There is not much space on the pavements of Bath in the summer months. The reason for the crush is that the city is blooming with language schools for the well-heeled youth of continental Europe. They elbow us into the streets but they also bring employment and money. So when someone dropped a leaflet through my council house door inviting me to offer lodging to a foreign student, I was tempted to join the gravy train.
My friends were already on to this—squash your children into one room, sleep in the dining room yourselves—and, hey presto, money towards that better car or holiday. Or in my case, after years of unemployment and a spell as a mature student living off loans, money towards reducing the household debt.
Our children were keen to have their own students, all their friends had them, but we adults had our doubts. We have only two bedrooms and no dining room; the award-winning planners who designed our house saw fit to do without an entrance hall and so all doors open on to the living room. Where would we sleep? The arrival of another bank statement decided the issue—all five of us in one room and the students in the other.
I made a couple of enquiries and found myself immediately booked up: the language schools were desperate to place their students in an already saturated city. We resisted the temptation to redecorate the house and settled instead for a week’s cleaning and tidying. With one bedroom emptied of furniture except bed, table and a chest of drawers and the other jammed with wall-to-wall beds, bunks and boxes, we were at last ready to play host to a succession of wealthy juveniles.
Veronica from Barcelona came first, arriving in the heaviest downpour of the year. I never stopped feeling personally responsible for the weather during her stay. She also cowered away from our small, well behaved dog and revealed she was petrified of animals. The cat caused her to leap to her feet every time it came into the room. Even the rabbits gave her the shudders.
Her second revelation was that she would only eat meat—no vegetables, no fruit, no cereals or pulses, just meat. Since poverty forces us into permanent vegetarianism this promised to be difficult. What kind of meat did she want? Beefsteak is what she ate at home and that is what she wanted here—oblivious to our world famous mad cows.
Her third revelation was that she was allergic to dust. In Spain, she told me, they do not have carpets as carpets harbour dust. I was aware that my house is not the most spotless in Europe—and now I had the honour of my nation to uphold—so I spent my days hoovering and cleaning. It was only towards the end of her stay that I noticed she had not sneezed or wheezed once since she had been in the place.
Before Veronica left I was given the chance to swap my resentment for pity when she told me her life story. Her parents hated children. They lived in a flat where her mother worried constantly about burglars, killed any houseplants that found their way there and fed the family on sandwiches (beefsteak ones?).
I waved goodbye to Veronica and rushed the gaudy bedding through the washing machine for the next student—one down, two to go. Jürgen arrived from Munich, the antithesis of Veronica, tall, blond, and likeable. He loved the food I served him and assured me he would eat anything except crayfish. He immediately started retraining the dog in German, but he also adored the children and spent a good part of his stay with the youngest lounging around on his lap. He even stayed at home in the evenings, so enchanted was he with family life. Before his fortnight was out, he revealed something was rotten in the state of Bavaria: just like Veronica, life at home was far from happy. He put it down to Bavaria’s excessive materialism. I had the impression that our hard-up family personified all he felt prosperous Germany lacked: we had children we could not afford, pets, a scruffy little house, no colour television and yet we were not obviously miserable.
Our third student, another Bavarian called Josef, also told us how rich everyone was at home. “Everyone?” I asked. “What about your family’s cleaning woman?” Well, he conceded, not quite everyone. He told us the price of everything that came into the conversation—his family’s house, the three cars they owned— even how much this holiday was costing (we discovered how small a share of it we were getting). We began to see what Jürgen meant.
After seven weeks, the occupation was over. For a while we missed the students, but they had done nothing for the bank balance, and we were all relieved to get our bedrooms back and to speak normally again, without the need for slow enunciation and explanatory gesturing. It took rather longer to get over feeling like the peasants of Europe. No more students for us.