Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Dinner with a Narcissist

Last Saturday, my sister had organised for two pairs of her friends to meet up with the potential to create a new friendship. The other idea was that one of the couples owns a boat and the other couple miss sailing so, all being well, they could sail together.

My sister went all out, buying beautiful fish to grill and making fabulous salads. I helped her by taking loads of broad beans out of their pods, making a roasted yellow and red pepper salad with anchovies and generally being the sous-chef.  We prepared most of it at home and then transported it to her friends' house in downtown Toronto. 

This couple are in their late 60s and quite wealthy. They had spent 15 years living on a yacht sailing in the Mediterranean and were missing sailing now they were back in Toronto.  I had met them briefly at the opera a few weeks earlier and noted that the husband was the sort of man who makes bad jokes when he's uncomfortable.  

We arrived at about 6pm and started to organise the food. I then went out and joined the husband who had made us each a martini (a very good one it was too). It turned out he was a fount of information about the history of Toronto and I really enjoyed learning all of this. I thought it would turn into a lovely evening of good conversation and new friendship.

About 7pm, the other couple arrived.  I'll call them T&M. Immediately, the wife, M, noticed we had had martinis and I thought it was pretty clear that she wanted one too but our host chose not to hear that and served us all a glass of champagne.  Our host had that week had eyelid surgery to correct a problem where his upper lids were starting to droop so much they were obscuring his vision. He looked a bit like he'd been through a few rounds in a boxing ring.  As it happened, the husband, T, is a doctor who works ringside at boxing matches on occasion.  He make a quick joke to our host about his eyes. All seemed well.

We sat down to dinner after crackers and cheese, champagne and get-to-know-you-chat.  All very nice.  Jacquie and our hostess dished up the food while I stayed at the table joining in the conversation.

After a while, it became more and more apparent that our host loved the sound of his own voice and was starting to usurp the conversation and making it all about him and his exploits, experience and knowledge. Indeed, he is knowledgeable and was interesting before the dinner when the drinks had not yet started to flow.  As the dinner wore on, it was getting harder and harder for anyone else to get a word in edgewise.

I was sitting beside T, an older man, clearly warm and thoughtful who exuded a curious sex appeal, despite his bulk.  Our host somehow brought up the subject of a well known impresario in Toronto who, after years of enormous success, had been found to  be a swindler and who had extorted large sums of money from various sources.  Our host had had dealings with him and his business in earlier times when he, our host, had been in investment banking.  He took some pleasure in describing to us how he and his company had taken this extortioner for a financial ride.  At one point in the conversation he referred to this swindler as 'tall'.  Immediately, T&M broke into the conversation to refute that. Being a neophyte in the world of Toronto social life, I  had heard a bit about the swindler from my sister before this dinner. I noticed right away that the way T&M were refuting our hosts statement that the man was 'tall' had an air of insider knowledge.

Eventually, T managed to get a chance to say something and told our host that this swindler had been intimately involved in business with T's father!  At that point, it was clear that our host had trampled on T's sensibilities. Well, it was clear to me, to T, to my sister and to T's wife.  It was not clear to our host and hostess, however, as our host launched into another long story about the swindler and his character while also mentioning a certain cabinet minister by referring to her as 'fat Eleanor'.  At this point, I could feel T bristling beside me.  He sighed, huffed quietly to himself and was clearly about to walk out the door. What stopped him, I don't know.  Politeness, I would imagine.

Eventually, after having to sit through another half an hour of our host's monologue and dismissal of anything T or his wife said, T got up, ostensibly to go to the lavatory and, when he came back out, signaled to his wife that it was time to go.  I could feel their relief.

After their goodbyes, all seemingly amicable to the hosts, our hostess said, while smiling at her husband, that he should have realised when T said that the swindler had been a close friend of his father's, that it was time to shut up.  Our host replied that he felt he could say what he wanted about anything he liked and didn't much care if anyone was bothered by it.  As my sister and I were trying to leave, he started to tell us horrendous Irish jokes, in a Hollywood brogue...

The next day, we called M to see how T had taken the whole thing.  She laughed about it but said that her husband as appalled at out host's lack of sensitivity and his boorishness and it would be a cold day in hell before he would invite the man onto his boat.  Then, it got even funnier. It turned out that 'fat Eleanor' was a relation of Ted's too!  We laughed about it but both my sister and I were disturbed by what had happened.  

Later that day, the hostess came over to pick up some medicine for her husband and we discussed the previous evening as she was leaving. We had both thought that she was coming over to have a debrief about it.  When we told her that 'fat Eleanor' was a relation of T's she laughed about it. She seemed to have very little understanding of the impact her husband had had on poor T and M, let alone me and my sister.  

