Expats in any country have a tendency to get together. It’s not tribal, it’s not about wanting to hang on to your roots or rejecting everything that’s different about your adopted country. I sort of think that if that’s what you want – you probably won’t be leaving home any time soon to live in a foreign country!
Expats congregate together because it offers comfort, it’s a chance to speak easily in their own language and to share their heritage. I’ve lost count of the amount of times that people have told me they don’t want anything to do with expats, they only want French friends – as if there is something wrong with having friends from your old home.
Personally I have French friends in France and expat British friends in France. I also have Australian, Belgian, New Zealand, South African, American and Greek friends in France. Just as I did when I lived in Britain – I have friends from different countries.
It’s hard for those who don’t speak French fluently to make friends in France. Try as you might, if you can’t understand what everyone is saying around you, it is very difficult to fit in. That said, I know plenty of Anglo-French friendships where neither communicate particularly well in words but a lot of hand signals and noises are used and it works fine! I also know of marriages between Anglo-French couples where to start with neither could speak the other’s language but they fell in love anyway.
As a non-French speaking expat, there is no point in being embarrassed about your lack of language skills in your new country, you have to accept that it is essential to learn as best you can – that might not be easy, and you might never be fluent but even the basics will get you further along than nothing at all. There are loads of DVDS, online courses, books that can help and it’s money well spent if you have lessons when all else fails.
I was lucky enough to have learned French as a kid, spent time in Paris and improved my accent and I have a good ear for languages. Although I’m not brilliant at French, I pick words up quite well and I can hold a conversation, order things from the builder’s merchants, sort out tax problems etc.
My Other Half (OH) struggles a bit with the language but he gets by. When our lovely French neighbour J-C comes in for a chat – he speaks no English (well, a few unrepeatable swear words he has clearly picked up from watching American TV cop shows) and the OH professes to speak no French. That’s not strictly true but it wouldn’t matter anyway. J-C babbles away and to be frank, I don’t really understand him either. That’s because he speaks a mix of French and Ch’ti, the local patois. An afternoon with J-C is like trying out for a never ending game of charades in which he imitates and demonstrates various animal noises, daily life scenes such as bottles being opened and fizzing, cars passing by, cows that are hungry, horses that are angry, chickens, turkeys and ducks and all sorts. He makes sounds, claps his hands together and weaves pictures with them animatedly. The OH and I afterwards compare notes “I think he said that there is a do at the town hall on Saturday night and we should go and bring some wine and some stones?” I say uncertainly. “I thought he said that he went to a party last week when he drank too much wine and fell down a hole and was there for ages before anyone noticed” says the OH.
We work it out in the end somehow and however difficult it is to understand each other, we laugh a lot and consider J-C and his wife as good friends. He will often stop by to tell us the local news, dish the dirt on the neighbours he doesn’t like, or ask for help with something. He isn’t as fit as he was and the OH helps out when there is something heavy to lift, his van is called into service for deliveries from time to time and news of the OH’s expertise with a tractor is growing (he’s an ex mechanic amongst much else). In return J-C brings us fruit and veg from his garden and Mrs J-C helps out when we need to find out who to call when there is a problem and we need a local expert.
Speaking French for most expats isn’t all about grammar and tenses (though it can certainly make you tense at times) – it’s about making an effort, doing your best and having a go…