A Place to Stay, Finally!!!

Said stood outside with a mock sign clung to his chest. My name was scribbled onto the piece of paper with an obvious attempt to try and keep the spelling correct. I smiled in relief to be out of the airport and to finally see the person who had been waiting for me, A young man 5’10” of medium build dark hair and tanned complexion. Beside him was an older man, whitened hair and significantly shorter, his look however, was as though the burdens of the world had hit him all at once. His face was of irritated relief when he saw me, Said’s was a smile to complement mine.

After greeting him, he laughed and handed me the sign as a momento while mentioning the difficulty he was having in spelling my name, “I wasn’t sure how to spell it,” he said. Jokingly I responded that one of the many attempts were perfect and we proceeded to the taxi.

The taxi was a small black motor complimented with a lick of white paint, it was an old eastern European car of comical fame. We squeezed ourselves into it and continued on the last leg of my journey, finally I was on my way to my new home for the next six weeks. Said tried to encourage some small talk out of me and for most of it I responded with smiles and short brief answers. With the night surrounding me, I couldn’t absorb too much of the scenery but it mattered little, lethargy was already creeping in alongside disinterest. I had been travelling for alot longer than anyone had anticipated and it was getting the better of me.

Finally I arrived at the building with relief, my travelling for the day was over! On entering there were stern glances followed by one person scuttling off into the kitchen, as if intending on not being seen. He was busy eating; time waits for no man we say in England, neither does food I say. Despite the stern looks I was adamant that I hadn’t moved into a hostile environment I smiled and greeted my new flat mates. Said introduced formally me to them and we sat down for an introductory chat.  As I parked my bottom on the purple sofa, it sucked me in much closer than to the floor than I wanted to be and commenced with a little more small talk. I told them all about my episode in the airport if only for sympathy before moving on and discussing my studying arrangements.

Everything seemed to have been done right at the last, but it didn’t matter to me because I had somewhere to stay that night. The friend of a friend based in England had done a lot of work to get me into this building and as I appreciated those efforts immensely. He also prepared the classes for me and I became aware throughout our conversation that Said was not just an errand boy, but my teachers younger sibling. If he was my point of reference as a character witness for my teacher, then I was already delighted and anticipated our meeting.

I learnt a little later that the reason for the stern glances upon my entry were largely due to the fact that I was so much older than everyone else. One particular guy, in fact the person who narrated story to me, told me that he was worried that I may compel others to act with a little more maturity. I understand their inclination to act like children when doing their frat-style thing but I’m not the compelling type, so the reason for his worry was unfounded. On the contrary, I think if anything I actively encouraged them to nurture their child-like spirit from within themselves. My justification for that is that it’s a damn site better than acting like you’re some type of untouchable, connected gangster. In East London, I’ve seen way too many of these unwarranted claims to notoriety. In a time when people tend to liken themselves to animals, wouldn’t you much rather see someone being a bit of an ass rather than a dawg.

The apartment itself was a little dusty for my liking but I couldn’t gauge too much from the dim lighting. The yellow undertone of man-made lighting does little to compliment much at all but then neither does my incessant idealism. I wasn’t expecting the Burj al Arab, after all I wasn’t paying that kind of money but I did want relative comfort in parallel to what I’ve become accustomed to. If that includes a clean carpet, unstained furniture and a little customised feng shui, well so be it. I knew my slightly obsessive compulsion to clean and rearrange was going to be needed here.

The bathroom floor was laden with hair, not because I was living with a bunch of Neanderthals who were shedding hair faster than a Michael Bolton self-styled reinvention. It was because the cleaning apparatus, namely the mop had been around a little too long and was full of all manner of things. The tub hadn’t had a good clean in a while and its regular green colour was hidden behind the stains of dirt. I had, up until that point, ambitions of having a good soak in the tub to waste away all my pains from the journey. Obviously, my hope diminished after seeing ingrained dirt(makingingdi more emphatic).

The kitchen was like a grease factory, the walls, the sink, the cupboards and the cooker all attracted oil and fat with a magnetic affinity. The utensils piled into the sink for use when necessary, typical of a student flat.  In fairness all my flat mates were fresh out of university so carrying those traits across was always going to happen. They didn’t exactly do much to combat the stereotypes and I mean that in the politest possible way, because they are absolutely golden.

