Meeting Friendly Locals in Birmingham

This posting consists of a series of stories that took place over the past few days here in the welcoming city of Birmingham, UK. It also contains personal sharing and personal opinions that I hope you will find interesting. Thanks for visiting PersonalTravelStories.com !
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The Mailbox is a stately-looking structure that stands in Birmingham’s central district. Upon entering the large edifice, which does indeed have resemblance to a British Mailbox, I was unaware that the building is actually an enormous centre and that it opens on to the lovely canal network on the other side. In fact, being built along these waterways is probably the main asset of the building. They have done a lovely job capturing the urban outdoors well-viewed by numerous restaurants and bars.

I may not have ventured into the Mailbox having previously read it’s description on a shopping map of Birmingham. “A premier luxury destination, with designer stores including Harvey Nichols, hotels, waterside restaurants and bars.” It’s not a bad description by any means, it just did not pull my attention since I only took the map for street navigation rather than for shopping. Additionally, I wanted to repair the grammar of the sentence. Correct it so that it does not contain one incongruent list. Here’s a better example of the same grammatical weakness in case you missed it, “I like to eat cheeses including Brie, red wine, and baguettes.” It’s just wrong. Sometimes we do choose imprecise grammar in lieu of brevity though, so it likely was an intentional overlook.

I had found myself early to a meet-up across the street. I don’t like to be late so when venturing to an unknown destination for a scheduled meet I tend to allow too much extra time. This usually has it’s pay-offs though, there is nearly always something to happen upon that will fill the time in an unfamiliar place. So it was that I found myself stood on a street-corner face-to-face with this large, red, windowed box.

I was not feeling interested in dropping large sums of money for designer duds that I have no space for in my luggage, so I was very pleased to come across a “pop-up” shop claiming two temporary spaces. “Birmingham Made Me” is a fantastic collection of all manner of hand-made items created locally. Lots of one-of-a-kind crafts and art works, as well as a bit of manufactured but of original design and using the creators artwork. Unique hats, jewellery, lampshades, paintings, handbags made from records, ceramics, t-shirts printed with original images, pottery, nik-naks, art cards, and more. A really fun set of shops.

As I was exiting the first one I entered, I thanked the hosts. “What do you think of it?” a woman near to my age, friendlily inquired. “It’s fantastic,” I replied, “I especially loved the stuffed animals.”

These little animals have been created with such great care that I found myself paused in front of them, reading their faces like one might a person. I’m not sure why, they had typical-looking eyes and details, but they were put-together in such as way that they conveyed personality. They were really quite impressive.

I could not have guessed that I was talking to their creator, Angela. “Did you pick one up?” Of course not, I think. I used to be an artist myself some years ago, I know not to touch things, to be respectful of people’s creations which are often intended to be looked-upon only. Angela comes over, “Pick one up!” Stunning. These little creatures were life-like to look at, now that I have one in my hands it’s uncanny. She has used some sort of filling that gives them a life-like weight. A baby-sized bear weighs nearly as much as a real baby. It’s actually hard to explain the experience, my senses are being fooled into feeling like I’m holding an animate creature. I’m not a doll collector or an appreciator of stuffed-bears, or anything of the sort, but these are very impressive.

“When I was little, I remember feeling so disappointed every time I picked-up a cuddly toy, that it felt completely unreal. That it didn’t weigh anything. They looked cute, but they felt like nothing.” Even as a little girl, her creative mind saw things in a unique way. Remarkable.

“I saw you noticing (Brooks?) things as well,” Angela adds, gesturing to the bags made from vinyl records (LPs) and lamps made from cassette tapes.

“I did. Those bags look really-well made. It’s a shame that guys have a much stronger attachment to records than do girls. I used to have a shop where we sold clocks made from records, the LPs were definitely more popular with guys. Girls tended to prefer the covers made into clocks, with the imagery. I wonder if guys tend to me more tactile and girls more visual.”

“The ladies really like them though, they’re very popular.”

“That’s great, they should be.”

A few more minutes of conversation and I am on my way, back-tracking to the other location of “Birmingham Made Me” I had earlier passed-by. The time for my meeting comes and I leave the Mailbox leaving more to return for later.

The “Birmingham Made Me” shops located in the Mailbox will only be open until the end of June, so don’t miss your chance to find some unique arts and crafts pieces. Angela has plans to open in another location as a joint venture, so be sure to check-it out.

