Life

Farewell, fond 20s! I’m ready to move on

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Why do we expect so much of life, and of ourselves? Why do we choose to be unhappy? Some questions pondered, some lessons learnt, some wisdom received

Published in Dawn Blogs, May 26th 2015

Once, when I was an undergraduate at LUMS in Pakistan, we were asked to create “future” CVs for ourselves, imagining where we would be 10 years down the road. According to my calculations, by age 30 I would be an acclaimed international affairs correspondent with Al Jazeera TV. I would also be a certified yoga instructor, the author of an award-winning collection of short stories, and the co-director of a charity school in Pakistan. I would have trekked to the base camp of an 8,000-meter peak (if not summited the peak itself), and I’d be speaking 5 languages like a native, or as we say in Urdu, farr farr.

“Daku” (South Asian Thug) Day during graduation week at LUMS, May 2007. Great start to our careers…

A few weeks ago, I celebrated my 30th birthday. And looking back at that smug, overambitious piece of paper (I still have a copy), what do you suppose I felt? Disappointment, at falling short on pretty much all of my grandiose goals? Guilt, for being lazy, for not doing “enough”, for not “living up to my potential”? Anger, at myself, at people around me, at the circumstances that thwarted my legendary ascent to that 8,000-meter peak and to age 30?

No. I only laughed! Frankly, I couldn’t give a baboon’s butt about goals, objectives, achievements that you could enumerate on a CV, that you could neatly check off from a “bucket list” and be done with. I didn’t care about what I may have expected from life 10 years ago, 5 years ago, even 1 year ago.

I used to care, I used to care a lot. During my 20s, I was beleaguered by that pervasive pressure to “achieve”, all too familiar to us Millennials. Often times, we weren’t even sure of what we wanted to achieve; it could be an important position at a multinational corporation or a big bank, it could be starting our own business, running an NGO, getting a PhD, “making a difference”. Yes, what we wanted most of all was to make a difference, to “change the world”.

I am not a superhero!

I stopped thinking like that some time ago, and it was a conscious decision. I stopped thinking that I could change the world.

Captain Planet was a terrific cartoon, though it did give us slightly unrealistic ambitions
Captain Planet was a terrific cartoon, though it did give us slightly unrealistic ambitions

That’s not to say that I became cynical. I just realized that I, as one individual, did not have the power to change or “save” the world. I couldn’t eradicate poverty. I couldn’t stop wars. I couldn’t ensure that every child on the street went to school, that no woman was raped by any man. I couldn’t put an end to meaningless violence, I couldn’t reverse global warming.

gyspyI couldn’t carry through any of this in my own hometown Lahore, let alone the entire world. The world was chockfull of problems, had always been, and would always be. It was the sorry fate of humankind. And to think that you were somehow “special”, that you could clean up a mess that was centuries, millenia in the making just like you’d solve a nifty Math problem, was downright arrogant.

Once in a while, perhaps once in every generation, somebody exceptional came along. Extraordinary people who, by dint of birth, effort, circumstance, and some serendipitous conjunction of the stars, did extraordinary things. The world’s heroes and heroines, revolutionaries and prophets, thinkers and humanitarians, inventors and scientists, artists and writers, whose names we all read in history books. I don’t suppose that any of these great people ever planned on changing the world, or becoming famous. I don’t suppose they wrote about it in their college applications, or scribbled it on their “bucket lists”.

I think they were just going about their lives, one day at a time, doing whatever it was they loved and believed in – not expecting any accolades or honors, not preoccupying themselves too much with “results”, just following their intuition, being themselves.

That’s one thing we all have the power to do; be ourselves. Improve ourselves, and consequently, have a positive effect on everything around us.

It could be something as simple as, say, recycling your trash. Giving a sandwich to the homeless man on your street. Holding open the door for an old lady at the metro station. Lending an ear to a friend who’s had a bad day. Giving somebody an unexpected gift. Teaching somebody a skill, or learning something new yourself. Making friends with somebody from a different religion, ethnicity, culture and country. Making the world a more tolerant, a more peaceful, kinder and happier place by embodying those qualities in your own person.

That was, realistically, the best I could do, and it was enough for me. There was no point in beating yourself up over “failed” ambitions or irrational expectations, neither your own nor those of others.

