A party: the ambassador, the Arabist and instant invisibility

The odds are fairly unlikely of naming an island so remote than it’s a pin-dot on a map of the South Pacific — 1,000 miles southeast of Tahiti — and meeting someone at the cheese plate who says: “I sailed past there once.”

The island is Mangareva, in French Polynesia. I knew of it from translating 19th century French historical documents for a freelance project. My cheese-plate-sharer turned out to be a sixth generation Caucasian Fijian, the nation’s ambassador to the United Nations, a tower a few blocks north of the party.

Mangareva Island, Gambier Islands
Mangareva Island, Gambier Islands (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course!

Somewhat pneumatic after six weeks of illness and no exercise + a gluttonous vacation, I felt ill at ease amongst the 20-something women, all of them as thin as praying mantises. Manhattan women are almost terrifyingly, uniformly lean, their thighs the size of my forearms. It’s hard not to feel intimidated, outsize and unattractive in their midst.

I sat beside a man in a pink oxford cloth Ralph Lauren shirt, wearing a Cartier watch on his left wrist. He began our conversation by warning me that he is deaf in one ear, so we would have to adjust accordingly. As one always does here, I asked if — like our hosts and many of the guests — he, too, was a journalist.

“I’m a bad guy,” he replied. Cool! The ambassador had already told me about his four-day prison term and later house arrest. What had this man done?

“I work on Wall Street.”

Yeah, that qualifies.

We shared memories of Corsica and had a great time, his gentle modesty refreshing.

Then a woman, a fellow freelancer for the same paper, and I started talking. Ego, beware! There are few moments more deadly than the “So, who do you write for?”  which is really a whole new fresh hell of potential insecurity and one-upmanship. What you really want to snap is “Google me!” But you can’t.

So she told me all about her four fancy steady freelance gigs, (to my none), and I began to feel very small. Then a friend of hers showed up and I was instantly, after an introduction, invisible as they heartily reminisced about their recent Caribbean vacation.

I edged toward the door, in the narrow hallway, where I started talking to a young woman about some astonishing meals we had recently eaten. Common ground!

She teaches Arabic, which struck me as amazing and exotic and one hell of an accomplishment. Somehow we got onto the subject of church attendance and discovered we both attend Episcopal churches — and that you just can’t talk about religion in New York because it doesn’t do what everyone expects of you — prove that you’re (just as) rich, connected or powerful. It was a rare opportunity to talk about spirituality in daily life, as lovely and unlikely as discovering a stranger with a shared knowledge of one of the Gambier Islands.

Have you been to any good parties lately?

21 thoughts on “A party: the ambassador, the Arabist and instant invisibility

  1. We had a karaoke party at my dorm Friday night. I wanted to do stand-up because only three or four people were actually volunteering to sing, but by the time people were deciding they didn’t want to sing anymore, people were also cleaning up and leaving.
    Oh well. I got to sing a love song and then asked a friend of mine to be my valentine as a joke. It was kind of cute.

  2. Good god, that sounds unpleasant. Most of my parties these days involve small children, so I’m usually a giant in the room anyway and as I long as I can giggle about the word booger, all social awkwardness evaporates.
    I was at a cheese and wine-tasting party once where my blue collar roots wanted to send me screaming for the door. And I love nothing more than the question of “what do you do?” I answer very smoothly. Um. Uh. I’m a writer-business manager-work at home parent-rebel without a cause. But thanks for asking (#$@$%).

  3. Avoid them at all costs. Cannot handle large social gatherings… especially those where there’s nothing to do but… be social. Ugh. I rue the day I actually have to attend a networking event, although I imagine they are invaluable to a freelancer?

    1. I was surprised to find (after a rough week) how little stamina I had to be social that night. I do enjoy parties, but the ego-wrestling piece of it is so totally tedious. I love hearing other people’s stories and I was delighted to meet the Arabic teacher, who I liked very much. At the last part we attended, a huge Xmas party, we met a few people I liked a lot as well. As someone whose daily life is virtually monastic, I crave human contact!

