My wife and I spend part of the year living in France. When we started we didn’t know anyone there and it would have been easy to just hang out with other expats.
But we wanted French friends – that was part of the experience, right? The only problem was that French people have a reputation for being unfriendly to Americans. So it wasn’t obvious that we’d be able to make local friends.
But we did! Now we have wonderful French friends and an active social life. We shoot the breeze with them, go to concerts together, share long meals. And we consume rather shocking amounts of wine. My wife and I don’t feel like expats anymore; we feel like members of the community.
If we did it then you can, too! Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned.
Try to Learn the Language
You don’t have to be perfect! But if you work at it you can make yourself understood, what we call being “conversational.” What’s important is communicating and making a connection, not forming perfect sentences. Who cares about the subjunctive tense, anyway? (please don’t tell my French teacher I said that)
The French are proud of their language and want it to be spoken correctly. But even they will relax when they see you making an effort – you’ll be forgiven for conjugating a verb wrong or turning a masculine noun into a feminine. Maybe you won’t speak like a native, but if you can get your point across you’ll be fine. And you’ll make that all-important human connection.
Find Language Partners
I’ll admit that learning a new language is hard. But here’s something that can make it way easier: a language partner.
This is someone who is trying to learn your language. It’s ideal – you are each trying to learn the other’s language. So you team up and practice one language and then the other.
One great thing about language partners is that they are patient with you because they are going through exactly the same thing you are. When I was learning French my partners really accelerated my learning. And they boosted my confidence. I really needed that on the days when I sounded like a four-year-old with a lousy accent.
Another great thing is that language partners can become your friends. You spend time together, find common interests – it’s a natural progression. Many of my French friends began as language partners.
What’s more, you can speak some English with them if you want. What a relief when you are tired of struggling in your new language!
How do you find language partners? You ask around, like at the tourist office and local language schools. My wife even found a partner through our butcher – his wife wanted to improve her English. And there are websites like www.mylanguageexchange.com that connect people.
Learn the Local Etiquette
Every society has its cultural rules. In Japan, for example, blowing your nose is considered rude. In France you should never enter a store without saying “bonjour.” You won’t master all the social graces but be sure to learn the important Do’s and Don’ts (especially the Don’ts!)
Local activities are a great way to meet people. There are probably clubs in your town that you can join. Or lectures and art openings you can attend. Traditional festivals often take place throughout the year. Maybe there’s a yoga class you can take, or volunteer work you can do. My wife and I once helped out a local beekeeper – that was exciting!
Look for activities and check out those that look appealing. They can be a great way to meet local people and make new friends.
Take an Interest in Your New Country
Countries are fascinating! And people appreciate it when you take an interest in theirs. Focus on things that interest you, whether it’s politics, history, cooking, sports – whatever. It’s a way to connect with the locals and learn about your new country. It’s also a great conversation starter and you never know where that can lead.
We live in an area with a lot of Roman history and sometimes they have re-creations of gladiator fights. That is certainly different from back home in California, which is part of what makes it so fun.
Embrace Your Exoticness
You may be surprised to find that the local people want to learn about you. It’s natural for them to be curious about foreigners. Why did you move to my country? How do they do things where you come from? Take advantage of being exotic and use it as a way to meet people and exchange ideas.
Make the First Move
There will be people who want to meet you but don’t know how, so take the initiative. Start with something simple, like inviting them for a drink or a cup of coffee at a café. Or bake a batch of cookies and share a few. Or give them a small gift from your home country.
Yes, you may feel awkward, not knowing if you are doing things correctly. But you may be pleasantly surprised by their appreciative reaction. And once you break the ice it is amazing what can happen!
Expect Some Ups and Downs
Even if you are doing everything right – learning the language, getting involved with local activities, baking cookies left and right – there will still be awkward moments.
Maybe you click with someone initially but then it doesn’t go any further. When that happens in your home country, you shrug it off. But it’s harder when you are an expat – did I do something wrong? Is my language not good enough? Gosh, it’s so much easier with my friends back home!
Don’t worry about the little things
And you will make plenty of embarrassing mistakes in your new language. I remember the time we had dinner guests and I proudly announced that we were serving “marijuana cheese.” This shocked the kids and didn’t make the parents too happy, either. Hm, better double-check my dictionary next time!
Don’t let these bumps in the road get you down. Instead, learn to laugh at them. Expect struggles from time to time but keep your sense of humor. After all, you are living in an amazing new country, something most people can only dream of.
When All Else Fails, Get a Dog
I’m kidding (kinda.) But it’s true that when you have a friendly dog like we do, you meet a surprising number of people that way.
It’s Worth It!
I can’t imagine living in France without my French friends. We have so much fun together! They teach me about their country and give me a new perspective on – and appreciation for – my own. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been thanked for American sacrifices during World War II.
Living in another country has changed me as well. Opening yourself to a new and foreign culture stretches you, sometimes painfully, but that is part of growing. My life is richer because I now live, really live, in not one country but two.
Keith Van Sickle splits his time between Silicon Valley and Provence. He is the author of One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence, available at Amazon. You can enjoy more of his writing at www.keithvansickle.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
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