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!

french people tell me what to do

If I wrote my own version of Rebecca Solnit’s “Men Explain Things to Me,” it would be called “French People Tell Me What to Do.”

That’s what a lot of my life here is, saying okay when I’m not sure that it is, taking someone’s word for it because I certainly don’t know enough to argue with them. I thought it was due to the language barrier–the solid brick wall between what I meant and what I could express–but when I achieved fluency it just kept happening.

It’s not the French language, then, but the French way of life: something much harder to study. It’s sneaky and subtle. Some days I’m nostalgic for the early days of learning, the black-and-white satisfaction of memorizing vocabulary lists for Madame Wetzel: amener, appeler, arroser. 

In my French life, there is almost always a slight sense of bouleversement–disruption–the feeling that I don’t quite know what’s going on at any given time. All the yawning aspects of daily life have been shifted, a bit like that prank where you move every piece of someone’s furniture five inches to the right. I am the one pranked: I don’t notice when I walk into the room, but am surely going to stub my toe.

Being a foreigner makes me conscious of things I rarely consider in the States, like how I’m essentially at the mercy of so many strangers every single day. If they tell me to wait, I wait. Sign here? I do. That’ll be 36 euros? Let me get my card. As I organize a new bank account, long-stay work visa, and phone plan, I feel dangerously vulnerable, like this can’t possibly work out and I’m going to get scammed. Somehow it does, though, giving me a thrill like I’m cheating the system. How is this underprepared American doing it? Your guess is as good as mine.

Despite little successes, what I can accomplish here in a day doesn’t come close to my productivity at home. There, I expect to walk into the bank, post office, restaurant, gas station, library…and leave with what I came for. Check.

Here, I don’t count on that. Half the battle is finding the business open (and not on a surprise holiday or vacation or two-hour lunch break). Here, I have to remember that the bus still runs at 7pm–but only halfway through the normal route, so I might be forced to disembark in the middle of nowhere. That of course I can’t pay by card. That wifi is a luxury and that, even in a train station, I might need a euro handy to pay to use the bathroom.

The little inconveniences happen every day: not enough to really dampen my spirits, but just enough to keep me on my (stubbed) toes.

Even today, I was ready for a full day of writing in a café. I had errands to run, a bag for my groceries, a fully-charged computer, comfortable heels. But the bus didn’t come. A little old lady walking a little old dog asked me what I was doing: don’t you know it’s la Toussaint, mademoiselle? In other words, everything is closed. Of course I didn’t know about it. But now that my successes are slowly outweighing my French failures, this kind of thing just makes me laugh (and hope there’s enough food in the pantry for dinner).

I’m a spontaneous procrastinator who lives for last-minute decisions: to the bar! to the gym! to the store! to Bordeaux! and what I’m discovering is that being here cramps my style because it’s just not the way things are done.

Paradoxical France, the country of the romantic yet stubbornly practical. The concept of a “dream job” does not come from this nation.

I grew up hearing American Girl, 90s girl-power wishes: “Be YOU! Follow your dreams! You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take!”

I laugh imagining that here. “Follow your objectives,” is how I think it would translate, and that is not something you hear (all the better; what a lame motivational statement).

C’est pas possible seems the default for risky or creative endeavors.

I tell people I want to be a writer. I mention articles, books, magazines. I mention passion, figuring it out as I go along. In France, they look at me and squint. You mean you’re in journalism? 

This used to get on my nerves, but I’ve accepted that it’s just a different way of seeing the world, a way I appreciate but don’t fully accept. I’m thankful for my American upbringing, even with its flaws, its inaccurate food pyramid, its pie-in-the-sky-positivity. It’s made me just stubborn enough to wrestle with France.