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!

bon vivant on a budget, or, how to be broke in Cannes

There are (literal) costs to living where everyone wants to be. When I learned I will be paying six times what I paid for rent last year with my modest teaching salary, I glumly reported the news to my parents over FaceTime.

“I guess being poor isn’t all bad.” Dad shrugged. “Makes things simple. Less choices.”

“Wrong,” I joked. “Plenty of choices. I’m currently deciding whether I should embark on a career as a streetwalker or just try my luck at the local casino.”

We agreed that neither path seemed a particularly sustainable option. In lieu of compromising my morals to afford a baguette, I should probably take the decidedly less-exciting approach and just learn how to budget.

Budget. Is there an uglier word in English? If it had a color, it would be an institutional tan. “Budget” is a room with drab carpeting and flickering fluorescent lights. The word brings with it visions of missed opportunities and crushed dreams.

But desperate times call for desperate measures, don’t they. On my first week in France this time around, in search of an apartment and unsure about upcoming expenses, even the cost of basic groceries posed a threat. So I didn’t buy them, and lived off of irregular meals of fruit and the occasional 2€ piece of boulangerie quiche.

Finally, awakened several nights by a grumbling stomach, I had to admit that feeding myself properly was worth the “cost” of budgeting, and wiser than the classic move of crossing my fingers and hoping everything turned out okay.

This year will be a challenge, and much less full of Mary&Jessica-Style Impulse Buys such as artisanal rose petal jam, Chanel nail polish, or a tutu. I am excited for the life skills this experience will undoubtedly teach me, though, of course, there will be sacrifice. The first thing to go is travel. I had big dreams. Italy! Germany! Portugal! That is quite clearly not going to happen. I have chosen instead (as if I had a choice), to see and do and enjoy as much as I can in this beautiful region.

Luckily for me and my lovely budget, my friend Erika, who is living and working near Paris for the year, decided to visit me for the first week of our mutual teaching vacances. She rented a room in the AirBnb where I’m still staying and we traveled up and down the coast, taking advantage of the South of France’s excellent train system to explore small towns and little-known spots and coming back to sleep in our own beds at night. We rarely ate out, instead splitting the grocery bill at Grand Frais and cooking up a storm throughout the week. We ate chanterelle omelets and creamy sage pasta and caprese salad and perfect tiny strawberries. We enjoyed Rosé, fresh plums and clementines, and a tempting array of cheese. With the money we saved, we were free to treat ourselves to some gelato taste-testing. See Erika’s post on our kitchen wizardry.

We spent next to nothing on entertainment, but instead indulged our inner flâneur. The idea was to get to a new place (by train, bus, or boat) and explore it on foot. Luckily, experiencing natural and architectural beauty is free, and the Côte d’Azur is filthy rich with it.

I’m learning that budgeting, that least-sexy of terms, a word that would wear tube socks and sandals and khakis, can actually help create a more conscious, intentional, and enjoyable (!) lifestyle. Really. There is freedom in learning to ask: do I really need this? Or even want it? Am I even hungry?

I’m learning that oftentimes, when you “deprive” yourself, you don’t even notice the sacrifice. We could’ve dropped 30€ on a couple of beachfront cocktails, but I am confident the bottle of inexpensive Prosecco we shared on la Plage des Rochers while we watched a brilliant sunset from a rock was in no way inferior.

And cheers, truly, to that.

the real world: an honest account of teaching abroad, 5 months in

After a much-needed vacation, I feel refreshed enough to write a little bit more about my job. It is, after all, the reason I’m currently living in France.

Teaching here is one of the most stressful experiences I’ve ever had.

I haven’t written too much about my job here with the TAPIF program, mostly because when I’m not actually teaching, I’d rather think about something else. But after talking with several friends who have done this and have had (or are having currently) a very stressful time, I thought I’d put another opinion out there.

My opinion: this is a very worthy experience that’s very freaking hard.

The ups-and-downs are what get me. A few weeks ago, before vacation started, I went to my “Monday” school (my favorite). I had prepared a Valentine’s Day lesson. Mary and I had stayed up late the night before watching Twin Peaks and drawing the flashcards I needed, colorful images I’d use to elicit new vocabulary. Teddy bear. Chocolate. 

I walked into the school that morning and was greeted with a huge smile and an appraisal from one of the teachers. Qu’est-ce qu’elle est belle ! Qu’est-ce qu’elle est chic ! She demanded to know where I bought my skirt.

