The French have the reputation for being unfriendly. I don’t hesitate blogging about this because I know that they, too, know this. Even within France, people are unfriendly to each other. While Paris technically belongs to the larger region of Ile-de-France, Parisians insist on distinguishing themselves from inhabitants of its surrounding regions. The area within the boulevard Périphérique, a circular route that essentially closes the city off from its outsiders, is called Paris intramuros—literally “within the walls.”
How, then, could France possibly not earn the reputation of being unwelcoming to its foreigners? The French enjoy distinguishing between “us and them,” and do so shamelessly. Before I left for France, almost everyone started telling me about the almost impenetrable “French bubble” and the icy exterior that the French seem to enjoy giving its foreigners—or Parisians to the extramuros—so much. Every time someone “warned” me about France, I became worried or even upset—I had been to France a few times when I was younger, but it was always as a tourist and not a student who was to live there for four months.
Today marks exactly two months of my arrival in France, and it is time I debunk this myth. I will not say that I am now a local Parisian, because I’m not. I still have trouble with bus routes and metro lines, and I still use my French-English Dictionary iPhone app from time to time. My French has obviously improved, but I’m not fluent like the locals. Here in Paris, I remain an outsider. This is not a label that I’ve resigned to, but one that I am happy to have.
Yet, I am an outsider who fits in. I occupy the middle ground between visitor and local—I don’t belong to either category, and I don’t believe I ever will. I know enough about the French language and customs not to be classed as a visitor or tourist, but not enough to consider myself a local—obviously.
Being an outsider has its perks. I look different, and I’m sure I still speak French with the slight accent of an English schoolgirl, having learned the language when I was at school there. I am constantly asked whether I am Chinese or Japanese, and my response is always met with interested curiosity as to how linguistically French differs from Chinese (a lot). Through such interactions, I have also learned that the French, especially the younger generation, love the United States. Almost everyone I have met has been to the States at least once, and love following American culture (everyone is obsessed with Grand Theft Auto and Breaking Bad—it’s great).
But to be an outsider who fits in also takes time and effort. One must understand and respect the culture of the French bubble in order to penetrate it. I’ve noticed that the local Parisians hate non-French speakers, perhaps because they seem to exhibit a lack of effort to appreciate the French language. Although we all know that the inability to speak a language certainly doesn’t mean a lack of appreciation of the culture, the French seem to think so. To them, speaking French badly is better than not speaking it all, because at least it means that some efforts had been made to learn about France. It’s fascinating to see how language changes how people act; sometimes when I am in a shop or a café, I am first gruffly spoken to in English, but when I reply in French, I am immediately greeted with a smile and even effusions in French.
In American journalist Elaine Sciolino’s book La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life, she recalls an interview with Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, president of the French Republic from 1974 to 1981:
“Mr. President, could you explain to us how we can understand your country?”
“My answer is clear – you cannot … [France operates as] an extremely strange system impenetrable from the outside, rather agreeable to live in, but totally different from anywhere else.”
Basing my judgment off my experiences so far, I could not agree with him more. The French may not be very welcoming to its outsiders at first—but they certainly warm up to you when they see you making an effort… And who knows, maybe you’ll even like them.
This blog/post originally appeared on the Berkley Center’s Junior Year Abroad Network blog on October 21, 2013.