That night a mattress was laid out for me in the three bedroom apartment. I was going to sleep in the living room right beside the purple sofa that worked more like a Venus Flytrap. Occupancy was already at its optimum of three; I had drawn the short straw but only until the next room had been vacated, that was to be two days later. Those two days out in the living room would have me curl up into a ball on the floor from sheer cold, but it wasn’t exclusive to the living room- the whole country experienced this amazing chill.

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My First Encounter with Disorganisation

Nigh on 30 years of age and I still can’t kick the habit of playing with trolleys. It’s fortunate that I look 16, so my immaturity is attributed to my youthful looks rather than a bearded, balding man with the map of London on his forehead. They aren’t common attributes of a young man on his way to college, so it’s surprising that even with all that I still look 16, well nearer 20.

I released the brake of the trolley and scooted off along the corridor, swaying wildy to the left because of rusty wheels that have never seen oil in their life. As a side point, you’d think that as strange since Arabia and oil are almost of synonymous with each other. My journey is a hundred yards but it’s difficult to master art of trolley-pushing given the lack of service they’ve had. A full ten minutes later, having had cascaded through other people like a drunkard 5 times over the limit , I reached the end of my destination and the end of my tether. I look behind me to see luggage scattered over the floor with their owners lying beside them. With a characteristic shrug, implying that I am oblivious to carnage behind me, I park my trolley right in front of the belt- an approximation of its actual location.

Belt number 3, it read. Immediately I’m surrounded by three men in blue boiler suits muttering some gibberish to me, this time my shrug fails to do the trick. Instead they become more adamant in harassing me. Had I been a lady in a low cut dress, hiked up to the upper part of her thigh, I couldn’t imagine more aggressive persual. Finally, I made them back off by giving them a stern “no!” Like you would give an undisciplined child. Miraculously, they smiled revealing their charred teeth and departed with a few more mumblings of gibberish and lingering breath.

Another twenty minutes passed as I waited for my luggage; the belt was turning and spitting out random pieces of luggage that belonged to others. Luckily for them my trolley wasn’t that close, though I had an inkling that it was possessed like something out of a Stephen King novel with a desire to wreak havoc. The thought passed with yet more time, I would probably have finished the  said novel an hour in waiting, but I was to wait a further thirty minutes before I realised my luggage wasn’t coming.

The gang of men in boiler suits started to remove the remaining luggage off the belt in preparation for the next batch. The luggage was randomly stacked beside the conveyor belt, I perused through the pile for my suitcase but despite it being bright orange and yelling, “Here I am!” I couldn’t find it. It was around about this time that I realised that my feet hadn’t hit the floor lightly; it was more of a thud, crash, bang and wallop that Batman would have been proud of.

When you can’t communicate in the native language you resort to waving your arms, and I was fluent in gesticulation. Unfortunately for me, it happened to be that Egyptians are a little better at it then I am, so my attempts at prising some information from them failed. In my panic I contacted the one person who knew what to do, my friends, friends, associate. Never one to do things simply, I rang him in order to contact my picker-upper in Egypt. After a few attempts he called back and I proceeded to explain the situation; finally at the end of the conversation he gave me a telephone number. The number had an Egyptian prefix so I presumed it was the number of the guy picking me up. I sent a message, no response.

Eventually an attendant came to the belt, and the small flock of passengers who remained attacked him with questions. Being of a slight frame I was bullied to the back but I understood enough of the distant speech to know what to do next. My mobile phone had been going beserk but the insanity of the moment caused me to miss the calls. Finally when I looked at the phone, I realised I had a few missed calls and a message, skipping the calls I opened the message and read it: “Welcome to Egypt! Surely sarcasm is wasted on everyone, except the British.

This time I left Christine, along with the other abandoned trolleys and negotiated my way through to the front desks. One of these guys allegedly had a speciality in dealing with lost luggage. Two queues formed, possibly one of only a few times I have seen a queue in Egypt, maybe because they were Westerners. In England, bureaucracy is irritating, yet the need for it here would probably be very straight forward. Alas, I was in Egypt, it’s everywhere and ever inefficient. Already frustrated by my inability to control a trolley and speak the language, with a little extra frustration because of my luggage, it reached it’s peak when I realised that the workers had formed two lines but were doing nothing except sitting before us sipping black tar, otherwise known as coffee. I wasn’t the only one; some voiced their concerns about waiting so long but the remarks were met by another sip of coffee.

