Tuesday, 15 March 2011

To party or not to party?

Some of my friends will know that I am considering a trip to the UK later this year. In a few months to be more precise. I say - 'considering'.

A week ago I received a surprise invitation from a very old friend, I mean I have know her for more than 30 years, rather than that she is ancient and decrepit. Both her and her husband are two of my friends from university. Since my sole remaining schoolfriend dropped off the map a couple of years ago, my university friends are my longest standing relationships.

There is something unique about the relationship that you built up with people so long ago in that period when you all first leave home, well, in term-time anyway. You spend three years in each others' company virtually every day, and after you have graduated you keep in touch and visit them for overnight stays.

Thirty years on and with far less contact you probably have very little in common except those first three years together, but it's still nice to see each other from time to time.

So, the invitation is to visit the UK in June for a house-warming. I say house-warming, but from the photo I have seen, mansion-warming would be more appropriate. And I am, of course, welcome to stay with them. In fact for his 40th birthday party in London, they not only put us up, but also our two dogs, in spite of the fact they had a couple of cats at the time. Whenever I have visited London - I have always been welcome to stay with them. And not usually just a night's kip - a visit to the theatre, restaurants, mutual friends invited around invariably got thrown in as well.

This is the couple for whom I was bridesmaid more than 25 years ago. I've spent time working with her on an archaeology dig when we rented a flat together, and we've been youth hostelling together. Would I specifically visit the UK for anything - or anyone - else? Unlikely. But we go back years with a lot of shared experiences, and sometimes that means a lot. And if that gives me an opportunity to visit the people I don't know, who I have pretty regular contact with on the internet, I think that would be good too. It's looking like a good plan and a nice trip.

So where is the dilemma? In my head obviously, although that probably goes without saying.

Let's start with the house-warming. It occurred to me, as I was thinking about it wandering to the shops (a very good time for pondering life's dilemmas) that I wouldn't know anyone else at the party. Our social circles are at extreme ends, if that's not a mixed metaphor. In fact I don't have one, so that's easy.

I started to play through in my head the typical sort of conversations that you have at these functions with people who you don't know. Stranger - 'What do you do then?' Me - 'Nothing.' Embarrassing pause. When one does nothing, one is expected to be busy doing nothing. You can't just do 'nothing.' I can. I can do nothing amazingly well. The art of being an only child is to ensure one is never bored with one's own company. And I am not. You should be busy doing voluntary things, or working on a consultancy basis, or at least dabbling at something to justify your existence. I could say that I hung wallpaper last week with my partner. 'Oh, so you're an interior designer then?' (says Stranger, vaguely interested in arty work). 'No. He's a painter and decorator.' Now this is where the non-existent conversation goes even further downhill. When mixing in fashionable middle-class professional and arty circles, confessing that one's partner is a skilled tradesperson is akin to sticking a pig's head in the mosque.

Perhaps I should play the game and tell them that I went to university with the hosts, have a Master's degree, a qualification in journalism and my last job was being in charge of cancer services for half a million people. Well the last one's a turn off to start with. Who wants to talk about cancer at a party? The journalism might get me a couple of points. Then they would want to know why I wasn't successfully writing loads of freelance stuff, or a really exciting book about my time abroad. I would like to know that too.

Having exhausted the work convo, the next inevitable one is ... or in fact perhaps it might have preceded the work convo given that I am a woman ... 'How many children do you have/what are they doing/where are they/blah meaningless blah questions about kids?' 'I don't have any children.' I could go further and say, 'I never wanted any.' We are now all but dead in the water and haven't even been chatting five minutes, so Stranger comes up with one last effort.

'You must have pets then?' (despairingly). I can actually answer yes to that one. I can tell him/her that we rescued a stray Spanish dog off the streets in our village. They can tell me about their pedigree Bichon Frise or Burmese cat which cost them a small fortune to buy. I can tell them about our dog nearly dying from tick disease and watch them squirming in front of me. At that point they would definitely see one of their old friends on the other side of the room and excuse themselves.

Of course, there may be other potential conversations that haven't worked themselves out in my head yet.

Moving swiftly onto meeting up with internet pals. Now, there is a decent handful of nice people within an acceptable radius of London. There is another decent group of people in Scotland but I haven't factored Scotland into the visit, so I'm sticking with the south (east).

But how to do it? Should I announce a date and hold court at King's Cross/Euston/Liverpool Street/Paddington or whatever main-line station would be most convenient for everyone or easily reached? That would give everyone the chance to meet each other as well as me. Or, should I plan an itinerary and travel around meeting up for a couple of hours with each person, and find myself nearby youth hostels? I think they still take 50-year-olds.

People who I have never met have already offered me accommodation. I don't know what to say, to say that I am touched sounds inadequate. I certainly appreciate people's willingness to open up their homes to a total stranger. It's the sort of thing you do when you are young and travelling around the world, but at 50? I can't even offer the favour back as we have a one-bed flat (without a bed), and a sofa for the dog. It's pretty tight on space.

