Sunday, May 23, 2010

On Making New Friends

Learning the delicate dance of making friends in a new place has been one of the more dizzying experiences of our time here. At first I blamed all my troubles on the place. But now with my special 20/20 hindsight glasses, certain things have become crystal clear.

When we first arrived, I was continually taken aback that nobody greeted my massive people-pleasing American smiles with anything but a glazed, distant hauteur. I tried to be friendly at the portail, the big green gate dividing school from home, but I couldn't find anyone there who would meet my gaze. It was as though I didn't exist.

Making the classic rookie error of interpreting another culture through my own assumptions, I assumed that I had done something shun-worthy, or that nearly everyone we met was massively stuck up. For awhile I imagined that I were walking around with spinach in my teeth.

Had we stayed here on a vacation of only ten days or so, I would have left with the typical Anglo-American complaint about the French. (Stand-offish. Pretentious. You know, French.)

But then I figured out Hard-won Travel Socializing Lesson Number One: Strangers are treated differently in different places, so it's not a great idea to confuse the friendliness of strangers for real intimacy. When I got here, I was so down on the whole place for being so unfriendly, when in reality, it was just that I had chosen to surround myself with strangers. They were behaving the way one behaves towards strangers here, which is to keep one's polite and respectful distance.

But once I did make friends here, I had plenty of people to kiss on both cheeks and invite over for dinner. So what if the good people of Aups walk around looking as though all of their cats just died? If that's how they do it here, who am I to judge?

Which leads me to Hard-Won Travel Socializing Lesson Number Two: when you live somewhere long enough, the "weird world" you inhabit starts to make sense, and you realize that it's you who is not fitting in. It's not their blank stares that were odd. It was my big American grin. Now that I've been here long enough, I can totally spot an American tourist. They are wearing oddly bland clothing. They have safe, symmetrical haircuts and have good teeth, which you can see because they are smiling like total idiots. That was me, nine months ago (and will be, again, as soon as I'm safely back on American soil.)

Hard-won Travel Socializing Lesson Number three: I feel like smacking myself hard in the forehead for this one, because Bill was right. I really shoulda, woulda, coulda learned French. The language barrier and my own lack of preparation only made things worse where friendships were concerned. Even if some French someone did turn up with a friendly, engaging smile, I would usually respond with something like "I like your cheese," or "Weather good now in town think I hope." I missed my own ability to articulate anything other than a pleasantry or a poorly-conjugated literal translation of a banal observation. Back home, I kept wanting to tell people, folks thought I was smart. And funny. Only I didn't know the words for any of that. Who knows how many lovely new people I could have made had my French been less awful.

(Oh, and then something I learned from watching the contrast of Bill and Abigail: once you can speak another language, it's best to do so as freely and un-self-consciously as you possibly can. Bill may have made some mistakes now and then, but they were never, ever begrudged. Abigail spoke French mostly to her American Girl dolls, in secret. Felicity and Elizabeth may have benefitted from the tutoring, but that didn't help her to get the real flesh-and-blood kind of friends.)

Now that I think about it, I'm not sure I've ever taken the time back home to befriend someone whose English wasn't already serviceable. And what's worse, I'm not sure I ever even though of it this way before now, after nine months as a babelfish out of English waters. Now that I think about it, that may be Hard-won Travel Socializing Lesson Number Four: to have a friend, you have to be a friend, particularly in a second language. I think I'll try a whole lot harder after what I learned this year.

OK, down to the last two lessons. Remember how before I said I stood there at the school gate (le portail) and smiled, assuming that would be the place to make friends? Well, it turns out that ended up just not being the right place. I've felt only icky vibes there, pretty much all year. Back in the U.S., nearly every friend I have made since having children has been a parent from our kids' school. In fact, schools across the U.S. are social hubs for parents as well as for the students themselves.

However, that turned out just not to be the case here. Our friendships developed around café and dining room tables, not around "playdates," weekend soccer games and children's birthday parties. They were private family moments rather than public occasions. So Hard-won Travel Socializing Lesson Number Five: you might have to look somewhere other than where you are used to to find friends.

