Twelve months ago I was offered a job in Paris, the city I had dreamed of living in since I was old enough to utter the words “Eiffel tower”. There was just one small catch: I didn’t speak French. And I work in Communications. But small details are for the overly cautious and accountants. As I was neither, I threw caution to the wind, packed my bags, invested in a French-English dictionary, and hopped on a plane to Charles de Gaulle.
As I looked out the window, I imagined what my life would be like in France: I would lead a glamorous lifestyle sipping cocktails on rooftop balconies, dressed in outfits from the latest Marais designer, while chatting in flawless French with a different — yet equally cute — Parisian each night.
Spoiler alert: my life in Paris turned out to be nothing like this! I arrived in Paris during the month of May 2016: there were strikes of both the metro and the garbage collectors (!!), the infamous Nuit Debout protest movement had taken over the Place de la République, and significant flooding had seen the Seine rise to its highest level in over 100 years. Maybe I should have seen my Parisian welcoming party as an ever-so-slightly ill omen.
But this was just the beginning. I soon realized that rocking up to Paris full of hopes and dreams, but completely devoid of language skills, was a total bummer. At work I went from proof-reader extraordinaire to the indignity of asking my intern to proof-read my emails. When I received calls from journalists they thought they had dialed the wrong number — and there were times when I was tempted to go along with it.
And if you think my work experiences were bad, you should hear about my dating experiences. I get nervous enough on a date when I have full command of the language. The first time I went on a date in French I was so nervous I thought I had food poisoning, and spent ten minutes in the bathroom toying with the idea of texting him to say I would never be coming out. On another occasion, as a result of the language barrier I thought that a guy was inviting me to a mini break in Lyon when in fact he was just asking me if I wanted to see the movie “Lion” (in French it is pronounced the same way). Needless to say, he was quite perplexed when I told him I found his suggestion quite spontaneous, and that I didn’t usually have the habit of planning these things just a couple days out.
For some time, I was at rock bottom. The lack of language skills left me struggling with basic tasks, and the smallest mishap sent me reeling in panic. My self-esteem was at an all time low, and I felt like I sacrificed my personality as soon as I started speaking French. I was shy and reserved, and falling back on my usual sense of humor in order to charm people was not an option in a language where my vocabulary had been slashed by 80% (sure, I was funny, but not for the right reasons).
You may be wondering what yoga has to do with my dream to live in Paris and date French men. Am I about to meet a cute French guy in a Bikram yoga class? Unfortunately (fortunately?) not. Did I quit my job in order to become a yoga teacher? At times, I was tempted, but no. Did I start practicing yoga twice a day and suddenly everything became clear? God no - do you even realize how expensive yoga classes are in this city?
I couldn’t afford to do it twice a day, but I did find myself turning to yoga. And it’s no surprise — often when things seem unsurmountable, I find that following sequences and concentrating on postures gives me a sense of peace and stillness amongst the chaos. But I soon realized that there was more to it than that. There was a fearless and relaxed approach that I adopted as soon as I rolled out my mat, which made everything seem so much less of a biggie. I asked myself why couldn’t bring this same approach with me out of the yoga studio? (And when I say yoga studio, I do mean 20 square meter Parisian attic with 40 students crammed in). It was then that I decided to apply the principles of yoga to my every-day life in Paris.
I embraced the fact that in order to learn a new skill, I needed to make mistakes.
When I first arrived in France, I was so afraid to make mistakes while speaking French. In conversations or in meetings I would stick to the bare minimum in order to avoid making embarrassing mistakes. If I had something to add, yet couldn’t find the right words or grammatical formulations, I would just stay silent.
Then one day during a yoga class, the teacher was preparing us for a position I had never tried before (from memory it had something to do with a lotus). I started freaking out about stuffing up the pose, and thought it might be easier just to hang out in child”s pose. Light bulb moment! (ding!). I realized I was approaching French the same way I was approaching the something-to-do-with-a-lotus pose. I saw it as a risk of failure rather than an opportunity to learn a new skill.
I made a promise to myself that, rather than seeing my language learning process as a series of cringeworthy blunders, I would chose to see it as the beginning of a new skill that I was learning, which was actually making me wiser and more accomplished.
I realized that people aren’t watching “my mat” as much as I think.
During another class, I was in the middle of a vinyasa, doin’ my thang. I suddenly realized that I was doing entirely the wrong sequence (Literally, I was hanging out in revolved side angle pose, facing the rest of the class who were in triangle). I was so embarrassed! They must think I’m such an idiot, I chided myself. How long had I been doing the opposite to the rest of the class? Was that someone laughing at me behind my back?!
It was the same insecure feeling I had whenever I spoke French. Did I just mess up that conjugation in front of my date? Did my sentence have an unintentional sexual connotation (to be fair, nine times out of ten it does in French).
The noise I heard wasn’t someone laughing, it was someone sneezing. Someone who had probably not even noticed my faux pas, who was probably wondering if everyone was laughing at her for sneezing. We often feel like everyone has their eyes on us, but the truth is everyone is paying a lot more attention to what’s going on on their mat. I’m sure people notice my grammatical mistakes, or my strong Australian accent. But do they really care? At the end of the day I’m sure it’s nowhere near as big a deal as I think. And maybe they even think it’s cute? ;) (Editor's note from Candace: I've heard Candice speak before in person - she came to a retreat I did in Morocco. Her Australian accent is most definitely adorbs.)
I accepted that I will probably never be able to do a handstand — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to try!
OK, confession: I have been practicing yoga for over ten years, and there are many poses that I just can’t do. Some days I hang in crow pose for a couple seconds, some days I fall flat on my face. I have NEVER succeeded in handstand, headstand, or any sort of stand where a part of my body that is supposed to stay on the ground is expected to find it’s way up into the air. I often beat myself up over this: you have been doing yoga for over ten years and you STILL can’t find your way into the fancy poses?
When I first started speaking French I was obsessed with the time it would take me to be fluent. I would ask every non-native speaker I came across, “How long did it take you to be fluent?” Six months, some would say; a year; two years. I would instantly start comparing myself to these benchmarks, or calculating how long I had ahead of me until I ARRIVED.
After ten years of learning yoga I still can’t do handstand, but you know what? I LOVE practicing yoga. And the same is true of French. I will always have an accent, I will always say things that sound weird (probably with an accidental sexual connotation). But I enjoy speaking French: I love the way the language sounds; I love how much funnier French people are in their own language; I love how accomplished I feel when I do the simplest thing in French (“Hey Mom, I just submitted my tax return in French, FTW!”).
Once I learned to take the focus off everything I was doing less-than-perfectly, and all the amazing things I was learning, things got that little bit more bearable. As for the constant striking, the dating disasters, and the accidental sexual connotations in my everyday conversation — I can’t say I’ve made exactly the same progress, but I’m hanging in there. Paris is one big yoga class, and I’ve just finished the sun salutations.