It was going to be a difficult week – or so I was told. Our niece, now 16, was coming to stay with us in France. It involved quite a complicated journey and beforehand there were endless texts and phone calls from her Dad (her parents are divorced) to check everything was allright. Finally I spoke with Anna herself. She has been coming to stay every year since she was around 5, so we know her well. But this time was going to be different.
Her father kept hinting at difficulties, and in my conversation with her she warned outright – ‘I am a difficult teenager’. I did not respond, so next it was ‘I am a very very difficult adolescent’. I said how much I was looking forward to the challenge and in response the threat went up a gear – ‘You should know that I am very difficult indeed!’ I reminded her how I had had three children of my own and thought I could manage. Privately I wondered what to expect, but left it at that.
My wife and I met her off the plane. The last time we saw her she was a slightly shy ‘emo’ looking to us like a ‘goth’; clothing black, hair black, mascara heavy, and rings and buckles with skull motifs. Now things had changed. There she was coming through the customs – taller, assured, gangling, and looking cold. She had shortish hair dyed streaky ginger-copper and hanging over her eyes. Her blue jeans were ripped, her tea shirt décolleté, and her shoes more like beach-ware. Were these the clues we needed?
Then, as of old, she ran towards us and gave us both hugs. No change there then. And as it turned out she spent the whole week being charming, amusing, helpful and considerate. By the end of the first day I had had enough. I told her she was proving a disappointment – she was not difficult at all. She vowed to try harder next day but the threat never materialised. In fact, nothing changed, she was the perfect guest. Mealtime discussions were fascinating as we talked about politics, sexual orientation, personal relationships/families, education, careers (she wants to be a criminologist) and the media. And for an adolescent she was so aware. In addition to chats she helped with the gardening, went swimming and horse riding, bought material and made a waistcoat and planned and helped cook a ‘secret’ birthday meal.
It is true that in the evenings, and suddenly at other times too, she sat glued to her laptop in deep, unjoltable, ‘conversation’ with her best friend. Her ears would close as she entered this other world. But of course we were similar; Rohan would enter her own world as she curled up with a book or tackled the day’s sudoko or crossword. I would do the same working on my French homework or writing a blog. The parallels in our behaviours were obvious.
But despite all Anna’s maturity there was a welcome lack of sophistication. She shouted with delight as the waves knocked her over. Went from apprehension to assuredness when sitting on the horse. Hooted and whirled when she tried on her (perfectly fitting) waistcoat. And for me particularly warming, she smiled with internal satisfaction when struck by a new notion – clearly she was fascinated by the fact that newspapers have a political bias.
After 6 days she left. Not a difficulty in sight. Indeed, as a challenging adolescent she let me down. But what got into her to warn us as she did? Who is out there being so undermining? If her generation is going to look after our future, I would be delighted.