Can't disagree with that!
Can’t disagree with that!

I am not a martyr or a saint!

The expectations of others, or “What will people think!”. We’ve all been oppressed by them – from something as trivial as buying the “right” gift for a birthday party, “having” to attend a cousin’s friend’s brother’s wedding or wearing the “right” outfit to a family lunch, to being emotionally coerced into a marriage by your parents, putting up with an abusive husband, sticking with a job that daily sucks the life out of you. Why? Because that’s what you’re expected to do. That’s what a good, responsible, respectable man or woman does. A good, responsible, respectable person makes everybody happy – everybody except himself. A good person is a martyr.

Now, there may be people out there who would gladly suffer all these societal tortures, and many more, out of a genuine sense of duty, or out of pure selflessness. But most of us are not like that. We are not selfless. We are not saints. We may like to think we are, but deep down inside, where nobody can hear our true thoughts, we ask ourselves: “Why am I doing this? Is it worth it? I’m fulfilling all my ‘duties’, but why am I still so miserable?”

There’s something perversely romantic about misery, the notion of sacrificing your life for the sake of others, for your children, parents, friends, your community and country, without a thought to your own wishes and desires. Whether or not you enjoy being cast in that role, society will definitely love you for it.

On the other hand, society will not take kindly to seeing you happy. That’s just shameless. And, if you insist on being so brazenly optimistic, then at least pretend to have something to gripe about!

Don't hate me for not broadcasting my problems to the world!
Don’t hate me for not broadcasting my problems to the world!

This kind of thinking is typical among desis (South Asians), and I was done with it. If your actions didn’t spring from love or genuine kindness, if your only motivation was to “live up to” some vague ideal or ill-conceived expectation, the fear of what people might say, then those actions were worth very little. It was better to spare yourself and the people around you the charade. The fact was, you couldn’t make anybody happy, truly happy – not your parents, not your partner, not your kids nor colleagues, nor posterity – unless you were happy and fulfilled yourself. It was not always the simpler choice; oftentimes, it was easier to be miserable, it was easier to be a doormat than to stand up for your inviolable right to happiness. But it was a choice you made.

pleasing-people-is-nice-and-all-getting-shit-done-and-accomplishing-your-goals-are-better-4b7e8
That’s right, lady. Though I think it should be “is” better, not “are” :P

I am not a victim

So far, I’ve led a pretty privileged life. I’ve never known hunger, or homelessness, or direct violence or abuse, none of the unimaginable hardships that form reality for millions of people around the world. All of us, sitting at our laptops or scrolling down our smart phones, are familiar with the ordinary struggles of human existence – death and sickness in the family, relationship troubles, financial crises – but nothing as shattering as the experience of a child in a war-torn country, a family who has lost everything in a natural disaster, the victim of racism or religious persecution, a refugee, an addict, a prisoner, a slave.

Given the enormous advantages that we already have, there is really no excuse for us to feel sorry for ourselves, or vainly blame others for our own unhappiness. We are not victims, and we are certainly not helpless. We are lucky enough to be able to choose what we want to do, how we want to live. We are lucky enough to be able to make our own decisions, chart our own priorities, control the course of our lives with some degree of certainty (putting aside a percentage for qismat, of course). It could be, for example, choosing to spend on a holiday rather than a new piece of jewelry, or exercising instead of watching TV. Or it could be something more far-reaching, like deciding to move to a new country, taking on a new job, having a baby.

The bottom line is, we all are blessed. We all have gifts, we all have dreams, and most importantly, we all have volition. We just need to muster up the courage to pull those tricks out from our magic bags and put them to use, in spite ourselves.

I am rather insignificant

So, what have I learnt about life after 30 years? It doesn’t seem like a whole lot, even by earthly accounts. In the universal scheme of things, it’s embarrassingly negligible…

insifnican
Just to give us some perspective!

But, keeping things relative, as of now I feel that life is really about living. It’s not about achieving lofty goals, building lofty monuments, racking up positions, bank accounts, cars and TVs and diamonds. It’s not about pleasing others, being a hero, a saint or a superstar, devoting your life to any one cause.

