no shortcuts: on making friends in France

One thing that makes the experience of short-term teaching in France complicated is the simple fact that it’s short-term. And the French are not.

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As an American, I’m accustomed to a sense of easy, immediate friendship. When I look back at my college years, sometimes I ache for the simplicity. How easy it was, the way I knew the rules. Like-minded, friendly students at every turn. The comfort of hanging out at Kaldi’s coffee shop over a book. I’d spend entire afternoons there, lingering over a latte. I was familiar with every other person who came in the door, enjoying a dozen little impromptu conversations a day. I made friends at my jobs, through my internship, at church groups and in classes and during study abroad.

“I love your shoes! “Want to study together next week?” “Want to get coffee?” “Want to go out with us?”

That was all it took. And you were off, headed towards friendship or at least a pleasant acquaintanceship.

In France, it might take weeks, or months, or a deep conversation for the formal vous address to melt into the warmer tu. I know the rules of the language, but what are the guidelines to becoming socially adept? It might well take even longer to master, and is decidedly less clear then studying verb tenses.

The French are loyal, adults often maintaining friendships with primary school classmates. Bonds take longer to form. But once they do, in my experience, they’re solid. People are sincere and mean what they say. I guard the occasional “I’m so happy to see you” or thoughtful compliment like something precious, a rare glimpse into the mind of a people more discreet than I will ever be by nature.

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It takes time to get to the bonding stage. In my experience, there are no shortcuts. And as I have only 7-9 months to spend in a place (twice now), the politesse and gentility, at first charming, can start to feel cold. But there are some things you can do to maximize your friendship potential.

I’m certainly no expert, and am not writing this because I have a large, thriving group of French friends my age. But I have learned a few things and cultivated a few treasured relationships. When I get a warm, thoughtful, three-paragraph text message from someone in Montluçon who I thought had forgotten me, or am offered a ride to the airport from someone I last saw two months ago, I realized I haven’t failed. I’m just learning. Here are a few lessons I’ve picked up along the way.

Don’t take it personally

It’s easy for me to feel at times like I’ve lost all my friend-making ability. Or my luck has run out. Or no one in the entire country likes me. Of course, none of that is true. It’s simply a matter of expectations. This isn’t a cozy college town filled with chatty Americans and if I expect that culture I’ll just be disappointed.

Remember where you came from

When I came back to France for my first round of teaching, I was nervous. Berating myself for every mistake. My host dad from my time in Lyon told me something so subtly wise, I haven’t forgotten it. Jess-ee-cah, you are not a French girl. You are an American girl in France. In other words, don’t be so freaking hard on yourself. Whether it’s your accent or your lack of social savoir-faire, you don’t need to be ashamed of evidence that you are different. What do you need to apologize for? Not being born into the same culture? You’re not stupid or clumsy or obtuse. You’re just foreign. And that’s really cool.

Make it a regular thing to FaceTime with friends and family. Spend an afternoon writing letters. Presumably you have a home, so don’t forget that!

Don’t mistake discretion for disinterest

As the one who is new in town, I often expect that people I meet will reach out to me. The thing is, often they tend not to. It seems strange to me, but I understand it as a form of extreme social courtesy and discretion: they don’t want to put me in the position of having to say yes when I don’t really want to. This is crazy to me. I’d love to have dinner with you! I’d love to have dinner or a coffee with just about anybody. But I’ve learned that as the open-minded, more casual American, I often have to be the one to suggest it. But if you are asked…

Say yes

Even if you’re unsure, even if you’re shy. Say yes to every opportunity (barring anything dangerous). Every dinner, every concert, every coffee, every invitation.

Create a routine

Go to the same cafe, the same vendor at the market, the same bar, the same boulangerie. Even if you don’t make friends per se, your French world will start to feel a whole lot cozier. I frequent the same few coffee shops and have made friends with a few of the baristas. One recently got me a job giving extra English lessons on the side!

Have your smartphone at the ready

Tinder, Couchsurfing, OVS (if you dare). There are a lot of ways to find interesting strangers to meet up with. Generally, I like to challenge myself to one sortie a week.

