Have no fear

Madeline with the lions

My daughter, the lion-hearted, in Zimbabwe.

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.


  1. Carolyn Bois · September 12, 2013

    I can identify with all of this – but couldn’t say it so poetically

    • MELewis · September 12, 2013

      Merci, Madame! Good to know I’m not alone…

  2. BigLizzy · September 12, 2013

    You, my sister-in-spirit are such an excellent writer. I enjoy absolutely everything you post and so relate to this piece. I, too, am afraid of flying, but have gotten a bit more used to it and calmer about it over the years. But, the biggest fear pour moi? Fear of looking or sounding stupid. It’s part of what keeps me out of France and practicing my French. I get you on a cellular level. Thank you for another thought-provoking and excellent post. 🙂

    • MELewis · September 12, 2013

      Wow, Lizzy, you made my day! Thanks for the very kind compliments, which mean all the more coming from a fellow blogger who is also a great writer! I think I have a real connection with those who also feel the fear, and know those white-knuckle moments. As for speaking French, don’t give up. I am sure you can get past it and parlez along with the best of us!

  3. Anna · September 12, 2013

    Fear for your loved ones: I can identify with this one, Mel. Having a fearless daughter myself. Although it’s not necessarily the lions that make me the most uncomfortable… Beautiful read, thanks a lot!

    • MELewis · September 13, 2013

      Thanks, Anna! 🙂
      You’re right, maybe the lions are not the worst predators…

  4. Wife After Death · September 13, 2013

    As you know I’ve faced the fear of losing a spouse, but it hasn’t made me demonstrably tougher – I don’t think. Maybe it has and I don’t realise it. Still won’t set a toe on a plane though… X

    • MELewis · September 13, 2013

      Funny, I remember my mother telling me when I was little: Your worst fears never happen. I think that was when I decided to make everything my worst fear 😉 But seriously, as you have faced your worst fear, maybe the flying will one day be easier. Bisous!

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