The world is getting smaller. Many of us are jetting to several places a year, often in several different countries. Still, sometimes a trip to a foreign place, especially when you’re traveling by yourself, can seem lonely—like you’re living in the movie Lost in Translation. Perhaps you are in Paris for business for an extended time, or are trying like mad to meet a vrai Parisian, but the waiter you’ve encountered just isn’t that friendly.
Why not try some fairly new French-born ideas that make the Parisian world seem a bit smaller and a little friendlier, like I did recently? Last week, I participated in one of the three or four Franglish events held each week in Paris. This is the brainchild of friends Nicolas Saurel and Steven Annonziata, who thought it would be a good idea to put French and English speakers who want to learn each other’s language on a level playing field. It’s also a great way to meet people. Seven minutes in English, seven minutes in French, and so on: everyone gets to feel stupid and then superior for just seven minutes.
I had a bit of trepidation when I entered the Lizard Lounge in the Marais the other night. I was glad that a drink was included in my entry price of 10 euros, because it helped calm my nerves. Would it be an awkward pick up scene? Would I fumble and forget the meager French I normally utilize? Pleasantly my fears were allayed right from the start. This event is very well organized, everyone I met was extremely friendly yet professional and, best of all, there is NO teacher. You have a chance to chat with a Parisian at whatever your level. The other person gently helps you when necessary. There’s even a French-English dictionary on the table in case you both get stuck.
Others who wanted to mingle and mix a bit more stayed after the two-hour mark, but I headed home, happy that I was generally able to converse with some ease in all my seven-minute meetings. Some of the people I met I really connected with, particularly a schoolteacher who seemed very bright and interesting. Most of the French people were trying to learn English to help them at work, which is similarly why I was trying to learn French. The best thing about this concept is that everyone is on equal footing, much more so than in a language class, where there is always someone better or worse than you and a teacher who might make you feel really inept. In this situation, both parties get to feel slightly foolish for a moment and then relax in their mother tongue. I noticed how kind and forgiving we were to each other, and helpful, knowing that we’d be put on the spot next. I’d definitely do it again.
Another way to meet Parisians is to check out the site VoulezVousDîner, a concept started by others but perfected by Renaud Maigne. This idea is simple: have dinner with Parisians at their home. You simply pick the night and the situation you want: Julie, who is 30 years old and lives in Montmartre, say, or Henri from the Marais. My husband and I found ourselves at Pascal Hardy’s door one weekend, a bit worried about what we might find. The first 10–15 minutes were a bit awkward, kind of like an interview at which you are desperately trying to impress and connect with your host. But after a glass of wine (or two), we both settled in to find out more about Pascal and his son Louis.
In these situations, asking questions is always my go-to solution. Pascal—as we found out over appetizers, a soup starter and the duck and turnip main—is a man of many capabilities. He is in the process of designing and launching an eco-lodge in the Massif Central, and he started cafés-philo with Marc Sautet, a concept that went viral before there was such a thing, in the early 1990s. That idea, too, was simple: sit and chat at a café about philosophy, with a moderator. I had read about it, and now I was dining with the founder. I was feeling cooler and more special by the minute. Oh, and Pascal had also done several documentary films, including one about kids in South Africa. Turns out we really had a lot in common.
Pascal’s son Louis was equally as impressive. A mere 19 years old and studying political science at a university in Paris, he was able to comment and opine on any topic that was brought up throughout the evening with vigor and serious intellect—and I thought my kids were pretty smart?!
Thankfully, they both spoke nearly perfect English, which is a requirement for hosts. And the food? It’s not gourmet. It’s like being invited over to a friend’s house for dinner, where you’ll be served something nice that reflects his or her cooking skill level. After dinner, Pascal and Louis treated us to a delicious cheese course coupled with a celery and filbert nut salad, followed by a spectacular zabaglione made with calvados. Italian with a French twist!
My concerns about the VoulezVousDîner program were those of safety, security and host screening, not to mention user screening. Renaud, the founder, alleviated our fears by discussing the screening process he puts hosts through. Of course 99 percent of people in this world simply want to connect with others, as we had that evening, which was a delightful and very special way to make the big city of Paris seem that much smaller and more sympathique.