How to Make Friends in a New City – Tip #3

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  • ATTEND MEETUP EVENTS AND ACTIVITIES

Meetup.com is a New York-based social networking site – the predecessor of Facebook – for people who don’t know each other. You create a profile, put up a photo, answer a few questions about yourself, and then join local groups centered around various activities. For example, Yoga in the Park. Salsa Lovers. American Expats. Friday at the Movies. Knitting Addicts.

After that, you are invited to the group’s regularly organized events, where you are meant to go, meet new people, talk, dance, knit or watch a movie together, and generally have a good time.

Now I had never used Meetup before, and was initially skeptical. I imagined a virtual community of balding, lonely, middle-aged men, typing up philosophical treatises in the “About Me” section, posting a ’90s-era denim jacket-clad portrait as their display picture, leaving chirpy “Welcome” messages to new female members of the “Sightseeing in Madrid” group, all on the innocent pretext of making friends…

Not that I had anything against middle-aged men (and I actually loved denim jackets). But I suppose that TV series like The X files, and countless other murder-mystery spinoffs had inculcated in me a certain amount of prejudice against the online mid-lifer (remember 2Shy???).

The X Files - best American crime/thriller series yet...
The X Files – best American crime/thriller TV series yet…

However, my husband Z was a firm believer in the “Meetup” way (which was certainly vindicating, coming from self-confessed social media-phobe). So I decided to give it a go. It’s not like I was going to meet anyone alone, so how bad could it possibly be?

The first Meetup I went to was benignly titled “Coffee & Croissants”, and took place on a Saturday afternoon at an upmarket cafe in Salamanca, one of the poshest barrios of Madrid.

I wasn’t crazy about the location, personally preferring the narrow, cobbled streets of Centro and its cozy, tile-floored cafes – but as I stepped out of the metro station and made my way towards the venue, I was excited. I had a good feeling about this! I bet I would meet some really fun, interesting people – maybe even someone who, like me, was new in the city, spoke English, and enjoyed a good game of Pictionary? Maybe I was finally going to meet that elusive best friend? 

But when I arrived at the cafe, and located the Meetup group – thirty individuals whom I did not know from Adam, seated along a table that had no visible end – and when thirty pairs of strange eyes simultaneously turned to fix their gaze on me, the “late” newcomer – I admit, my first impulse was to take flight. 

Socially Awkward Penguin
I could totally empathize with Socially Awkward Penguin

No, that’s the wrong attitude, M,” I told myself, as I met the group organizer with a slightly forced smile and a peck on each cheek, Spanish-style, taking an empty seat somewhere in the middle of that interminable, Alice-in-Wonderland table. “You mustn’t flee.You mustn’t be a coward. You must stay on and fight!”

So I stayed, ordered a cafe con leche, and looked around to start a conversation with the person sitting next to me. As luck would have it, that person was a Spanish man – a middle-aged Spanish man. Not balding, probably a bit lonely, and with an almost imperceptible whiff of sleaze about him (my Sleaze Radar is exceptionally strong).

After the initial perfunctory exchanges – “Hello, What’s your name? Where are you from? What do you do? Do you like Madrid? Who are you?” – there was an awkward pause.  I grabbed my coffee cup and sipped it politely. I tried to spot another, more wholesome person to talk to, but everybody around me was already engaged in loud and animated conversation, much to my annoyance.

“Soooo,” Somewhat Sleazy Spanish Uncle smiled, revealing yellow, cigarette-stained teeth. He drummed his long, thin fingers on the table, rummaging through his brain for a subject to expound upon – and then he hit the gold mine.  

“You are Muslim, yes?”

“Um, yes.” 

“Do you pray five times a day?”

“Um, what? No, not five times…though I should…”

“Have you been to the Madrid Central Mosque?” 

“Um, no.”

“Do you keep all the Ramadan fasts?” he continued relentlessly.

“No, not all...though I should…”

“Are you vegetarian?”

“Um, no…I just don’t eat pork…”

“But why don’t you, you know,” he vigorously traced an invisible hijab around his face, “wear a veil?”