I prepared my materials: printed things and made copies, wrote out an introductory word game on the board, and waited for my first class, a well-behaved, quite charming group of fifth-graders. As the lesson came to a close, the kids were coloring away at their animal Valentines as I circled the room for occasional questions, when their full-time teacher, also the school’s directeur, approached me. He was full of good things to say. C’est génial, ce que tu fais. He said the kids are happy; look, they’re entertained, they’re quiet, they’re learning. He said he saw one of my lesson plans and it impressed him, that it was exactly what they do there, that he could pick it up and be able to teach the English lesson. He essentially offered to pick up the phone and recommend me for a contract renewal.

I tried to hold back a grin.

“I’m not saying this to flatter you, you understand. I’m saying this because it’s true.”

I had a few more lessons, all of them fun for me and the kids, no discipline problems to speak of. One little girl even ran up and hugged me after the lesson. “English with Jessica,” she proclaimed in French, “is the best English in the world!”

It was a Mary Poppins Day: one of those teaching days where I walk in and feel like an adored traveling governess. I even have the requisite “magic bag,” but mine contains games, books, funny pictures, and a laptop with songs and videos saved to it.

Kids came up and gave me the Valentines they’d made, asking first if they had to give it to a friend or if they could choose…someone else.

As they sat and colored, they were abuzz with good-natured questions and murmurings: I’m going to give the whale Valentine to my sister and the bear one to my dad! 

Come look, Jessica! 

Do you think I should color his nose pink or brown? 

How do you say crocodile in English? See, I told you! 

At recess, I stood with the teachers as we drank our tiny espressos. Someone had brought croissants. We talked about the upcoming vacation time and then they asked what I planned to do after this school year, so I told them about grad school and other possible projects. A teacher friend, Delphine*, who is about my mom’s age and gives me a ride to the school twice a week, told us about a book she’s reading. It’s about a young American woman who moves to France and writes about her adventures in French language and culture. She even marries a Frenchman.

“That’s Jessica!” Delphine said. “That’s all I could think when I started reading this: it’s Jessica!”

I felt hopeful, young in a good way, like I couldn’t wait to see what’s next. I felt loved and appreciated, the way it’s nice to feel around Valentine’s Day. I loved my job.

Then, “Tuesday school.” I don’t particularly want to rehash all the mishaps and frustrations that happened (that always happen) at Tuesday school. Suffice it to say that, when my lunch break hit, the first thing I did was pull out my phone calendar to see how many days I had to come back. This is the school that, as soon as I get home, has me digging in the back of the fridge for any beer we may have. This is the school that’s stressed me out so much that I have actual nightmares. If Monday has me feeling like Mary Poppins, Tuesday has me feeling like a depressed Disney hag, like I’m a thousand years old. The camaraderie, the respect, the feeling that I’m making a difference, all those important things that exist at Monday school don’t exist here, not for me. Tuesdays make me feel hopeless; Tuesdays are the days I actively dread.

As I was leaving that Tuesday–I made it, I survived, I have a killer headache–I realized I’d forgotten something, so I went back to one of the classrooms, where a woman I didn’t know was setting up an art project. I asked her about her job doing after school activities and she told me that this was the last day she was working at this particular school, thank God.

You feel that way too?! I asked, quick camaraderie. Oh yes, she assured me. I laughed; I could have cried with relief.

Much of the stress, you know, comes from never knowing if what I’m doing is right. In two of the schools, I feel that it is. In the other, all bets are off. I have no training and I work alone. I have one person I’m able to contact for advice, help, or problems, but this person cannot be particularly bothered to, say, return my emails.

It is very frustrating to me, because I know that my situation isn’t how this program is intended to work: I prepare up to seventeen different lessons a week (because the classes are at completely different levels) and I plan and teach each one alone. My job title is “assistant,” but I don’t assist anyone. I wake up, dreading school, having no clue if a lesson will bomb or not, and I long to be told what to do. That seems like the ultimate luxury at this point.

It’s stressful and it can be very lonely, as is this town. Complete honesty here. When I got back from vacation (which I’ll be writing about soon), I felt a kind of grief. Home alone in a drafty house on the outskirts of a dying town. Mary, who by now is like a sister to me, wasn’t home yet. I went to get groceries, which entails riding a shitty bike without working brakes down a long hill. My stomach was bigger than my backpack, so to speak, and I selected too many items to carry. I had to buy two bags and stuff them full of groceries as well as the backpack, leave my bike in the parking lot, and trudge up the hill on foot, a long, heavy twenty minutes. The moment I exited the store it started to pour rain.

