Before I get going I must apologise, in response to several complaints, for the dearth of recent blog posts. Medically speaking the pregnancy is going very well, and I have no problems to speak of at this stage (35 weeks), but since about 30 weeks I’ve been increasingly tired, and almost all the time I used to give to blogging has been used for extra sleep. Please do NOT imagine that I have been neglecting blogging because I have a) gone native (I still freeze in response to the conversational gambit ‘So the baby will be an American!’) or b) lost all my former scepticism. Oh no. OK, apology over.
M and I moved cities three times in four years before we came to Chicago, so I thought I was starting to crack the art of meeting new people and making friends. But things have not gone quite as smoothly as I might have hoped.
Since it’s easiest to meet people through work, and I didn’t have a job at all when we first got here, I decided that I must think laterally. As every advice column reader knows, agony aunts have standard advice on this subject: you meet new people by taking an evening class or joining a club.
First, I joined a book group. Here was my thinking. Cheap activity: tick. Likely to involve likeminded people: tick. Will involve actual interaction as opposed to lying in a room, in silence, deliberately not focussing on those around you: tick. (Cf: going to a yoga class, a tactic I tried in three British cities, but which oddly failed to reap much in the way of social benefits.)
It met in the Evanston branch of Barnes and Noble and in October last year was reading Colm Tóibín’s novel Brooklyn. Perfect: a novel about new immigrants to America. I imagined the kind of people I would meet at the book group, vaguely fantasising them asking me in warm and interested tones how my experience as an expat matched up with the experiences in the novel, and the free-flowing discussion that would follow.
The book group had three participants that October night. I was dragging a semi-willing J along with me, so that made two. And then there was the organiser. He was a thin, retired man in a bodywarmer who was very hard of hearing, and who dealt with this disability in two ways. First, he had brought a list of Questions for Reading Groups, which he proceeded to read out verbatim to us, wait for me and J to answer in full, then nod and move on to the next one. (Sample question: ‘how does Toibin present the conflict between job and family in the 1950s? How is it different today?’) It was like doing a German oral exam. But without the German. Second, branching out from the book onto more general matters, he had a full philosophy of his own involving human growth and enlightenment to communicate at great length and with great intensity, with no expectation of any response from us as his listeners. We never went back.
My next try: going to the Northwestern International Office orientation for the families of new international arrivals. There were a lot of friendly people there determined to involve me in community activities. I almost agreed to go to a textiles exhibition at the Chicago Botanic Garden in the company of other displaced wives. Before I realised the prospect filled me with horror. But the high point came when a well-meaning Evanston woman urged me to join an English conversation class.
‘No, I think my English is fine, thanks.’
‘You’d be surprised: the class really operates at a very high level… Well -‘ [pressing on in spite of my expression of bemusement] ‘ – just try it once.’
M and I decided the informal route would be better: we would throw a party, and invite our neighbours, all of whom were new Northwestern faculty relocating from outside the area (since our apartment block is transitional Northwestern housing). They all appeared to be about our age, and they must, we surmised, be looking to meet new people just like we were. We actually threw three parties: a classic drinks party, a tea party (in case they had children) and a third party at the start of this academic year in case last year’s neighbours were a duff batch. Never a single one of them crossed the threshold.
Meanwhile I tried to join three knitting groups, only one of which ever met, and had some temp jobs working with people I’d cross the road to avoid. And, on the more positive side, I found a much better book group, and through M gradually met a handful of nice graduate students and young faculty at Northwestern, three or four of whom we can now call friends.
Now I’m pregnant I have failed to meet anyone I really like at pregnancy yoga, bonded with a woman who lives an hour’s car journey away at our birth preparation classes (we don’t have a car), and spent an awkward evening trying to befriend the pregnant wife of M’s colleague. My conclusion is that meeting people is hard. The ones you like often don’t live nearby, or haven’t got time in their lives for a new person. Lots of people aren’t my type for a huge range of reasons, most of which have nothing to do with their worth as human beings: they don’t get my sense of humour, or they don’t like to talk about politics or religion, or they’re too shy to relax around. Even if you get on well, turning an acquaintance into a friend involves a lot of time and energy, and in the last few weeks I haven’t had energy to spare, and instead have just waited for one of my real friends from Britain to visit or call.
But I may have found a solution. Evanston Parent Circle is a thriving organisation that meets all the time, is in Evanston, and, judging by its welcome event the other weekend, is entirely made up of interesting mothers and a few token fathers of small children who are dying to meet new people and have time on their hands. Dear Deirdre: I am hoping I have finally joined the right club.