When I first moved to France, I didn’t know a single person in Paris and my French vocabulary consisted of “Bonjour” and “Merci.” Not exactly the best conditions for making friends with the locals. I was so worried about my potential friendless future that I did some research into how to make friends with the French. Google’s answer? Don’t bother. Apparently all French people find their social circle in grade school and that’s that. Outsiders need not apply. Needless to say, I was more than a bit disheartened to read this, but I still packed my bags and hoped for the best. Several years later I’m happy to report that in this case Google was wrong. Today I am incredibly lucky to count numerous wonderful French people among my newfound friends, and my life in Paris wouldn’t be the same without them.
First Contact With the French
I think my first hint that Google was a bit off the mark came at the end of my first week in Paris. I was living in a neighbourhood that saw very few tourists, and my vocabulary had expanded far enough to include “un sac s’il vous plaît” at the grocery store but not much else. That’s why when a cashier suddenly asked me a question in French, I could only respond with a helpless blank look. Before I could stammer out an answer in English, an elderly woman stepped in to help translate. She thought I was a lost tourist, but I explained to her that while technically I lived nearby, I had only just arrived and I hadn’t quite mastered the language yet. She smiled at that and wished me luck in learning French. “Don’t worry,” she said as she exited the store. “You’ll get there dear.” I never saw that woman again, but to this day I think of her fondly as my first French grandmother.
First, because a month later I joined an organization that gives guided tours of Notre Dame Cathedral. Not only has this organization encouraged and supported me in my career as a tour guide over the years, but I was also immediately warmly welcomed by its members. At my very first meeting no less than half a dozen people personally told me to call them if I ever needed help adjusting to life in France. Today I describe this experience as suddenly acquiring 80 adopted parents and grandparents, and I instantly felt at home in my new country.
French Friends Really Are the Best
The kindness didn’t end there. After only a couple of months, one of my new French friends invited me to visit her parents in the countryside so that I could see a new region of France. Soon after that, another friend invited me to my very first French Halloween party. During my first summer in France, a woman who came on one of my tours at Notre Dame invited me down to the southwest coast for a weekend away with her friends and family. Over the years, I’ve been taken in for countless holidays, home cooked family meals, and dinner parties. I’ve partied with winemakers on the Avenue de Champagne, and I have had invitations to visit the countryside in Normandy, Brittany, and the Pyrenees. More importantly, each and every time I’ve been welcomed with open arms and more than a little patience with my bumbling French.
Perhaps the most incredible thing about my French friends has been their willingness to help me understand the legendarily difficult bureaucracy of their country. I’ve had friends make calls on my behalf, help translate documents, and assist me in filling out forms and applications. There have been times when they have taken hours out of their day to explain to me the various government offices and their purposes. I once had a friend accompany me to my meeting at the Prefecture not once but twice, and then argue strenuously on my behalf as to why my work permit should be renewed. And earlier this month, when it was late in the evening the night before my appointment to get my residency card and I suddenly realized that I was missing a key document, one of my French friends had her boyfriend print it out for me and then deliver it to my door. Did I mention that I had never met this man before that night? My residency visa was approved and I now affectionately call him “mon héros”.
Don’t Believe the Stereotypes
Whenever I talk about the importance of my French friends to my non-French friends, I’m often asked about the many stereotypes of French people. Aren’t they all rude and aloof? No more so than the citizens of every other major city I’ve visited. Are they all super stylish and know all the best wines? Much more so than me, and I’m happy to learn as much as I can from them. Do they really all meet their friends in grade school and that’s that? It actually is impressive how many French people I know who are still friends with their old classmates, but the locals I’ve met so far haven’t let this preclude them from making new friends, and I couldn’t be more grateful for that.
I will be the first to admit that any language barrier can be extremely intimidating when you’re trying to make new friends, but please don’t let that stop you. If you do, you’ll be missing out on so much, because my appreciation for my French friends runs so much deeper than just being grateful. They have shared their country, their families, and their homes with me. They have smiled and laughed, but never mocked, as I’ve attempted to learn their language. And perhaps most importantly, they have enriched my understanding of France and its culture to an extent that I didn’t know was possible. Simply put, I’m quite positive that I wouldn’t have survived this long in France without them, so to all my French friends, Merci et Je t’aime!
Laura Moore is a professional storyteller who loves history and the many stories that make Paris one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Join one of her signature tours to learn the story of a city.