I missed my car, but not just that. I missed having someone to call.

I don’t feel homesick, exactly, but I do miss things, lots of things. I miss the people in my life. I miss hot baths. I miss concerts. Indie movies. Hot mugs of homemade (real) coffee. I miss the library, road trips, having a dryer and a comfortable bed and a fireplace. I miss dressing up with friends and doing things, having a nightlife. I miss early mornings and lazy evenings at coffee shops. I miss comfort. I miss the sun. I miss the freedom that comes with having my own transportation (of the four-wheeled variety). I miss making friends with someone easily, in a couple of minutes.

There are parts of this I love: The travel part. The time to read part. The hanging out with Mary part. The Monday part. The vacation part. The kids, too. The funny things they say. Seeing them learn.

I’ve never been sorry that I’m here, so I’m grateful for that. But sometimes I wish I was somewhere else (if that makes any sense).

I am simultaneously enjoying my time here and counting down the days til I leave. I write this to express the two opposing and equally important aspects of my time in France with TAPIF: worthwhile. Difficult.

But you know what they say about things that don’t kill you.

less-than-thrilled: when you don’t want your dream

“How do you find Montluçon?” When I arrived here, I was asked this quite a few times, always with a wince on the part of the inquirer.

C’est un peu triste, non? But no, no I didn’t find it sad. Blue skies and tropical flowers, temps in the low eighties, a new city and a new life to explore. AOP cheese inexpensive at the grocery store. Life now conducted in my second language, lending a sense of challenge and excitement to the simplest interaction.

Even without all that, I was just glad to have a job and a place to lay my head at night. It had been a long, tumultuous summer, one in which I wasn’t at all sure I was going to come to France. Money worries. Trepidation. I hadn’t found a place to sleep.

Things worked themselves out, improbably. I was here. My French future stood in front of me, bright and sweet as a macaron.

There was no time to be bored, listless, uncertain.

And then there was.

November was a rough month in which I understood exactly why people might complain about this place. C’est un peu triste? Ben oui.

It was dark, cold, and bleak. I missed the warmth and vitality and fun of my college town. I did get into a routine, but it looked something like this:

wake up very early (usually from nightmares about failing to sufficiently prepare for classes), go to work, ride the bus home with a killer headache, unwittingly fall asleep, and wake up as the sky turned black and it was time to think about the next day’s lessons.

November was one problem and annoyance after another in realms of: health, relationships, work, transportation, social life…

It was hard not to think: am I wasting my time? struggling to learn Spanish and going on solitary runs in the cold. Trying to make the bus thing work. Trying to make the bike thing work. Trying to make the work thing work, with less support than I’m due. Scrabbling for entertainment in a tiny town. Where was the big group of expat friends, the cultural events, the hole-in-the-wall restaurants with incredible food?

I spent Thanksgiving with Mary, eating pizza in the cité médiévale and feeling less than thankful. Optimism is all well and good, but sometimes you’ve gotta vent.

How easy it would have been to misrepresent the day. A picture of me and a glass of wine, captioned Thanksgiving 2016 in France: best Thanksgiving ever! But it wasn’t. What it was: the culmination of a month of feeling maddeningly frustrated, of trying to adapt to a lifestyle that can feel so stagnant, a month of trying to find friends and fun in a place where the over-18 and under-35 demographic is pretty lacking.

By the next day, I was beginning to feel a sort of begrudging thankfulness. I wrote:

…ultimately, though, I am thankful, that this year isn’t easy. It’s many things, at times very lovely, but not easy. So I will learn resilience (even when I’d rather not). I’m thankful for all this time: to figure things out, grow up, get in shape (even though I’d prefer to be busier). I’m thankful for a wonderful roommate and friend who understands the necessary balance between venting and staying positive. I’m thankful for the kids I get to teach, friends and family near and far, the chance to write about my adventures, and most of all, a God who provides.

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It’s all true. Gain resilience? Patience? If given the choice, I’d rather just be happy. It’s natural to choose pleasure over pain. But growth and maturity don’t come cheap. That’s something I think about during the struggles: if I keep making good choices and fighting through it, what kind of person could I be at the end of this? I want to find out. A day (or week) (or month) that doesn’t go as planned doesn’t have to crush me.

