Friends will be French

Milja Kaunisto, 17/1/2012

Things you should know about me, Part II:

I’m a hermit. My idea of a good friend is a book that has more than a thousand pages. However, living abroad, I do feel the occasional need for human contact. Although as a Finn, which is exotic by any standards, I’m only human. And as one, I thought life in France would be same as living everywhere: ‘If you build it, they will come’. Friends, that is. How wrong I was.

A lot has been written about making friends with the French. Because they’re… ‘special friends’. The kind you spend a long time getting. My crusade to France started out with living in Paris with no friends at all, and as a few more years rolled by, I still had none.

Eventually, I talked this over with my then-boyfriend-now-spouse. Maybe something was wrong with us? Maybe we had turned into disreputable characters while living in Paris. Maybe our stocky Finnish built was a social turn-off.

In the meantime, we did have friends of other nationalities; Swedish, a few fellow Finns, Brazilian, those guys from Mali and Senegal and the occasional American. As you spend some time in Paris, you do notice it’s easier to get acquainted with other foreigners.

You commiserate about Paris, and a friendship takes off easily enough. It’s like those old guys who met at wartime and became best friends who still, after fifty years, get together to gab about the bad old days. There’s something about digging trenches and avoiding bullets – or Parisian landlords and dog turds – that stick humans together forever like crazy glue.

On our third year in Paris, we got acquainted with a few French, though. Don’t ask us how we did it, because it sure wasn’t our unforgettable accent or our manic, over-excited smiles…

Milja Kaunisto, 17/1/2012

There was this guy who called himself Funk-Gary (the name has been subtly changed) that we saw playing in every funk jam session to be found in Paris. He played the same song over and over again and was very fond of fancy drinks. As we seemed to run into him in every music bar we went to, my boyfriend eventually gave this ubiquitous Funk-Gary character his number. And he did call the following night, asking my boyfriend out to see some band or another. “Great”, my sweetheart said, “you know, I’m so happy! Looks like we’re getting the hang of this! We’re really starting to be friends with these French!”

He came back later that night, and I heard him standing there in the dark, sighing depressingly. “So, how did your evening go?”, I asked, sleepily. “Great”, he said. “We went to see a band, then Funk-Gary invited me over for some drinks and declared his undying love for me.”

Another Frenchman, called Bert, was very energetic and talked to everybody around him, including us. He had just given up alcohol and drugs and said he needed some fresh friends that were not a part of his old bar gang.Glad to finally know an actual Frenchman, we hung around with him over the summer, at the end of which he even invited himself over to Finlandwith us.

This was a big mistake, since Finland can easily have a bad alcoholic influence over any given human. He started drinking and became… different. Once drunk, he started talking about his past in various prisons of France, and simultaneously offered to produce my next album while gulping down every bit of alcohol he could lay his hands on.

Swiftly back in Paris, we did a little background checking on our new French friend (thank goodness for Internet). We found out that his full name, while a rare-sounding one, did come up when ‘googled’. It’s just that, well, according to Google, he had been dead a long time. Murdered, some fifteen years ago. We didn’t keep in touch.

Milja Kaunisto, 17/1/2012

And then there was of course our smooth-talking ‘aristo-brat’ of an upstairs neighbor, Pierre, with big loudspeakers and a cocaine habit who kindly enough invited us over to his family’s estate in the Vendée on a surfing trip, and once there, he pointed at his backyard and drawled: “You can put your tent over there.” Finally, after six years in Paris, we gave up on it and moved to the countryside. By this time, we were already OK with the idea that as foreigners, we may never have one single French friend.

However unlikely it may sound to those who are still struggling trying to make French friends in Paris, this story has a happy ending. After a measly two years in our village, we have lots of good friends.

To define friends, we meet socially on a weekly basis, sometimes make supper together, borrow each-others’ CDs, babysit each-others’ kids, party once in a blue moon. And believe it or not, these people are all French. Kind, caring, friendly French. Yes, yes, real French. French with French ancestry and roots that go back for centuries. And no, ‘friendly’ and ‘French’ are not a contradiction in terms. As unbelievable as it may sound, we now have a 100% French social life.

If this story has a lesson to offer, that is adding another wonky refrain to the same old song: ‘Paris is not France’. If you’ve given up hope of befriending a single Frenchman/woman, here’s my tip. In fact, if there’s one tip in general I have to offer about France, it would be this:

Move to the countryside! Life is better there, and your friends will be French.

Image credits:
All photos and artwork by Milja Kaunisto.

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Milja Kaunisto

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  1. Bethany Untied Feb 1, 2012 at 3:05 PM - Reply

    LOL this article was great ! I know your pain, but I have to say- I lived in the countryside and it wasn’t much easier to make friends there. The teachers at one of my schools completely alienated me, for one. My neighbor took almost a year to finally talk to me and invite me over for dinner. My best and closest French friend just happened to be the roommate of my Venezuelan friend, and it took us several months before we started hanging out. I’m from Ohio, where you could end up having a new friend if you’re in a long check-out line so it was a bit of a shock to me !

  2. Milja Kaunisto Feb 1, 2012 at 9:18 PM - Reply

    Thanks!!! … Well, it did take me two years to have my first French friend here in the country… but still, it was so much faster than in Paris (where I still have none. Not that I want any, now.) But I’m finding out that the French term for friendship means so much more than just an acquaintance – they’re almost family members in the end! So, naturally it takes longer (veeeery much longer) to get started. Here follows an example of a french friendship. -After our latest move in this village, we had a problem with our gas stove, it had no support structure and we couldn’t cook for a few days. So imagine our surprise when one day we got back home from the grocery store and found a hand-crafted, made-to-measure support for our stove, outside our door. One dear french friend had made it for us, as he and some other friends had found it unacceptable that we couldn’t eat home-made meals… I was almost in tears. Nothing remotely like this ever happened in Finland, or in Missouri where I lived for 5 years. Imagine my shock! 🙂

  3. Elisabeth Donato Feb 10, 2012 at 11:57 PM - Reply

    My favorite allegory for how the French regard friendship and how it develops is the episode with the fox in The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. A friendship is not instantaneous, it is something that you let grow and nurture over time. Then, your friend is someone whom you love dearly and adds meaning to your life. Also someone who will do anything for you.

    Interestingly, the French have a stereotype for friendship as Americans “practice” it – it is instant, and very superficial. But I think that, here, they are confusing true friends with “acquaintances.”

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