Q: I’m about to start my second year in France, and while I have enjoyed being involved with the English-speaking community since my arrival, I would really like to branch out this year and create some ties with the French. My language skills aren’t great, but part of the problem has been that I haven’t found a way to use them. Are the French as hard to meet as everyone says? Do you have any ideas that could help me?
A: I agree that meeting French people is often a problem for foreigners here whose lifestyles do not automatically place them within a French context. In addition, the French are often reserved and sometimes shy about reaching out to foreigners even when they would like to. My own approach in your situation would probably be totally pragmatic, so here goes.
- If you know any French people, tell them emphatically how eager you are to meet others. Ask them for their advice and help, but try to have something to propose in return, such as helping them with their English.
- Attend a conversation group such as those sponsored by WICE or Konversando. Many are advertised in the English language press. Try to make a personal contact with French people there with whom you feel a connection, and suggest coffee or lunch. French people who attend such gatherings are usually very motivated to network with English speakers, and could be a good starting point for you. Watch the classified ads for people looking for language exchanges, and call! I have made some good friends that way.
- Get involved in a French activity such as a choir, a charity, a drawing class, a dance class or a sports club. Task-oriented activities are preferable to classes because you are called upon to interact with other people. The Centre National du Volontariat has many volunteer jobs available. They will interview you and give you a list of the jobs, and you take it from there. Your local mairie has a list of all the associations (in the French sense of the word) in your arrondissement or town. Many of them are looking for help in addition to members, and you can find like-minded people that way. Your local parish church is probably also the headquarters for a certain number of charities, which, again, might welcome your participation.
- You should also read French magazines that deal with your own interests. You will find the names of organizations that sponsor or execute worthwhile undertakings. Some of them are actively looking for help, and by offering your services, you will be seen as an asset, even if your real motivation is to meet people.
A word of caution: you have to be persistent! Do not allow yourself to be put off by a lukewarm or doubtful-sounding response. Try to develop a conversational approach that makes the person on the other end of your request feel important or knowledgeable. If you can thus engage him or her, you will more easily bypass the initital block. This is a really important skill to learn in France, where a certain suspiciousness (in my opinion) is built into the culture. If you are American, you may have an advantage. The US exerts a certain fascination here, and more and more French people are having – directly or indirectly – positive contacts with America. Look especially for those people. They will go out of their way to help you achieve your goal.
Note: Many people ask me this question. If you have other ideas to add, please send them to me at the address or e-mail below so that we can print them. You need not sign your name.
Jill Bourdais is a psychotherapist practicing in Paris both privately and in a hospital setting. A specialist in couple/family problems, she also teaches PAIRS, a skills-building course in intimate relationships.