We invited Dave and Jean, first time hosts in 2008, to reflect on their experience of hosting in 2008 - here are their thoughts.
It was one of those moments that could have gone either way.
For the second time in a fortnight, two little girls, thousands of miles from home, stood slightly wide-eyed in a new home, with people they didn't know, and whose language they didn't speak.
Almost every aspect of life in the UK was different to life at home. Yet within 30 minutes we were in the garden playing football with a huge pilates ball (quite unsuitable for football) - something which generated gales of hysterical laughter and was a great ice breaker.
From that point onwards, we were going to be fine.
It wasn't the first time they had visited us. Jane and Mark, experienced CCLL folk, had hosted them for the first fortnight, and Jane had brought them round one evening to see our house - something which we'd recommend to all first and second fortnight hosts. Jane was also a mine of useful information and advice.
We soon learned that we had girls with very different family lives and personalities.
Serious Maria came (we discovered) from a more religious family. She returned from the group nail-painting session with no painted nails (we suspected her parents may not have approved). Fun-loving Anja had already decided that she was going to be a heart-breaker, and not surprisingly her nails were imaginatively decorated. When we bought them sunglasses, Maria selected hers by putting them on and looking down the aisle of the store to work out what she could see; Anja made the judgement by checking herself out in the mirror (!)
If you sat in an armchair to watch TV, Anja would join you in the chair, whilst Maria would sit on her own. Anja found it amusing to rearrange Dave's hair style whilst he watched TV, something Maria would clearly never have done. Anja was loud - sometimes very, very LOUD; Maria was quiet and studious, thoughtful and intelligent. Maria was protective, Anja adventurous.
Despite the differences, they had become good friends (they had the same surname - a coincidence - but hadn't known each other well prior to the visit). We'd given them a bedroom each, but they soon settled into one (alternating between rooms throughout the fortnight, presumably for the novelty value!)
They loved swimming, and we visited several local pools in the fortnight. It was hugely satisfying that their swimming improved noticeably, but both girls were determined learners, setting themselves ambitious distance targets and achieving them. Maria was comfortably cracking-off widths by the time they left, with Anja not far behind.
Indeed, it was the simple things they seemed to enjoy most. The view from Box Hill drew 'oohs' and 'ahs', and ballgames in the garden were high on their priority list. They watched a Rowan Atkinson movie (several times, by vocal demand), Lazytown (a children's TV programme - again, a DVD containing six episodes was viewed several times) and home movie shows with people falling off things (the latter generating breathless laughter and requiring multiple replaying of the best bits).
They figured out how to use the TV, the DVD and the car's satnav, each in about three seconds flat, as children will. They were fairly confident on Dave's lap top (and in the entire fortnight, he only had to call his company's IT manager once to solve a child-induced problem!)
They were fascinated by the car's electric sunroof, and soon discovered that you could unlock the car and open the boot from 50 yards away with the key fob. From then on, they took it in turns to open the boot whenever we returned to the car, regardless of whether we needed to use the boot or not.
Their attitude to health issues spoke of a tough society in which access to medical care was not necessarily easily available, or expected. Maria and Dave were playing badminton in the garden when she suddenly stooped, picked up something tiny from the grass, held it up to the light to examine it, shrugged, threw it in the undergrowth, and carried on playing.
Dave wanted to know a little more … and discovered that she had lost a tooth. They were a bit old for milk teeth and this needed checking out. We phoned Natalia, the Belarusian Group Leader, and the three-way conversation went as follows:
Have you lost a tooth ?
Does it hurt ?
Is it uncomfortable ?
Do you want to see the dentist ?
Do you want to lie down quietly for a bit ?
OK, what do you want to do ?
Go back in the garden and play badminton with Dave.
For some days afterwards Natalia teased us, and told us we 'have to stop worrying - they are fine !'
Maria was also car sick on the way back from the trip to Hollycombe Steam Fair. Bless her, it was all done with so little fuss. Our support, Coral, was sat in the back with the children and noticed that she had gone a bit white. We pulled in, Maria vomited neatly into a box, and two minutes later she was clearly slightly puzzled as to why we didn't just get on our way. We set off, sedately, and shortly, she and Anja were happily singing in Russian - something they did a lot in the car, and which was charming. We seldom used the car's entertainment system.
The girls' behaviour was impeccable throughout; they were very 'easy' children to have in the house. Once they understood what it was you wanted them to do, they did it, period. Even if they didn't want to do it, it was (pretty much) always done, and always with good humour. No tantrums, no obstinate disobedience, no crafty attempts to get their own way.