And then, what about the whole food thing? If anyone doesn't know by now, I'm vegetarian. That doesn't mean I eat fish either. Having said that, everyone who has ever cooked for me has gone out of their way to ask what I did/didn't eat. Even the most obnoxious mother-in-law in the world bought a few veggie things from the supermarket. The only one who refused to cook for me was my own mother. Eso va la vida.

There is smoking too. I loathe it. I don't want it in my lungs, hair, clothes or anywhere remotely near me. Pop music and television are also on the no list. If I stay the night, please can I go to bed at 9pm and get up at 6am? Whereupon I should like either some very nice ground coffee, espresso or filter is fine, or Darjeeling or Assam tea. I do not like Nescafe. I do not like PG Tips or Brooke Bond either. In fact I would prefer a glass of heavily chlorinated tap water rather than drinking crap hot drinks. Mineral water would be nice though. I would bring a sleeping bag of course, and as I sleep on the floor in my flat, a bed isn't really necessary at all.

So you see, dear internet friends why I have a slight dilemma. I like my internet friends. I also have the mentality that when things are going well, don't fiddle with them, if it ain't broke don't fix it. These are people with whom I've shared emails, blogs, mutual woes, Christmas cards (well, not many of those), dog tales, and some good laughs.

Some time ago I had a hypothetical conversation with my-no-longer-internet friend and said I didn't know if I would want to meet him if he ever visited anywhere near. That wasn't because I didn't like him, but because I didn't want to spoil what we had. Irrelevant now of course. I think we agreed that the best way to meet internet friends (not specifically us) was to try a couple of hours on neutral ground and take it from there. But not staying with people and being in their face and all the rest of it. So that's the worry to me. Meet up - and - not get on. Everyone has a crap time and you lose a good internet friend. I've already lost one, and I wish I hadn't. In spite of everything I wish we were still friends. I'm not the only one who has been on the receiving end of an internet-initiated relationship that has gone sour. None of us like receiving mails that mis-judge us, or say they want nothing to do with us ever again. It's not pleasant at all. I'm honestly not sure I want to take the risk of that again.

And then, why am I even thinking about going to a party? I am no longer a party animal. Was I ever? Maybe once. But my idea of a good time is a walk with the dog, a meal at home, and a good book. Perhaps that has always been my idea of a good time though.

Comments, suggestions, answers on a postcard, all more than welcome on this one .....


Scarlett said...

I think you have expressed all your pros and cons most concisely, about both visiting old friends and meeting new on line friends perfectly.

And as I read your account, I think you will move to your own conclusions, the one which is right for you. This sounds pretty basic, but I find sometimes if you write it all out, like you have, you can re read it, many times, and in the end, you will see the answer staring you in the face.

You know my thoughts at the moment about meeting on line people, I have done so four times since 2005. Each meeting was different, and two out of the four friendships, I still consider friends.

This time last week it would have been three out of the four. On line friendships, don't always prove to have the backbone, the history, (which of course they can't possibly have) of old, real life friendships, which can make things difficult.

This post is so relevant to me and the way I am feeling at the moment, especially the imho disastrous old friend reunion, two weeks ago, when I realised after 40 years, and a big, big absence between meeting up again, we had absolutely nothing in common. Nor husbands.

My Aussie on line meeting experience was really good, but of course, it does always depend on the kind of people you are meeting. The Aussies were What you See Is What You Get, so I always knew where I was, they were very kind, very generous, and understanding when I did get homesick. And this I guess is the difference. If you have an online friend, who turns out, not to be "how you thought", like the one this Friday I was supposed to be meeting, then things get nasty and upsetting.

So to sum up my comment which is now possibly longer than your post, it really depends I guess on what people are actually like, and not their "on line personality", a on line friend who comes over as really pleasant, may be the most disagreeable person ever. Or may be as I found in Australia, a very nice, straightforward and kind person. Guess it is just luck.

This won't help you, but if it does a little bit, I hope it helps you mull it over a bit more.


roughseasinthemed said...

Ty Scarlett. Your words of southern wisdom are very welcome.

Vicky said...

Great reading Kate, I understand exactly where your thinking lies.
Paths that were walked parallel with friends arm in arm many years ago, can become so wide apart, that you cannot hear each other even if you shout, and they become no better than a total stranger.
As for internet friends, you will never know the true person until you meet them, but if the person wasn't the 'friend' you hoped they were, would you in all honesty still want them as 'an internet friend'.
You've laid your cards on the table as to your likes and dislikes, ask us the same questions, if they are answered to your liking, put them in the 'yes' pile, if the pile is big enough, then decide if the visit is worth it.

roughseasinthemed said...

That's another wonderful answer. So honest and refreshing and sensisble. Thank you for writing it.


Martha and Bailey said...

I read your post with interest. In the first instance I think you put yourself down unnecessarily.

Your friends have invited you and you clearly have a relationship that goes way back. You do not need to justify your existance to anybody.

I find the best way to survive these meetings is to make them time limited. Staying with someone I would avoid if possible but that is just me. I know London is pretty expensive but there is no age limit on youth hostels at all!

Meeting up with internet friends I think would be great fun - again I agree neutral ground as you say.

I think your trip sounds very exciting and do hope it goes ahead. xx"

roughseasinthemed said...

Thank you MBB. Another perspective and equally valid and valuable.