Hello, I had a dreamy visit to Paris in 2003. I found it easy to enjoy the tourist attractions: shops, sights and museums, etc. What I didn't get to do was to mingle with locals or get a deeper feel for the culture. I'm going again in spring, and this time I'd really like to experience the culture more closely (as much as a foreigner can). I'd like to make a friend/penpal, have discussions and get the perspective of the people and land I've been thinking about for years. I speak passable French and am brushing up in anticipation, so while language might be imperfect, I'm not a total beginner. I can picture sitting at a local bar/cafe and being generally friendly and receptive. Other than that, I can't imagine how to engage locals without being pushy or weird, especially when the French have a reputation for personal privacy (which I admire, but would like to overcome). Rick's advice to become a "temporary local" is well taken, but I'm at a loss for specific ways to go about it. It occurs to me as I write that I could have tried to rent a room with a native person or family, but as it is I've already booked a hotel with my American friend, so that's out. Can anyone recommend ways to make unobtrusive contact with local folks, or other ways of embracing and experiencing the local culture on it's own terms? Thanks for any input!
I love this question Tom, and I hope you get some good answers. I would think that if you go to places where locals eat, etc. you would have more luck than going to tourist attractions and restaurants near them. There is a program called Paris Greeters, where a local will take you around. You have to make arrangements for that ahead of time. I don't know if that will help or not. Have a great trip to my favorite city. I am looking forward to returning in October!
You need something that will engage their interests. Let's be honest... most Parisians will not be fighting each other off for the chance to talk with you. They've encountered hundreds, if not thousands of tourists (and yes, you will be a "tourist") every year. As you have alluded, although they probably won't be rude, they would likely rather be left alone than carry on an in-depth conversation with a stranger who they will never see again. So, you need to bring something to the table that will get people's attention. A friendly, but appropriately used smile and speaking some French won't hurt, but they've probably seen it all before. So, here's an example I'll give that illustrates the general point. I moved to my current location late last summer. My German is far from fluent- actually, it's pretty bad. But, I have managed to meet many of my neighbors. How? I have a very friendly, happy dog that makes introductions for me. I'm not saying you need to take a dog with you, but you need something to break the ice. I admit I don't know what that would be for Paris, but perhaps some of the more seasoned Paris veterans on this forum might have some ideas.
Tom's post is worth a 2nd read. And you won't even have a dog to break the ice. Unless you go the route of James (see post immediately below), you probably want to have modest expectations.
One word - Soccer! Go to the neighborhood sports field and watch the soccer game or even the practice. Go to the local bar or cafe then afterwards. Find out which team you should cheer for, of course. This should endear you to many people and you should be able to make lots of new friends. Small, neighborhood bars and cafes, if you go to them every day are good places. Go to the bakery at the same time every day, so that you will wait in line with the same people. Neighborhood churches can be a good source. Exhibitions at smaller museums or galleries or lectures might also be good. The Paris Greeter is a good idea.
My compliments on your desire to talk to the locals. First of all, especially in France, in my view, you have to get that "passable French" to be as fluent as possible, to almost have that French at your finger tips. You have to show them that they don't have to speak English or try to when you can easily speak in their language. You want to meet and engage the locals in conversation, even at the perfunctorily level, (especially chit-chat), language is the key so that the pressure is not on them having to speak outside of their language but rather on you. Regardless of their level of English, from limited to fluent or none at all, you're going to make that a non-issue when you engage them in their language right away, no matter where you meet them. Talk, even small talk, with the hotel staff, where you've booked in French. Stopping people on the streets for directions, buying a train ticket at the counter, talking with the owner/curator of a small museum, etc., etc., just speak the French as perfectly as you can; if it's a word where you might trip up on saying it exactly right, then pull out a piece of paper to write it out with the accent marks. As I said, language is the key in meeting locals, especially when you get out of the tourist areas in Paris and in the rest of the country... in areas not visited by Americans, such as towns in northern France.
When I was much younger, one of the ways was joinimg in the grape harvest. Dirty, tiring hard work, but you got to meet other young people from around europe. So now you need to figure out a modern day equivalent
Sort of on-topic, I remember this from The Onion: http://www.theonion.com/articles/backpacker-planning-to-shatter-europeans-preconcep,17783/
I would suggest starting by reaching out to all your friends and family and seeing if anyone has a friend or relative living in Paris. Having someone open the door a little for you will go a long way towards getting your foot in it. If you just want a little chit-chat with locals, then go stand in the longest line at the post office. Sometimes you can strike up a conversation about the line or the weather. You can also try a neighborhood bar, but you're likely to be looked at strangely. Going several days in a row as someone has suggested might work. Ýou don't mentione how old you are and how long you're going to be there. That could make a difference. The younger you are and the longer you're there, the better the opportunities to make "contact" as you will. Other options would be to try to take some sort of class (painting, sculpting would be good choices. A lot of times the cooking classes are full of ex-pats and foreigners), go to a lecture at a university. THis way you'll find people with common interests and sometimes the group goes out for coffee afterwards. Or find a way to connect with people that have the same hobby as you. Maybe this is the way you could have something to offer. If all else fails - get a dog.