A lot of things changed as we got to know Jessica and Gerard. Although Jessica grew up in France, deep down she's English, with an extra dose of devil-may-care spontaneity and pretty exceptional hospitality skills. (This means that you can go over to her house for dinner every two weeks or so for a whole year, as we have done, and never be fed the same thing twice, even though everything was so good you wouldn't have minded a repeat.) She was kind right away, and quickly welcomed us in to her life. Her fiancé Gerard, so open-hearted and welcoming and deeply human, became our first real French friend.

Over the course of the year, they have welcomed not just us, but also our visiting friends and our family to their farmhouse. Jess seems to think nothing of whipping up a seriously large batch of several dishes to serve over the course of hours to her happy, comfortable guests. We've eaten lamb sausage, chocolate mousse, stewed rabbit, perfectly cooked duck, (and that ain't the half of it. ) She has given me endless translations, multiple assists on school quandries, and many, many glasses of red wine. She and Gerard have become true friends.

And, what's more, they -- along with Anna-Maria and Dermot, who we met our second night in town -- have introduced us to lots of other people who have also become our friends.

Ready for Hard-won travel Lesson Number Six? Here it is: if you're a lonely American traveler, go out and listen for someone who speaks with a pleasant lilt. Colonialism maybe wasn't such a great thing, but the upside is that the world is dotted with all different sorts of lovely, friendly people, and a whole lot of them seem to be British.

But I'll finish up with a story that taught me one final thing: one that wasn't so much a hard-won lesson as a pleasant surprise: Whereveryougo, however long it takes to meet them, Friends are Friends are Friends. And here's how I know.

Twice in the past week Jess and Gerard invited us up to their beautiful farm, which is perched right on the ridge between the rolling hills to the south and the craggier bigger peaks of the Alpes-de-Haut-Provence. First they had a mechoui, with three goat kids roasted all afternoon long on spits. Gerard had made a sort of herbal broom out of branches of rosemary, thyme and other herbs he plucked out of the field, and swabbed at the little beasties all afternoon as they turned slowly via a contraption run by a windshield wiper motor. It was attached to a tractor battery, and he had adjusted it precisely so that the spits would turn slowly, but not too slowly. Gerard is like some kind of MacGuyver for food.

We ate goat ribs, goat legs, goat cheeks, and even the goat head. We ate our friend Paula's guacamole and boiled quail eggs, some lovely anchovy paste, as well as cauliflower and spicy sausages (yes, even the children ate all that) and finished up with brownies and Grace's now-famous choux-cremes. The only thing better than the food was the warm and friendly conversation.

The mechoui, like the bouilliabaisse party we attended a few weeks ago was mostly Francophones, but really smart engineering sort of ones who can speak plenty of English when they choose. A passel of exceptionally adorable children vacillated between joyfully frolicking about and ruthlessly smacking one another in the head, but none of the parents paid all that much attention (pas des helicopter parents here in France, bien sûr.) The kids would be kids, the grownups stuck close to the table, and everyone had a perfectly lovely time.

And, perhaps because our kids knew that leaving was safely on the horizon, they played too. This will amaze habitual readers of the blog, who know that generally at the social events we have attended this year, Abigail circles the periphery and waits for somebody to put on a movie, while Grace chooses the place furthest away from all the other kids, and either knits or reads a book.

But that day, they jumped right into the fray -- quite literally, as they were bouncing on a real-life trampoline. They spent the whole day with all the other kids, and then at the end of the day, asked us if we all could stay even longer.

Then, a few nights later, Jess and Gerard invited us over again, with just the littler crowd of our closer friends that have sort of congealed together in our year here. We are a loose group of five British, American, and French families who get together to switch back and forth between two languages, drink red wine, laugh, and let the kids run wild together. Once again we sat outside at a long wooden table for hours while Gerard made everybody pizza after pizza after delicious wood-fired gorgonzola-pesto-sausage-olive-mozzarella pizza dinner. The ashtrays gradually filled up with cigarette butts and olive pits, as we laughed and talked and ate Gerard's incredible food.

