It’s never easy to make friends – you just sort of do it, if you can, if people cross your path and they stay around long enough for you to think of them as more than passing acquaintances. I’ve met a lot of people in France, and have actually made more friends than I would have imagined making before I began to live part of the year here. I don’t know if I’m particularly gifted at friendship. Perhaps I’m adept at appearing to be friendly – or to give the impression that I like the people I meet. I often do, but as with so much in life I’m often wrong about what I feel if I begin to think about it. The thing is, I’m often wrong about people, but often enough right to keep trying to turn an encounter into a friendship.
In France, I didn’t make a concentrated effort to befriend people, but the French I did meet I tried to get to know better. That’s the first part, isn’t it? That effort. Or the decision to make the effort. I always had the idea that something might work out, but that nothing perhaps would, that whatever I hoped would come from strengthening an acquaintance would end without reciprocation, reciprocation being the urge to spend time in each other’s company, and even enjoy it. I forged on, in the hope that I might know others and maybe even allow myself to be known to them.
We rely on micro-signals and facial and vocal inflections to interpret how we might get on together, but I’m not sure how those play out if you’re meeting people in another language that you’re learning. You’re too busy searching for words to read non-verbal cues. For me, it helped in my first few months in France that I was curious about everything, and this curiosity spread to just about everyone to whom I was introduced.
I was an object of curiosity, too, the middle-aged American learning a new language and living abroad. It wasn’t exactly unusual, but neither was it everyday. Besides, who doesn’t want to engage with the optimism of someone who finds your life fascinating, because it’s unknown to him? I was like a schoolboy dropped into a new class of students who were open to admitting a stranger into their midst. I took steps to embrace my Americanness in the form of being open to others, a quality the French admire in us. I don’t feel particularly American – that is, I don’t think about the cultural traits that define me as a citizen of my country, though I think about those that define people from other countries. Especially people in France. I found myself analyzing their motivations, searching for some national virtue or tendency while at the same time looking to discern something about the individual personality whose qualities could lead to real friendship. In doing so, I was, of course, unthinkingly analyzing, or even revealing, my own cultural outlook. The important thing was that I didn’t close myself off, and I was aware of that, at least.
I always know that I’m the other person, the American among the locals. This is perhaps more notable in Paris than in New York, since most New Yorkers are from somewhere else. As soon as I speak, I’m identified as not from here, but that in itself can be an opportunity. Anyway, friendship is always a matter of sizing each other up, regardless of how well-intentioned we are or how accepting we may be of the people whom we run across. I think it might be easier for a newcomer to a country or a culture to become acquainted with people who might grow into friends. That mutual sizing up is based on a wonder at what different values or perspectives might have produced an individual with whom you wish to spend time. The friends I’ve met here aren’t those who echo what I feel – but these friends are, perhaps, as similarly inclined as I am to want to enlarge the scope of their experience by spending time with someone they might only partly understand.
It’s perhaps easier in Paris, once you meet one or two people, to acquire something approaching a circle of friends, than it is in Manhattan (and I’m a lifelong New Yorker). Parisians like to have dinners at home. Many New Yorkers prefer to dine at restaurants. In a way, that New York tendency is chillier, or less conducive to the start of a warm friendship, than the Parisian custom. Most Parisians, no matter how modest their apartment, find space to have a few people over, and can usually manage to throw together something edible, though food isn’t the point – seeing one another is. New Yorkers often don’t want to show you where they live, let alone reveal how they cook. But in Paris, as soon as I would meet new people, I began to invite them over for dinner, knowing that this allows the chance actually to converse. Even the half-halting French sentences I formed in my first few months made me more approachable (of course, it helped that many of the people who’ve become friends have displayed a tolerance for my linguistic clumsiness). Beyond that, however, inviting people over is a way of sharing something you don’t need words to describe – it’s an act of humility that’s also a gesture of generosity, since if you share where you live, and what you cook, and a few hours of your personal life, with people you’ve thought well enough of to ask over, then chances are pretty good you might have the makings of something that will grow into an actual relationship.
Despite being someone who in my past could have the arrogance of the uninformed, I have found that the humility of hospitality is the way to get to know people better. And as my French has gotten better, I’ve little by little understood more of the little character nuances of my French friends. That isn’t to say that I know them any better than I know my American friends. We’re all pretty much unknowable. But I’ve realized that I actually don’t mind trying to find out what I can, however many times I’m wrong, since in a way it tends to soften my self-reliant inwardness. Or the sad complacency that comes from thinking you only know your own mind. Here in France, it’s remarkable how little I know, and how much I can gain by that.