Getting a (Social) Life in France

French gathering

Making friends is difficult when moving to a new country. Twenty years ago, our Brummie removal men asked, “Do you know anyone here?” When we said no, they shook their heads in disbelief. If you move to la France profonde, you’ll find developing a social life is somewhat different from doing it in the UK – the language sometimes being a stumbling block. So here is our experience.

La différence

First, what to expect. Some people find it disappointing that the French don’t socialise as much as the Brits. This is certainly the case in rural areas, where farmers don’t have the habit of inviting each other round, let alone foreign newcomers. They are not unfriendly – often quite the opposite – but their culture is different.

In past times, rural folk did socialise more. To carry out collective tasks, such as shelling walnuts, they got together at someone’s house on a winter’s evening and told jokes and stories to pass the time. These veillées have now largely passed into memory, made obsolete by increasing mechanisation and rural depopulation.

French people often socialise en famille. The SF lived in Limoges in the 1970s and his copine’s family held large lunch parties every Sunday. People outside the family circle (which was pretty big anyway) were rarely invited. I once made the mistake of trying to invite French people for lunch on Easter Sunday and was gently reproved with the explanation that this day is “très famille.

We have noted a pattern to social invitations: French people invite you for apéritifs or a meal; you invite them back; they never invite you again. Our experience is also that French people often invite you back almost immediately after coming to your place. Maybe they don’t want the obligation hanging over them?

Apéros

Parties can be a bit of a culture shock, too. First of all, everyone goes around and greets everyone else at the party, whether they know each other or not. I like this custom, but it can take a long time for things to get started as a result. Also, it’s the French habit not to serve apéros until everyone has turned up. On one famous occasion, we waited 1 ½ hours for the final stragglers to arrive before we got a drink. The SF was not amused.

All of the above is, of course, a generalisation, but don’t expect your social life in France to be a carbon copy of the version you had where you lived before. Its very difference is refreshing in some ways, if a bit disconcerting at first.

Joining in

So what should you do to get a social life? First, it helps to try to speak French, even if it’s pretty stilted at first. Most French people in rural areas don’t speak any English and are grateful if you make an effort to communicate, even if you don’t do it very well.

For us, a key to developing a social life has been to join in with things. Singing in choirs, joining local associations, helping out at the library, getting involved in the local literary festival and joining yoga classes and walking groups have all brought us into contact with French people. In that way, you feel part of a group and a contributor to local life, not just an observer.

Fête in full flow

Also, the French are good at celebrating things, whether it’s a full-blown fête or le verre d’amitié after a meeting of an association. Our working days at Teysseroles, the chapel we are helping to restore, are often punctuated by lunch. Everyone downs tools for an hour or so, tables are laid, barbecues magicked out of stones and sticks, and food and wine consumed. We are on “tu” terms with everyone in the group, most of whom we wouldn’t know at all if we hadn’t taken an active role in the association.

The Teysseroles team enjoys an alfresco lunch on a chilly day

Repas de quartier (neighbourhood meals) seem to be a growing phenomenon. Some neighbours organised one for the first time last year and it looks set to become an annual event. Again, everyone contributes something to the food and drink and it’s a way of getting to know people with whom you are on nodding terms but whose houses you may never enter.

So it’s no good expecting life in rural France to be a giddy social whirl. Even so, we are often surprised at just how busy we are.

You might also like:

How to Queue in France
A French Country Upbringing
French Customs: Apéritifs

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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9 Responses to Getting a (Social) Life in France

  1. Pingback: Bons Voisins – Good Neighbours | Life on La Lune

  2. Osyth says:

    You are so right about it all. Speaking French even if you don’t do it well is essential (hardly surprising if one puts the boot on the other foot and imagines inviting Hungarians with no English for Sunday lunch in Oxford!), the rules of engagement are quite different but very acceptable so long as one accepts them and family is VERY important and it is well to understand where it fits in. Funnily enough we dropped in on friends near Murat yesterday en route from Cantal to Grenoble and were greeted by his mother telling us that they were all out for a balade familiale – they being our friends, her brother and his family. Although Old Mother invited us in to wait we hastily said no based on the fact that intruding on family time is taboo.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      We have come to realise how important family is in France. It’s not uncommon in restaurants to see three generations of the same family, babies upwards, enjoying a Sunday lunch together. I really like this aspect of French – particularly rural – life, but it may be gradually dying out as families disperse for job reasons and several generations no longer occupy the same house, or hamlet. Having said that, there are four generations living in the neighbouring hamlet to us and while they don’t live in the same house, the younger ones make sure that the older family members are looked after.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Osyth says:

        It is a living tragedy that socio-economic pressures are eroding the tradition. I hope that M. Macron is true to his manifesto and really does intend to try to breathe life back into la France Profonde.

        Liked by 1 person

      • nessafrance says:

        It is a great pity that the economic life of rural France is so diminished, but I guess this is a trend that started more than 100 years ago. Around us, it’s good to see that many elderly people are still able to live with or near their family and are looked after.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes, I’ve found the same here in Languedoc. We have our ‘voisinade’ (street party) and our village fete but mostly socialising is en famille. There are a few full-time English in the village with whom I’m friends plus a couple of French families. A casual coffee in the morning or ;gouter’ around four and that’s about it. We don’t as yet have a bar in the village which, when it does open, I could see becoming a focus of a more general social life. it’s different but I like it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I find it very interesting to note just how different it is from the UK. The French are très famille: probably more than we are in the UK. If they go to a restaurant on a Sunday for example, it’s normally three generations, including toddlers and babies. This is a very good way of socialising children from an early age. I know a number of French families where three generations still live together in the same property…

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  4. Jill Brown says:

    I absolutely agree, Vanessa. They are so much more involved socially with family so it takes longer to get to know them. Then there’s the issue of different French regions, whose welcomes differ. In the Languedoc where I mostly live I find any French friends I make come from elsewhere, though the locals are mostly friendly and full of smiles. Yet in Savoie, where I spend winters but once lived à l’année, it takes time but once you’re there you are a ‘real’ friend. I even have a family who call me ‘part of their family’ and mean it! I’m often the only one there at a social event who isn’t family. Makes you wonder how strange we must seem to them in our own peculiar ways!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I’m sure the French think our social habits are odd. Where we live, most of our French friends were born here but have worked elsewhere and have then returned in retirement. We were rather flattered that at one gathering organised by close French friends, we were the only non-French.

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