When I first moved to France, I wasn’t sure if I was going to stay for the long term. And because I was a Francophile and my focus was on learning French, the last thing I wanted to do was hang out with a bunch of other Americans. In my undergraduate study abroad program, I took as many classes as I could directly in the French university, while avoiding activities within my program. And at times, it felt like I was the only one there to learn French.
When I came back, on my own, it was lonely and difficult. I was excited to be enrolled directly in the French university and surrounded by actual French students… but most of them already had friends, and, as we know, it takes time to make friends with French people. And unlike American universities, French schools aren’t necessarily hubs of activity and extracurriculars.
At one point, I posted on some forum about making friends, and ended up planning to go to lunch with an Italian girl. In hindsight, I think she thought it was a date – she got a call from her friend and ditched me like ten minutes in, and I ate alone – but I was just trying to have other humans to talk to, in person.
The thing is, in the Americans in France community, that we get used to people leaving. We get used to them coming for a year, or a job, or a sabbatical, and it’s hard to develop relationships with people who are probably going to leave us, especially when we’re already putting in so much effort to maintain our relationships with friends and family back home. Those relationships can fade too, because we’re far away, because of the time difference, because we’re not going to every baby shower and birthday party, and because we grow apart over time.
I did a couple of things right. I joined two choirs, which gave me something to do and people to see. And I took opportunities to participate in activities in school, and took jobs, and maintained ties to other American students at Middlebury.
But if I had to do it again, I wouldn’t have avoided the American groups and activities. It still might not have been easy to make friends – again, there’s a lot of turnover when people return home – but I also might have made more lasting friendships with others here for the long haul, much earlier. And I also would have sought out more activities. Instead of spending my time writing and walking around Paris by myself, it would have been good for me to go to the local Maison des Associations at the mairie to join a group in my neighborhood, or joined a regular sports group, or something outside of work.
And social media doesn’t count as socialization.
Even if you’re moving to France because you want to, it’s okay if it’s hard sometimes. It’s okay to need real-life friendship and support. And it’s okay if you put your own oxygen mask on first.