One of the things that I was happiest to leave behind in the US is the idea that there’s something wrong with you if you’re not an outgoing extrovert. Throughout my childhood, teenage years, and even into young adulthood I was constantly called shy. My closest friends always laughed at comments like that because I’m a very talkative person once you get to know me. That’s the difference between being reserved and shy, and so you can imagine my frustration at being falsely labeled for most of my life.
Then I showed up in France and, spoiler alert, I’ve never been called shy here. France is the place where being discreet is the penultimate. Consider this: have you ever been on the métro in Paris? Have you noticed that most of the time, you could hear a pin drop? Take a moment to really think about it.
Now, have you ever been on the subway in New York City? I’ll admit that there’s an energy there that you’ll never find in Paris, but one thing that sticks out the most in my mind is the noise. Once, I landed at JFK and had to take the subway out to Brooklyn to meet the friend I was staying with. The shock of just how loud the subway was hit me like a ton of bricks. My jetlag probably didn’t help, but I think you get the idea.
So in France I feel more at home than I ever have because the fact that I’m reserved is not only accepted here but sought after. When I first got here, I lived with a Franco-American family out in the Parisian suburbs. Almost immediately after I arrived, I got on Meetup and Facebook and got out there to meet people. I was lucky in that I was an au pair, and similarly to international students, au pairs flock together. Just two weeks after stepping foot on French territory, I had found a group of girls with whom I really bonded.
But (le sigh), we were all American. I started meeting more people and they were, second spoiler alert, more English speakers. Australian, Irish, English, and even some German people, but all Anglophones. In some way, it felt good to be surrounded by this comfort of a shared language because I was so far from home. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that this wasn’t what I came here to do. I came here to learn new things, meet new (French) people, and, to be honest, I was struggling to do so.
Fast forward to my second year as an au pair. At this point, my group of friends had dwindled down to a solid six people, all English speakers. Once you start living the life of an expat, you realize that other foreigners come and go and you have to be ready to adapt and make new friends at all times. The group that I became close with was also interested in sticking around for the long haul, which is why we gravitated toward each other. And, we were all frustrated that we hadn’t made any solid French friends yet.
After 2.5 years as an au pair, I was ready to make a change and yet not at all ready to go back to the United States. I still couldn’t speak French at this point and so I decided to take the plunge and go back to school — in French. Before I could do that I needed to seriously step my French skills up, so I enrolled in an intensive year-long program that promised to get me to the level that I would need to go on and apply for a master’s program.
So, I moved into my apartment in the sky, otherwise known as an under 100-square-foot shoebox on the seventh floor of a Parisian apartment building, and started trading English lessons for free rent (another story for another day!) so that I could focus all of my attention on finally learning French and hopefully making French friends. The learning French thing happened fairly quickly, as it turned out I just needed a little encouragement, a lot of practice, and to be in a classroom where I was the only English speaker. The French friends took much longer.
As it turns out, there aren’t many French people who take intensive French classes (read: none). So while I was happy to have new friends that I could practice my French with, I still ached to truly integrate into French life, and for me, that meant a shiny new group of French friends. I finally got my chance through my best friend here, who is English. She started dating a guy and a few months in, wanted me to meet his group of (French!) friends.
And so I got ready to meet a bunch of new people, took a deep breath, walked down my seven flights of stairs, and started to walk to the club we were supposed to meet at. I had a great night, was finally able to meet a group of Parisians with whom I could connect and speak in French, and no one called me shy. It was also the first time I met my now-husband.
The French are notorious for being hard to connect with and well, I used to agree. But, I also think of it like this: when you’re out with your friends, are you on the lookout to meet new people? Probably not. You’re probably just enjoying being with your people and this was a realization that I came to the hard way. I’m also grateful for my experience because it served as another helpful reminder that the world doesn’t revolve around me or my needs.
Don’t feel discouraged if you’re a fellow expat reading this article. You don’t need to wait three years to learn French and meet French friends. I will say it’s a lot easier if you have an in with at least one French person. If you hit it off, they’ll likely introduce you to the rest of their friends. Once you do have that in, the French are kind and welcoming, and will most likely cook you delicious meals as well as teach you how to pick out a good bottle of wine. And, when you think about it, finding just one French friend is a lot less intimidating than finding a whole group of them, isn’t it?
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What is the intensive French program you took that worked so well? Please share!
Hi AJ! It was the F.E.T.E. program at Université Paris Nanterre.
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