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.

Tempête de neige

Snow covers a Metro sign and tree branchesHow five centimeters of snow turn the fearless French into a bunch of sissies

My belle-mère (mother-in-law) called early one morning in January with the breaking news: “’Have you seen what’s happened in Paris?” she demanded. “No,” I replied, imagining a terrorist bomb or worse, a train strike.

“They’re completely snowed in. At least ten centimeters.” In France, snow in Paris is major national news. Next thing you know the army will be called in to rescue stranded commuters.

“Imagine,” I said. “Snow, in January.” This prompted a diatribe about how it was all very well for Nordic countries, but in France they’re not equipped for snow, at least not in the city.

Full disclosure: I grew up in Canada. As a citizen of the great white north, it takes more than a few flakes to keep me down. But after a few years in my adopted country I have begun to understand that snow in France is different.

The French love the snow. In its place, on the ski slopes in the Alps or the Pyrénées. Everywhere else it is that most detested of meteorological phenomena, the one that knocks this country firmly on its derrière.

Every winter all eyes turn to Météo France with the announcement of the dreaded tempête de neige. A state of ‘vigilance orange’ is declared, sparking off a series of measures designed to protect the French from the evil frost. Snowy weather bumps all other news stories. Schools are closed, people are urged to leave their cars in the garage and if possible, to stay home.

It may be for the best. For all their machismo behind the wheel in most weather, the French have little clue how to drive in the snow. A couple of centimeters of white stuff on the ground is enough to cow most drivers. They reduce their speed to a crawl, brake constantly or stop by the side of the road to put on chains.

I have never seen anyone in Canada do this, at least not in the city. Chains and studs are illegal in many areas as they quickly destroy the road surface.

Much as I hate to admit it, my mother-in-law is right: France is not prepared for snow. They don’t salt the roads enough for one thing. And for another all those country roads with the signs that say ‘verglas fréquent’ do ice up surprisingly quick when the temperatures fall below zero.

I cannot help but chuckle when I see my proud compatriots taken down a peg or two in wintry weather. Most days driving in this country is not for the faint of heart. A simple lane change can feel like a game of chicken – it goes against the very fiber of the French to let you in. Driving at the speed limit is grounds for obscene hand gestures and appels de phare as other drivers recklessly pass. Heaven help you if you dare to drive in the left lane on the motorway.

So forgive me for enjoying my day in the snow. Bonne route!