Madison is a friendly town. At least, Madison should be a friendly town. It’s in the Midwest! It’s full of people from Wisconsin! They love beer! They’re called cheeseheads, for God’s sake.
And of course it is. People open doors a lot, and give directions handily. They’ll joke with you on the street about weather. They compliment your boots and let you pet their dogs.
But they don’t, actually, make friends with you.
The last time I traveled alone I was in Israel. There were scores of us: young people, many of us on our own, out to see a foreign culture. We exchanged phone numbers, hopped on busses to Bethlehem and went drinking together. We took each other’s pictures, and met outside the same cafes. It felt like a movie montage. It felt great.
But no one travels through Madison.
Everyone is here for a reason – mostly because they live here. There’s one hostel and it’s filled with a ragtag bunch of us – law students attending conferences, me to do my research, and an unusually large population of women in their seventies here for no clear reason at all (more on that later).
There’s no exploring a foreign culture. No Bethlehem. No learning to ask for beer in Hebrew. .
So I go to bars. And I go to them alone.
I know there just must be a trick to finding a bar where you can make friends. But I don’t know what it is. So I go into them, one a night, and order a beer. The Tipsy Cow, The Great Dane, The Weary Traveler, El Dorado, The Old Fashioned, on and on and on.
I sit down. I order beer in a way that makes clear I am a fun person just in town who would like to know Madison.
One time this initiated conversation.
Then I pull out my book, sometimes making some comment on it.
This has succeeded never.
I order food, and ask someone near me what I should order. I attempt to make this one question convey my entire, happy-go-lucky, mysterious-person-on-her-own personality.
This once led to successfully talking to another human being for a whole 40 minutes.
Eventually I get as far as commenting on the game. It’s a stupid starter for 10, really. I will have at best one sentence to say about it. I once tried to start talking about the Brewers and it immediately became apparent that I didn’t know who they were playing. In fact, I didn’t know what league they were in. (National League, in case you’re wondering. Or, if you use my accounting a leagues “the Mets/Nats league, not the Yankees/A’s one.”)
Baseball has led to three separate conversations. One lasted 15 minutes. If it sounds like I am recording this with a near manic meticulousness, that’s because I am.
But none of them have made me any friends.
Now, I will not pretend to be particularly socially apt. I am not. I am awkward as hell, furiously shy at first, and immediately thereafter uncomfortably garrulous. But I’m not awful, not really terrible.
So I have to wonder – would this happen in every city? Or is it Madison? What makes a city really “friendly”? Is it the opening of doors, and meaning it when you say “have a nice day”?
Or is it a stranger at a bar – someone who takes an interest in you, someone else who is on their own. Someone who would never open a door for a lady, but who might, just maybe, say hello.