During this whole facade called administration, I was texting messages to the person waiting for me outside. It struck me that I didn’t even know his name yet but neither was I in a mood to ask. He had already been waiting a good three hours and I was spending most of the time apologising and promising that I would be outside in five minutes. He was a pleasant man, I could see that when reading the messages he was sending in his broken English. My mood was lightened considerably by his reassurances and quips about the lack of organisation. Had it not been for my dear friend Said, I fear my temper would have boiled over.

While waiting in one of the two pointless queues, the ever relaxed workers decided to get off their backsides and work. We were given a piece of paper to fill in, it looked more like a landing card. I filled in the details as required until I got to Place of Stay, I didn’t actually know yet and when I phoned Said, he told me he didn’t know either. That worried me, I mean what was the point of the pick-up. There was actually nothing to worry about, he knew the place, just not the address, but I still needed to fill the sheet in. The next message was an address and when I asked him about it, he said it wasn’t sure if it was correct but it’s good enough. Baffled, I scribbled it into the sheet along with his telephone number and forged ahead of the now disorderly queue; I lunged to submit the form to the desk.

In waiting, I met some great people in the queue. A mixed bunch from many countries but I was surprised by the amount of Eastern Europeans who decided to travel to the country. Our conversations consisted little of social niceties and more on berating incompetent staff in our feeble attempts to drop hints to the workers. Most of the comments, passed right over the their heads.

A full ninety minutes later, we had progress. They had given me a reference number to quote to call the following day, meaning that it wasn’t likely that I would be getting out of my sweaty garb any time soon. I prefer not to calculate how much time everything took but if I ever need motivation to fight someone, all I need to do is to count the minutes of that whole ordeal.

Looking back, those damn Italians, they always seem to screw things up with other peoples luggage. Italian baggage handling and Egyptian administration is really a deadly combination.  My first experience of human rights abuses occurred on day one of two hundred and ninety, Amnesty International were due an email. Rome, in summer 2007 really made people take notice of baggage handling in Italy and I had first-hand experience. That saga though, is yet to come.

No Thawbs

My Brother in-law took me to the airport with a small entourage and my wife. My big orange suitcase, recently purchased from my market (lb of bananas type) trading friend, summoned everyone to attention. “Here I am” it screamed, just in case I couldn’t spot it from a country mile on the luggage belt at my destination. I booked it in along with myself, onto the flight and was ready to depart after saying my goodbyes.

The flight was already delayed, emergency maintenance work meant that connecting to my flight in Milan would require a little urgency from me. Ever the athelete I was always willing to urge the Linford Christie out of me. On boarding the flight to Milan, a mid-sized passenger jet, I noticed a tanned gentleman, chiselled features, shoulder length brown hair and very smartly dressed. He looked familiar and I swung my head over to look at him, my glances slightly reminiscent of a cartoon character. It was only when I sat down that I realised, “bloody hell, that’s Leonardo!” For those of you not in the know, Leonardo is a Brazilian footballer, incredibly talented and painted with medals every player dreams of. He’s more famous in the USA for a stunt en-route to winning the World Cup in 1994. A perfectly timed elbow that smashed into the face of the unfortunate oncoming USA defender, Tab Ramos.

I proceeded to scan through my phone. Guess who I’ve just seen? Leonardo! I wrote, without deciding who to send the message to. For records sake, I sent it to my friend who sold me the suitcase, but in retrospect I don’t know why I sent it at all. I’ve never really been fascinated by personalities, or so I admit to myself. Regardless there’s a small piece in most people that makes them say, “oh.”

Leonardo, great player.

The only other person of note that I saw on the flight was an Arab looking gentleman. What caught my attention wasn’t the fact that he was Arab looking, I mean in fairly recent politics, Brazilians can get mixed up for being Arab looking (I’m referring to catastrophic incident involving the late John Menezes- may he rest in peace). It struck me that he was wearing the biggest Cowboy hat that I had ever seen but what made it more ridiculous was that the aisle wasn’t wide enough to let it fit. It was straight out of a spoof western, exclaiming with a hint of John Wayne in it’s tone, “This aisle isn’t big enough for the both of us!” I didn’t care much about him because the less attention I had as a young, bearded gentleman travelling to Egypt, the better.

