Thursday, March 20, 2014

Why nobody wants to be your friend

Browse through any compilation of "expat tips" on the internet, and one thing will probably stand out: you are not, under any circumstances, meant to be friends with other expats. If you are, you've royally failed at Integration, Getting The Most Out Of Your Stay, and, probably, Life. You are most probably an Ugly American or the kind of red-faced Brit who wears a knotted handkerchief with the St George's Cross on it on his head, uncomfortably tight shorts and no shirt. While others - classy, sophisticated bon vivants - are quaffing Bordeaux and tucking into cassoulet, you're probably blind drunk on warm beer and stuffing a pie down your hole while you indulge in a little light football hooliganism before retiring to the bar for a moan about being surrounded by "bloody foreigners speaking gibberish".

I'm not saying never make friends with locals, or shut yourself up in an exclusively English-speaking enclave where you are guaranteed a steady supply of meat pies (momentarily tempting as that sounds), but I say, feel free to disregard this supercilious advice and make the heck out of expat friends. They may very well be the only friends you'll have.

I always roll my eyes at the romanticised travel guides where the author pitches up in a small French village and everyone is mad to learn all about ze craaaazy Eeenglish who is renovating the local Murder House (fun fact: Murder House is what we used to call the dentist growing up. There's word of mouth advertising for you). You'd think, from reading these books, that nobody in France lives in a city (well, except Paris. It's well known that Paris is the only city in France).

(On a side note, a lot of people (French and otherwise) tend to assume that I come from the country, or all of New Zealand is some sort of clean, green rural idyll. Chunks of it are, sure, but I grew up all my life in a city of a million or so inhabitants - according to Wikipedia, it's now at around 1.5 million. I'm not saying that's huge, but depending on who you ask, that's bigger than all French cities except Paris, Marseille and Lyon. Add in Auckland's peculiar geography, our penchant for living in detached houses on ample land, our crappy public transport and the world's 8th highest number of cars per capita (the US is 3rd, France is 19th, and most of the top spots are taken by dots on the map like San Marino, Monaco, Lichtenstein and our old friend Luxembourg), and I am no stranger to gridlock.

See how awkwardly-shaped Auckland is? It's like someone's small intestine after a tragic accident. That circle in the middle is the Central Business District, full of all the offices in the entire city and half-empty apartment buildings built by speculators in the early 2000s who thought that Asian students would like nothing better than to come thousands of miles to a country the size of Great Britain but with a population that would fit into one of their hometown suburbs, and then live in a shoe closet. Ringed around the middle are where rich people live, and then everyone else has to commute in from all directions, thus equalling traffic chaos.)

But I digress. My point is that everywhere I've lived has been marked by the baffling indifference of the surrounding Frenchies to my presence. I was promised casseroles, pastis at 10 in the morning, and hilarious misunderstandings. Where are my casseroles? It's true, French boys do quite often like to chat up the Anglos on a night out, and you get the odd person enquiring where you're from in a shop or whatever, but it's yet to translate into life-long friendships and comical anecdotes.

The truth is, while I'm getting to the age that, even amongst the expat pool, more and more people are settling down, getting married and popping out kids (the horror), chances are that many of the expats you'll meet will share a similar outlook and lifestyle to you. Compared to your peers back home or the local population, they'll often be more fancy-free, adventurous, and most importantly, also desperately seeking friends. Throw in the fact that the language and cultural barriers between you are lower or non-existent, and you can bond over bitching about French people and venting the frustrations of trying to establish a life in a new country, and you basically have insta-friends, just add rosé.

While there are some tried and true methods of sneaking into a French friend group (getting a French Significant Other being the most obvious, but you can also try studying or working with them, flatsharing, or just dumb luck), the shocking truth is that many - most? - French people just don't want to be your friend. If you live in the same city you've always lived in, or maybe the one where you went to university, where your family lives, where you have a solid group of friends going back years, you're probably just not on the market for new friends all that often. Add in a serious relationship, a dedicated career and/or kids, and the odds decrease even further. And then consider the fact that the person you're being asked to befriend basically has the language and social skills of something ranging from a bright cocker spaniel to a slow ten-year old child. OF COURSE when they're surveying the savannah of friendship, they're not going for the goofy, lame gazelle jumping up and down screaming "Pick me, pick me!" (I guess in this tortured metaphor, the French friend lions want to have to work for their prey or something.)