Having said that, we did need to learn the cultural differences (but Maurice's guidance and advice was superb, and we were well prepared). Anja, in particular, was vocal in her likes and dislikes. If she was presented with food which she didn't want we were given her opinion in three languages - Russian, English, and Universal Child-speak ("Nyet, nyet, nyet, Jean, no, no, no ….. eeeugh, yeuch, yuerrrr!!!!"). At least you knew where you stood.
As we'd been warned, both girls would leave the table as soon as they had finished eating. We were relaxed about this and saw no point in imposing 'British behaviour' for two weeks of their lives, but amusingly they sometimes remembered that this was not the British way and came back to ask permission to leave again (!)
The wider urban world was a revelation to them. They had never seen escalators (so when we came across one, we had to use it for the sake of using it, until we felt the eyes of store security staff boring uncomfortably into us!) Elevators also required multiple use and advanced instructions in pressing the buttons.
They were simply not 'street savvy' in the way a Surrey child would be - they had no intuitive understanding of how to weave through a crowd (intensive crowding at Waterloo station brought them to a complete stop - they were quite incapable of making progress until we led them). We had a strict 'holding hands' rule in town and near roads and crowds, and the girls were fine about this.
So as first time hosts, how did we find it ?
Well for start, we were naïve. Two children in the house for a fortnight ? No problem. If that's your view, forget it. Even if you get on well with the children, as we did, and even they are well behaved, as ours were, it's much more exhausting than looking after your own children. Don't underestimate the demands it will make upon you.
You have to watch them every second, and be very alert (particularly when you are out and about). You can't assume that their reactions or behaviour will be predictable, or even (by British standards) sensible. Our two never once meant any harm, but they were occasionally naïve enough to get themselves into trouble inadvertently had we not been there. These kids do not understand the way big cities work.
Communication is made a lot easier thanks to Maurice's superb and highly professional work on translation tools and Russian lessons. How people in other branches manage without this calibre of language support is beyond us - but it is still tiring. Even communicating simple things can sometimes be time consuming. Our advice to new hosts in 2009 would be to take everything Maurice has to offer - it's all good. We had long conversations with all of us sat on the sofa, using Google translator on the lap top (lots of giggling at strange translations, but it does work), and Maurice's lists of common phrases were blown up to A3 size, taped to walls both upstairs and downstairs, and used extensively as a handy reference.
We had lots of fun, and the house was full of laughter for two weeks. We can't emphasise this enough - even seeing things anew, through their eyes, was refreshing and great fun.
Our support, Coral, was brilliant, in every respect. Despite having a family member in hospital at the time she was a terrific help and joined us on several trips, as well as having the children visit her at home.
We loved most of the organised events, and probably because we're both football fans, we'll always fondly remember frantically cheering for Belarus when 'our' children took on a well organised, well trained team of English youngsters on Cheam recreation ground.
CCLL is incredibly well organised and led by grounded, practical people with bags of experience and common sense. You never feel 'on your own'. The website and forum, which Philip runs, was such an important tool; he must have sat late into the night sometimes putting that day's pictures on the web - but for our two, it became a pleasant nightly ritual to check-out the latest snaps. We heard that some of the Belarusian parents were also able to log on to the site, and that must have been reassuring for them
For us, exchanging anecdotes, advice and views with other hosts and supports on the forum was also surprisingly important.
We've made good new friends, and enjoyed the company of everyone involved (CCLL by its very nature attracts likeable people). Philip and Liz can't do enough to help - here's a typical example: we'd turned down the offer of loaned bikes, but one day the girls wanted to cycle, so we called and asked if there was any chance …. Liz apologetically told us that we'd have to wait 30 minutes because Philip needed to change a tyre! We felt quite strongly that Philip and Liz were very quick to recognise the contribution of others, yet their own (astonishing) contribution was so clearly pivotal to the success of the visit.
For the children, this was a life-enhancing experience. But it must have taken courage for them to travel thousands of miles from home - far more courage than it took us to open our home to them. It was about them, not us, but in the end, we believe we benefited as much, if not more, than they did.
You're probably well advised not to get emotionally involved, but in the real world, that's easier said than done. For two weeks, you share all their little trials and tribulations, and they are much more reliant on you than an English child would be. We did become attached to our two, and we know other hosts felt the same.
As the fortnight drew to a close, we thought they were ready to return home. But for us, there was a final twist in the story. Socially-assured Anja, who was so affectionate and tactile throughout, took it in her stride, and was even heard poking fun at the emotion evident amongst hosts and supports on the day they left.
But quiet, reserved, self-composed, self-contained Maria didn't. In the last two days, she suddenly became clingy and emotional. In the final minutes of parting, when the girls were settled on the mini bus, Anja chatted happily and excitedly to her friends, giving us an occasional wave, but Maria pushed her fingers through an open sliding window, anxious to hold our hands for the last time.