Yannick Bolasie had never been to DR Congo until he made his international debut for the country.
He had never met his extended family or discovered the land of his parents. That time in Kinshasa was, he admits, ‘surreal’.
Two memories stand out for the winger, who is currently building a superb reputation for himself as perhaps the most skilful player in the Premier League with Crystal Palace.
The first was when he met his grandmother. The second was when he played for DR Congo in front of 80,000 fans. He had never been in a stadium that could hold more than 30,000 before.
It is no exaggeration to say it changed his life.
‘That trip opened my eyes to a lot of things.’
‘It was a really emotional moment,’ Bolasie says of that first trip in March 2013.
‘I was just like: “Ow, that’s my grandma”. I didn’t know what to say so I just went: “Hello, you alright?”
‘That was the first time we had ever seen each other in the flesh.
‘I made my international debut in front of 80,000 people in a goalless draw against Libya – the most I’d ever played in front of before that was 30,000 – and they were having a crazy party in the stands.
‘But that trip opened my eyes to a lot of things. It was my first time there and you see stuff that wouldn’t be acceptable here at all.
‘The things I saw are the sort of things that keep you grounded, as people over there seem to be really struggling. You’d drive around and see real poverty on every street corner.’
Bolasie is the type of person who rails against such inequality, and on his return to the UK he became the first athlete to become an ambassador for War Child, the charity which helps children affected by war.
‘I love being an underdog, proving people wrong,’ he says. ‘It’s been a long road to get here.’
Perhaps one reason why he feels so strongly about the issue is that Bolasie himself has struggled to make it to his current lofty status.
There was genuine interest from Tottenham, Newcastle and Everton in signing him for £20m this summer but Bolasie’s career began in the far more humble setting of Malta.
Born and bred in North-West London, Bolasie was struggling to find a professional club that would take him so left to join Maltese side Floriana in 2007.
Unable to hold down a regular spot due to regulations on the number of foreign players allowed, he returned to England with Plymouth before joining Bristol City via loan spells with Rushden & Diamonds and Barnet, all of whom are a long way below the bright lights of the top flight.
From there he moved to Selhurst Park and his talent has exploded. Having never been to a Premier League game before playing in one he is now one of the division’s stars.
‘I love being an underdog, proving people wrong,’ he says. ‘It’s been a long road to get here.
‘Going out to Malta I was playing in front of a crowd, which was what I always wanted.
‘But going on loan to Rushden and Diamonds was a real eye-opener — they were strong and aggressive, so I added strength and now it’s difficult to knock me off the ball.’
It certainly is, and both Bolasie and Palace are riding the crest of a wave. Enjoying an upturn in fortunes under manager Alan Pardew, the club can begin to dream of a place in Europe – a scenario which was unthinkable when they almost went out of business in 2010.
Saved by a consortium of four wealthy supporters, they are now many fans’ second-favourite team, with Bolasie their most exciting player.
He has come a long way since his first trip to DR Congo.