Stay busy

I joined a gym. Such a simple thing but it made a huge difference in my outlook. I love leaving school at the end of the day to go decompress with some yoga or get out of my head with a challenging dance class. If you don’t have tons of social engagements, make your own plans and keep a schedule.

Practice language exchange

Giving lessons and taking lessons is a great way to cultivate close relationships, sometimes with entire families. I give English lessons and I study Italian. It’s a bright point in my day, plus I’m practicing valuable skills.

Look for other travelers

I find the most success meeting people who also like to travel or who have lived abroad. They let you vent and ask the kinds of questions you couldn’t pose to just any local. They’re understanding and sympathetic when you accidentally “break the rules.”

Make sure your manners are up to par

Study French culture, all the tiny details. Movies are great for this. Sometimes you might realize you’ve been unintentionally causing offense! For example: I learned it can be construed as quite rude to see someone beginning to eat and not saying bon appétit. It made for quite the awkward moment when someone I knew thought I didn’t like her because I never said bon appétitShe confronted me about it, and I was completely taken aback, startled that she saw rudeness where I had definitely not intended it.

Persevere

It has taken about four months for me to be really comfortable at the school where I work. There were days where I wanted to quit, but I kept showing up and now I consider my colleagues friends, and I really enjoy my job. I speak Italian with Gabi, chat with Amandine in English, see Carole at the gym. It kinda felt like I had to prove myself–my seriousness and commitment to my job and to the school–and now that I have, I feel integrated as a member of the team.

Be open-minded

Good friends need not be exactly like you. They might be your parents’ age or your grandparents’ age or be found somewhere you wouldn’t expect. Keep an open mind!

22 thoughts on “no shortcuts: on making friends in France

  1. This so true! Even if it is slightly different for us as we live on a boat in France and contact with fellow boaters is easier than with the average French people. But once you get through to them they are very loyal friends. It’s worth the effort!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Diane Oui In France

    Oh man, the friends thing as an adult is soooo hard. I’d say it’s hard in France since like you, I live in France, but I think it’s so hard anywhere once we’re done with school. People where I live are very wrapped up in family life, have kids young, and seem to have cemented friendships with people they grew up with leaving very little room for outsiders.
    I have a few gym acquaintances though.
    Making friends is one of the hardest things for me here as someone in France long-term. I used to battle w/the process my first couple of years but now I’ve just accepted it and what will come will come.
    Great tips!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment, Diane. I’m sure you’re right. I think I’m moving towards the acceptance phase myself…realizing that it’s not necessarily me, it’s just hard! Because of both France and the growing-up process.
      The positive is that good friends are so much more appreciated.

      Like

  3. ‘The French are not short term’ is a very neat summary! Most of my French friends are expats themselves so more open from the start. But even then I’ve had some awkward moments where I’ve tried to launch into a new friendship with someone I’ve recently met, and got just nervous politesse in response!

    Like

  4. This post made me feel at ease. As a Canadian in Denmark, I also have felt lost and “not competent” when it came to making new friends. I have lived here for 1,5 years now, and I am still not perfect, but I have few danish friends 🙂

    Like

  5. I have a dream to explore or live in places in Europe someday and this is a lovely addition to my thoughts! I am currently studying French, working towards incorporating into my life personally and professionally. Your blog is a such a gem! Thank you for sharing 🙂

    Like

  6. Cécile

    J’ai toujours pensé que pour se faire de véritables amis il fallait plusieurs années… Mais cela n’empêche pas de partager des moment chaleureux et sympatiques ou établir des liens profonds entre-temp… Il faut juste oser relancer les contacts qui, eux n’osent pas!
    Amusant: dire “bon appétit” est considéré comme vulgaire dans les milieux aristocratiques, si,si!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Sounds like great advice. I like the sound of the French attitude toward friendship, sounds somewhat like the British one. How you describe making friends easily and every in America sounds quite alien to me, although Americans and Spanish people I met back at university seemed more like that. I feel lucky to see regularly and often travel with a friend I’ve had since primary school. Since before then even, it’s true to say that there isn’t really a period of time when we didn’t know each other. Pretty much since we’ve been conscious of the world we’ve hung out in one form or another. Beautiful post though, really love your writing.

    Like

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