In honour of St George’s Day, here’s a short tale of this Englishwoman embarrassing herself abroad. Again.
I was on a disastrous gap year placement in Sri Lanka. In an induction meeting on our first day the gap student group of us we were told that “anyone with matching luggage won’t last”. The formidable woman leading the session pointed out to the pile of bags in the hallway, my embarrassingly shiny matching silver suitcases conspicuous among the sea of beaten up khaki knapsacks. I slumped down in my chair, hoping nobody had seen me wheel them in.
“Whoever THOSE belong to….they’ll be gone within a couple of weeks” she predicted, coldly.
She wasn’t wrong. But that’s a story for another time.
During my – short – stint in Sri Lanka I was working as a junior journalist for Colombo’s Daily News. I was a wide-eyed 19 year-old and didn’t speak one paltry word of any of the national Sri Lankan languages.
To say I was ill-prepared for the role of a foreign journalist was to put it mildly. So thank you for being so mild.
One afternoon I was sent to a press conference – that would be broadcast live on national TV – so I could make notes and write up a report for the next day’s paper.
As I arrived, alone, the press conference was a hubbub of activity. An official-looking man asked where I was from and – rather than saying “I’m from The Daily News” like a good journalist would – I ACCIDENTALLY said “I’m from England”.
I didn’t see the problem in my reply until I was ushered into my seat.
My seat right at the front of the room.
My seat with a little placard in front of me that said “Great Britain”.
My seat where – as I looked up – I could see that I was sat in the middle of a panel of five or six people and the cameras were aimed at us.
THEY THOUGHT I WAS THE BRITISH AMBASSADOR.
I was slotted into a little empty space like the one above
But I didn’t have time to correct anyone. The lights on the cameras were flashing red and before I could shout out “I should NOT be on TV people!! I should be stood right at the back! I’m not even a proper journalist let alone an ambassador! I’m a teenager!” – the questions began.
I must have looked something like this…
Or maybe it was more of a Roy Hodgson look
I didn’t understand a WORD. Yes, it was hurriedly translated into English but it was also a very complicated political debate. I would have struggled just to make notes at the back…let alone offer deep, ambassadorial comment.
I was GENUINELY TERRIFIED that if I was to utter one wrong word I might inadvertently start a war on behalf of Queen and country.
I managed to get through the whole thing by doing some well-placed nods and smiles and “hmmmms”, trying with ALL my might to give over the impression that whatever they were debating the UK’s response was a definitive “No war, thank you!”.
I never got to see myself on TV. I didn’t have a TV in Sri Lanka plus I WOULDN’T HAVE KNOWN TO PRESS RECORD WHEN I LEFT THAT MORNING. I had no idea of the absurd TV debut I was going to make.