The other thing about the term “Arab-looking” is that what the person is really trying to say is terrorist. Except of course in the above event, the sentence doesn’t flow if he’s terrorist looking. You wouldn’t tell someone else that there’s a terrorist looking person, in that event, you would either scream or take flight. How many times have you ever read or heard a witness claim that there was an Arab-looking gentleman looking suspicious? I mean come on it’s not just bizarre, it’s just a slighty ironic more politically correct way of saying, terrorist.

Back to my story. In Milan, I did my impression of Linford. Leonardo had since departed, I think city has a greater appeal for him than Cairo. I rushed on board and the flight was ready to go. Here we go.

With the basic luxuries an little leg room on the most economy of economy tickets I strapped in ready to greet Egypt. Looking down from my window seat made for interesting viewing of Egypt, there was obviously an incredible amount of sand and a severe lack of greenery. The hugely impressive Nile River was, well, exactly that- impressive. Above it all though, the sun shone down and I was eager to arrive and have my feet on the ground. I’m not the biggest fan of flying though I know more people die on the ground than the air, but there’s something uneasy about being 10000ft in the air, we’re just not meant to be there.

We landed at 3pm, bang on schedule. In the end, the flight was jittery and I had got yet another headache courtesy of it, but I didn’t think of it as anything ominous. Instead I was quite the optimist when my feet touched the floor.  The only real problem I faced was the slight delay in landing in transit at Milan.

“Alhamdulillah,” I thought to myself, “I’m in a Muslim country.” At that point, my feet touching the floor felt relatively light, everything was proceeding normally. I had heard many things about the human rights abuses that the Egypt has stained on its hands, but never considered me likely to face anything of the sort. To date I’ve been fortunate enough not to have experienced anything like it but this red/burgundy/maroon (whichever you prefer) passport I hold, can miraculously metamorphosize into an get-out-of-jail card when required. I’d like to quote the South African diplomat, when he raised his papers aloft and screamed to Mel Gibson, “Diplomatic Immunity.”

Anyway, that aside here’s some background. I wear random clothes. Probably nothing appealling to many people except myself, I’ve been told it leans slightly towards the effeminate side of things. Though still this side of stiletto heels and a handbag, I’d say random describes it best. Sometimes shalwar kameez, jeans, khakis or whatever, occasionally I also wear thawbs.

Exact recollections of what I was wearing that day is a struggle for my memory, so for the record lets just say track pants and a stunning-red football shirt with a Matchroom emblazoned across my chest. Looking all the bit Chav and not the slightest Egyptian, I worked my way through the queue and purchased my visa stamps ready to collect my luggage. Like clockwork…

Inspired!

Long before I got married, fresh out of my 20th year I became fascinated with learning languages. The peak of socialising and the pinnacle of communication is being able to speak a list of different tongues. So English can probably be likened to be the most popular in politics and business, Spanish is one of the most favoured given that it is spoken in most of Latin America and of course the ever popular destination for many holiday makers, Spain. Cantonese/Mandarin, due simply to population, the most widely spoken, then there is French, spoken in many parts of mainland Europe and in Africa.

My fascination wasn’t necessarily with anything European, or the more commonly used and slightly racist term Modern Languages- as long described in the English National Curriculum. Neither was I very inclined towards the two main dialects in China, it was much too isolated for me. Some years later, the fascination with Cantonese would change for two reasons, at the time my obsession with Jet Li and other older on-screen kung fu legends didn’t whet my appetite enough. The first spark of fascination was instigated by a colleague who had lived in Hong Kong. Originally from South India and a dab hand at making a hot curry, I was amazed the first time he broke out into conversation in fluent Cantonese. Initially, I thought it was an inappropriate joke, but as he carried on I realised he was dishing it out like a deck of cards. With his conversation over, he turned towards me to see my jaw on the floor; as I slowly lifted it he smiled.

