Somerset Maugham & Sophistication(?)

Sometimes life just doesn’t work out the way you hope. But sometimes, it really, really does.

When my husband and I first visited Thailand in 2015, I was jumping-up-and-down excited to drop in at The Mandarin Oriental Hotel Bangkok. Famous for its Author’s Lounge–a posh tea room set alongside the Chao Phraya river–this now-five-star hotel was a haven for literary greats like Joseph Conrad and W. Somerset Maugham in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In fact, playwright and composer Noël Coward once wrote about The Oriental:

“There is a terrace overlooking the swift river where we have drinks every evening watching the liver-coloured water swirling by and tiny steam tugs hauling rows of barges up river against the tide. It is a lovely place and I am fonder of it than ever.”

Contrary to what my husband will tell you, I don’t have superstitious notions about sipping tea where literary geniuses once sipped, no expectation that this will imbue me with their brilliance. But I am a huge literary fan-girl (i.e., nerd). And so nothing was going to keep me from visiting such a place when it was a mere cab-ride away.

Except for the massive renovation project that had the Lounge closed during most of 2015.

I was extremely a tad disappointed. I was sure I’d missed my one opportunity to visit the Mandarin. After all, what were the odds we’d make it back to Thailand a second time?

So, given those circumstances, perhaps I can be forgiven for my obstinate insistence that we visit the Mandarin during Thailand Vacay #2. There was no way I was passing up my unexpected second chance to clink tea cups with the ghost of Joseph Conrad.

In life, reality often fails to meet expectation. But this, dear readers, was not one of those times. From the moment our cab pulled up to the Mandarin, I couldn’t stop smiling. I barely restrained myself from asking the doorman, who was dressed in 19th century English-style garb, to take a novelty snapshot with me. (My focus in graduate school was 19th century and British empire-related literature, so this kind of thing is my drug.) But I don’t play as fast and loose with my husband’s dignity as I do with my own. So I tried to show some decorum.

The Author’s Lounge itself fulfilled every hope. The 2015 renovation, in the Mandarin’s words, was meant to restore the Authors’ Lounge, part of “the heart and soul of this world renowned hotel… to its classic late nineteenth-century design.” Not having seen the Lounge pre-renovation, I can’t attest to the before-and-after effectiveness of the architectural makeover. But I can say that walking into the Authors’ Lounge of 2016 did feel like stepping into a luxurious 19th century tea house… only with the very welcome addition of air conditioning. The color scheme was white and green and dark wood, trimmed with fresh orchids and huge glass windows through which sunlight spilled to illuminate the cool interior. A pianist and violinist unfurled flawless, tinkling melodies. The air was faintly perfumed with something like vanilla and spices.

I was so instantly wooed, I’m pretty sure I floated to the table to which we were shown.

I ordered the Oriental Afternoon Tea Set and the Happy Queen green tea, all of which was served in delicately painted porcelain dishes and a sleek glass tea set… laid out by a Thai waitress who had more grace of movement in her pinky than I have in my entire person, probably cumulatively across my entire, clumsy life.

Surrounded by such elegance and beauty–as well as photos of authorial VIP visitors to the hotel like Maugham and Conrad and John le Carré and Noël Coward, many of whom penned their works in the very place where I now sat–I was feeling downright ethereal. But there was also an underlying, amusing sense of unbelonging. What was I doing here, this unsophisticated surfer girl from South Texas? I kept experiencing flashbacks of myself post-surf session, hair frizzed out from sea salt, probably with seaweed between my teeth. Then there were the memories of myself, elbows-deep in a deer carcass as I helped my father field-dress it…. Or that many one time I peed in the woods at my family’s ranch because it was the most convenient place to take care of business.

There was no way I was actually fooling anybody into thinking I belonged in this swanky spot, right?

I thought I was the only one laughing at my own masquerade. Then my husband leaned over and confessed the same sentiment. Being of an encouraging sort, I immediately disagreed:

“Of course you belong. You’re an American diplomat. It’s as appropriate for you to be here as it is for anybody else. And I’m a diplomat’s wife. We totally belong.”

Even as I spoke, I decided to agree with myself. That logic’s pretty solid, right?

With new swagger in my steps, I got up to take a few photographs of the Author’s Lounge (using journalism/blogging as an excuse for snapping fan photos.) I was feeling pretty triumphant as I gathered my snapshots, enjoying the excuse to survey nooks of the lounge beyond the one in which we were seated. I even found some welcome writing encouragement in a framed quote of Somerset Maugham’s:

We do not write because we want to; we write because we have to.

That’s right, Somerset! You tell ’em! I was heartily agreeing.

And that was when I realized that the subconscious thought running in the background of my brain, beyond the conscious confidence that I belonged, hiding behind my hearty concurrence with Maugham’s writing wisdom, was a refrain that went a little like this:

Man, this is some classy s***.

Which was my first–and irrefutable–clue that I was perhaps not so classy as my title of “diplomat’s wife” might imply.

Turns out you can take the girl out of deer-butchering-surf-tousled Texas, but you can’t take the messy Texas out of the girl.

But it sure was fun pretending.

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