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!

kicking it in cannes

I will be living and working in Cannes, France, home of the eponymous film festival, through next spring. My new city feels classic “South of France” with its brightly-painted houses, palm trees, and abundance of signs advertising moules frites. Yet, considering its element of celebrity, Lonely Planet questions if it still has a soul. Posters and paintings of movie stars from Marilyn Monroe to Brad Pitt stretch across the sides of buildings and dot the interiors of restaurants. Wealth and glamour live here (or at least play here).

It’s beautiful and surely complicated and I’m eager to, well, find its soul. Since I’ll be patronizing small cafés and corner markets much more frequently than the Casino Barrière le Croisette, this shouldn’t be much of a problem. (Though I’ll admit I did pack a brunch-with-a-movie-star dress.)

I have never lived somewhere with beauty like this. Somewhere that people choose to be. It makes me giddy. When I turn corners and see surprise views, or even step outside or see the pink sunset outside my window, I get a feeling in my stomach like the liftoff in an airplane.

On the train from Cannes to Nice, I stood with my substantial baggage, feeling a bit carsick and tired. Two women were mumbling about something and I heard a man interject: On est bien ici, hein? “Listen, we’re pretty good here.” He gestured grandly.

“To the left, we have the sea. To the right, the mountains.” He paused.

Et on va se plaindre? “We’re going to complain?” Oui, c’est vrai, the women agreed. Oui c’est vrai. 

I smiled. That charming French regional pride. Also the fact that I get to share in this. Those crashing waves, those mountain peaks. Whichever way I look, the reminder that I am small. There is freedom in that.

I have moved from a French town economically depressed, default color gray, cafés filled with unemployed men drinking in the daytime…to a town of color, sun, and warmth.

Each day so far has been filled with charm and surprise: Sunbathing in October. A huge piece of watermelon to eat on the beach. Hidden passages. Olive trees. Turning a corner to see a crew in the middle of filming a movie scene. Sitting there enjoying a piece of tarte tropézienne. Pure sunlight and a constant breeze. img_0601

Knowing firsthand how difficult moving to France can be, I didn’t expect all this. I expected the worst, and was ready for it. And I know I can handle the worst: I did that last year. But it’s looking like I can let my guard down a little bit.

When I arrived in Nice, I was warmly welcomed by the owner of the Le Petit Trianon, a charming little hotel in the city center. Manuela told me about the hotel and how she had decorated each room herself. She asked me about my situation, and upon learning that I’m looking for long-term housing in Cannes, gave me her phone number and told me she would call friends to see if she could help.

For at least a few weeks, I’m staying at an AirBnb in Cannes la Bocca, about a five minute walk from the sea. The two-story house with a big garden and blue shutters is also home to a cat named Mirabelle and an ancient pooch, Loula.

My host, Antoine (name changed for privacy), is the father of three kids about my age. He’s a math teacher, which means we both have the same vacation time. And he’s really kind. I purposefully chose to stay in an AirBnb with a stranger rather than by myself, and it has worked out even better than I imagined.

When Antoine welcomed me to the place, he gave me a beach towel and snorkel mask to use. I promptly ran down to the sea, looking for rocks and shells and swimming with schools of white translucent fish. Another day, he drove me around Cannes so that I would have a better idea of my bearings. I had mentioned I like to read, and on Saturday he drove me to a book festival in a nearby small town where I got to listen to French authors speak and even talk with some authors myself, including Cuban author William Navarrete. Being that neither of us is currently living in our country of birth (and we were both speaking a second language to communicate), we had a good conversation about cultural exchange.

After that, Antoine drove me to Gourdon, a tiny, 800-year-old town, to see the view. And last night, he invited me to dinner with his family. There were five of us and we sat crowded around a wooden table, talking and laughing and eating homemade lasagna. I could keep up with the jokes and the subtleties. It has been effortless talking to people this time around, and believe me, that was certainly not the case last year. I don’t take it for granted, though, so I’m really enjoying it.

I am spoiled by the beauty of my surroundings, and by this kindness. I am luxuriating in anonymity while also enjoying all these petits interactions with strangers and new friends. I am remembering why I travel.

 

 

kids’ stuff/next steps

I have five more weeks of teaching left, and it feels…manageable. Like successful organization might be possible.

I really enjoyed teaching this week; the time away made me feel like myself again, energy and optimism available in large quantities. It was a week where things got done. We talked about pets, we talked about objects in the house, clothing, new grammar. I was impressed by many of the students’ good memories even after the break, particularly one class that rattled off Robinson Crusoe vocabulary from weeks before. Parrot, gun, saw, axe, island, canoe! 

Color me impressionnée. 

I still get such a kick out of their faux-sophistication, the way they rattle off French phrases and verb tenses that took me years of study as an adult to master. The way a class of baby-faced 7 year olds clad in sweatsuits chide each other for not paying attention. Eyes rolling to the ceiling, that French sigh: pffftCan you believe this guy? He’s not even listening. 

