The die was cast from the very first time I was taught how to say, ‘je m’appelle Déborah’ at primary school. I became an instant Francophile and progressed through the language to the heady heights of, ‘la plume de ma tante’, ‘le petit bébé est un peu malade’ and ‘un bon vin blanc’ in no time.
Before I knew it, it was time to fly the nest and without hesitation I made straight for Paris where I spent six months as an au pair, living life in a true coming-of-age Audrey Hepburn movie-style experience.
I only returned to England to read French at Uni, hoping it would set me up for a life-long connection with la belle France. With such waxing lyrical, you’d be forgiven for assuming that I’m writing my memoirs from my bijoux home in Provenance wearing a beret, smoking Gauloises, eating Camembert and other such stereotypes.
Mais non mes amis, nothing of the sort.
I was a naive dreamer with no idea that this was but a youthful folie and that life would eventually take me in a totally different direction. There was no doubt I was inexperienced and there were many firsts coming my way.
The final year of my degree was to be spent abroad putting my French into practice. Having spent the previous three summers in Paris, I decided it was time for a change and opted for Brussels where I managed very jammily to get myself an internship at the RTBF, the television station serving Belgium’s Walloons (French speakers) and sister company of the VRT who serve the Dutch speaking other half of Belgium.
Bear in mind that not only was the Eurostar yet to be invented but I was also an impoverished student, so with a cheery goodbye to Blighty I headed off on the overnight coach from Victoria bound for my first visit to Belgium.
Looking very much the damsel in distress with just one small bag, I was befriended on the coach by a middle-aged lady who was heading back to her Brussels home. When she realised I was hoping to find a hostel that night to check in to and had no plans for what to do for the remainder of my lengthy stay, she gave me her number saying I could take a look at a student apartment she rented out that I could take if I liked.
All turned out well and I moved in the following weekend, sharing it with Regine, a lovely girl from the Ardennes region of the country. If there were any issue with my new abode it was simply the address.
I was now resident in a part of the city called Kunst-Wet.
Thankfully its meaning was far classier than one might think (Dutch for Arts-Law) but I never really eased into saying it without feeling I was the butt of a Belgian joke.
I had a fantastic time working on a number of TV shows while I was there and learned shed loads. Not just about the industry but also generally about things that hadn’t yet hit the UK in a big way.
One weekend, for example, Regine had invited me to travel down to Ardennes and hang out with her family. Some of her relatives were great fun, such as her actress-sister Delphine. Others, such as the deaf, farting Granny, I could have done without.
Delphine was about to appear on stage and her character required her to have a swarthy, Mediterranean look. For that reason she’d been given a relatively new cosmetic product known as ‘fake tan cream’ (I know, remember those days before it became something in everyone’s bathroom cabinet?) and told to apply some gently over the course of a week.
She looked good on it.
So good, in fact, that I couldn’t help wonder what I, a fair-skinned redhead, would look like with a bit of it. Finding it left out in the bathroom on the evening we were due to return to Brussels, I hastily smeared some on my face. I wasn’t too sure what I was doing, especially as I’d expected it to come out of the tube the colour it would end up once dry and was surprised to discover it was white.
Unconvinced something so white had the power to make me look tanned, I applied a second and third coat.
Within the hour we all set off in the car, arriving back in Brussels in the wee hours of the morning and hitting the sack straight away.
The following day was to be spent preparing for a dinner party that night. It was very exciting as it was being held at the home of one of Belgium’s top directors who I’d had the pleasure of working with and there would be a number of celebrities around the table (yes, if the question ever comes up at a pub quiz to name a famous Belgian apart from Inspector Poirot, I’m your man).
I woke up late and it was midday by the time I hit the bathroom.
It was two seconds past midday by the time I started screaming.
I looked Indian.
A redheaded, green-eyed, freckly Indian.
Delphine and Regine began banging on the door but I was too embarrassed to let them in.
It was a full hour before I’d let anyone see me, and then a further hour before they even showed a hint of stopping laughing.
It was hideous. I tried everything to calm my face down but not even rubbing lemon juice could help.
There was no way I was missing the dinner party of the year so I sent the girls out for white face powder and got my story straight for that night. I was going for a ‘just back from a little weekend ski trip where it had been inordinately sunny’ excuse.
The powder, clearly, had no effect whatsoever but I steeled myself and headed off.
They were a polite lot and, whether or not they actually believed it, they were at least sensitive enough not to pull me up the ski trip lie and ignored the fact that I had no tell-tale goggle lines.
Relieved at seemingly having got away with it, I relaxed into the evening and began regaling them with some hilarious – and totally fabricated – stories from being on the pistes.
Meanwhile, the starter came to the table, which included a new fangled food item that hadn’t yet reached the shores of the UK; the ‘cherry tomato’. A lover of both the cherry and the tomato, I was intrigued and went in for the largest one on the plate.
Still giddy with the excitement of being in such glamorous company and a little over-confident with how well my false skiing anecdotes were going down (I’d somehow become a master of black runs) I was mid-way through yet another story, totally lapping up the attention and paused momentarily to try the cherry tomato.
I bit into it as you would a cherry, taking half in my mouth. Unsurprisingly, the other half – as would a tomato that’s been bitten into – exploded spectacularly and immediately. It would have been bad enough had it splattered all over me but the victims were two of the lady celebrities who were sat opposite me, resplendent in pristine white dresses.
Red tomato juice, flesh and pips now dripped unapologetically from both of their décolletages.
An unmitigated disaster it may have been but, on the upside, the evening did provide me with a lesson in French vocab I was unlikely to ever hear in a classroom and for that I say, ‘merci’.