There is one word in the French language that is uncomfortably familiar to me.
It began when I was a child. After begging my parents for years, we finally got a dog. It looked so sweet and had silky ears. Then it bit me with its little pin-prick puppy teeth. I was terrified.
“Don’t be a nervous Nelly!” ordered my Dad. He made me put my hand in the jaw of the beast to prove that it didn’t really hurt. Or only a little. I had no reason to fear.
That was when I learned that there are times in life when it is better to pretend not to be afraid. Sometimes it works.
The French word for fear is ‘peur’. The verb is ‘avoir peur’ (to have fear). ‘J’ai peur’ was one of the first things I learned in French. I’ve been trying to unlearn it ever since.
The first step was to conquer my fear of flying. I was never a fan of air travel but moving to France forced me to submit to transatlantic flights. Either that or never see my family again. So I made a deal with myself: have a drink, think about the statistics, stop worrying. And guess what? It worked. For the most part, barring major turbulence. Travelling with my husband, Mr. Have-no-fear, has also helped.
Fear of the unknown was the next big hurdle. I only knew one person when I first arrived in Paris many years ago: the fearless future husband. Everything else – the language, the culture, the working world – was unknown.
It took time but we got to know each other, me and France. I gradually decoded the language. The culture cues came, sometimes slowly. Life took over – raising kids, getting a job – and the unknown gradually ebbed. Still, the fears did not entirely disappear.
Fear of driving persists, especially on the highway where I am a true nervous Nelly. Along with fear of getting lost, still a frequent occurrence. Fear of terrorist bombs: there haven’t been any lately but there was a series of attentats when I first arrived in France, which forever marked me.
The biggest one – fear of making a fool of oneself – will probably never be vanquished. It haunts me in the street when I hesitate to ask directions, in social situations where I fear not understanding something obvious, looking or sounding silly.
It is dulled somewhat by familiarity. The fact is, I look foolish a lot. Every time something flies in my face and I pull a Basil Fawlty. When I try to pronounce an unpronounceable word. (Boursouflure. You try it.) When I try to say something that doesn’t make sense. When I talk to my dog.
But those are not real fears. The really scary stuff is things that go bump in the night. The fear of waking up alone, or not at all. Of people you love not coming back.
I try not to fear for my family, who are spread out all over the place and have a taste for adventure. Climbing mountains, taming lions, living in foreign climes. They don’t seem to have inherited the fear gene. I am grateful for that.
Daily I struggle to have no fear. I say to myself: Je n’ai pas peur.
Sometimes it works.