To see Angela’s fun artistic cuddly creations and find out where you can see them, click on this link:

www.burmanbears.com

Birmingham Made Me has a Facebook sight you can visit, hopefully they’ll be an ongoing concern and perhaps you can find their latest activities by looking up their Facebook page or by clicking on this link:

www.ideabirmingham.co.uk

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The Street side entrance of The Mailbox in Birmingham. Don’t be fooled, this square building is only a small part of the entire structure, fully attached.

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Interior hallways of The Mailbox are open to skylights far above.

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The rear exit of The Mailbox is wonderfully set-up to appreciate Birmingham’s vast canal network.

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Looking back at the restaurants and bars lining the canal as part of The Mailbox.

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The Cube has been built to add to the success of The Mailbox and feels like a continuation of the centre. Completed in 2010, this mixed-use world-class structure is much larger than it looks having 25 floors.

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The Blend is a modern coffee bar with lots of fun drinks. The main feature being coffee martinis, I don’t mind if I do. I order a delicious B and B (Brandy and Benedictine) coffee martini, it is served on ice in a stemmed glass more sizeable and of a different shape than a martini glass. I am the first to arrive to this meet-up, but being at a largish reserved table for 8 I will be easily found.

I am soon joined by a conscientious Brummie who is also early. She had rushed away from attending a Jazz concert at the nearby Symphony Hall. “I love Jazz,” she tells me, “they’re giving free concerts every Friday. If you like Jazz, you should go next week. It’s great.” When it comes to listening to Jazz music I only listen to classics, I’m not a fan of the repetitive free-flowing improv type sometimes found in Jazz bars. But a performance will tend to be of the ilk that I do enjoy. I probably will. Except I leave on Thursday, my hotel is only booked for a week and I arrived last night. Only 24 hours so far in Birmingham and I am already planning to extend my stay.

Four of us have already arrived by the appointed meet-up time. A very polite gentleman from Walsall who reminds me of the accountant in the tv programme Ugly Betty sits beside me. He has come in with a nice girl originally from Stratford. A young lady starting her PHD in Environmental Structures has moved to Birmingham from Sweden. A woman who “has Scotch and Welsh blood” joins behind me, pulling-up a chair to join the then-crowded table. Others have filled-in the rest of the 8 seats but I meet those at the other end by name only, as is generally the case when seated at a large table.

The ladies are talking about something that is sometimes vended out machines in ladies rooms. Maybe one of them is wearing perfume from a sampler, I don’t remember. “The only thing we can buy in a men’s room is condoms,” someone comments. “But they do come in various flavours,” I add, helpfully. “I remember the first time I saw flavoured condoms,” one of the ladies reminisces, “I looked at the shop keeper and asked, “Why is it flavoured?” I had no idea!” “If you like, one of us can show you, luv!” the guy had replied to her great embarrassment. “Just chemicals, aren’t they,” I offer, “not good for you probably.” Lately, I have been given much attention to the fact that more and more edible products are not real food. Edible oil products flavoured by chemicals, highly-processed and manipulated food products altered to such a degree that our digestion systems work overtime processing food items that are not really even food in the strict sense. Genetically modified, chemically-enhanced, structurally-altered items that are being marketed as food but offer little or no nutrition. If it doesn’t nourish, can it really be considered food? Anyway, to this she asks, “Have you tasted one?” I don’t want to answer either way and instead I reflect the question. “You are a dirty girl!” I tease, “I’m going for another drink. How is the wine you’re drinking, what kind did you get?” “Red.” We both laugh at her answer. “Honestly, they have red, white and rose, those are the choices.”

Back at the cash I look at the bottle that contains red wine. Looks like it has been labelled for use in pubs and such, it is from Spain but that essentially is the extent of the information presented. “It’s Spanish Red,” I declare returning with a flute. They must have run-out of generic wine glasses and they have served me red wine in a champagne flute. No apologies for serving in this narrow glass, I only assume the outage but it is actually presented as being normal. I like this complete lack of pretension, it speaks of an unsophistication that is refreshing. I dump my Spanish Red into a tumbler someone did not use for their beer. I like wine in a glass tumbler. Reminds me of Italy.

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“I started to realise that I really enjoy cultural things,” a woman in her thirties explains, “but none of my friends did. I love classical music and looking at artwork and going to live performance. I started this group so I could meet with other people to share those things with.” We sit in the Edwardian Cafe within Birmingham’s Museum and Art Gallery waiting for others to arrive. It’s a beautiful structure that stands on Chamberlain Square in the city centre. Like all museums in the UK, admission is free.

