Monday, December 29, 2014

The Holiday

It all started with a desire to immerse in the British culture and get to know the Brits as much as I can, because for me, a country isn't a country without its people. I found my aim in Host UK, an organization that plan for international students currently studying in the UK to go and spend a weekend with a British family. As a guest, you only pay for your travel expenses, and the organization does its best to match you with a couple or family that have interests similar to yours. I choose a fairly high budget as I was hoping to go to Scotland but I got a more peaceful choice...Cornwall. It's a county on the south west coast which seemed a very nice place to relax and enjoy the English country side. As I wasn't going home over the Christmas vacation, while my two closest friends were, I imagined how halls will be empty and how lonely I may feel and so decided to ask to be hosted over Christmas.

Everything was set and I went off in my journey from Southampton to Lostwithiel, Cornwall at 6 am on the 23rd of December 2014. The train journey is worth writing about for the fascinating scenery and for some tips on exchanging trains but I'll leave that to the UK transportation post. I stepped down from the train to find my host, Pat (72), right there waiting for me and I'm sure I wasn't too difficult to be recognized in that small lost town in the south of England. We got into the small Fiat car, with me still confused and going to sit on the wrong side, and went off driving in very narrow two-way roads where you depend on your experience of the road, I guess, to slow down or stop for cars coming the opposite direction (it wasn't as scary as if Cameron Diaz was driving but these curved turns were definitely a thrill…people who watched “The Holiday” will relate).

Fortunately, it was a short drive and Dick (80) was home to give me a very warm welcoming in their lovely house. I was offered tea or coffee (I brought my barista instant coffee just in case they were too traditional and didn't drink it but they had a cafetière and a French coffee blend...I know I sometimes fall in the stereotyping trap!) and when I returned to my room the tea tray was waiting beside the bed. I was overwhelmed with the 5-stars hospitality!

Both Pat and Deck have been to Cairo on a vacation in the late 80s, and fortunately had a very good time there, also much earlier than that in 1953 Dick was working for the English military and serving in Fayed, Ismailia (I talked about the lovely buildings the British left there and thought of keeping out of the other things they left as well :) Deck politely asked if it's alright to put on the news every morning, as some disturbing news from Egypt may be covered. I shamefully admitted that I've not been following the news closely as it drains my energy and then I cannot really work or concentrate on my studies. You see, Dick watches Aljazera for half an hour every day in addition to the BBC because he doesn't find the latter very objective (I know!!).

After a lovely lunch of homemade tomato soup from home-grown tomatoes made by Dick, as it was his turn to cook that day, I sat off with Pat in a tour to see the village. Back again to the windy tiny roads and after a short ride we parked at the top of a hill and walked ahead to see the church which will be attending on Christmas Eve. It was a lovely small ancient church supported by some construction rods as renovation work was in progress. The outside of the church was surrounded by a cemetery with some grave marks as ancient as the church itself. Pat commented on how it'd be lovely to be buried there while I was silently wishing her a long healthy life.

The hill overlooked a river that seemed too shallow for me though I can see few boats on its banks, then Pat explained that it was a tidal river that sort of dries in the winter but boats can sail in during summer though it requires excellent sailors to avoid the shallow parts. This was technically in another village, Larren, which mainly had small stone cottages that were simply amazing. I had my camera and was tempted to stop and take some photos but then didn't like the idea of looking like a tourist and decided to only keep my mental images.

Many of us have this idea of how westerns mind their own business and don’t pay attention to others, which was another stereotype corrected, as Pat expressed how she’d like to live on the river banks but at the same time wouldn't like to live in a village where everyone can know what she had for breakfast.

We had slow-cooked pheasants for dinner, for which Dick generously replaced wine with stock, after knowing that as a Muslim I cannot have wine even cooked in food.

Tomorrow, is the big day, the Christmas Eve which certainly need a new post.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Back to the super mom mode!

With too much work, projects and activities going on in my life, I feel that I’m back to the Super Mom mode. I first encountered that when I had to go back to work right after having my twin boys. As a new mother with no domestic help and a full time job starting at 6:00 am, life wasn’t easy.

Strange enough, these were the days in which I was most highly productive.

Anyhow, recently over the past few days, I have felt like I’m back to that super multi-tasking situation. I wake up early, prepare my now 9 years old boys, lunch boxes and breakfast. Wake them up and carry out the usual morning routine. I drop them to school.

Go back home…eat breakfast while reading yesterday’s newspapers (It sounds illogical, I know, but it’s part of my work)…work on my computer…prepare lunch (I’m sometimes kind enough to prepare healthy homemade cake for my husband to take to office!)…continue working (filming, editing, writing, etc)…grab a bite…spend some time with the boys talking about their day at school…leave them to do homework…go to a company where I have accepted an additional freelance work lately…stay there till 10 pm…return home…grab a bite…waste sometime sitting in the living room doing nothing…go to bed…and it goes on…..

Do I do all of my tasks perfectly? Not all the time. Do I feel satisfied? Yes, and you know why? I don’t worry any more. In fact, I don’t have time to worry. Moreover, when I’m busy, I can’t help but focus on accomplishing the most important tasks well and the leave the rest to nature and God to take care of.

Monday, November 10, 2014

London Bridge hasn't fallen down!

