The French, Those Very Nice People

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When you arrive in a new country where you know no one, you can’t rely on a close friend or a nice relative who’s willing to pick you up from the airport and take you out to eat your comfort food to de-stress from the long journey. What awaits you, instead, is a series of unknown streets, foreign faces, confusing transportation systems, and signs written in a language you may not understand.

But sometimes luck is on your side and the unlikely happens. This was surely my situation when arriving in Paris. Even though two French friends unexpectedly offered to pick me up at the airport and help me with my luggage, I decided to take the train by myself to where I’d be staying. Because two American friends had already done the exact same route, I felt confident I could do it without a problem.

In addition, I knew there would be someone waiting for me once I arrived at my new (and temporary) place. It’s a long story to explain how this happened. This is the “friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend” type of story. Essentially, because I was arriving earlier than anyone else, my French friend who I met at USC got a friend of his to let me stay at her place in Paris for ten days until the USC program actually began. She said yes, to my utter surprise and gratitude, but told us she wouldn’t be there to meet me.

As a result, she left the keys with another friend who was going to pass them along to me once I arrived. But then this friend, who had the keys, realized she couldn’t meet with me the day I arrived and so gave the keys to another friend, who in turn was the one who welcomed me when I finally arrived. When she came to open the entrance door to the building, she brought another friend with her who randomly happened to have just come back from studying abroad in Brazil, and this is how I met a French person who also speaks Portuguese like a real Brazilian. You see how this world works?

On my first night in Paris, we all had dinner together along with other people who also became my first friends in Paris. Of course, the least accurate thing I could do is to present these people as the embodiment of all that is French. “This is what all French people are like, everyone!” Still, my experiences with them have shaped my thoughts about French people. For example, how they indeed eat long dinners late at night, and I don’t even know if this is something Americans think of the French, but these French people, they talk – for a long time and about the most diverse topics. I cannot explain why but the conversations are also different, topic, pace, tone, and joke-wise.

On top of that, I must also point out that I have been pleasantly surprised by how nice and welcoming they’ve all been. Even in the first few days when I couldn’t participate in the conversation as much and just silently stared at all of them, they welcomed me. At some point, somewhere, some people had told me to expect the French, especially Parisians, to be arrogant and distant… And I’m glad they’re wrong, as far as my personal experience is concerned.

Since the building where I stayed is a place for students only, it has communal kitchens on different floors and I liked how people would come together in the evenings to cook and eat as a group. Even on the days when I cooked alone, I ended up dining with random people who turned out to be cool (and always from Normandie, I don’t know why). A friend would always share her food with me during the first couple of days when I hadn’t yet succeeded going grocery shopping in a French market. Another would periodically take breaks between conversations, turn to me and explain what was going on if I spent too much time in silence.

Another would always use informal words and expressions that I would then repeat myself, and he would sometimes say, “don’t go around saying that!” So, thank you for teaching me how to say ta gueule and c’est dégueulasse. Another understood no English and always ate the same yogurt every night after dinner, and I would mock him for it. Then the next day I’d go to the supermarket and look for the exact same yogurt and eat it privately in my room. At night, I’d get picked on for eating bread with Nutella after dinner because “it’s a breakfast thing.”

We’d talk about politics and they’d ask me how American people could trust Fox News since they lied so much – incredible how even they pick up on such a thing. Then they’d mock the Southern French accent (so – many – times), tell study abroad stories, and drop “cool” English words every now and then in their sentences. One night, a Belgian girl who studies cooking casually announced there were a bunch of desserts left over in the kitchen downstairs, as she had spent the day baking as some sort of assignment, and gosh how delicious were they!

Another time, we had a “pizza dinner” that was preceded by quiche appetizers, followed by French desserts (mille-feuilles, macarons, you name it) and accompanied by red wine throughout. We finished said dinner at 1am and, because trains had already stopped running, rented an Autolib to return home. An Autolib is like a Zipcar except you can drop it off anywhere. It’s also an electric car and tiny for American standards. As I rode in it with four other people, I couldn’t help but try to imagine a USC football player trying to fit in one of them. One thing is for certain: I couldn’t feel more grateful for having met all these people, and especially for having met the French guy at USC, who made all of this possible.

