Monday, December 5, 2011

Geri, Meet Facebook

With only four days left in Budapest, we are saying our fair share of "goodbye's." Everyday we wake up, sometimes in a panic, and think, "Ok, did we say 'bye' to 'him' or 'her'...Oh! And what about 'them'?" It's as if we have some sort of sick Christmas list where we cross off the people to whom we've bid adieu. Last Sunday my friend Geri came over to wish us well on our journey and share some French press coffee with us. Geri and I have had many conversations about many topics--politics, hiking, European culture--but I never imagined our last conversation would revolve around friendship within Facebook.

Geri and I have been practicing our respective English and Hungarian speaking skills over coffee with each other for almost a year. Since my Hungarian is about as solid as the Euro and Geri is a beginner-level English speaker, we've both needed the practice. But this Sunday, with much-needed help from caffeine, we spoke freely and with ease about what it means to be a friend in Hungary and on Facebook.

"I don't understand," Geri said while shaking his head and hands simultaneously, "I have a friend, I see him on street or at home, why this cyber world?" Hungarians and Americans define friendship differently. The analogy we often hear and use is one of a peach and a cantaloupe. Americans are like the peach: Easy to access on the outside, but once you get to the core it's much harder to break in. Hungarians are like a cantaloupe: There is a hard outer shell that's difficult to break through, but when you do it's sweet and much softer inside. So you can see why, once you're in, Hungarians take friendship seriously and don't call just anyone their "friend."

Given our fruity analogy, it's easy to see just how American Facebook really is. Everyone can be your friend, in fact you can have thousands of friends--the more, the better! You can sink your teeth into everyone's soft outer skin, "liking" their music, movie or political preferences. It's a hyper-extension of the person behind the keyboard who is constantly updating and refining their internet avatar. Just how real is the person you see on Facebook? Well, that's a question that both Hungarians, philosophers and anyone who has ever thought about dating a potential Facebook "catch" has asked.

It's not that Hungarians aren't on Facebook, because many are, it's just not for Geri. "Where is life, it's right here...You and me." Geri was making his point about the present and it's place in a friendship. Through out our Sunday morning coffee date, Geri made his case for "real friendship" versus "hyper-real friendship." It wasn't an annoying or overbearing attack on something new, like an old man would complain about a new street that brings too much traffic through his neighborhood, it was simply an appeal for life to be enjoyed right now, in the moment.

Instead of refining his circle of friends as those who are "close friends, family" or just "coworkers," Geri prefers to cultivate close friendships over coffee, attend family birthday celebrations and get to know his coworkers at work. What I love about Geri's detachment from Facebook is how genuinely real it makes him. When we're talking about how much we love the coffee we're drinking, he doesn't whip out his smartphone to tell dozens of pseudo-friends about it. Whenever Geri celebrates Christmas with his family in twenty-some-odd days, he won't leave the table to tweet about the outstanding goulash his Mama made. Geri is simply here, with his friends and family, not "out there" promoting his avatar on Facebook or Twitter.

Geri has taught me a lot about being grounded. "How many friends do you have in the US," he asked me just before he left. Because I know Geri, I didn't feel the need to impress him with some great number. "Three, maybe four close ones," I answered, constantly reevaluating in my mind the ones I can truly call friends. Geri simply nodded his head, finished the last of his coffee and smiled.