That's not surprising, nor am I blaming the French or any other majority group for this situation. I think 9 times out of 10, you'll find the same thing wherever you go in the world. Some people are lovely, patient saints. Some people actively seek out those from different cultures because they want to learn the language, or they're fascinated by their country of origin, or they just want a bit of exoticism in their lives, but most people have their own stuff going on and they're not going out of their way to include the bumbling foreigner in their lives unless there's a compelling reason to do so.

So that's why I say to you, expats of the internet, feel free to actively work on cultivating friendships with the locals if that's what you want to do. But don't feel bad if it doesn't work out exactly like you planned. Don't fall into the trap of becoming that bitter expat in the corner who spends all their time whining about their host country, but embrace your expat friends - literally, they probably need someone like you in their life too.

24 comments:

  1. Interesting post. Good advice, too, as thinking of your own home-town, how often do you make friends with new residents? Might as well meet up with other ex-pats, as you say, because they are in the same boat as you.

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    1. Exactly. Not saying go out of your way to avoid the locals of course, but don't shut yourself off to expat friends either

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  2. Brilliant! Proper made me laugh :-)

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    1. Hey Jess you poms have a lovely turn of phrase innit?

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  3. A promising intro to this blog but you lost me after the poinfootball hooliganism!

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    1. Sorry, all football hooliganism has a point.

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  4. So true! And yet, J and I are in the midst of a friend dearth because all of his life-long FRENCH friends have up and moved away. So if any expats in the area want new friends, we are both in the market. We are so bored on Friday nights.
    Though I guess the main problem for us is that expats tend to live in the city center which is longer and longer to get to what with Poitiers' new traffic rules (which I nonetheless wholeheartedly support) and we live somewhere with no bus line and expats don't tend to have cars. It's still sort of a routine life/adventure life discrepancy. Sigh...

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    1. Boo, good luck getting out there! Actually, most of the people I know here are French, the difference being that pretty much everyone has also moved to the area specifically to work in Luxembourg, so they are also in the same boat of not knowing a lot of people and being open to new friends.

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    2. What is the attraction of Luxembourg?

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    3. Work. Unemployment at 7% as opposed to 10% and pays better than France.

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  5. Ha ha ha you did not like the dentist huh?

    I like hearing about where you come from. I hope you do more posts on that.

    You don’t have hilarious misunderstandings? I do all the time… Maybe you're more integrated than you think...

    I agree that it’s good to have some expat friends who can relate to what you’re going through. It really strengthens your support system.

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    1. I'm not sure where it came from, but that was *the* name for the dentist at my school :)

      Thanks, I suppose I don't put much in about New Zealand since I haven't been back in so long and I think it might not be interesting to people who want to read about the expat experience over here.

      The last I can remember was saying something like "the sun shines out of my arse" to a male colleague, and he thought I had diarrhoea! Less hilarious than mortifying!

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  6. So true - a lot of people miss out on good friendships this way! I spent a semester in Paris and it was hard to make friends - not because people were rude, but because they were settled into their own lives already (like you said) and didn't have a whole lot of effort to put into someone who was only going to be there for 6 months. My closest friends there ended up all being from South America...

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    1. Hi Fiona, thanks for commenting! I sometimes wonder if it would be easier somewhere like Paris because you have a more cosmopolitan mix of people, but I think often people already have quite hectic lives in big cities, so maybe not! Glad you found your friend group anyway :)

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  7. Perhaps you can gain some political "friends" by touting your vote!

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    1. Maybe, the second round is next week if anyone's interested...

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  8. Will it be scrutin or scrutin?

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    1. I voted for scrutin 5, (Dad)

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  9. Is scrutin 5 an alias for your dad?

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    1. No, he made a lame joke about it on facebook and followed up with a lame joke on the blog x

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  10. I found this post completely true and totally hysterical! You my fellow expat blog friend, are a very funny lady xx

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    1. That's so sweet, thank you! xx

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  11. In the scale of language skills which is top, the spaniel or the 10 year old child?

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