Socially Awkward Penguin
- 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???).
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.
“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?”
“Do you pray five times a day?”
“Um, what? No, not five times…though I should…”
“Have you been to the Madrid Central Mosque?”
“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???
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!”
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.
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!
This entry was posted in Expatriate, Friends, Immigration, Life, Madrid, Spain and tagged Expat, Friends, Hiking, Immigrant, Madrid, Meetup, Muslim, Pakistan, Pictionary, Socially Awkward Penguin, South Asian, Spain, Spanish Inquistion, Sporty People, Tips.
Published in BootsnAll, May 19th 2014
When you’ve spent most of your life in one place, you tend to take many things for granted – your aging collection of books, for instance (don’t you love it when the pages start turning yellow?), or sharing wardrobes with your sister (mostly against her will), or that little bakery down the street that sells your favorite lemon rolls (you don’t want to know how they make them, they’re just really good).
Most of all, you take your friends for granted.
Imagine the last time you were out with a group of old friends. There you are, huddled together around a big table at your regular hangout, chattering nineteen to the dozen, laughing uproariously about something no one else would find funny, spooning mouthfuls of steaming pad thai or bread-and-butter pudding into your mouth; faces beaming, teeth flashing, shiny heads bobbing. There, at that moment, you and your friends are the center of the universe. Everything and everyone else is in orbit around you. You are beautiful; you are invincible.
And then, in the midst of that irresistible merriment, your gaze falls upon a forlorn corner of the restaurant, where, at a table for two, somebody is sitting all alone; quietly sipping a coffee, or wrestling with a bit of leftover pasta on the plate; sometimes pretend-texting on her cell phone, sometimes looking up and smiling expectantly at the restaurant. And you think, pityingly, a little smugly, “Oh, that poor lonely human being. She has no friends!”
Well, meet the newest member of One’s Company, or “My cell phone is my best friend” club – me!
I could never imagine being in a situation like this in my hometown, Lahore. Even in that sprawling metropolis of 12 million people, you invariably bumped into a friend, or at least an acquaintance, wherever you went. It made sense: you had friends from school, friends from college, friends from work. You had cousins, cousins’ friends, cousins’ cousins. You had neighbors, family friends, brothers’ and sisters’ friends. You just knew a lot of people, and you all frequented the same handful of restaurants and retail stores. So in a place like Lahore, it was impossible to be ‘friendless’, to sit by yourself in a cafe writing pensively in your diary – because somebody would find you out, and cheerfully plop down on the seat beside you for a catch-up.
But, navigating a new city, adjusting to a new country, fathoming a new language – you were nobody. You knew nobody. You had to start from scratch. Desde cero.
In Madrid, there were no cozy International House socials to dive into, like at Berkeley, or late-night bonding sessions in the corridors with your floormates; there was no common kitchen like at Democracy Now!, where your like-minded, socially-conscious colleagues from around the world congregated to dissect America’s latest foreign policy misadventure over cups of fair-trade coffee; there was no lively Pakistani expat community that materialized, without fail, at every Eid, Independence Day and birthday party, to enjoy haleem and chicken tikkas at a New York dhaba.
No. Madrid wasn’t like Berkeley, or New York, and of course it wasn’t like Lahore. Everything was different, from the streets to the sunlight to the food, people, shops, signs. Everything was new.
When we landed, we didn’t know a thing about the city. Sure, it was exciting, but we weren’t just there as tourists, for a few days or a week, staying at a plush downtown hotel, taking the double-decker tour bus to all the monuments and museums, posing for pictures with the matador in Plaza Mayor, eating out at TripAdvisor-recommended restaurants, buying flamenco figurines at the souvenir shops, and then happily heading back home.
No, we were there to stay. To make a home. And roaming around the streets of Madrid in search of an apartment during our first week, more than once I got that funny feeing in my stomach – like the feeling you get as a kid, standing outside the principal’s office for some primary school misdemeanor you may have committed. I suppose you could call it panic. “How am I going to do this! Where are we going to live? Where will I buy my groceries? Where will I find my turmeric and green chilies and Shaan masalas? Where on earth can I buy bathroom slippers, a 7-Watt light bulb, square-shaped tupperware, 16″x16″ cushion fillings, hummus and baking powder, apart from the ludicrously-priced El Corte Ingles?”
Which cell phone package has the cheapest local rates? Which internet service provider has the least hidden costs? How do I apply for a monthly metro pass? What do I do if I lose my monthly metro pass? What do I do if I get robbed! (Incidentally, these are not hypothetical questions)
Most important of all, how was I supposed to make friends? I could not enroll in a university (95% of the Arts & Humanities courses I was interested in were taught in Spanish), nor did I have a work visa. My level of Spanish was too low to even apply for a volunteer gig. How was I ever going to meet people, and engage in a longer-than-five-minute conversation with anybody, apart from my husband and the Carrefour checkout lady?
Faced with these sundry, seemingly insurmountable challenges, I could let myself sink into despair. That was always easy, and poetic. I could happily wallow in nostalgia – double, triple, quadruple layers. I could become a hermit, pottering about the house in a white robe, watering my herbs, sipping ginger tea and people-watching from the balcony. I could also live quite a gregarious virtual life, through Facebook, Skype, What’s App, Viber. There were just so many options.
But I had a plan. The location was Madrid, and the objective, “Friends”, those slippery creatures that every new immigrant or expat craves….
This entry was posted in Expatriate, Home, Immigration, Language, Life, Madrid, Memories, Spain, Travel, World and tagged Berkeley, BootsnAll, Coffee, Democracy Now, Expat, Friends, Immigrant, International House, Lahore, Madrid, New York, Pakistan, Plaza Mayor, Socially Awkward Penguin, Spain, Tips, TripAdvisor.