Paris greeters, online newsletters, dogs, sports, and the alignment of expectations; what smart, thoughtful ideas and responses so far! Thank you so much. Among my favorite and most useful-sounding replies are: * taking in a game of soccer (and rooting for the local favorite!) * talking w/ hotel staff * enlisting a greeter * finding a charity or group event, and
* trying smaller or rural towns Getting a dog and having sex are also creative ideas, although I must express my gratitude that these were separate recommendations. ;) My expectations are modest, but my hopes are high. It won't be easy, but I don't think it's unrealistic to find something in common with a person or two in France. Thank you again for those who shared; I look forward to more ideas if there are any!
Just be open to conversation. In an early trip to Paris, I stopped at a crepe stand one evening. A guy a few years younger started to speak to me in French. I told him, in French, that I spoke some French but asked him to slow down. He asked if I was English. I said, no, I was an American. And then in English he asked, "Oh, may I practice my English with you." Of course I said and we had a nice conversation about Paris.
In my experience the breed of dog is important. I have a German Shepherd (soppy and cowardly) but folk tend to give us a wide berth when the dog is with us. Something cute or a puppy would be better. My husband speaks no German, and few locals speak English here, but he has made many friends by having an unhealthy interest in good beer. All he needs is 'Deutsches Bier.......sehr gut' and 'the beers are on me' and he has a queue of eager wanna be friends. He also asked those in the bar who were playing cards or playing boules outside if they could teach him to play so that he could join in. The most admirable thing he did was to wear a German football strip during the European Cup and that went down a treat with the locals - an Englaender supporting their national team! He silently cheered on England though, who of course didn't make it much beyond the first hurdle! I would imagine though that being in a rural area as we are makes the making of friends easier as foreigners/tourists are a bit of a novelty.
Asking questions is a way to break the ice, always prefaced with "excuse me." I've found the French and even Parisians love to help people. In a restaurant starting with "excusez-moi monsieur/madame" you can ask people what they recommend or what it is they are eating, at a shop you can ask how to cook something, at a cafe bar ask the others what sights to see or visit in the area. Explain in any of these cases that you are visiting and want to experience the "real Paris or the real France." If you add that you're a little lost, confused, or have a little problem everyone in the place will be answering your questions and helping. The French really do like to help people, especially someone who is interested in their culture. On the other hand they don't want to intrude on you and your right to privacy, so it is good for you to break the ice. In the 1970s Polly Platt wrote books about things like this. Though the society she described has changed, the basics of ice breaking are still the same.
Tom, thanks for the Onion link. Very funny. I love this line: "Hill added that over the course of the trip, he hopes to meet some Europeans who aren't just a bunch of effeminate, chain-smoking elitists."
Bets's description is pretty much exactly what happened to me. We were having lunch on the Ile de la Cite and there was a group of boys playing what I would call Bacci Ball. I leaned over to ask a lady to my left what the name of that game was and it spun into a conversation. She was from Syria and had been living in Paris for a couple years. She was incredibily nice and welcomed the chat. I think the key was that I had a legitimate question and wasn't coming off as schmarmy and she was alone so I wasn't interupting a lunch with friends or anything. It was a real treat and I appreciate that moment.
Find a charity that needs help and pitch in.
You might want to subscribe to two e-newsletters: Paris Through Expatriate Eyes by Terrence Gelenter (bi-weekly) and David Lebovitz who talks mostly about eating in Paris (frequent posts). These offer a lot of insights into Paris and might give you more ideas about how to meet the locals. I also enjoyed a book called Almost French by Sarah Turnbull.
I can only tell you how I made friends in Holland, not France, but it really worked. I was living on my boat in one of the canals in Amsterdam many years ago, while I was trying to sell her. I was very close to broke, and knew not a soul. My technique was to get a book on "How to Speak Dutch" and take it to a brown
cafe. (BTW, these were really small bar/cafes, not the pot selling coffee houses of today) Anyway, I would order a beer and sit reading my book. When I saw someone I found attractive, I would walk over and (in Dutch) spout my memorized lines. "Pardon me, but I am trying to learn Dutch. Do you speak any English?" The would almost always say, "A little", meaning they spoke more than I did. I would then say that I had found a word I could not pronounce. Any word would have worked, but I chose "nieuwsquierig", which means "curious", and is pronounced like you have fish bone stuck in your throat. After laughing at my pitiful attempts to mangle that really hard word for awhile, the subject of speaking Dutch never came up. We continued in English. I was not lonely for long in Amsterdam, and still have friends from that time 40 years ago. I'll bet you could do something similar in French. Best of luck! :-)
If your could change you hotel reservation and stay at a bed and breakfast in a "neighborhood" setting, it might lead to meeting new people in Paris. We stayed at a bed and breakfast on the Isle St. Louis and found it very different and charming. It was a 5 floor walk up, but really got into the feel of living there. The bathroom was down the hall.
