By Jacques Tocatlian.
The Farewell Party.
Around The World In Eighty Missions.
My farewell party is the last and, therefore, the most recent event which took place during my life at Unesco. And yet, it is a most foggy and confused recollection. The latter part of the evening is especially blurred, even though the party keeps haunting my thoughts. It all happened as in a dream.
I had joined Unesco in 1965, at the age of thirty, which meant that I have spent half my life, and certainly the most significant years of my adulthood, with the Organization. I met many people, visited many countries and learnt many things in those years.
As a tribute to my contribution to the organization, my colleagues decided to have my farewell party at the time of the Unesco General Conference. This biennial conference usually brought to Paris a large delegation from every Member State of Unesco, representatives from the United Nations Agencies, directors of all the Unesco regional offices, observers from a number of non-governmental organizations, journalists and many personalities. Quite a crowd.
My colleagues organized the party in our Division offices and sent out invitations to everyone I knew who attended the Conference. I distinctly remember the beginning of the party, but the latter part is in a mist.
The Assistant Director-General came up at the beginning for a quick drink and made a warm speech. He described me in very flattering terms and highlighted some of my achievements. He said that after thirty years of duty I would be free at last, I would discover the joys of independent life and of being my own master.
I also remember that some colleagues had asked what were the most outstanding lessons I had learned during my missions around the world.
“I have learned many lessons,” I replied, “but the one that stands out is the fact that cultural differences can be a major cause of misunderstanding,” and added, “Many problems among people could be avoided if we had a deeper understanding of other cultures.”
The discussion – the only serious one we had for the evening – drifted to the very notion of culture and the issue of cultural misunderstandings.
Culture is the logic by which we interpret the world around us. The prism through which we see, and often judge, others. We learned this logic, as children, from the way we were raised, taught, and loved. From the games we played, the stories we were told and the songs we sang. From the way adults around us spoke, worked, bargained, expressed affection, joy or pain, and the manner in which they behaved towards their parents, their own children and their neighbors.
Thus we absorbed the tacit rules of our culture and then forgot that we had learned them. They became a deep-seated part of us. For the rest of our lives we shall tend to look at the world, and judge people, by reference to these rules.
The more we learn about other cultures, the more understanding we become. If, on the other hand, we believe that our own cultural rules are absolute and universal, we tend to be intolerant.
My international audience agreed with the message. They dwelt on the subject and exchanged specific examples. One of them referred to the unspoken signals and non-verbal signs and codes of each culture, which are naturally understood by people from the same group, but are often misunderstood in intercultural contacts, thereby making communication more difficult.
Some General Conference delegates began to drop in. I was very pleased to see each one of them, chat and have drinks with them.
After a while my mind began to show signs of confusion. My memory, that storehouse of the mind and guardian of all things, faltered. A sort of veil descended on reality and every person and object around me became somewhat unreal. Had I taken a drop too much ?
I asked my Secretary what ardent spirit she had served me and she replied, “From the cocktail that Mr. Massaringhe had sent for you.”
I had not been told that Mr. Massaringhe had sent any cocktail and I never found out what the wicked mixture was made of: the last enigma of my days at Unesco. What was clear though, was my state of intoxication. I was not myself any longer. I was not upset. I was not hilarious. I was simply serene and completely unconcerned with the world around me.
Now, visitors followed each other, as I searched every corner of my brain and the inmost recesses of my memory to figure out who was who. Among the many smiling faces I recognized Mrs. Annika Thomasson from Sweden, elegant and dignified; followed by Mr. Arianayagham from Sri Lanka, who spoke in a monotonous cadence and very soft voice; and Mr. Fassi-Bakkari from Morocco, majestically imposing. Each one called to mind a specific event. A flash from the past.
“Oh, yes Mr. Kharalambos, I remember you taught us how to roll grape leaves at Sir John’s dinner !”
“Hello Mr. Russell, how is Borobudur ? I shocked you during my visit, didn’t I?”
