The success of every spy (so I’m told…) depends on the strength of their cover – their “legend.” Without a good one, a spy’s going to get found out before they even make it to Chapter Two.
That’s probably not news to you if you’ve read any spy book ever. But here’s what you might not know: spies aren’t the only ones cultivating a cover. A secret identity is just as critical for language learners. And last week, I nearly blew mine.
Let me explain.
It all began when I signed up for a French conversation group and started thinking about how to introduce myself. Introductions can be particularly tricky when you’re unemployed and your former job is something as obscure (and hard to translate) as “public sector consultant in environmental and economic analysis.” They definitely don’t teach you how to say that in French 101! Hence, my need for a beginner-vocab alter ego. To have any hope of engaging my conversation partners, I had long since realized that I needed something easier and more fun to talk about—something that everyone would immediately understand, preferably without asking too many difficult follow-up questions.
I decided to say I was a writer, which had the double advantage of being both simple to explain and not entirely untrue. But, in the life of a language learner as in the life of a spy, things don’t always go according to plan. While making small talk before the lesson, I explained what I like to do in Paris to one of the four other novice French speakers in attendance: “I write on my blog and I practice photography.”
The instructor Laurine, who to that point had been distracted setting things up for the lesson, overheard me and jumped in excitedly. “Oh! Tu es photographe? You are a photographer?”
That was (1) not quite what I had said and (2) not at all my intended cover, but I decided to roll with it. Being a photographer sounded exciting, and I was flattered that I looked the part.
“Oui,” I said, pleased as punch with my new artsy persona. “Je suis photographe.”
Lesson #1 in curating a secret identity: Do not improvise.
Laurine wrote that phrase – “je suis photographe” – on the board for the five of us to see. She then guided the conversation to other things—mostly art-related, she noted, because of me, the artist in residence that day. We discussed theater, paintings, and museums, and I nodded and smiled sagely as people described their own visits to the renowned galleries of Paris. As the class began to wrap up, I breathed a sigh of relief that I’d managed to keep up the très-chic charade. But Laurine turned back to me with another question.
“Tell us, Claire—have you always been a photographer?”
Lesson #2: Don’t get complacent.
The question was innocuous and probably only intended to encourage past-tense conjugation. I’m sure Laurine didn’t know she was setting up my unmasking.
“Non,” I answered truthfully, explaining that I had become a photographer only recently. Laurine followed up with the expected question—what did I do before?
I went with the simplest version of the truth that I could conjure: “J’étais économiste pour le gouvernement. I was a government economist.”
At that, the rest of the group started laughing. From a government economist to a photographer! They had a million questions.
Lesson #3: Whether for spying or staying out of the hot seat in language classes, don’t make your backstory too interesting.
Amid laughter, Laurine asked why I’d changed jobs. My French vocabulary doesn’t include much on taxes or immigration visas, so I hesitated.
“Parce que… parce que…” I searched for anything to say about a job change. “Parce que mon métier n’était pas très intéressant? Because my job wasn’t very interesting?”
The group was really laughing now. Boring jobs—that they understood. But they were still curious why I had come to Paris, and since I have a lot of practice answering that question, I was able to tell the truth—my husband is a biologist working with French researchers. I began to think maybe I would come out of the lesson with my adopted persona intact. Then Laurine threw one final curveball.
“Can you make much money as a photographer?”
Lesson #4: When your cover crumbles, accept defeat with dignity.
“No, there’s not much money,” I said, admitting to myself that my 90-minute stint as a professional photographer was over. In an attempt to set the record straight, I added, “I’m learning.”
“Ahhh,” Laurine nodded in understanding. “Tu es photographe amateur.” Up on the board, at the end of the vocabulary list, she wrote amateur. We all repeated it. A solemnly intoned death knell for my très-cool alter ego.
My two vocabulary contributions of the day bookended the list up on the board: my happy aspiration at the start and my sad demotion at the end. I was cringing with embarrassment when the kindly older woman next to me offered a bit of encouragement: “These days it’s possible to sell photographs on the internet!”
“Oui,” someone else chimed in. “C’est vrai! It’s true!”
They were throwing life buoys to my would-be photographer imaginary self. Despite the muddle of elementary vocabulary and vague explanations, my secret identity was still hanging on.
As we all said goodbye and headed out, I couldn’t help but imagine what they thought my story really was. Who quits their job as a government economist to gallivant around Paris taking photographs with no apparent source of income? Maybe they think my biologist husband is rich and famous. Maybe they think I am an heiress to family fortune. Maybe they think the U.S. government pays its economists well enough to retire at age 30.
All I know is that I’m going to need to work on my backstory for this week. I’m thinking I might go back to Plan A as a writer, this time working on a novel about an heiress spy who doubles as a photographer in Paris.
Lesson #5: Don’t believe anything anyone says in language lessons.