Debbie left school at 16 and had dreams of becoming a chef. After completing a BTEC National Diploma in Hotel and Catering, she secured a 12-week job working in a hotel near Avignon. It would be the first time she was away from her family for more than a week.
‘I’d spent all of my life in the UK, apart from two weeklong visits via ferry to northern France [with school]. I was quite sheltered. So just the thought of having an exciting trip to somewhere different felt like an adventure.
‘It was my first time on a plane, and I was flying on my own. That was a bit scary. I asked the flight attendant, “Is this the flight to Montpellier?” and she said, “Well, that’s where we’re going”. I felt so stupid.
‘I was nervous about everything – if people would understand me, only having GCSE French, if I would understand other people. And I didn’t really have much catering experience.
‘Once I got going, I found you don’t have to be nervous, because everything has a way of working out. I was braver than I thought – I never thought of myself as very courageous. And I was really homesick to start with, but that did pass.
‘It was so formative. That sounds really cliché, but clichés are there for a reason. It made me realise I could just decide to do something, and do it.
After Debbie returned to the UK, she decided against a career in catering. She went on to complete her A’ Levels and then studied French and Portuguese at Oxford University.
‘I’d always been interested in languages, but having that experience in France certainly influenced my choice of degree. And I think it helped me get into university.’
Debbie now lives and works in Porthcawl as an editor and proofreader. Her trip to Avignon is still influencing her, years later.
‘It made such an impression that I’m now writing a novel based in that area. The negative things – the homesickness, people not understanding you, feeling embarrassed – form your character. They make you stronger. And those things I fed into my book. So you can turn the negatives around and make them into a positive.’
‘I’m still in touch with a really good friend I met out there. I got so much out of my trip, but even if I just got that one thing – a French friendship – it was worth doing.’
‘It’s never going to be as bad as you’re thinking. Just take one step at a time. Because if you think “I’m going away for the whole summer” and then “What if? What if?” you’ll never go.
‘Think ahead to how you’ll feel in six months’ time, a year’s time, when it’s all out the way. You can look back on it and say, “Wow, I did that”.’