And for better or worse, problems give me something to write about. I’m not someone who pretends that life in France is all rosé. I want to create an honest account of my time here, neither ignoring the bad times nor wallowing in them.

Mary says she thinks that in travel and in living abroad, the highs are higher and the lows are lower. I agree. It sounds really romantic to live somewhere new, but it’s still going to be real life, wherever you are. Real life in Italy. Real life in France. Real life is hard sometimes.

And here’s a real life lesson I’m learning: dreams are not always dreamy. You don’t always want them. It was my dream to live here. My dream to speak French fluently, my dream to become bilingual. To travel alone, to learn to teach, to become independent and solve my own problems.

It still is, as I sometimes have to remind myself.

 

 

happy luck

Mary has moved in and finally we’re settling into the rhythms of small-town French life. Together we can grumble about the lack of buses on Sunday and celebrate when we find a café with wifi. We can practice our French, unless we’re tired, in which case we devolve into our own brand of franglais.

It’s nice to have someone to laugh with. We do that a lot as means of survival, for the inconveniences can be really frustrating. For example, our house is lovely but also a forty-minute walk from most places of interest. Normally the bus serves us well…except on Sundays where you’d better get used to walking. It’s fine until you have to do it four times in a day and feel the blisters and bruises forming on your feet.

But I have a sense of optimism and so does Mary, something I really appreciate about her. We’re good at finding the at least, like: we may have missed the bus by two minutes but at least we’ll get more acquainted with the route. My feet are killing me but at least when we get to the café we’ll really appreciate it!

That’s what happened yesterday, more times than I should probably admit. We kept missing those rare Sunday buses…except for our first trip into the city, where we got off the bus at an unknown stop and found ourselves right in the middle of a Sunday morning market.

That’s the other side of the frustration coin, that the smallest success feels like a victory. When you don’t always know what you’re doing (or where you’re going or how to get there), life is full of happy surprises.

I love the French market, vendors yelling about how good their tomatoes are; skeptical older women making sure they get their money’s worth: are you sure the tangerines are bon?

Mary bought some sausage with bleu d’Auvergne (a cheese from the region) from a solidly-built man with a mustache so classic you could almost hear it say Je suis français.

I made a beeline for a little fromagerie and gazed at all the lovely, crazy cheese in unexpected colors. I saw cheese I recognized from my job at Lucky’s–Port Salut, Brillat-Savarin–as well as dozens of cheeses I didn’t. img_2481

I tried the green cheese, colored from basil (what else?) and bought something similar, but flavored with truffles instead and decidedly non-green.

I bought a bag of figs that were so good we ate them in one sitting, right across the street. Mary went back and bought a kilo. img_2483

We talked a little with the produce vendors, who were interested in our origine. This happens a lot. Then when we say we’re American, people tend to jump at the chance to try out the little English they know. I’ve had people stare at me, repeating a word like good! or Miami! Yesterday we were sitting at a bus stop, speaking English, when a man did a double-take: he turned around and walked back and asked us, in French, if we were American. His suspicions confirmed, he smiled and wished us a good day.

It’s fun to be here, as I’ve never felt so…rare. We clearly wouldn’t enjoy the same reception in Paris.

After the figs, we sat at a café where we had a view of the shoppers and enjoyed a simple breakfast: coffee and orange juice and tartines. We saw a man ride through the crowd on his bike, three baguettes stuffed down the front of his down jacket like it was nothing. La France, country of understated elegance and pride in personal appearance, where it is also acceptable to stuff bread down your shirt. img_2485

We had a grand bread and cheese lunch at home and then made our way back to centre-ville to work on lesson plans at a bar. We then walked home, walked back to a pizza place to get the little personal pizzas we had ordered–blue cheese and crème fraiche and lardons; goat cheese and honey–and walked home again…it took us longer than we thought. It was dark and our pizzas were growing cold so we snuck bites out of the boxes like raccoons in the night, making up silly French songs about how bad our feet hurt.

We may not know where to go to buy a baguette on Sunday, or, let’s be real, a lot of other things, but we do have joie de vivre (as a French guy told me the other day).

As I was writing this at the little café where I’m quickly becoming a regular, an older man began speaking to me too quickly for me to understand. When he learned where I’m from, he tried out his English. Hello! Goodnight! How are you! As he left, he wished me happy luck with my work.

Happy luck. The mistranslation made me smile. It’s a nice phrase, actually. I thought how it is what you might call happy luck that I am here, in France with a new job and new friends and new challenges. Happy luck indeed.