A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Sunday, 27 March 2016


Last Easter Sunday, I was in Manchester because my family were on holiday and I needed to write my dissertation. Nevertheless, it was a fantastic time. After church we hosted a meal for no fewer than ten people (myself + two flatmates, one flatmate's girlfriend, another flatmate's sister, curate + wife + two children, and one person who none of us knew prior to that day but who would otherwise have been alone). The food and drink flowed generously. I played ball with the children. We played games for much of the afternoon. The next day I had a fantastically productive day in which I planned, did much of the research for, and wrote the first 2000 words of my dissertation, as well as almost single-handedly cleaning up from the Sunday. (I don't necessarily enjoy work per se, but having a productive day is enormously satisfying). All this was in addition to having a reasonable length run, and hitting a brick wall of exhaustion around 5pm. Those two days are one of the highlights of my life so far.

Compare this year. I woke up at 2pm (this is not at all normal, it should be said - even at weekends I'm usually up by 10am), didn't do much until about 8pm, and have been moderately productive since then (went for a swim, written the first half of a position paper). In the whole day I've spoken to a total of three people, one of whom was the lifeguard at the swimming pool.

Maybe tomorrow will be better. The point is that last year I was much happier, and this is an (admittedly extreme) example. In particular my social life was immeasurably better. Four factors contribute to this:

  1. Leaving the church.
  2. The fact that English is not the lingua franca. Not speaking Hungarian makes it difficult to get involved in things outside the university; and within the university residence centre, most people are happier speaking their native language (most commonly Cantonese, Serbo-Croatian, or Russian). This means that there are very few English-language social activities which are not organised either by the university or the students union.
  3. The absence of a common social space which I can naturally inhabit. The way to have a social life here is to be a smoker, because that forces you to go out to the terrace every evening, where you end up chatting with other smokers. I go to the terrace more often than almost any other non-smoker, but at a distance of six stories it's still a distinct inconvenience as compared to having a living room shared with friends.
  4. Fewer arranged social activities with friends from my course.
Back in the UK, (1) and (2) were never issues. The church meant that whatever else happened I would be interacting with other people twice a week or more, and I was also able to take part in a range of other things outside the university - kayaking, ceilidhs, etc - without any difficulty. (3) applied to some extent in my first year, since myself and two of my flatmates tended to congregate in our living room for at least two evenings per week. It applied to a lesser extent in my second year - I blame television - but there was still at least one evening each week when another friends would come round, the TV would be on showing trash, and I would probably be on my laptop and could join in any conversation which arose. Last year it applied massively - I was living with three other nerds (two of them even nerdier than myself) with regular (as in 3+ times a week) visits from the girlfriend mentioned above, who I was already good friends with before I moved in with her boyfriend. There was a comfortable living room, so I could be in a position to socialise with them simply by going down a short flight of stairs from my room.

I think there are several reasons for (4) being the case, to wit: (a) I'm on a smaller course, hence have fewer friends from it; (b) because most of us live together there's less of a feeling that we need to meet up; (c) people in general are less sociable than the friends I had in undergrad, being older and more academic; (d) in general we have less awareness of what the city offers in the way of nightlife.

So long as I am here, it will be important to make a conscious effort to have more of a social life. I've considered rejoining a church, although given that it takes 45 mins to get to an English-language church that's rather harder than ever been before. I've also wondered about trying to turn the nearest kitchen into a social space of some kind, although at the moment that's a non-starter since it is often occupied by a group of Chinese students playing a card game based upon the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. (The cards and conversation are in Chinese, hence joining them isn't an option). I'm planning a reasonably large celebration for my birthday next weekend, and will look to find ways of improving my social life in long-term ways.

If you have read this far, then thank you. In return, here's some advice: living abroad is highly overrated. I'm not certain that I regret moving here, but were it not for the case that I'm saving £6000 in tuition fees and about £16,000 over two years in living expenses, I most assuredly would. If you ever have an opportunity to move abroad for anything long than a mere visit, and especially if that is to somewhere where you don't speak the language - think twice.

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