Before leaving for my year abroad in France, I had certain social expectations. For instance, myself, and a chic French roommate (totes obvi my new best friend and cultural guide) spending long afternoons drinking Pastis and giggling over Franglais slang.
The reality was not quite Mary Kate & Ashley’s Passport to Paris. The thrill of going abroad is the idea of blending in and soaking up local culture. I lived alone, in a studio apartment, and no matter how hard I stared at random roving French cliques in the street, my social life remained resolutely American.
It’s hard enough achieving true friendship in a shared common language. Part of the problem was my French – though accurate, I spoke about as quickly as a toddler pretending not to be drunk. Starting conversations was difficult. Then, there were tactics. In most US cities, people use bars to meet new people. In Toulouse, etiquette dictates sticking close to the crew you came with. In the unlikely event that I roped un etrangère into conversation, the bubble of joy soon burst as I missed punchlines, expressions, and all the nuance that leads to deeper friendship. So how was I supposed to get better at French without friends? And how could I make friends without improving my French?
Since analogue techniques failed me, I decided to take my French friend hunt online. A variety of language meet-ups gathered regularly in cafés and bars, professing an exchange of cultures and languages. Success! Most participants were other language learners – not French people – but with French as the common language, it wasn’t long before I could carry a decent banter. And as I got to know more people and places, a few evasive natives filtered into the mix. After initial connections at meet-ups, it was easy to mine common interests and make less formal, more fun plans. Though the ten euro “entrance fee” often felt steep (would it kill them to throw in a drink ticket or basket of bread?!), it was worth it for the dinner parties, birthday gatherings and weekend trips with the gang that followed.
My dear friend Google eventually led me to language meet-up websites that facilitate one-on-web exchanges. A little louche (shady) at first glance, these were actually perfect for improving my language skills, and meeting like-minded natives. Armed with a basic profile, I developed dozens of virtual penpals that became FaceTime buddies, then coffee dates. My favorite go-to was conversationexchange.com, which I continue to use at home in the US.
Another key method to making French friends is to network, an obvious strategy that people often forget or feel awkward about. Be bold, ask questions, don’t be afraid to play the foreigner card, and people will try to help you. The same goes for parties and events: if you meet French people, follow up and invite them for coffee or a drink. French people usually have French friends (crazy, I know). One seemingly casual connection can lead to countless more.
My quest for French friendship underscored the differences in forming relationships across cultures. In America, people tend to smile easily, and offer acceptance upfront. In France, people tend to be more reserved initially, then open up over time. Many of my French friends remarked on the “superficiality” of American interactions that start out friendly, then fade away over time. In France, many view friendship as a lasting endeavor. Once you have a friend, you have them for life.
My eventual success in making French friends not only helped drastically with my language skills, but gave me insight into cultural nuances I never would have experienced: For instance, the apéro (pre-gaming meets happy hour), which involves wine, snacks, letting your hair down and shooting the breeze. An invitation to apéro is confirmation of social success.
Sticking to the Americans-only crowd when your abroad is a common trap, but it a little effort and occasional awkwardness is all it takes to truly live the expat dream and blend in!