The Girl of Disquiet

Automat
Automat, Edward Hopper (1927)

Earlier this year, I moved to Lisbon for a spring sojourn because I’m no longer bound by geography to earn a living. From living in the Tuscan hills to the Atlantic Ocean, I romanticise and decay with indecision, but transport my mind and body to beautiful places.

It was sheer chance that led me to spend time with Gabriela. Like many associations in the modern era, I contacted her long before we first met. With life now reduced to a game of cards, I found myself chatting to an introverted soul; one who took esoteric selfies and expressed bizarre reactionary views.

We chatted intermittently in the weeks before I left London. I forget that at times – my early characterisation of a moody intellectual unable to fit in. Her grainy self-portraits complemented this narrative. From the comfort of my phone, I found myself forming judgements on the little messages hidden inside each picture.

For there were peculiarities with Gabriela long before I moved to Portugal. Such as why did a beautiful, well-educated Jewish-Brazilian girl have no friends in the city? It might be innately sexist of me, but I always assume that women have more friends than men.

“You don’t know me. I’m a horrible person,” she told me one evening long after we first met. I have always remembered the brutality of those words – the mean-spirited emptiness.

During that conversation, I encouraged her to download the Meetup’s app so she could meet like-minded people. From coding courses to gluten free spaghetti lessons – you can find a group for it.

“You need to go every day, every week for people to remember you…it’s easier to make friends that way”, I implored to her on What’s App.

It was an all too regular topic of conversation looking back. Gabriela eventually found one that she liked – an open mic night – and I hope she still goes.

*

After arriving in Lisbon and meeting her in a Restauradores coffee shop, I met a surprisingly upbeat girl (who could never get to the grips with my Scottish accent) who wanted to see music and lights.

With her Bambi chestnut eyes and effervescent glamour, Gabriela’s phone should have been singing with social invites. It made no sense to me why she spent most of her life on her own.

Only for reasons I could never fully understand, she had a childish hostility to Portuguese people, who didn’t like her because she was Brazilian, or they ‘were all stupid’. Then you had the simplistic admiration for Donald Trump and negative social attitudes that would inevitably upset a young urban crowd if she ever publicly expressed them.

I often wondered if her strange views proved to be a barrier to making new friends – it must be lonely and isolating if your outlook on life does not confer to a common consensus.

*

Gabriela’s Jewish faith was enormously important to her, and she regularly attended the city’s two synagogues until she unwisely got involved with two senior members, whom only had lust in their hearts.

She also used to talk about the SS commander Adolf Eichmann’s biography almost every time I saw her. It sounded like a depressing exercise to me, but as a secular Scottish man with no religious heritage, I could never emotionally gauge in her tribal sense of persecution.

If nothing else, Gabriela had the courage of her convictions and would openly criticise something she didn’t like without hesitation.

*

With insomnia causing her to stay awake until 4 am and her days regularly starting long after midday, Gabriela lived a mostly solitary life in libraries and restaurants. She had moved to Portugal to study Edward Hopper as part of an opaque PHD project and previously graduated as a psychologist in Brazil.

But I noticed she never expressed any love or admiration for the American painter, let alone any other artist or art form. That troubled me. I quickly developed an uneasy feeling there were other forces in play when it came to her studies.

*

As I shifted my belongings across the city from the Alfama district to the buzzy cobbled romance of Santa Catarina, I would randomly meet up with Gabriela about once a week. Like many people in Portugal going out for drinks was not part of her vocabulary – she abstained from alcohol most nights.

Over plates of steamed cod and grilled chicken, we regularly spoke about her desire for friends and the nocturnal sleepiness of Lisbon. She loved the city’s soul grooves but found it immensely boring. Surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, there’s an isolationist romance about living in Portugal’s capital – it feels far removed from the rest of Europe.

Unable to leave the country unless she goes back to Brazil, her loneliness was further compounded by her academic isolation. Gabriela had no peers, colleagues or even classes to attend as part of her library-based studies.

She did have flatmates in her Graca-based apartment, but they provided no companionship at all. Identifying that everyone needs peers as friends, I once suggested that she got a bar job or something. “My father would be ashamed of me,” she stridently told me. “He’s not paying me to work in a restaurant, but to expand and explore my mind”.