“He insulted me something,” he said, turning back to continue with work as though nothing miraculous had happened. Yes, miraculous! Call me naive and stereotypical but an Indian guy does not speak Cantonese, us guys from the subcontinent are more than content with three hundred and something languages that have proliferated from Mother India.

“Yeah,” I thought, “’insulted me something’ doesn’t even make sense!”

Not much later, the main reason for my fascination came like a bolt out of the Red, White and Blue, my wife. Half Chinese, half Punjabi, a mix you’d equate with a pregnant womans meal, nothing short of bizarre. She’s from the USA but I never inclined myself towards becoming Yank. Stranger than that is the fact that she speaks more Spanish or French than either of her inherited tongues, the Spanish is fine because she’s from the sunnier side of the USA. I don’t understand about the French but the British never have done.

Cantonese is reputed to be a very difficult language to learn, and I’m sure you’d understand my lack of motivation take that particular route if I were to add that I’m not much of an academic. So obviously I wanted to try learning a totally different script, I already knew a little Arabic, I could read it, albeit badly. I enrolled into university for a second time to try it out but I knew ultimately that the best option is to travel to learn it. The only gremlin bugging me, was the one asking whether or not I could cope being abroad for so long. I was married by this time, the ink hadn’t even dried on the marriage certificate but I knew that if the two of us really harboured a passion to travel, then we would have to travel this time around rather than later. How many other opportunities would we get? Neither of us quite wanted to start a family immediately so the timing was perfect, at least for us.

Most foreign experiences are golden, some come to the fore more than others but on the whole you treasure them all. The fact that you only remain in that place for a short period of time, usually not lasting more than a fortnight, clouds your judgement. So a couple of weeks in the sun-soaked beaches of the Algarve, even with all the reddened beer-guts, suprisingly makes for a great holiday. Above that time period though, you tend to notice a few cracks in the woodwork, it’s not intended- you’ll just happen to notice it. At first you’d give it the cursory glance, then as they begin to explode in front of you, the tongues incline toward a few choicer words. I mean, you’re far from being stuck in four walls and fenced windows, but nevertheless you feel imprisoned. Homesick.

Beer guts on the Algarve aside, there are a plethora of things that help in the decision making process for a holiday. Take me for example, I decided with the Missus of course, that we should learn Arabic. Now, that doesn’t sound like much of a holiday but since I had already signed up for a five year sabbatical from work, it sounded relatively pleasurable- so I imagined. Ah yes, I forgot to mention that this is a five year (working/studying) holiday.

So the motivation is Arabic, the duration 5 years, the place? Well, there’s only actually a handful of places to go. I had heard about an institute in Southern France, highly academic with super results, filled with boisterous young folk, fresh from college or university, packed in dorms. Ten years and a wife too late, I decided on immersion so I scanned through a map of the Arabic speaking world. It actually spoke more like a map of notoriety; military coups, human rights abuses, poverty, Janjaweed etc., etc. I decided on the better of the evils, Pharonic Egypt- well, actually it was the cheapest and most accessible but we’ll stick to the former.

I impulsively purchased a ticket and prepared myself to leave the following week. The advice I received was short and shrift, a stern warning to clip my beard, not to join Al-Qaeda and not to adorn anything Islamic, like a Thawb, a Gulf-Arab garb, now synonymous with Muslims. The wife was due to leave 6 weeks later while I kick my heels in Cairo and learn some Arabic. Suitcase packed, ticket in-hand and thoughtful about the advice given to me, I commenced my journey to sunny Egypt with a little fear.

No tears shed here, I’m a man after all. It’s good to get away.

The Wotsits Conundrum

Twenty five years back, my Old Man used to work in a cash and carry near Aldgate station. Occasionally I’d be taken there spending a few hours running around the store while he would work in the office out the back. It was a good place to spend your time playing hide and seek, but it never lasted more than a few moments, my father would halt our fun with a very effective neanderthal grunt. He didn’t need words to express his distaste, we knew what that grunt meant.

On one of these trips to Aldgate, I weaved my way through a few steel shelves and into the confectionery section. A kid in a candy store needs little tempting to start devouring boxes but I was always reticent to invade the jars of boiled sweets because of the consequences of my action. I could have lied and accused the mice, but I doubt these skilled-sweet-loving-nemeses would be able to negotiate the glass jars as i could. Having had said that, I wouldn’t be lying- on the technicality of being nicknamed Moynul the Mouse. Like I said, I didn’t do much than contemplate.