A varied group assembles to take in the current temporary exhibits, two modern shows. These meet-up groups have really caught-on in Birmingham. Most of the attendees today have come into the downtown from outside the city, including the organiser.

It seems to me that over the past century people have lost their trust in strangers in most places. Meet-up groups are partially reclaiming that lost aspect of society. It wasn’t that we used to trust everyone, but we did trust those who were in our group. Perhaps this meant people of our clan or of our village. More people attended church and there was a feeling that one could trust another in their church, whether they had met or not. I think this still tends to be the case in churches, they provide social communities for their members. Maybe we trusted those of our class, people who had a similar standing to ourselves. “We’re in this together,” strangers or not. There was more kinship, more seeing others as oneself. Would you steal from your brother? Surely not.

I think there was even an innocence that my parents generation had during their early years, growing up in the 50s and 60s in small town Canada. This sociological aspect may have been earlier concluded in more metropolitan areas, I don’t know. There was greater civility, stronger politeness, more adhered-to rules of behaviour, and an assumption of good will. Perhaps one had to be somewhat guarded on the streets in large cities, but they’d create pockets of safety in their own communities. Neighbours were friends or friends not yet met. There was an assumption of goodness of the other rather than mistrust. I’ll happily share with you and I know you would happily share with me. Perhaps some of the trust came from naivety, television destroyed any of that. Now, instead of having a realistic viewpoint of knowing what kinds of terrible things people sometimes do to each other, we have an exaggerated viewpoint of it. The most violent crimes are talked about and repeated and we are taught to be guarded for our own protection. Before we would have heard about something that happened to someone in our circle or in our community, now we can hear about violence on the opposite side of the world nearly at the very same time it happens. Lost innocence of an entire species.

More and more we lead hectic, separate lives. In the West many of us will live entirely on our own, not sharing our living space with anyone. We did not evolve this way. In our separateness we crave connection with our fellow man.

Some of us may have strong groups of friends but as life changes so do we. Sometimes our friends don’t change at the same time and we outgrow them. Or they outgrow us. Perhaps our friends are dear to us but we also need something new. The introduction of new friends can bring new life. Most of us get set-in-our-ways and some of us want to break-out but may not know how. How do I meet someone outside my circle? How do I live my days differently than I do now? Where do I go if I want to go somewhere other than where I do go? It can feel impossibly difficult to break routine. The routines of what I do and where I go and who I talk to and when I talk to them and what we talk about and how we do and how we go and the list goes on and on.

I met two nice ladies standing by the canal. They were sight-seeing. I was sight-seeing. I chatted briefly with them and we had a friendly exchange. But we didn’t go sight-seeing together. It wouldn’t be normal, would it. For them to trust a complete stranger. Even if they thought I seemed friendly and fun, they have been taught caution. There are places where this kind of interchange is possible though, such as when young people stay in hostels. This situation provides the context of sameness, I’m in this hostel and you are in this hostel and we are both traveling so why don’t we go out and wander the streets together rather than separately.

That is what online meet-up groups do. They provide the introduction. The fact that we both signed-up to go to the same place and do the same thing provides just enough sameness for us to be able to trust each other and interact as friends. When I worked in coffee shop at the end of university the aspect I liked most was having permission to be friendly with strangers. My interaction with the customer was defined and in friendly Fredericton the locals welcomed familiar-type conversations while they were collecting their coffees.

If I just went in to the museum surely I would find other people who had the same interest of seeing the museum but it would be socially odd for me to try to join with others to share the experience of the exhibit. It is not the behavioural norm, one is supposed to keep to oneself and respect the autonomy of strangers. By myself I am likely to share a comment with someone looking at the same thing or even strike a conversation with another patron, but the chances that we would end-up going through an entire exhibit together or chatting over a coffee afterwards is very low.

I do meet strangers on my travels in all sorts of situations but having the ability to join online meet-up groups gives me an in with locals that was previously not possible.

Birmingham’s Museum and Art Gallery has a formidable permanent collection of historical and significant works which I briefly take-on on another occasion. Today we are gathered for the temporary exhibits.

New Art West Midlands is a collection of “The best new art by emerging West Midland graduates.” (New Art West Midlands Brochure as created for the exhibit.) The works have been created by recent graduates from five art schools in the region and the represent a variety of media including paining, installation, ceramics, film, sculpture, and photography. Art comes down to personal preference. When I have to stand and stare at something and wonder why it can be called art, that kind of thing I do not have much appreciation for. Sometimes a creation that displays no skill can still seem artful to me for it’s uniqueness, it’s originality. The famous straight line drawn across a canvas I still think is just stupid, no matter how many high-brow art experts argue differently. Certainly there was a little of that ilk displayed, they want to provide a wide variety and that includes artwork that “pushes the barriers”.