At this age, it’s still cool to do what you’re told, to make the teacher happy, which is a relief for me. I make them laugh; they make me laugh, genuinely. It reminds me sometimes of my job this summer, where I watched a sweet “four and a half” year old and his baby sister. Not only was I getting paid, but I genuinely enjoyed hanging out with these small people. Their delight at a frog or a feather, their un-self-concious laughter and dancing. It reminds you what it is to be human.

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It’s the same at school. Almost never do the kids bum me out, on the contrary, they’re what I love about this job. They’re so cute, with huge personalities and creativity and curiosity in spades. I jive well with that.

We have fun together, like in our games of mime where I show them a flashcard of animal words we’ve been learning and they act it out for the class. This week, the enthusiasm was off the charts. They good-naturedly hopped across the room like a rabbit or dropped to  the ground, much to my surprise–you really don’t have to do that!–to wriggle across the floor like a snake.

They clearly don’t mind looking silly, which is an absolutely essential part of learning a language. It saves so much time. For example, French kids don’t tend to hear a difference between angry and hungry or teacher and tee-shirt.

Everyone say ‘shhhh.’ Now everyone say ‘ch- ch- ch-.’ We go back and forth for awhile. Teee-chur. Teeee-shhhhirt. And they get it.

There are so many little moments, little epiphanies: Jessica! ‘Turtle’ is like ‘tortue’ but backwards! It’s the same word!

I am summoned whenever there are questions or comments about other languages or places. I might be going to les États-Unis this summer, Jessica! Maybe I’ll see you there! 

Did you know my mamie lives in Spain? 

Is it hot in England? Do kids study French over there? 

At recess, I am offered a piece of homemade birthday cake by a grinning little girl (8 today!) waiting for a few teeth to grow in.

Two little boys come up to me as I’m reading a Margaret Atwood collection. On the front is a drawing of a crow. What’s that about? I’m pretty sure we have that book at my house. Oh really? I try not to laugh. Wow, she’s old! When they see the author photo.

I am asked to translate their little sweatshirts and backpacks adorned with inexplicable English phrases. Smile cat love! Always energy dream! 

 And so. It’s the stress, the planning, and the inconvenience of life here that occasionally get me down, but almost never the kids.

I wouldn’t do this job forever, but one more year? I think so. So, I’ve applied for a contract renewal for next year in a new académie in a new region.

As I’ve said before, this experience is not easy but it’s worthwhile; I haven’t regretted it once. I’ve complained, anguished, and stressed, and here I am, signing up to do it again. So that tells you something.

I also got into a French graduate program at Middlebury College that comprises a summer at the Vermont campus and a full year at the Sorbonne in Paris. This program interests me because it’s really intense, like a serious bootcamp for the language skills, and it would allow me to study things I’m really interested in (French culture, linguistics, instead of medieval lit, for example). Besides the skills boost, I would finish the year with a Masters in French. Is this private college and this degree worth the high price tag? I’m not sure yet. I’ve yet to figure out what I want to “do with my life,” but one idea is French-English translation. I want something exciting, challenging, useful, and conducive to traveling. If I want to be competitive in this realm, my French will need a serious upgrade, something I would get with this program.

For awhile I was stuck between the two options, but pragmatic Mary forced me to send a bunch of emails and I think I have my answer. I feel good about it, anyway. While Middlebury doesn’t offer an official deferment option, they will keep all my application information for two years. So, should I decide to go for the Masters next year, it seems I will basically be all set. In the meantime, I can research scholarships. That way, I don’t have to pay a hefty deposit (due this week!) for something I’m not totally sure about.

For now, I’m excited to hear back about next year: who knows where I’ll be then?

le retour

I wasn’t expecting my first week back from Christmas vacation to be filled with joie. 

Le retour is always difficult, and here there were two: the return from vacation, back to life in small-town France, and the return to teaching.

My first day back didn’t deserve to go so well. I’ve been there before. This time, though, I made the opposite mistake. Instead of turning up a day early, staring into an empty school like a lost freshman on the first day, I almost…didn’t show up at all.

I had planned for Wednesday. Wednesday I could do. It was Monday. I deep-cleaned my room, organized the kitchen, went on an epic grocery expedition, did my laundry. I eschewed nothing but lesson plans, which were to be Tuesday’s focus.

Another morning to sleep in, tranquille. And then I heard a voice from the next room. Mary said slowly, “I think we work tomorrow. Let me show you why I think that.” She had seen something online.

My heart dropped to my toes. I was ready to protest, but instead I rifled through my things with a manic energy for the deceptively casual paper I had again forgotten to consult: my work schedule for the year.

Retour : mardi le 3 janvier. 

Tomorrow. What a nice start to the new year that would have been: unintentionally playing hooky.

My neat, comfortable little plans flew out the window. The stress I felt doubled, which, unfortunately, had no affect on my productivity. What would I teach these children, all 250 of them? What could I plan with no plan? It was going to be ugly.

