Me and Karen
In the summer of 1982, when I was fifteen, I went on an exchange with a girl called Karen, spending two weeks with her and her family in Montreal; afterwards she came to stay with me in England. Two weeks isn’t a very long time and thirty-three years is quite a while ago, but I was at an impressionable age and many of the people, events, and locations from that trip have stayed with me.
Although my exchange family lived in Montreal, I flew into Toronto, and after they had picked me up from the airport we stayed overnight in Niagara Falls. Karen and I shared a room with a double bed where we discovered that we could put a coin in a slot to make the bed jiggle. We spent all her parents’ spare change and I’ve never laughed so much with someone I’d only just met.
The first boy I kissed was a Canadian. I can remember his name and that we wrote to each other for a while after I returned home, but I’ve said that fact so often – that the first boy I kissed was Canadian – I no longer remember the kiss, just the telling of it.
I have a huge soft spot for Canadian accents. In my thirties I went out with an oboe-playing, London-living Canadian for a short time, but I liked him best when we spoke on the phone and I could only hear his voice.
As much as I loved the way Karen and her friends spoke, they seemed to like the way I talked, and would ask me questions just to hear my British accent. English voices are probably no longer exotic in Montreal, but back in 1982 they couldn’t get enough of how I said a cup of tea please, Buckingham Palace, and isn’t it a lovely day. I also learned very quickly to say that the dinner ‘was good’ to Karen’s mother, rather than ‘it was very nice, thank you’.
I ate hot dogs for the first time in Montreal and learned to love that mild and vinegary North American mustard. At the other end of the cultural food scale I had my first eggs Benedict in Canada. The eggs were cooked by Karen’s mother in the family’s lake-side cabin. I couldn’t get enough of those eggs. Even now they’re my first choice if I see them on a breakfast menu.
In the cabin, Karen and I learned all the words to ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ by Peter, Paul and Mary. We lay on our stomachs in front of the record player and listened to the track over and over, writing down the lyrics and then singing them everywhere we went. I have no idea why.
When I travelled I went with a group of other exchange students, but I did the return journey alone, again flying from Toronto even though I had been staying in Montreal. It wasn’t until I was at the airport that I realised I had left my passport behind – more than five hours’ drive away. In those days you didn’t have to show your passport when you got on a plane, you only showed it when you disembarked, so I spent the whole of that flight sick with worry that I would be arrested or deported at the other end. Of course, I wasn’t.
I hope one day I’ll return to Canada and eat eggs benedict in a lake-side cabin. It had better be remote though; I don’t think anyone would want to hear me singing.
Claire Fuller is a co-director of a marketing agency specializing in marketing communications. She is also an artist and sculptor and has published several short stories. She recently completed an M.A. in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of Winchester. She lives in Winchester, England. Our Endless Numbered Days is her first novel.