It’s about finding contentment, finding beauty, finding peace in the little things. The day-to-day achievements, the seemingly mundane. You learnt a new word today. You tried a new dish. You finished an assignment before deadline. You took your kids to the movies. You caught up with an old friend. You explored a new neighborhood. You danced under the trees.

Your expectations of yourself need not be grander. Yes, you may wish to write a book one day, or set up a charity school – I know I do! I haven’t forgotten those dreams. But I’m no longer in a rush to accomplish them, nor am I going to let them dictate or frustrate my present.

I look…different!

Ahh, squeaky-faced high school days! Lahore Grammar School, Janurary 2003
Ahh, squeaky-faced high school days! Lahore Grammar School, January 2003

There was a time when I’d walk out of the house with a squeaky clean face and just a dash of kajal in the eyes, ready to go to college, a dinner or a wedding; now, I use makeup on a regular basis. I even wear lipstick, something I found utterly loathsome at 20! The salon girl makes it a point to count out the growing number of white hairs on my head every time I go for a trim, shaking her head disapprovingly, “But why don’t you dye???” I find myself flipping magazines at various doctors’ clinics much more often, thanks to an array of itinerant physical pains. I’ve become more attentive to what I eat, trying my best to choose a salad or a piece of fruit over a cupcake or a toast slathered with butter and marmalade; before, I couldn’t be bothered about the lumps of sodium in ChinChin Chinaman’s hot and sour soup, or the pools of grease in the LUMS cafeteria chicken karhai.

Seriously, how can you EVER give up Chinese take-out
Seriously, how can you EVER give up Chinese take-out

Then there are the inner changes, the ones you can’t really see; I feel happy, but in a calmer way. I’m not in a hurry to go anywhere, do anything, be anyone. I don’t care as much of what people think of me, and I’m a lot less concerned about offending somebody over a nicety. The smudges of shyness and self-consciousness that I had retained from teenage into my 20s have all but dissipated – and life is so much easier without them! I avoid comparing myself with others, I try not to be overly self-critical (a family trait), and most of all, I remind myself to be grateful, and not take life too seriously.

And what of the idealistic goals of that fictional 10-year old CV? Well, I didn’t fall off the mark entirely when I made those predictions. So I’m not a correspondent with Al Jazeera TV, but I did work at Democracy Now, the most excellent independent TV news program in the U.S. (in my opinion!). I’m not a certified yoga instructor, but I am an uncertified Bollywood dance teacher! There’s no collection of short stories (let alone award-winning), but there is an in-progress research project and an intermittent blog. I’m not the director of any charity, but I basically do volunteer work for a living, from museums to bookstores to archaeology pits. I’d say I’ve got 2 languages down in the farr farr category, with a 3rd one in the works; and, instead of summiting the base camp of an 8,000 meter peak, I chose to throw myself out of a perfectly good airplane 1,000 meters in the sky (you do some ridiculous things in your 20s). So, all in all, I’m pretty satisfied with the 30-year report card!

As should you be with yours! There’s no need to feel despondent and have regrets about what you could have done and didn’t do; and there’s no need to panic that your “best years” are flying by so you better make “the most” of them. With good health and a little bit of qismat, every year, every day can be your best, if decide to make it so.

Zen
Zen

12 things this Pakistani girl loves about Spain

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Published in Sunday Magazine, September 29th 2014
It’s been a full year since our peregrination to Madrid (hard to believe!), and I think I’ve come a long way from those initial months of confusion, misplaced nostalgia, and sometimes plain despair (among other unproductive emotions that beleaguer you at every move!)
For one, I can (sort of) speak Spanish. I’ve made friends. I even have a (sort of) job! I can navigate the city fairly well – I’ve visited the doctor, the dentist, the real estate agent, the immigration bureau, even the police station (don’t ask), without any major communication disasters occurring. I’ve traveled around the country a fair bit. I’ve been taken for a local and given directions to lost tourists (score!). And, though there are obviously bothersome things about every country, I find myself quite enamored of Spain. Here are just a couple of reasons why, in no particular order!