      I do go out, occasionally, to networking events. At this point, my work is well enough known that I don’t need to do it with others as much as I do it one-on-one with others with my level of experience. I don’t have the time or energy to waste (rude but true) on random people anymore.

      1. Good point you make about working alone and craving human contact. I had forgotten about that. As an office monkey for many years, all I wanted to do outside of work was retreat in my cave and not talk/speak to anyone, which was why camping holidays were so great – weeks of being in the bush and emerging only when you needed fuel/supplies was good medicine!

        My idea of a good party is having a very chill time with 3 or 4 good friends. I have enjoyed meeting new people in the past month or so of being a bum, and it’s been good for me, but still prefer it en masse. I’m a lousy party attendee 😀

  4. I loved this piece. Felt like I was slinking around the party with you. Gatherings of slick, successful people without a hint of sensibility make me sad. At some point I got the idea in my head that delicacy, perceptivenss and care were prerequisites for success, at least in the field of writing. But it is not always so.

    1. “I got the idea in my head that delicacy, perceptivenss and care were prerequisites for success, at least in the field of writing. But it is not always so.”

      Bwahahahahahahahahahaha. Ooops, sorry. 🙂

      Yes, in theory, and quite true for producing the writing at home or not in the company of other writers. But I usually hate being around other writers — it’s all-ego-all-the-time as everyone jostles to make sure you know how Very Successful they are, (like I care.) The insecurity is gross and lifelong for all but the fortunate few. It’s really toxic. I keep meeting people who have to tell me, within a sentence of hello, that they have a best-selling book. (As if I don’t read those lists. We all do, gnashing our teeth and rending our garments at the unfairness of it all.)

      If you want to be a successful writer, you need an armor-plated ego, a ferocious agent (that you like and trust [good luck!]), and an utterly unshakeable conviction that you actually have something to say that others might want to hear. No kidding. Talent? That, too, but much less essential in my (weary) experience of this industry. Better to know how to meet and charm the Powers That Be…

      1. I don’t think an armour-plated ego is a good thing for a writer to have. If your ego is incapable of being dented, you are not receptive enough to the world around you. Perhaps you will have more commercial success but your writing will suffer. And for me a successful writer is one that writes consistently, thoughtfully well.

        I’ve had the pleasure of meeting quite a few commercially successful, unassuming authors though. Their writing always seems to sit best with me. I think when it comes to my own writing I have learnt most from the humility of others.

      2. Let me separate what the world of American letters requires from the personal…I agree with you that someone unable or unwilling to listen to their editor(s) and readers is not necessarily going to produce good work. But, sadly, I have seen too many humble/talented people trampled by the loud/slick/Ivy League educated/self-promoting crowd. Talent and humility are personally charming and, if you can carve your way past the others to commercial success with that, terrific. I see a lot here I find disheartening, and “unassuming” rarely gets writers the $$$$ they need to live, not merely survive.

        Those who can are fortunate indeed.

  5. My husband and I showed up at a dinner party recently with no idea how many might others might be there. No mention had been made of other guests when we got the invitation by phone and it wasn’t until we saw the table set for twelve instead of four that we realized it was going to be a proper dinner party instead of the little get together we’d been expecting. Our host’s only instructions beforehand had been to wear wellies or something to protect our feet.

    It was a diverse group and so interesting that I barely stopped asking questions long enough to eat the small amount of food I’d put on my plate.

    I wrote about the big surprise of the evening in a post on my blog, but then you’ve already read this one, Caitlin. http://giftsofthejourney.com/2013/02/01/hazards-of-being-a-curious-explorer/

    You’d have loved this party, Caitlin … the people were interesting and humble with a bit of quirky thrown in.

  6. I loved that story! It felt Downton Abbey-esque to me somehow…

    We generally let guests know ahead of time how formal or large our party or dinner will be. I’m not wildly accommodating of menu preferences though; unless you have a severe allergy or utterly loathe a food, we’re cooking it. I once served salmon and had a guest and her husband turn up their noses at it. They have not been invited again since…

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