Riyadh: Saturday 7th July 2012
We were not actually discussing me, but my partner, Marina (Name altered).
Ken and I are colleagues and friends of long standing (albeit he is considerably more senior within our organization than I am) and I was staying with him in Dubai during last week, while I awaited completion of one of a succession of visa processing issues.
Two years ago, Ken, and another close friend, Chris, met Marina for the first time, during an evening out and still remembers the occasion fondly. Now, driving back from a day at the beach, he recalled it.
“Yes, because before we met Marina, Chris and I had spoken about her and wondered what she would be like. Would she be introverted and into reading like you or would she be some extrovert type who never shuts up?”
“You think I’m introvert??!”
“What I don’t think either of us was prepared for was just how much fun she was… Just a really lovely girl with no side to her at all. I mean just so much confidence just to be herself and yet in no way overbearing. Remind me; how did you two meet, again.”
“Through mutual friends, I suppose you would say… What do you mean, I’m introvert??”
“Well, you know. Don’t take this the wrong way. But you don’t strike me as being a ‘fun guy,’ you know, tending to read all the time and interested in politics and history. I just don’t think we expected someone as lovely with as much… charisma.”
Actually I was not offended. Far from it. I have known Ken for a long time, trust his wisdom and judgment implicitly and he had after all just paid my love a huge compliment, not for the first time. Moreover, looking at it from his perspective, he was right. I mean, okay, I had thought that I was once a wee bit more enjoyable company than that, but all the same, what had I done at the beach today? I had read my book. Had I enlivened the conversation with sparkling anecdotes about what I had been doing with myself or (given the fact that I had been in Riyadh – and therefore nothing of the remotest interest could be expected to have happened to me), filled the day with outrageous indiscretions about colleagues? No. No sintalating repartee. No real conversation in fact. Could it be that I am… Boring?!
I mean I had been concious of a gradual slide inward over the weeks and months but it had never been pointed out to me before. The more I thought about it, the obvious question arose, what on earth does my darling, wonderful, lassie see in me. I mean we talk every night on Skype; she must be bored to tears!!!
Ken’s observations were all the more acute because they were so accurate about Marina who he has met only once. She is the most wonderful person I have ever met: is fun in an unassuming way which charms most people she meets, instantly. I have never introduced her to a friend who does not like her instantly. I love her intelligence, willingness to see the funny side, gentle teasing, and amazing habit of looking beyond my manifest weaknesses and seeing something to love, cherish. She is a tactile and profoundly loving person, yet, has accepted our prolonged absences in a way most people would not. Even if I had not been lucky enough to have been her partner, I would have loved her from afar. I suspect (possibly a wee bit like Ken); I loved her a little within moments of meeting her. And to cap it all she has that feminine trick of being apparently oblivious to the effect she has on people.
But something worries me in Ken’s observations. It is not just that this beautiful, vivacious, sensitive, talented and intelligent woman loves me. The world is full of people who on the face of it seem to beg the question, “What is she doing with him??” What worries me, at least a little, is that I was not always regarded as being introverted and bookish. More specifically, when we met, I was a person whose life was essentially chaotic and self destructive; an endless round of nights out punctuated by early starts, hard work. The culture I inhabited was work hard: play hard. The candle was torched from both ends night after night after debauched night. That was in 2008. The financial crisis was about to hit. It had already started to be apparent if you looked. But the music went on playing for now, and I was up for each and every dance. Could it be that she fell in love with ‘Party Crabbitat’ but now finds herself with ‘Riyadh Crabbitat?’
When we met, I remember courting her with long passionate emails, redolent with the hyperbole of high romance. I fell some way short of composing Greensleeves or a Shakespeare Sonnet, but my emails, from memory, are elevated, optimistic, overblown; hoping to persuade her by sheer weight of prose, that I was somehow true in my sentiments and worth contemplating as a potential partner. Now-a-days, our conversations on Skype, at the end of long hard working days are characterized by the rapid approach of bed-time, the coming day ahead, the petty politics of work, the fact that we remain apart from one another and the fact that we miss each other’s closeness and touch. Ours is a form of hibernation romance: a cold, white blastafter the high summer of romantic courtship with which we commenced our journey.
Of course, much of this is to do not just with who we are as people but with where we were.
