French hospitality stereotypes: fact or fiction?

Despite stereotypes about the French attitude towards foreigners, Alyssa Mease found that the people she met were very hospitable during her semester abroad. (Photo Courtesy of Alyssa Mease)

By Alyssa Mease
Foreign Correspondent

Before I left for France, it seemed like everyone had something negative to say about the French. Many people, most of whom have never been to the country, told me that French people were rude, and my brother-in-law told me that the only useful expression in the French language is, “I surrender.” My parents worried about my safety as a foreigner in a big city so many miles from home, and my friends told me I better not take up smoking or wear a beret.

I thought the only true way to prepare myself for such an experience would be to read a book written by an American woman who married a French man and moved to Paris. “This,” I told myself, “will be my bible.” Unfortunately, that book only echoed the same concerns everybody else had. The author warned that it is almost impossible to make French friends, and she said they will almost never invite foreigners to their homes. She wrote of horror stories of people going to buy a baguette in sweat pants and being shot death glares. She said that eating while walking or while on the Metro is a major faux pas, and she said that the French have no problem with butting in line at the store.

By this point, I was more than just a little nervous. Also at this point, I was apartment-less, as I had just been told by the man who was supposed to be letting me an apartment that it was, in fact, unavailable. This was after he ignored my e-mails and phone calls for a full week. You could say that I was starting to develop a hatred for the French.

My dad, who works for a company based in France, e-mailed his coworkers and asked them if they could help me in my search for a place to live. Every single person he e-mailed responded within two days, and they all attached links to websites that proved rather helpful to me. One man even told my dad that my roommates and I were welcome at his parents’ house for lunch when we arrived.

I was confused. I thought these people were just being nice because they knew my dad. “Surely not everyone in France is actually this nice,” I thought.

The day I arrived in France, the taxi dropped my roommate and I off at our apartment with all of our luggage. An older man who lives in the building offered to help us with our luggage and he taught us the security codes on the front gate and on the two doors leading into the building. He called our landlord from his phone and even told us where we could go for a good lunch. Even then I thought that this man must be the exception.

One day I was home with both of my roommates when our doorbell rang. It was our neighbor, who just wanted to make sure someone was home, because our door was ajar and he was afraid someone would break in.

I was rushing through the Metro on my way to school when a woman rushed past me yelling, “Young man! Young man!” The middle school-aged boy to whom she was yelling had dropped 20 Euros by the till, and she wanted to make sure he got it back.

The real test of the niceness of the French came when I was to meet some French friends of one of my American friends. I was still nervous about carrying on a conversation in only French, and I know that my American accent makes my French sound atrocious. I was told the one, Arthur, is a filmmaker, and he was about to leave for six weeks to make a film in America. To say I was intimidated is an understatement. However, Arthur punctuated everything he said in English with, “fucking shit,” so I was immediately put at ease. His girlfriend, Maeva, spoke only a little English, but she was very patient with my terrible French.

After our lunch, they invited me to their apartment for drinks later in the week. I was starting to seriously doubt the credibility of the American author.

At Maeva and Arthur’s apartment, I met a lot of their other friends. We all sang while someone played the guitar and two of the girls invited me to join their gym. They taught me how to curse in French, and told me I spoke French really well.

I guess what I have learned is that it is not always a good idea to heed the advice of others, especially when the people offering the advice have no first-hand experience. Sometimes the best thing to do is figure things out for yourself, and make some mistakes along the way. I have messed up the language here many times, and every time, the person I was talking to kindly explained the correct way to say what I wanted. Once, I tried to tell Arthur’s friend Julian, a guy, that he was always welcome in my apartment, but I referred to him in the feminine. He just laughed it off and told me the right words. I think having a red face sometimes is all part of the experience.