My hands-down favourite collection was created by Rafal Zar. He found his own formula that works for him. Paint something cute in such a way as to be disturbing. His write-up makes his work sound a bit more sophisticated than mine does suggesting that he deals with controversial issues and such. But really it looks like he just uses some cliches in his paintings that are guaranteed to be richly interpreted. A half torso of a nun who has double pupils in each eye stands behind a tree growing in an incubator. A cartoon rabbit hovers over her right shoulder and something comparable hovers over her left. I like it. It’s fun, it’s playful, but it seems to me just silly. The odd cross is thrown in to quite a few of his works and it really does just seem to be for the purpose of adding a religious element rather than some deep thought-out metaphorical statement. The only statement I hear him making is, “Look at me, look at your symbols, pooey on your symbols. They mean nothing to me.”

Speaking of poo, there is quite a substantial collection of faeces sculptures sitting on a table in front of his paintings. I like these too, they’re mostly quite colourful. The majority are rings of poo, round-and-round-and-up-and-cut. Some of them are quite realistic sculptures, others are wool, still others are painted into little characters with cute faces.

His paintings are pretty and ugly at the same time, I quite enjoy them and I would buy one if I lived anywhere. Definitely check-out his blog though, you can see photos of this actual exhibit in the Museum as well as other fun works. This particular exhibit is only on until May 19, 2013, so if you are in or near to Birmingham, don’t wait to go visit!

www.rafalzar.blogspot.co.uk

The second temporary exhibit was “Metropolis: Reflections on the modern city”. This is an international contemporary exhibit that was jointly collected by this gallery as well as The New Art Gallery Walsall, in partnership with Ikon. I found this exhibit generally more appealing in that I appreciated most of what was on offer.

I am definitely biased being a lover of travel and having a preference for cities. The overall feeling I am left with from this exhibit is of it being more a portrait of the people who live in the cities, their struggles and the reality of average everyday lives.

A 6-minute video of an abandoned apartment complex in Frankfurt with the windows being smashed from the inside is oddly mesmerising. You don’t know when and where the next window will smash, one by one until there are no window panes remaining. (Front Windows by Jochem Hendricks, 2009)

Click on following link to view the video. Try to project it onto a large wall and use good speakers to recreate the effect experienced at the museum.

www.jochem-hendricks.de/_englisch/2011_frontwindow/non_index.htm

I appreciated the very large scenes by Semyon Faibisovich who showed us some portraits of real life in a poor district of Moscow. He takes photos on his mobile phone, blows them up to mega proportions, and paints overtop. Two men lean against each other to keep from falling-over drunk, a bottle between them, and in “Take the Weight off Your Feet” a woman sits on the road as if having fallen but with items placed to show that she actually sat down. You can see these images with this link:

http://www.artfund.org/what-we-do/art-weve-helped-buy/artwork/11569/1-sick-on-the-way-2-take-the-weight-off-your-feet-3-repose

A video room with a view of Shanghai’s main pedestrian shopping street on on side, a view with sound of a woman blowing, as in blowing out candles on an enormous birthday cake, on the other. Every time she blows the view of the street scene retreats to create the feeling that she is blowing the street away. The view pauses in one spot between her breaths showing the hustle and bustle on the busy street and as she blows the image moves further away from us, as if her breath has propelled the viewer further backwards down the street. I recognise the street, it’s a very unique district for China that looks more like a Western beacon of consumerism with all the familiar Western brands. Perhaps it represents the future of China? It certainly represents only a very tiny segment of Chinese life today, perhaps of the top 1 percent to be generous. I still have Adidas track pants I bought on that street. I had forgotten to bring gym clothes with me.

Another representation of China, a large street scene showing buildings, a construction site, buses on multiple lanes of traffic, and a pedestrian walkway with some people walking. It is a very ordinary scene but it captures my interest for a long time. After looking at it I read the placard which explains that the photographer has created the large scene using multiple images. Not readily apparent until after reading, now I can see how he has manipulated the sizes of objects so that things far away are of similar size to those close-up. The effect is of looking of a model rather than the real thing. Additionally, there is story in the people on the pedestrian walk, they are interesting to look at and stir my curiosity.

Jerry cans linked together on a rod sit on the floor. It really is just a kebab of ordinary gas cans. I learn that portable gas cans with handles were invented by the Germans in 1939 but still this falls into my category of the unimpressive. Nonetheless, here I am writing about it, so there you go.

