Looking back: French culture and people

When you’re preparing to study abroad, you know you are setting off to experience some incredible times and to meet some amazing people from places you may have never been to, but you really have no idea what to expect. I had been to France before, when I was around 12 years old, although I had been in a different region of France from where I am now, and I did not stay there long enough to truly get to know the culture. This time, when I prepared to spend four months in the South of France, my expectation was that I would get to know a few French people, and hopefully a few international students from my university here.

When you set expectations for yourself that don’t match reality, you may end up a bit disappointed. My main goal for studying abroad was to develop a deeper understanding of French culture (and people), and lately I’ve been reflecting on my interactions with French people over the course of my time here. I am slightly disappointed in the fact that I have hardly made a single friend or even acquaintance who is French. I’ve spoken to my friends and classmates in Nice about this topic, and we’re all more or less in the same boat.

One evening last week, I sat on the beach with a group of international friends from the University of Nice, a different university nearby. We were celebrating the birthday of one of our friends from Belgium, who had invited a few people we hadn’t met before. One of them was a French girl around our age, from Lyon. I talked to her for a while about why she had chosen to come to Nice, and I asked her to compare the city to her home. She mentioned that she had been in Nice for about two years and has mostly been sticking with a group of French friends, so it was a bit strange for her to be sitting around in a circle chatting with a group of people from a handful of countries, with no one else from France there. When I asked her why she has been sticking with mainly French people, she took a bit of time to reflect before responding. One of the things she noted is that it takes a lot less effort to communicate with people who have the same native language as you. I thought about the people I’ve been hanging out with, and how most people have a different native language, but we mainly communicate in English and sometimes use a bit of French.

Part of the reason I haven’t hung out with many French people is the nature of my program—I go to an international school in a different town from where I am staying, I spend my time at school talking to other students from North America or people from different parts of Europe, and I hang out with exchange students living in Nice. Most of the people I go to school with live in a different town close to the university, so I don’t really see them outside of school. About a third of the students at SKEMA are from France, and although I have tried to branch out and talk to a lot of different people at school, I find that the French students always stick together and are much less open to starting a conversation or joining a group project team with non-French students.

In French culture, it takes a lot longer to make friends, but once you become friends, you will generally be friends for life. In the US, we go about making friends much differently. We tend to have a lot more friends who we are not as close with, and we have less close friends. In France and the US, our close friends are the ones that will always be around. However, French people don’t really have casual acquaintances.

Lately, I have been doing a lot of reflecting on my time in France thus far, and I’ve realized I’ve made a lot of acquaintances and have grown close to a small handful of people. I’ve also been wondering if I should have done more from the start to branch out and make more of an effort to meet French people, but now, I’ve realized that the difference in the way American and French people form friendships means that maybe four months is not even enough time to really become friends with French people.

Even though my expectations differed from what I really experienced in terms of making friends while abroad, I am so happy to have met and spent time with the people I met here. I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything.

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