1. Hot Chocolate

hotchocolate2
It’s traditional to begin AND end the long Spanish days with a cup of thick, intensely dark hot chocolate, often with a side of churros (long, deep-fried dough pastries for dipping). Some chocolaterías, like the 19th century San Ginés in historic Madrid, are open 24 hours – so you can amble down for an indulgent treat any moment it grabs your fancy. A chocoholic like me can’t complain!

2. Festivals

semana_santa_seville

Spain does festivals like nobody’s business, second only to India when it comes to the sheer number of public celebrations and commemorations in the country. The most spectacular among these is Semana Santa or Holy Week (Easter), curiously similar to Ashura in Muslim countries, where participants in full costume re-enact Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection over the course of 7 days with elaborate floats, music, and in some places, self-flagellation. There are festivals dedicated to saints and to devils, to horses, flowers, geese, tomatoes, bulls, newborn babies, even paper-mache monsters!

3. “Harem Pants” 

You can literally roll out of bed in a printed shalwar and T-shirt and step onto the streets of Madrid or Barcelona perfectly in sync with fashion. Harem pants, as they are known in the West, are a perennial component of the trendy Spaniard’s wardrobe – the baggier, the better! Could “dressing up” get any easier?

4. Beards & Piercings

Dark-bearded men and nose-studded women  are as ubiquitous on the streets of Spain as in Pakistan, partly thanks to hipster trends. So you can comfortably sport your preferred style of facial hair (if you are a man), or a nice twinkly nose piercing (if you are a man or woman), without the least fear of being eyed suspiciously and stereotyped “terrorist”, “punk”, or, most annoyingly, “oh-so-exotic!”.

5. Moorish Spain

courtoflions_alhambra_granada

Stroll under the Damascene arches of the oldest surviving mosque in Europe, the Mezquita of Cordoba, dating to 785 A.D. Wander through the ethereal Nasirid Palaces of the Alhambra in Granada, the Muslims’ last stronghold in Spain. Treat yourself to a milky Té Pakistani in an evocative tetería. There is an undeniable romance about al-Andalus of yore, and for some romantic reason, you feel as if you share a part of its history.

6. Flamenco 

flamenco
Spain’s most iconic song & dance form has roots in North African and Gypsy (“Roma”) culture. Roma people were originally from the Indian subcontinent, and migrated to Europe about 500 years ago. The mix of cultures produced a unique dance that emphasizes not feminine delicacy and beauty, but feminine power and strength – stomping, sweating, shouting and all! You gotta love it.

7. Olives

 
olives
Aceitunas have been one of the healthier additions to my diet since moving to Spain. With the cultivation of olives dating to ancient Roman times and improved upon during the Moorish era, Spain today produces about 300 varieties of olives in all shapes, sizes, tastes and textures. Next to my mother’s hand-cured green olives from a family orchard in Pakistan, juicy Spanish olives stuffed with garlic are the yummiest snack I could ask for!

8. Spanish Idiom

Express yourself like a true Pakistani in the Spanish language! From Ojalá (Inshallah), Venga! (Chalo), Que? (Kya?), Hermano (Bhai / Yaar), Adiós! (Khuda Hafiz!) even Ala! (Hai Allah /Allah Tobah!), the flavor of spoken Spanish is remarkably similar to Urdu or Punjabi, with many words derived from Arabic.

9. “Laid back” – in a good way!

mural_madrid.jpg
“Love what you do”
Spaniards have a bit of a reputation for laziness, but from what I see, they work as much as any of their counterparts in the Western world, without the uptight fastidiousness. So, yes, a waiter will probably take 20 minutes to come and take your order, but he or she will also not pester you to pay or vacate your table until you are ready to leave, whenever that may be! Yes, most administrative offices, pharmacies and private businesses take a 3-hour lunch break, but when they serve you, they are always friendly, accommodating, and seem to genuinely enjoy their job, no matter how mundane it may be. I think the system works!

10. Rabo del Toro (Oxtail Stew)

rabodeltoro
 The Spanish version of a Pakistani Aloo Gosht or Nihari – succulent bull or oxtail, slow-cooked in its own stock and a rich gravy of onions, tomatoes, potatoes and other vegetables and spices, till the meat literally falls off the bone. Scoop it up with crusty pieces of bread just like you would do with Naan or Roti back home – riquísimo!

