Most people who move abroad, especially to a country whose language they want to learn, make a targeted commitment to focus their friendship attentions on native speakers. It’s a logical language-learning strategy — immersion is without a doubt the best way to improve fluency — and it was certainly mine the first two times I lived abroad.
The first use of the Only Fraternize With Natives strategy miserably failed. As an undergrad living in Florence, my fellow Crusaders and I were pretty committed to actively avoiding other Anglophones in order to meet Italians, by whom we would saturate ourselves in joyous os and as, rebounding off of heavy-footed double nns and mms, reverberating rs, and gloriously squashed up gns and gls.
Unfortunately, despite the potential novelty of becoming the token foreign friends,we didn’t take into account the little we had offer in return for the coveted Italian friendship, given that we were living a verbal infancy that rendered us rather dull conversationalists. Needless to say, we didn’t make many amici.
Tours was more successful thanks to two French roommates my age (as well as a third, who was American). One of these two was overwhelmingly welcoming, introducing her two colocs américaines to her own friends from the fac and serving as something of a gateway to other young people. Though she’s the only one with whom I’ve really remained in contact (one of the above mentioned four) it was 100 percent improvement on the native friend count from Florence — and several of the common friends we’d had while in Tours have turned out to be happy surprises to run into again here in Paris.
This time around, though, my strategy has been different. Notably in that it is simply: meet people. Any people.
On the quotidien, I interact with a four-year-old and an eight-year-old; no adults at all, let alone people my age. As a result, the making-friends process has had to be deliberate, rather than “naturally” coming from interacting with people at work or school or third party encounters through mutual contacts.
My first resource came from the good fortune of having had coworkers from France who put me in contact with people they knew in the city. Beyond that, I refused to waste any time and so turned to the resource my generation is probably going to be known for: the Internet.
First Meetup, a website I had originally come across in DC while looking for a book club; then Facebook groups for au-pairs, TAPIF language assistants, and study abroad students; and finally Conversation Exchange, a website that matches people who are interested in learning each others’ languages.
For the first few weeks, nearly every day I would rendez-vous with at least one person or attend at least one Meetup event. Before long I’d met a few people I legitimately enjoyed and was feeling grateful to have met a handful who all seemed to click, even if the primary group all spoke English.
Now, I am as determined as it gets when it comes to wanting to improve my French and “integrate” into the French community (as opposed/in addition to the expat community), but if my brief stints abroad have taught me anything, there are a few significant obstacles to making native friends as an expat. As a newly arrived foreigner, it’s hard to make French friends because:
1. You’re friendship needy
You have no friends. You not only want them, you need them. You need them to eat pastries with and wander the streets with and figure out your visa questions with and especially to vent about the things that are driving you crazy in your au-pair/TAPIF/French company job (because believe it or not, folks back at home, life is still life here and has its ups and downs). Not being able to share in the excitement of getting to know your new city can be hugely lonely and isolating.
But natives already have networks. Even if they’re new to the city, they have friends and family in the country, at least, and in Europe that means within a few hours’ trajet. The moral here? You’re practically chopped liver. And in France they eat chopped liver.
2. You’re much more eager and motivé
Because you want and need friends, you’re ready to do just about anything, at any time. Coffee in 30 minutes? You’re on your way asap. A Wednesday night salsa class? Sure, what the heck. Sunday morning brunch? Don’t need to twist your arm. Natives, on the other hand, have the time and leisure to be pickier about their outings if they’re not in the mood. They know who their friends are and that they’ll see them – at some point.
3. You aren’t necessarily a good investment
Many expats, especially students, are only abroad for a few months to a year. For the expat, great people you meet will factor into your overall experience and memory of your stay, even if you don’t stay in touch. For a native, though (and especially if you factor in the above obstacles), a few months of nascent friendship just might be more effort than its worth, especially in France, where people are known for having a high bar for considering someone a friend and (we’re generalizing here) putting more energy into valued, long-time friends over new acquaintances.
The Meet People: Any People Method
This doesn’t even account for the potential language barrier. Unless you’re one of the chosen few who grew up speaking the local language for some miraculous reason, if you’re lucky then you speak the language somewhat comfortably when you arrive. If you’re not so lucky, you’re starting from ground zero with vocab lists and present tense verb conjugations.
Even if you speak the local language, natives don’t necessarily have the same knowledge as other expats regarding resources you may need, from everything to how to validate your visa to how to call home to your own country.
In the first five months of my experiment, the Meet People: Any People strategy has paid off. The initial group of English speakers and friends of co-workers has quickly rippled out to include French speakers as well, thanks to a friend of a friend here, a coworker of a friend there, a classmate of a contact over there. It’s true that the French friendships are proving to take more time overall, but I attribute this to obstacles #1 and #2 and the fact that the frequency of our interactions are just less consistent and regular. They’ll come with time.
So, though my primary circle here remains Anglophone, I’m ok with that. In the short run it’s been a blessing (and a necessity) that has brought some great people into my life. In the long run, I’m confident that it will just be the basis for my own local réseau.