Some years later, I watched an episode of QED about the dietary-behavioural connection, it doesn’t sound like the most engrossing TV but I assure you it tantilised the brain cells. I’m not discussing that though, what I will mention is that they asserted that children are either given pocket money to satisfy their carnal desires to pig out on junk- or they are provided with junk by their parents. I’m partial to the latter but in my childhood, I always wanted the money to spend on shit food. I think I’m compensating on that lack of tuck-shop money by spending thriftily on kebabs- so declared the evolution of junk. Anyhow, we were stocked with junkfood straight from the cash and carry.

Getting back to my slalom run in the cash and carry, I noticed a big yellow box and beside it was an orange one. They were cornsnacks- crisps. The name of these crisps were: Thingimejigs and Somethingbobs or other. Now I know now, as I knew then that these were rip-offs of Wotsits but we weren’t well-off folk so dad opted to buy the cheaper version similarly and just as bizarrely named. The irony of it was that although they were cheaper, we used to consume much more- much, much more in fact. Clearly Wotsits were enough of a success to copy and rebrand into budget versions with budget tastes. Cheetos have tried and succeeded and thingimejigs have since been replaced by corn puffs/snacks etc.

But what on earth is a wotsit? Is it that enigmatic? Who cares!?

Every time I have a packet- and that’s still quite often, my fingers are covered in a cheesy orange residue that I’m obliged to lick off vampirically. And it’s not only that, I become accustomed to having 3, maybe 4 packs at a time. It’s more “once you pop you can’t stop” than a tube of Pringles. A trigger in your head summons your hand towards that metallic, glistening, taste-preserving pack like the archaic, matt orange packet never enticed you to. I hate the urge, but I’m always overwhelmed. What’s in a Wotsit that makes it so addictive, according to the anagram, it’s a Sow’s tit.

Yum, then. (?)

The England Anthem- Jeering

We do like a good goading of the opposition, the irony is that we the Great Nation invented football so that others can excel in it. But I guess we can say the same about rugby, cricket and hockey? It’s a welcome treat when we do stop the others from singing anymore just so we can taunt them with our sardonic statement of the obvious: that they aren’t singing anymore. We aren’t bothered that we’re winning, in fact we’re more likely to be delighted that the opponent is losing! The ironic cheer is a shriek of contentment that reverberates across the plains of Bodmin to marshes of the Geordie-land when someone fails to fulfil the simplest task. Neither can we help ourselves except that we must admonish them for gracing the pitch with their heathen, yet often mesmeric talent. A short, shrift “boo” is saved for our own but an elongated, violent thrust of the lungs, “BOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” tickles and tantilises my funny bone until I’m obligated to wipe a tear. I’m not sure if it encourages the foe or tames them into submission but nevertheless it’s so fun.

Its like sticking your index finger into someone’s temple repetitively or playing a Bette Midler song while someone is trying to relax. And you do it just to entice a reaction from your victim.

It becomes bizarre when a person decides to do it to their own; that is baffling. Yet it’s never quite as emphatic- a short prod rather than a fully extended poke. Is our self induced destruction meant to be some form of reverse psychology that only we know and understand? Because the booing of John Terry vs Egypt in his post-Brigde-Gate saga was hilarious yet he still shone as a beacon of promise in an otherwise dismal English defensive performance. Ok so the rules of “enigma” may apply here but we do love to hate our prodigal sons.

Now just imagine that this Freud-like theory actually encouraged our players, we calculate our boos to be long enough to say “You idiot!” and short enough to say “we love you” but never both short and long enough to mean “we love you, you idiot!” Anyway, what if it works and they improve- then what? Do we sit there in our smugness and think “I did that, I made him better- part of that 200k he’s earning right now is because of me.” No, we boo him more- not to get him to squeeze every bit of blood and sweat out of his body- but just to let him know “you’re an idiot.”

On the other hand, when it fails and they get worse we were always right- he was shit anyway, right? At this point we are allowed to cuss, take for example Theo Walcott- he was a pile of shit on Wednesday night.

And this is my point.. all this to justify that Theo Walcott is shit.