I often joke that I talk to more strangers by the time I get through U.S. customs at the airport than I do in an entire month in Paris. Talking to strangers just isn't part of most French DNA (kind of like not giving compliments). That's not to say it's all bad. It means when you do eventually crack the French code, you're truly in and friends for life, not just on a superficial level. It took me ten years and three stints in Paris to have true French friends, but it was worth the wait.
I often explain this phenomenon by equating it to an invitation to a French home, and the sense of personal space. First off, getting invited over for brunch or dinner is a big deal. Then after all the wine (and very little water—you can only ask for the carafe so many times) you need to go to the bathroom, but all the doors in French apartments are kept closed, so you don't know where to go. Finally you get there, but then there's not a sink to wash your hands—that's in another room. However, rather than playing guess which door, I tend to just make my way to the kitchen to wash them there.
Times are changing with the increased popularity of Facebook, and I find the French are more open than ever. But even on Facebook, the information my French friends share is quite limited, and rarely ever personal (the exceptions usually come from French friends who have lived in an Anglophone country). This is in stark contrast to American friends who post updates about their child's potty training progress. Sometimes closed doors aren't always a bad thing.
Given that it is much rarer to have meaningful exchanges with strangers in Paris, you can imagine my excitement a couple weeks ago when I was on the bus headed to the pool and reading an advance copy of my friend, illustrator Lisa Congdon's, new book The Joy of Swimming, when the woman sitting next to me excused herself in French and asked me what I was reading; she explained she has a few family members who do Masters swimming, and she thought they'd enjoy it. The woman was getting off at the next stop, but I quickly told her it was my friend Lisa's book, coming out in late April [19th to be exact] in the U.S. and turned to the page to show her that I too am inside the book! [Yes, that's me in the top photo, by Lisa!]. She was very appreciative and the entire exchange in French made my day. It definitely was the most forthcoming conversation I've had with a stranger, and she initiated it all. I figure my new PR tactic is going to be reading my friends' books as I ride around the city. It's clearly more effective than trying to talk to strangers.
p.s. I helped Lisa research Paris piscines for the Paris spread of her book! Below is the result which she illustrated. I also wrote about the book on my blog.