Saturday, May 28, 2011

On Friendship vs. Solitude

I've written about this before. Apologies.

I had a nice trip a week or so ago that took me over to Cologne and from there for a short in-and-out to Romania. This was a charter, so it's kind of off the company's regular radar and a nice change of pace for we who are used to everything going off with clockwork regularity.

I don't get to Cologne (CGN) nearly enough, and I'm always struck by how civilized Germany seems to be. Everything is clean and picked-up and people are friendly; transportation is first-rate and food is excellent. It would be a great place to live, I think.

Across the road from our hotel is an open square about two football fields' worth in size. There are many such public places, especially in central CGN, but the one next to our hotel seems to be hosting some kind of shindig about 50% of the time. When I was there near the end of 2010, the square was full of holiday booths--a skating rink and places to stand by a fire and drink beer or hot wine and lots of shops selling little knick-knacks. (As it turns out, this square actually spills over to a series of other squares in sequence to form a famous holiday market.) Cheesy but delightful holiday music is piped all through the place and people were crowded all throughout, everyone having a jolly old time.

On this most recent visit, the chill of winter had passed and spring was in the air. And the square was now playing host to a wine festival, again with about 200 vendors selling all manner of wines, both local and more generally European. Live musicians strolled the massive crowds, and the restaurants which ring the square were all packed as well. Even when the square is not hosting a festival of some sort, the adjacent restaurants offer many hundreds of outdoor seats such that there is always a festival atmosphere for the place, in summer anyway.

I don't drink wine, and I'm not much for crowds. (I love the random crush of a busy city, but I really dislike going to mass events.) I especially have little patience--no, it's worse than that; I have an active dislike--for what happens to people as they drink and pass the one-too-many mark, and so most of these festivals are not things in which I would ever actively participate. But oddly, I love that others participate in them. I love the idea of people getting together to converse with friends over dinner and a glass of wine, and these things contribute to my sense of CGN as a vital social place. I always wander thru the festivals or at least around the perimeter to take in the scene.

On this last visit I flew with a captain who had become friendly over the years with several of the bar owners near the hotel, and for the first time in years I actually spent a few hours on a barstool while he schmoozed with his friends. I don't normally socialize with other crewmembers (as I've made laboriously clear, and for reasons I've also devoted too much time to) but this guy was very friendly and a lover of music (an automatic feather in anyone's cap) and spoke nary a political word the whole trip. I liked him more and more.

His bar friends were a couple of guys working at the local Irish pubs, guys with whom he had been swapping music files for years until everyone had massive libraries of new and old bands. And both guys were delightful conversationalists. I sat nursing my dreaded Coke Light (for which I was given shit constantly but gently) while the rest tried out this and that beer or spirit, and we swapped stories about our homelands and I listened to their tales of how Irish fellas end up working at foreign bars in a German city.

The point of all this is to note my sense of something being fucked up in my life that these kinds of social scenes occur all around me and I feel alienated from all of them. I don't think I am by nature an antisocial person--indeed, during my high school and college years I remember thinking it intolerable to have to spend time on my own; I HAD to be around family or friends. But I always felt that my inability to be happy with my own company was a character flaw. As I became more and more involved with classical music--something which was necessarily a solitary endeavor--I spent more and more time on my own. And then finally I ended up at a job where I simply don't enjoy the company of most of my coworkers, which has led me to PREFER to spend my time alone. And the years pass and suddenly I find myself gone 180° from socialite to a bit of a hermit.

As I say, I've lamented this before, talking about living now for a dozen years in Appleton and not really having any social friends not connected through Susan (I've met plenty of people I like, but there's nobody I hang out with when Susan is working). I happily spend my days off with her, and if she's busy I spend my time alone. Seeing the vibrant social world taking place in CGN makes me wonder anew at this almost complete lifestyle shift I seem to have experienced. I'm inclined to blame much of this on the extreme nature of my coworkers (I had a more active social life even at previous airline jobs where a much broader array of personality types were ready to hand, including flight attendants and station agents, few of whom were of the type that almost universally populates the cockpit of my present job), but even to me this sounds a bit specious.

I remember several earlier jobs--bartending, or my earlier airline jobs--where my coworkers were a bit slow to warm to me but eventually we all came to embrace and appreciate each other. But while I rarely if ever actively clash with my current coworkers, I think we get to know each other enough to know that we're each not the other fella's cup of tea, and so our relationship becomes a professional one where we cordially do our jobs together and flee to our separate corners when we leave the cockpit.