11. Nightlife – Ronaq!

plaza_santa_ana_madrid

Go for a walk in any barrio or neighborhood in the city center at 1:00 am on a weeknight, and find warmly-lit restaurants and cafes bubbling with customers, street performers juggling fire on the sidewalks, couples strolling along with little children in tow, boisterous touts trying to lure you into nightclubs. And the weekends? Soundproof windows recommended if you want to get any sleep! No matter the unemployment and fiscal crisis, the Spaniards know how to have a good time.

12. Compliments!

In most places in the world, being addressed as “pretty girl” (guapa), “little girl” (niña), or “queen” (reina) by a complete stranger would be considered offensive, and probably make you uncomfortable. Not in Spain! Shopkeepers, street vendors, waiters, passersby, men and women can call you all those things in Spanish without a trace of sleaziness. Now why wouldn’t that make you feel good? Add to that their beaming smiles and ready greetings, it’s impossible not to feel happy and welcome in this country.
beachwalk_valencia

How to Make Friends in a New City – Tip #5

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  • No te preocupes! Don’t worry! Let the universe do its thing!

This is something I’ve learnt along the course of my somewhat peripatetic life the past 6 years: sometimes, people (and opportunities) fall into your lap in the most unexpected, unlooked for way; and these congenial little windfalls may be the best things that happen to you in your new home.

I remember a certain day in Ithaca, New York, where Z and I had moved right after getting married. Z was in class at Cornell, and I was busy cleaning, unpacking and ‘nesting’ in our new apartment, a ground-floor portion of a typical East Coast colonial house, when our gritty old landlord Carl ambled up to the front door, dressed in his customary red plaid shirt and classic blue jeans. “Hey there!” Carl hollered, “I wanted to introduce you to these nice folks,” he gestured towards the smiling young couple that followed him. “They’ve just moved to Ithaca from Mexico, and are thinking of renting from me as well!”

That was the first time I met Elsa & Silvano. Though we only spoke for five minutes, standing in the porch of Carl’s yellow-painted dollhouse, and thought they didn’t end up renting from him after all, they became our closest companions the 9 months we spent in Ithaca, and we still count them among our dearest friends.

So, just like that, someone may chance to cross your path, and you’ll hit it off with them like you never imagined. Maybe a friend of a friend puts you in touch with somebody they know who happens to live in the same city; and you turn out to be kindred spirits, Anne of Green Gables-style. Or maybe another like-minded soul, going through the same experiences as you, discovers you and contacts you through your blog!

I find it so interesting, how these connections are made – magically, almost – bringing complete strangers together through no deliberated effort. So, if you ever find yourself lost, alone and friendless in a new city, wondering why on God’s earth you ever transplanted yourself in the first place: don’t worry! It takes time for a plant to adjust to new soil, a new atmosphere. But once it gets over the wilting, drooping, moping period – ‘transplant shock’ in botanical terms –  it thrives. In fact, if you don’t keep an eye, it may even start merrily taking over your garden, and you won’t know what to do! :)

Happy New Year from Madrid! Here are some photos we’ve taken of the city’s squares, streets and public spaces. 

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Read Tip #1,Tip #2Tip #3, Tip #4, and the introductory post of this series!

“Repeat expat Manal Khan lives in fact, in fiction–and everywhere in between”

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Golden streets of Segovia, Spain
Golden streets of Segovia, Spain

Dear readers,

I was recently interviewed by The Displaced Nation, a New York-based online collective of travelers, expatriates and ‘global nomads’ pursuing creative interests, in their homes-away-from-home. Click here to read the interview, and let me know what you think!

Hugs,

Manal

 

How to Make Friends in a New City – Tip #4

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  • LANGUAGE EXCHANGE

Language exchange, or intercambio, is a popular (and free) method of learning languages in Spain. There was a plethora, a veritable sea of Spaniards out there, my Spanish teacher told me, who were desperate to find a sympathetic English-speaker to practice their hesitant conversational skills with. English is taught in Spanish schools as an optional second language, but in the most pedantic way possible, so that somebody who has “studied” English for over 10 years can barely formulate a coherent reply to a “Hi, what’s up?”

pedantic

Kind of like how we were taught Pakistan History in secondary school. Once, in a surprise test, the teacher asked us to write an essay comparing the achievements and successes of two of Pakistan’s Prime Ministers. I started with the conventional introduction (memorized from the textbook, of course), ended with the conventional conclusion (we knew it like we knew our multiplication tables), and filled in the middle with a fictitious story, sprinkled with song lyrics. The result? 9/10, if you please, and a “Well Done!”

