Thursday, 28 October 2010

Cultural Diversity

It's been a bit of a strange week. Culturally speaking.

My husband had cause to travel to Saudi Arabia this week, which just happens to coincide with half the rest of the world who travel there to attend the Hajj (no he hasn't converted to Islam - not yet anyway). So, I try to check him in for his emirates flight and it is 'temporarily suspended'. Hmm. So I call Emirates who tell me that everyone just needs to check in at the airport. At the airport it is discovered that the A380 has a headache and can't fly today and is being replaced by its older brother the 777 which means that 150 passengers won't be travelling to SA today. Hmm. The ensuing crush around the Emirates check in desk says a lot about Middle Eastern and Far Eastern culture. In the Uk you get signs in such places which ask you to queue this way or that. Here, you imagine that if there were a sign, it would simply say 'queuing strictly prohibited'.

My husband apologises to his 'not-experienced-in -the-middle-east' travelling companion for the rudeness he will now embark upon in order to ensure they get a seat on the plane. By the time they get on the plane, the travelling companion is well versed, and indeed able to engage in, the kind of rudeness expected on such occasions.

So, the plane now consists of a handful of business travellers and 298 hajj attendees. This becomes evident as soon as the plane takes off and five Imams walk up and down the aisle chanting from the Quran. It is reminiscent of that song we used to sing as children, 'you can't get to heaven in a biscuit tin', as all of the passengers repeat the chant after the Imam. All we need now is a guitar and a quick round of Kum-By-Ah and the nightmare will be complete. The cabin crew adopt the necessary glazed expression, as almost every passenger presses the call button repeatedly to ask for food or a drink, or an extra pillow, or...

You see in my culture we queue, we form orderly lines, we communicate in hushed tones using terms of endearment and polite words. We have manners. Out here, these things just don't exist. And what's horrifying is how quickly the manners you are accustomed to dissipate like smoke in the wind. Before you know it you are as rude as everyone else. But isn't this part of the integration into another culture? The ability to blend in - a bit like switching from speaking one language to another. The dialogue of cultural expression in our body language and mannerisms becomes attuned to those around us.

Cultural diversity makes for an interesting life (and interesting blog entries) and these things are chalked up to experience, good or bad. Living out here enriches those experiences, and I'm grateful that I have been given this opportunity. Let's hope that the journey continues for sometime to come.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Reading Emotions

I have always been emotionally affected by what I'm reading. Perhaps this is because reading is a way of life for me. I hate that 'just finished one book and haven't yet chosen the next one' feeling. If I'm not reading a piece of good fiction, I feel completely bored and really don't know what to do with myself.

Over the past week or so I have been trying to read Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. It was shortlisted for the booker prize (didn't win though) and it's possibly one of the most depressing books I've ever read. So, I've been in a bad mood for the past week: as if I've been forced to watch a bad American movie. The novel follows an American family - particularly focusing on the mother: Patty. She's one of those people who Dante confines to the first circle of Hell: the apathetic. Throughout her life she settles for second best and so the narrative follows her not-very-interesting-or fulfilling life for 600 pages. I made it to page 268 and thought that MY life is too short to be reading this.

So, I thought I would suggest a few books to read when your emotions call for them. When we need to laugh, cry, get nostalgic about the past, or think of home here are some books you might want to consider:

For insomnia: Clarissa by Samuel Richardson (undoubtedly, the best novel ever written, but in terms of racey plots, its a sleep inducer)
For a good cry: The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor (heart rendering, get a box of tissues before you start)
Need to remind yourself of the Green and Pleasant Land: The House at Riverton by Kate Morton (or any of her three novels: lovely, Daphne Du Maurier type stuff)
A Good Murder: A Cure for all Diseases by Reginald Hill (or any of the Daiziel and Pascoe books)
A blast from the past: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (Victorian deceit at its best)
Something to read with a cup of tea: The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency (heart warming, lovely stories)
And just when you think you are nostalgic for a bygone era think again and read Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.

And finally, for a good laugh, my favourite book of all time: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend. This is a panacea - whatever you are feeling this will cheer you up. This is the book I read to cheer myself up, to remind myself that I was a teenager once or just because I love it! With this to hand, my reading emotions are always in check.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Life's Equations

When I got in from work yesterday my daughter asked me to help her with her maths homework. It was algebra. Now, I love algebra but it's been a while since I took GCSE Maths, so all I can say is thank the Lord for Google (oh and the BBC website Bitesize). so, we got there in the end.

But the whole equation maths thing got me thinking about how you can write equations for pretty much anything. I have been feeling really tired lately: lay-your-head-down-on-your-desk-and-fall-instantly-asleep tired. But I am not sure what the cause is. It could be the MS (but unlikely in view of the recent MRI scan), it could be PMT, it could be working full time, it could be that I still haven't recovered from getting shitfaced at the girls night out last week, or it could just be that I am getting old. How do I know? Well, let's write an equation. This is how tired I am feeling:

 n - ( x + y)  = t

N being no of hours sleep I've had
x being the effects of working full time
y being the effects of getting old.
t being tiredness

Ok, so in mitigation of said equation we have vitamins, medication and of course alcohol. So, the equation can be revised thus:

n - ( x + y)       
      (v + m )    + a   = t

So, where does it leave us? Well, the answer to the equation is that my husband might not be getting any entertainment this evening as n needs to be kept as high as possible except of course where a is involved. Now, where did I put the corkscrew?