And so far as it goes, I'm not unhappy with this arrangement. But another part of me wonders what is wrong with me that I haven't cultivated any kind of a social life in the city to which I've devoted a quarter of my life. I have a couple friends from my flying years with whom I am in regular contact (though only one lives in my home town and our lives have little connection now), and otherwise I cultivate my two closest friends from before high school.


dbackdad said...

Wunelle said, " ... sense of something being fucked up in my life that these kinds of social scenes occur all around me and I feel alienated from all of them. I don't think I am by nature an antisocial person ..." -- I can identify with that. Through my 20's and the first half of my 30's, we were very social, probably doing something with friends about every other weekend. For the last few years, it's lucky if we see who we consider our best friends more than a couple of times a year. Things change. Our kids go to different schools and I don't work with them. The act of socializing seems more like work than fun. And I sense that is, as you say, a character flaw of myself. I seem unwilling to do the work that would be necessary to have a more active social life. It's not that I don't have a great time when we do something ... I do. But, I also don't feel like I'm missing out if I don't. I must be getting old. :-)

Jeffy said...

I've been thinking about this topic, and it seems that there are several factors at work, but it is hard to determine how they all affect the situation.

As you mentioned, there is often drinking going on during the socializing that you see. I think that the drinking is a big piece of the puzzle. Not only is there some social pressure to do your drinking with others, but in many cases the drinking makes the other people more appealing. Folks who may not get along all that well can sometimes do much better with a little lubrication. Not being a drinker hampers this reason for socializing quite a bit. Even joining in by having a Coke while the others have their beers only goes so far.

Another factor that seems to matter is how similar your beliefs are. I think that it is not only your co-workers who do not share many beliefs, but probably most people are in that same boat. That leaves you with very few people to have more than just a shallow conversation with. On top of the mismatch of beliefs you are also cursed with a mismatch of intellect - not many people are as intelligent as you, and that also makes it hard to have a very meaningful relationship. You can only talk about the weather or sports so much (even if you have some interest in them).

The third thing that seems to be a big factor is kids. Even though you have none, many of the people you might hang out with do. Kids suck up all of their parents' time for a long stretch of years. I was never much of a socialzer, but when I became a parent, along with many of my cohorts, the chances to hang out together dropped to nearly nil.

I feel like I am in a similar situation to yours - I spend very little time socializing with friends, and while I get along well with most of the people I know, I don't have very many close friends. However, I don't feel bad about what I am missing out on. I've participated in the sorts of socializing that we see going on around us, so I have an idea what I might be missing, but I don't seem to feel any related sense of unfulfillment.

I guess as long as we are happy with the way things are then they are just fine, even if they are not the norm.

wunelle said...

Further adding to my confusion is that we host this trip to NYC every year and we have a great time, both leading the trip and in socializing with the participants throughout the week.

This only heightens my sense (of which I am wary) that it isn't so much something wrong with ME as it is a mis-alignment of planets when I'm at work--where after all I spend half my life.

Still, it's energizing to have some enriching social interaction in the midst of chewing on these issues.

dbackdad said...

Wunelle said, " ... it isn't so much something wrong with ME as it is a mis-alignment of planets when I'm at work ..." -- I do think that is a big part of it. I've had my own 1 person business for the last 14 years. It's really during that time that my socialization has changed. All my good friends are people that I used to work with. We stay in touch and still occasionally do stuff, but the absence of working together takes away a common source of experiences.

Whether one is working alone or just working with people that you don't necessarily have a lot in common with, it can affect how social you are.

schmonz said...

I identify very strongly with just about everything in this piece. I like what you like about Germany, about lively public places, about seeing people enjoying each other's company; I don't like what you don't like about drinking, about crowds, about bars. My thoughts finally part company from yours when you appraise what all this must mean about your character. My appraisal is that there are people who revel in people, and people who don't, and you (like me) belong to the latter group. (It's one of the few groups we'd allow ourselves to belong to.)

There are other richnesses of life besides the social. Most people never fully inhabit their own minds as you do yours. If we're appraising, then it speaks well to your character that you appreciate a genre of experience that others value highly even as you yourself don't. Be pleased: you know who you are and you have what you need.

wunelle said...

Well said, and, I think, true.