I procrastinated most of the day, did the faintest bit of preparation, and found myself at 10 pm before an early morning waiting for my glossy manicure to dry as I watched a Patrick Swayze movie.

I walked into school the next morning like a prisoner to the gallows.

My mood was lifted, though, as one teacher after another came up to me and wished me a bonne année. These wishes were surprisingly warm, not a throwaway “happy new year” but rather a list of meilleurs vœux: good health and good luck and a bon séjour in France, all delivered with a genuine smile. I was offered various pâtisserie and asked in detail about how I spent the holidays.

And then to class, the first of seven that day. After a ten-minute rocky start in which I wondered if I had completely forgotten how to teach, I got my groove back and managed to keep it up with every class: from the wriggling six-year-olds to the super-competitive fourth-graders.

Teaching feels to me like an athletic event. It reminds me of when I played tennis in high school. During long, tough matches, I would often manage to get in “the zone,” running after every surprise drop shot with energy I didn’t know I had. Sweat was running down my face but I just cared about the next point.

Teaching is like that. I may be exhausted, with the beginnings of a killer headache throbbing at my temples, but I stand up to start a new lesson and all of that slides away. When I get home I may crash, but in the moment I’m too busy solving the dozens of little conflicts that arise when working with children to think about myself for one second.

It’s kind of invigorating.

I was worried that two weeks away from the job would undo some of the progress I’d made, but it turned out to be a perfect refresh. The lessons, as a whole, went more smoothly than ever before, and I realized I’d really missed those French baby faces.

It’s kind of a relief to have a good start to the year. January to me usually feels like November Part II: the chill of winter without Christmas lights or anticipation. January is malaise, ennui, and other bleak French words. January is a good month for a crisis: existential or quarter-life, take your pick.

This week I saw a cartoon by an illustrator I like, Gemma Correll. She’s jokingly designed a paint palette for January, shades that range from gray to black with names like “Forgotten Joy,” “Frozen Puddle,” and “Broken Light Therapy Box.”

That’s how I might describe the “light” outside my window most days this week here in Montluçon, and most years, how I would describe my hibernal attitude.

But this year is different. It feels good to be working instead of pacing around the house and eating butter cookies on the too-long college break (though I do miss morning coffee and crosswords with my parents).

in which I ‘faire des bêtises’

It’s weird to put myself in a new category: teacher, the mysterious breed that one is always shocked to see in a public place.

Recently I spent the whole day in town, working on lessons and then meeting Mary for dinner and drinks. I had my laptop and a stack of books, my hair in a bun. I glimpsed my reflection on the way into a popular bar, whining: “I look like a teacher.”

“You are a teacher,” Mary reminded me.

Oh, right. I’m now the kind of person who watches Blue’s Clues-wannabe videos: a jolly thirty-something man singing “this is my favorite pumpkin” in an attempt to teach autumn vocabulary.

But I’m rolling my eyes. And that’s the secret. Teachers have lives. We may be writing lesson plans, but we are also making Korean bibimbap and dancing around the kitchen to the Ying Yang Twins.

I think I have successfully maintained a professional image in the classroom. Out of it, though? If they only knew…

Faire des bêtises is a French phrase I enjoy. It’s a more charming way to express you’ve done something stupid. It also describes my morning.

It was my first day back after les vacances scolaires. I had stayed up late the night before, watching more pumpkin videos and planning drawing activities for the younger students; writing practice dialogues for the older ones. I woke up very early this morning, after four alarms that incorporated themselves into my dreams (which quickly turned to nightmares). I double-checked that everything was ready to go: lesson elements organized with time estimates and saved to a flash drive in appropriate file formats. I left no time for morning rituals like drinking water or using the bathroom. I chucked a mini pumpkin in my purse as a last-minute prop and hoped for the best, setting off in the freezing fog for the brisk 1.5km power walk to school. Physically, of course, I felt like actual death, but I was prepared.

I neared the school just before starting time, expecting to greet dozens of students streaming inside. But there was no one.

Lights off. Doors locked. I had a horrible feeling I had missed something…like the date school started again. November 3rd. It would help if I had looked at a calendar once in the past two weeks. The early bird gets the…headache from lack of sleep?

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Me: tired, amused, relieved

Back home to pajamas and tea.

Later, I ventured out to get groceries, always a complicated undertaking. (It’s at these times I most miss my car). On my way back, I was starving. You don’t see people walking down the street eating, here, and though I usually try to observe social decorum, I just went for it, rifling in one of my bags for a covert (and generous) handful of moutarde chips. It was at that moment the heel of my boot slipped and I flailed with all the groceries, my five-ten frame dangerously nearing the frozen ground, the handful of chips so close to my face I could smell the spices, now crushed to little pieces in my palm.

I had to laugh at how it must have looked. In case anyone was wondering, I am not a French woman.