The morning I arrived in London was freezing especially as I waited in the cold for almost an hour before the bus came to take me to Southampton Central Station (I wasn't too early but the bus didn't come according to the printed time table...I guess I should have confirmed with the driver the day before!). It was my first time in the big city, to attend the orientation event of my Chevening scholarship. As usual, I couldn't firmly decide to whether drink tea or coffee, so I had neither and rushed to the conference hall. Once I approached the start of a bridge (which I thought must be London bridge and was wondering why it hasn't fallen down as my childhood song says) and saw the famous buildings and Big Ben I really felt, may for the first time, that I'm in England. I took out my camera, and as I'm a bit old-fashioned and not fond of selfies, I found a nice spot on the bridge, set my camera to the auto mode and took myself a nice picture. Later the view of Westminster Abbey and other buildings from Queen Elizabeth II Conference Hall was also stunning especially with the spills of sunshine we were lucky to have by midday.

Westminster Bridge leading to the House of Parliament & Big Ben 

The day was full of speeches, some boring and some interesting, mainly focusing on inspiring stories about leadership, how to make the best of your year in the UK, and what to do to stay on track. Most importantly we were promised an afternoon tea at 10 Downing st. if we win the photo competition aimed at promoting the Chevening. It's very tempting to go there and see from where Hugh Grant was ruling the country (in case you've seen the movie Love Actually)...only if I could take nice selfies.

Competition for current Chevening Scholars to show photos from their time in the UK
By the time when the 620 scholars from around 120 countries were split into groups for a feedback session, based on their regions, I was surprised to find that there are scholars from Israel. When I think of it now I'm not sure if I thought that because I don't perceive it as a developing country (they are very advanced when it comes to scientific research especially in biomedical engineering, my original field of study) or I just tend to forget about its existence.

This would have been my first time to actually meet Israels and I started thinking of how I'd react, recalling the different stands made by my favourite intellectuals who find themselves quite often in such situations in conferences and other occasions around the world. Luckily the British, who originally put us in this situation, grouped the Israels with scholars from Jordan (I'm not sure how smart that move was) and other African countries.

Throughout the day we were encouraged to immerse in the British culture and especially try the food, however the Egyptian scholars with other scholars from Lebanon, Libya and Algeria ended up having dinner in a Lebanese restaurant in Edgware road which is the furthermost you can get from British culture but this is another story.

I was expecting London to blow my mind but this just didn't happen. I know some cities need time to bond with you (though I loved Berlin from the first sight and failed to love Paris after being there for 2 times) but this first visit was just disappointing. I've been in Southampton for more than a month and never felt homesick but ironically by the end of my first day in London I was Southampton!

However this doesn't mean that I'm giving up on London, so till next time...

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Dinner, dessert, and a bit of English history

Southampton seems quite an international city! Not that you run into people of different nationalities all the time (for some reason mainly Chinese) but a lot of programs and events are available to make internationals feel welcomed and less home sick.

In the welcome package from my halls of residence, I was given a flyer for an organization called Friends International that had announcements of several events during the term to get to know the English culture, history and most importantly people.

There was a culture course starting this Friday which seemed quite serious and therefore interesting to me J It was to take place on the last weekend before lectures start and thus seemed an opportunity not to be missed.

As the event was taking place at someone’s house, I thought that I shouldn't go there empty handed as it’s the habit in Egypt. So I stopped in the way and picked a pack of apple pies which looked delicious (and cheap...GBP 1 for 6 small pies!).

I reached the place easily, rang the door and was warmly greeted by our host and his lovely granddaughter. The first puzzle though was to get off my shoes or not! I’m personally used to taking off my shoes but I know people in the “West” usually don’t, however when I stepped into the house some were wearing their shoes and others not so I just asked our host who said “I’m putting my shoes on, usually our Chinese guests take them off, so whatever you like” and I chose the Chinese way J

The living room was very welcoming and very well-arranged to accommodate a moderate number of people. When Richard, our retired history teacher host, knew I’m Egyptian he showed my 3 glass pyramids which he brought when he visited Egypt with Margaret his wife and thankfully they had very good memories there!

Shortly after our very diverse group, with a lot of people from China and others from Italy, Netherlands, Vietnam, the USA, and Indonesia, chatted for a while I was surprised that dinner will be served. I was expecting a proper cup of English tea and may be some biscuits J

Before serving the dinner Margaret, who is probably 70 years old, came to me and leaned on her knees to ask if I’d like the vegetarian meal (she's probably made that guess as I’m wearing a hijab) and advised that I stand at the beginning of the queue because others who might not be vegetarian may find it nice and I end up with no dinner. I didn’t find it strange that they prepared a vegetarian meal as it’s an “international” event but I found it very thoughtful anyways.

Before eating, Richard very politely said that they’re a Christian family and so they are used to saying prayers before meals to thank God and ask for his blessings and called everyone to do what suits them and made clear that they needn't share at all in this ritual.

Finally and after a nice variety of traditional English desserts or puddings as they call them, Richard started telling us about how England became a nation focusing on King Alfred, the Great. It was a very amusing talk, with Richard’s sense of humor and funny comments every now and then about the English people. The talk included how Christianity was brought to England and it was obvious from Richard’s tone and words how proud he’s of his religion.

The night concluded with announcements about upcoming events by Friends International, including Christianity lessons delivered every Wednesday evening in Highfield church during which a meal will be served.

For the whole evening I couldn't resist the thought that they’re doing all this to invite people to Christianity and as someone who comes from a society deeply believing in conspiracy theory I thought of how free meals and tours are all part of it….well that was a joke! 

They've shown respect to everyone present regardless of who they are, where they come from and what faith they have. Even if this is meant to invite people into Christianity, because they believe it’s the right way to God, I find that they’re entitled to and whoever is listening should always think for herself and decide what makes sense for her and what doesn't!

In the end they say it out loud on their website “We are a Christian charity, and offer our services to international students of any faith or none” and this touched on ground.

Next time I’ll tell you more about Winchester and its ancient cathedral (BTW every city whose name ends with “chester” means it was a Roman military base in the past ;).

Know more about Friends International here