Really the entire exhibit was quite interesting so I’m not going to write about it further. It will be open until June 23, 2013. Again, if you happen to be in or near Birmingham, I think it deserves your attention.

After taking in the two fun and interesting modern art exhibits with a group of 7, three of us ventured to a pub together to enjoy the afternoon a bit longer before parting ways. I hope to see some of them again while I’m here, but if not, it was still a perfect day.

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The Stately Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery stands in Chamberlain Square by the Paradise Forum and the Town Hall.

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Inside one of the stairwells of the museum.

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This lovely space sits between the gift shop and the Edwardian Cafe inside the Museum.

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The cafe was not open when I went back to take a photo so I could not show the vast open space. But, here is a view through the door, which was open (but a meeting was taking place inside).

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Some of the stained-glass windows located in one of the stairways of the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

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At New Street Station I met one of the nicest groups of people I could have imagined. Kind, thoughtful souls, every one. People who have suffered either become hardened or they develop a greater sense of understanding for others.

There are those people who fit comfortably into round holes. They may have an average temperament, a middle-of-the-road upbringing, main-stream tastes and experiences. Some of these people do not have the ability to comprehend that their experience of the world can be different from someone else’s. They will assume that what they have felt and experienced is the very same as how others feel and experience. They will equate someone’s debilitating depression with their own experience of sadness. “Oh, I know how you feel, ” they may be fond of saying, followed by something completely incomparable. They also don’t understand that even without a major life event, without a traumatic experience to point at, people can slip down a spiral. Depression is the most often thought-of spiral, but Social Anxiety is another.

“Why did you join this group?” one of the younger members asks as we walk between venues, “You clearly do not have Social Anxiety.” I do know that how I experience it is invisible to others. I tend to be diplomatic and I am not shy in groups. Naturally a leader, I tend not to appear socially anxious whatsoever. I can fill the role of host without much thought.

I am by no means any kind of expert on Social Anxiety (SA) but being one who experiences it, let me tell you about it from my experience. I have experienced it as a spiral, in that the longer it pervades the stronger it gets. It gets harder and harder to break-out of.

I think that SA can stem from numerous causes. For me, it developed partly from being highly-sensitive in an insensitive world. Too much noise creates anxiety. Too many people. Too much light. Too much activity and commotion. Think of the enjoyment most people get attending a busy party with music and dancing and lots of people. I’m good up to a point, but beyond that point I become overstimulated and that triggers my fight-or-flight response. I panic to escape. I had many such nights during university, I’d reach my threshold for having fun before anyone else. “I’m going now.” “Don’t go, stay, we’re having fun!” Eventually I just realised that when it’s time for me to leave, easiest was to just bolt. “You disappeared last night,” I’d hear the next day. “I guess I got too drunk,” I’d lie, easier than saying I became overwhelmed by the crowds and ran away. Drinking helps though, my tolerance for stimulation is much higher when drinking. It likely is for most people, that’s why average people happily listen to ear-blowing club music for hours, they probably would not withstand it either when completely sober.

Eventually anxiety can be experienced in anticipation of an anxiety-causing event. These events tend to be social. This part of my anxiety is really pre-overstimulation anxiety and it is very explainable from having an oversensitive nervous system. I don’t know if it really has a name, I just made that up, but it is what it is.

Generally I can keep this at bay by being in-control over my situation. When I was a shop owner I often used to work Saturday mornings at a mall kiosk location. I would only work for 2 or 3 hours, very short. I did this shift because the mall on Saturdays was open 9:30-6:00, which was too long for one person but too short to schedule two. It seemed to me unfair to have someone come in for only 2 or 3 hours, so I did it. It was perfectly fair for me because I wasn’t making a wage anyway. But the mall tended to be noisy. Trapped in the middle of the hallway alone at the kiosk, I came to really hate it. Because if it became too much, I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t just abandon my kiosk and leave it unmanned in the middle of a busy shopping centre. After many times of having the experience of anxiety caused by the noise, I learned to dread working in the mall. Sometimes I would be completely fine, the more I distracted myself from the commotion the better I was. Or sometimes the mall would be dead-quiet anyway. But once the anxiety became a conditioned response that game was over. Not that I should be complaining, my partner and I had four retail locations and I probably only worked at a location two or three short times in a week, often not at all. I was able to mostly create the job that I needed, which was working from home and visiting from store to store without actually staying at one for any duration.