I’m sorry, was this supposed to a casual chat over coffee, or the Spanish Inquisition???  

“Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition” – Monty Python Sketch

However, I persevered, civilly, blaming the Spanish Uncle’s ‘non-PC’ questions partially on curiosity, partially on ignorance, while in my head I planned the nearest and quickest exit to this social torture. 

Just then, from the corner of my eye, I espied an unmistakably South Asian face, complete with shiny black mustache, get up determinedly from his chair at the other end of the table, and make a beeline  towards – me! 

More tiresome pigeonholing was to follow.

Now I don’t know how it is with people from other parts of the world, but when you put two South Asians in a group, one of them is bound to gravitate towards the other. It could be a group of 20, or 200, or 2,000. They will find each other. One will track the other down, and stick to them like glue. 

It’s not always undesirable – some of my best friends at Berkeley were Indians, for instance. But this particular desi at the Coffee & Croissants Meetup, with his jaunty mustache and overzealous, chipkoo grin, was clearly not someone I wished to Elfied to.

So, you are from Pakistan, no?” He  parked himself beside my chair, flashing a set of remarkably straight, white teeth.

Yes…” I knew exactly how this conversation would progress. 

So you speak Hindi?” 

Urdu. It’s almost the same thing…”

So you watch Bollywood?”

Sometimes, yes.” I looked at the time on my cell phone.

So you like Indian food?” 

Pakistani food. It’s quite similar…” 

“So you watch cricket?” 

That was it. The limits of my endurance had been reached. I could not, would not talk about cricket, the masochistic national obsession of Pakistan, and the most boring sport in the world next to golf!

It was time to employ my failsafe excuse to wriggle out of unwanted social situations: “I’m sorry, I really have to go. My (fearsome Pakistani) husband is waiting for me at home…”

So, with another twiddle on my cell phone, I said a few hurried goodbyes (no more cheek-to-cheek kisses), and, ignoring the event organizer’s accusatory tone – “You’re leaving already?” – I dashed out of “Coffee & Croissants” and Salamanca, never to return. From behind me, I heard my desi friend’s voice plaintively call out, “Wait, are you sure you don’t want to stay? I brought Pictionary!”

Pictionary: To play or not to play?
Pictionary: To play or not to play, and with whom?

Of course, not all my Meetup experiences were quite as agonizing as the above-mentioned 2 hours. Z and I found one terrific Madrid-based group called “Sporty People”, which organized outdoor activities in and around the city over holidays and weekends; akin to our beloved Adventure Travel Pakistan (ATP) in Lahore. We went hiking with Sporty People to Zarzalejo, a picturesque pueblo just outside Madrid in the Sierra Oueste. We picked mushrooms with them in the beautiful, fall-colored forests of El Tiemblo. Lunch would be a turkey or tortilla sandwich, with trail mix, fruit and a little carton of juice, partaken on a grassy field or under a tree with wonderful, diverse company – a veterinarian from Brazil, a yoga instructor from Scotland, a tour planner from South Africa, a professional chef from Spain, and a cheerful medley of ESL teachers from America and England, whom we shared some memorable laugh-and-talk with. 

The group organizer was a splendidly suntanned Madrileña, who, like me, had studied to be a journalist, and who had recently quit her job at a well-known international NGO to manage her own adventure travel company, which I also hoped to do one day.

Hiking Las Machotas in Zarzalejo!
Hiking Las Machotas in Zarzalejo
Mushroooomssss!!!
Wild mushroomsss!!! Most of them poisonous!!!!
Fall in El Tiemblo
Magical forest of El Tiemblo

So, I am now also a believer in Meetup – we’ve attended several events and met some lovely people, a few of whom we have kept in touch with. But I’ve learnt to steer clear of events that involve sitting around a table with absolute strangers – brunch, lunch, coffee, tea, poetry recitations, philosophical discussions, or even board games (sigh) – especially those that my chipkoo desi friend or the creepy Spanish Uncle happen to have RSVPd!

Read Tip #1,Tip #2Tip #4Tip #5and the introductory post of this series!

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