In Fall 2016, I studied abroad in Bordeaux with the Middlebury Schools in France. This post is part of a series to help make the experience smoother for future study abroad students.
"A realistic goal for the semester is to make one good French friend."
I scoffed then. It was early September, during orientation for my study abroad program in Bordeaux. Confined to the stuffy university classroom, I was antsy. I longed to begin the experience already, to be free from the long hours of powerpoint presentations and overwhelming logistics. I had grand visions for the semester. Only one good French friend? I assumed it was a given--I was positive that things would be much easier than my program director made them seem.
In my American high school, we flocked to foreign exchange students like they were celebrities--we eagerly invited them to hang out, grab lunch, share their culture. So I thought that making friends would be effortless. I naively expected the same wild enthusiasm as a foreigner in France.
I was very wrong.
My initial reception was lukewarm, at best. There were four challenges:
1. The anonymity of the large university system.
It was very possible to go to class, leave, and never make a peep. In fact, most of my courses were lecture-style, making it difficult to get to know my classmates.
2. The ubiquity of international students.
Because of the Erasmus program, an EU student exchange initiative, the French students were used to foreigners coming and going. I was just another fleeting face, another errant voice with a weird accent.
3. The tight-knit friend groups.
Courses for majors are basically predetermined, so the French students have already spent countless hours together in the same classes. Close friend groups rarely mingled amongst themselves, so reaching out to a foreigner was even less likely.
4. The lack of campus community.
Since most students lived off-campus, the university activities weren't as vibrant. The only time I really saw my French classmates was in-class, leaving fewer opportunities for meaningful connections
It quickly became clear that French friends wouldn't flock to me--I'd have to do some flocking of my own.
A film class friend and me on one of my last days in Bordeaux
So here's how I made meaningful connections during my semester abroad in France:
1. Reach out shamelessly.
I met one of my closest French friends simply because I had asked her if I was in the right class. While I ended up switching into another literature course, we crossed paths again in a film class. She turned out to be extraordinarily helpful, offering me typed-up notes, sending me helpful resources, and inviting me and fellow program students to do a presentation together. I've yet to meet someone more generous: when I complimented her on her scarf, she gave it to me as a gift the next week.
We may never have met had I kept quiet out of fear of sounding stupid in French. Sure, not everyone will be wholeheartedly receptive--I got my fair share of weird looks when I tried to strike up conversations. But you may never know unless you take initiative since French students are generally timid with foreigners (they say so themselves!). I actually sat near a classmate for over two months before I discovered that she also was into triathlons and played a stringed instrument. She later invited me to spend Christmas with her family since we had chatted holiday plans.
So be bold: ask people if you're in the right place, introduce yourself, make small talk. It's definitely more intimidating in a foreign language, but conversation skills remain pretty universal.
2. Be a healthy dose of persistent.
Making good friends requires consistency--quick chats between classes isn't enough. For instance, I become close with math classmates only after finagling my way into a study group. I had asked a few friends if they'd be doing group study sessions for an upcoming midterm. When they weren't sure at the time, I asked again a week later. The next day, I found myself chatting, snacking, and furiously solving differential equations with budding French friends. Reaching out again allowed me to to join a solid group of friends--and also gave me valuable academic insight from native students.
Similarly, be proactive in organizing group outings--make a group facebook message, suggest coffee dates, invite classmates on weekend day trips. Once you've found receptive friends, nurture that connection!
3. Seek linguistic/cultural exchange.
People are more willing to spend time with you if you can help them in some way. Make your foreignness an advantage--especially when it comes to your English expertise. The French can be incredibly enthusiastic about practicing English, so offering to be a language buddy is a great start to a strong connection. They'll improve their English, and you'll improve your French! There are usually university-organized programs to match up students, but you can do this on your own as well.
If you want something more casual, I recommend Franglish, a weekly English-French linguistic exchange. It was like speed dating, but without the dating--we spoke 7 minutes in French and 7 minutes in English with one person, then we switched partners. You could go as often as you liked, and the event itself was free (though tips were encouraged for the organizers and you did have to buy a drink since it was in a bar). Obviously, you can't make the deepest of connections in 14 minutes, but it's a good place to meet locals and other internationals. And you can always arrange to hang out later if you hit it off.
On a cultural note, be open and enthusiastic about your way of life at home. If French students need your advice on all things US-related, be as helpful as possible. I think that one of the reasons one of my literature classmates warmed up to me so quickly was because I had offered her US university insight. She was planning to abroad in California next year, so when she asked me about housing in the UC schools, I reached out to a blogger friend at Berkeley who promptly supplied all the necessary info. I also showed her RateMyProfessors as she was drafting course lists, which she found incredibly amusing and useful.
4. Join community organizations.
Keep up your passions--it'll not only help you meet people, but also remind you of your routine at home. I personally joined a community orchestra (the university-affiliated one wasn't the greatest). Rehearsals definitely brightened my week, and I met some of my closer friends there. One of them is even planning to visit me at Oxford!
Some of my fellow program students also found a strong group of friends through their clubs. Even if your hobby isn't common in France, you can find some way to keep doing what you love. Friends joined baseball teams (quintessentially American) and ultimate frisbee teams (still-developing sport even in the US). A cappella groups remained a challenge, so a friend instead joined her Bordeaux church choir.
While communication challenges may have diluted the depth of our conversations, it certainly posed no barriers to our actions--I was shown incredible kindness, and I hope that in turn, my graditude was clear.
Bon courage, mes amis. Be bold, be proactive, and be your fabulous foreign self.