overseas Filipinos

[OPINION] Finding my tribe: Thoughts from an Ilongga living in France

Francine Vito
[OPINION] Finding my tribe: Thoughts from an Ilongga living in France

Guia Abogado/Rappler

'Breaking into a French person’s inner circle is like trying to break into the Bangko Sentral’s coffers – it’s not for the faint of heart and the ill-prepared'

At 33, you’d think I’d already found my tribe. I had; except that now, they’re a timezone and 11,121 kilometers away. I used to have all the perks of having a squad – shoulders to cry on, people to tell me if my outfit didn’t look right or if a guy I was dating wasn’t right, and instant company when celebrating life wins.

I love my friends but I was not the perfect friend. I had a bad habit of backing out of plans at the very last minute, which earned me the nickname “Indiana Jones”(nang-iindian) in our group. But it’s often when you lose something that you only start to see its value, and that’s exactly what happened.

In the summer of 2020, I left for France. Before making the decision to live abroad, I’d already heard stories from kababayans who had already been there and done it. “It’s lonely and cold. It’s a lot of hard work. People are not always friendly.” As an introvert who enjoys being alone, I wasn’t worried about the loneliness part. I can now stop being that bad friend who backs out of lakads at the last minute? Sign me up!

It’s been two and a half years. I live in Nice, in the south of France, where the sun always shines and the sea is almost always a spectacular shade of aquamarine. In many ways, it reminds me of home. I see my hometown of Iloilo in the palm trees that line the beach boulevard, in the old churches, and in the abundance of fish and seafood.

A walk by the beach or by the port was usually enough to cure homesickness until one day, like many cures, I’d built a tolerance to it. In the fall and winter, when all the tourists have left, the lively action on the beach is replaced with the calm, quiet energy of families and groups of friends. They’re having picnics, animated discussions, or simply sitting or lying down in silence, looking like they’re contemplating the mysteries of the world. Only the sound of crashing waves and rustling stones fills the air. Loneliness taunts me like a bully, and I desperately wish I had a group of friends to share certain moments with.

One can only go to so many museums and walks alone before one gets sick of doing monologues in their head about how amazing that painting or view was. I didn’t suddenly wake up an extrovert, but now I fully understand why they say that humans are social animals. I also realized that in the Philippines, I never had to go through the hassles of making friends in adulthood. Aside from the fact that making friends is always easier in your home country, I believe that the barriers of a Filipino clique are much easier to penetrate.

On the other hand, breaking into a French person’s inner circle is like trying to break into the Bangko Sentral’s coffers – it’s not for the faint of heart and the ill-prepared. If you don’t speak French, keep up with local news, or learn a bit about French history and culture, you’ll have to be content sitting on the sidelines at parties, smiling like a clueless clown. The thing is, the French I’ve met are not rude at all and most of them are very nice. But niceness in one or two interactions does not make a friendship, nor does it always mean openness to anything more.

I’ve gone to yoga classes and meetup events, and I volunteer regularly at a local association. Everyone is friendly, but there just seems to be an invisible bar that I can’t reach or a test that I can’t pass. I think I’m a pleasant person in general; I don’t dominate conversations and I make sure I smell nice. Maybe I’m not cool enough? Not white enough? Not smart enough? The feelings of rejection are real, and it sent me hurtling back to when I was a five-year-old in pre-school, tailing a girl I wanted to be friends with. “Leave me alone!” she turned, stamping her foot and pouting her lips at me before storming away and crushing my self-esteem.

Fortunately, I’ve regained some self-confidence after meeting countless people who shared my experience here. I once went to a concert alone and my seatmate, a retired music teacher who was French, born and raised in the region, struck up a conversation with me. He told me that he just joined a local music group but he didn’t feel welcome. “People here are cold,” he said. At a party, I met a sweet, bubbly Korean woman, the type of person who seems like she could make friends in a breeze. She had her troubles, too. “With French people, I feel like I have to knock very hard to get into their hearts,” she said. A Spanish man I volunteer with said that after eight years of living here, he still doesn’t have a close group of friends.

I’ve met a few amazing people, but most of them are also not from here and have already left. As foreigners navigating a culture so alien to ours, we’ve provided each other with the warmth and support that one needs when feeling so alone.

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Of course, it’s nobody’s obligation to be friends with me or anybody. But I couldn’t help but compare it to what it’s like in the Philippines. You can go to a yoga class and after three sessions, walk out with new girlfriends. You can attend a book club meeting and go home with two or three coffee dates lined up. There is a genuine interest in the other, a longing to have an exchange, to share their company, their table, and their time. Naively, I thought this was the same everywhere.

I often get asked here about what I miss the most about the Philippines. Aside from the obvious (family and friends), it’s definitely the openness and warmth of Filipinos that I miss, even more than I miss La Paz batchoy or Jollibee. 

It’s usually when I’m down at the beach that I get the itch to be with my squad. Sometimes, if time differences permit, I’d call a friend. I show them the beach and imagine that we’re sitting on the rocks together, the salty wind blowing through our hair as we enjoy a cold bottle of beer and bags of chips. We’d complain about Philippine politics and the price of onions. We’d gossip like petty Mariteses about people we don’t like. I’d pretend that they were not mere little pixels carefully arranged on my phone screen and transmitted through cables and radio waves, but real flesh and blood, here beside me. We’d go on like this for an hour or two. The landscape changes as the sea turns a fiery red with the sun setting into the Bay of Angels. I reverse my phone camera to show the spectacle. “Wow! Oh sige, matulog na ko,” my friend says. It’s past midnight in Iloilo. We say our goodbyes and promise to catch up again soon. I pick up my empty beer bottle and bag of chips, toss them in the bin, and catch a bus ride home, alone. – Rappler.com

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