Meetup: A great way to build a core of diverse friends

This summer I went to the Fete de la Musique with a large group of friends.  Though it originally started in France it’s now a worldwide annual event.  As the evening closed out at our fourth musical venue out of hundreds we could have chosen, I took a moment to be thankful for a platform that has connected me with so many wonderful people.

Meetup is a company that started in NYC in mid-2001, but really gained traction after 9/11 as New Yorkers tried to connect with people who wanted to talk and process the disaster that had befallen their city, their nation, and the world.  It has grown quickly in the US, and as a result it can cost north of $100USD/year to start a group.

For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, Meetup is a “just add internet” for any type of group.  Want to “jog on Wednesdays” or “knit on Tuesdays” or “club on Saturdays”?  There’s a group for you to join.  Can’t find the group you want?  Start your own.

For the casual browser it’s a dazzling arena of fun activities with strangers who might become friends.  For the organizer type (comme moi) at only 12€/year to start up to three groups, it’s a bargain that pays back massive dividends.

I created Paris Culture Lovers as a way to find people like me – who love art, film, books, conversation, food, and day trips.  We are closing in on our first year as a group and have done almost 90 events, some of which were among my most treasured memories of 2015.

So what’s the bad news?

  1. Many groups are ephemeral.  People get enthusiastic, start a group, never do an event or do one and give up.  That’s okay.  It happens.
  2. Because Meetup has created a “buffet” culture, and because of society worldwide becoming less accountable about events and invitations, many people feel they can no-call and no-show an event they have RSVPed for, or cancel hours or minutes before an event, for frivolous reasons or for no reasons whatsoever.  You might not do that to friends but you may be inclined to do that to strangers (At PCL we have invented a ranking system that measures and ranks you by the number of events attended and gives senior members priority for events).

But neither of these things are dealbreakers and as this year ends, a group of the core of Paris Culture Lovers have become good friends and strong acquaintances, which means a lot to a stranger in a strange land – even more so to the type like me, who isn’t seeking to surround himself with expats to build an anglo island in France.  There are meetup groups for that…if that’s what you want.  But when I want to feel like America or be with Americans…I visit that country.

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PS I should note that I had two Meetups fail due to lack of interest – a casual kick around soccer group and a chess players group.  But you have to try in order to see what works 🙂

The pain of loss

I’m midway through my second year in Paris and I’ve begun to experience something I rarely did during my time in the States: losing people to moves.  When I was younger this was because I was always the one on the move, either due to my family’s movements or my own moves for work or school.  As I got older, I lived among more stable populations and hence rarely attended “going away” parties because no one was going anywhere.

Before I moved to Paris I spent 7 years in Kansas City, which straddles the large Midwestern American states of Kansas and Missouri.  It is a wonderful place to live and raise a family, and consequently, most everyone stays.  In my time there I don’t think I knew one person who moved away.  And yet I’ve already lost a friend to Nice just this month, and between now and September I expect to lose 4 more.  Some have work assignments ending or visas that expire and they have not begun the work to try to stay.  Others are just choosing to move on.  No matter the reason, it hurts to lose friends to moves.

There are dozens of reasons, always particular to the individual.  I don’t expect everyone – in fact I don’t expect many – to move to Paris with the deep-in-the-bones conviction that they will live there forever.  Since so many come for work it is rare to find that happy coincidence of dream city and fulfilling work (which is why I advocate moving to your dream city and creating your own work) and hence if a more alluring city or job presents itself, Paris can be left behind.

I’m willing to admit that while everyone’s decision to leave Paris can be attributed to individual circumstances, there are recurring themes which I can share with you.  I’ll also try to suggest remedies when it makes sense.

Distance from the city

My friend Anaïs, who left for the south of France last week, has sworn off ever again living in the suburbs.  “I could never do anything at night in Paris,” she opined at lunch.  Since she lived 20 minutes outside Paris she was limited by whenever the final train for her stop left in the evenings, typically some time before midnight.  People can get twice the space for the same price, but it’s not Paris.  I don’t see how one can fall in love with this city when you don’t live inside it, and when you don’t love something, it’s easy to leave it.

Cost of living

I always gamely smile when I hear this, in part because it’s really only the rents that are expensive in Paris, and even then it lags far behind Tokyo, Hong Kong, NYC, and San Francisco.  Super high-speed internet?  15€/month.  Fresh baguette? 1€.  Freshly-pulled espresso at the bar? 1,50€.  1 L of organic milk? 2,50€.  Three course meal at an authentic French restaurant?  24€.  Unlimited travel on the metro, buses, and trains, and 45 minutes per day on the city bikes?  70€/month.  Those are just a few of the things in Paris that are cheaper than what I paid in the States, and specifically in regards to the transport issue, entire costs I used to have are simply gone now, like car insurance, oil changes, gasoline, and the occasional car wash.  Yes, Paris has its expensive sides, but if you are willing to try new/challenging/different living situations you can not only survive, but thrive here.

