her to turn and find my face just millimetres from hers to give her a fright, only to discover she wasn’t a pupil at all, but a member of the public who must have thought goodness knows what about my strange interpersonal habits!

Too many memories to bore you with here, but such memories only testify to the value (in so many ways) and lasting effects of school trips abroad.

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