I tend not to experience SA with strangers or with new people that I am meeting. Clearly this is unusual and makes me look like an interloper when mixing with others who experience SA. I am not socially awkward and I find it easy to start conversations with strangers. I can generally hone-in on something that is interesting for them to talk about. I am not shy, I am an outgoing introvert. This label goes in the face of what most people know about introverts and extraverts. It just means that I do not recharge in the company of others or in social situations, unlike extraverts. I recharge by being alone or by doing solitary activities such as cycling, reading, or writing. Introverts recharge introspectively, extraverts recharge extracurricularly. That’s not exactly the correct usage of those terms, but you know what I mean.

My Social Anxiety holds me back mostly with people I know. I’m fine with people I don’t know, I’m not worried about disappointing strangers or of not living up-to stranger’s expectations of me. In this way, strangers are very safe. It’s probably part of how I thrive on traveling and how I can enjoy doing so for a long time by myself.

I know exactly what this issue stems from but I’m not going to write about it today. I will explain how it plays-out though. When back in Toronto I procrastinate on meeting-up with friends. I’ll reach for the phone to call and put it back down letting anxiety win-out. “How was your trip?” someone will ask. I don’t know how to answer that question apart from it was good or it wasn’t. How do I sum-up the myriad of travel experiences into a conversation? My somewhat scattered-mind does not focus in on travel tales to readily share. I generally come-off as well-spoken, but I often feel tongue-tied. I have very high expectations for myself that I cannot live-up to. I will do the same thing when I visit my parents in my hometown in New Brunswick, Canada. This is a place I have not lived-in, apart from a few summers early on, for 22 years. I will like the idea of catching-up with people before I visit, but once I’m there I may or may not let anxiety cancel plans.

What if I’m not interesting enough. What if they want more from me than I can give. What if they end-up calling me too much and invading my space. What if Im just not good enough. I’ll call them later. I’m tired.

And the dreaded phone. It rings, I panic, I ignore it. The first thought that flashes through my head when my phone rings is, “What have I done bad now.” I do not have memory of a specific telephone call that would explain this reaction, but my main feeling on answering the phone is guilt. I am in trouble for something. I have let someone down. They are calling to tell me that I did something bad, or said something wrong, or made some unfixable mistake. After arriving to the UK last week a UK friend posted on my Facebook, “call”. What did I do? I avoided Facebook for days. Did I call? Not yet. His little message exasperated my issue too though. “Please call, can’t wait to catch-up!” may have put me at ease to pick-up the phone. The one word command had me think, OMG what’s wrong, have I offended him? Is he upset with me?

This phone thing is irritating and I am decided that I will “feel the fear and do it anyway”. Eventually I will answer the phone enough times and have enough pleasant, rewarding conversations that the anxiety will disappear. Call display does help, I nearly always feel completely comfortable answering to my Sister or to my Mother. But that’s it. Most other people I am more likely to miss the call, build-up some courage, and call them back a few moments later.

Separately there is the noise factor, I do not have a good filter for noise. If I answer the phone when walking down the street I cannot hear very well, it makes for an awkward conversation. In my car is fine, the blue teeth connect to each other or something (BTW, bluetooth is a Canadian invention) and the speaker is clear. Also, I’d be embarrassed to be “that guy”, the one who is yelling into his cell phone at the coffee shop.

I am not going to accept my phone limitations anymore, I am just going to answer it. When just doing it, anxiety decreases over time. When avoiding it, anxiety increases over time. But it’s easier said than done. It is a flight or fight response, heart rate increases, some people sweat, for me I feel short of breath. I just want the feeling to disappear and the easiest short-term way to do that is to remove the trigger.

I think a common tie of those to suffer from Social Anxiety often involves a past assault to their self-esteem. This can happen simply from being a square peg trying to fit the round holes and finding it impossible. Our culture does not value uniqueness the way it should. “I’m different from the others. There must be something wrong with me,” is a common, completely false, conclusion. How dull would our planet be without the richness of variety that comes from those who do not fit the norm. Architecture would all be straight and box-like. Clothing would still be grey, beige, and dull. Music would never have evolved the way it has. I cannot imagine what the world would look like if it were not improved by those who didn’t fit-in. These are the trend-setters and the record-breakers when they are adults, but their school years can be tragic.