But, coming back to Spain – intercambio sounded like the perfect arrangement for me. Not only would it help my Spanish, I would also have somebody to chat with over a cup of coffee – that nameless, shadowy, friend-like figure I wanted so badly in Madrid! All I had to do was find somebody…

I immediately set to work. I went to tusclasesparticulares.com, created a profile, and posted an anuncio, an ad, stating my particulars in a cheerful, casual tone, and offering my stupendous English-speaking ability in exchange for un poco ayuda with my abysmal Spanish. We could meet in a cafe, or a park, como tu prefieres. I enjoyed photography, and writing, and meeting new people. Hoped to hear from you soon!

It almost felt like online dating, or shaadi.com. I went to bed that night with a flutter of excitement in my heart. Who would read my ad? Who would reply? Would I like them?

onlinedating

But nothing could have prepared me for the deluge of emails I found in my inbox the next morning; messages from men and women of all ages, all walks of life, from the city of Madrid and beyond, asking for my hand as their intercambio partner.

I was terribly flattered – and a bit overwhelmed. There were just too many fish in the sea. I needed to focus, start being selective, separate the wheat from the chaff, as they say. So began Step 2 of the intercambio-partner-hunt: carefully reading every ‘applicant’s’ email to divine something about their personality (Does she sound too serious? Does he sound sleazy?), stalking them on Facebook and Twitter, examining any photos that turned up. Some applications were discarded immediately; for example, the 38 year-old pianist who sent me a tea-stained studio portrait of himself in a brown fedora and brown tweed suit, or the 18-year old Economics student whose entire album of Facebook profile pictures consisted of duck-faced selfies.

duckface

After I had completed the first shortlist, I sent an email to each selected ‘applicant’, requesting, somewhat discreetly, a 200-word personal statement: “So, what do you do? What have you studied? What are your hobbies? I think it’s important, for a successful intercambio, that we share some interests, don’t you agree?” 

When the replies started coming in, I made a second shortlist. Emails that included the words “books”, “languages”, “cinema”, “outdoors”, “museums” and “dogs”, for instance, were directed to the “Yes” Folder, while emails with the words “motorbikes”, “shopping”, “clubbing” and “pop music” were immediately relegated to the “Rejects” Folder (no offense meant to motorbike aficionados, shopaholics and Katy Perry fans, it’s just that, I wouldn’t know what to say to you!).

Now came the hard part: the actual, face-to-face meeting! I made appointments with the final 10 candidates, to meet them at a public square or coffee shop – blind dates, really. We barely had any idea of what the other person even looked like. And anyone who has been on a blind date will know that the first meeting was absolutely crucial. It could make or break the budding relationship. Either you liked the person, or you didn’t. Either you wanted to see that person again, or you didn’t.

blind date

Sure, I had my share of disappointing dates. Some people, intimidatingly interesting on paper, were plain boring in real life. Some people lacked energy or enthusiasm (for which I always tended to overcompensate, resulting in the peculiar condition know as the “laughing headache”), and some people just didn’t speak. In these cases, I found silence to be the best way to politely “end” things. In other cases, I was forced to lie: “I’m sorry, I’ve found a job as a dogwalker and don’t have time to do intercambio anymore!”

But, with some people, it just clicked. Conversation flowed naturally, there was laughter on both sides, and you were perfectly at ease after the first five minutes. I met a medley of memorable characters – a lawyer, a psychologist, a biochemist, an astrophysicist – all more or less my age, warm, openminded, hardworking people from different parts of Spain, who somehow found time to meet me for intercambio in their 10-hour work days. Finally, I could stop! Stop the endless virtual interviews, the awkward blind dates, the cruel but inevitable rejections!