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Publishing Trash

Borders, the book store, had an enormous sale on yesterday. Entering the shop was a bit like stepping onto the film set of Shadow of the Wind: a room full of forgotten books. There were literally thousands of books that you have never heard of, most of which are probably already out of print. It raised some interesting questions for me about publishing.

Someone once told me that there are more people writing books than there are reading them. Looking around Borders yesterday, I can believe it. If you add into these piles (of what can only be described as trash) the downloading of books, we should ask ourselves whether the literary world is slowly and inevitably going to the dogs.

I can think of nothing more abhorrent than becoming famous, albeit briefly, for publishing a trashy book that very quickly goes out of print: a fleeting celebration of mediocrity. With people setting up their own publishing companies to get published, and now the downloading of books, will this mean that even more drivel will find itself onto the literary market? If I worked in publishing, I'd be afraid, very afraid. Nowadays who really needs to go through a publishing company (or agent) at all? It's only a matter of time before you can sell your not-really-very-good novel to Amazon who will publish it only as a download.

It's difficult enough at the moment to find something decent to read, even though when you enter Borders or Magrudys, you are surrounded by an attractive looking plethora of books. If the public are subjected to the download book as well, how will we be able to sift through the rubbish to find the good stuff? How many of these so called authors will be remembered in 10 years time (or by the end of next week?). Is this the end of the era of Literary Greats?

Could this be a good thing, though, in that we will have to return to the distinguished books of the early 20th Century and before to seek out the A level text book? Will it mean that all that trash will remain under the dominion of the downloaded book, and the literary elite will be the only ones published as printed text? I can see, however, that in modern society, where cyberspace dominates, the downloading of books is possibly one of the few ways in which children and teenagers can be attracted to reading. But it nevertheless makes me sad that, what was once the priviledge of the literary adept is fast becoming the domain of the quotidien.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Village Life

I have read two books this week. The first was called The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind and it charts the rise to fame of a young boy who grew up in Malawi and overcame adversity, and lack of education, to build a windmill and bring electricity to his village. The village he lives in is small and harbours a close knit community, which clings to the traditions of the past. The members of the community have no choice but to get along and carry some responsibility for one another. In the face of famine, the needy are assisted by those better off. Faced with insufficient funds to attend ssecondary school, the boy continues his education through the local library. His determination is fueled only by his enthusiasm for science and his altruistic intentions of dragging this remote community into the 21st Century.

The second book is Alexander McCall Smith's latest Edinburgh yarn. In the novel, Isabel (the main protagonist) refers constantly to Edinburgh, not as a city, but as a village. The story is woven in such a way as to present many coincidences, but these seem real when you consider that in reality we all live in villages. The circles that we move in are relatively small. Even if we move, the community we inhabit becomes our village.

Many people see Dubai as a huge metropolis of glittering skyscrapers but, just like everywhere else, it's just a village. You'll be talking to someone who you've never met before, and as you mention someone else, they already know that person. I interviewed someone last year (a maid) and she was lovely. I wanted to employ her but her current employer wouldn't release her soon enough. When complaining about this to a colleague at work, I realised that my colleague knew the employer of this maid.

In the small village I moved from, it was perfectly acceptable to walk into the newsagents to cancel your papers; then visit the doctors for some intimate procedure with the nurse, to find that the woman in the newsagent and the nurse at the doctors is the same person! In a small village in rural England this is to be expected but in a city inhabited by 1.7 million people it comes as a bit of a shock. A metropolis it may be, but every day I am struck by how small a community it is.

The difference between the village in Malawi and Edinburgh or Dubai is not in the size of the community, the advancement of technology or indeed even the setting. It's the sense of community that matters. In Malawi, you could rely on the other members of the village. In the 'village' you inhabit, could you say the same thing?

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Dental enforcement of Healthy Regimes

I have been trying to be more healthy. I mean all round more healthy - eating and exercise, yoga. You know the kind of thing. But somehow, quite often, I seem to be sitting on the sofa watching a dvd of Waking the Dead, eating homemade toad in the hole or a bar of chocolate. I have lots of 'Healthy eating' cookbooks but I still gravitate towards those familiar comfort food type receipes. The 'Dubai Stone' is not going to come off if I don't implement some sort of healthy food regime in my family cooking.

But I have found the perfect solution: arrange for one of your children to have a brace fitted! It goes like this: you take the child to see the dentist for a check up. The dentist refers you to the orthodontist who explains that said child needs a brace. She ensures that you are seated before explaining the cost of said procedures, and after you awaken from the fainting fit, you sign on the dotted line, and a series of lengthy dental appointments ensue. At no point does anyone mention that your entire family will be spending the next 18 months taking part in an episode of You are What you Eat!