We were trying to speak German to a couple who did not speak any English at our B & B breakfast table. Another young couple who spoke English came over to help translate so we could understand each other. We ran into this young couple as they were headed out to dinner and asked if we could come along and buy them dinner. We had a great time and then they reciprocated the following night. Now we have been invited to stay in their home next summer during our next trip. They were not locals to the area, but locals to the country.
Tom, on the other hand, if getting a dog and having sex are not separate suggestions, it will undoubedly be a conversation starter! We are renting a house in the south of France. The property manager is my age (60ish) and also does walking tours and hikes. We plan to use her as a way to meet some local people. The house we will be in does not have internet, but the man next door will let us use his for 10E a week, so that's another chance to interact. I like the idea of going to the same bakery at the same time. I assume we could apply that to a local cafe or bistro?
I have a hard time talking to adults in English, so my limited French will be a challenge.
Tom in Hüttenfeld/Hessen--Thanks for info on the Brussels museum, am aware of it, just haven't gotten there yet.
Just one other technique I found very useful back in my bachelor days. It should be easy for you since you speak some French. I would be in a bar situation, but it could be anywhere, and I would pick out the trendiest/ most sophisticated/well dressed looking couple in the place. Always a couple. I would go up to them and, speaking only to the guy, keeping my eyes diligently away from her cleavage, say I was new in town, ask if I could ask a question. I'd say they looked like the kind of people who know what is happening, and ask where the most popular bar/restaurant/whatever was in town. They would almost always be flattered as being picked out as the sharpest knives in that particular bar, and really try to show off their knowledge. I would whip out a notebook, and a pen and take notes. Ice was broken, lively discussion ensued, and I was even asked a number of times if they could drive me to the next place they were going; sometimes a party. Try it. It works.
I am not a shy person. I am outgoing, and both while working and off-duty, I have dozens of friendly, casual contact with people every day. While traveling, mostly in the US but also abroad, I've had nice conversations in bars, on the street, or watching a parade. However, I could not/would not take it to the next level and ask someone to go get a coffee. I'm as tongue tied as a middle schooler looking for a date. Maybe I don't want to appear to be a stalker, or I'm afraid that person will not be as pleasant as they appear. Maybe it's my inner 7th grader.
Make sure to chat with the waitstaff at local bars/restaurants. You'll get some great tips on where to go and what to do, and also might make a new friend! We always end up with a few new buddies each time.
The best way we have found to get to know the locals is by doing laundry in a laundromat or hopping a train and sitting with them
Take a cooking, photography, or art class in the area. Also ring up the US Embassy (seriously), they may know of some French/American get-togethers that are open to tourists.
I'm not sure the Consulate or Embassy is going to be offering activity suggestions to tourists calling them up. All you are going to get is the operator. Why not post on Trip Advisor and ask the Destination Experts what is going on their town. Just like people do on here when they are coming to Frankfurt. They ask me what events will be happening while they are here. I am just one person though. TA has hundreds for just about every location you can imagine.
"....keeping my eyes diligently away from her cleavage...." Helps keep down the foreign creep factor.
Ah, you saw right through my ploy, Michael. :-)
Aha! So you admit that there is a "foreign creep factor"?
Of course there is a 'foreign creep factor". You will be the foreigner. You try to strike up a conversation with someone in the Metro, or a bar, and you will be looked upon with a certain amount of suspicion. Someone comes up to me speaking a strange tongue, you bet your bipi I'm going to check that my wallet is still there, and my ring is still on my finger. All I was saying is that if you want to relate with the locals you should have a valid sounding approach that makes you sound genuinely in need of assistance, and not a threat. Once that is established, you can get around to the cleavage thing.
Thank you everyone for your helpful answers!
This is something that might not work for your upcoming trip, but might be good for later trips. I frequent a number of message boards related to specific activities, like skiing and food/cooking. I've developed relationships, over the years, with people in foreign countries on these boards. I've skied with "friends" from Australia and England that came to the US, and I've been invited to ski with Swiss, French and Finnish "friends" should I ever find myself in those countries in winter. I've been invited to dinners and market tours in France and Italy by people I "met" on my food boards. When you are passionate about your hobbies, others who are similarly passionate want to meet you. Obviously it takes some time for these types of relationships to develop, but it's a good way to connect with people.