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!

the goldfish bowl

Just when I felt pretty comfortable with my role teaching English classes to French primary school children, life (or rather, the French Ministry of Education) handed me something new: a job at a maternelle in les banlieues of Cannes.

My new students range from barely three to six years old. The oldest are wonderfully curious, asking questions that inspire future lessons. The youngest struggle to hold pencils and blow their noses–quite the change from the fifth graders I taught last year. One thing I enjoy about this job is the simple preparation it requires: no more writing activities, no more neatly organized cahiers.

But it’s not an easy trade. With this age, we cover material at the pace of an escargot. The days bleed together like the watercolors in the art room.

Recently I wrote about how language-learning feels like a study of absurdism. Teaching, were it paralleled by a French art movement, would belong squarely to Surrealism. Time glitches like a stuck record. Repetition to make you doubt reality. I have lived this day before.

How many times have I explained that sequence of sounds, played that song, showed that same dumb picture of a rainbow? And they remember nothing? C’est pas vrai.

The little melodies in my head, purposefully catchy to increase language retention, become a soundtrack to the sameness. If I have to listen to the soul-killing “If You’re Happy” one more time…

A woman at the training day I attended in Nice called all this the goldfish bowl. I hadn’t made this analogy with teaching before, but she was right. Teaching this age often feels like swimming in circles with the same view: a monotony that is dizzying.

She had leaned forward, confiding. “I could never do it. I would go mad.”

I was relieved that someone understood. “Oh, I’m about to.”

They don’t learn they don’t learn they don’t learn. I am going to lose my mind, perhaps releasing a Munchian scream. “The Rainbow Colors Song” will sound like a death knell.

And then they do learn.

In little bits. Enough to motivate me, but just. It’s one child remembering a new vocabulary word or just gathering the courage to speak at all. It’s the way they run up to me in the halls and point at nearby objects, yelling out English colors they know. Jessica! Ça c’est blue, et ça c’est green, et mon tee-shirt c’est pink! 

It’s the delightful connections they make. Singing “Rain Rain Go Away,” a class of five and six-year-olds likened come on back another day to Camembert another day. (I did mention they’re French?) “It’s just un petit peu différent,” they told each other.

It’s a collection of little things: a lively conversation in the staff room, even my morning croissant amande– the boulangerie’s warm air and cheerful coin clatter providing calm before the storm of l’école.

It’s the sweet way the kids are still delighted and intrigued by my presence– and how a few of them think my name is English.

Regarde! It’s English! Where are you going, English? 

They are a bit confused about my age, too. Some ask if I’m married and have kids, while others ask if my mom’s coming to pick me up. Well, neither. And I’m confused too. Welcome to your twenties.

“I know it doesn’t seem like it to you,” I said to a group of six-year-olds last week, anticipating their shock, “but I’m still young, you know. I’m 23.”

Their wide eyes.“Vingt-trois !?” They didn’t know people could live that long.

One day this week I walked outside to spend one of the recess periods with them. They swarmed me, asking when they would get to come to English class again. Before long, a game commenced. One little girl sat on a bench and pretended to be la maîtresse d’anglais–me–while several other children, all from different classes, sat crossed-legged on the ground. “Hello, everyone,” she said in French, “it’s time for English. What should we sing today; who has an idea? No, raise your hand.” She led the group in a rousing round of “Hello, Hello, How are You?” complete with hand gestures.

That alone made my work worth it for that day (and probably for longer). I just need to remember those moments: my reason, for now, to keep swimming.

 

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.

rainy day reading

A cozy rainy afternoon, and I’ve spent it reading TAPIF blogs. There’s the Canadian assistant who was placed in a town of only 3,000 people for her year abroad. Alone without other assistants or a train station nearby, she acknowledged how hard it had been but also found a lot of things to miss. An American assistant from last year had a French Tinder date a few days after her arrival…she’s now engaged.

A lot can happen in a year abroad…or not. You might meet the love of your life, decide to attend graduate school in Europe, launch a new career. You might have a dreamy year in exactly the city you wanted to live in. Or maybe none of those things will happen. You might experience problems at your schools, get your purse stolen, feel extremely lonely for a month with only Netflix as company. You might quit and go back home. Some people do.

In any case, the community involved in the program is really strong. “Alumni” want to help current assistants, and it’s easy to make friends with others in the same situation, kind of like how summer camp helps foster quick connections.

It’s all so unknown, which makes it exciting and scary both. When being here–alone, in France–was all hypothetical to me (as recent as like, a month ago), I didn’t even want to think about it.

Now that I’m here, and happy, there’s something simultaneously weird and comforting about living such a similar life as so many who have done this before. And I mean similar…the other day I talked with an English girl who lived in Montluçon last year…in the same house where I am now, also teaching in primary schools, and probably experiencing the same transportation headaches and visiting the same bars.

Though we’ve had and will have so many individual experiences, I feel like I’m repeating her life. Many people’s lives. When I read these blogs I realize my time here will go so quickly! In summer I was apprehensive, not sure I was capable. But now that I’m here, no matter what happens, time passes, and I’ll teach my last class in April and that will be that.

I’ve only been here a few weeks, and yet as I’m reading these blogs, I’m tearing up. I know this year won’t always be easy or fun, but when I read the stories of other assistants, read the posts where they say goodbye to their French lives and go back home, it just confirms what I already know: this opportunity is difficult and special and wonderful and over in a flash.