The city of Liverpool, where we met, is an architecturally beautiful place, with the port city‘s habit of mixing & attracting together big personalities and big hearts. Its warmth and spirit are infectious and its vistas can be awe inspiring. For a small city, everything about it is big, its soul, its rhythm, its weather, its vistas. It lacks the reputation for romance of Venice, but in many ways the cities share much, not least a maritime history, faded glory and a lively, dramatic people with a strong social and communal bond to the city which bore them. Like Venice, Liverpool is a city of born of love of itself and for itself. Like Venice, it is a city of big talk, big dreams. Who could not be moved by such a place? Who could not be inspired?
Contrast this with Riyadh. The capital of Saudi Arabia is not a city which frequently inspires warm commentary. Elsewhere in this blog, I hope you will detect a certain reserved respect for the city, its inhabitants and its Puritanism. It is earnest in its approach to life and faith, and ritual, intolerant of failure to live up to the expectations it is famed for demanding from its residents and it is a deeply family centric city. Many of its streets are essentially channels of tarmac between high walls, behind which its citizenry live out their lives in familial groups.
This is no port city. Lying at the geographic centre of the Arabian Peninsula, getting here is historically hard work. And for many, living life here remains just that. Channeling a course here is possible. But for most people not ‘of Riyadh,’ the city can be as demanding and harsh a climate, socially, as its summers are atmospherically.
My own response to this has been to hunker down, serve my time, repay the debts accrued by years of debauchery and forget that I was ever a resident of other places. My ritual is simple and where possible, uncluttered. Returning from the world, I wash and press my clothes, take out the booking for my next flight and count the days. I rise early, work long days; close my door at night and watch an hour or two of brain dead TV before my blog or a book, Skype and bed.
My colleagues generally take a less austere approach. There are frequent Barbecue’s at weekends, people congregate for sporting occasions and at the gym after work, some play golf. Yet only one of my colleagues has lasted as long as I have here, and he is soon to leave. The attempts at leading a western life while in a western compound should not be condemned. But there is something unbearably sad about grown men surrounding an out-door stove, eating meat and attempting to pretend that they are enjoying themselves.
Worse still is the atmosphere, when (as happens, periodically), there is trouble in work. During hard or unhappy periods, people work longer hours, are more overstretched, lack something of the perspective which normally exists. And then they must travel home and eat dinner together. Rumors and negativity catch like respiratory infections. Moral suffers.
My response is to be insular and (I hope) stoical. I could be in far worse places, be much less blessed than I am. The complaining is unnecessary and makes things seem worse than they are. In any case are we grown men or homesick children. The time passes and I will get to see my love soon, live a wee bit of life in the days we have together. Ken is right. I am introvert; profoundly so.
But all is not what it seems. This is not the story of the rock star in the monastery. My previous life was filled with entertainments, but was I really more fun than I am now? Was I really less introverted or sad?
Certainly, it is hard to imagine that I was any more interesting. I was out every night, but did I learn square dancing or have a string of romances? No. Was I meeting a wide variety of people? No. Most nights I met the same people I spent my day with. The presence of alcohol made the time pass faster, rendered their company more interesting, their own introversion more slight, their jokes funnier; but in truth, they were the same class of people I work with now, doing much the same job. There was the presence of women, of course, and with them the variety and unpredictability that drives men to affect dynamism and wit. But that made the places I drank more interesting; not me.
And yet, Marina still fell in love with me; still, unaccountably, met my drunken self, suffering a cold, wearing a profoundly unstylish jumper, and tolerated my inflated passion for my job and the city enough to let me kiss her.
Yet the curious thing is that I don’t think I am introverted in her company. On the contrary, I am, for want of a better way of putting it, entirely open with her. I have tended throughout my life not to have secrets about myself for this reason and can be painfully open about subjects which often derive squeamish expressions from contemporaries. About many subjects often still shrouded in polite taboo, I can be quite straight forward. At least, with her, I can. For truth be told, I can no longer say that I share much of my own self with my colleagues.
And the same can be said for laughter. Marina and I do argue. Lost tempers and prolonged realignment is as much a feature of our relationship as any, but it seems to me that I the only time I laugh when in Riyadh is when we are on Skype together.
This last point is perhaps the saddest point I have made about myself. And yet, it is also a testament to my girl, who extracts from me the laughter and happiness, I seldom feel anywhere else, and does so without apparent effort. It is simply by being herself, by having those qualities that so charmed Chris & Ken, among others, that she keeps me in touch with the better, happier, brighter world of tomorrow. I am a lucky man.