Thursday, March 3, 2011

Are the French friendly? Part one

                                                                                                    photo by Insomniac's Lounge

 When I meet up with fellow foreigners here in Nice, there is often a new story of how frustrating it is  to get along with the French .  Many people give up on trying to integrate and just hang out with their "own kind".

It has been claimed by some that the French are not friendly.

TRUE...... by American standards, they are NOT!

Here is what I think:

There are examples of French individuals just not liking strangers coming in droves to their beautiful country and buying up prime properties.  In Nice for example, the natives not only have all the Parisians and others who want to retire here but they also have the Pied- Noir and the Algerians who immigrated here after the war in Algeria.    And they also have every rich person that can afford to have a secondary residence on the Cote d"Azur.    A city of strangers makes it hard on the local population. especially in towns where foreigners go about in packs like so many loud and obnoxious dogs.

A major impediment in integrating into a new country is language skills...YOUR OWN.    If you have poor skills in French, you will feel insecure, you will hold yourself back and miss some opportunities in joking, making small talk etc.  So it will seem that there is no friendly contact .  This will change dramatically when you have some facility with the language.

What the french will seldom do is welcome you as "the new kid on the block".  Most assume that we foreigners are tourists.  And if your french is not really good you will not be brought into a conversation easily.  It is demoralizing to have a subject you introduced, hijacked by others while you are left standing on the tarmac unable to keep up, feeling somehow invisible.

 This seems unfriendly to us.   We expect to be brought into the circle.  And we expect people to initiate conversation.  If you have language you will bring yourself into the circle, if not you won't.    Even if we are trying our best, it is often not enough to get included.  This is a huge source of frustration to those from countries who have a more open style.  It is a cultural difference, I feel, not just about language.

It  helps to be in a bonding situation to get a conversation going.  Then you will see the french friendliness quicker.

Once I was on an airplane and a man was putting his luggage overhead.  In his hand was a gorgeous bouquet...maybe from a wedding,  maybe to offer someone   ... but he began stuffing the bouquet into the overhead space like it was a BAG OF DIRTY SOCKS.

 The well dressed French woman in front of me turned around and whispered, "definitely, not a woman"...which made us both break out in peals of laughter.  This was a small moment of bonding.

Another time, years back, before they had many pedestrian lights up along the Promenade des Anglais and one had to wait for a break in traffic to get across.....I was standing with a man and his wife.... elderly looking, but really only about 10 years older than I was.  Finally I said,  "On ose pas"  sort of "do we dare?..." which is all the french I could muster at the time.
The man looked at both of us women and said in french, " take my hands", and we crossed the street all together.   When we reached safety,  I said " Merci Papa"  since I felt so protected by this stranger.  "NO,  NO, grand-pere!"  he demurred,  meaning he thought that he was old enough to be my grandfather!

 I don't remember what I responded but we had a lovely moment of complicity.   It was another bonding situation.  Now if you dare not speak up, you won't get these little jewels and see the friendliness that is here in its own guise.

It does take longer to make friends in France, I believe.  There are different distinct categories;  acquaintances, co-workers and friends.  I think we blur these lines in America, starting out with first names right away, which makes the Europeans think of us as phony friends.  Things are more formal here.

 I mentioned once that it took me 7 years to get people in my neighborhood to talk to me other than the obligatory" bonjour madame".    It is true that they probably just thought of me as a passing tourist for a while.  These things take time here.  I suppose after we helped neighbors start their car, picked up trash we saw in the street, painted out the graffiti, and found the neighbor's bunnies that had escaped, word got around that we were ok .

 Whenever I come back to Nice from the States, I still feel left out for a few days or a week until my Frenchiness kicks in.  Being a foreigner is not for sissies.  But there are perks.  I will tell you soon about my gym.    It is sort of my little laboratory to test my hypothesis about friendliness.

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