Truth be told, I’ve always been curious about speed dating. In sappy movies, it often reunites estranged couples by rekindling old and forgotten fires and forcing them to acknowledge the unenviable choices they might have should they put themselves back on the market. From a contemporary perspective, it seems like a Mecca for twitchy individuals with shaky social skills. So when it was announced that the local expat bar would be hosting speed dating, I immediately jumped on it, not only to uncover the latent appeal of stilted conversation and awkward interrogation, but because the idea of speed dating in the expat community seemed laughable. Here in Cairo, everyone knows everyone and most people have dated at some point. It’s akin to hosting speed dating at a family reunion. My friend Steve put it beautifully: “Ace is doing speed dating? Or is that just how you refer to a normal night at Ace?”
The Cairo dating pool is veritably more shallow than its American counterpart. It’s not so much a pool as it is an ambitious puddle. The expat community may be large, but the number of single, straight prospects can seem dismally low. Of the prospects who are not hopelessly maladroit, there begs another issue. To quote Keyon, who marvelously analogized this dilemma, dating here often seems like a merry-go-round. All the pretty horses have been taken, at some point, by someone else, usually your flatmates or colleagues. Patrick and Keyon, in a blunt and accurate observation, call it incestuous, and in some ways I agree. Expat dating creates a sort of empathy for those 15th century European leaders who dated their cousins because, apart from alliances and social climbing, there wasn’t much of a choice. (Gout, obesity, and an affinity for beheading aside, Henry VIII starts to look pretty appealing.)
This became pointedly obvious last weekend when I hosted True American. Glancing around at the group perched on my furniture, it became evident how limited the dating pool is; of the 10 single participants, almost all had, at one point, dated more than one other person in the room. It’s reminiscent of those old combinatorial probability problems in math; if you have two shirts, three pairs of socks, and three pairs of trousers, how many people can you date before you’re dating your friend’s ex?
On the first Friday in February, I found myself leaving an entertaining rooftop barbecue – and equally entertaining company – to attend speed dating. Loraine and I found ourselves among 18 other women whose attire ranged from elegant to casual/grungy. (The latter was me.) Elegance seemed to dictate the evening, though; the tables at the upstairs trellis bar, usually populated by pool table hustlers and their mistresses, were draped in quaint tablecloths, slightly rustled beneath small glass votives. True to Cairo fashion, the event began nearly 45 minutes after it was scheduled to start.
Instructions were simple: upon entry, we were given two different slips of paper. The first bore an eager slogan along the lines of “let’s date!”, beneath which you penned your name and contact information. I wrote my phone number, a risky endeavor, but many others listed e-mail addresses, Facebook information, fax numbers, etc. The other slip of paper, slightly less optimistic, was filled with the words: “Sorry, I’m just not that into you. Good luck finding your connection!” Each man – there were 15 – would remain at his table throughout the night. Ladies would circulate along a predetermined path, spending a strict three minutes with each bachelor. When time was up, we would reach into our pockets and choose one of the aforementioned slips to place in a black box that rested ominously in the center of the table and move along. As uncomfortable as I felt about conversing, I felt worse for the guys; there’s nothing like bravely putting yourself out there only to find, at the end of the night, that no one was interested. (And, I found out later, at least one of the guys experienced exactly that.)
Sitting down at the first table, it immediately became clear to me that I was just as conversationally clumsy as the men I’d envisioned. My first conversation went as follows:
Guy #1: So, can we start talking now? Or do we have to wait for a bell?
Me: I have no idea. You think we’ll get in trouble for talking? Is that, like, cheating?
Guy #1: (laughing) Whatever! I’m a cheater.
Me: That’s probably not the best thing to say at the start of a speed date.
He was probably the most jovial of the men I met that evening. The subsequent four conversations involved reciting my CV from memory and discussing rugby. One bachelor, donning a trendy scarf, used his note paper to draw out a play he once used to score a try when he played outside center, another highlight of the evening. I spent thirty seconds at one table mistakenly calling a decent-looking Irishman Carol until I realized through his Cork accent that he meant Carl. I also mistakenly called a Welshman English, apparently a grave faux-pas. A medical researcher explained the topic of his dissertation. A visibly nervous Indian man giggled compulsively into his forearm while stammering, “I can’t do this. I’m sorry, I can’t do this.” (I later found out that he called my friend Jen, a chatty Texan, a ‘walking stereotype.’)
Of the fifteen, three of the men were friends of mine, and the relief I felt upon reaching their tables felt immeasurable. Three minute conversations with strangers is hardly as enjoyable as it is exhausting. I gave them each my number in jest.
The night ended with the organizers encouraging us to mingle, but the announcement coincided with the men tearing open their boxes and sorting through the numbers, so sensibly, Loraine and I bolted for the door and hailed a cab back to the rooftop soiree.
I’d like to say that the night ended uneventfully, or that I’ve been whisked away by some chivalrous speed dating Cyrano, but neither would be entirely accurate. For me, the night did end uneventfully; Loraine, on the other hand, had a different experience.
Loraine had arbitrarily decided to give her number to our friend Nick, but not to our other friends, Patrick or Preston. After I turned in for the night, Loraine ventured out to a party celebrating the one-year anniversary of Gringo’s, a Mexican delivery service run by our friend Dave, an ambitious New Yorker.
Loraine is the first to point out that her tactic was “ill-thought out, really. The tactic was to say ‘yes’ to everyone, then I don’t have to feel bad when I look the guy in the eye. What’s the worst that could happen? The worst thing that can happen is you want to leave the venue of the speed dating event ASAP because you realize that you have said that you fancy everyone in the room. And you don’t.”
The Gringo’s party, to Loraine’s dismay, “had 10 out of the 14 men from the speed dating event at it. I was instantly nervous, and with good reason because as I sat down with my first drink, I sensed Nick from speed dating approaching from the side and lo-and-behold- he has my name and e-mail address.”
“Eye contact was dropped, responses to his questions were monosyllabic at best, I might have grunted a couple of times, tried to butch myself up and stick out my belly to appear like a chubster. This apparent lack of interest must’ve perplexed Nick because then he produces the slip of paper from his pocket and cups it in his hand so that only I can see it. To an outsider, he might’ve looked like a dealer displaying some illicit gear or one of those “bad men” who want to show you their puppies in the back of their car.”
“And that wasn’t even the end of my self-inflicted agony. Because, before I decided to say ‘yes’ to everyone I had already said ‘no’ to two guys I knew due to embarrassment and momentary feelings of inadequacy: Preston the Intellectual and Patrick the Hottie. Patrick was at the party and I was relieved, nay overjoyed, that he did not bring up the ‘catch ye later’ rebuff when we chatted about the night’s events. Phew, I thought – Patrick’s cool with it: excellent news.”
“No, Patrick was not cool with it. Patrick just hadn’t counted up his response cards and done the math yet: 13 yes’s and 3 no’s meant that I had to have said no to Patrick and when this dawned on him, he made his feelings clear: “You gave me a no? What the f-, Loraine??” And so, while I was cozying up beneath my comforter, Loraine was frantically fending off suitors and defending her “irrational tactics.”
Moral of the story? Speed dating in an expat community is like speed dating at a family reunion; better be careful who you snub, or you might find yourself left out of the will.