The Rush

I’ve addressed this in a previous piece.  If you work in one of these nonstop jobs and you aren’t planning and saving for a great escape or a new life, either leave Paris or quit your job, but don’t keep doing what you’re doing.  You’re making yourself miserable and while only the Japanese currently have a word for “death by overwork” (karoshi) it doesn’t mean you are immune to the condition.

Time for a change

This has to be the most valid reason to leave, if you’re really feeling it.  I’ve heard it said that if you’re always dreaming of your next vacation, perhaps you need to change where you live, since you keep wishing to leave it.  I firmly believe that once you are in a place you truly want to be, you’ll find yourself exploring it endlessly, and won’t have to look exteriorly for fulfillment and joy.  This doesn’t mean you’ll cut travel out entirely, but I’ve observed within myself a huge slowdown in travel, and I think this is because I’m settled and happy here.

Everyone is leaving!

Well, I suppose this presumes a greater existential question of “What is a Parisian?”  I know at least 6 people who have lived in Paris their entire lives and half of them don’t really know or love this city at all.  There are “permanents” in Paris (I aspire to be one) but a lot of us came here because we were inspired by what we thought Paris might be like as a residence, not just enamored of what we had experienced in Paris as breathless tourists.

The remedy for this objection is something I am prescribing for myself as well: not so much to close yourself off to new friendships, but covet, guard and develop those more closely that are with those who you suspect are here for the long term.  You can’t escape the pain of losing special people as they move, but you’ll have the consolation of adding friends from all around the world who you might visit on your travels, and you’ll know that when you see them again you’ll be able to pick up on something you’ll always have in common: Paris.

Death in the Afternoon, or Sunday Chess in the Jardin du Luxembourg

Meetup is a great website.  If you don’t know it, it is a site that allows you to create a group based around a particular love or passion.  Want to play bridge?  Or go hiking?  How about practicing your English and French?  All you want, and then some.

The burden is on the organizer.  He/she pay$ to start the group and is responsible for its ups and downs.  The better the organizer, the better the group.  I’ve started two groups here.  One for soccer inside the city (there are a couple excellent groups that play in the big parks just outside the city…I can play soccer in a big field anywhere in the world.  But in front of Les Invalides?  Not too often.).  The other one is for chess, and has been pretty successful in its early days.  Our first get together found 8 strangers from all over the world drawn together by a common love for the game of black and white squares, and the pieces that inhabit them.

That first meeting was at Anti-Cafe, a “co-working” space.  More on that another time.  A great time was had by all and we played timed and untimed games.  We also took time to school a novice on the rules and some basic strategy.

Chess is fascinating on many levels, and during the year I lived in Saint Louis I was a member of the Saint Louis Chess Club, which hosts the US Championship every year and where you can get tutored by grandmasters.

Basic principles beyond the names and movement of pieces are manifold, but here are three that I share with any fellow novice:

1.  Try to capture/attack the center of the board

2.  Try to develop your pieces (move back-rank players forward)

3.  Try to consider each move through the two-fold criteria of what is this piece attacking and how is it attacked

These principles were on my mind last Sunday, during our latest meetup – our first outdoors – at the Jardin du Luxembourg.  After three successful meetups, where we had built up a strong core, I thought a fun tournament, with some euros on the line, might be fun.  5 euro buy-in.  We would see who would show up.

As a group becomes more carefully curated over time (again, depending on the organizer), the percentage of who signs up for an event vs who shows up may improve; my basic rule was 50%.  That is, if 8 people said they were coming, then 4 people, at best, would be actually coming.

Today was a bit better.  Ten committed, including myself.  We  had 5 plus myself actually show up.  There was an alleged “beginner” but as we played a quick game it became obvious he was just being modest.  I drew up a quick series of brackets that ensured everyone would play at least three games before we got to the final “money” matches.  It was imperfect for sure.  I had always played in well-organized round robins but as the sole organizer unsure of the number of attendees I hadn’t troubled too much with an elaborate schedule of matches.

Indeed, my focus (perhaps wrongly!) had been on bringing terrine, crackers, oranges, and vin rouge.  Who can play chess without drinking, surely?  But that is the least of the tournament transgressions we committed.

No one else had brought clocks so I loaned out my ipad and iphone, both of which had chess clock apps.  The iphone sadly gave up the ghost midway through the 3rd match, though the ipad lasted longer.  Some couldn’t play a timed match due to the paucity of clocks.