It was only later, while deconstructing the evening, that it became clear that she had to do that in order to survive living with a consummate narcissist and alcoholic.  I had wondered, at the time, why she had done nothing to stop her husband's headlong assault of his guests.   How she coped living on a yacht with him for 15 years is anyone's guess.

It is clear to me that this man is deeply insecure, despite his intellect and experience.  He makes bad jokes to cover his discomfort and then rules the conversation and doesn't give a damn about anyone else's feelings or opinions.  The classic narcissist.  Very sad really as he has a lot to offer.

Needless to say, T&M won't be seeing them again any time soon.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Growing Old Disgracefully - The Only Way to Live

As many of you know, I am currently in Toronto with my oldest sister, Jacquie. She lives in a nice apartment not far from the centre of the city in an area with lots of restaurants and shops so there's plenty to do.  I have slowly adjusted to life here and the different rhythms, all of which have been immensely good for my general mental and physical well being.

Jacquie and I seem to fit well together - despite having only lived together briefly when I was a child as she left home when I was 9 and had spent much of the previous years at University and working.  We knew we had a lot of common interests and have spent many short stays with each other over the years; when I was living in California I used to come to Toronto fairly often and stay a few days; Jacquie has met up with me in California, New Orleans, Spain and Morocco on occasion and we've always had a great time.

Jacquie, my wonderful sister

We imagined we would work well together in close quarters and, indeed, that's how it's turned out to be. We both have a similar sense of order and similar rhythms with food. We both wanted to lose weight and get more healthy and fit so we eat very carefully and well and we go for long walks in the nearby ravines. We've been to operas and concerts, dinners and explorations, museums and shopping.  We have enjoyed it all together.

We laugh a lot, play Sudoku (although I have to make sure not to leave my Sudoku book in the bathroom as she's quite likely to steal it and finish the one I was working on!), watch First Talk, a TV program made for the aboriginal community in Canada or The National, Canada's main news program.  Jacquie is a news junkie so the radio is on every morning and we can barely speak to each other at breakfast as she is riveted by whatever they're talking about. So I read the Globe and Mail.  I now know more about Canadian politics than I do about Irish politics, something I have to remedy when I get back to Ireland.

On the whole, you can tell, we're very well behaved and responsible people.  Last night I went out to dinner with my niece, Sinead, who treated me to a wonderful all-you-can-eat sushi meal nearby.  We solved all the world's problems and then I walked home to close out my email and head to bed.  Jacquie had gone over to her friend Marie's for dinner.  At midnight, I switched off my light and drifted off to sleep.  I woke up a 1am and saw that the light was still on in the hall, which meant Jacquie wasn't home yet.  Oh well, they must be having a nice time but it is quite late, I thought.  I drifted off again and woke up at 2.30 and she was still not home!  Now, I was getting worried. She and Marie are in their 60s so I was having a hard time imagining them staying up till all hours.  I tried her phone but, as usual, she either did not hear it or the sound was switched off.  I didn't know what to do.  I stayed awake for a while worrying and then decided that I would give a bit more time.  

I woke up again at 4.30am and went to the loo and saw she was home at last so went back to bed and slept in as I had not had a restful night.  In the morning, I could see the funny side.  She was very apologetic but also giggling about a) that I was worrying about her and how nice that was and b) how it was like worrying about a pair of teenagers who had gone out and not said when they'd be home.

Once I got over my worry, I thought how marvelous it was that two women of a certain age, intelligent and full of beans, were staying up till 4am, talking about life, the universe and how to solve the problems of the world, all the time taking small nips of brandy.  It's nice to know you're never too old to stay up late, drinking and talking and generally behaving disgracefully (by some people's measurements anyway!).  

We had a great laugh over the whole thing and now I know, if she's not home by 4am, not to worry.  She said she's hoping she's still doing it in her 80s.  Right on,sister!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Maya, Maya and Warriors

Yesterday, I was trawling around the web, doing some research on my father for my memoir, Silence and the Black Wolf. I thought I might find something interesting someone had said about him.  Mostly, I found what I always find, site after site with listings of his mostly out of print books.  I decided to go a little further on Google and go past the 2nd or 3rd page of the search.  It was worth the effort.

I found Maya Alexandri. I saw my father's name mentioned in the search blurb and wondered who she might be.  What I discovered, on her blog, was that she has written not one, but two pieces about my father's book, Warriors

Maya Alexandri

Warriors was originally part of a bigger book called Warriors and Strangers. One part was about his time in Somalia in WWII and the other part about going back to Kenya after many years away.  After his death, it was re-published but only with the section about Somalia. 

