TO send your children halfway around the world to learn a new language in a geographically and culturally distant place requires quite some doing – especially financially, if you have chosen an upscale language school and decided to send your kids off for six whole months.
It also requires much effort on behalf of the students themselves, especially if they have never left their country before – Panama, in this case – nor have ever flown before. Ever. To go from gentle car journeys around Panama City to a long haul flight that ends in chilly Northern Europe is quite a thing, arriving by taxi in the cold and dark to an unknown household. Ours.
You would think, then, that once the jet lag had worn off, these intrepid students, having travelled so far for the first time in their lives, would be keen to explore their new environs. You’d be wrong. The two 20-year-old best friends, all dark hair, golden limbs and flashing eyes, never leave their room. It becomes like having pet rabbits – peeping shyly, they emerge nocturnally to feed, then return to their room again, where they remain for 16 hour stretches, on their iPads.
Unlike pet rabbits, they don’t chew through any electrical cables, but they might as well do, because they are Skyping their families all the time, sucking the Wifi out of the rest of the house, messing with my kids’ illegal downloads and my own ability to watch Orange Is The New Black horizontally in bed. As our own screens stutter and freeze, you can hear raucous disembodied male noises coming from the tiny room the students share, which is slightly disconcerting until you remember it is the sound of a Panamanian grandad laughing 8,500kms away.
Soon they have our dogs Skyping Panama too. I come home to find the Rottweiler looking quizzically into the iPad, trying to lick the screen, as the students shriek a Spanish commentary about her age, likes and dislikes, rather like internet dating. Out of the tablet comes more disembodied Panamanian laughter. The dogs put their heads to one side, not quite knowing what to do next.
I know how they feel. Outside, it is the hottest day of the year, and the whole town is on the beach. The students remain indoors with the blinds down. The fancy language school has promised students exist within an non stop social whirl, like a speeded up United Colors of Benetton advert, yet ours have barely left the house in months. It’s not that we don’t like them – they really are as sweet as bunny rabbits – but they still can’t speak any English, or have seen anything beyond our walls.
Finally, three months into their stay, they go to a nightclub. “How was it?” I ask. “Too noisy,” they say, as they rebooting their iPads.
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