When I was in France – the language was the barrier that stopped me from visiting with people. If only I could ask, “Which peaches are the sweetest?” Or, “How do you prepare this fish?” I’d smile and say, “Je voudrais une tomato…” or whatever, and hope that they didn’t ask me a question. I felt on edge, apprehensive. I would ask, “Combien ça coute?” and then look intently at them as they spoke the price, never being able to understand what they were saying well enough to produce the exact amount. But I usually understood enough to hand them a bill of enough Euros that they could give me change.
I love the markets, les marches, the bustle, the colors of the fruits and vegetables and flowers lined up on the tables. The smells! It is probably my favorite part of France! Why couldn’t I get a vocabulary of enough phrases to help me speak in the market?
My fear froze my mind, and nothing could get in or out. Even after three months, when I’d go into a store and the salesperson would approach me, I could rarely spit out, “Je regard, c’est tout.” (I’m just looking.) Because I couldn’t speak French correctly, I oftentimes didn’t even want to look, I was so afraid of not being able to understand or respond correctly.
“Correctly” seems to be the big PROBLEM!. In my mind I had set a standard and if I couldn’t perform at that level, then I was unacceptable. There wasn’t any way to work with what I did know. It was never enough. That and my panic—I panicked in class when asked a question, and I panicked in real life when spoken to, when I desperately wanted to say something to someone and couldn’t find the words.
My panic took all the pleasure out of the situation! I couldn’t look the person in the eye! I couldn’t’ enjoy the moment. I could only try to get past the frozen fear of what? Of being afraid I couldn’t understand what was being said! Why was that so scary?
Maybe it was about being feeling lost. If I knew what was happening, I could make choices, but when I didn’t know what was being said, it was like being lost. And I have always been terrified of being lost! Once my older sister said to me, “Do you think something happened to us when we were young that made us so afraid of being lost?”
Mom used to tell a story of going camping at Yellowstone and how once she walked out of a different door of a restroom from the one she had entered, and then wandered for hours through the campground looking for my Dad! When she would tell the story she still looked scared, years later, and I can remember feeling scared hearing it. To this day, I never go into a restroom without tracing the route in my mind that I will take when I exit, to get safely back to where I came from! I feel as if I must be attentive, or I will become confused and make a wrong turn.
After struggling with old fears and my French for three months, I was surprised to see my reaction to a situation of confusion when we arrived in Boston yesterday. As I exited into the main terminal alone while Len was filling in a report for a missing bag, I passed through a door into a big semi-circle of people, some with signs, all waiting for people to arrive. I felt shy and on display. I quickly exited beyond the crowd, looking for the man from Boston Coach.
I could speak the language, but it felt more scary than being a non-French speaking person in France. A man at a desk looked like the most likely person to ask for help, but it took me five minutes to get the courage to speak to him. He was very abrupt and unfriendly to the person ahead of me. I was as afraid speaking to him as I was in France, but this was a language I knew—or was it? Yes, I knew the words for, “Can you tell me where I would look for Boston Coach?” And I certainly could understand his answer, “Across the street and to your left.” But I couldn’t understand the tone of his voice, except that it was impatient. In France I often felt like visiting with the people around me, wishing I spoke their language so I could talk to them. But at the airport yesterday, I had no desire to talk to anyone, to ask who they were waiting for, even though I knew their language. It seemed as if it was easier to connect with people when I didn’t know their language than it was back in my own country.
As I write this, I wonder—how do you get rid of fear? Where does it come from? Am I carrying fear that my parents had? Will I always carry it? My fear was a much more dominating part of my experience in France than my lack of French. I see it so clearly now! Today I’m at Len’s parents’ home in Cambridge, a place that has become familiar to me over the years, but this is still a different country from my own.
Today the fear kicks in, and I wonder what will be asked of me that I won’t know how to do CORRECTLY. The knot in my stomach tightens, and I am back in class the first month of French school, listening to the teacher speak and not understanding one word she is saying….