Last week my husband and I drove to Quebec City as part of a five-day getaway to celebrate my birthday. We started out in Boston on Wednesday morning, stopped for a leisurely hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, continued north through Vermont, and finally crossed the border into Canada at about 7 p.m. After one night at a small hotel in Sherbrooke, Quebec, we continued on to Quebec City, stopping first to see Montmorency Falls (which are taller than Niagara Falls but much narrower). Then we relaxed for two days in Quebec City and enjoyed getting absorbed into another world and culture.
It was a lovely trip. We walked the winding stone streets within the walled old city, enjoyed expansive views of the St. Lawrence River, and took a bus tour, during which we learned about the historic battle between the French and the British that landed the city in British hands. On our walks from the old city back to our hotel we stopped at small food markets to buy baguettes, cheese, and wine to bring back to the Auberge St. Vincent, a Vincent Van Gogh-themed boutique hotel located on rue Saint-Vallier Est.
I noticed something interesting during our time in Quebec — something interesting about myself, that is. I studied French in both high school and college, and spoke the language at a decent conversational level (though I was far from fluent) by the time I was in my twenties. My father speaks fluent French because he lived in Paris for a period of time after World War II, and I wish he had spoken it to me when I was a child. But I had to learn it the hard way, and because it had been years since I had studied or spoken French, my skills had gotten rusty. To brush up on the language, I purchased a basic course on CDs and listened to the daily half-hour lessons in my car for weeks before our trip.
Jean-Paul’s heritage on his father’s side is French Canadian, but he learned French the way I did and we speak it at about the same level. He spent less time practicing before we left, but to pass the time we listened to some of the CD lessons together during our drive north.
What I noticed in Quebec was this — when it came to entering restaurants or shops, I was too shy and embarrassed to speak. I hung back while Jean-Paul bravely gave his best effort, even though his skills were rustier than mine. Sometimes he did well, and sometimes an amused shop clerk or server simply switched into English to finish the conversation. But Jean-Paul was out there trying and enjoying the effort, while the most I managed was to order food in French and to say, “Merci beaucoup” when it was placed before me on the table. Once, when a woman started speaking to me in rapid French at a rest stop along the road, I said, apologetically, “Je comprends seulement un peu le francais” (I only understand a little French) and she looked at me surprised before saying a few more words and turning back to the children she was overseeing.
In fact, the most French I spoke during the trip to Quebec was with Jean-Paul in the car or in our room, where I would jokingly say things like: “Mon francais est tres bon ici dans la chambre quand je parle avec mon mari!” (My French is very good here in the room when I am speaking with my husband!)
The interesting and strange thing about all of this was that I wasn’t like that at all when I was younger. When I was twenty I studied for a year in London, and I traveled from there to Paris several times. During those trips I had numerous conversations in French and felt surprisingly at home in Paris (which makes one wonder about generational memory). I felt relatively confident in my French back then, and I got by just fine. Certainly I had just completed several years of intense study and the language was fresher in my mind. But still, my recent experience in Quebec made me wonder……what has changed in me so dramatically over the years? Was my fear to speak up prompted by more than rusty skills?
Over the years many of us deal with blows to our confidence: relationships end that we had hoped would last, jobs don’t work out, dreams don’t get realized, our literary work gets rejected. In some cases, as in mine, an illness might threaten to bring us down before we fight it, recover, and climb back. Perhaps for some of us, more than others, the shadow of what we’ve overcome remains. It manifests as an underlying loss of confidence. And that’s strange, because for some people overcoming obstacles makes them braver and stronger, perhaps even more confident.
What bothered me in Quebec, I realized, was that the hanging back had become a familiar feeling — something I had learned to live with in my daily life. Once outspoken and confident to the point of naiveté (a college boyfriend once told me that when he first saw me around campus he thought I smiled too much) I have become someone who resides in, and begins from, a place of fear.
And this place is not a comfortable place for me, nor is it a place that helps me in any way — as a writer or as a person or friend. Writing is about speaking up, and usually the best writing comes from a certain fearlessness. You can’t be afraid to say what you want to say, and you can’t be afraid of what anyone will think about the fact that you said it. The same can apply to personal and professional interactions. The saying “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” comes to mind.
Holding back is a safe, easy place. But it’s a hard place from which to contribute or receive anything, either in writing or in the world.
Not one person in Quebec laughed at Jean-Paul, even when his efforts to speak French fell short. The people he spoke to appreciated his effort and responded with a smile to his confidence and openness, whether they responded in English or in French. As for me, they either didn’t notice me or they simply glanced at me curiously, because I was standing on the sidelines afraid to speak.
C’est dommage, n’est-ce pas?