So, has language exchange made me fluent in Spanish? No. Has my Spanish improved? I’d like to think so, yes. But more importantly, I’ve found Spanish friends, and through them, an insight into Spain. They tell me their views on love, marriage, family, religion, politics, and I share with them my experiences growing up in Pakistan and living in the United States, two completely different worlds about which they are equally curious. It’s strange how two people, complete strangers in one moment, can go to speaking about their personal lives with the air of old friends in the next. It is something that happens always with expats – maybe out of the boldness that comes with being a foreigner, or maybe out of our intrinsic need to trust, to talk, to confide in a palpable human being, in a place where there are no givens, where we must build our life up from the ground.

Read Tip #1,Tip #2, Tip #3, Tip #5, and the introductory post of this series!

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!

How to Make Friends in a New City – Tip #2

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  • JOIN A RECREATIONAL CLASS

When you’re not a full-time student, nor do you have a “’real” job, nor any family in the city where you live, you end up with a lot of free time on your hands – which can be perfectly utilized by learning something you’ve always wanted, but never really got a chance to do. For instance, crocheting, or Thai kickboxing. Sushi-making, or calligraphy, ventriloquism, or, better yet, magic!

OK, maybe not the intense save-the-world type magic of Gandalf Source: Art & Cookies
OK, maybe not the intense save-the-world type magic of Gandalf

That something for me right now is Middle Eastern dancing. I carry my black coin-belt around with me wherever we go, and Google down a dance class whichever city we happen to be in. Apart from the fact that I love to do it, it’s also a good way of meeting people – perhaps even a potential friend, whom you are assured of having at least one thing in common with!

So, with all this in mind, I joined a classical Egyptian dance class in Madrid, taught by a half-Egyptian, half-Paraguayan, Spanish-born woman called Yasmina, who has been dancing professionally for 20 years.

On my first day, I arrived late. I had gotten confused when exiting the metro station, and walked in the wrong direction for a good ten minutes. “Darn it,” I thought, when I realized my (usual) mistake. “There’s no point of going to the class now. There won’t be space for me anyway!”

I was envisaging, of course, the type of dance classes I had attended in Berkeley and New York; a normally tiny square-shaped room packed to the seams with a variety of serious-faced girls in intimidating-looking leotards; the teacher (whom you could barely see) hollering instructions, bootcamp-style, over the pounding music; and me in the back row, whacking my hands into the wall every time we did snake arms, or getting trampled on by Rubber Girl next to me at every grapevine turn. 

But here, when I scrambled into class, huffing and puffing, with a “Lo siento-ooo!”, I’m sorry-yyy, on my lips, I was shocked to find myself in a 60 ft x 30 ft, hardwood-floored room, glistening mirrors on not one but three sides, nicely framed posters on the cool blue walls, and Yasmina the teacher with two students – dressed in comfy track pants and T-shirts – quietly doing some stretches.

Is the class already over?? Has everybody left??” I asked, bewildered.

No, they were just about to start! “Solo nosotras,” Yasmina smiled, flicking on the music. I couldn’t believe it! What joy! What pleasure! What a wonderful feeling to sway about freely my unusually long limbs without colliding into an animate or inanimate object at every move!

There were even times when the other two students didn’t show up, and it was just me and the teacher, whom I could pester with complaints and questions to my heart’s content (“But why can’t I do the sideways shimmy? Why? Why doesn’t it look as good as yours?”) On the downside, nobody in the class, including the teacher, spoke any English, so we had to suffice in our communication with gestures, intonation and a range of facial expressions. The other girl in the class, who was my age, seemed nice, but I could not glean much about her from my limited Spanish and her non-existent English save that she worked at a pharmacy, loved leopard print and Khaled.

Expressions
Homer Simpson’s diverse range of facial expressions

On the upside, one of the first things I mastered in the Spanish language were parts parts of the body – rodilla, tobillo, talón, cadera, codo, muñeca, cuello – much to my Spanish teacher’s amazement when we came to study that chapter in class. You bet, I knew them body parts like a doctor. And, generally, I became known amongst the nice ladies at the dance school as the funny “American” girl (because I spoke English) who laughed a lot, seemed genuinely excited to be in Spain (unlike the Spaniards themselves, who were desperate to leave), and who continually invented new ways to bungle their language – which they didn’t seem to mind at all!

Read Tip #1, Tip #3, Tip #4Tip #5, and the introductory post of this series!