You have the opportunity to do something fun, interesting and which could lead to more opportunities. But if you do it, you’ll be exposing your greatest insecurities.
That was the quagmire I faced recently when well-known French travel show Echappées Belles approached me to appear in an upcoming episode, to be set in Paris. They wanted to speak to some expatriates, and being a tour guide and writer, they thought I would make an interesting subject.
Being on TV wasn’t an issue as I love the spotlight (could you guess??), but for me, speaking French is not a simple matter of flicking a switch and carrying on with life. It is inextricably related to feelings of legitimacy, falsehood, belonging and alienation. It is associated with anger and frustration, inadequacy, stupidity, and triumph. It is related to who and what I am, my place in the world around me and a constant negotiation and re-negotiation of meaning, intention and power.
My relationship with the French language has not been an easy one. I began learning at age 24, when I moved to Paris. While many people supported and encouraged me, many did not. My first teacher terrorized me, ex-boyfriends in turn jeered and scolded me, and everybody I encountered had a different opinion on how and what and why I should be learning. Unsolicited advice came thick and fast, and even among friends my difficulties were turned into jokes.
After a couple of months of this, hurt and angry, I retreated to lick my wounds. I dropped class and angrily threw my exercise books and Bescherelle at the bottom of my wardrobe. I ditched the boyfriends and clammed up, surrounding myself with other expatriates.
But it’s pretty impossible to live in Paris and not speak the language, so I wound up teaching myself ‘on the street’, reading free newspapers, listening to music and jabbering to taxi-drivers and other transitory strangers. And you know what? It worked.
But my School Of Hard Knocks approach to language left me with a sizable chip on my shoulder and even today, although I’m proud of the level I have attained, I am very vulnerable to criticism and jest. I can react defensively to even the lightest joke, and must constantly quash my pride when I think I speak better than someone else, and shame when I don’t.
It’s been a long time since I almost cried in frustration in front of a bureaucrat who wouldn’t meet me half way, or left a store without what I needed because I couldn’t ask for it. I can take care of myself now. I love the depth and breadth of access I now have to my adopted culture. The films, conversations, jokes, politics, writing and rap music that I can now enjoy. The friends I can make and retain, arguments I can win, sweet words I can utter to French babies, and help I can give to the very old in the supermarket. Above all, I love the fact that I can take my place at the table of my boyfriend’s family, and be a part of their traditions, conversations, happy moments and sad without needing more than the odd word translated.
But my relationship with French has never been easy and when I was asked to appear on this show, those old feelings came thundering to the surface. TV is forever. Everyone will know how bad you are. Every mistake will be recorded. Your accent isn’t good enough. You’ll be so bad they’ll subtitle you.
No amount of reassurance from friends, family and even the producers of the show reassured me, but I did it anyway, because I finally acknowledged that the only thing really stopping me was pride, and, well... life’s just too short for that kind of crap.
So here it is. I hope you like it!
PS If you want to skip ahead, my part begins at 52:16 and goes for about 5 mins, interspersed with the story of very cool Japanese singer Kumi Okamoto “Kumisolo”.
PPS It's all in French: sorry non froggies! I'm mostly rambling anyway.
Thanks for watching!