You also shouldn’t talk during tournaments, but the French are quite disposed to comment on everything, whether they know you or not, much less chess.  We were just a few feet away from the most popular players in the Jardin.  One of them was an old man with a grizzled sel et poivre beard.  The other was a man with palsy.

They played 3-5 minute blitz games, where moves were almost instinctive.  Winner stayed, loser walked.  Occasionally bets would be taken.  A group of 15 always surrounded whomever was playing – a variation on a nerd cage-fight.

Everyone was commenting on the game: some jeering, some offering officious (or kind) advice.  Players got into it also: “Allez, putain!”  I laughed heartily and leaned across to my adversary, “Les français sont très polis, non?”  He laughed also.

Tourists, taking in what had started as a beautiful day, continued to mill by even as it got overcast and slightly chilly.  I heard the snap and clickle of cameras and I wondered how my horrible losing positions might look on someone’s facebook, captioned, as, “what a moron: mate in 7!”

I had placed 4 of the 6 players in “advanced” brackets.  Yves, the self-proclaimed beginner, and I, occupied the “knockout” brackets, where we would play each other and the losers of the upper brackets (As an aside, I love names like Yves and Ombeline that we just don’t have in English).

Some played faster than others and in between Yves and I’s second matches, some parents cooed their precocious children our way.  The children looked reluctant and somewhat embarrassés about their French tigre mom who would take them to the tables of the Jardin to make them play chess with adults.

We looked friendly enough, as usual my goofy American smile was the “over here” beacon that allowed a French parent to come over and ask, “eut-il jouer avec vous?

Oui.”  Chess keeps you humble, I thought to myself as I reached out to sake the paw of the (I guessed) 10 year-old, also remembering to switch all my you-singulars to the familiar.  Children and animals get the “tu” treatment automatically.  “Tu” though he might be I figured that no kid who was going to come play with adults was a slouch.  I expected to lose.  I’m only in the mid-hundreds in USCF ratings, after returning to the game in 2011 after a nearly 2 decade absence.

“He’s terribly aggressive,” I thought to myself as he brought out his Queen in move 8.  Yes, I had people asking me questions, people wanted to know who played next, my own vin to pour, bien sûr, but all credit to the kid, he beat me handily, in fewer than 20 moves (I wasn’t notating, but that’s a fair guess).  I was a bit distracted but he beat me fair and square!

His sister was playing a slower, less aggressive game against Prem.  “Be careful, ah?” I said with a smile.  “He beat you?” Prem asked, almost astonished.  “Oui.”

An English father came up and asked in halting French if his kid – who looked 8 – could play.  After a bit of discussion, I let the battle of les enfants terribles commence and I chatted with the parents.

From London, and Arsenal fans, even better!  The kid was rated 1700, with the father in the 2000s.  Even mom was an 1100.

“We don’t have anything like this in London.”  “Yes, it’s wonderful, isn’t it?  Put some beautiful boards down and people will come.”

There was a bocce ball “field” right by a park in my arrondissement at the Square de Batignolles.  It was often occupied by Italian expats who took their native game quite seriously, grazie mille.  Angry Italian spewed out whenever a teammate was supposed to have made a poor throw.  No angry Italian, or angry any language here, really.

We laughed and looked back at the game at hand.  Your son’s quite deliberative.  “Yes, well, I blame his coach.”  “You, no doubt,” I surmised.  He didn’t say anything.  He was analyzing his son’s current position.  The mother was being indulgent.  She wanted to move on after the first game but we encouraged them to play une plus.

To keep her amused I switched into tour guide mode and told her a bit about the garden itself, its founding and recent history.  “You love this place,” she remarked.  “It’s my favorite big park in the city, yes,” I replied.

The kids wrapped up, I wished them well, and I notified all my players of the final matchups, collecting the euros and placing them under the clocks of the respective games: 15 euros for the top winner, 10 euros for the next bracket, and 5 euros for the final bracket.

Aranya (giving the peace sign here) actually won the final between him and elderly gentleman who went by the Meetup handle of “Whynot.”  Instead of taking the money and running, they went for 2 out of 3 and Aranya conceded the next two matches, and the 15 euros.  Why not stop? 🙂

Erkhem, who had only been knocked into the second bracket by one loss, took a bit longer to take out Prem.  They too played at least one more game, but Erkhem had the sense to confirm his winning after the first game.

Much of the food and drink I brought was uneaten (note for next time: food not so important for chess nerds) and as we shook hands almost four hours after we started, I promised more meetings for the months ahead.