Gerald Hanley drawn by John Huston, dedicated to my twin, Una

I read the blog post with great interest.  It was well thought through and well written. The gist of it was that whenever she reads books that describe fascinating but awful places, she immediately wants to go there.  Indeed, Warriors describes Somalia after the British had taken over from the Italians. It was not a place anyone would want to be. His descriptions of the privations they suffered; not getting their rations, cigarettes, alcohol and food for weeks on end and how that affected the 'askaris'.  He describes an almost mutiny when they don't get their monthly ghee ration.  During the time he was there, 7 of his fellow officers committed suicide.  That said, his description of the place, the people, the suffering, the grandeur is riveting. 

Warriors is also a book about colonialism and the paternalistic attitude of the coloniser towards the colonised. It is a damning indictment of what colonialism has done in Africa.  If anyone wants to know why Somalia is in the state it's in now, read Warriors.  In fact, it should be mandatory reading for anyone thinking of invading another country.( You know who you are!)

I wrote to Maya.  First of all, her name is Maya. That caught my attention. Then, her surname is Alexandri.  All you have to do is add and 'a' to the end and you have the city of my grandmother's birth.  She's a writer, someone who gave up a law career to pursue her dreams. When I wrote to her, I thought she was in Beijing.  This morning I got an email response from her.  You'll never guess where she is now, writing another book.  Kenya.  The coincidences are piling up here.

My mother was born and raised in Nairobi. She lived there till she was 36. My father spent from 1934 to the outbreak of WWII there and was then posted to Somalia and later to Burma.  My two sisters lived there till they were 10 and 12.  My father has written several books about Kenya, novels mostly.

I love synchronicity like this.   I sat here this morning wondering what it might mean. I am pretty sure it does mean something but I don't know what.  Why has my path crossed hers?  Why has she written two pieces on Warriors?  Two very thoughtful pieces.  Here they are:

Ready for the Shovel  and Of Wisdom and Imperial Ambivalence

I have not gone any further into her site yet but it looks like she's written about a lot of authors.  Her own novels have not been published yet, despite DM Thomas personally helping her with her first one.  

More and more, events and research are leading me back to Kenya.  It's highly likely that Maya and I might meet there next year.  Wouldn't that be interesting?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Living in Toronto

I've been here now since March 15th.  I've done more socializing here in two months that in two years in Dublin.  My sister has an active social life revolving around museums, theatre, opera and various esoteric things. I have had to finally say that I need to focus on my writing but the call of the social life is strong!

Toronto is a wonderful city.  It has a huge series of ravines going right through the middle of it which gives the city an area for hiking and exploring second to none.  When you're down in one of the ravines, you forget you're in a city for a while.  One day, we were walking the Moore Park ravine close to where we live. The trees were in full leaf although still almost fluorescent green and very juicy and alive looking.  Suddenly, a deep rumbling started from somewhere and got louder and louder. I could not imagine with it was as I looked through the trees to see what it might be. It sounded like an tornado arriving or perhaps a VERY large animal.  It turned out to be a train! High above us was a bridge. We had to strain our necks to look up, it was that high.  The train rumbled over, a reminder that we were indeed in a city.  I had noticed the bases of the bridge when we had walked past earlier but had not looked up and registered how amazingly high above us it was. The colour of the pillars blended in with the browns and greens in the woods so it was easy to even miss the whole thing.

Toronto is the most culturally diverse city in the world. I can really see that. I meet people off all hues, religions, walks of life here. It is so different to the US.  For starters, I don't get asked every day where I'm from and then have the rapturous response to my saying I'm Irish.  No one events comments on my accent. I must say, it's nice to blend in and not be the topic of a ten minute conversation every time I meet someone new!  Having an accent here is not seen as strange since most people have some sort of 'foreign' accent.

The Canadians are also very friendly and helpful.  I walked to the supermarket the other day to get some groceries. I had a small backpack on to carry the purchases and, when I arrived at the apartment again, I discovered that I had lost my key wallet with my ATM card and my cash, as well as the organic broccoli I had just got for dinner. I raced back to the market, praying all the way that some kind person might have picked up my wallet and keys, especially.  The guy giving out samples of something at the door said he hadn't seen it.  I was on my way in to the cashier and mentioned that I had also dropped my broccoli and  he said 'Oh, was that you? We put that back on the shelf'.  The cashier recognised me right away and said she had my wallet and keys. She had tried to get my attention as I was leaving but had a big queue of people to contend with and couldn't leave her station.  She very kindly took me to get my broccoli back too!

Small gestures like that gladden the heart. They were all as friendly as the Irish are supposedly famous for.  

I took the subway for the first time last week.  It was easy, fast, clean and not very crowded.  Imagine that! 

I love that you can find just about anything here. Any kind of food, clothing, art, books, information. The huge mix of nationalities means that the whole world is at your feet here.  I am only scratching the surface of course and hope to have more interesting things to write about as the months go by.

This evening we're out for Japanese food with my niece and nephew and other friends.  Another lovely evening to look forward to. 


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