Another common cause to self esteem issues comes from one’s peers. Bullying and teasing can leave scars that causes an innate fear of others. These abuses are generally tied to the school yard years, but their impact on one’s sense of self cannot be overestimated. Again the square pegs are the most targeted, those who stand out as being unique. Too tall, too thin, too fat, too smart, too slow, too awkward; all these are comparisons against the average. People even become embarrassed by their medical conditions, of which they have little or no control and which should not be cause for embarrassment whatsoever, but they feel judged for nonetheless. Acne, skin discolouration, hair loss, mobility issues, speech impediments, a limp, a hump, even having the need for spectacles; again, anything that sets one apart. “Fatty”, “Four-eyes”, “Skinny git”, “Retard”, the list of hurtful taunts thrown about is endless. Individuals may even attach shame to their condition, which is disgusting. Society has failed them. Shame on society.

Racism, sexism, elitism, homophobia; these are things people should be ashamed of. People should be ashamed of judging others, yet the practice is often reinforced. As arbitrary as these types of characteristics are to the value of a person, they can make the person fell like an outsider, or be an outsider, in certain environments.

I was pretty young when I had this realisation. “If I was born into a Muslim family, I’d be Muslim.” “Yes, but the Bible says that you can only go to heaven through Jesus Christ.” “But what if I had never heard of Jesus Christ?” “That’s what the Bible says, so . . .” I had asked my Mother and she had me ask an inter-denominational minister for these answers. I think part of her must know this doctrine is wrong on a moral level so she hoped a minister would have some special deeper interpretation, but he didn’t.

So it would have been my fault if I had not heard of Jesus Christ and I would not go to heaven. Most other world religions are more inclusive. The Christian Church has also loosened it’s stance to allow it’s members to have more liberal views than was allowed when I was a child 30 years ago. They had to, they’d have almost no membership left if they hadn’t. Many do not take the Bible literally anymore, so, what can you take it for? It can be interpreted in many ways to suit the beliefs of the day, and it has. I still don’t understand how a book that can be ascribed opposite meanings on many topics, can be used as an authority. During slavery, verses were quoted to consider having slaves as biblical. Later, verses were quoted to prove that slavery was unbiblical. If it can be interpreted that loosely, how can it be consulted for truth?

Does it not enforce racism to say that one person will be rewarded with heaven and another won’t? Does that not say to a child that one person is better than another? Is there not an understood implication to the little white Christian child that he deserves good things like heaven and his friend Mohammed doesn’t? Even if Mohammed has heard of Jesus Christ, should he not be rewarded for being faithful to his own beliefs, those of his family and of his community? “Not according to the Bible.”

Fortunately, most Christians today seem to believe that there are many paths to God and no longer strictly adhere to their faith’s elitism. Again, what choice do they have living in a modern, multicultural world. I am happy for people to have their beliefs but I am not up-to having a religious debate. Insofar as one’s beliefs do not hurt others, I think they should be respected.

Shyness tends to also be linked to SA. Behind it may be fear. Fear of saying the wrong thing. Fear of being judged. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of not being heard. Fear of not sounding smart enough. Fear of rejection. If I don’t speak, nothing will happen. If I do speak, something bad could happen. People will laugh at me, I will be told I am wrong, people will disagree, people won’t care . . . . . I have little doubt we have some dissatisfied teachers to blame for some of these cases.

I was a very distracted confused little boy during my first few years of school. I remember Mrs.Perkins screaming at me in fury, and I never knew what for. It was always about not paying attention. I was diagnosed with ADHD 25 years later. Luckily I was smart enough to get by without having full attention. And I learned to focus over time. In my last year of Uni. I had career testing in the guidance department. The head of guidance was shocked that I had the aptitude for university based on my scores. “You’re tolerance for study is the lowest I have ever seen for a university student. If you were in first year I’d be suggesting that maybe uni is not a good fit for you.” I took a programme that didn’t require much study, Business Administration. It was mostly just understanding concepts which simply made sense to me. Easy-peasy. Science, history, engineering, not a chance.

It didn’t need to be a teacher’s harshness that caused someone’s shyness, it could be anyone. Parents, peers, siblings, nannies. . . Shyness could also be an innate quality, some babies are shyer than others and grow up to be quieter as well. But is it different wiring that causes a baby to be more shy, or is it earlier experiences? I think certain personalities will have a greater propensity to become shy, but I don’t think it’s tried and fast. Given these circumstances vs. those, one is likely to become shy. Combine that with one’s innate characteristics would compound that likeliness. But I don’t think that shyness is fixed for most people who experience it. It definitely feel like it is fixed though.

