Yesterday, I dared myself to buy something—anything—so that I was forced to speak French. I came home empty handed.
Leaving the country, as it turns out, is easy. Leaving my comfort zone is hard.
My comfort zone is not tiny, but it does not extend to buying peaches (or anything else) at a French market.
I have found myself in Lyon, the second-largest city in France, living with a British family as an au pair. Because they are British, I am starting to say things like “queue” (line) and “till” (cash register) and “jumper” (sweater), but I am not saying things like “bonjour” or “puis-j’aller au parc avec vous?”
Fear can be useful, but it can also be limiting. Take global warming, for example. Most people believe global warming is real and real scary. For some, that inspires action like recycling, reducing consumption, buying a Prius, whatever.
For others, that fear is paralyzing. Looking at what can be done, these people throw up their hands and declare action pointless (or just look away). Still others, I think, are so afraid that they do not “believe” in global warming in the first place. The entire concept is too scary.
For me, very ordinary things tend to be the most intimidating. Last year, I skipped class one morning to help butcher a sheep at a local farm. For many people, butchering the sheep would be the intimidating part of this adventure. For me, the hard part was saying hello to the farmer, someone who is actually a good friend of mine.
I was comfortable with the idea of pulling the hide off an animal that had recently been alive. Holding several pounds of intestines in my hands did not make me flinch for a second. But how do I enter this unusual situation? How do I figure out what my role is? How do I convey my joy at being invited to participate as well as my more solemn respect for the event taking place?
My fear of being misunderstood or misinterpreted is so extreme that even when I’m speaking my native language, I can become tongue tied very easily, especially with people I’m not close with.
Switching to a different language only compounds the anxiety of the situation, even if the situation is only something as simple and really trivial as buying fruit. Whether or not my fears are rational, I am very consciously trying to work on decreasing the extent to which they limit me.
This is why I am in France, in fact, and why I am trying to learn French (a subject that gave me panic attacks in school), and why I am going out again, in a short while, to go buy some peaches.