I half-suspected her documentary filmmaker father, whom she loved deeply and cited frequently, may have been an overdue influence on her academic career. As I never once detected any ambition from her to teach or write about American realism after she graduated. It didn’t seem to matter, either way, to be honest.

She seemed trapped in her father’s image, a loving daughter exercising his benevolent wishes in a fairy tale land, forever dining alone like one of Hopper’s paintings.

*

I last saw Gabriela walking around the Pantheon complex in the Graca neighbourhood, which I belatedly moved too in April. She said she would miss me at the time but randomly unfollowed me on Instagram a month later.

It must be obvious by now that we had nothing in common. I’m not even sure if she liked me, but in the absence of like-minded friends, we filled the void together. Sitting amongst the city’s jacaranda trees and art nouveau kiosks, just waiting for something to happen.

Rules of Engagement

Until quite recently the number of friends you had on Facebook really mattered. Friendship was a numbers game and anything less than a hundred confirmed you were of a lowly social status and resoundingly unpopular. In order to seem normal then tagged pictures of you drinking Mojitos with friends were vitally important.

Going to a house warming party must be a public event or otherwise people will think you’re loser that never goes out. Friends are social points and likewise so are the stock greetings you receive on your birthday, which are especially poignant coming from the friends you unsubscribed from three years ago.

In bars and clubs people exchange Facebook details as a user friendly alternative to calling someone. With a new media landscape comes a new set of rules and social etiquette now involves protecting your internet history. Adding a date on Facebook is a potentially ruinous move. Sexy pictures of former partners, neurotic status updates and flirty comments will be revealed to a virgin pair of eyes.

Becoming friends online will inevitably ensure you go too far, too fast and if things do go awry you will be a humiliating click away from the recycle bin. A six month probation period is essential before you can even consider adding a new partner on Facebook.

Since people are growing sick of sharing their most intimate thoughts with idiots they never liked in the first place. Private circles are now becoming increasingly attractive. On realising that you don’t want Jakers, Spanner and the pregnant girl from school following you anymore – social media is gradually becoming more nuanced and exclusive. Rules are therefore required.

With Facebook becoming increasingly unpopular, alternative forms of social networking are slowly taking its place. Agenda setting and forming part of the national conversation, Twitter first began as a smug past time for media savvy professionals in London but has now opened up to the public at large.

Dangerously addictive social media has rewired our brains to such an extent that nearly everyone is now prone to shocking displays of mental promiscuity. Books lie unfinished and articles remain half-read, as the mind diverts towards refreshing a laptop instead. However, as our brains are being rewired to suit the net, the rules of engagement are still being defined.

Self -publicists on Twitter ‘retweet’ praise about themselves and this involves resending a comment to your own band of followers. This a massive faux pax in the social media world. Already such behaviour is frowned upon in dinner parties and gastro pubs as incredibly annoying. Therefore let others retweet praise about you rather than be defined by your own slovenly antics.

It is also important to remember that no one outside of your social circle has any interest in what you have to say. Like the gold rush of the Wild West, the people who made the real money were those selling the spades, not the poor souls digging in the wilderness. Twitter has thus become a narcissistic ponzi scheme full of link exchanges and diversions that people rarely (if ever) pay any attention too.

Social networking remains an illusionary stage and while it may lack authenticity it certainly has transformed almost every aspect of our daily lives. With old media rendered obsolete, breaking news is no longer announced on the BBC or Sky News but on Twitter instead. Falling behind the curve is particularly embarrassing online – like when people tweeted about the death of Amy Winehouse three hours after it went viral in Uzbekistan.

Again like retweeting praise about yourself, announcing old news as an OMG exclusive is not good practice and with over 300 million users worldwide there are plenty of news channels to choose from. If failing to keep up with a modern news cycle is understandable then tweeting #RIP tributes to dead celebrities is certainly avoidable. Empty tributes to movie stars, actresses, sportsmen you had previously shown no interest in won’t reflect well on your brand.

A new social contract is slowly being formed and shedding a few dimwits from the friends list and refining your manners will benefit everyone in the future. Our generation ability to shape and control the rules of engagement is an essential learning process for mankind, as social media will have a huge impact on our future relationships, friendships and personal integrity too. Something that will prove essential when brand building narcissists discover they are nothing but mere noodles on a graph.