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 …..