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 I knew of it from translating 19th century French historical documents for a freelance project.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.
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?