“Good evening, my friend Takahashi. I am happy to see you. I trust you did not bring along Professor Earl Ray Clark ! Ha. Ha.”
“Good evening, Mr. Andreansen, I’ll never forget beautiful Tivoli and your good jokes !”
” How nice to drop by Mr. Mabungu. Is Veronique Maina with you ?”
I was then called on the phone. I walked there very slowly and carefully, so that my gait would not betray my intemperance.
The voice on the phone said, “This is Bacchus bidding you farewell!”
“Who is this?” I asked several times.
“Bacchus ! The Romans call me Bacchus and the Greeks call me Dionysus !”
After a long silence I hang up, having recognized Massaringhe’s voice. I was not upset. Neither was I amused. Just serenely detached. On a cloud of my own.
There was Mrs. Indira Bahtia, chairlady of the Bangalore meeting, tall and lean as a stick, straightforward and abrupt. I was surprised to see her and, was tempted to tell her the story of the Kama-Sutra I had purchased for Brigitte after the meeting. I had it on the tip of the tongue but, fortunately, refrained from doing so.
I was ever so happy to see smiling, efficient Sharifa from Egypt! We exchanged a few gossips and chuckled about Mr. Van der Meer, the Assistant Director-General, who had made such a fuss in Cairo.
“Hello Mr. Perala. Nice of you to come. Please, have a drink. I have such good memories of my visit in Finland.” And as he talked to me my mind wandered. I had a mental vision of Merja, Helena, Ulla and Eva running naked towards the outdoor Sauna. Good old days !
At the door appeared husky Boris Tikhonov, Director of the New Delhi Office, with his wild beard and formidable eyebrows. After all these years he still wanted to know what had happed at the Taj Mahal Hotel of Bombay.
Then followed in a procession M. Brown from the UN in New York, whose ‘English’ Secretary was from Oshkosh, Nebraska; Mrs. Schläger from Austria who had given us the Linzertorte recipe at Sir John’s dinner; Mr. Larry Thompson from the World Bank, with whom I had gone shopping for Zeinab’s dress in Morocco; Mr. Ricardo Villambrosa from Argentina, who had spoken of France in such exquisite terms; Ms. Pringgoadisurjo from Indonesia, whose name I had never succeeded in pronouncing, and always greeted with an anonymous “Hi there!”; Dr. Mitsuo Harada from Japan who had taught me how the art of reaching consensus; my good old friend Giovanni Spaghettini, Mr. Carlos Leon-Robledo, our jolly Mexican Diplomat, and many others whose faces time had erased from my thoughts and whose names Massaringhe’s diabolic drink had dismissed from my memory.
Then came Brigitte who, at fifty-five, was still slim and attractive; Françoise, who was now a young lady of twenty-four, my brother-in-law, Albert, with a couple of champagne bottles under his arms, and Aunt Lily, in a stunning outfit, saying that the place smelled like a winery.
As we chatted, Igor Panushkin from Leningrad – which had now resumed its former name of St. Petersburg – came in with a bottle of vodka. Françoise and Brigitte inquired about their guide, Olga Ananiev, while I asked if stunning Tatyana still looked like Sofia Loren.
Then, Miguel Moustique from Mexico made his appearance… tall, slim, all in black, like Mephisto. Since this was his first visit to Paris since our Mexican trip, he brought for Aunt Lily a huge box of exchanged gifts. “More chamber pots ?” asked Brigitte.
All this procession of people I had met along the many traveled roads raked up the past and stirred up memories. Missions and countries were passed in review; discussions, negotiations and speeches came back to mind; meetings, anecdotes, laughters, dinners and cocktails flashed in my mind in some sort of dreamy sequence. Present and past intermingled. Reality and fantasy melted in a comfortable mirage. The Farewell Party must certainly have ended at some point. But I do not remember exactly how and when. In many ways, the party still lingers in my heart, the parade of friends and acquaintances continues and the show seems to go on for ever.
Copyright © 2000 by Jacques Tocatlian
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