There’s a foreigner in the room, do you think it saw me? An expat explains how to be the ‘awkward foreigner’ and still make French friends.
As a foreigner living abroad, you might feel like ‘a bit of a pain to talk to’ at parties, but it doesn’t mean you can’t use it to make French friends in France.
Making the effort
How many times have you been at a party or a gathering and there’s someone whose English is not quite up to scratch? It’s quite an effort to talk to them, but you’re a nice person so you try, or you’re not and you pretend to wave at your imaginary friend. Even if you are kind-hearted and feel a bit sorry for the outsider, after a little while the idle chit-chat and the effort of trying to make yourself understood takes its toll and you make your excuses, find your friends and leave the foreigner to the next person. I’ve never really felt bad about it. Until now.
There I was, at a 90s themed party of people channelling Cyndi Lauper, a Spice Girl, the cast of Baywatch and my own hopelessly unstylish teenage years where, despite my frizzy hair and crop top I, and my Backstreet-Boy-gone-down-the-wrong path fiancé, were the elephants in the room.
Now, don’t get me wrong, the people there were really very lovely (the French are not rude or arrogant as many people believe) and made more of an effort to chat to us than a lot of people would have in the same situation.
A bit too much work
But there is always going to be the odd person who takes a physical intake of breath as they see you approaching; those that smile as you talk to them and then excuse themselves to get a canapé (sandwich, not sofa. French in-joke. Anyone? No? Anyway…) and then never come back. They know each other and you’re not only new, you’re just a little bit too much work.
Once I realised that it wasn’t because my scrunchie was causing offence to everyone with style in the room, and came to terms with the fact that I was just that person, it strangely made it easier. I’ve been on the other side and it really is nothing personal.
We soon realised that some people weren’t ignoring us because they couldn’t be bothered with us, but they were just a little shy that their English wasn’t good enough. However, when we made the effort to speak French with them, mistakes and all, their fear subsided and we found that language barriers are no barriers to bonding over the joys of high-waisted shorts.
By the end of the night as the cocktails continued to flow (Breaking: French people don’t just sip wine at dinner) we were rocking the Singstar and analysing the difficulties of pronouncing the French ‘r’ with a linguistics student. Success!
Making new friends
We already knew making friends in France was going to be tricky. It is really hard making new friends anywhere once the official friend-making-years up to the age of 21 are over. It would have been something we had to deal with wherever we went. But add another language which you’re not fluent in and a few other loner features – we’re a couple, we’re freelancers who work from home and we speak English with each other – we knew this friend-making business was going to take rather a lot of effort.
While it would have be easier and nicer to stay on our own and not have to make conversation, we decided instead to book ourselves into Airbnb apartments with French hosts. Once in Montpellier we found ourselves in a flat with two awesome guys who made a rule, “We speak English, you speak French,” so everyone got to practice, and turned out to be, not only great hosts, but also, somehow in the short space of a week, actual friends.
A few weeks later we’d been invited to their 90s themed house party where we were going to meet a lot of French people. And we were going to be dressed like a Saved-by-the-Bell-meets-Backstreet-Boy-trying-to-be-Eminem mash up.
So that was just the beginning. We can’t just cling to our two newfound friends like crazy people.
We’re joining French classes next week, which apart from improving our language, we’re hoping it will be another chance to meet some cool people. There’s a pretty good chance they won’t be English so our common language will be slightly dodgy French. Perfect.
There are other classes I’m quite keen to do which will keep me active and get me away from the computer when I don’t have to be, and may be a good opportunity to meet people who are also into similar things. At one of the first ‘Estivals‘ we spotted some amateur salsa going on on-stage and decided we were going to find some classes and shimmy our way to new friends.
We’ve also chosen, initially at least, to forgo our own apartment and move in with a bunch of other people. We really wanted to move into our own space as we’re over sharing washing machines and arguing over whose turn it is to take out the rubbish. But it’s all worth it for the conversation we get to have with our French housemates and the opportunity to play pétanque on a Sunday night. Plus we live in a castle. Bonus.
The expat community
Finally, there’s that other bunch of people just like us – the expats; we’ve so far met a large group of Californians who all work in one Irish pub, and we know Montpellier has a big community of expats we haven’t reached out to yet. While we’ll probably be speaking English it’ll still be nice to have people you share common ground with.
So my advice for anyone in the same situation: Forget feeling like you’re the Borat in the room. Make mistakes, make a fool of yourself but make the effort and you’ll make friends.
Would love to hear from any other expats who’ve had similar experiences!