It would appear that persons wearing braces are not permitted to eat anything that requires biting into hard foodstuffs. So, no crusty bread, including pizza crusts, no nuts, popcorn, hard vegetables (raw, that is), toast, anything very sweet, or just about anything that isn't baby-food soft. Ok, so that just about rules out every take away I can summon up in my very-experienced-with-takeaway imagination!

So, foods allowed are: soups, mashed potatoes, pasta, rice, steamed vegetables and anything that can be broken into small pieces, mashed, squashed or pureed. Oh, goodey! So, from now on my house will become a shrine to healthy eating - steamed veg with rice, pasta with sauce, soups (no croutons or crusty bread, of course). You will, literally beable to see the weight loss from where you are sitting. So, watch this space!

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Cyber-holics Anonymous

It starts with something fairly innocuous like an ipod. Then you get a mobile phone, nothing flash, just a cheap one. 'I'm only going to have it for emergencies' you tell yourself. But you can't help yourself, you think 'Ok, maybe I'll just send one or two texts'. This gambols and before you know it, you're a '100 texts' a day man. Then it starts to get really serious and you are dreaming about phones that have access to emails and the internet and before you know it, you're out, trying to score an iphone 3 or an iphone 4! The world offers you no help for your addiction, the world is indifferent to you. And, to add insult to injury there's now the ipad to dream about.

Sound familiar? My better half (a confirmed addict) has had a new phone - an iphone 4, and suddenly he's a little boy at Christmas with a new toy. He's uploading and downloading, transferring and connecting. One of the characteristics of these addicts is, of course, their need to discuss the technology; it's like a catharsis. You can imagine how long a meeting of cyberholics anonymous lasts can't you? So, whilst I find the cyberworld infintessimally interesting, I have had my fill of 'look it can do this' for this week.  So I'm forming a support group for cyber-widows. Nothing too heavy, just a few friends getting together to offer support for the loneliness and the constant need to say 'really, show me how that works then' in an enthusisatic and interested way. You can contact us at our website www .put-the-fecking-phone-away. com

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

5/10 for effort - please see me...

And so the new term begins and the university is buzzing with students. I have already managed to mix up the timetables and send all of the students to the wrong classes, so the term is starting well. I love the beginning of term and I get very excited about meeting all of the new students. I love the challenges they give me in the classroom from their inquiring minds, as well as their enthusiasm. This age group is lovely to teach. They are desperate to be independent and yet they are still vulnerable  They rely on you to coax and provide the positive reinforcement they seek.

Inevitably, the term brings with it that dirty word: assessment. I can only look forward to the marking of 140 persectives on a single subject with the enthusiam I usually reserve for colonic irrigation, or the funeral of a close family member. So, to maintain my levels of motivation for the long days ahead, plowing through the drivel that is the modern essay, I have developed my own language to be used on students essays. Below is a small example, along with translations:

Phrased Used
Academic Translation
This is an interesting piece
This is a load of drivel
You have made good use of sources
Most of this has been copied from text books so that you don’t get caught out on the plagiarism software by copying off the internet
You should try to write in paragraphs at all times
How long have I been teaching you and you still can’t write in paragraphs??
I have given you a bare pass for this essay....
I would really like to fail you but I can’t think of a good enough reason to...
You need to pay close attention to the essay question...
I don’t know which question you are answering but it is not the one you were asked
Seriously! Can’t you read!

Saturday, 2 October 2010

The stuff of Nightmares

Insomnia and I are long acquainted. He sat, perched on the edge of my bed until after 1am this morning. 'So, too much coffee today honey?' he asks. 'I don't think so', I reply, 'I only had a couple of cups and that was over 12 hours ago'. 'Must be an overactive mind, would you like to talk about it?' he enquires. And so, for the next few hours we discuss my worries, and my excited expectations for the beginning of term today. Despite his soothing approach, and its catharthic effect, sleep is afraid to intrude and so I have no choice but to resort to chemicals. Two paracetamol and a little light reading later, and I'm finally drifting into oblivion.

Insomnia is an adult domain. Nightmares, I have always believed, belong to childhood. But as usual, I am wrong. The thing with adult nightmares is that they don't feature monsters or serial killers but confusion, loneliness, abandonment and crisis. Freud would have a field day with my imagination. In these filmlike narratives, I have been to hell (where in fact, I was a child and had to survive for 9 days in order to be allowed to enter whatever the alternative to hell was), I have faced death (my own and that of those I love), isolation or disruption in my work environment, and my particular favourite, revisits to my childhood with a distinctly Tim Burton feel to them. In literature, sleep represents peace, the place to which we can escape the day's troubles. But when nightmares intrude, we are stuck in that overheated room in Sartre's disturbing play 'Huis Clos'.

And, what prompts these disturbances in my psyche? Well, as I've got older I have discovered that very little at all is needed. An argument, a worry over something small, a particularly nasty television programme or movie. With age comes experience, but also the ready ability to return to places of darkness in an instant. What twenty years ago I would have brushed off definantly, now hovers around me like a bad smell. Meditation and yoga take on a new appreciative air as a defence against these 'dark arts'. Eventually, the nightmares will retreat, as will the insomnia, and my equilibrium will be restored. For now.