Shyness is another condition that can spiral. The more you don’t speak-up, the harder it becomes to speak-up. And when you do speak, your anxiety is so high that you cannot properly find the words or think straight. This makes for another bad experience and the shyness is reinforced. It is so much easer to speak when you are feeling calm, or at least secure. I had my years of being shy but something happened that I broke out of it. I’m not going to write about that right now, another time.

So it was I found myself walking towards a pub in Birmingham with a group of people who suffer differing forms of Social Anxiety. Yes, I am one of you. Don’t judge me by my appearance, my struggles may just be more hidden. (Originally I wrote “my flaws”, which is how SA tends to feel, but “my struggles” is more accurate.) This is not a flawed group, this is a gifted group whose struggles have given them extra compassion and empathy. These are people who make the world a better place.

_________________________

My next meet was an organised pub quiz at a worn-in neighbourhood pub. This group are in their 20s and 30s, so I am at the very limit of inclusion. The pub is located in the Jewellery District so it’s also a chance to venture into that central district to see if it will be a good place to continue my stay after my hotel. The hotel is fully booked from Monday, May 13th so I will have to make a move whether staying in Birmingham or not. There is a flat-share near to the pub that is on my consideration list.

A fifteen-minute walk from Victoria Square and where I am staying at present, I encounter very few people on the streets. Except for in specific pedestrianised zones, which are plentiful but concentrated in the city centre, this is not a walking city, at least not from what I can see. When going any distance at all, walking is a bit cumbersome. A sidewalk ends and now I need to illegally cross a thoroughfare to continue on the other side. Or I could back-track to use a pedestrian subway or an overpass, but I won’t. Some narrow streets have no pedestrian space whatsoever. Sidewalks are called “pavements” in the UK, but I won’t use that term in my writing because to North Americans it sounds like it would refer to the street surface, which is pavement, rather than the sidewalk, which is cement.

I stand at the full bar counter waiting my turn to order a drink. The crowd moves slowly because this pub offers cocktails that look pain-staking in their preparation. Six or eight pints could be dispensed in the time it takes to prepare an elaborate beverage of 5 or so different measured liquids, shaken with ice, and then strained through a sieve into a glass that was just chilled by first filling it with ice water for a moment. The crowd intently watches the slow progress of each drink in anticipation of their own turn. A tall slender woman approaches the bar from outside. She is clearly scanning the room for a group so I ask her if she is here for the meet-up. She is.

Hana settles at a table so we don’t lose the last one available while I wait for our drink order. Back at the table another fellow arrives, a 20-something guy who is very good at pub quizzes, so it turns out. Four more guys trickle-in and the quiz has commenced. A page of faces we are meant to identify, I do not even recognise the Canadian, Alanis Morissette. A page of word puzzles, name-that-tune from looking at some written Lyrics, name-that-record looking at album cover artwork. “Those three must have been CDs because they are completely unfamiliar to me,” is my only feedback. I saw so very many record albums when my former partner and I would visit record shows and sort through thousands while buying hundreds for making clocks and melting into bowls that we sold at our stores. Not an interest, I only learned what I needed to so I could recognise our hit-list when sorting through boxes and crates of vinyl. But, there was a different hit-list in Canada so I may have been incorrect in my helpful advice.

The group holds-it’s-own, placing among the top few groups. No thanks to me, I was not key to a single correct answer. Any answer I did know, others also knew. I’m not a fountain of knowledge when it comes to trivia or pop culture. I share with the group that I used to co-own some pop-culture stores. I express my surprise as to how many people bought things like Angry Bird pillows, t-shirts, hats, games, pens. When I finally tried the game on one of my niece’s iPhone, I was shocked. Really? Why do people buy all this crap? Most of the games and such I never did try or see so I can only assume I would have been riveted. No, probably not.

The game ends and we have tied for third. I take my leave and walk out onto the street and make my way home. Back at the hotel I get a message, “Hana has your money.” Apparently after I left there was some sort of re-judgement. People with their smart phones verifying answers and questions using google had found a discrepancy and I guess we were right somewhere previously considered wrong. “I have £15 for you,” Hana enotes to me through the meet-up system. Not really deserved, I’m thinking, I did keep a seat warm at the table but I cannot possibly take any credit for being part of the winning team. If I make it to the next one I can use my winnings to buy a round for the first few people who arrive. That’ll be fun.

______________________________

With less than half of my time in Birmingham now completed, this will be continued. My next positing will be much more focused on the sights and will contain less introspection.

Below is a short video of some pics I took around Birmingham. If you receive this posting by email, click on the image and it should open the story in a browser where you can see it play.


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Thanks for reading!
Darren

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