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!

la gourmandise (what to eat in Toulouse)

In French, the word for “greedy” has richer connotations than its English counterpart. Tu es gourmand probably doesn’t mean: listen, you’re a greedy pig, but rather: you know how to enjoy something. You have joie de vivre. I like this, the concept of eating well, with moderation and with gusto. I like that this can be something to notice and compliment.   france-patisserie

La gourmandise is a good theme for a trip to Toulouse. It’s the perfect destination for the lazy, hungry traveller. There’s no need to pore over restaurant reviews or splurge on an out-of-budget dinner. Just take a walk and scan restaurant windows for the brightly-colored travel guide recommendation stickers (they’re everywhere!).

Toulouse is small and central enough that it’s easy to navigate on foot. It’s a good place to wander, where you’re more likely to stumble upon a charming little salon de thé than the outskirts of a creepy neighborhood.

All these chance encounters had me doing the math: how much could I possibly eat in a day? I didn’t spend much on entertainment: visiting museums, galleries, and cathedrals (all free or inexpensive), so I was able to taste quite a bit of what Toulouse had to offer.

Marché Victor Hugo

a covered market near St Sernin. Good place to buy stuff for a picnic and talk to the vendors about their food. Buy some local cheese and fresh bread!

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Santine

near the river, a perfect place to have dinner. It’s cozy and packed. Classic French food with a twist, like lamb and tagliatelle in a sauce with zucchini and honey. They do brunch too.

Cave au Cassoulet

Cozy restaurant near the river serving the specialties of the region (foie gras, cassoulet). You eat downstairs in a former wine cave. Reservations required. Come with a huge appetite.

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La Brasière

Super classe. We had oysters that tasted just like the sea and I had a salad with chèvre toasts cut in little hearts. And cassoulet, because it’s my new favorite comfort food.

Mami-Wata

You can only go to a French bistro so many times in a row. This African-Carribean place offers something different. I had a bissap cocktail and banana beignets to start, then chicken with coconut milk and tomatoes, followed by house-made mango yogurt. The plats come with sweet potatoes, rice, and bananas. The restaurant, on a nondescript little street, is dark, elegant, and cozy. A great date spot!

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Boli Café 

This Korean café is just adorable, and a great location near le Capitole. Get the bibimbap and a pot of tea. It’s served with a bowl of nori soup and a clementine for dessert. A nice break from heavier stuff.

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Cafe des Artistes

Just a good place to grab a coffee and read. Great ambiance and location, just across from the Garonne.

Flower’s Café

A local favorite, this place is always packed for lunch. It’s hard to get a seat even on the terrace. If you want to avoid the line, go around 10am and get some of the best chocolat chaud of your life. It’s the real stuff, so thick you need to eat it with a spoon. You can get it with banana or fleur d’oranger, among other choices.

Pillon

Crazy-good pastries with multiple locations around Toulouse. Try the little tarts topped with fruit or an éclair in an interesting flavor. Some days they have brioche à la violette (specific to Toulouse!).

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Moloko

A local guy brought me to this cute cocktail bar near a busy restaurant area. I tried the fresh tomato martini: foamy with basil syrup, vodka, and a cherry tomato. Weirdly good. Some dancing does happen here when it gets late. Soundtrack: The Cure.