Random luck also brought me a lot of nice, helpful strangers along my way. When I exited the train I had taken from the airport, a lady helped me with my luggage and taught me how to use the train ticket to be able to exit the station. She then showed me the direction I should head towards. Another lady, whom I asked for directions five minutes later just to be sure, apologized for not being able to help me with my luggage because she had a back problem. Yes, a stranger apologizing for not carrying another stranger’s weight.

Then, arriving in front of my new home, I asked a random guy if I could use his phone to let my friend know I’d arrived, and he gladly handed it to me. The next day I went to buy some water at a supermarket and was taken aback once the man at the cashier informed me it cost 32 cents. For a bottle of 1.5 liter! I was not prepared and only had a 5-euro bill. He then told me he wouldn’t count the coins for change and preferred to give me the water for free. I kid you not and yes I understood his French correctly.

A similar too-lucky-to-be-true situation happened the week after I had arrived. Inside the metro, the police were checking people’s metro passes and, even though I had paid for the ride, I hadn’t yet taken a photo and put it on my pass as you’re supposed to. After some persuading, the policeman agreed to let me go with a written warning on my pass, but assured me I’d be fined the next time. When I told this to a French person working at the ACCENT center (the American institute that coordinates the study abroad program), he told me he’d been fined plenty times and had never heard of someone getting away like this. Thank you, France, for having welcomed me so warmly.

Then, there are also French people I have met online and with whom I practiced my French regularly last semester. I do not recommend you to connect with people online if you can’t tell whether you’re speaking to a serial killer or not. This is also not a tutorial on how to find trustworthy people online. But essentially, I used two websites to find people interested in practicing languages, Shared Talk and My Foreign Language Exchange. I prefer Shared Talk and I’ve found it to be quite useful. It’s powered by Rosetta Stone but it’s free, and the focus is put on finding someone who can help you as much as you can help them. No are-they-good-looking type of worries since you can’t see their photos, whereas on the second website you can.

Soon after arriving, I met with every Parisian with whom I kept in touch, and once again I got lucky. They’re all nice, a couple of them are especially bright, others are characters to be around. One even introduced me to a whole bunch of other friends, and I mean a whole bunch. Each also comes from a very different background than the other, which only enriches my experience and makes it all more interesting. With one, I ate magret de canard (duck!), as well as a mind-blowing dessert called le pain perdu, and both tasted so amazing  they made me want to never leave this country. I have come to consider this friend a French gastronomy expert (surely an exaggeration) and concluded that I should accept to try anything he suggests or offers me to eat.

With another, I have had incredibly captivating discussions about topics that interest me so much while taking lovely walks around the city. Every time I see her, my brain thanks me for having met her, yes. I have learned, for example, that France has an incredibly elitist system of education, meaning that a big part of what makes a good education is simply the name of the institution you join instead of your actual intellectual level (and getting in doesn’t necessarily correlate to your intelligence; think of SAT scores). If you got that name on your resume, you’re set. I have also learned it’s illegal to consider race in France (for example, for college entrance or even statistical purposes), and that the principle of laïcité carries a lot of power, to say the least. On a more touristy note, we have gone on tours of Meilleur Ouvrier de France (essentially award-winning) chocolatiers, and here’s a tip: George Larnicol’s noisettes and passion fruit macaroons are to die for.

With others I have visited the Eiffel Tower, eaten a galette des rois (a celebratory type of cake that you eat in January; whoever gets the slice with a bean inside becomes the king, and I’ve unfortunately never become the queen), hung out at a McDonald’s (yes! But the fries disappointed me), pretended like I understood the jokes, stole bits of desserts from others, and so on and so forth. There’s something special about waiting for someone whose face you cannot even recognize, having someone try to trick you by presenting himself as the other friend and vice-versa, and hearing for the first time the voice of someone you’ve become fond of.

Also, it’s not easy to have to give a kiss on each cheek when I’d much rather give an American hug to express my excitement and gratitude. But it’s something I must get used to. All these friends have helped me so much; I feel immensely grateful for the time they’ve dedicated to keeping in touch with me and the patience they’ve had while my French improved.

But to be fair, I have to say that in the midst of all these great experiences filled with unexpected luck, I’ve also found disappointment. The type that can drain the happiness from other moments because it derives from something I spent so much time wishing for. Life decides to remain ironic by bringing me disappointment from exactly where I had bet (and wished) would come my luckiest surprises. Maybe because I thought I had got it right, it had to prove me wrong. Paris is the city of lights; but, man, does it get cloudy and gloomy sometimes.

À la prochaine.