Wednesday, 2 September 2009
Expatriata! Ruminations on coffee morning etiquette
Blimey! What a day. After a whole summer of absence, ladies from all over the world are back in Almaty. Today was the Almaty International Women's Club coffee morning at the Intercontinental Hotel (great hotel but = can of diet coke, only 9 dollars! ha ha). The coffees provide a chance for people to catch up and for new girls to meet a few people then mill about alone for a while wishing that they did not have to go through this version of personal hell, but hopefully knowing that this feeling doesn't last forever. Coffee mornings leave me baffled. I don't understand why women do them. Does anyone? What about the men who have to go to these events? The amazing bunch of male trailing spouses who find themselves in a form of Girls World, but not in the way that they may have fantasized about when younger! Why do we women do it to ourselves and how do you put up with it?
Ever since I moved abroad 11 years ago, and attended my first coffee morning at the Swedish Church in Santo Amaro in Sao Paulo, I have not especially enjoyed these events. In Brazil, the new girls had to wear a sticker and then stand in front of all existing members (sitting facing them in a semi-circle of chairs) and introduce themselves. I am a reasonably confident person, and I found this slightly nervewracking aged 25 in my first foreign country, so gabbled my way through a personal description in under 100 words, went bright red and sat down. For those less sure of themselves, and specially if English was their second or third language, it was nothing short of torture!
But this kind of gathering seems to be the way that women abroad feel that they should network en masse. Of course it is useful to get everyone together once in a while, and it is a useful forum to spreading information among the community. And I cannot really think of a better way to do it (apart from the obvious option of At Night and in a Pub), but somehow, I always leave these things feeling that there must be a less painful way.
We all arrive and walk in, looking around for a familiar face. Of course, when you are new you know no one so you just have to balls it out. There is a membership table where you can fill in a form with the name of your spouse and his company and any other details of your new life that you have managed to cobble together since getting off a plane at 2.30am with three kids two days before hand, and going to stay in a hotel (if you can remember your own email address you are doing quite well). You just need to hope that the person on membership duty is a human kind of person and at least chats to you for a bit or shows you a friendly face. Fortunately, here in Almaty, the committee are pretty friendly, but it is not always so. And then it is introduce-yourself-to-anyone time, or go-home-without-meeting-anyone time, up to you! Sink or swim and off you go.
So I think part of the reason that the first coffee of the post-summer year is so grim is because it always reminds you of your first coffee in that particular place.
And the second reason is because some people are constantly dissatisfied in this kind of expat life, never settle or really make good mates and find it all very difficult. And at a coffee morning, if you get stuck with one of these you can be in real trouble. They will constantly start a new sentence, or seemingly fail to take breath, so that you can feel your face cracking as your smile begins to waver, you are unable to escape or change the subject, and you are listening to an endless list of complaints about how difficult such-and-such is (this will usually be from a range of subjects including, but not limited to,: a) finding a maid, driver, nanny, school or house b) medical issues, very personal details from someone you hardly know or c) some kind of comment negatively bashing the country in which they are living, like complaining about a lack of spoken english in rural China).
On the occasion that you find someone who you are quite excited to meet, who seems to be on your wavelength and with whom you think you may have things in common, then the chances of being able to have a conversation without being interrupted are practically zero. So you have to get in quick, swap a few titbits and phone numbers and move on in about two minutes. It is like a bizarre form of speed dating.