After awhile, I looked up the hill, and there they were -- eleven of them -- a passel of happy kids bouncing around inside the netted trampoline. There were Spike and Toby, Elise and Clement, Zach, and Cameron and Louise. And then, holding Layla's two hands, on either side of her, were Grace and Abigail. Seamus was too little, so he just stood clinging on to the net, watching the grand drama unfold.

I watched them all hold hands and jump in a charmed circle. They all -- each one of them -- spoke some sort of combination of two languages, and understood one another perfectly.

I swear it was just the setting sun in my eyes that made me tear up just then.

Perhaps as a result of nearly a full year of being around me 24/7, Bill has been awfully attuned to my moods lately. He saw me looking at the happily playing kids, he came over and hugged my shoulder as we watched the kids jump and laugh. "Now they have some European cousins."

As I walked back to the table, Mathilde and Laurent presented us with a bottle of something that looked like magic gold elixir. It was marked with the name of their home and the succulent words, "huile d'olive": olive oil pressed from the fruit of their very own trees. Now the bottle is sitting in a place of honor on our mantlepiece, ready to be packed with exceptional care so we can bring it home. Then, when we need a little golden drop of Provence (or, more likely, a huge swig of flavor) we'll have it.

I put the bottle away in the car for safekeeping. The kids kept leaping, while we grown-ups settled back into the serious eating and drinking. After awhile, Dermot -- the charismatic one of our mini-clique -- stood up. "Before anybody has to go, we have something to give Bill and Launa." He pulled out a framed photo that everybody had signed (even the under-five set.) He had photoshopped pictures of the four families to look as though they were grinning at us from inside the fountain in the center of town.

Just then, one of the kids wandered by and suddenly grabbed me around my midsection, in an American-style hug rather than the usual French bisous. Perhaps it had taken a lot longer than I had suspected initially, but once somebody's kid hugs you for no apparent reason, you no longer have to wonder if you've really become friends.

Then of course, I was standing with my back to the sunset, so I had nothing but joy to blame for my pesky tears.


  1. I so hear you on these travel lessons. My own insight when abroad? People are uncomfortable with foreigners. They don't know how to get to know you. So ask lots of questions about _them_. Make them forget you're a foreigner--make conversation as easy for them as possible.

  2. Here's to many more golden drops of Provence, figurative and literal, once you return. What a wonderful way to end your year! And I'm curious ... How long did it take Abigail and Grace to adjust to the cuisine??

  3. Hi there Heather and Stacia. That wisdom about questions is spot on. Wish I had learned more of those question words in French. And weirdly enough, the girls grooved on the food from the start. It is one of the things about them that makes me so proud. One of many. Writing from the TGV on the way to the Paris airport!!

  4. This is fascinating, as so much of what you write here resonates with me, even though I have only moved from New York to Chicago. In many ways, they might as well be different countries. When I arrived people were so friendly, in a "talk to strangers on the street" kind of way that I was totally confused. Why are they talking to me??? I thought they were totally weird, until I learned that it was my unfriendliness that was strange. NOw that I've gotten used to it, I only notice when a friend from NYC comes to visit and is similarly confused.

    I also love what you say about looking in different places. I feel like that is advice I would benefit from taking. I haven't done all that much to look in places other than the usual -- work. yoga. the gym. Maybe I need to just approach someone in a cafe. Be all French about it.

    Perhaps I need to blog soon about international friending!

  5. Such a lovely, thought-provoking post. I adore the bear-hug from a friend's child at the end...and your cheerful tears accompanying you while you watched the sun set. (And WOW does that olive oil sound divine.)

    I've never lived anywhere but the States; in my minuscule travels, I'm always blown away at how easy it is to become soooo ethnocentric without the benefit of broad travel.