Have you ever gone on a three-week vacation with people you didn’t know and who didn’t speak the same language as you? Well, I have. And I learned after that experience just how crucially important it is to know the same language as those around you…

Let’s quickly zoom back to my time right after high school. In August 2015, I decided to participate in a three-week exchange program with another French high school student. She came to my place in the United States for three weeks and then I went to her family in France for three weeks. At the time, I was ecstatic and couldn't wait to visit France and learn about their country and culture with natives! But naive me didn’t realize just how important it is to be able to speak the same language as those you travel with and get to know better.

On the first day of arrival, I misunderstood a lot of things. I thought my exchange student’s dad was now with another, older woman as the woman he kissed when we entered the house was not the mom I had seen in the family photo. I brushed it off thinking, “oh the French!” And then later that day, I thought that a torture was going to occur in this older woman’s kitchen for my exchange student’s sister’s birthday. The older woman explained the torture to me in full detail: It’s brown and going to happen in the kitchen. That night, right when I was about to go to bed around 11:30 PM, I remembered my exchange student’s sister knocking on my bedroom door, leading me out into the hallway in my pajamas and socks, leading me down the stairs, out the front door and into the car with the rest of the family in tow. 

What?! I was so confused. 

I didn’t have my phone with me as I had just popped out of bed and those who know how inappropriate it is to be out in public in pajamas in France (and not even wearing any shoes!!!) know the pickle I was in at that moment. (At the time, I didn’t know how inappropriate that was in French society). 

Albeit the constant misunderstandings I experienced throughout those three weeks, I had a grand adventure of a lifetime that I cherish to this day. It was hard and I continued to misunderstand the family constantly, but if I had spoken French, my experience would have been drastically different and I would not have the story to share with you today!

Looking back, I realized that those three weeks jumpstarted my desire to want to know the French language, learn more about the history of the country and go back and be able to finally communicate with others there. I also learned that knowing the same language as those around you puts you at ease, you can communicate whatever you want with others for safety and other reasons, and you can live life and survive!

Fast forward several years, I make the grand decision to go back to France again… But this time, for career opportunities. I had just finished a degree in art history from college and so I knew more about France and their history, (especially about the art world—something that they are still proud of to this day), and so I thought, why not head over to the city of art and finally learn the French language to a fluent proficiency and then continue in my career pursuits there? Besides, who knows, maybe I could meet with my former exchange family again and we could look back and laugh about the time I misunderstood everything they said! And so in August 2019, four years after my three-week exchange program experience, I packed my bags and headed off to Paris.

Paris was exciting. Amazing. Incredible.

I prepared the best I could but this time, I was determined to learn French before getting a job there in a field related to my art history degree. You might be thinking that this time, I was smart and had worked on my French before getting there… but nope! I arrived again with an even worse level of French than my previous experience in France! But this time… I at least had some extra help. 

One of my mom’s best friends is French and she and her husband warmly welcomed me at the Charles de Gaulle airport and brought me back to their home in the suburbs of Paris when I arrived in France. I am incredibly grateful for their support and patience in helping me learn the French language and setting me up well those first few days. It also helped that both of them speak excellent English (and Spanish!) and my mom’s friend was a language French/English language teacher during her career. 

I stayed with them for a few days and then moved to the city to live with my host family and start my studies in an intensive immersion language school that met Monday to Friday for four to six hours a day. The next six months, I steadily went from only being able to understand “bonjour” to being able to at least understand the gist of a conversation in French. However, I only had one source of renewable energy throughout this time, which was the peaceful and loving abode of my mom’s friend and her family. At all other times, I booted into full survival mode, trying to understand what people said around me, trying to get along with my Parisian host family, trying to stay safe in the metro and out in the streets, trying to feed myself well enough, trying to make friends with people who didn’t speak English and just trying to survive on my own in a foreign city where it was the first time I had ever lived in a densely-populated area by myself, taking public transportation to get everywhere and trying to fend for myself by myself all the time. I was my own rock and that was it. I had no support system in the city. It was tough.
Paris, view from the Arc de Triomphe, February 2020

With that being said, the first two months living in Paris felt like I was in a dream, living in lala land with beautiful architecture, enjoying the amazing museums and the history of the place in such an incredibly rich environment and eating the delicious food. But the next four months were extremely isolating, lonely and rough. My fellow language immersion students at my school would leave every week or so as they were tourists and so I always had to keep making new friends on my own outside of that group. I went for weeks without being able to express my feelings to anyone and being able to talk to someone normally. You don’t realize how important that is until you can’t do that anymore with anyone around you. It also didn’t help that I was in Paris during the winter season and the sunshine only popped out from behind the clouds for maybe twenty minutes every day. Believe it or not, it actually rains more often in Paris than in London. With the constantly cloudy and rainy weather, the inability to talk to anyone, the inability to even feel at home and comfortable and safe for weeks on end, all this stress and anxiety really started to take a toll on me. I was constantly sick and started to feel like I was the baguette bread lying on the ground in the streets that the pigeons plucked over.

Okay no, no… I can’t complain about living in Paris… This dreamy city of lights and love and amazing architecture and art, right?! But I was no longer just a tourist—I was now an expat trying to make a life in this place. I mean, I was extremely grateful to have experienced all of this but I realized at that moment that no matter where one lives, community is vital to one’s health, one’s life and one’s survival. Community is essential and according to the US Surgeon General, social disconnection “is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and even greater than that associated with obesity and physical inactivity.” And I was feeling that. 

Although, I did have one sliver of hope… a few weeks into my time in Paris, I casually did a Google search and looked at conversation exchange groups to join to try to make some friends. I found a site and reached out to a woman, extremely uncertain of the results. But I showed up to the place we set to meet each other (a cute cafe with velvet seats in the Place de l’Italie) and we immediately hit it off! To this day, we have been best friends. That friendship has only blossomed throughout the years and I was able to meet others through her. In fact, I met many friends through that site and was able to improve my French language skills at the same time. 

When I came back to the United States, I had a solution in mind to help others who also struggled with loneliness like me to make new friends. And so that was it, Aloe was born. 

Before starting Aloe, I met with a friendship expert and in her book, Friendship Matters, she talked about how people like to meet each other in an organization they're in, as it makes the community feel smaller and less overwhelming for people to connect as they already share similar interests, life experiences and values with others in that group. In addition, according to researcher Jennie Allen, she notes in her book on friendship, Find Your People, that community used to be easy to make as people used to live in villages and lived communally, "with a variety of generations present..." "holding each other accountable, and having each other's backs—not just to stay alive, but also in an effort to live more fulfilled... together." We used to not need to rely on technology to connect us. In fact, we used to have an even stronger network within our town as everyone would always be on the look out for each other.

I hope that with this site, it becomes your little village and you’re able to find people with similar interests to yours, read about them in their bio and what they enjoy, reach out to them and meet them at a cute cafe or some other public place of your choice. You never know who you might meet. Friendships are two-way. But with a little effort, a little luck (and knowing the same language!!!), you might make a friend of a lifetime like with what I did with my friend in Paris! So put yourself out there, create your bio on Aloe and reach out to someone who you think is similar to you and meet them!

Adrienne Berry
Founder of Aloe

— Follow me to read more articles like this one, get advice on how to make friends, and hear what happened when I misunderstood my exchange program family! Story to be continued...

To read more about me and Aloe's story, see here.